Brandi Carlile's career had been on a steady rise. For years, she'd been releasing critically-acclaimed albums and touring the country with her band — including a stint opening for the Indigo Girls. She'd built up a fanbase that included Barack Obama and Brené Brown, and was considered a cult favorite in the LGBTQ+ community, one of our best-kept and most cherished secrets.
Then two things happened. Carlile received more nominations than any other woman at the 61st Grammy Awards (including Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year) and during her subsequent performance at the Grammys that year, she did what she does best: she sang her face off and stole the show.
There's no other way to describe it.
Carlile's career has been on a meteoric trajectory ever since, which for someone who admits to having "a pretty wicked case of imposter syndrome," it's taking time for Carlile to adjust.
To celebrate the release of her memoir, Broken Horses (out now), Carlile spoke with the LGBTQ&A podcast about entering this phase of her music career, as well as motherhood, her evolving relationship to religion, and finally feeling like she belongs.
"I always feel like if I write this song and I tell the truth, if I show up here and I decide to be myself and people still accept me, then I guess I do belong here."
Jeffrey Masters: You write about your gender growing up, cutting your hair short, being uncomfortable in traditional women's bathing suits. You were in a band with all guys and say you felt like you were one of them. Assessing that now, was that more about not fitting into society's expectations for women, or was it something deeper?
Brandi Carlile: I don't know. I want to be sensitive about fluidity and gender in general, because I did want that at that time. And then I didn't want it later and then I did want it again another time. So there've been transitions always happening in my life. And they're usually a response to something in my environment, a girlfriend I have or something I'm interested in at any given time.
I do remember at the time coming out of the closet, not seeing gay people on TV and not being able to find a way to reconcile how natural it is for people of the same sex to physically relate to one another. I couldn't picture being close to women, kissing women, holding hands with women, and also being a woman. I think I needed to see myself as not one to accept it.
And I leaned into it. I like that I've leaned into gender nonconformity so many times in my life and that I still do.
JM: Is that something you think about a lot now that you're raising two girls in this world?
BC: They make me think about it because they're so different than I was, especially my oldest. She is so innately feminine. My youngest, she just hates boys, doesn't want to talk about boys. Everything's about girls.
But my oldest frequently talks about marrying guys. It's always skill-related, based on their skills. This guy, Coyote Peterson, wrestles crocodiles and catches snakes and holds bugs and stuff. And she loves this guy and she watches his show and she's like, "Mama, I mean, if I'm going to marry a guy, Coyote Peterson seems like he's got enough skills. He seems like he's got the right skills around animal management and understanding of wilderness. And I mean, I know you're never going to marry a guy because you're married to mommy, but if you were, surely he would be the one."
JM: How old is she?
BC: She's seven.
JM: You live pretty far out, so she is aware of these skills.
BC: Yeah. Well, her mommy and her mama, we have the skills. We ride four wheelers. We drive a 36-foot fishing boat. We split wood. We have skills. She doesn't need Coyote Peterson.
JM: In your song, "The Joke," there's a lyric, "You get discouraged, don't you, girl? It's your brother's world for a while longer." Was that about your daughters?
BC: In 2016, after the election, I saw so many little girls with their signs and their t-shirts and all of their hopefulness. And that morning, when it all came crashing down in the way that it did, and it was all so ugly, I was addressing young girls at large during that time.
JM: Have you and your wife always agreed on how to raise your children in terms of religion?
BC: I live in a really customized and intimate space within my faith that is based on my own understanding and writers and leaders and teachers that I'm fond of.
But my wife is different. She doesn't have that perspective, but she's really interested in the fact that I do. And she is proud of me, and as a whole, we really click around our overall philosophy. It doesn't always have to veer into theology. My oldest daughter, Evangeline, she is called, I think, in the direction that I'm called spiritually. She responds to it and she has a lot of questions and we have a lot of honest conversations.
My wife, she doesn't really know how to talk about it or just not even sure she wants to. So I get a lot of, "Brandi, get in here, Evangeline's talking about Jesus."
JM: In a way, you're presenting Jesus and religion to them as an option that they have in life.
BC: Absolutely, with an agnostic, veering into atheist mommy, and a Jesus freak mama with a really complicated perspective on faith and the wreckage that it's left.
JM: It crushed you when you showed up to your baptism and were told that the church wouldn't allow it. I'm surprised that didn't drive you away from religion altogether.
BC: I think this is a universal concept, that in deep moments of pain, rejection, when the smoke clears, questions arise as a result of the doubt. And the questions have always pushed me closer to a creator.
I feel uniquely privileged in that way, because people that are just born fitting the mold of the Judeo-Christian, Western faith specimen, the person that fits the mold, the hashtag blessed human, they don't get those deep moments of darkness and rejection where they have to ask the questions. And in asking the questions, I feel that I'm getting the answers, and that pushes me closer in my faith, I think, than it would if I hadn't experienced those dark times.
There's this mystical thread that is tied through my life and my whole faith, and that is that everything hard that happens to me, pushes me into music. And that's where God lives inside of for me. And so that day pushed me into "Hallelujah", pushed me into Leonard Cohen and Jeff Buckley. And "Hallelujah" taught me that it's a cold and a broken Hallelujah. It's not a hashtag blessed, perfect, white, suburban Hallelujah. I knew I had to leave organized religion and that I had to leave my template and go into something scary, dark, and beautiful.
JM: You also write that people can use your relationship with Jesus to discredit you. What did you mean by that?
BC: It's more than understandable...it might even be justified and healthy to feel triggered by the concept of organized religion or even the buzzwords around it. I recoil at the buzzwords—words like sin or forgiveness—that organized religion has used to condemn and exclude and deprive LGBTQIA people of a comfortable life. And so if someone reads that I feel this way, that I do believe in God and that that's my version of the truth, that they might bristle and they might get upset, just like I have and do to this day when I encounter a person like that, because I'm waiting for the other shoe to fall. I'm waiting for the rejection.
JM: In our polarized country, I think it's easy to assume that all country music fans are conservatives. Is that something artists talk about?
BC: It's something I think about and talk about all the time with my friends, about why the word country, why C words, why the word Christian, why the word country in general, what do those words mean to us? What do they trigger? What do they make us feel when we think of them?
Country is not entirely different than the word Christian to people like me and you. We bristle, we're ready. And I don't know that I necessarily need either word for that reason.
JM: I also don't know that I would consider your music to be country. Do you think of it as a specific genre?
BC: I grew up on country music and oh my God, the '90s country divas. I'm talking about Reba. I'm talking about Tanya. They were huge pillars in my life and so important. And I love country music and I will always love country music and I will always love church, but there comes a time, I think, where you need to address what it is that you love about it.
The industry itself, if I could be so bold as to say, isn't doing the best job of unpolarizing itself and maybe there is a profit to be made from defining those political lines. But I live a little bit on an island. I live out in Seattle and I see these things happen and I wonder about their trajectory or why they're going down. And I think to myself more and more, I feel like an Americana artist.
JM: What kind of conversations are occurring behind-the-scenes?
BC: We talk about, how can I not be seen as this, if I identify with this? And it's a really complicated and ever-changing conversation that's in flux.
We need people to know where we stand in terms of fairness and kindness, in terms of inclusion and anti-racism. And it's no longer okay to just not know that there are people of color trying to make it in country music. We know now. Now we platform. Now we do the work and the inclusion has to be active. This is where meritocracy is a complete injustice because the merits can't be earned when the opportunities aren't given. We have to make a conscious effort to give these opportunities and create these spaces for inclusion.
I'm really excited and heartened to see it happening, and so many of my friends becoming really conscious of it, me becoming conscious of it. It's going to be an exciting couple of years for that reason.
JM: The big goal you've always had was to win Best Americana Album at the Grammys. And you did that. What are you thinking about now when you think about the future?
BC: I think about my kids a lot. I would like to see them happy and successful by their own bar. And I want them to be proud of me and I want them to want to hang out with me. That's the big thing. When I see other adults with kids and the kids are near adults and they want to hang out with their parents I'm pulling at their sleeve going, "Tell me your secret. What did you do to make these kids want to hang out with you?"
Because I can't do the aloneness thing and I just love being with my family.
I'm going to continue to do cool things in my career. This book is a bigger goal to me than winning the Americana album Grammy was.
JM: Why is that?
BC: I think that in our industry an effort is justifiably made to sell a person as moderately infallible or at least special or set apart in some way. So we glamorize and I think because I probably have a pretty wicked case of imposter syndrome, I'm always going to be feeling the need to tell the truth. That there's a thread that connects us all, that the platform is make believe, that we give the clothes back at the end of the day. I think I always feel like if I write this song and I tell the truth, if I show up here and I decide to be myself and people still accept me, then I guess I do belong here.
I think the book is that for me. It's me going, "OK, here's the truth. Here's where I come from, here's who I am." I still walk into stores and take something to the cash register without asking how much it is because I know if I ask how much it is, somebody's going to know I'm poor. I still live these things. I still dream that I'm back in school and I can't catch up and I can't graduate. If I just write it all down in one place and I hand it to you, if you still accept me, then I belong here.
Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile is available now.
LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Alok Vaid-Menon, Amy Ray, and Roxane Gay. Episodes come out every Tuesday.