There’s Room For Everyone In The Church Of Brandi Carlile

Six albums into her career and with a new book out, Carlile knows exactly who she is and whom she writes for.

On the steps leading up to the front door of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, a sacred hall affectionately known as the Mother Church of Country Music, a young woman sat weeping. Her face was in her hands, and her shoulders were shaking. “Are you OK?” I asked. “Is there someone I can call?” Through the tears, she explained that she had hoped there would be no-shows for tonight’s concert so she could snag a seat. No luck. “Brandi Carlile is my whole life,” she said.

It was January 2020, and the last night of a six-show run for Carlile. Outside the venue, fans milled about and shared stories of how far they’d traveled to be a part of this series of performances: There were people from cities like Chicago, Santa Fe, and Austin; those who road-tripped with friends or flew in; a father who’d never heard Carlile’s music but was there with his teenage daughter; two sisters whose mother died two months before and was an avid fan of Carlile.

I awkwardly and apologetically explained to the woman that I had just one ticket and I’d flown all the way from Toronto for the show, otherwise I’d let her have it. I told her I’d never seen Carlile live and asked if she’d ever been to a show. She calmed a little and nodded yes. “I was at last night’s show,” she said. “But you came all the way from Canada for this, so you know what it’s like to need to see her.”

The truth is, I did know the feeling. It’s an urgent pull to a place where you are not just understood, but seen whole. All the comfort I had to offer that evening was the question: “What is it about Brandi’s music that gives you that feeling?” She did not treat the question rhetorically, and offered, “She just knows how to make space for you, no matter the shape you’re in.”

“We believe in creating a musical, spiritual, good-humored home for the rejected. That’s who we want to play for.”

I thought about the young woman on the steps of the Ryman as Carlile turned on her Zoom camera earlier this month to talk with me about her music, career, and new book, Broken Horses. I thought about the people who show up to hear her music specifically, asking for someone — or something — to make space for them. It is a vulnerable act, hoping that someone’s music will house you and make room for you, no matter how broken you feel. It’s also a big ask.

Carlile and I chatted in the midst of a whirlwind book tour — before we spoke, she had just wrapped up events with Dolly Parton and memoirist Tara Westover. Later that day, she was scheduled to play something called the Gaylywed Game with her wife, Catherine, squaring off against Glennon Doyle and her wife, Abby Wambach. A new event had just been added: a conversation with Alicia Keys.

But when Carlile showed up, she was at ease, unrushed, and curious — the kind of person who leans in like what she’s about to say is a secret just between us. You get the feeling that you’ll never have less than 100% of her attention. “At the end of this conversation, I’m going to guess your enneagram number,” she said, early in our chat. (She guessed right.) She has an aura that makes you feel like she’s delighting in your presence. In other words, she really does know how to make space for you.

I asked Carlile about the kinds of people who find themselves at home in her music. Who are Brandi Carlile people? Her smile widened and her eyes softened at the question. “I think it means you smile too big and laugh too loud. You say the wrong thing, you walk funny. There’s something about you that just doesn’t put you on the promenade. You’re very important in your eccentricity, and other people who are like you recognize that in you,” Carlile said.

It’s the kind of precise and poetic answer you’d expect from someone who has been working as long as Carlile has. Her self-knowledge is hard-won. Her generosity is boundless. Six albums into her career and with a new book out, Carlile knows exactly who she is and whom she writes for. Her work comes with a mission: “We believe in misfits,” she said. “We believe in creating a musical, spiritual, good-humored home for the rejected. That’s who we want to play for.”

Brandi walks with two men in a field, all dressed in jeans and warm coats

To attempt to confine Carlile to a genre is a hopeless task. Her music deftly combines the most heartfelt elements of country, folk, rock 'n' roll, pop, and singer-songwriter, all fused together by piercing lyrics and a voice that reaches all the way to the rafters, or possibly to the heavens. Her voice is a magic trick, at times even a miracle. It cracks while remaining full-bodied, mirroring how her songs leave you: perhaps still broken, but more assured in your fragility.

Carlile, now 39, grew up poor in rural Washington state. She still lives there, in a log cabin she bought 20 years ago. She started playing music in Seattle in the late ’90s, before recruiting Phil and Tim Hanseroth, identical twins known to her fanbase as simply
"the Twins." (“We are a tripod, and none of us really stands alone,” Carlile tells me.) Carlile may be at the front of the stage, but for all legal purposes, the artist known as Brandi Carlile comprises an equal songwriting and recording partnership between all three. (“If I decided to quit and rename myself Yusuf Carlile, the twins could tour and call themselves Brandi Carlile for the rest of their lives,” she jokes in the book.)

To say Carlile flew under the radar would not be quite accurate. Between her self-titled debut album and 2015’s The Firewatcher’s Daughter, she built a steady following and a reputation for being your favorite singer’s favorite singer. Elton John is a fan. So is Adele and Janelle Monaé. She’s working on some new songs with the R&B singer Monica, who told me that Carlile’s voice “is one of the greatest of our time right now.” And Barack Obama is both a fan and a pal — he even wrote the foreword to an album she produced for charity.

For over a decade, her calling card was “The Story,” a muscular folk-rock record that was the title track of her 2007 sophomore album. The song features her voice-cracking superpower deployed to maximum effect. It winds you the first time you hear it, and never stops bowling you over. The song ended up on Grey’s Anatomy and was performed on The Voice and covered by Dolly Parton. LeAnn Rimes won The Masked Singer delivering an emotional version of it in December.

But if The Story got her noticed, Carlile had to wait more than a decade before she would positively blow up. Her sixth album, 2018’s By the Way, I Forgive You, a towering achievement and a deeply intimate album that sees Carlile at the peak of her craft, earned her six Grammy nominations, including the big three categories: Album of the Year, Song of the Year, and Record of the Year. The centerpiece of the album, a colossal song called “The Joke,” earned four nominations.

“The Joke,” like the best of Carlile’s oeuvre, is both heartbreaking and heart-lifting. It’s a tender message to the ostracized, an anthem about fighting for your place in a world that says you do not belong. There’s a verse dedicated to a young boy who’s bullied for not fitting the expectations of masculinity (“I see you tugging on your shirt / Trying to hide inside of it”), a verse for a little girl who watched Donald Trump’s election in shock (“It’s your brother’s world for a while longer”), and lines dedicated to the immigrant mothers crossing the US border with their children (“They come to kick dirt in your face / Call you weak and displace you / After carrying your baby on your back across the desert”). Carlile told NPR in 2017 that the song is “for people that feel under-represented, unloved or illegal.”

In 2019, Carlile took home three Grammys — but those were not her only spoils. Her triumphant performance of “The Joke” was one of the night’s most talked-about moments. After she nailed the soaring high note at the end of the song, the crowd sprung to its feet. Post Malone looked like he was vibing. Carlile stuck the landing and ascended to a new level of fame. She was on Ellen the next day.

“Center of anything is alone. I don’t want to be alone.”

I confessed to Carlile that it’s what happened next that I found most bewildering. After all, artists wait for a break like that their whole career. But instead of hurrying into the studio to rush a new album out or busying herself visiting every radio station that would have her, she wrote and coproduced an album for country legend Tanya Tucker, Tucker’s first record in 17 years. She produced an album for the little-known and wildly talented folk group the Secret Sisters. With fellow Americana singer Amanda Shires, she recruited country megastar Maren Morris and songwriter Natalie Hemby to start a country supergroup called the Highwomen, formed to challenge the brutal sexism of country music. And she curated an all-women lineup at 2019’s Newport Folk Festival, bringing out Dolly Parton and Sheryl Crow. All which is to say: She flung herself into multiple projects that didn't have her name up front and center, or really anywhere on the marquee.

When I brought this up, Carlile looked puzzled. “Well, what do you think I should’ve done?” she asked. I asked again, in a different way: Did it ever occur to her to capitalize on her Grammy success by jumping into the studio and getting something out while she was at the peak of her career? Did it occur to her to not work on the Tanya Tucker album while she was the most famous she’d ever been?

“No,” Carlile answered without hesitation. “Because I had a Grammy for a minute, but I’ve had Tanya since I was 8.”

In any event, Carlile’s career never suffered for putting other people first. At the 2020 Grammys, a long-lasting injustice was at last corrected when Tucker’s Carlile-produced album, While I’m Livin’, earned Tucker her first Grammy wins at age 62. (Tucker was 13 when she came out with her first single, “Delta Dawn.”) And the Highwomen may not have smashed country music’s male dominance, but they took home a Best Country Song trophy.

You get the sense that generosity and collaboration are by now a core instinct to Carlile. “I don’t want to be the center,” Carlile told me. “I want to be with the Highwomen, I want to be with Tanya, I want to be with the Secret Sisters, I want to be with the twins. Center of anything is alone. I don’t want to be alone.”

If Carlile’s generosity is the throughline of her career, it is also the thesis of her book. It is an honest and vulnerable and at turns devastating document. But unlike plenty of other memoirs by rock stars, it isn’t vindictive — though Carlile has plenty of reasons to be.

One of the book’s most painful points is Carlile’s description of her botched baptism when she was a teenager. With all her friends and family gathered in church, a man she only names as Pastor Steve asked her if she “practiced homosexuality.” When she answered in the affirmative — something Pastor Steve already knew — he declined to baptize her. It was humiliating and life-altering for Carlile. She writes about how this moment pushed her further into music. (For days after, she could only lie in bed and listen to Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah.”)

Humiliation like this could be anyone else’s supervillain origin story. But not Carlile’s. Her description of the episode urges restraint before judgment. I told her it read as almost protective, as though she were holding up her hand and begging the reader not to judge the pastor. Her face softened again, and she said, “No one but me saw his face. I saw what he was going through.” She means that in her deepest hurt, she allowed the inflictor to be fully human.

Carlile revealed on Brené Brown’s podcast that after Elton John read her book, he immediately phoned her and said, “Oh my god, you’ve never been betrayed!” This isn’t exactly true. Pastor Steve is just one of many betrayals that Carlile charts in Broken Horses. She got kicked out of an Elvis-impersonating band because a member was uncomfortable with her being gay. She also details a falling-out with her brother (which inspired one of her best songs). But with each of these stories, you get a sense that Carlile’s gift for transforming pain into beauty is at work. (Of Pastor Steve, she told me, “I was hurt in the process, but I was given so much more.”)

For Dale Henry Geist, the publisher of Country Queer, an online magazine about queer country artists, this puts her in a rare class. “She’s a songwriter in a tradition that stirs my soul,” Geist said. “The tradition of [Bob] Dylan and Neil Young, the tradition of [Kris] Kristofferson and Lucinda Williams.”

When Geist started Country Queer in 2019, he only knew of half a dozen queer artists working in the genre. “Brandi was the only national profile artist we knew we could cover with some success,” Geist said. “In many ways, she is the North Star of queer artists in the genre, and the North Star of who I conceive our audience to be.”

“Her presence is a constant rebuke to country radio,” Geist said. “She’s on the Grammys, she’s selling records, she’s selling out shows, and you’re not putting her on the radio? Come on.”

Carlile’s music has a foot rooted firmly in country, but is the genre her home? “I think that door might still be closed to me,” Carlile said. She’s much more comfortable under the broader umbrella of Americana, folk, and roots music. But she’s quick to make a distinction — while the machinations of corporate country music are inaccessible to her, “The people who call themselves country are not doors that are closed to me,” she added. “As a result, I find myself country-adjacent a lot.”

She pointed out that her career has afforded plenty of opportunities to collaborate with artists accepted in the country machine. “I can collaborate with Dierks [Bentley] or with Little Big Town or in the Highwomen. I can even attend their soirees,” she said. “But there’s a part of me that feels that that’s still a closed door to me and to people like me. And it’s a shame.” She paused and added mournfully, “Do I need the c-word? I don’t know.”

Country music is notorious for gatekeeping. T.J. Osborne, half of the pop-country duo Brothers Osborne, became the first openly gay artist signed to a country label when he came out just two months ago.

“Women have never made up more than 30% of the country radio pie,” Jada Watson, a principal investigator with the SongData Project, which looks at trends in popular music, told me. That has been the ceiling. The floor? In 2017, women were in the single-digit percentages of songs played on country radio. In every other genre, radio is nice to have, but in country music, radio makes or breaks you.

It’s against a backdrop like this that the Highwomen formed. For Watson, it’s important that Carlile joined forces with musicians from different corners of country — Morris is a pop-country mainstay, Shires brings an Americana credibility, and Hemby has written for all your country favorites. “It’s really powerful that these women were coming together and making a stand, and I think that was really important at that moment for reasons beyond artistic abilities and talent,” Watson said. “They were showing collaboration in a field that has tried to break women apart and pit them against each other.”

But if the exclusion of women in country is rampant and institutional, the exclusion of people of color is foundational. “This is a genre founded on structural racism,” Watson said. “Women may not have been at the table, but they were in the room. But Black artists were not in the room. And any time a Black artist was let in the room, they weren’t allowed to hold that door open.”

“I watch people as they listen to her, and that’s when I see just how deeply she affects others.”

She’s referring to the fact that you could count the number of Black country superstars on one hand and still have a finger to spare. Watson points out that fixing this problem in country music will require a deep overhaul. “We’d be very mistaken to think that this can happen at the level of the artist only,” Watson said. “Songwriting rooms are white, studio musicians are white, touring bands are white — the list goes on and on. Management labels, publishers, and our wardrobe makeup, they’re all white.”

This means that simply signing more Black artists isn’t going to fix country’s problems. Carlile has seen these systems of exclusion at work and knows them intimately. She’s frustrated by what she sees. “There’s an effort to keep people of color invisible in this genre, and to only platform them in pedestrian, temporary ways just to tokenize them,” she said.

Soon, Carlile was listing things that established artists can do to fight country’s racism problem. “We need to step to the left and right and open doors, make phone calls, and get these artists some record deals,” she said. “Help them get placed in music festivals by saying, ‘Actually, I can’t do this unless you have at least two people of color, and I mean penultimate, not just the first of five acts,’ or, ‘I can’t do this compilation album unless you have a number of artists of color, and I don’t mean Track 7, I mean Track 2.’’” For Carlile, allyship means “doing the work of integrating these artists into the genre, because we can’t expect the corporate mechanisms to do that. It’s going to have to be other artists.”

She has already begun. A few weeks ago, ahead of her book release, Carlile played a livestreamed concert at the Ryman Auditorium to a small crowd. Midway through the show, she surprised the audience by bringing out Monica, and they performed the Highwomen’s signature song, “Crowded Table.” It was spectacular. Soon after, it emerged that Monica and Carlile are working on new music.

“We’re at the very, very beginnings,” Carlile said, beaming. “We’re working on getting some songs together, and also a little coven. I want to surround Monica with the best of what Nashville and roots music has to offer.” When she describes this, she tilts her head back and looks overcome by the possibilities of what’s to come. “You know,” she added with a wide grin, “she could pretty much sing us all under the table.”

The love flows both ways. “If you watch when Brandi performs live, I noticed people put their hands to their chest or they put their hands over their mouths or they lean their heads back,” Monica told me in a phone interview. “Those are signs that something has touched you in a place that is not normally touched. And that’s a gift. ”

Monica added, “She’s a whole lot more than country. She’s a whole lot more than folk. What you realize is: As a whole, she’s music. I watch people as they listen to her, and that’s when I see just how deeply she affects others.”

A mother walks behind her toddler child up a ramp

Carlile has made a career of putting her life into her songs. Take “The Mother,” a moving song about her first-born daughter, Evangeline, and how motherhood transformed her (“The first things she took from me were selfishness and sleep”), or “Beginning to Feel the Years,” a song about the bond she shares with the twins. So what does the book format have to offer?

For one thing, it’s unfinished business. After being held back in grade school and struggling in high school, Carlile dropped out and pursued music. Now she has a book detailing her own journey, and it’s written her way, in an organic, stream-of-consciousness fashion.

That means the book comes with its own internal logic for how to apply ellipses, all caps, and sentence fragments. She had to learn to fight for that; at some point, her frequent midstory ellipses (“I just called it the dot dot dot”) were edited out. She says she remembered thinking, “I don’t have an education. I don’t know why these things are improper. I just want them.” But after encouragement from author Glennon Doyle, she had them put them back in. She said Doyle told her, “You won’t win any literary prizes. But the people you want to understand you will understand you.” Her reply? “That’s good enough.”

Forget “good enough” — the book debuted last week at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Like the rest of her work, it is a triumph and validation for those who fight just to be themselves. In many ways, this is Carlile’s story: forging ahead the only way she knows how and, in the process, expanding the palette of what’s possible by a hue or two.

That January night at the Ryman, Carlile ended the show and wrapped up her encores and the lights went out. But just before she disappeared backstage, she darted back to the center of the stage like she forgot to do the most important thing in her life.

In total darkness, her silhouette visible only by cellphone lights, she stretched out her arms. Without a microphone, she started belting out “Amazing Grace.” Her hands invited the crowd to sing along, and soon, the Mother Church was glowing with uplift and tenderness. Carlile closed her eyes, lowered her voice, and let a choir of thousands take over. ●

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