As a kid growing up in tiny Ravensdale, Wash., while all her pals were grunging out, brazen Brandi Carlile proudly stood out: She swore undying allegiance to Elton John — no other artist, classroom hecklers be damned.
And that's not all, she adds: "I was also preaching the gospel — I was going to school and trying to sell it. Which wasn't too difficult, because after my discovery of Elton, he did The Lion King and some of my fellow comrades discovered him, too. And yes, I had several pairs of huge glasses like his, but I mainly wore bright red ones — I thought I was so cool, but I think I looked more like Sally Jessy Raphael."
Carlile's most awkward Elton moment? "Oh, there were so many," she says, sighing. "But it was probably when I dressed up for my seventh-grade talent show and sang 'Honky Cat' in a three-piece suit, platform shoes and yellow feathered glasses, just like the cover of Caribou. Again, at the time, I thought it was awesome. But now I can see that it was very geeky."
Once the singer gained music-industry cred with her somber folk-rocking '07 debut The Story, she had but one crucial guest artist in mind for her Give Up the Ghost follow-up. Listen to the mid-tempo ballad "Caroline," and you can hear Sir Elton himself, dueting with his longtime admirer.
Turns out that, shortly after The Story hit, her idol happened to read of her admiration in a New York Times article. John phoned to compliment her album, and even sent her flowers and a bottle of wine. "So when we were making Give Up the Ghost, we talked about how great it would be if Elton could play piano on this funky Tumbleweed Connection-type song," recalls Carlile. A couple of e-mails later, she was flying to Vegas for the session.
They say you should never meet your heroes, but Carlile disagrees. "Elton was awesome," she marvels. "And he made it really fun for me, just by being hilarious. And all he wanted to talk about was music — new music and all the things that inspire music, which nobody ever wants to talk about with me. We talked about bands we both love, and bands that he loved, which he scolded me a bit on not knowing — artists like Leon Russell. Later, he even sent me a couple of boxes of records, including Leon Russell, and now I can't believe I wasn't hip to him when I should've been — I feel like I've been missing out on something my whole life."
Back home, the woodsy-timbred Carlile was raised on a diet of gospel and classic C&W. So it's no surprise that her material often has a lonesome twang and a reflective lyrical insight. But one Ghost cut, "Pride and Joy," needed another Elton-ish touch, so she tracked down John's old string arranger, Paul Buckmaster, to sculpt its soaring crescendo.
"Paul made a big impact on my life, too," she says. "And more importantly, he made a big impact on the song."
What did Carlile learn from Elton, overall? "That question has so many answers," she says. "He's a way-paver for me as a humanitarian, and he illuminated a path for me as an artist. Along with other artists, of course. But the things that Elton taught me are just a lot closer to my heart."