Before she performed at the old 400 Bar, before the old adult-oriented Cities 97 played one of her songs, heck, even before she signed with Columbia Records, Brandi Carlile had cemented her relationship with Minnesota.
It was her Uncle Sonny.
"He's the patriarch of music in our family. He started our family loving music," said Carlile, who returns to her No. 1 market on Sunday at the Cabooze Plaza in Minneapolis.
"He said he lived Up North," she continued, sounding like a true Minnesotan even though she's from Washington state.
Sonny lived in Waubun, a town of 400 near Mahnomen and the White Earth Indian Reservation.
He loved the Grand Ole Opry. That, Carlile explains, is why her Twin Cities concerts have been a bit more country-flavored — some Tammy Wynette, Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn.
Carlile, 34, makes no promises about what she'll perform this time around other than material from her new album, "The Firewatcher's Daughter."
It's her first album after leaving Columbia Records, which meant that she didn't have to submit demos of tunes for approval before recording them. In other words, it's about art, not commerce. So she and "the twins" — her bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth — crafted the songs in the studio.
Twins in the mix
Each brother brings a different ingredient to the mix, the pop/folk/country/blues singer explained.
"Tim is a wellspring of fresh material all the time. Phil goes so far outside of the box that everybody has to have a rethink before we learn his songs. Phil might have one song a record and it's really unique and Tim might have five or six a record that are beautifully crafted and they define what the Brandi Carlile band sounds like."
Moreover, they have different voices — Phil a high falsetto, Tim a low alto. And different dispositions — "Tim is like super steady," Carlile says, "and Phil is like a football coach, he keeps everyone amped up before a show."
Even though Phil is married to Carlile's sister, "they're both kind of like my brother-in-laws," the singer said. "We kind of all live together. Their kids are nieces and nephews and brothers and sisters."
In fact, the twins sang Phil's "Beginning to Feel the Years" at Carlile's 2012 wedding to Catherine Shepherd, Paul McCartney's former charity coordinator, in Boston with only a half-dozen people in attendance.
"The twins sang us down the aisle with our dads with a ukulele," Carlile recalled. "It was really sweet. I'll never forget it."
Carlile's version of the song — featuring the twins, of course — appears on "Firewatcher's Daughter." So does "I Belong to You," a most unabashed love song that she wrote by herself.
"The love that I have for my wife and my family is different from any love that I've felt before. I never could have faked it," Carlile said last week from a tour stop in tiny Floyd, Va. "I thought the song was such a weirdo that I almost didn't put it on the album."
The album features several songs filled with three-part harmony, which is what attracted the twins and Carlile to one another when they first met.
"The harmony of siblings is a mystical phenomenon but the harmony of twins is another level of weird," Carlile said. "At the time in Seattle, three-part harmony was very uncool so we didn't get to do it as much as we wanted to. As the years have gone by, we've slowly embraced it and we're doing it more and more and more. We're falling back on Crosby, Stills & Nash, the Beach Boys and Fleetwood Mac."
Baby on board
In the background of the phone interview, a new voice could be heard in the mix — 13-month-old Evangeline, the daughter of Shepherd and Carlile.
"She does all the things grown-ups do. When we had sushi last night, she ate through two orders of edamame by herself," Carlile said. "Her words? She says 'shoes,' 'thank you,' 'mama,' and she says 'turtle' with an English accent because her mother's from England. She's a fun kid."
This will be Evangeline's first visit to the Twin Cities, and Carlile's first appearance at the Cabooze Plaza. She prides herself on playing different venues in the Twin Cities — from the 400 Bar and First Avenue to the Basilica Block Party and the State Fair to the O'Shaughnessy and the Varsity, where she's been a regular on New Year's Eve. ("We had a blast last year. I think my liver could take one more New Year's," she said without making a commitment.)
She gushed about the Twin Cities: "It's one of my favorite places to play in the world. So I always try to make it a different place if possible so I can see a lot" of the metro.
She called the Twin Cities "the most unbelievably conducive place to go see music — there are so many bands and so many venues and so many people that want to see music. I'm thinking about making a studio record there."
Unfortunately, Uncle Sonny won't get to witness that; he passed away earlier this year. But she'll think of him.
"He had a 1957 Country Gentleman Gretsch, which is like a priceless guitar, and he left it to his kids and they gave it to me," she said fondly. "I look forward to coming to Minnesota and playing it there."
And she's figured out another way to honor Uncle Sonny. They often went fishing together Up North in their favorite lake near the Wisconsin border.
"He always threatened to take me ice fishing," Carlile said, "and I think this winter I'm going to go ice fishing."
Maybe she'll return for New Year's Eve, after all.
Twitter: @JonBream • 612-673-1719