Brandi Carlile talks about her powerful new album, In These Silent Days, her friendship with Joni Mitchell, the lessons of her rough childhood, why she was “triggered” by recording country music, why she’s never wanted a hit single, and much more in an in-depth interview in the new episode of Rolling Stone Music Now.
Carlile has always been opposed to the idea of hit singles. “It seems like another universe,” she says. “I’ve always been anti-hit, my whole career. A hit’s the kiss of death. You don’t want a hit; you want people love your albums. You want people to sing all your songs. You don’t want to see that line of people leaving your concert after you play the song. So I’ve always just rejected the concept of a hit.”
Male producers and engineers have sometimes accused Carlile of being “too emotional” in the studio. “Emotional and loud can look a lot like the same thing,” she says. “If I’m going to get emotional, I’m going to get loud, and some guys can’t handle that. The mics can’t handle it… When a woman does it, guys’ reptilian brains go, ‘Mama’s mad at me’ or something. It’s so fucked up. But I’m telling you, I’ve been dealing with it my whole career, it absolutely exists. And it doesn’t occur to me until the fallout is happening, that my volume and aggressive tendencies have upset one of the men in the room, whether they know why or not.”
Carlile’s friend Joni Mitchell gave her personal stamp of approval to “You and Me on the Rock,” a new track that pays blatant tribute to… Joni Mitchell. “As soon as the vaccine became available and… we could see each other, we did,” Carlile says. “I went up to the house and we had dinner — leek soup — and drank Pinot Grigio. I was like ‘Joni, I want to play the album,’ and when I got to that song… She does not suffer fools or pull punches and she doesn’t abide derivatives… So I was like, ‘Here’s what I did. This is why I did it. This was in me. I was inspired. This is a tribute. I had to do it once or I was gonna do it forever.’ And so she’s listening to it and she was really grooving and it ended and she just looks up at me and she goes, ‘Sounds like a hit!'”
Doing country music with the Highwomen helped heal some childhood trauma. “I have country music in my soul,” says Carlile. “And actually doing country music was so triggering in some ways. As a child growing up, you’re hearing these lyrics and you’re seeing this paradigm play out in these songs, and in this rural country music culture, you’re knowing that it’ll never be a safe place for you as a person, but you’re still loving the music and you’re still speaking with a Southern accent and you’re still wearing the fucking Western shirt. When I went to do the Highwomen, it all came back and I was like, ‘Well, I’m about to be exiled and rejected and made fun of and excluded.’ It was really interesting watching the hair stand up on the back of my neck every time I do a Highwomen appearance or show, only to be met with the opposite. So it’s actually kind of a healing and amazing process for me.”
She feels like her younger self is a little too close to the surface sometimes. “She’s very nervous,” Carlile says. “She’s desperate to be included and for her dreams to come true. And she doesn’t know that it’s already happening. That is what my life has become — I don’t have to be hungry, I am included, my dreams are coming true. So she’s constantly nervous that’s it’s all gonna fall apart. And so in these big moments, if you’re going to sing at the Grammys, or if you’re going to sing fucking Blue in front of Joni Mitchell… I would never exclude my childhood self from seeing what my life has become. But she definitely needs to sit off to the side with a little guitar and, you know, take it easy.”
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