By doing things differently, the rock-folk phenom is doing what she always wanted. And becoming a superstar.
BY JOSEPH T. O’CONNOR
Brandi Carlile sounds rested. It’s her third day off in a row, something that hasn’t happened in the months following her monumental performance of the hit single “The Joke,” which she played on stage after accepting three Grammy awards in February.
Since then, her life has been a cascade of concerts, interviews, TV gigs and fanfare. She appeared in Bradley Cooper’s film A Star is Born and released a new video of the song “The Mother” just ahead of Mother’s Day weekend in May. It’s to be expected. After all, these are the days of a rising star.
And while they have been “insanely busy,” she says, on this warm spring morning Carlile is relaxing at her home in rural Maple Valley, Washington, about 45 minutes southeast of Seattle. She’s settling into a quieter life for now.
“I’m just getting into the routine of waking up and feeling normal,” says the 38-year-old mother of two daughters.
As we chat, 4-year-old Evangeline is playing with a water pitcher while Elijah, 14 months, casually munches edible flowers that
Brandi and her wife, Catherine, planted on the deck to garnish Shirley Temples and salads. Carlile talks about her dad, who she’s bringing to Montana’s Peak to Sky concert in early July for his 60th birthday. She discusses a happy life and how she finds balance.
“My individuality has become more important to me,” she says, “and assimilation has become less important to me since my kids were born.”
Most mornings at home, the kids wake Carlile and she heads to the porch, coffee in hand, to gaze at Tiger Mountain. But even in the tranquil beauty of the Cascade foothills, she stays busy. On today’s agenda? Get outside and play with her latest toy: a 4-ton John Deere excavator.
“I could stay on that thing all day long and not even know what hit me,” she says. “Today I’m gonna build a fire pit.”
Later in the afternoon, she’ll mulch the fruit trees outside the cabin she bought 17 years ago, then water the plants and fry up sea bass for dinner. This is how Brandi Carlile relaxes.
“…Something about her shifted from promise to absolute certainty as Carlile let loose a hurricane of lung power.”
By the age of 7 Carlile was already performing. Her mother, Teresa Carlile, was a country music singer and would invite Brandi and her two siblings, brother Jay and sister Tiffany, to sing with her on stage. Her father was a bit of an outlier himself, she says. “I’m sure I was already absorbing and gleaning some of those thoughts and habits at a really young age.”
Carlile taught herself guitar and piano and later dropped out of high school to pursue her musical career, singing backup for an Elvis impersonator and busking in downtown Seattle pizza shops and beer joints.
When she met Phil and Tim Hanseroth, twin-brother musicians from Seattle, Carlile was coming into her own. They began gigging together and in 2005, at the age of 24, Carlile released her self-titled debut album with the twins. But it was the title track from her 2007 album The Story that caught fire. The song was featured in commercials for General Motors and at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, and subsequently played on the TV show, Grey’s Anatomy. The record saw Carlile emerging with an explosive voice and a penchant for writing raw, blistering lyrics about realities she believes in: the underdog, redemption, empathy, forgiveness, authenticity.
“…Something about her shifted from promise to absolute certainty as Carlile let loose a hurricane of lung power,” one reviewer wrote in Paste magazine.
Since The Story, Carlile has been on an ever-rising trajectory, collaborating on projects with Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl and comedian Will Farrell, among scores of others. She’s close with Sir Elton John and former President Barack Obama named “The Joke” among his favorite songs of 2017.
Carlile’s packed summer schedule includes the Bonnaroo and Telluride music festivals, and dozens of concerts across the nation. And she’s playing a July 6 show in Big Sky, Montana, called Peak to Sky, with a few close friends: Pearl Jam’s McCready, Chad Smith and Josh Klinghoffer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters and Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses. In September, she’s headlining Madison Square Garden.
The once-self-proclaimed shy girl from Ravensdale, Washington, has let loose her tenacious spirit. As country music legend Brenda Lee said in a video to Carlile: “Forget about the prom, girl. You are the prom.”
“People can do more for their fellow human beings with their hands and with their minds than they can with their money.”
A love for performing has held Carlile in the spotlight her entire life, but as the crowds have grown, so has the pressure. “Entertaining a room, getting a laugh, affecting someone emotionally, inciting empathy,” she says, “all that stuff that comes with entertainment that’s so fun, so emotionally exhausting, has to be balanced by my love of nature. I’m pretty much always fishing.”
In August 2016, Carlile played a sold-out show at Missoula, Montana’s Big Sky Brewing Co. but barely made it through the piercing pain in her back. After a chiropractor tended to her at the show, she had to cancel the tail end of the tour.
To distract herself, Carlile fished her way through the Mountain West, from Montana to Wyoming, Idaho, Utah and Colorado. “It cleared my mind of all the anxiety and the stress of not being able to do my job properly. I made this decision … to every day get up, hire a fishing guide and go fly fish a river: the Blackfoot, the Bitterroot, the Gallatin, the Smith. It was epic.”
Carlile also finds passion and balance through the nonprofit she started with the Hanseroth twins in 2007. Called the Looking Out Foundation, and directed by her wife Catherine, the organization aims to empower the voiceless and backs causes that include gender equality, human and civil rights, education, the arts and children from war-torn nations. Donations help, Carlile says, but boots on the ground are better.
“People can do more for their fellow human beings with their hands and with their minds than they can with their money,” she says.“We don’t believe the great American dollar is the savior of the world.”
Relating to the marginalized in society is something Carlile believes deep in her core. “The Joke” is about the kids (and others) who feel left behind in today’s world and Carlile belts it out with a conviction rarely seen these days. She sees winning at the Grammy Awards as a victory for entire groups of people.
At the 61st Grammys in February, Brandi Carlile put on an inspired performance deemed among the best in the history of the awards. Having just won three Grammys for “The Joke” and her sixth studio album, By the Way, I Forgive You, Carlile took the stage in a black-sequined jacket with her guitar, the twins and the band. It was a moment, the kind you see when someone lays it on the line. Call it the zone, call it Zen, call it flow.
“I felt like I had snuck into the party through the backdoor and that I was being given a chance to just wear my heart on my sleeve,” Carlile told me in May. “I felt like that performance was just, emotionally, as an uncool kid, a complete victory lap and I just let it rip, you know? I just let it rip.”
Joseph T. O’Connor is the editor-in-chief of Mountain Outlaw magazine.