Brandi Carlile: At Home With the Folk-Rock Rebel
Brandi Carlile is cruising down a steep road on her four-wheeler, her teal jacket flapping in the wind as she makes a sharp turn to her home in Maple Valley, Washington, a rural mountain town about 45 minutes outside of Seattle. It’s not an easy house to find — even the GPS gets confused around here. “Those things make up roads sometimes,” Carlile says. “Sometimes, it says this one doesn’t even exist.”
It’s a misty midmorning in a scene out of Twin Peaks, with fog shrouding the evergreen trees around the log cabin she bought at 21, and now shares with her wife, Catherine Shepherd, and their two children. Carlile pulls into the driveway, hops down and lands light on the gravel. This is her “happy place,” she says.
Inside, Shepherd is observing Evangeline, their fair-haired four-year-old, as she sits at the counter of their open kitchen making a necklace. Elijah, nine months, is on the floor playing with Laura Rogers from the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, duo the Secret Sisters, whose album Carlile is in the middle of producing at her home studio. Up above them, a homemade sign hangs from the rafters to commemorate Carlile’s recent Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year for her sixth LP, By the Way, I Forgive You: “Six nominations! Are you kidding me with this? Congrats!”
“Do you want to go outside, get a fire going?” asks Carlile. In jeans, a slouchy beige sweater and a pair of fur-lined Gucci loafers, she leads us to a wood deck that overlooks the home’s vast property. Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready owns the land to one side, and Carlile’s bandmate and brother-in-law Phil Hanseroth lives to the other. Some of their neighbors raise and slaughter a steer once a year; it’s not uncommon to spot a bear nearby. Just down the road is the pasture where, for many years, Carlile kept her horse Sovereign — named after her first guitar, a Harmony Sovereign that her mother found behind a casino.
When Sovereign died in September, Carlile, 37, was devastated. “It was almost as profound as having a child,” she says, sipping a mimosa by the fire. She was 17 when she bought Sovereign for $75, taking him home on a leash. “It changed all my choices,” she adds. “I didn’t get to fuck off; I didn’t get to not have a job. I had to make all these adult decisions, and develop this work ethic.”
That work ethic helped give Carlile the best year of her career in 2018. Produced by Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings, By the Way, I Forgive You is all about “radical forgiveness,” grounded in a kind of storytelling that feels particularly apt for our current political moment. Carlile sings about drug addiction on “Sugartooth,” rallies for the misfits on “The Joke” and navigates passion and pain on “Party of One.” She’d always been something of a renegade folk-rock star. In the past year plus, she’s become something more — a leader of a musical resistance, fighting hate with mercy. She also performed for Joni Mitchell, appeared in A Star Is Born, booked her own all-women festival in Mexico, raised more than $700,000 for Syrian refugees, held a spot on Barack Obama’s favorite-songs playlist (for the second year in a row) and welcomed a little girl. “I sat down Catherine and said, ‘I’m so sorry, but this year I’m going for it,’ ” Carlile says, peeling back the wrapper on a granola bar. “Because this is the record.”
Among other things, By the Way, I Forgive You is the finest showcase yet for Carlile’s vocal power: She can belt like Adele or push to the very edge of her range, then pull back to warmth. “Brandi is the only singer to make me consistently cry when I hear her voice,” says McCready. “Perhaps some demons are being exorcised in her brutal honesty of forgiveness.”
Like many, Carlile was angry after the last presidential election. She recalls sobbing at Heathrow Airport the morning of November 9th, 2016. It didn’t take long for her to decide to channel that rage into action and, eventually, into music. “[Trump] is so aggressive and loud and ugly — we don’t need more aggressive and loud and ugly,” Carlile says. “We need debilitating empathy.”
It’s an approach with some striking similarities to that of her most famous fan, President Obama. “They have similar outlooks,” says Pete Souza, the former White House photographer who turned his boss on to Carlile’s music. “Though I don’t know if [Obama] has as much forgiveness as Brandi does.”
Growing up in Ravensdale, Washington, about 10 miles down the road from her current home, Carlile didn’t just want to sing: She wanted to be a rock star. “I became obsessed with making it, and I willed myself to be talented,” she says. As a kid she’d lock herself in a closet, singing “Unchained Melody” or “Bohemian Rhapsody,” pushing herself over and above the highest notes. “Pretty soon I could hit them, and then I could hold them. And then I could hold them as long as Freddie Mercury.”
She entered contests around the state, but she never won anything. The Queen frontman was a particular source of inspiration, as was Elton John. “I was uncomfortable in my gender, I was poor, I was gay,” she says. “I was pretty convinced I was a flamboyant gay rock star in the making.”
When she first started playing around Seattle, it was primarily restaurant gigs: an Irish pub, a clam shack, a joint where she’d sit after closing and drink grape soda while the owner snorted cocaine. She’d do nightly sets at these places, and during the breaks she’d go table to table, talking to folks in attendance and getting their phone numbers and email addresses. Then, when she had a proper club show, she’d call them all and invite them out. “Pretty soon,” she says, “I started selling out regular venues. I always thought that I was right on the verge of making it.”
Around this time, Carlile met twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth, who became her band and co-writers. Her second album, 2007’s The Story, was an early breakthrough, with the title ballad landing on Grey’s Anatomy. Carlile spent the better part of the next decade making records and touring nonstop, ending up in a bitter cycle of sleeping pills, steroids and caffeine to get through the days. Then she met Shepherd, who was Paul McCartney’s charity coordinator at the time, and who promptly fell for another side of Carlile: the rural artist who’d grown up fishing and still rides tractors. “She told me, ‘I think you should integrate that into your work, and be a little more honest about the other parts of you,’ ” Carlile recalls. “So I did. As that happened, my albums have resonated with people differently. Maybe I wasn’t as cool as I thought I was.”
Carlile has done activist work for years, launching campaigns against violence and hunger with her non-profit group, the Looking Out Foundation, but she says becoming a mother awakened a new urgency in her. She kicked off her Girls Just Wanna Weekend festival in Mexico in January as a way of fighting the festival circuit’s gender imbalance, headlining a bill with Margo Price, Maren Morris and others. She also utilized an all-women crew for her “Party of One” video, which portrays pure, passionate love that just happens to be between two women. “She fights the good fight for truth and equality and puts her money where her mouth is every time,” says her friend Jim James. “And I believe her every step of the way.”
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She’ll carry this philosophy through to her next project, an all-star country band with Amanda Shires called the Highwomen — a nod to Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson’s Highwaymen. “Yes, we don’t want to hear the words ‘female singer-songwriter’ ever again,” she says. “But we have to use it right now. Because we need representation.”
Carlile remembers that the Secret Sisters are probably waiting for her to get to work, so we head to the studio, a place she helped build herself, “ice-picking trenches across the driveway.” Inside she finds the sisters and the Hanseroth twins, eager to perfect the arrangements for a song called “Quicksand.”
The recording space is warmly decorated, but it feels different than other studios — mostly because it isn’t loaded with endless instruments collecting dust. Carlile tells me that she isn’t big on holding on to things like that. “If it’s sitting on the wall just because it’s valuable, and you are not playing it, and there are 18-year-old girls everywhere scraping to earn enough money to buy a guitar, how can you not give it away?” she told me earlier, as the fire crackled. “It’s not useful until it’s out in the world.”
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