Brandi Carlile Has Always Seen Herself Clearly. Now It’s Our Turn.
In her new memoir, “Broken Horses,” the singer-songwriter takes a deep look at how “a mean, scrappy little trailer girl with the wrong clothes” became a six-time Grammy winner.,
Brandi Carlile Has Always Seen Herself Clearly. Now It’s Our Turn.
In her new memoir, “Broken Horses,” the singer-songwriter takes a deep look at how “a mean, scrappy little trailer girl with the wrong clothes” became a six-time Grammy winner.
The Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Brandi Carlile tells her own story in “Broken Horses,” which will be published on April 6.Credit…Ricardo Nagaoka for The New York Times
Brandi Carlile was running late on account of a kitten emergency. She had arranged to pick up “this kitten thing” for her youngest daughter, Elijah’s, birthday, but then she was told she had to get it in the next 30 minutes, and the cat was an hour away. So now Carlile was sliding in front of her laptop screen for our interview with wet hair and a pink nose while also smoothly instructing an unseen collaborator in the details of deadline kitten extraction.
Carlile raised her phone to show me a photo of a tiny gray tabby with tired eyes and a mouth like a child’s shaky line drawing. “It’s like a grocery store box cat, you know the kind you get,” she said. I didn’t really know anything about that, but Carlile said it with such scrappy authority that I felt pulled into her world, where there are two types of kittens: the kind that looks as if it was scooped out of a cardboard box and the kind that doesn’t. Carlile has an inside-joke squint and a gap between her front teeth and gently startled eyebrows that lend her the air of a woodland creature, which is kind of what she is: Even as she has become a rock star with fans like Joni Mitchell and Barack Obama, she has lived in the same log cabin dropped into the foothills of the Cascade Mountains for 20 years.
For our interview, Carlile beamed in from a hayloft that she and her bandmates retrofitted into a music studio when she was in her early 20s. It features a cracking red paint job, makeshift charcoal curtains and a framed album of Elton John’s Greatest Hits. The whole thing has a teen goth hideaway vibe, and Carlile wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m superstitious, so I don’t want to change anything about it,” she said. “A lot of good things have happened in here.”
Carlile’s life story is a little bit like that. She has always been this effervescently strange person. What has changed is how she is perceived. Growing up in rural Washington state — not far from where she lives now — she was poor, she was a Jesus freak, she was a high school dropout and she was beginning to think that she was gay, and all of that added up to a tendency to be misread by the outside world. But Carlile saw herself clearly. “I had this observational way of walking through the early part of my life,” she said. She’s almost 40 now, married, with two daughters and six Grammys, but she feels unchanged: “This person right here was in that little kid’s body the whole time.”
Carlile’s preternatural sense of self has helped make her into a revelatory singer-songwriter talent. Her music resists easy classification — the best you can do is toss a bunch of genres together, like alt-folk country-western pop-rock — but the grounding force is her silvery voice, which sounds like an element of nature. (If you’ve never been struck down by it before, start with “The Story,” “The Mother” and “The Joke” and then pick yourself up off the floor.) Carlile is a master of the voice-cracking power ballad, and her intimate self-studies nevertheless speak to anyone who has ever felt like a misfit, which is just about everyone. Now she is taking an even deeper look at her life: “Broken Horses,” her memoir, will be published on April 6.
The book is a vulnerable document, not just because it exposes the most tender parts of her upbringing — the title refers to wounded, discarded horses sold off so cheap even the Carliles could afford them — but because the very act of writing surfaced her insecurities around her own literary education. As she charts in the book, Carlile was held back in middle school, placed in special education classes and finally washed out in the 10th grade. She told me that she sees the memoir as her honorary diploma. She hopes that it will banish the recurring stress dream she has where she materializes, nightmarishly, back in her old high school. In the dream, “I’m there, I’m 35, and everyone else is 17,” she said. “And I’m, like, really gay and freaked out.”
BEFORE CARLILE FOUND her cabin in the woods, she lived in 14 places in as many years. Her childhood homes included a succession of single-wide trailers and a house shared by rats that had jumped from the dump across the street. Her family was so poor that they got by, at times, on food bank cans and elk her father shot. As a child, the harshness of her situation felt glossed with adventure; she really did hustle kittens out of boxes at the grocery store. And the transient nature of her young life granted her an almost omniscient perspective. While other kids’ memories disintegrated into the soft backdrop of their stable home environments, the kaleidoscopic intensity of her own childhood helped etch every detail into her brain. Pair that with an honest-to-God brush with death, when she had an out-of-body experience while hospitalized for meningitis at age 4, and baby Brandi Carlile was always weirdly self-aware.
Which is not the same thing as being at ease. “I struggled to get along with other kids and spent a lot of time worrying about being poor,” she writes in the book. “I tried to make my singing the thing about me that would get me some attention.”
Taking a cue from her mother, who sang in country bands, Carlile burrowed out an escape hatch through music: She picked up a Southern twang from studying artists like Tanya Tucker, sang backup for her friend’s Elvis impersonator father and performed in musical competitions around Washington. She was drawn to women like Tucker and Dolly Parton and their “teased mullets and camel toes,” as she put it in the book, but her own undercooked style presented as a kind of floundering androgyny. She never liked the name Brandi Carlile. While her pageant-girl peers were ironing ringlets into their hair and painting on blush, Carlile was trying to channel Elton John, drowning in a man’s white polyester suit bedazzled by her mom. She lost every single competition she ever entered.
As a teenager, Carlile didn’t come out so much as slowly and awkwardly emerge. She had never met another gay person, but she recorded the famous 1997 “I’m gay” episode of “Ellen” on a VHS tape labeled with the name of her high school boyfriend (“David’s baseball game”) so she could watch it again and again. Eventually, she was fired by fake Elvis when her “sexuality made the bass player uncomfortable.” Even her church rejected her: After a week of summer Jesus camp, her family and friends gathered to watch her be baptized, only for Pastor Steve to pause just before the dunk to grill Carlile on whether she “practiced homosexuality.”
The dramatic public rebuke pushed Carlile to find God in music instead; she listened to Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” for days on loop. She may have been “a mean, scrappy little trailer girl with the wrong clothes,” she writes, but she had a “growing sense of self that was starting to stretch beyond my situation — I was way too poor and way too awkward to want to make as much of a spectacle of myself as I was.”
What Carlile describes as awkwardness was also an inability of other people to see her for who she is. But she has always been this guileless person; she just had to find the right audience. She processed rejection by finding her own “misfit congregants” and working to bring them into the fold, she said. When she was still a teenager singing in restaurants around Seattle, she would grab a beer during breaks, work the tables and scribble down numbers. At the end of the month, she’d sit at her landline telephone and call 400 people to invite them to her big gig, and they’d actually show up.
“They weren’t music fans. They were chowder house people who got a babysitter,” she said. “That’s what my career is now: It’s me trying to sit down at people’s tables with a beer and make them believe in me.”
In Seattle, she courted a pair of identical twins, Phil and Tim Hanseroth, to form a band, and they’ve now been fused together since 1999. Carlile’s wife, Catherine, described them to me as a “little creepy triangle,” with “creepy” being a Carlile high compliment. They split everything three ways — decisions, money, even the name. If they ever break up, the twins have the right to keep performing as Brandi Carlile if they choose.
Within a few years, the band had attracted the notice of the producer Rick Rubin, and they have since released six studio albums, each buzzing just beneath widespread recognition until “By the Way, I Forgive You” broke through in 2018. The band had always punched above its weight; a 2017 cover album benefiting children living in war zones featured stars like Parton and Adele singing Carlile’s songs, plus a foreword written by Obama. But it wasn’t until they performed their queer anthem, “The Joke,” onstage at the Grammys in 2019 — “I have been to the movies, and I’ve seen how it ends/And the joke’s on them” — that they suddenly roared into America’s ear. In the audience, Janelle Monae could be seen levitating out of her seat while Post Malone nodded reverently along. Carlile’s inbox was suddenly sparkling with celebrity emails. The band leveled up to playing arenas. Ellen DeGeneres invited her over for dinner.
People who have had close encounters Carlile describe walking away feeling totally disarmed. “She’s just a girlfriend,” said the singer Judy Collins, who counts Carlile among her favorite songwriters; they performed “Both Sides Now” together at the Newport Folk Festival in 2017. “She’s so easy and comfortable to be with — genuinely no nonsense, no attitude, no pre-emptive strikes.” To Glennon Doyle, the self-help author and activist, Carlile appears to go about her life with heart pumping outside her chest. “This is so cheesy, but her posture to the world is very Jesusy,” she said. The photographer Pete Souza, a longtime fan turned friend, says that she is totally unchanged by the presence of a camera: What you see is what you get. “Brandi is a rock star for like an hour and a half, three or four times a week,” he said. The rest of the time, “she’s just a regular person.”
Often when a celebrity is described as “regular” (or its variants: “genuine,” “authentic,” “real”) it is an effort to pull them down to our level, to assure the public that the stars really are just like us. But Carlile possesses a regularness that makes her actually special. The resilience of her sense of self, through poverty and fame, is transcendent. One of her great strengths as an artist is a willingness to stare herself straight in the face and not flinch.
When she was invited to her first big photo shoot, for Interview magazine, at age 21, she turned up in jeans and a Boy Scout shirt only to be confronted with a rack of evening gowns. “I just died inside,” Carlile said. “It didn’t even occur to me to put one of them on.” As she tried to politely duck out, the photographer suggested she throw a gown over her shoulders in defiance instead, and the shot became the cover of her first, self-titled album. When she made “By the Way, I Forgive You,” she commissioned a painting of herself because she wanted to confront what she really looked like, to totally surrender her image. She didn’t view Scott Avett’s raw, shadowy portrait until it was locked in for the album cover.
Soon the book will be out in the world, another permanent record of her life so far. Carlile is accustomed to self-exposure — “I’m a person that has to sing my 16-year-old poetry onstage every night at 40 years old” — but the book is not guarded by the artistic wash of a song. She wrote it in a flow state, scribbling it out in longhand and in notes thumbed into her phone, then handing over drafts of “chicken scratch” to her wife to help massage the grammar. She started with Pastor Steve, resurrecting every tactile detail of her botched baptism down to the borrowed boys’ swim trunks she wore under her poor-kid jeans.
AS CARLILE ROUNDS 40, her life circumstances have finally aligned with that scrappy little trailer girl’s sense of self. She found the right clothes: Today she performs in sumptuous embroidered jackets and sparkling tailored suits. She found the right spot, the log cabin in the woods that’s become the permanent home she never had. And she found the right person.
In 2009, when the violent home invasion and rape of a lesbian couple shocked Seattle, Carlile became involved in some community organizing around the case. Paul McCartney’s charity coordinator, Catherine Shepherd, got in touch to donate some memorabilia for an auction, and the two struck up an overseas rapport over the phone, with Catherine mentoring Carlile in the details of charity work. Carlile assumed that Catherine was, like, 65 years old. “I wish you could hear her voice,” Carlile said, adopting a patrician English accent, “because she’s very contemplative.” A year later, when Shepherd planned to attend a show in New York, Carlile was annoyed that she would have to ditch her friends to handhold the “charity lady,” but when Shepherd turned up, she was this 28-year-old knockout. By the way, Carlile’s accent “could use some work,” Catherine told me.
Now the Carlile women are overseeing their own rustic ecosystem. They’re always pulling in more land and friends and animals to live on what Carlile winkingly calls her “compound,” a 90-acre forest idyll inscribed with a network of ATV trails Carlile cleared herself. They live there with their daughters Evangeline and Elijah (their biological father is David of “David’s baseball game”), Carlile’s ex-girlfriend Kim and her partner (an arrangement Carlile calls “so lesbian”) and the twins.
Over the years, her band has become, literally, family: Phil is married to Carlile’s little sister Tiffany, who does Carlile’s makeup and hair; Tim is married to the band photographer Hanna Hanseroth; and their cellist Josh Neumann is married to Catherine’s sister Sarah. Soon Carlile’s sound engineer, Jerry Streeter, will move in, too: He just married Catherine’s other sister, Hannah. (“Obviously, it did get creepy,” Catherine said). When the pandemic hit, they all “podded up early” and burrowed into their apocalyptic commune life. They spent evenings gathered around a firepit in a clearing of cedars, drinking and swapping conspiracy theories. The band worked on a new album, which is due out later this year, and Carlile finished her book.
Over the years Carlile has cultivated a network of allies that feels cribbed from her childhood diary. Dolly Parton has taken her face in her hands and prayed over her. At a jam session at Joni Mitchell’s house, Chaka Khan took Carlile’s wine out of her hand, said “you ain’t drinking that thing,” and poured it into her own glass. Every once in a while she will pick up a phone call from an unlisted number, and Elton John’s voice will crackle onto the line, delivering a howling monologue of profane life advice. (His suggestion for the title of her memoir falls short of Times standards, but you can find it in her book.)
When I spoke to Carlile for a second time, she had just scored another Grammy (she won best country song with her supergroup side band, the Highwomen) and Elijah had gotten her kitten. The first cat never materialized, so Kim had raced to a shelter to adopt a different one, a velvety gray girl they named Zelda Rainbow Lavender. Carlile is always having to remind herself that this is her life now — she has stability and money and she’s friends with Elton John. “I’m always afraid of getting to the end of the grocery store line and having to put things back,” she said. Now, as she waited for her memoir to hit the world, she was already contemplating her next act of disclosure.
“I’m always going to need to find a way to explain to people that I don’t think I belong here, but I am here,” she said. “I think I’m always going to be coming out of the closet, you know what I mean?”