Brandi Carlile has only been discussing her new album for a few short minutes before she launches, unprompted, into an explanation of The Bridge, an obscure British documentary about those who commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.
“I have a little bit of a fascination with jumpers,” Carlile says, responding to a seemingly innocuous question about “Harder to Forgive,” the penultimate song on Carlile’s new album By the Way, I Forgive You. When she was in high school, Carlile’s friend committed suicide by jumping, a death she wrote about on 2009’s “That Year.” Ever since, she’s been preoccupied with the subject.
But Carlile also has a specific point to make: She learned by watching The Bridge that the vast majority of those who jump from the Golden Gate do so off the side of the bridge that looks out on the city versus the side that faces the empty expanse of nature and water.
“You would think that if you were compelled to make that decision, that the blackness wouldn’t be terrifying to you,” she says. “But they all choose the people, they all choose the light, they jump towards the city. That’s the profound thing about forgiveness, is that innately, we all want to do it. We just don’t know how.”
The Golden Gate Bridge anecdote has been rolling around Carlile’s mind lately as she ponders her new album, which is centered around the idea of forgiveness, a radical concept, Carlile thinks, that too often gets treated as saccharine or moralist.
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“The last thing I want on this record is for it to sound like I’m using forgiveness in the white evangelical use of the term,” she says. “I worry that people in the world might consider that forgiveness isn’t radical, but it is fucking radical. We just don’t do it very often or as much as we’d like to sing about it and wave our arms.”
On Carlile’s sixth album, which was co-produced by Shooter Jennings and roots superproducer Dave Cobb, the singer-songwriter plunges deep into family dynamics, politics, addiction and identity on a collection of original songs written by Carlile and Phil and Tim Hanseroth – “The Twins,” as she calls them – who have been playing, recording, and writing with Carlile since the beginning of her career.
“We chose to talk about finding a way to fundamentally forgive and accept life for being fucking hard.”
All of these heavy topics came to a head during the writing of By the Way, I Forgive You, which Carlile, 36, sees as the most probing, profoundly intense record of her career.
“Everything that’s happened over the past 10 years: people killing themselves, issues with our families, the twin’s divorces, all these things caught up to us. All these things that you shut down in favor of momentum and motion just found their way to the three of us at one time, so we opened the packages back up and just dealt with it,” she says. “You can do any number of things with that, but what we chose to do is to talk about finding a way to fundamentally forgive and accept life for being fucking hard.”
As a result, there is nary a lightweight song on By the Way, an elegant, deeply emotional work of reckoning, confrontation, soul-searching and, yes, forgiveness.
The songs span a range of styles and sounds, from the orchestral grandeur of “The Joke” and the Avett Brothers-inspired folk-pop stomp on “Hold Out Your Hand” to “Fulton County Jane Doe” – which Shooter Jennings describes as “a cross between Levon Helm and Elton John” – and the heartbreaking piano torch ballad “Party of One” that closes the album.
Entries like “Most of All” and “Mother” are personal reflections on family, while “Fulton County Jane Doe” and “Sugartooth” gently nod outward at the opioid epidemic and global migration crises.
Mostly, though, the album serves as a communal confessional booth, a meeting place where former lovers, old friends and siblings reunite in repentance and grant one another pardon.
“If I don’t owe you a favor, you don’t know me,” Carlile sings at one point.
A few songs later: “Sometimes I pretend we never met / Because it’s harder to forgive than to forget.”
“We all came to the table with these songs that were hard to talk about, hard to get through, and that’s not really something that’s happened before,” says the singer. “Maybe there’d be a couple of those songs every couple of records, but never anything like this where every song we chose wound up being hard to sing, hard to talk about.”
When Carlile entered the studio last year in Nashville with Jennings and Cobb, it had been a dozen years since she released her debut self-titled album and a decade since her breakthrough 2007 LP The Story, produced by T Bone Burnett.
In the years since, Carlile has made several major-label albums, including 2009’s Rick Rubin-produced Give Up the Ghost, followed by a string of independent releases. Along the way, she’s established herself as one of the most dependable and intimate live singer-songwriter acts working today, selling out theaters across the country with her band that straddles the line between singer-songwriter folk, rootsy country and unadorned Americana pop.
“Brandi is a blowtorch of a human being, in the greatest way,” says her friend and co-producer Shooter Jennings. “She’s somehow come through her whole crazy experience in the music industry innocent and unscathed. That’s the thing that’s the most awesome about being around her – there’s an optimism that has not been crushed.”
In person, Carlile is a warm, intense conversationalist. She makes a lot of eye contact, and several times during the interview, she interrupts herself, mid-answer, to ask a question.
“Are you afraid of heights?”
“Do you have any kids?”
When I answer “no” to the latter question, Carlile says: “First of all, that’s lovely. I would say give it some fucking thought! It turns you into a total emotional wreck. It can be an introduction into some really powerful and overwhelming empathy, where you read about or see anyone and you no longer are able to see anybody as anything other than somebody’s baby.”
Starting a family has had a profound impact on Carlile’s artistic process in a number of ways. For one, it’s influenced her songwriting. “I edit out the bullshit real quick now,” she says. “Now I’m just a human lie detector for myself.”
It’s also given Carlile a certain perspective on her own parents and on the nation’s larger political climate.
“It was a rough year, starting with the election, and then everyone started dying, our heroes started dying, so we started thinking about our own parents, like, ‘OK, how long do we have to be in this bubble now?'” says the singer. “We were in this other bubble for the last eight years, but how much longer do we get to be in the ‘My Parents Are Alive’ bubble? Or the ‘Nothing Fucked Up Has Happened to My Children’ bubble? And thinking about that just opened a door, and suddenly we didn’t care if it rhymed. We didn’t care if it made us look sloppy, or unhip, and we wound up writing some shit we could never come back from.”
There’s one memory from the past two years that Brandi Carlile can’t shake.
“I really feel like when my life flashes before my eyes one day, I’m going to see myself in a London airport, just crying.” Carlile is referring to the morning of November 9th, 2016, when she sat in an airport sobbing as she stared at the American election results on television with her two-year-old daughter.
“Thinking that a social environment in our country was a fringe group and then seeing that it was this huge, huge contingency was a big awakening for me,” she says.
Carlile considers herself to be in the earliest stages of becoming an artist-activist. “It’s an evolution that I’m at the very, very beginning of,” she says. It’s also an evolution that started when Carlile met her current wife, Catherine Shepherd, who promptly introduced her to War Child, a British-based organization that provides support and assistance to children affected by war.
Last year, she released Cover Stories, a charity album in which a host of artists, including Dolly Parton, Pearl Jam, Adele and Kris Kristofferson, performed renditions from Carlile’s 2007 album The Story, with all proceeds going to the organization.
“My work for War Child has been a real life-changer for me,” says the singer. “It’s one thing to take up a cause and feel passionate about it, and it’s one thing to write songs about that cause because you think it will be impactful. But it’s most impactful if you’re writing the song about that because it’s just as moving to you as the love song or the song about your family.
“It’s about whatever puts that lump in my throat, because that lump in my throat is a song. And right now, the refugees put that lump in my throat,” she continues. “My little baby, the one on the way, my family and feeling like it’s under attack, because I’m gay and because I’m married to a woman that’s not a U.S. citizen: those things put a lump in my throat, and I’ve got to sort that out, or I’m going to get cancer. I’ve got to write those songs, because there’s really no other way to get rid of it.”