Talkhouse Contributing Writer Kathy Valentine has toured everywhere several times over, recorded major label and indie albums, done countless TV performances, and written or co-written hundreds of songs, including hits by the Go-Go’s — the band she joined at age 22 and made music history with. Kathy lives in Austin, Texas, plays guitar in “garage glam” blues band the BlueBonnets, and produces aspiring female artists. She is writing a book and screenplay while working on a degree in Fine Arts/English. She’s on Twitter and Facebook.
I had an unexpected mini-meltdown when I saw Brandi Carlile many years ago.
It went kind of like this: take it all in. Dissect and evaluate all the elements; let the pieces fall back to a whole impression. Decide that everything I’ve done musically is worthless. Realize that I will never, ever, ever be that good, and wonder if I should give up. (I’m pretty sure non-musicians never have reactions like this when they find a great new artist.) The good news is it was momentary — it’s happened before, when I least expect it — and so I settled back into being happy with who I was, realizing my entire output of music hadn’t been a stupid waste of time, and able simply to enjoy that she was just really fucking good.
I saw this performance before I’d heard any of her songs, and what I saw made me want to listen to every single one of her songs. Sometimes it’s a letdown listening to recordings after being sucked in by a show — it’s not as arresting without that live experience, but Carlile’s body of work could easily have entered my world first and I’d have been just as lovestruck. I learned that pigeonholing Brandi Carlile isn’t as easy as it might seem. She’s definitely a little bit country, but she’s a whole lot else, too. With a voice that could sometimes be the love child of Brenda Lee’s and Roy Orbison’s, a voice that sings as easily and effortlessly as someone else might talk, a voice that breaks and melts and then invokes the soul of a Gladys Knight or Betty Everett, and seduces without a trace of guile, like Linda Ronstadt could — well, you just can’t stick a voice like that into some genre box.
The Firewatcher’s Daughter, Carlile’s sixth album, is her first on indie label ATO, and she and her longtime musical partners, Phil and Tim Hanseroth (aka “the Twins”), got full control of how they made the record. The three bandmates wrote virtually all the songs, in different combinations or solo, and share production credits with Trina Shoemaker (Melissa Ferrick, Blues Traveler) and Ryan Hadlock (the Lumineers, Metric). The Firewatcher’s Daughter was recorded live in the studio, without even demos for reference. They wanted as little overthinking and over-rehearsing as possible. The result, mostly first takes, retains something that usually gets lost as a musician becomes more comfortable knowing a song inside-out; at first, we go by instinct, finding our way, sometimes spontaneously eye-contacting a change or a repeat just because it feels right. It’s an energy that only exists the first few times a song is played, because then you figure it out and remember what fits here and what works there, and then it just becomes a matter of executing the parts. It’s a testament to the relationship Carlile and the Hanseroths have with each other that the live, first-take approach worked so well on The Firewatcher’s Daughter.
Drawing an audible breath, Carlile begins the record with the first song and single “Wherever Is Your Heart.” The lyrics presage much of this record’s content, and Carlile’s lone voice and guitar accompaniment are augmented, nearly one instrument at a time, until we’re swinging happily along to the refrain of an Americana-pop anthem — until the music drops away and the joyful reverie is interrupted by a reminder that there’s always the mystery of human frailty to throw shade on whatever lightness we find. “God forgive my mind,” Carlile implores with fractured urgency. It’s a needed break, making the chorus even more uplifting as it rides out.
Throughout, the music gives the impression that it was made during a time of gratitude and quiet celebration of the blessings and love in life. It’s balanced, though, not merely a gushy love-fest. There were people lost, hurt, and left behind — perhaps most piercingly described in “Heroes and Songs,” when Carlile sings, “I love you my friend/My dear means to an end/But you’re not in my dreams anymore” — a sweet, nostalgic kiss-off to one who is no longer part of the journey. There are misgivings, as in “The Eye,” sung entirely in three-part harmony by the Hanseroth twins and Carlile with the barest accompaniment, the center-staging of their voices reminiscent of classic vocal trios like Crosby, Stills & Nash.
It’s not a single, but I can easily imagine “The Things I Regret” having a commercial audience — it’s as catchy as that Lumineers radio song, with a clean, identifiable piano/guitar melody hook and Carlile as confident as Springsteen, singing a song that tells a story of hope and letting go.
There are a few full-on, straight-out love songs, lacking only a dedication to make them any more of a tribute. “Wilder (We’re Chained)” is written from the perspective of a parent to a child without any sappiness — hard to pull off. It sounds like a folk song with a Fleetwood Mac refrain. “Beginning to Feel the Years” and “I Belong to You” are both confessionals accompanied by a restrained and tasteful instrumentation — just the right distance and placement from Carlile’s understated vocals. Also in the realm of heart-opening professions of love is Phil Hanseroth’s “Blood, Muscle, Skin & Bone,” with an alternative pop sound that is only a lush production and a few twists away from belonging on a Metric record.
“The Stranger at My Door” is a classic folktale that ends with electric noise, a little bit of anarchy to disrupt tradition. Also helping to bust lines that might draw a box around Carlile is the uptempo “Alibi,” a great blend of soul, ’60s garage and country/roots with killer fat drums. One of my favorite tracks is the rockin’ “Mainstream Kid,” a rave-up commentary on conformity with ripping vocals and a great stomped-and-clapped breakdown for the guitar solo.
The record ends with a cover of the Avett Brothers’ “Murder in the City.” Carlile sings and plays guitar, but the strings and the twins’ back-up vocals give it a gospel-hymned cast. It’s both a somber reflection and affirmation of family and bonds and a great closer.
I get the sense that there was more captured here than the process of recording new songs. The Firewatcher’s Daughter feels like a time capsule, a musical documentation of what is essential to Carlile right now, where life is the muse and the task at hand was to extract music that mirrored the changes and purpose of the present. The record succeeds partly because she’s just a really, really good musician and songwriter, and because she has not one, but two insanely talented partners in the Hanseroths. But mostly it succeeds because, as with the first time I came across Brandi Carlile, she is so legitimately and convincingly who she is that you can’t help but look at yourself and make sure that you’re being your own unique self too.