Brandi Carlile: Breaking The Silence
photo credit: Neil Krug
Brandi Carlile has a great excuse for being late for this interview: She was helping a friend with a new song. And, not just any friend—Elton John.
“With him, it’s just like, ‘Can you sing on this?’ and I’m like, ‘Yep!’” the singer says with a grin, sitting in the recording studio located on her remote Maple Valley, Wash. property.
Carlile lives on the sprawling estate with her wife, Catherine, and their two young children. The multi-acre “compound” includes her studio, plenty of ATVs and the nearby homes of Carlile’s bandmates/ brothers-in-law, Tim and Phil Hanseroth.
The twins are equally excited about the Elton John collaboration, noting how they—and Brandi—were asked to remotely supply some of their signature, three-part harmonies for a yet-to-be revealed project. “Elton was on FaceTime in his rose-colored sunglasses, just saying, ‘Yeah, do your thing, baby!’” Phil says in his best faux English accent.
These types of pinch-me encounters are now the norm for Carlile. After grinding through the indie-folk/ Americana and festival scenes, opening for the likes of Dave Matthews Band and garnering the attention of megaproducer Rick Rubin, she truly broke through with her landmark, heart-wrenching Grammy-winning 2018 release, By the Way, I Forgive You.
To understand the magnitude of By the Way, I Forgive You, it’s worth noting that President Barack Obama name-dropped the LP’s lead single/LGBTQ anthem “The Joke” as one of his favorite songs of 2017. If politics aren’t your thing, then Carlile’s influence was further solidified when she spearheaded Newport Folk Festival’s first-ever all-female revue in 2019 and personally facilitated Dolly Parton’s first appearance at the veteran event. (Carlile and Parton offered a beautiful rendition of “I Will Always Love You” in similarly bedazzled attire.)
Even more recently, Carlile was minted a New York Times bestselling author following the release of her memoir Broken Horses, and she’s fashioned herself a concert promoter, modeling her Girls Just Wanna Weekend destination event after the ‘90s roving feminist-forward festival Lilith Fair. (For the record, between the ages of 15 and 17, Carlile attended every Lilith Fair that rolled through the Northwest. “It was so instrumental in making me who I am,” she beams.)
And as if her plate wasn’t full enough, Carlile even has a new COVID-era album, In These Silent Days, on the way, which she’s happy to chat about. On the other hand, she’s also happy to chat about shrimp.
“The shrimping season just closed down,” Carlile says. Her boat—christened “Captain Fantastic” after her favorite Elton John record—is a pandemic purchase, and a welcome respite from the dire outside world. “We just got back from going out and pulling up pots of spot prawns for the whole compound for the summer. Each pot is 30-40 pounds with a 400-foot line. You keep your fingers crossed. Sometimes they’re full and sometimes they’re empty.”
As she recounts in Broken Horses, Carlile traces her career back to a mother-daughter performance of Rosanne Cash’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box” and a fully costumed lip sync of Elton John’s “Honky Cat.” After dropping out of high school, the self-taught guitarist committed to music fully, releasing her eponymous debut in 2005.
She gained further traction with her sophomore, T Bone Burnett-produced release, The Story—the title track of which remains one of the band’s most well-known songs. Soon, Brandi and the twins were traveling across the country and around the world, touching the ears of heroes like The Rocket Man, who sent her flowers and wine before a 2007 Variety Playhouse gig in Atlanta. (In the book, Carlile recalls the “shocking blissful brand of euphoria” of this moment. Before long, she’d be FaceTiming with the star on a regular basis.) All of these experiences, as well as the road’s many ups and downs, further deepened Carlile’s friendship with the twins; they may have discovered their angelic harmonies almost instantly, but touring together, sleeping in vans and playing pranks made them a true family. They wrote songs together and introduced each other to new music. In fact, the twins still laugh about their attempt to convert Carlile into a Ween fan.
“They are complete outsiders to the business,” Tim says of Ween. “I love when an underdog or an outsider kind of comes in and finds a place to sit with the rest of everybody you know.” (To her ears, Carlile admits that she still prefers another Hanseroth recommendation, Fugazi.)
Between their own headlining tours, the band gained a foothold in the festival scene, rising from side-stage support acts to marquee headliners. Their mix of country, folk and true-blue Americana quickly won over indie, jam and roots-rock fans alike at festivals like Bonnaroo, Boston Calling, LOCKN’ and Newport Folk; Carlile also found herself collaborating onstage with everyone from Dave Matthews to Jim James, Joe Russo, Yola, Old Crow Medicine Show and Courtney Barnett.
Musically, Carlile describes herself as “an album person,” and In These Silent Days is certainly a comprehensive release. It was recorded in the fall and winter of 2020 at Nashville’s RCA Studio A, the same place she laid down By the Way, I Forgive You. Naturally, the LP’s title nods to the pandemic’s silent nights and dark stages, the distance between loved ones and the enduring quiet of a global catastrophe.
“It took losing [music] to realize how bad I needed it—just because we couldn’t play shows and couldn’t play music that was expressive or more dramatic” Carlile surmises. “So I got into the studio and I learned to appreciate it. My wife was always telling me how cathartic it was. We’ll have a fight or something; there’ll be some big moment of drama and she’ll go, ‘You know, you have an outlet.’ And I’d think to myself: ‘I don’t know if she’s right about that. I’m not sure she knows what she’s talking about. Music is my job and I’m really used to it. I don’t really see it as an outlet.’ But boy, when it went away, let me tell you what: I realized that I did have an outlet, one that I have taken for granted for a long time. So the album is me not taking that for granted.”
For the new LP, Carlile also reunited with Shooter Jennings and Dave Cobb, both of whom played key roles in the creation of By the Way, I Forgive You. Cobb, a now-frequent collaborator, first met Carlile while working with Dolly Parton, and he’s since become part of her musical family, even helping produce the namesake album for her side-project The Highwomen. (That supergroup, which also features Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires, nabbed a Grammy in 2020 for the single “Crowded Table.”)
Following By the Way, I Forgive You, Carlile and Jennings teamed up in 2019 to co-produce Tanya Tucker’s comeback album, While I’m Livin’ and, as they all reassembled in Nashville for In These Silent Days, their bond only deepened.
“It was a very intense time,” Carlile says of the sessions. “Everyone’s emotions were right on a razor’s edge. There were a lot of conversations that went to tears that normally wouldn’t have gone to tears—just because none of us had seen our parents in a long time. We were stressed and worried about staying alive but also just deeply grateful that we were able to come together in the same place—this studio, this little egg. The pandemic turned friends into family real quick. And, for me, I realized—when I was sitting there with Dave, Shooter and the twins—just how much we need each other. I’m not gonna say that it was a party or a celebration. There was all of that uncertainty. But I feel like I’ve captured that mix of feelings. I think that if you can make albums throughout your life that document a moment in history—whether it’s your own emotional history, your personal history or this spiritual, global history—then you’re being true to the art.”
At that moment, the studio also presented Carlile and the twins with their only performance opportunity for the foreseeable future. While the band was sidelined and stuck in one place, Carlile found a new way to channel her live energy.
“I had put up walls around the difference between live and recorded music, and Dave took those walls down,” Carlile admits. “But he’s trying to get me to stop acting like I’m in a recording studio. I always have the stage in mind. That really is my first love and my life. And I have learned from Dave that the stage and the studio are not as separate as I once thought they were. They don’t have to be, anyway.”
Tim adds, “When we were first talking about [this record], it just came up so naturally. It was like, ‘Should we get together and see who has songs?’ We have a little condo up on Whidbey Island where we write music, and the conversation was just, ‘Let’s try to go in a different direction than we did on the last record. Let’s continue on and maybe put a little sunlight on it this time, you know?’”
“After By the Way, I Forgive You, I feel like we kind of went pretty far into this world of Tanya Tucker and The Highwomen—kind of a country direction,” Phil counters. “Not that anybody thought that was a bad thing, but I felt like, when it came time to make this record, it was appropriate to go somewhere a little more bombastic— Elton, Joni, Queen, all our heroes.”
Listening to the album, it is easy to hear all of those influences. Carlile imbues a sense of musical drama throughout her 10 new tracks, and her latest material has a certain flair that she’s admittedly held back on previous LPs. And while In These Silent Days was tracked in the same studio—with the same personnel—as By the Way, I Forgive You, it’s certainly not a sister record. Carlile describes the studio as more of a jumping off point—a place where she found her true self.
“I was on my way to realizing the drama that was musically inside of me when By the Way, I Forgive You wrapped up with ‘The Joke,’” Carlile says of her hit ballad. “By the Way, I Forgive You ended on ‘The Joke.’ That would be the last one recorded, the last experience. And I sort of said I wanted to start there next time. So it’s on a continuum of that drama.”
Indeed, opener “Right on Time” adds a slow-burning, reflective salve to the pain of “The Joke.” Twinkling pianos—the Elton influence, naturally—lift Carlile’s voice as she sings, “Turn back time/ Help me to rewind/ And we can find ourselves again/ It’s not too late/ Either way, I lose you in these silent days/ It wasn’t right/ But it was right on time.”
Further along, one of the most dramatic vocal performances on In These Silent Days arrives during the first moments of mid-album highlight “Broken Horses,” the track which shares a title with her memoir. “I wear my father’s leather on the inside of my skin/ I’m a tried and weathered woman, but I won’t be tried again,” Carlile howls with a piercing high note that will surely stop listeners in their tracks. “It is one of those songs that has all the classic elements,” Tim says of “Broken Horses.” “It has the strong singing, the tender harmonies, the personal lyrical content. It rocks but there’s also tender stuff in there. That first note out of the gate that Brandi sings just rips your face off. Everybody I play it for, their head just flies off their shoulders for a second. It is so powerful because we don’t really have anything like it in our catalog. I think it just sticks out like a sore thumb in the best of ways.”
For Carlile, “Broken Horses” remains a song in the present tense, chronicling her agency to go out and not just offer some dynamic music, but also live a well-rounded life.
“‘Broken Horses’ is thematic of the book, the record and everything. The impact the pandemic had on me as an artist and as a person wasn’t entirely negative; it was just heavy,” she says. “And it made me realize how much I was taking for granted. It made me realize my gifts and what was really important to me. So when I wrote ‘Broken Horses,’ I was just thinking, ‘When they let me out of this thing, when I come out of the gate, I’m coming back as me. I’m not taking any shit off anybody. I’m not acting. I’m gonna break through the restraint that I had felt I needed to employ to fit in to the long line to succeed and, when I come back, I’m gonna come back as me.’ And that’s what ‘Broken Horses’ is about.”
And that return to self manifests in several ways for Carlile—whether it’s riding ATVs, going shrimping, spending time with her kids or tapping into her deep-rooted personal theology. She employs the phrase “spiritual freedom” at one point, zeroing in on the process of writing her memoir and rediscovering herself on both an artistic and a personal level.
“I feel like [during the pandemic], she sort of made up for the last 20 years,” Tim says. “Whether it was being out on her boat or driving her RV, she was really able to kind of reconnect with herself without having all these tentacles out in different places. And maybe that’s why this record is so pure, too. Because when I listen to it, I don’t hear Americana, I don’t hear Nashville, I don’t hear country. I don’t hear anything. I just hear music that defies genre and personal lyrics that are deeply important. She really got a chance to catch up and grow, and it’s definitely reflected on this album.”
That aforementioned Joni Mitchell influence is particularly apparent on “You and Me On The Rock,” a tune Carlile says she wrote for her wife and how their relationship was “illuminated during this time.” (As chronicled in Broken Horses, Catherine first introduced Carlile to the power of Joni Mitchell. In fact, their first spat as a couple was over Carlile’s under-appreciation for the singer. She’s since become a Mitchell superfan, and a close confidant of the 80-year-old singer/painter.)
“‘You and Me on the Rock’ is so Joni Mitchell that we wrote it on a dulcimer,” Carlile laughs. “I was like, ‘I’m so influenced by Joni Mitchell at this point in my life that if I don’t just channel it into one thing, then it’s gonna be everywhere.’ So I decided to just go all the way in on one song and embrace it. And it was perfect because it’s about Catherine. Catherine was the catalyst for me learning to understand and grow into Joni Mitchell. And so I was like, ‘This is gonna be my Joni moment of the album.’ After I finished it, the first thing that I did was I took it up to Joni’s house when we both got vaccinated. I played it for her, and I was just like, ‘I’m just gonna tell you, Joni, I hope you don’t mind how derivative it is,’ because she doesn’t love derivative. [Laughs.] She’s very quick to point out, ‘Oh, they sound like so-and-so.’ She was patting her lap while we played it for her and, at the end, she looks at me and goes, ‘Sounds like a hit!’ [Laughs.] It was just a not-Joni Mitchell thing to say and I loved it so much.”
It’s June, and Carlile and the twins are a week out from a three-night run in Montana, kicking off a tour that marks their first proper lives shows since the onset of the pandemic. For the Grammy-winning musician, it’s a return to form, but also the beginning of a new era: “My hopes, fundamentally, are to take the ‘me’ that I rediscovered during this time of rest and stillness and to reemerge with this music and this art as myself in an extreme way—with all of its drama, all of its awkwardness, all of its earthiness. And I hope that the world will receive it.”
“We’ll never be the same as we were before,” Phil says. “At the same time, I feel like we’re going to hit the road, this record is going to come out and it’s going to be like a broken arm that healed stronger than it was before. We’re gonna be right back where we were before, but even more appreciative and better musically. We’ll all have grown a little bit.”
And as the silence recedes and the live-music world reopens, In These Silent Days chronicles the darkness and the dawn of Carlile’s post-pandemic, post-By the Way era. In fact, she believes that it took losing everything to appreciate just how much she actually had.
“[This album] came to us when we finally got still,” Carlile explains. “I hadn’t been still since I was 8 years old. And there’s these little glimpses of moments of what it must’ve been like when the world was still. Every once in a while, we’d be on the road—and we tour fucking perpetually—and we’d get to some venue that’s got no cell service or no Wi-Fi. And we couldn’t work; we couldn’t connect with friends or stimulate ourselves. And the first thing we did every time was we picked up our guitars. And we always wrote a song in those situations. Those were micro-impositions. The pandemic was a massive imposed stillness.”
Eventually, Carlile recognized the beauty of simplicity, the beauty of standing still. It’s reminiscent of the song “The Eye” off Carlile’s 2015 LP, The Firewatcher’s Daughter. The chorus declares: “You can dance in a hurricane/ But only if you’re standing in the eye.” By retracing her past in her memoir, holding her creative collaborators close and reentering the studio, Carlile built her own eye in the COVID-19 storm. In turn, her appreciation for those around her only deepened. And, with that clarity, she crafted a set of honest, pure new originals that now sit proudly in the Brandi Carlile songbook.
“I realized how strong the ties are that bind me to Catherine and the girls. And I realized how strong the ties are that bind me to the twins,” she says. “You can talk all day long about understanding the concept of chosen family. But, when you’re sequestered—marooned—in a place together, then you’re really put to the test. I felt like it was a beautiful thing as I watched that emerge, but there were also really sad things for me during the past year—losing John Prine, not seeing my parents, coming face-to-face with my mortality, watching my kids wonder how they were gonna continue to get an education, worrying what was gonna happen to the world. Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. I had thoughts like, “Is my marriage gonna mean anything six months from now?” There were all these massive existential questions already [sitting] under the surface that continued to come up. But I still had this stillness.”