After turning 30, singer Brandi Carlile was ready to embrace serendipity, life changes and that sweet sound of "amazing grace."
But most music lovers have never heard of Brandi Carlile -- unless they live in the Twin Cities, the biggest market for the pop/folk/Americana singer/songwriter from Washington state.
Mention the Twin Cities and she gets giddy.
"Minneapolis has been ridiculously great for us," said Carlile, who will play two sold-out shows for the second straight year at the Minnesota Zoo on Wednesday and Thursday. "Minneapolis is by far our biggest market. You guys have incredible music venues -- all the way from the 400 Bar to the State Fair to theaters and arenas. I've continued to come back there, sometimes two, three times a year, for the past eight years."
Carlile is the rare artist to graduate from the State Fair's bandshell to the grandstand, where she drew nearly 6,000 people two years ago.
She could have played this weekend's mammoth River's Edge Music Festival in St. Paul (she's touring with headliner Dave Matthews this summer) but opted to return to the zoo so she'd have more time to showcase material from her just-released fourth album, "Bear Creek." The album debuted last week at No. 10 nationally but No. 2 in the Twin Cities.
The new single "That Wasn't Me" could be her breakthrough. Last week she performed it on "The Tonight Show" -- just Carlile's voice and grand piano, backed by the vocal harmonies of twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth, her longtime collaborators.
Much like Adele's "Someone Like You," it's the kind of spare, mesmerizing, slightly bluesy-gospelly ballad that could provide a sophisticated respite on today's hit radio.
Carlile said the music came from a mistake.
"I walked by my piano as I was heading out the door and I hit an E chord but my thumb was in the wrong place and I hit this kind of blues chord and thought 'That's kinda weird,'" she recalled last week. "So I went back and worked on it and the lyrics kind of popped into my head. The lyrics are about addiction and people that are damaged by it and ultimately forgiveness and reformation."
It also could be about a lover who wants another chance, Carlile acknowledged. "The more perspective it can reveal, the more people it can touch."
It's one of two songs on "Bear Creek" that use the notion of "amazing grace."
"It's a feeling that's important to me," she said. "The idea of transformation, grace, reformation, forgiveness, making yourself a blessing -- those things are a big part of my 30s," said Carlile, who turned 31 this month.
"Turning 30 opened my eyes to things. Everybody hyper-focuses in their 20s. I choose to cultivate a following on the road, live in a bunk, drink eight cups of coffee a day, eat potato chips and play rock 'n' roll music every night. But there were other things happening that I didn't notice: My brothers and sisters were having kids, my home life was changing and all my animals were getting old. Now that I've turned 30, I'm really integrating who I've been for most of my life with who I'm going to be for the rest of my life."
Asserts country roots
After making her past two albums with A-list producers T Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin, Carlile decided to do things her way this time. She recorded with her touring band and co-producer Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris) at Bear Creek, a studio in the woods outside Seattle. Carlile lives in a cabin nearby.
"There was no team captain. It was totally organic," she said. "Me and the twins decided to go in with the intention of being anti-genre, not blocking things out because they were too country or too soul or too much Brit pop or too much of a dance beat."
There were no special guests (Elton John played on 2009's "Give Up the Ghost") or thoughts of TV placement (2007's near-hit "The Story" ended up on "Grey's Anatomy" and in a General Motors commercial).
As a result, Carlile waves her country-music flag more freely than ever. "Raise Hell" has a Hank Williams/"Kaw-Liga" vibe with Johnny Cash-like lyrics. "Keep Your Heart Young" twangs proudly. "Hard Way Home" evokes the Dixie Chicks. She even enlisted Country Music Hall of Famer Kris Kristofferson to appear in her video for "That Wasn't Me" as a convict who can't stay out of jail.
While "Bear Creek" is earning favorable reviews, "touring is the thing I care most about, taking the music to the people," Carlile said.
The stage is also where she wins fans, including State Fair entertainment supervisor Nate Dungan.
"She's totally in command and totally comfortable," he said. "She's laid-back, approachable and charismatic. She's got this amazing voice. She's a superstar but she's not in any hurry to be at the top of the pops. She's content to be what she's doing."
Carlile's comfort zone onstage is assured because she's always flanked by the Hanseroth twins, Phil on bass and Tim on guitar, banjo and ukulele.
What keeps her more balanced -- having the identical twins on either side or having matching AURYN tattoos (a mystical symbol from the fantasy novel "The Neverending Story") on both biceps?
"The twins make me quite a bit more balanced than my tattoos. However, I don't regret them," she said with a laugh. "I'm obsessed with symmetry. I can't relax when I see things out of whack that way. I have two matching cats, two matching goats, two matching chickens. My house is like Noah's Ark."
Maybe that's why she chose to kick off her "Bear Creek" tour at the Minnesota Zoo with two concerts.
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