Brandi Carlile Recounts a Life Spurred by Adventure, Advocacy and Virtuosity in ‘Broken Horses’: Book Review

Carlile's memoir is the best-written, most engaging rock autobiography since her childhood hero, Elton John, published "Me."

book memoir broken horses review
Austin Hargrave / AUGUST

Brandi Carlile has worshipped Elton John all of her adult and adolescent life, so it’s fitting that as she started writing her memoir, “Broken Horses,” she’d just finished reading his 2019 autobiography, “Me.” With Sir Elton and Bernie Taupin likely having the biggest historic impact on her songwriting, it might not be a leap to imagine that the cheeky humor and conversational style of “Me” had at least a slight influence on the wry laugh lines that pop up with just a little less regularity in her tome, too. Not that her humor is going to be quite as determinedly wicked as his: Carlile mentions in the acknowledgments that the one piece of advice from John she ever turned down was that she should title her book “Rug Muncher.”

But “Me” isn’t a title that would have exactly worked for her memoir, either. Although she owns up to her narcissistic tendencies, as could probably anyone driven to put in the work to reach the level of fame she has, she’s always been natively a practitioner and proponent of what she calls “debilitating empathy.” Maybe she was born an empath, or maybe she became one after coming out of a near-death experience when she was a child, almost fatally stricken with meningitis; focusing on the different experiences or reactions of her adult family members instead of herself as she lay on her hospital bed, she had what she calls an acute “awakening to life’s subtle power structures.” Whatever brought it on, Carlile is that rare pop or rock star gifted with complete self-consciousness and confidence but also the soulful clairvoyance to read a room… even a really, really big, global room. It’s surely no accident in the serendipitous scheme of things that her biggest song to date — the one that woke up the world when she sang it on the Grammys in 2019 — was “The Joke,” a tune that weaves together verses about suffering or insecure people ranging from frightened immigrants to facing torment over sexual identity issues. It was a heart-tugging moment that cemented her status as an “us” gal, even more than It Girl.

You see that empathy come into play for a fleeting but telling moment in what may be her book’s most dramatic story: the would-be baptism. As a Jesus-loving Baptist teenager in rural Washington who happened to be out of the closet before she hit 16, Carlile got quite a surprise when she showed up at church for her dunking only to have the youth pastor inform her, with the ceremony about to get underway, that the show could not go on if she didn’t renounce homosexuality on the spot. It’s not that teen Brandi didn’t feel rightly pissed as she headed home in her would-be baptismal swimsuit. But one of her other instincts was to feel at least a modicum of pity for Pastor Steve, who she figured knew better and might’ve even wanted to do better, but was committed to playing out his evangelical societal role. By the way, she forgives him.

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Brandi Carlile’s “Broken Horses: A Memoir” Crown Books

At a time when the term “role model” is invoked in popular music only as a naive, even ridiculous ideal, Carlile is, well, kind of that, whether she’s devoting herself to charitable efforts for refugees and other human rights work through the War Child charity; taking up the cause of supporting women both as newcomers (the Secret Sisters) and not-so-newbies (Tanya Tucker); or providing a public template for what gay marriage and parenting can look like to a populace that’s still adjusting to these things, with hesitancies along the way about whether she could live up to that responsibility. But playing up the high-minded (or Highwoman-minded) aspects of her life and career risks undercutting what a fun and sometimes irreverent read “Broken Horses” is. As a prose writer, Carlile has an ongoing playfulness that emanates naturally from a life that always has seemed full of play, whatever emotional traumas she might have been going through. Describing growing up as a more-or-less redneck kid in the sticks of Washington state, she invokes “The Goonies” as a touchstone for how she felt exploring the woods with her young siblings and pals, and that spirit of delight in exploration seems never to have gone away, whether she’s forming alt-country supergroups as a sideline or fronting the remnants of Soundgarden for a howling rock ‘n’ roll night. Reading the book is a little like watching a rambunctious Mark Twain juvie grow up into a sensitive but still spirited singer-songwriter, and one of our best, finding adult mischief in deeply mature musicality.

There’s a chapter you might expect to arrive that never does: the one where the heroine realizes she’s gay and then struggles mightily with how to come out to family and friends. Realization and acceptance of her sexual identity came so naturally and early for Carlile that she didn’t really have any heart-stoppingly dramatic moment of courage and catharsis, although she does say that watching and rewinding the “Ellen” coming-out episode in 1997 provided a moment of clarity along the path. Painful coming-out tales have their place for young LGBTQ readers, but so probably will this example of someone who actually felt comfortable in her own skin in those potentially traumatic adolescent moments… at least relatively comfortable for someone who could say she was, “simply put, the only gay person I had ever met,” and be surprisingly OK with that in the moment.

Carlile’s weaknesses come more in the form of micro-insecurities about herself as an artist, but from her Pike Place busking days forward, she’s not one to take indifference for an answer… and with that voice (and eventually writing ability), she didn’t often have to. But she’s not afraid to share when she felt a lack of confidence from her famous mentors, like Rick Rubin, who more or less discovered her but then found her a not overly pliable production client, or T Bone Burnett, who told her that she had an affectation in her voice, which didn’t sit well. She’s subsequently made up with both those producers, and you know that from the fact that she names them. Carlile leaves nameless another producer who helmed an early, shelved version of her “Give Up the Ghost” album, who flat-out told her she was incapable of delivering a live vocal; some studio sins are less easily forgiven than others.

Carlile’s life seems about equal parts hardscrabble and charmed, so when the Cinderella moments come —becoming a BFF at Joni Mitchell’s in the last couple years being one of them — she’s still continents away from anything the reader will experience as entitlement. Hope you like rats and feral cats (and, yes, the renegade horses of the title), because some of the best stories have to do with an impoverished upbringing in a series of ramshackle houses and single-wides that seem like something out of Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” The spell of the trailer home as weirdly paradisical, even with an alcoholic father, is cast well enough that it’s a bit of a shock to be reminded that this is not taking place in the holler but not too many miles removed from modern-ish suburban Washington, which comes back to the fore when Carlile recalls why she really did not fit in with her peers — not so much because she was gay, but because she dug the Judds more than Nirvana. (If you have heard her sit in with Soundgarden, you know that’s an imbalance she eventually got over.)

Religion and spirituality are recurring themes, before and after Pastor Steve makes his ill-fated cameo; anyone who grew up (or even remains) evangelical will surely get a good laugh out of a chapter header as bluntly prosaic as “Baptists Are Mean.” The divine talk starts early and often when Carlile survives that meningitis, although she also notes its practical impact: “Everyone agreed that God kept me alive because He had a plan for me. The grossly inflated sense of self-importance was official.” This surely is one of the very few memoirs in which the protagonist becomes forever convinced of the existence of the almighty by childhood experiences involving a supernatural tape recorder. (“I think God quite clearly has a preference for analog tape,” she notes at a later point.) Addressing the question many readers will have about why she still invokes the J-word in light of the condemnation she had such a first-hand experience with, Carlile acknowledges that nearly everything she holds dear has “has been impacted negatively by Christianity in one way or the other. I am okay with that perspective and I think it’s healthy. I, too, have been negatively impacted by it. But something mystical brings me back time and time again to the revolutionary gospel of forgiveness.”

Anger isn’t a big enduring part of Carlile’s emotional vocabulary, but righteousness is. Recounting a situation in which a winner at the Americana Music Honors denounced the entire genre while accepting his award, Carlile writes, “A pet peeve of mine is the ‘award denier,’ the ‘I don’t care about these self-aggrandizing dog-and-pony-shows’ types. Kindly fuck off, please. Heart emoji.” Explaining her emotion when she went on to win a slew of Grammys over the last three years, she explains, “The song ‘We Are the Champions’ by Queen has never not made me cry. Teams, winning, losing, being picked or rejected: These themes are traumatic for some LGBTQ folks. It’s okay to want to be champions for a little while. Our path is long and fraught with submission. Triumph is a beautiful theme for 2020 queers.”

There are two major love stories in the book. One is with “the twins,” Phil and Tim Hanseroth, who make up the other two-thirds of the band she considers “Brandi Carlile” to be, and who clearly share her love for Tom Sawyer-esque, grown-up misadventure as well as A-list chops. The other is with Catherine Shepherd, her wife of 14 years.. or maybe less, depending on what country or state you’re in. “A person’s self-worth is dictated by what inalienable rights are allowed to them. The right to not live your life alone is a big one,” she writes. Their story as parents is a crucial piece of the memoir: “Same-sex parenting might read clinical, but that’s only because it’s so new,” she writes. “Gay domesticity has a path, but it isn’t well worn yet and we need to humanize these stories because history is happening all around us. Right now.” But the sweetest part of this entire section — notwithstanding how bracingly she writes about her own experience — may be the passage she devotes to her newfound sympathy for straight dads, something she picks up after attending some father-to-be classes (as the non-birth-giver in her marriage) and finding men constantly being made the butt of derisive jokes. She may never write an extra verse to “The Joke” about it, but Carlile is just a leave-no-butt-of-the-joke-behind type of empath.

Even for any potential reader whose eyes might glaze over at the thought of social issues, there’s plenty to chew on in “Broken Horses” just as a show-biz memoir. Carlile articulates as well as any writer ever has the enthralling dynamic of expectancy in being backstage — maybe not an undying thrill for every seasoned pro, but it remains one for Carlile now as much as it was when she was first about to step onto the stage of the Pacific Northwest’s own regional Grand Ole Opry knockoff as a kid in the single digits. For someone whose presence is decidedly earthy, she also explains why she feels it’s important to dress up for every single show, to signal to the audience that you’re not taking the show lightly — it’s an occasion. (If that also happens to dovetail with her flair for Gucci suit jackets or the glittery androgyny of a certain kind of Opry-ready coat, no worse for the Western wear.)

The final chapters could risk being too “We Are the Champions”-level triumphant, but this Cinderella really likes to get her knees dirty with tasks like advanced carpentry and forestry, after the ball. In keeping with her Elton adulation, she readily allows that she’s part glam-loving “Captain Fantastic” and part woodsy-living “Brown Dirt Cowboy.” The year after winning all those 2019 Grammys was spent largely on the 90-acre compound she shares with her family members, band cohorts and even the former partner who inspired all her breakup songs (Carlile cracks: “My ex Kim lives here; so lesbian”), wielding a machete and a hedge trimmer to cut paths for their ATVs. The cherry on top of her story is that she’s not just figuratively blazing trails.


“Broken Horses: A Memoir”
Brandi Carlile
Crown Books
336 pages; $28