Maybe you know that folk-rock Americana singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile is up for six Grammy Awards tomorrow Sunday, Feb 10th, but do you know anything about the early beginnings of her career? I do, because I was there to witness it (at least moments of it).

Over a decade ago, Brandi was playing a weekly show at a small bar atop Seattle’s Queen Anne Hill. I was waiting tables in the evening and taking acting classes during the day. One of the managers at the restaurant I worked at was buddies with a bartender at the bar where Brandi played, so my manager had seen her perform there and had been impressed with her music. Word spreads fast amongst a restaurant crew of mostly early 20-somethings who are looking for entertainment after getting off work. So it wasn’t long before big groups of us were headed to that bar each week to listen to Brandi’s amazing music. Eventually, Brandi and “the twins” (musician brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth) even played some summer nights at our restaurant, which was a waterfront joint with a big deck on Seattle’s Lake Union.Perhaps you’re familiar with some of Brandi’s recent hits: Her current album By the Way, I Forgive You is up for six Grammys tomorrow night, and it debuted at #5 on the Billboard 200 Chart. Its lead single “The Joke” received a lot of radio airplay with the second single “Party of One” (featuring Sam Smith), peaking at #7 on the Billboard charts. You might already know all of that, or at least have some idea about it.

But even a lot of big-time Brandi fans probably don’t know this:

Before Brandi was signed with Columbia Records and released her seven studio albums, her mom would sit in a corner booth inside that Queen Anne Hill bar during Brandi’s shows and sell her homemade EP, a five-song disc called Open Doors. I bought it for five bucks, and I still have it. Here are the track listings:

Open Doors – never released on a studio album
Wasted – later released on The Story
Temporary Time – never released on a studio album
Turpentine – later released on The Story
Caroline – not to be confused with the song “Caroline” on the album Give Up the Ghost. This is a completely different song called “Caroline” (a slow one), never released on a studio album.

I’ll give you a small preview of those three songs that were only ever sold at her early live shows:

I always had the sense that these small Seattle gigs were just the beginning for Brandi Carlile. With her incomparable voice that conveys so much emotion, her strong stage presence, memorable lyrics, and an innate sense of musicality, Brandi always seemed destined for bigger things. But I’ll tell you this: she always played the hell out of those small gigs back in the day.

I’ve since seen Brandi and the twins perform in big venues, and while she now has a much larger stage to run around on with cool lighting effects and such, it’s still the same Brandi: energetic on the up-tempo songs, vulnerable on the stripped-down ones, and always emotional and raw.Brandi’s sound these days is mostly in the folk-rock/country vein (a.k.a Americana). Some of her earlier music is definitely Americana, but those first few albums leaned a little more towards adult alternative. I’ve loved everything that Brandi has released and look forward to and devour every new album, but because I’m more of an adult alternative fan than a country fan, some of my very favorite songs are her older ones. If you haven’t explored any of Brandi’s older music, definitely give these ones a listen:

From her Debut Album Brandi Carlile:
What Can I Say
Throw it All Away
Fall Apart Again

From her Sophomore album The Story:
The Story
My Song
Hiding My Heart

*Both of these songs were on the original homemade EP Open Doors. The version of “Turpentine” on The Story album is almost identical to the original from the Open Doors EP, but there are some moderate differences between the two versions of “Wasted.”  I’d described the “Wasted” version on the original Open Doors EP as a little more raw (sounds a bit like what you’d expect from a demo or a live acoustic recording), and the version on The Story is prettier and more polished, especially in the “Doo-doo-doodoodoo-doo” section. I love them both.

From her third album Give Up the Ghost:
That Year
Before it Breaks

Tomorrow night at the Grammys, Brandi will be the most nominated woman there. Her career success is a wonderful reminder to me that all creative artists start somewhere. And if they have talent, resilience, and a tireless work ethic, they just might end up on the world’s stage someday, sharing with others the art that comes from deep inside them.

So for all my artist friends out there, the next time you see your favorite actor on the big screen, or read a bestseller by a popular author, or watch your favorite musician accept a Grammy Award, remember that behind every success story is most often a story of toil and humble beginnings.  It might be painting your watercolors in your drafty garage, or writing your novel on weekends and evenings around your regular 9-5 job, or it might be playing at a tiny bar in a residential Seattle neighborhood with your mom selling homemade CDs out of a corner booth for five bucks.

So keep dreaming. Keep working. Keep fighting. Keep believing. And whatever you do, just keep on going.


Hallie Shepherd is a writer, actress, and film producer and editor. Follow her on Instagram where she celebrates the stories we tell.