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Brandi Carlile Steps Out of the Shadows and Into the Grammys Spotlight

Unless Drake or Kendrick Lamar is living in humbler means than we imagined, it’s a safe bet that Brandi Carlile is the only musician nominated for six or more Grammys this year who calls a log cabin home. You can find her on a hillside 40 minutes outside Seattle, where she resides with her wife and two young daughters at the end of a dirt road that Siri finds highly suspect. Inside, her Rhodesian ridgeback, Chase, naps inches away from the wood-burning stove that is the house’s sole heat source. There’s no sign of Grammy glory anywhere, save for a unicorn-stickered banner made by her 4-year-old, Evangeline, that reads, “Six nominations! Are you kidding me with this? Congrats!”

With her collection “By the Way, I Forgive You” up for album of the year — and its leadoff single, “The Joke,” in the running in the record and song categories — Carlile is the only artist besides Drake and Lamar to be nominated in all three top categories. Maybe more significant is that the 37-year-old singer is the most nominated female artist in what the Grammys would very much like to unofficially position as the Year of the Woman. Why? Because the world’s most prestigious music awards show faced calamitous charges of sexism surrounding the 2018 telecast. In a gradual career build since her 2005 major-label debut, no one presents a better case study in stepping up than Carlile.

Settling under a blanket on a back porch overlooking a misty valley riddled with game trails, Carlile considers issues of inclusion that the Recording Academy now seems to have gotten right. “LGBTQ culture is really well represented,” she says. Another LGBT heroine, Janelle Monáe, is competing in the album category, and a historic three trans women have nominations. “The African-American community is really well represented. The Latino community is well represented. And men are still really well represented!” she adds with a laugh. “You know, it didn’t hurt anybody. Some of those people are going to split the vote, in some instances — like probably me and Kacey (Musgraves). But it’s not really about that, and I hope Kacey feels the same. What is happening between that announcement and the actual show, with regard to visibility for women, is where the real award is. That’s what’s going to translate, well beyond who wins.”

Now Carlile is gearing up for an overloaded Grammy week. In the 72 hours prior to the music industry’s biggest night, she’ll be in Los Angeles doing back-to-back appearances — performing at the MusiCares tribute to Dolly Parton on Feb. 8 and Clive Davis’ annual pre-Grammy gala the next day.

Carlile also recently taped another Grammy-related event, a Ken Ehrlich-produced tribute to Aretha Franklin, for which she dazzled in a rhinestone-pin-striped suit. You wouldn’t guess it from the denim that fans got used to seeing her wear in the previous 14 years, or from the chickens in her yard, but she’s embracing glam. “I’m obsessed right now with Gucci,” she says. “And I like to wear it in kind of a gender-neutral way and really be shameless about it.” She’s maxed out her credit cards lately on suits, because “the fashion designers don’t send clothes to the awkward lesbian that wants to dress like Freddie Mercury and Elton John.” The androgynous look carried over to a Variety photo shoot, where she was thrilled to be asked to re-create the classic cover of Patti Smith’s album “Horses”: “I took it as one of the biggest compliments I think I’ve ever gotten in my career.”

Musically as well as sartorially, Carlile is not easily pigeonholed. Just take a look at her A-list collaborations in recent months: Sam Smith joined her for a remake of her “Party of One.” In addition to the Aretha and Dolly salutes, Carlile was a highlight of recent tributes to Joni Mitchell and the late Chris Cornell. She can sing anything, with anyone, it seems, whether she’s dueting with Kris Kristofferson on “A Case of You,” fronting the remnants of grunge forefathers Soundgarden on “Black Hole Sun” or teaming up with Fantasia, Alessia Cara and Andra Day for “Natural Woman.”

Carlile laughs when a visitor who caught the Aretha tribute points out that she stood out at the Shrine for being among a bare handful of performers there who was not one of the great African American singers of our time. “You must have been worried for me, a little bit — were you?” she asks. “When I walked out, were you like, ‘Oh come on, Brandi’? That’s their world, man. I was proud to be included, but you take a step back and amplify (the others) in that situation.” During the group finale, she remembers, “Fantasia turns to me and goes, ‘Don’t let me down. I know you got soul.’ And she started egging me on, and I started getting more and more intense, thinking, ‘No, I don’t have soul, but I’m going to f—ing try so hard for you right now, Fantasia, because you think I do.’” She didn’t discredit herself. Backstage, Day approached Carlile after their climactic hookup and said, “Girl, when you get into your belt — whoo!”

But Carlile doesn’t always go for the money note. Her classic singer-songwriter sensibility comes first, so she seesaws back and forth between a conversational, character voice and a purer upper range, looking for the cry and the crack in between. The approach served her well on 2006’s T Bone Burnett-produced breakthrough “The Story,” which captivated millions in part because of a key placement on “Grey’s Anatomy.” The rock power ballad seemed like a hard-to-top early career best until she came up with the even more anthemic “The Joke,” an ode to the marginalized that stands up for bullied, possibly androgynous kids in the first verse and refugee mothers in the second. (The encouragement to displaced peoples is a nod to her foremost cause, the War Child charity, for which she’s enlisted help from a famous fan and friend, Barack Obama.)

Linda Perry, a fellow nominee this year (and one of the few woman ever to show up in the producer category), is thrilled that Carlile has emerged as a primary face of the Grammy telecast. “Outside the business, there’s probably a lot of people going, ‘Who’s Brandi Carlile?’” Perry says. “And I love that they’re getting to meet her.” Plus, Perry notes, “There’s a generation of kids that are LGBTQI and are starving for role models that have something to give. … I look at her six nominations as hope — not that anything else [happening in music] is bad, but to me it’s like she’s Luke Skywalker, coming in and bringing balance to the Force.”

Elisabeth Moss stars in and produced a video for “Party of One,” released in December, that vividly expands on the song’s same-sex relationship drama. “Sometimes you meet artists who you feel are cut from the same cloth, even if your art forms are different,” Moss says. “Brandi’s voice is so emotional and expressive that you would expect some sort of dark, tortured artist, but she’s super chill, down-to-earth, kind, funny and light. I can’t believe the depth of voice that comes out of this totally normal, nice person. But I’ve had people say that about me as well.” Moss is thrilled to see Carlile embody “a complicated woman with flaws and fears but also the strength, love and intelligence that all can exist in the same person. She represents a real woman.”

Brandi Carlile Variety Cover Story
CREDIT: Melodie McDaniel for Variety

We know who Elton John is voting for in the album of the year category. In an email, the legendary entertainer calls “By the Way, I Forgive You” “far and away the best album of 2018 [and] a masterpiece from an exceptional talent.” Carlile first met him when he agreed to sing on her 2009 album “Give Up the Ghost,” but she still had to seek out his approval after that. “There’s always an Elton John dedication at the end of all my records, and I’ve always sent them to him,” she says. “He was always supportive, but he never loved ‘em, and you could tell, you know? He has integrity. But I sent this album to him first, and he called me immediately and was like, ‘Oh, Brandi, this is the one.’ He actually said, ‘This is your “Madman [Across the Water].”‘ And he pretty much never complimented any other record I made — not even the one he was on. He’s a tough critic.”

Carlile had an Elton conversion experience. It came while she was barely into her teens, going from trailer park to trailer park with her vagabond family, attending school just a mile from where she now lives in Maple Valley. Before the Elton epiphany, though, she was a preteen country devotee, precociously joining her Nashville-worshipping mom for a steady stream of bar gigs starting at age 8. When small-town peers showed their pride in nearby Seattle by getting into grunge, Carlile resisted.

“My friends at school would write ‘Kurt’ on their ripped-up jeans, and everybody was into Mudhoney and Temple of the Dog. Pearl Jam’s ‘Ten’ was everything.” Later in life, Mike McCready would become one of her best friends, but at that young age she wasn’t having it. “I was like, ‘I’m different than you f—ers! Look at my Judds jean jacket!’ Tanya Tucker was my hero. And then I fell in love with Elton.”

Carlile was musically smitten, now writing “BC [hearts] EJ” on her notebooks and sneakers. Her new hero’s sexual orientation was not immaterial for a 14-year-old who was about to unbashfully come out (something her family was “not great” but also “not terrible” about at the time — unlike the Baptist minister who made an example of her by refusing to baptize her). “I did my fifth-grade book report on Philip Norman’s 600-page Elton biography, and I learned about Freddie Mercury, George Michael and Boy George, too, and fell in love with rock ’n’ roll via gay men.”

From there, it was a slippery slope from gay rockers to straight ones, as she belatedly embraced grunge after all. It was the producer of “Ten” who introduced her to identical twins Tim and Phil Hanseroth, her future partners in most life matters as well as music. (Phil is married to Brandi’s sister, and they all live in nearly adjacent houses and ride quads in the woods.) Besides playing guitar and bass, they co-write most of her songs. “There is no Brandi Carlile without the twins,” she says of the men she affectionately calls “those bald bitches.” “One of my biggest regrets is going with my name as the name of the band.”

Tim says they shared the same wicked sense of humor from the start: “The music is almost like a side effect of the friendship.” Right around the time they were being discovered by Rick Rubin, which led to a decade-long Sony deal, Carlile and the twins made a deal to split all their money three ways, no matter who wrote the songs. Phil points out that “with an even split from the start, you never have to wonder if somebody wants to rewrite the last verse just so they can get a few bucks.” For Carlile, any success that goes unshared would be “like watching a comedy by yourself… I don’t want a swimming pool if they can’t have one.”

When Carlile sang several numbers at the Cornell memorial concert last month, there may have been a bit of Seattle torch-passing going on. She’s now the Pacific Northwest’s foremost musical pride and joy. Stop in at Easy Street Records, West Seattle’s one-time spiritual home base for grunge, and Carlile’s “By the Way, I Forgive You” is still No. 1 in both the LP and CD sections, a year after its release. Go downtown to the venerable Paramount Theatre and kitty-corner across the street is a bustling, modernist restaurant called the Carlile. The top restaurateur who named the place after her a couple of years ago avoided any gauche signs of enshrining a pop star — although if you happen admire the acoustic guitar hanging above the check-in desk, a server will point out it’s the one Carlile used to busk with over at Pike Place Market.

Other communities want to claim her, too. Carlile has the respect of LGBT fans and allies for being one of the first major women in music to be out from the outset while building a large and very  mainstream audience. She doesn’t claim any heroism there, saying, “I’m not pretending that I struggled [to be accepted]. That’s a debt we owe the Indigo Girls, k.d. lang and Joan Armatrading. They were made fun of for being frumpy or not dressing right or not walking right. Me and Courtney Barnett are a product of the fact they took that those hits for us, and now, nobody thinks it’s acceptable to say those things about us.”

She’s not shy, though, about speaking up about her distress that women in music — gay or straight — remain a distinct minority. “I was a finalist in a Lilith Fair contest as a 16-year-old,” she recalls, harking back to the all-women, Sarah McLachlan-led gatherings of the late 20th century that offered redress for widespread festival exclusion. “Lilith Fair was so formative for me, so it’s sad to see something actually get worse from the ‘90s to 2019. And I can’t bear it.”

Carlile is putting her money where her mouth is. For one thing, she’s starting an all-women supergroup called the Highwomen (a play on the Highwaymen); Amanda Shires is the other publicly known member, and Carlile wants to keep the rest of the roster under wraps for now. For another, the week before the Grammys had her putting on Girls Just Wanna, a festival in Mexico that had solely women on the lineup, ranging from fellow multi-nominee Maren Morris (whose upcoming sophomore album includes a Carlile duet) to Mavis Staples. The festival sold out almost instantly, and she’d like to keep it going as a modern-day Lilith Fair, but do something McLachlan never got to, which is keep it going long enough to cede her own headliner status.

“It’s like when Pearl Jam opened for Cheap Trick: I see men do that for each other a lot,” Carlile says. “And it’s because of their privilege. They don’t have to worry that if the spotlight’s off them for one second that it’ll ever come back again, like we do. And so we can blame men, and we can blame the industry and we can blame commerce, but it has to start with us. Once one of us gets up a few steps, we have to reach down and pull up that other one behind us, and that one’s got to reach down and pull another one up. That’s why when I go to the Newport Folk Festival for three days, I just get up in the morning and sing backups for women artists all day long. I don’t care how small they are or what stage they’re on; I’ll stand there in the back and support them. Women are doing that kind of thing more now, and the ones that aren’t are standing out as not.”

Brandi Carlile Variety Cover Story
CREDIT: Melodie McDaniel for Variety

Carlile found herself at a crossroads a couple of years ago. By 2016, she was headlining the Hollywood Bowl. “It was starting to happen that I was making all my money in the summertime, because that’s when you play outside to the most people,” she says. “But I was starting to write like a beer-garden band, and that’s a cancer. So I made a New Year’s resolution. I raised a glass at the dinner table with the twins and said, ‘We’re going to take a sharp turn away from anthemic rock music that we play for people outside. We’re going indoors. We’re going to get deep. We’re going to think about our demons…’ And they looked around and were like, ‘Uh, can you explain that?’ And I’m like, ‘Cheers!’ They thought we were going to go broke.”

Instead, they managed to go for broke emotionally with “By the Way, I Forgive You,” the more subdued but also more vivid album they made with co-producers Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings. It sounds like a classic from start to finish, which may or may not have anything to do with how, at 10 tracks, it’s the shortest of Carlile’s six albums. “I obsess over perfect records,” says Jennings, “which are usually 40 minutes, even 33 minutes, whether it’s Bob Dylan or ‘Ziggy Stardust’  — what’s meant to go on a vinyl, even if these aren’t vinyl times anymore.” His mandate for concision also had to do with helping Carlile keep hers for candor.

Admits Carlile: “Before I get too self-congratulatory, I should say we went ahead and wrote beer garden songs anyway, and we recorded ‘em, but they didn’t make it because Shooter Jennings cut them. And we were pissed at first, because that’s the kickstand we rest on. When he took those out, we were like, ‘Well, what the f— are we going to do without that up-tempo? What are people going to sing along to?’ We actually didn’t stand by it; Shooter made us stand by it.”

It’s an album in which the personal and the political subtly and sublimely intertwine, with personal responsibility and radical empathy as the throughlines. “Hold Out Your Hand” is the one “anthem” that snuck through, but it’s steeped in Trayvon Martin and climate change. The most cheerful sounding song, “Sugar Tooth,” asks for compassion in the face of a lifelong friend’s fatal drug overdose. “Party of One,” the seven-minute closer that eventually brought Sam Smith and Elisabeth Moss in as collaborators, might seems to be an all-purpose near-breakup song, but for Carlile it’s really about how gay domesticity has to be continually fought for, at the individual level, even after it’s been won at the societal.

“We started to confront some things we’d been carrying around,” says Carlile — “some hurts, some resentments, maybe some biases and some racism, maybe some internalized sexism and homophobia. We started airing it, lyrically and in conversations as a family. And I think that the album’s success has more to do with the world’s willingness to receive it right now than it does with what we’re actually saying, because there is a sense of wokeness, I think, that’s fallen over this country like a blanket. And so a record that was written with the intention of redemption and reconciliation and forgiveness is going to be naturally embraced in a way I’m not sure it would have before the election.”

Grammy voters may be responding to that veiled topicality or they may just cotton to the way Carlile lets her Joni-loving side blossom in the heartache songs — “deep diving into ‘Court and Spark’ and ‘Blue,’ but also Annie Lennox, Carole King’s ‘Tapestry’ and Bonnie Raitt’s early recordings,” she says. “It was all women’s music prior to making this record. I needed to go there.”

Now Carlile is coming full circle, co-producing a comeback album for another influential woman in her life, childhood hero Tanya Tucker, for which she and the twins wrote nearly all the songs, tracking them in L.A. even as she was shuttling between Franklin and Cornell fetes in the run-up to the Grammys.

“I’m not overwhelmed,” she says, anticipating the question even before it comes up after admitting that she gets even more obsessive about producing other artists’ records than her own. She doesn’t worry if working with an older Nashville icon might further confuse those who aren’t sure if Carlile is a rock, folk, Americana or country artist. “They ask women to identify themselves,” she says. “They let Jack White and Neil Young get away with being all kinds of things — being rock ’n’ roll and then being country and then being a political activist. I’ve got my sights set on that… All those categories, they’re just borders and walls. I don’t agree with either one of those things.”

With that, she throws off her blanket and steps into the chill.

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