Brandi Carlile Isn’t Sorry
T-Bone Burnett gave Brandi Carlile some lasting advice when he sat at the helm for her gold-certified, Grammy-nominated 2007 breakthrough album, The Story. “‘If somebody asks what you play, say you’re rock-and-roll because rock-and-roll is a risk,’” Carlile remembers the legendary producer telling her. “And, to me, what we do is about being right on the edge, where anything can fall apart at any moment—right on the cusp of forgetting the words, or hitting the wrong chord, where it’s just the song sweeping you up.”
A decade later, the fine-boned songwriter is pushing that notion even further. She’s recorded albums straight to tape, played pin-drop shows with no amplification and had sessions where she’s figured out her compositions in the studio. And this time, she came to Nashville’s famed Studio A with 18 songs—and without a game plan. Well, no game plan beyond letting the tunes and co-producers Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings figure out the coherence.
By the Way, I Forgive You— a radical concept in these fractious times—emerged without calculation. The set’s 10 songs weigh the human condition in tears and release, love and disappointment: The title subject of “Fulton County Jane Doe” is found in a field, with only a Jesus tattoo on her hand to identify her. “Sugartooth” tells the story of a tormented kid who can’t find refuge and winds up dead in his own bed. “Party of One” captures the bitter solitary drinker, lost in her pain and blind to the light around her. “The Joke” balances verses about a young girl fighting negative attitudes and a possibly gay boy who’s taunted, both consoled with the hopeful “jokes on those who hurt you” chorus, “I know how the movie ends…”
It is that deft, John Prine-like sense of small detail and the Tom Waits twinge of losers fading and falling apart that mark her lyrics. There’s also the wistful way the melodies move, evoking dignity for the downtrodden as she caresses the notes with a voice that shimmers even when it breaks.
As Prine says of the multiple-Grammy nominee who appears on his upcoming album, The Forgiveness Tree, “Brandi Carlile has a voice that is both beautiful and trustworthy. You hear her sing, and she becomes a friend. Friends are hard to come by—her words reflect hard earned lessons.”
Carlile is boundless in her compassion, and her art. The 36-year-old Washington-state native and her partners in music, Tim and Phil Hanseroth (affectionately deemed “the Twins”) arrived in Nashville with 18 songs to start work on what would become By the Way, I Forgive You, but they didn’t have any idea how they would fit together. It certainly wasn’t unthinkable for the always adventurous trio to fly by the wire. But to be fair, it still remains an act of faith. In a world of metrics, planning every detail and minimizing risk in a business of tag-team hits, working on faith can be unnerving.
“In the past, we embraced all the randomness,” she allows. “But this one, first and foremost, lyrically, it was a big departure. We were trying to dig deep and expose things, to get at something. We didn’t have a plan, but when we removed songs, the viewpoint emerged. Then it’s ‘Wow!’ That perspective really was amazing.”
Shooter Jennings, who first met Carlile at Johnny Cash’s 80th birthday tribute concert, delights in her fearlessness. “She’s like an explosion of music. She’s so unafraid,” he says. “She’ll go and not do what people expect from her. Knowing full well, but she’s that fearless.”
Carlile is standing onstage in a black top and loose denim pants at New York’s City Winery during soundcheck for the AmericanaFest’s tribute to Emmylou Harris. As she watches the Secret Sisters, then listens closely to Jennifer Nettles, her careful attention is evident. She measures the notes, the intervals, seeking a harmony that fleshes out each song and expands their universality.
But that night, when the raven-haired guitarist stands alone, offering the sad mercy of “Red Dirt Girl,” Carlile’s gift as a performer emerges. One of Harris’ crown jewels, “Girl” is a tale of two hardscrabble friends and how their lives merged, with the heroine falling into all the traps, a rough life and an early death. It’s a tough death—“no one knows quite when she hit the skids/ only 27, but she had five kids/ coulda been the whiskey, coulda been the pills/ coulda been the dreams she was trying to kill…”—the soft-cotton quality to her voice pulls listeners forward. Even if the song’s heroine wasn’t worth noticing, when listening to Carlile, no one can turn away.
Later, Carlile can be seen in the wings, with her daughter Evangeline rocking on her hip. In many ways, the songwriter embodies the narrator of “Red Dirt Girl.” Never shirking from life’s hard stuff, she finds ways to smooth out the wrinkles, seeking to make it mean more than whatever torn or tattered scraps may be left.
“I was nervous, scared this album was too depressing,” she admits. “There were too many ballads snuggling up against each other, too many places where my voice fell apart.” She pauses, long enough in the business to acknowledge what hasn’t been mentioned thus far: the marketplace. “People will hear this, and say, ‘You know, she’s on her seventh album; her and the Twins’ career is pretty much over.’ But I know what’s here.”
When she was five, Brandi Carlile got meningitis. It almost killed her. “I ended up going over to the other side. It was profound. When I woke up, people were talking to me about purpose. I started praying and developed a pretty high sense of purpose. I shredded The Bible and faith readers.”
While she’s still a self-professed “Jesus Freak,” Carlile also uses phrases like “cotton-candy Christianity,” and drives straight into the rigid, unforgiving, often judgmental realities of big box churches. She’s also read books by other faith leaders, as well as Vernon Manning, Rob Bell and Tolstoy on her search.
She lives on what she laughingly acknowledges is more or less a postmodern “chosen family kind of commune” with her wife, her daughter and the Hanseroths. “Whether we’re working on our vehicles, cutting trails in the woods or watching the kids, who are all like siblings, we wake up every day looking out the exact same window.”
It leads to an open heart, and a will to protect “innocence and honesty.” So as the songs fell away and fell together, Carlile recognized their portraits and personal deep dives were reaching even higher than they’d intended.
“I’ve had very little social oppression in my life,” she concedes. “Does that mean I’ve not had contact with people who have an opposing view? No, of course not. But they’ve been exposed to me; they’ve seen how we live, what we value. It’s not a carefully crafted speech, or a clever joke someone makes showing o at a party. Exposing people to our lives, our hearts and showing them who we are—it’s not neoliberalism. The political and social environment in the country right now has seen a year of polarization. The toxic agitators have definitely brought a level of extremity. So, as a gay wife and mother—things that weren’t possible a decade ago—any level of my family being threatened is enough to get me to step out of the ‘I’m not a political artist.’”
There’s quiet on the other end of the phone after she says this. It’s not stridence; it’s a deeper call to bring that sense of activism into more profound exercises.
“People digest visual things, hands-on experiences,” she explains. “For me, certain songs change your heart. When you hear, it’s poignant and purposeful. It’s simple: Are there shots we can take? Sure. Do we need to take them? Maybe not. Can you change minds? I don’t think so. Can you change hearts? Yes, I believe that. And if you can change someone’s heart, it will move their mind.”
She is here to heal through her songs, reminding people that the Jane Doe that she sings of was “once somebody’s baby,” suggesting that forgiveness is its own radical translation. Or, as she says, to make people feel “less alone.”
“There’s a fine line between forgiving someone and lifting their infractions,” she cautions. “Are you trying to lighten their load? Or get them to accept what they’ve done. To me, it’s: ‘I’m not here to accuse you, to list your infractions.’ That kind of forgiveness is what it’s about, and it’s the hard shit. But it may actually be our sole purpose as humans.”
Though not stated as the album’s purpose, the notion is threaded throughout By the Way, I Forgive You. Without preaching, deep veins of empathy are tapped over grand piano swirls, tangling acoustic guitars and the occasional high-octane burst of raw country. There are also impossibly elegant strings from legendary arranger Paul Buckmaster, on what would be his final sessions.
The quiet work digs in; it provokes. As Carlile suggests, rock-and-roll is as much about the precipice as the sonic ballast. There may be no more radical protest than to write tenderly of forgiveness, motherhood and its inherent cost, alienation and being mocked in today’s world. It makes T-Bone Burnett’s words ring true.
This article originally appears in the April/May 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.