Brandi Carlile’s breakthrough song “The Story,” the title track of her 2007 album, sounds intensely personal, even cathartic. Carlile must be singing from raw experience, right? Actually, no. Her bandmate Phil Hanseroth wrote “The Story” before they even started playing together. Since her debut, all of the music appearing under the name Brandi Carlile has been the product of an extraordinarily close partnership of Carlile and the twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth. All three write songs and share the writing credits equally for every song regardless of who contributes what (à la Lennon and McCartney).

The three musicians connected in Seattle, where the twins played in the hard-rock band the Fighting Machinists while Carlile, raised on Patsy Cline and the Grand Ole Opry, was busking and doing bar gigs. After the Fighting Machinists disbanded, Carlile recruited the twins to play with her; they first performed together in 2000, got matching tattoos (of the auryn talisman from The NeverEnding Story, a movie they all loved as kids), and started collaborating on songs rooted in country, rock, and folk. 

In this excerpt from a 2014 interview for Acoustic Guitar, Carlile and the twins spoke with me about “The Story” and their style of collaboration.

The story behind “The Story”

It’s so hard to imagine that “The Story” existed before you started playing together. How did the original version compare with Brandi’s version? 

PHIL It doesn’t even compare at all. We had recorded a couple versions, like one on a keyboard and one with acoustic guitars. It was just a lyric, a melody, a couple of chords—it wasn’t really anything until we started playing with Brandi and she was able to put some power into it.

BRANDI “The Story” was already a beautiful song. Phil’s got a really powerful voice and sounded great singing it. But I think the song needed to be really loved by someone. If anything, I brought to the scenario a little bit of insanity and intensity and cultishness. Especially when I was younger, I was a little overwhelming. I came on the scene and I was like, “All right, let’s quit our jobs and get matching tattoos and never look back! I don’t care—forget about your wives, forget about everything, let’s just do this!”

TIM When we first met Brandi, she was playing primarily acoustic guitar, and my brother and I were still playing only electric guitar in a hard rock band. It was such an odd thing. We met Brandi and got into the acoustic guitar with her, and then six months later we were both getting divorces and had a bunch of tattoos, I swear! It was a big shift for everyone musically, and also we also found our Charles Manson [laughter]. My brother and I have always had a close musical thing, but we finally found our third sibling.

How would you characterize each other’s strengths as songwriters?

BRANDI Well, I’ve got a pretty good grip on that. Phil writes these interesting and androgynous powerhouse songs, very infrequently. They’re usually kind of strange lyrically. I don’t think he really forces it. “Blood Muscle Skin & Bone,” “The Story,” “Oh Dear,” “Beginning to Feel the Years”—those are some of our more quirky Pet Sounds type tunes, and they come from the terrifying mind of Phil.

And then Tim, in my opinion, is your classic, workman-style songwriter who writes so many more songs than Phil and I do, and he writes them with such strength and continuity. I think they are our flagship songs on every record. When you hear a song that was started or penned by Tim, it sounds like the Brandi Carlile trio.

With me, it’s a real crap shoot, because it has to do so much with what’s going on in my life, and it’s based solely on lyrics. I tend to focus on my feelings and my environment lyrically. I like to really say what I mean and mean what I say, and say things that are special. So all three of us bring something interesting to the band. Tim brings total consistency and a prolific nature, Phil brings eccentricity, and I bring communication.

Why did you decide to share songwriting credits for all of your songs?

BRANDI Because there’s no ego. The music wins and takes precedence. Nobody questions anybody else if they really think that a bridge would make a song better or a lyric should change or we could add more interesting chords.

TIM It’s been like that since the very beginning. When we first met, it was like, hey, if we’re going to write songs together, let’s just split everything up. That way you’re not stuck being in a band with someone who’s doing really really well—

BRANDI Driving a red car.

TIM We all end up having to tour the same amount together, we spend an incredible amount of time together, and even though one of us may write a song that’s a hit for ten years, like Phil did here, we’re all putting about the same amount of work into it.

We don’t get too precious about our songwriting. If one of us has an idea that’s half done, nobody’s going to get possessive because they want the credit for it. Nobody’s going to get their feelings hurt by going, yeah, I want to write this one alone. We are all really open to just the song being the best.

On the albums, though, you do credit who individually wrote each song. Why?

BRANDI For me, just because my heroes do. When I read the liner notes, I want to know. I’m really big into entertainers, and when I love an artist, I love everything about them. I love their philanthropy, I love their biography, their childhood stories, their artwork, the liner notes, and the songwriting. If I hear a song that I think is deeply personal, I want to know who wrote it and if it’s about what I think it’s about.

The lyrics

Words and music by Phillip John Hanseroth

All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am
But these stories don’t mean anything
When you’ve got no one to tell them to
It’s true, I was made for you

I climbed across the mountain tops
Swam all across the ocean blue
I crossed all the lines, and I broke all the rules
But, baby, I broke them all for you
Oh because even when I was flat broke
You made me feel like a million bucks, you do
I was made for you

You see the smile that’s on my mouth
It’s hiding the words that don’t come out
And all of my friends who think that I’m blessed
They don’t know my head is a mess
No, they don’t know who I really am
And they don’t know what
I’ve been through like you do
And I was made for you

And all of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am
But these stories don’t mean anything
When you’ve got no one to tell them to
It’s true, I was made for you
It’s true that I was made for you

More

Behind the song

The Complete Singer-Songwriter