Brandi Carlile is a troubadour — a lyric poet and storyteller in the truest sense. The official definition of the word notes that most troubadours in the 11th to 13th centuries were also of knightly rank, and it would surprise none of her fans if it turned out she’s a knight as well. As the world shuttered in 2020, the singer-songwriter was on the verge of finishing Broken Horses, a memoir chronicling her life from a near-death experience as a child through coming out as a lesbian in the church all the way to her mainstream music career. The final chapter of Carlile’s memoir details those early days of lockdown and the shift that put everyone’s plans on pause, including her own.
Where the book leaves off, Carlile’s new album, In These Silent Days — recorded in Nashville with her longtime collaborators and friends Phil and Tim Hanseroth — picks up. If anyone could weave a thread from prose to poetry to document 2020, it’s Carlile.
Photo by Neil Krug
In late July, the video dropped for In These Silent Days’ first single, “Right on Time.” It opens with Carlile onstage finishing a performance. Her back is to the camera, and she faces the audience sporting a silver lamé jumpsuit reminiscent of glam rockers like David Bowie or her longtime musical influence and now friend Elton John. She exits the stage and strolls through crowds of people where she faces the elements — wind, fire, and water. There, the only sounds are of her voice and the song's bracing orchestration. The crowd is silent. The video, directed by another of Carlile’s friends, Courteney Cox, spurred the troubadour to face things that frighten her, including acting (in general) and swimming underwater. “Right on Time” is inward and reflective, but also universal.
“My role is empathic in that I sort of midwife feelings,” Carlile says. “I do things to make people feel…I look out in the audience, I see a lot of tears, see a lot of people cracking up and losing their shit laughing at a joke or imperfections.”
Attend one of Carlile’s shows and it’s clear the audience feels something. Her onstage prowess is also apparent in her role in the Highwomen — a supergroup of some of today’s greatest musicians, including Maren Morris, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Hemby. Carlile is also a wife and a mom — married to Catherine Shepherd, with whom she has two daughters, Evangeline and Elijah. And she’s a friend who creates family wherever she goes. Her home base is a compound where her extended family, the musical Hanseroth twins, also live with their spouses and children. Despite being surrounded by the pod she created in 2020 and turning to the internet to perform, Carlile longed for the audience.
“There are other things I enjoy doing, like finish carpentry and fishing. I don’t do music for myself. So I did not do well with the shutdown. The first time I got on stage, I had prepped myself for it in the days prior like, Don’t get emotional, don’t cry. Not because I didn’t want to be vulnerable, but because crying literally sucks my voice up for like 35 minutes,” she says. “I got through it. But I did feel very emotional seeing those faces and seeing them feeling the emotion too, because it was their first time being with other human beings again.”
After she’d finished Broken Horses, Carlile received inspiration in another form from one of her lyrical heroes. Elton John’s longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin sent her poems/songs, and she was on her way to making In These Silent Days.
“I finished the book, and he sent me these songs. Suddenly, the floodgates were open. And we were writing songs again,” Carlile says.
Folk, roots, and Americana music carry forth a tradition of storytelling, and Carlile’s musical influences are some of the all-time great painters of words. She credits John Prine (who died in April 2020 of COVID), the Indigo Girls, and Joni Mitchell as inspirations. The new album, due October 1, includes musical allusions to some of those influences.
Beyond carrying on the grand tradition of folk, Carlile has become a conduit for queer acceptance. With a spark in her eye, Carlile holds up a mug Joni Mitchell made for her from one of their many jam sessions at the elder singer’s home. She shares that she had the honor of introducing Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers to Mitchell at one of those storied jam sessions. Then she pulls down a framed photo of herself at around 22 playing on stage with Saliers. For Carlile, now 40, it’s come full circle.
“For young queers, I can’t help but think that to somebody out there that I’ve never met, that I’m family to them and that they need to feel that way because they don’t have it, for whatever reason,” she says. “Because I did have it. And I still needed to feel that way.”
This story is part of The Advocate’s 2021 Film and TV issue, which is out on newsstands October 5, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.