Brandi Carlile has talked about being a part of the island of misfit toys, with she’s not looking like such an odd-woman-out at the moment, with her book, “Broken Horses: A Memoir,” sitting at No. 1 atop the New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list. It’s a milestone to sit alongside the four Grammy Awards she’s won in the last three years.
But these mountaintop moments hardly seemed a given for a girl growing up in a single-wide trailer in the woods of Washington state, attending special education classes before she dropped out of high school to start busking, and embracing being gay years before she ever met another local who identified as such. She’s never been a hider, in any case, and least of all is there any obfuscation in the movingly, sometimes hilariously candid “Broken Horses,” which has her opening up about everything from gay marriage and IVF to triumphs at the Grammys to her Southern-by-way-of-Northwestern accent.
Carlile got on the phone with Variety this week to talk about a few of the myriad topics she addresses in her autobiography — and a few she doesn’t, like what to expect out of a new album in the fall, her first since the Grammy-winning “By the Way, I Forgive You” came out more than three years ago.
VARIETY: You’ve been an open book in interviews. Is there anything that you feel like you got to address more in this book that you hadn’t touched on so much publicly before?
CARLILE: I think I thought maybe my parenting journey would need to be private, or something like that. But I feel a responsibility to kind of be a part of laying down tracks with the rest of my community as an early pioneer in gay domesticity. And there are people that came before us, thank God, and did such an amazing job. But in terms of like literature and media, I want to see more of that represented. So I was able to kind of explain our process — IVF and how we integrated our kids’ dad into the picture — and also how it made me feel to sign my daughter’s birth certificate on the line that was labeled “father,” and knowing that the systems haven’t caught up yet with the fact that we exist. And I wanted to touch on that because if it makes anyone feel as [underseen], maybe knowing that it’s being written about will be the sort of indication or the hope that we all need.
There are definitely parts along the way where you address things that most interviewers might feel too respectful to bring up, like, as you said, how the process worked, and issues involving the bio-dad…
Who’s the father!
Was it David Crosby?
[Laughs.] So good. Well, Geraldo…
But even getting down to something as inconsequential as your trace of a Southern accent. I never would have asked, “Do you know you have a twang, and you’re from Washington?”
I sent (singer/songwriter) Lori McKenna the book, and you know, she’s from New England and I’m from Seattle, so we have this inside joke about our fake Southern accents. I sent her the book and I was like, “ust read this to yourself aloud in your best fake Southern accent, and we’ll be connected.”
It suits you.
It’s been there for so long, like I say in the book, it’s no longer an affectation. It’s just there. Even like when I was like 11, I noticed that Elton John only smiles out of one corner of his mouth. And I started doing that, and now I only can smile out of one corner. I’ve got this crooked ass smile and a big old line on my face — and I’m 40 years old and I don’t want that goddamn line there! But now it’s my smile. It might’ve started out some kind of mimicry, but it wound up being my actual smile.
A book tour can be stressful, and you’ve got a packed one. But as part of it you’re doing events with people like Dolly Parton and Alicia Keys and some of your favorite writers and personalities. Is that your way of trying to make it fun for yourself amid the stress?
It is very stressful, and it’s stressful because there’s a lot of interpretation that can be read into 300 pages. And some people will lean into a part that I didn’t mean for them to take that way. And I have to do these interviews and talk about things I’m uncomfortable with and try not to defend myself in situations where I feel like maybe someone doesn’t understand something. But you’re right, I have decided to make it fun for myself by having a really atypical book tour, and also kind of trying to embrace and understand the COVID protocols around pandemic-style book touring, by talking with Dolly, or doing “The Gay-lywed Game,” or talking with Leslie Jordan, who’s this amazing gay comedian where there’s just an incredible amount of fodder for faith-based trauma and humor and queerness. So yeah, I’ve been having really deep, scary, funny human conversations all week. And that’s helped me with the stress of feeling like I have to focus too much on myself. I always wind up turning the interview around on whoever’s my guest, and that that’s kind of the way I like it.
What are some of the questions you’ve gotten you weren’t anticipating where you feel possibly misunderstood?
The thing I’m most uncomfortable about is, I’m having to answer all these questions about these hard times in my life. And I don’t want anybody to be mad at anybody. You know, I don’t want anybody to be mad at Pastor Steve [the youth pastor who refused to baptize her because she was gay) or anybody to be mad my parents, or anyone else, any more than they would be at me. That’s not the point of recalling hardship or hard times. So I do struggle with that. I don’t want to leave anybody with a feeling of unresolved darkness. I don’t want to leave anybody with anything other than peace and forgiveness.
You changed the concept of the book after you first announced it last year. Originally, you were going to theme chapters around songs, not write a beginning-to-end memoir. Was your initial reluctance to write a true autobiography because, at 39, you felt like you didn’t deserve one yet? What turned you around?
I’m just not a skilled enough craftsman to decide on the direction I ever want to take on anything. It kind of does its own thing. I always have a way of these things falling upon me, and then having to realize what it is that’s being made. And yeah, I didn’t want to write a memoir. I felt like I was too young. But if I’m really honest with you, if I really get to the nucleus of what it was, I think I was afraid that my lack of an education would show and that people would think I wasn’t smart. And that if I did something official like say I was writing a memoir, instead of just a list of short stories with some lyrics and some pictures, that it would put a pressure on me or that would reveal something about me that I think maybe felt like I was hiding in some way.
It’s always interesting to read about someone that has gotten very mixed signals in life about how valuable they are or how talented or smart. You certainly went through: As a young child, you were put in a gifted program, but then quickly went in the other direction, to…
Special education classes, yeah.
That’s kind of an interesting transition to go through: “I’m really special, but now I’m special in…”
In another direction, in my inadequacy! Lucky for me, I did always have people around me, grandparents and stuff, that would tell me, “You’re struggling in school because you’re an artist.” And that did help. It didn’t help when I was there, and when I didn’t want the kids to see me walking into those classrooms, or for that special education teacher to pass me in the hallway and call out my name and say hello. I knew then that there wasn’t anything wrong with that, and that special education really does mean something. The people that are in those classes, the people that are struggling and having to make a decision to get up every day and go to that school, knowing that there’s a part of them that isn’t clicking in, are special. They’re overcoming something, whether things were stressful and hard at home or whether they have learning disabilities. It doesn’t have to be seen under a microscope for it to seem very physical and innate.
One thing that makes you different than a lot of music stars who are gay is that you were out from the beginning of your career. You come off in the book as someone who almost never had anything to hide in her life, even in junior high. It feels like it’s valuable to have these kinds of stories where the coming-out part is early and not deeply traumatic, which may be inspiring for a teenager who’s going through that to read, that it doesn’t always have to be a deeply painful, drawn-out, dramatic process. Were you thinking about that kind of stuff when you were writing it?
Yeah. I was thinking about that stuff all the way through childhood to adolescence, all the way into dating in my twenties and getting married in my thirties, and having children now. All the way throughout the book, I’m thinking about representation, and I’m thinking about it in terms of imaging and mirroring. Things that were really hard for the people that came before me, or pretty hard for me, could only be a little bit hard for the next generation, if there are enough books and photos and television commercials and movies and sitcoms and books about queer parenting about same-sex marriage… about gendering and the constant struggle with a lack of representation, and how it’s so hard to see yourself in a situation that you can’t see someone that looks like you.
And then there’s another kind of representation, where you have passages in this book where you’re up-front as a person of faith.
It’s like, come out of the closet as a Jesus freak.
And you jump ahead to anticipating that some people are not going to be down with Jesus talk. Now we’re in an age where faith is tagged to Trumpism. And it’s made it easier for people to walk away from any kind of belief, let alone a certain set of tenets. And faith is often associated with persecution or prejudice, as you note. How important was that to have in there, knowing that there is a part of your audience that might feel resistant to that pat?
I don’t want to generalize, but I’ve some reactions that are just these placid reactions of, like, “Oh yeah, I don’t get that part.” You know, people from the UK — like Catherine (Carlile’s wife). She’s not traumatized by faith. She’s interested that I’m interested, but it doesn’t bother her. If it bothers someone that I’m talking about my faith, it’s probably because they’ve been hurt somehow. Because so many of us in our culture and in this country particularly are really actually quite traumatized, either by rejection or dark, fatalistic images that are really hard to eradicate from our minds — worse than any movie you ever saw, you know? And I guess I just get that, and I don’t have a solution for it. But if somebody feels triggered or they bristle when I talk about Jesus and talk about my faith, all I can say is, I understand that. And I don’t have what it takes to do the fancy footwork to talk anyone out of feeling that way. All I have is a lot of compassion and a lot of love for people that do.
At 39, you’ve got a lot of time to do a “Broken Horses 2” or 3. You wanted this book to have some economy to it. But were there parts you had to cut out or cut short? Did you have an editor breathing down your neck to say it had to come in under 300 pages?
I had a supportive and kind team. I think they would have liked me to actually to have written more. But I value brevity, and I just feel strange going on and on and on about myself. I found the funnest parts of the book to write about Tanya (Tucker) or the Secret Sisters or Elton or Joni (Mitchell), or my brother. I found I like deep-diving into other people and describing them in detail. It’s hard for me not to ask you questions right now. It’s supposed to be a give and take. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to write another memoir, because I don’t think I can write more than five pages about an event that happened in my life without digressing and going into other people. I’m very codependent. I need people around, all the time. I can’t really spend more than a few pages on me.
There’s not a singular moment in the book where you realize your sexual identity. But watching “Ellen” in 1997 was a crystallizing moment of some sort. You were on her talk show this week, as you have been before. Is it sort of an out-of-body moment when you’re on her show?
Yeah, it is really out-of-body. Plus, she’s funny and really fun and she puts you at ease, and I’ve gotten to spend some personal time with her, so we have a rapport, and that helps. Her show is very brightly lit, so you know you’re on television. But the truth is that I hold her in a space that is not as brightly lit. And Ellen DeGeneres and the coming-out episode was monumental to me. Not just because she came out of the closet, but because to me, it looked like she was everywhere — and mostly beloved, even though that’s not what I find out in retrospect. I found out about the advertisers dropping off and the network dropping her show, and she’s told me all her things that happened to her behind the scenes.
And I didn’t put this in the book, but that night of the coming-out episode, I actually went to bed and wrote myself a letter, — because little teenage girls, they get funny at night. And I think I remember thinking to myself, “Well, I know I’m gay. If I don’t write this down in the morning, I’ll wake up and think I was just being dramatic.” And I wrote myself like a little letter, and then woke up the next morning and read it, and knew that it was time for me to start emerging out of the closet. And the Ellen show in particular was kind of interesting, because it was one of the very few things that me and my dad both enjoyed, other than like fishing. We’d crack up at Ellen DeGeneres, and her standup, too. And so it was a little bit of an inroad — just that little bit of language was helpful.
You had that as a signpost, but you definitely were pretty aware leading up to that, it sounds like, of who you were.
Yeah. I wasn’t totally cool with the gay thing. though. It took me a little while to get cool with that. I had never met a gay person. I didn’t have a girlfriend. And I was only really realizing that something inside of me was different in terms of gender and attraction, but I couldn’t picture it because I had never seen it.
One thing you don’t really address in the book is whether early in your career any of like your handlers or potential handlers let you know that being out could be a career impediment or at least a complication. And maybe that’s because it didn’t come up as a big deal. But it feel like the early 2000s was like a very different place than 2021 or even five or six or seven years ago, and that then, people might not have pegged you as a big mainstream star, as opposed to someone who’s gonna have a cult career but maybe not be embraced by all of America, as you have kind of come to be.
I think early on, when I was trying to get my record deals and I had manager-slash-handler people on a local level, I was so out of the closet and well-versed and kind of political that they would have never said anything point-blank to me about being in the closet or keeping my personal life personal or anything even alluding to it. But there were subtle, micro things that, in retrospect, I can see as offensive. You know, having to behave receptively or affectionately toward badly behaved radio dudes or people at record labels, where I had to just sort of laugh a little too loud at their jokes, or make sure that I was returning their texts in time. I got scolded one time for not returning a text quickly enough to somebody that I felt was over-the-line problematic. There were little things like that, but nothing where anybody was brave enough to come up to me, point-blank, and say, “Hey, why don’t you keep your personal life personal?” I think that that would have been a certain death for them.
I remember (people at) Columbia Records trying to help me figure out how to put on makeup or have clothing that would be acceptable for television and stuff like that. And they made the probably fundamental mistake on their part — but to me, it was a total blessing — of putting me with this guy called Kevin Posey, who was this super, super gay fashion icon. He was an amazing guy in Hollywood that became a friend and mentor and taught me how to put on makeup and taught me how to fall in love with clothes, but in a very, very queer way. And I had him as kind of an ally in that way. And then it went from him to my sister and so on (for hair and makeup). So I’ve always had an aesthetic team that’s been built around me, like a fortified wall, to keep heteronormative pressure off me.
You have a really fascinating section in the book on awards. For people in your position, that can be such a complicated set of feelings where ego and humility and all these different things come in. You’ve had a run of wins at the Grammys. But before that, we have discussed before, and you recount in the book, a night at the Americana Music Honors and Awards whee you had these mixed feelings where “By the Way, I Forgive You” was up for a few things, and you lost everything. And you didn’t want to be saying that a Jason Isbell or a John Prine didn’t deserve them, but…
Oh, for God’s sake, yeah, absolutely. They totally did! But yeah.
But you also felt like you’d reached a new personal peak, and beyond that, that some kind of representation was missing in the room. [Carlile has gone on to win at the Americanas in subsequent years.] And without naming him, you talk about Tyler Childers going up to accept an award and basically saying that the whole ceremony and Americana designation in general was a ghetto or a sham, and how that made you and others feel. And then you mention always being moved by the Queen song “We Are the Champions,” which is tied into gay people or others who are marginalized deserving and being able to claim victories and trophies. Was it easy for you to talk about how awards feel and how you can be proud of them?
No, it was hard, because I feel like it makes me look pandering or grandiose or self-congratulatory. When I think the truth is, it’s the award denier, the person that won’t accept an award or doesn’t want to show up, that does bother me on some fundamental level, and I haven’t totally reconciled it yet. But whether or not awards or accolades or acknowledgements from other people mean anything to you isn’t really up to you. I don’t think you can intellectualize it. I think your body kind of makes the decision for you, and I am not about to start ignoring those signals when they come to me. For some reason, it means something to me. And it means something to me when someone else wins, too. I get really excited and feel genuinely overwhelmed for someone else.
It was really interesting because I’m sitting there the other day (at the Grammy pre-telecast, where she won again) and I’m watching that Zoom that everybody was on, right? And I was afraid I was having a ton of hot mic moments, because I knew I was on the Zoom and that it was being seen inside the green room by people that were watching it. They would announce the categories, and there’d be people that I wanted to win and then people that I didn’t necessarily want to win. And then they’d say, “And the Grammy goes to…,” and if it was somebody I didn’t necessarily want, I was conscious of not being like, “Oh, goddam it.” Because I knew somebody was watching the Zoom and could have been filming me or whatever. However, if that person was there, and then went on camera to accept the award, I would instantly be converted to happy that they won [laughs], just by the empathy and gratitude of watching something good happen to someone else. And when it comes to accepting awards or seeing awards handed out, it just looks to me like little tokens of affirmation, little reminders that you’re doing a good job — that you’re in the world and that what you’re doing means something. It doesn’t define it. I mean, obviously, I put out five albums before anyone ever mentioned an award. But it is a beautiful thing, and it’s hard for me to see it any other way. And that could be my queerness.
In that situation [at the Americana Awards], I feel like that fellow was a metaphor for me, or at least symbolic, of the fact that there sat a room full of hard-knocked misfits that weren’t being included in the big room for one reason or another. And here’s this guy, and he’s not being included in the big room either, but he believes that he deserves to be. And he happens to be not walking through the world with some of the life situations that we were walking through the world with — people of color, queer people, marginalized people for whatever reason. And it made me feel less seen than I was before I walked in the door. And I’ve since reconciled that, and I’ve talked to other people that share his opinion about the broader conversation of country music and (Americana). But I think that that speech needed more subtext and more fine print. So, maybe he’ll talk on that one day.
We just passed the one-year anniversary of John Prine’s death. You recorded his final song, “I Remember Everything,” which has been released as a preview of a Prine tribute album Oh Boy! will be putting out later in the year. Is there anything particularly about John that that you’ve been thinking about, as the one-year point came up?
I think that the thing I miss about John is that he had this way of like delivering these sermons, these life messages, that could be really hard and unpalatable. When he’s talking about “Sam Stone” or he’s talking about aging or he’s singing about these things that are hard for us to accept… Jason Isbell told me one night, “He’s always got a chuckle.” There’s always a chuckle in every one of John’s sort of sermons. And I think that the way that people would have worked through John’s passing would have been to get on stage and sing his songs and to have a chuckle with the crowd, because that’s what John would have wanted. That’s what “When I Get to Heaven” (from his final album) is about. I don’t think John ever would have written “Buddy, when you’re dead, you’re a dead packer-head” if he hadn’t meant for us to have a chuckle around love and loss. And the pandemic prevented us from doing that, having that wake and sitting shiva every single night for John, which is what we would have done. And when touring comes back, that’s what we’re going to do. I think we’re gonna nod and tip our hats to John every night, all of us songwriters that come from him.
There’s an album on the way later this year that you’ve completed. We’re here to talk about the book, nd there’ll be another cycle for you to talk about the album. But is there anything you’d want to sort of promise people about that now?
Well, the album came from the book. The book was very permissive in that way, and it got us thinking on a deeper level without why we’re all still together (Carlile and bandmate/co-writers Phil and Tim Hanseroth), who we are as a band, and who we are as people. And we kind of feel like the book opened the floodgates. And I can just tell you that this album is very, very dramatic. [Laughs.] Over the top. I’ve spent a lot of my musical life keeping the lid on how massive ‘90s female diva singing has influenced me. And I think that lid is just 10 miles behind me on this album. We really went for it.
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