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Brandi Carlile: The Story, The Joke, the mentors and the memoir

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

Neil Morton

Brandi Carlile is grateful to Americana for providing her with a home. But the genre should be in her debt too. Apart from the musical gifts she has presented to her growing audience over nearly two decades, she is a champion of under-the-radar talent, a role model for the LGBTQ community, a campaigner for grass-roots causes and an activist for women artists of colour. If there is a more empathetic, supportive musician and generous collaborator out there, we have yet to hear them.

It is humbling to read about the obstacles she has had to surmount in her searingly honest memoir Broken Horses. Her recovery from meningitis as a child was regarded by her down-at-heel parents as a miracle. Her chaotic, Seattle trailer-park life sharpened her survival instincts. As an openly gay teenager she somehow managed to preserve her faith despite being denied baptism on the day of the ceremony by a pastor nervous about her ‘lifestyle’. ‘Music is still my proof that God is real.’

At an audition for the Northwest Grand Ole Opry Show the young Brandi heard a nine-year-old belt out Dolly Parton’s Coat Of Many Colours. ‘My mind was blown. This was the first time I realised kids didn’t have to wait until they were grown up to follow their dreams and start their lives. I didn’t want to be a kid anymore. I wanted to be a singer.’

Elton John, whose album Tumbleweed Connection introduced Carlile to a world beyond country, became a hero, a mentor and eventually a friend. When she gained her big break, opening for the Dave Matthews Band, she would recall the Opry singing competition when she dressed in a sequined, shiny white suit made by her musician mother to perform Elton’s Honky Cat. She didn’t win but the victories have flowed ever since.

The chapters relating to how The Joke overtook The Story as her finest song and most powerful vocal performance, her triumphant Grammy Awards night, and the endorsement by Joni Mitchell of her songwriting talent elicit the most delicious anecdotes. It was Catherine Shepherd, her wife-to-be and Paul McCartney’s former PA and charity co-ordinator, who persuaded Carlile that Mitchell had to be taken seriously. ‘Joni has changed my life and I now believe Blue is the greatest album ever made and that Little Green is the toughest song in rock ‘n’ roll history.’

The Story, the title track of Carlile’s second album, produced by T Bone Burnett in 2007, was written by Phil Hanseroth before he and twin brother Tim joined her backing band, a tight unit and songwriting team that continues to this day. The alchemy and the ecstasy.

Dolly Parton reworked The Story for an album of covers, in aid of Carlile’s refugees charity War Child, which Brandi produced herself with help from the celebrated Dave Cobb. Adele had already released Hiding My Heart and sanctioned its inclusion. It was a stellar cast: Kris Kristofferson, Jim James, The Avett Brothers, Anderson East, The Secret Sisters, The Indigo Girls and Margo Price. Barack Obama wrote the foreword.

Obama had become the first US president to support marriage equality. She wrote to thank him and he replied on the day she proposed to Catherine. For the wedding, their respective fathers walked them down the aisle, and the twins sang Beginning To Feel The Years, from Carlile’s 2015 album The Firewatcher’s Daughter.

A line in Phil’s composition Every Time I Hear That Song supplied her seminal album of 2018 with its title, By The Way, I Forgive You. Carlile and the twins previewed the tracks to their wives. ‘They each told us in their own way that they knew this music would change our lives. It was time to go to Nashville.’

The album, which explores the nature of forgiveness and compassion, was recorded at the famed RCA Studio A. Cobb told her: ‘You should write something like The Story because nothing you've done has been better than that.’ No pressure, then. ‘I woke up with The Joke beating at the inside of my chest, trying to get out like a bird.’ It was written in half an hour. ‘I was hearing a verse melody from one of Phil’s songs from 15 years ago that we never finished.’

When the musicians gathered to present the almost finished article, Cobb declared: ‘That’s it. That’s the best song you’ve ever written.’ Paul Buckmaster, the eccentric and volatile orchestral arranger who had worked with Elton, David Bowie and The Stones, was brought in with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra to embellish The Joke, Whatever You Do and the magnificent Party Of One, his last musical contribution before his death. Another personal favourite is The Mother, a love letter to the first of her two daughters, Evangeline: ‘The first things that she took from me were selfishness and sleep/ She broke a thousand heirlooms I was never meant to keep.’

Carlile said of The Joke’s serious message: ‘There are so many people feeling misrepresented, so many people feeling unloved. Boys feeling marginalised and forced into these kind of awkward shapes of masculinity... so many men and boys are trans or disabled or shy. Little girls who got so excited for the last election and are dealing with the fallout… people that feel under-represented, unloved or illegal.’ Amid the ascent of Donald Trump, here was an anthem for the disenfranchised.

They can kick dirt in your face

Dress you down, and tell you that your place

Is in the middle, when they hate the way you shine

Let ’em laugh while they can

Let ’em spin, let ’em scatter in the wind

I have been to the movies, I’ve seen how it ends

And the joke’s on them

More than any other track, The Joke showcases Carlile’s extraordinary range and signature vibrato. The battle to protect her vocal cords was becoming serious. Whisky, steroids and anti-inflammatory sprays were not the answer. Surgery was the only cure for recurring cysts. A vocal coach had to be recruited too.

Eager to attend Joni’s 75th birthday tribute in 2018, Carlile was invited to join the line-up of artists and sang A Case Of You in a duet with Kristofferson. Mitchell was recovering from an aneurysm, which struck three years earlier, and was determined to stand for a third time – ‘one out of infancy, one out of polio and one final time now’. It was then that Carlile’s idea to perform the entire Blue album was hatched. ‘What if I kept the original keys and sang it almost verbatim in service to its legacy? Could I even do it?’

Carlile became the most nominated woman at the 2019 Grammy Awards. Elton rang: ‘Can you hear me screaming from England?’ At the ceremony Joni was there to watch her perform The Joke. Three Grammys were nailed and hailed: for best Americana album, best American roots performance and best American roots song for The Joke.

Reaching that implausibly high note at the end of The Joke, the final ‘them’ was dreaded but, with her voice coach in support, successfully reached. ‘I lost all semblance of fear. Before I knew it, the silence was upon me… and then the drum fill. I said fuck it and just screamed the last note. Left it all out there.’

At a quiet celebration dinner with Joni and her closest friends, Carlile summoned the courage to ask permission to sing Blue at Disney Hall in Los Angeles; the Canadian said she’d be honoured. Then followed an invitation to what would become a regular gathering of musical soulmates: ‘Maybe we could have a jam. Are you in?’

The approach about an alternative to The Highwaymen came from Amanda Shires, wife of Jason Isbell. ‘I’d wanted to help assemble an all-female country/Americana supergroup for a while,’ writes Carlile. ‘The Highwomen was the perfect name.’ For Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kristofferson, read Carlile, Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby, with soul sisters like Yola, Sheryl Crow and Margo Price co-opted to the cause. Newport Folk Festival was the perfect launchpad and Dolly Parton the perfect surprise act for ‘a relentless celebration of women I’ll never forget’. No one knew Dolly was coming.

As if life wasn’t hectic enough, the Newport extravaganza was organised while she was producing records for The Secret Sisters and a rejuvenated Tanya Tucker. The Brandi-Tanya collaboration spawned Bring My Flowers Now, a heart-tugging co-write (‘Bring my flowers now while I’m livin’/ I won’t need your love when I’m gone’). Then came Joni’s jams: Chaka Khan and Herbie Hancock turned up and Joni crooned Summertime with the English jazz pianist Reuben James flown in from London. The devotee was invited to harmonise. Phones had to be left at the door.

Carlile found it hard to learn those deceptively simple jazz-tinged tracks for the Blue tribute and imitate Joni’s ‘otherworldly tendencies’. To make the nerves jangle more, Joni confirmed she was coming. Brandi, meanwhile, was chosen to ask the questions in an interview promoting Elton’s autobiography Me in Vancouver. The book inspired her to write her own with the same fearless candour. Elton was the first to be invited to the Blue gig. All original keys, no teleprompter and Joni would be there – ‘You crazy bitch,’ said Elton.

She began to question if she had taken on too onerous a task. A hypnotist was hired to help ease the tension. On the big day she was dressed head to socks in blue, ready for the rhapsody. Cary from the Mermaid Cafe was there, as was Joni – minus the cane. Brandi had told her idol not to tell her where she was sitting. ‘But I saw the whiteness of Joni’s teeth in the darkened auditorium, sitting next to and holding hands with Elton.’ Like proud parents at a school nativity.

At the post-concert party at Joni’s Elton praised their host’s remarkable recovery and sang Your Song. Carlile was asked by Late Show presenter Stephen Colbert how she celebrated her spectacularly successful reprise of the same concert at Carnegie Hall in New York. She replied: ‘I’d had no alcohol for the weeks leading up to this. So I had a shot of tequila and I called Joni on FaceTime.’

Carlile, who seems to have crammed in far more than 40 years of achievement, was impressively productive during the lockdown years, her memoir being followed by an album, In These Silent Days, intended as a companion to the book and featuring a track of the same name, Broken Horses. Carlile and the Hanseroths wrote the material in the expansive farm they share with their families in Washington State. Cobb and sidekick Shooter Jennings were again at the helm in Nashville to record an album that resonated with the influences of Joni and Elton from You And Me On The Rock and Letter To The Past.

Like Right On Time and Sinners, Saints And Fools, Broken Horses highlighted her strength as a lyricist and her high-risk intensity as a vocalist. The Joke and its crescendo were revisited through the righteous anger of the sizzling opening lines:

I wear my father’s leather on the inside of my skin

I’m a tried and weathered woman but I won’t be tried again

I have worn the jester’s bells and I have banished with the fools

I have worshiped at the altar of the puppet master’s rules

Carlile described her Blue homage as one of the greatest nights of her life. ‘I’ll never stop trying to write a song that impresses her.’ The Joke did, and Broken Horses must have done. As Joni herself wrote, songs are like tattoos. At least the great ones are, and there will be many more from Carlile as she lives the Americana dream.


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