Brandi Carlile on Her Stunning Year: An ‘SNL’ Victory Lap, Elton John Farewell Gig, Multiple Grammy Noms for a ‘Queer Domesticity’ Song and More
Going into the Grammys with seven nods, she no longer suffers from 'awards shame.'
As we catch up with Brandi Carlile in a phone call, she is able to talk at some leisure because she’s traveling by train, headed from Washington, D.C., where the night before she sang in honor of U2 and Amy Grant at the Kennedy Center Honors, to New York City, where she’s just about to perform with Marcus Mumford and Jon Batiste for a War Child benefit. From that show, she will be heading right into rehearsals for her second “Saturday Night Live” appearance of the year. This whirlwind east coast actually started a few days earlier up in NYC, where she served as the headliner for the American Museum of Natural History’s annual gala, giving everyone a FOMO moment when Steve Martin turned up on stage to play banjo with her.
In other words, it’s pretty much a typical week in the life of Brandi Carlile circa 2022. Blink and you’ll miss something that for most other artists could be a heady career highlight, but that for her is … well, probably also a heady career highlight, but one of many sequentially getting ticked off as she becomes arguably the most constantly in-demand and oft-obliging singer the world has at the moment.
Our conversation is intended to focus on the love she’s getting from the Grammys, with Carlile going into the 2023 edition with seven nominations, the most she’s had in a single year after getting at least two each year for the last four ceremonies straight. But in also talking about her Year That Was, there is so much more to discuss than could even get a moment’s mention in an hour’s chat. To tick off some, if hardly all, of them:
Sitting in with Elton John to sing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” at Dodger Stadium for his globally webcast final American tour stop ever. Engineering a “Joni Jam” with her beloved Joni Mitchell at the Newport Folk Festival, soon to be a live album. Being the co-driving force (along with Batiste) for Mitchell’s MusiCares all-star salute. Paying tribute Dolly Parton with Pink and others at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony. Doing knockout performances at nationally televised memorial services for Naomi Judd and Loretta Lynn. Going out on select dates of the “Judds Farewell Tour” to take Naomi’s place next to Wynonna (with her brother, Jay, in the backing band). Doing an Imax live concert that went out to hundreds of theaters in real time. Being the exec-producer and partial subject of a theatrical documentary, “The Return of Tanya Tucker — Featuring Brandi Carlile.” Doing another edition of her annual Girls Just Wanna festival in Mexico. Being feted by the Human Rights Campaign. Releasing a deluxe version of her Grammy-nominated “In These Silent Days” record, featuring a whole separate version of the album with different, newly recorded arrangements. A collaborative single with friend Allison Russell. A guest slot on Mumford’s solo debut. Producing a 2022 album for Lucius (her “SNL” vocal accompanists) and 2023 ones for Tucker and Brandy Clark. “SNL” x2.
Oh, and one-offs aside: a full tour behind “Days” (and “Daze”). Becoming one of the Grammys’ four top nominees of the year for her recorded output. And motherhood.
If you imagine she’s depleted from all this as the year draws to a close, imagine again. “I love working. I really do,” she says. Not surprisingly for her, it’s about connections as well as accomplishments. “The other thing about working this much is it really makes you feel like you’ve got family everywhere you go,” she says. “Everything has felt a little bit like a family reunion lately.”
With “Saturday Night Live,” it’s hard to think of very many people who’ve done it twice in the same calendar year. We don’t know what that means, except that people really like to see you on TV, so that speaks for itself.
Can I tell you what I’m doing? I hope this is a good idea, but I’m gonna do “The Story.” I was young when we put that song out, and it’s such a special song and it resonated with people so much beyond us. It just left us. It went to other people, the other people covered it, and it got put in movies and television commercials, and we kind of kept working and worked our way up as we watched that song almost have this little parallel life to us, almost kinda like — to a much smaller level — Joni with “Both Sides.” It’s been on every “American Idol” and “The Voice” and it’s like a go-to karaoke song. And I think, man, if I’m gonna get an opportunity like this, maybe I should treat it more like a victory lap than this constant make-or-break feeling I always have about everything I do. And maybe I should just go on there and just sing that wonderful song that I’ve had with me for all these years and kind of have a reclamation of sorts.
In the last four years you’ve gone from being a fairly veteran performer who’d never been nominated for the Grammys to being someone people associate with the Grammys, whether it’s the multiple nominations every year or your explosive performances on the show. You’re someone people can look to and feel proud about music and about how the Grammys represent it. It’s been kind of mutually beneficial.
Oh, absolutely. It’s had such a positive impact on my life in so many ways, personally and professionally. I’ve been really moved by my ability to be recognized by my peers in that way. It’s kind of huge. And I’m so glad it didn’t happen to me when I was younger.
You talked in your book, “Broken Horses,” about coming to terms with accolades and being fine with being celebrated in that way.
I look at it in a really workman sense, you know what I mean? I got to be employee of the month one time at Fred Meyer when I was 16, and I got a jacket and everything, and I got my picture put up on the wall. It’s like every job has accolades or peer approval, and it gives you a reason to sort of like walk into work as your best self every day, whether you’re an artist or whether you’re doing any other job. So I’ve let go of some of the awards shame [laughs] that I’ve felt over the years. Because when I think back to Fred Meyer… I mean, I have to say, it definitely means more to win a Grammy, but I really did quite like that jacket and having my picture put up on the wall!
I was thinking about this a lot last night, too, at the Kennedy Center Honors, because, God, that is such a high honor, and to be able to witness that, it’s this kind of elixir to everything else that’s going on in the world when you basically just get to sit somewhere and feel happy for people for a few hours. It’s even better than the awards shows where there’s the big a-ha moment of who won or who didn’t win, because there’s no anxiety. You just get to be happy for people, which is sort of endorphin-producing in some ways that are huge. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was like that, too, a few weeks ago. I was just sitting there just relishing in other people’s recognition.
You’ve been able to see some of the people in your immediate circle of artist-friends get recognition this year or in the past few years, too — Lucius, Allison Russell, Yola… “Grammy-nominated” still means something to people, and people also feel it profoundly when really worthy artists and records still can’t get in there.
I get so excited for my friends when they get recognized, and I don’t get angry when they don’t. … The thing about like being driven versus being competitive is that you want to win, and you want the people that you love to win, but you don’t want anybody else to lose. You know, my daughter, she’s competitive. She wants you to lose. [Laughs.] It’s like it’s not enough for her to win; you then also have to lose. So we’re working on that. [Laughs.] But that’s not the way that I look at healthy competition. I look at it more from a perspective of being driven.
And, you know, the Grammys, it’s so many things… It’s a peer-given award, but it’s also not just about the art that you make. I mean, it is about the art that you make, but it’s also about how you create visibility for the art that you make. Because it can’t be a tree falling in a forest. You have to then take that ball and run all the way across the field with it and show up and say yes. And so I kind of respect both things. I respect the sanctity of the creation of a record and album and song, but I also respect the way that an artist works to perpetuate that performance or that album.
Speaking of that, you have this seeming inexhaustibility, which creates visibility, even though a lot of the things you’re doing look like they would be just for the fun of it. You’re often doing one-off events in different cities on back-to-back nights. That just has to be an innate thing you’re capable of that would deplete others.
My little brother and I, we had the same jobs together our whole lives. We were roofing laborers. We worked at Fred Meyer together. And we’ve always both had just a really tireless work ethic. He is a snow plow driver. And every job that he’s ever taken, or every town he’s ever moved to, it’s like by the time he leaves, he’s the mayor and the top of the job. Because it’s just the family that we come from — we love people. and we love to work. And I am always really moved when I see somebody with a really powerful work ethic. So I’ve kind of chosen my heroes that way: Dolly is like that and Elton is like that. I guess I get a lot of emotional satisfaction out of knowing that I’m working — that the journey is the destination.
A few specific Grammy questions. Unlike last year, you’re not in a pop category this year — your two genre categories are rock and Americana. You publicly complained about being shifted last year from Americana to pop. That continued to be a controversy this year with Nicki Minaj complaining that she was bumped out of rap and forced into pop with her big hit. It’s not hard to imagine the Grammy committee could have bumped “You and Me on the Rock” from Americana to pop like they did with “Right on Time,” but maybe it was a case of them not wanting to go against your wishes two years in a row. Would you make that argument that people should just sort of be where they want to be, in Grammy categories?
Yeah, I would make that argument — just generally in life [laughs] — that people should get to be what they say they are. And it’s like the community that we build around us, where we cast our lot, where we invest our time and our art, needs to be kind of where we say we are, absolutely. I think pop’s different, because I suppose that like to at least half the people involved in those decisions, “pop” just means popular. And what do I know? When the album came out, Joni Mitchell said “You and Me on the Rock” sounded like a hit. And Harry Styles texted me and said it was his favorite song … Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe that is indeed pop. To Joni, it would be popular. To Harry, it would be fuckin’ pop, you know? But I guess I want to be tried by a jury of my peers. I want the people in my community to let me know from their perspective whether or not I’m trying hard enough… I think it’s about where you cast your lot in life, and there are certain decisions that you make around who produces your album and what kinds of instruments you play and how you record it that maybe a person listening in a room [deciding] whether or not you fit into a genre wouldn’t necessarily get.
When I had this thing where I got put in pop last year… I don’t know if I would’ve had the same reaction this year. I’ve grown to sort of broaden my perspective about it, But all I could think of at the time was, “Well, I don’t belong in pop. That’s not where my people are. That’s not where I’ve done my work. They won’t know me there.” And “Right on Time” was recorded with the exact same instruments, in the same room, with the same people, with the same producers, right down to the same piano, that “The Joke” was recorded in. There is no difference. Same reverb plate! So all it was was, I felt like somebody seeing that the work I put in, and some of the success that I had achieved, meant that I was too popular for Americana. It made me feel as defensive of Americana as it made me feel defensive of myself.
Does that make any sense? But I’ve really softened my perspective on it. And I look back on the year and I realize there’s nowhere I would have rather been, because I actually liked that experience. It made me feel really cool, if I’m honest.
It’s great that you’re in rock, anyway, with “Broken Horses.” I just keep wanting to ask you if you might ever make a really rock-leaning album, amid all the other genres and subgenres you thrive in.
I’m really thinking about it — you’re right in step with me. That’s exactly the way I feel; I feel like “Broken Horses” is the direction that my creative heart is moving in. Those are the songs I’m writing and gravitating toward. It’s funny: rock ‘n’ roll and Americana do this really interesting dance. I think that they’re probably the most connected. I think rock ‘n’ roll and Americana have a lot more in common than Americana and country do. You know, I know I made the joke about Americana being country music for liberals. But musically, I put Tom Petty there, and I certainly put Elton John there, circa “Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player” and “Tumbleweed Connection.” I could even put Led Zeppelin there, and so many artists that have influenced me in terms of rock ‘n’ roll in the Americana vein, and vice versa.
I remember making “The Story” with T Bone Burnett and being so young. He speaks in sound bites, that guy. He makes you never fucking forget the things that he says, because they just come out with quotes on ‘em. [Laughs.] He told me, “If anybody ever asks you what kind of music you play, immediately say rock ‘n’ roll.” And he said, “It’s all-encompassing of the American music experience. Because rock ‘n’ roll is not a genre, it’s a risk that you take.” And I have never forgotten that. So it’s a line of ambiguity that I straddle between rock ‘n’ roll and Americana, but I think they’re good bedfellows.
That comes up with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because people look at the nominees and say “That is not rock and roll.” And of course the hall’s perspective would be that rock and roll is an attitude, or at least an era, and not something that’s defined by how much it sounds like Chuck Berry or anything else.
Yeah, it’s an attitude. I liked it when T Bone described it as a risk, because it’s that edge-of-the-seat feeling that you get when you’re seeing rock ‘n’ roll. It’s like anything could happen, anything could derail, everything could go so wrong. Where there’s certain genres… you just watch (an average) country concert, you know that shit’s canned. You know that they’re playing to tracks; you know that nothing’s gonna go wrong and that you might as well be watching “Sesame Street.” Although I love “Sesame Street.” I would say “Sesame Street” takes more risks than modern, contemporary country music does. [Laughs.] But when you’re at a rock concert, you’re like, “Oh, shit, the shit could go down tonight. I might be at the show where the amp blows up, or the singer flings himself into the audience and no one catches him.”
One thing that you can almost count on at a country festival headliner sets: At some point they will say that it’s such an amazing experience, they’re going to bust past curfew and play all night. And then you look at your watch and they go off at 10:59 as scheduled and the set list was exactly the same as the previous night.
[Laughs.] That’s exactly what I’m saying. No Springsteen shit’s gonna happen at a contemporary country show, that’s for sure. I mean, there are artists that straddle that line for sure, where you might get more than you bargained for, but probably not.
Let’s talk about “You and Me on the Rock,” which is being recognized in all-genre as well as genre categories this year. Does that being up for record of the year signal anything special for you? WIth your previous album, you used a phrase in connection with a couple of the songs — “gay domesticity.” “You and Me on the Rock” is a fun song, not so much a “cause” song, and there’s nothing about it that explicitly makes it an LGBTQ anthem. But you did a remix version where you sing it with your wife, Catherine, and even without hearing that, most people out there probably understand and accept that it is about your marriage. This comes at a time where understanding and acceptance are not necessarily the norm in what’s happening in American life.
No, and it’s cool of you to notice that and point that out. Because it’s not that LGBTQIA people should have to be overexerting ourselves to come across as more wholesome than anybody else. But when the culture wants to overtly sexualize and demonize queer people by calling us groomers, and making out that we just live these lives of total sex-focused promiscuity, which couldn’t be further from the truth, a song like “You and Me on the Rock” is important, if you recognize it as an anthem of queer domesticity. It’s about building your house on a foundation that you can be happy in. It’s about the right to not be alone for all of your life. And to those that would kind of dismantle that dream and that inalienable human right, I think that song is a protest song, just in its sweetness.
And then just musically, thinking about which artists that have been a part of Grammy history to which we could compare “You and Me on the Rock.” You’ve said it was overtly Joni-influenced. As much as that, I keep thinking of something fast and strummy like Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.“
Totally! It used to sound so Joni-derived, because we wrote it on a dulcimer. Because we were having a hard time breaking out of our usual rhythms writing our up-tempos, they sounded like us, so we were like, let’s really just embrace the Joni thing on one song. Let’s get this dulcimer out and just try something. And Timmy came up with the [riff], and it just gave me this good, grateful, warm and fuzzy feeling, and I just started writing a love song. And we completely didn’t shy away from the Joni-isms at all. I remember sending the demo to (producers) Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings that day. Shooter was like, “I love it. It’s perfect.” And Dave goes, “Whoa! Way too Joni.” [Laughs.] And so they pulled me over the center line in the triangle that gets created between the three of us, and we met in the middle of “I love it. It’s perfect” and “Way too Joni,” and we took the dulcimer out and played it with acoustic guitar. And that is why you work with producers, even when you are one. [Laughs.]
You’re in there in the Grammy mix with Beyonce and Adele and these superstar divas seen as battling it out in the top categories.
One thing I see — and I don’t know if this is just my vocal-centered tendency towards narcissism — but I remember talking to Clive Davis the year that “By the Way, I Forgive You” got all those nominations. He was kind of off on the side talking to me, and that guy’s so encyclopedic and freaking brilliant. He was like, “If there’s one thing I would like to see honored more in this day and age, it would be the resurgence of the big singer.” Because of course Clive’s divas are the biggest singers the world’s ever seen. So when you see a category that’s got Adele’s giant voice and Beyonce’s gigantic voice and incredible ability, and a big singer like me in that category too, I think it’s really cool. I think it shows that America still wants to hear the big vocals, the drama — that there’s something still to be said for that athleticism and just unbridled passion in a vocalist.
We’re catching you right after you sang on the Kennedy Center Honors for two of the artists being celebrated — U2 (she participated in a rendition of “Walk On”) and Amy Grant (the Highwomen did “The End of the Road”). We’ve all recently seen where Amy hosted a lesbian wedding for her niece, which got some attention in the Christian music world she comes out of. You must have followed her path quite a bit over the years.
It was interesting last night honoring Amy Grant and U2 in one night, because these are two artists that I know not just for their music, but for their faith, in the way that it kind of manifests itself in their music — and the way they’ve used their faith and their music to expand the barriers of that faith to include more people than the faith includes traditionally, or on its own. And maybe not so much U2, because they don’t live in America, but Amy certainly has taken some heat for that. And so I see that as taking some heat for me. And then specifically just coming out in support of me, and she read my book and said a bunch of nice things about me online and took a whole bunch of heat for it. And of course, I’m a nosy bitch, so I read the comments, so I know that she is challenging people’s boundaries and the parameters of their belief. She’s inviting people to love more freely and to love people that they don’t understand. And we really need more people like Amy Grant as a representation of the Christian faith, whether we want to use that word or not. I don’t love that word. I do love the faith, but I don’t love to use that word, you know? And I think that the fact that she does use that word though, is important, and it helps me, and frankly, it helps evangelicals, and brings us all a little bit closer together where I think we really need to go.
To ask about joining Elton at Dodger Stadium — you were saying that this was like the high point of your life. And with all the tributes and collaborations and other things you have going on in your life, to say something is the highlight of even a half-year is saying something. You were never anybody who needed to be legitimized by someone else, but there definitely was an extent to which, circa 2018 or 2019, his comments might have helped a little, when the wider audience was really discovering you: If Elton John is going to go out there with this many superlatives, maybe we should finally check this girl out. His imprimatur means something.
The guys from U2 told me that last night, exactly what you said. They said that they discovered me on “Rocket Hour” from Elton, and that that’s where they go to be introduced to all of their new music. They talked about how they think Elton is on the cusp of everything and how he puts everyone else to shame in terms of just understanding what young people are going through, how they’re coming up, what their challenges are, who’s making great art, who’s doing things that are different, and then informing his peers through “Rocket Hour”… and also just, like, making a hundred phone calls a day. That’s a work ethic.
There must be an element of living out fan fiction in your mind a little bit when you’re at Dodger Stadium, which is already kind of recreating this iconic thing from 1975, and now you’re injected into the story.
The whole day, my mom was sending me all these super embarrassing pictures of myself as an 11-, 12-year-old with my homemade Elton John jewelry. I used to make necklaces that were cut out of books and vinyl records I would buy from the secondhand store and glue onto pieces of paper, thread ’em through yarn and wear homemade Elton jewelry to school. I would hold it up anytime I was getting a picture taken — it was truly obsessive pre-adolescent behavior. It’s unbelievably surreal, and I just feel like everybody must be tired of me saying that at this point, but you just have to believe me when I tell you that it never wears off.
That particular one (Dodger Stadium), though, was really hard to stay in my body for. I just remember he was finishing up “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” and I thought I could see my heart pounding out of my suit. I could hear it in my ears and I was just like, “Stay here! Stay here. Don’t go away — don’t go to the adrenaline place. You really have been waiting this for this your whole life and this is your last chance to do it. This is Elton’s last show in America…” You know, he started in L.A.; he’s ending it in L.A., from the Troubadour to Dodger Stadium. I just knew every second of it how important it was. And I kind of just took that one for myself, and made it about me. I had a little celebration for my younger self, and just went out there and jumped up and down and sang the shit out of my favorite song. And I’ll never forget it.
Your suit that night — was that a fashion designer homage to Elton’s 1975 Dodger suit, or did I just fantasize that?
Yeah, dude, totally. If you look close at it, it’s got the red 1 (as seen on Elton’s vintage uniform). Then the sequins are in little trios of sequins, like Elton’s original uniform. It wasn’t covered in sequins; there was some space between them. And one of my favorite suit designers currently is Rich Fresh. So he made it for me and just, wow… and I’ll never get to wear it again. … In my studio, hanging solely, centrally right in my studio, I have the original photo that (famed photographer) Pete Souza gave me of Elton at Dodger Stadium in 1975 in that uniform with the blue carpet on top of the piano and the whole thing.
To ask briefly about your 2023 plans, we know you have a follow-up album you produced for Tanya Tucker that is in the can, and you’ve been working with Brandy Clark, too, right?
Those are the two things I’m doing production-wise right now. Also, Joni announced it on Elton’s “Rocket Hour,” so I guess I can talk about it: I’m also working on bringing Joni’s Newport performance out as a live album release. It’s all still in the works, but it’s mixed and it’s absolutely brilliant.
The Brandy Clark album is almost done, after we cut some strings. It’s so good, and such an incredible departure for Brandy — much more Americana than country, with deliberately, intentionally very raw and real vocals, super-hyper lyrical examination, songs selected to be as deeply personal to Brandy as any song that I’ve ever heard her put out… and it was also recorded live in one room with one band over the course of one week. It’s got that rock ‘and’n’ roll risk, edge-of-your-seat feeling when you’re listening to it. — you know that chances are being taken, and that’s just something that your body knows when you’re listening to music that’s recorded live.
On the last day we were doing our live cutting, I was like, man, these expertly written songs are what Americana needs, because we can sometimes get a little indier-than-thou in our world. Brandy was laughing and she goes, “I know. I have this friend who is the biggest songwriter enthusiast, and I got him these tickets to this Americana festival out in Memphis. I said, ‘Oh my God, get ready to hear the greatest music you’ve ever heard. You won’t hear a chorus for four days, but you’re gonna have an amazing time.'” [Laughs.] So to that point, Brandy’s cut this incredibly honest, vulnerable, rugged, life-pinnacle record, but it’s freaking expertly written, three-minute songs, and I think it’s a deadly combination. So I’m ready for this to be “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” for 2023.
(For an additional conversation with Carlile and Tucker about “Ready as I’ll Never Be,” the song they co-wrote as the closing theme for the “Return of Tanya Tucker” documentary, click here. For a story on the making of her Imax concert film and “In This Canyon Daze” album, read here.)