For her fourth studio album, Brandi Carlile didn't want to deal with genre names or the rules that come with them.
Carlile and her band mates and co-writers, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, had been tagged as folk or country artists since their 2005 debut, but found the stylistic expectations to be increasingly burdensome. Despite steadily growing success, they'd been yearning to make music outside of any particular boundaries, confident they could deliver their songs best on their own terms.
"Interestingly enough, the vision for this album was to not have a vision," Carlile says. "We've been fooling around a lot with the idea of how oppressive the compartmentalization of genre can be on an artist. You feel obliged to write in a vein that maybe you don't feel like writing in. I don't find that very artful."
For the latest album, the band (Carlile says she and the Hanseroth twins are basically a trio that goes by her name) sought out Bear Creek Studio, in rural Woodinville, Wash., near their Seattle home. The secluded studio—built in a converted turn-of-the-20th-century barn on 10 scenic acres—has produced albums for bands as diverse as Fleet Foxes, Built to Spill and Soundgarden.
"It's a beautiful space. It's scenic and rural, and there's something about that setting that makes me feel really at home. The twins as well," she says.
The trio produced the record with engineer Trina Shoemaker, choosing her primarily for her technical expertise. After record-company-arranged sessions with heavy hitters T Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin, Carlile says it was time to take the reins of her music instead of conforming to what others wanted.
"I've learned the further away from the industry reach you get, the more you can achieve," she says. "When it came to working with Trina Shoemaker, it's something I wanted to do for a few years. I'm a big fan of Sheryl Crow's Globe Sessions, and a lot of her engineering accomplishments were really appealing to us."
Taking their time, being relaxed and following their own instincts paid off for Carlile and the Hanseroths.
Released June 1 on Columbia, Bear Creek debuted in the Top 10—her highest chart position ever. The album has a relaxed, expansive sound, highlighting not only her tremendous voice, but also the close-knit harmonies she's developed with the twins. And though the album has elements of folk, country, rock and soul, it's impossible to pinpoint with any single term.
Bear Creek's first single is the soulful piano ballad "That Wasn't Me" (with a video starring Kris Kristofferson), with sad, poignant lyrics about loss, addiction and recovery. It's a little bit Beatles, a little bit Dusty Springfield, and though unusual for her, pure Brandi Carlile.
"Bear Creek is my favorite work we've done. What Bear Creek most loudly communicates is this concept of sequestration and genre," she says. "We spent a lot of time talking about writing intentionally outside of our genre or the chains associated with that genre."
Much of Bear Creek is about Carlile's thoughts on life as she turned 30 last year. It's a milestone that brings new challenges as well as different ways of looking at the world.
"A lot of my writing on this record is very personal," she says. "(The songs) fall into the category of coming of age, having to make your own decisions."
Carlile says many of the lyrics are about the twin pillars of mistakes and dreams, learning what you want in life, and how to get it. "Keep Your Heart Young" is a bright, acoustic tune about childhood and how to maintain that same sort of imaginative outlook. Conversely, "100" is a driving rock song about looking to the future—racing against time to live a big and full life, yet still worried about not getting things right.
"In some instances, (the songs) are universal, and some instances, you get inside the story and find the best way to speak about what you know," she says. "When you find an emotion to attach to it, it can become very universal. Fans find a way to relate to songs they love."
Those fans have been turning out in steadily larger numbers for Carlile, a self-professed road dog who's toured with the Indigo Girls, the Dave Matthews Band, the Fray, Chris Isaak, Tori Amos and Ray LaMontagne.
"It's cycles of touring, seasons like anyone else's job," she says. "Summer touring is playing outside. Fall touring means sweaters and hot coffee and playing in theaters. Winter means playing Christmas songs and with symphonies."
After this summer stretch of touring is a September wedding for Carlile, who in June announced her engagement to partner Catherine Shepherd on the fan website AgainToday.com. The former charity coordinator for Paul McCartney, Shepherd will be executive director for Carlile's Looking Out Foundation (lookingoutfoundation.com).
Carlile started the foundation in 2008 to support humanitarian-outreach efforts that are important to her, including the arts, women's issues, public health, the hungry and the homeless. Carlile donates $1 from every concert ticket to the foundation. It's a civic-mindedness that extends beyond her music, though it's a goal of hers to be more vocal in her songs.
"I don't mean to keep that separate. I would love to become more vocal about the things I'm passionate about outside the interpersonal relationships in my life," she says. "I don't quite know how to say those things musically on my own yet. The best I can do as far as bringing those causes into my music is reach out to people and bring them out to shows."