Brandi Carlile: Everybody Else’s Story

Photo by Catherine Carlile

“Is it okay if I take my shoes off?” Brandi Carlile asks somewhat rhetorically, settling into a leather chair at an office in Nashville’s Marathon Village, an industrial brick building that used to manufacture boilers and now is home to hip distilleries and a shop owned by the host of reality antiquing show American Pickers. Carlile, in jeans and an olive-green vest, kicks off her boots and gets comfortable while tourists mull outside, eager to grab that perfect vintage road sign, or at least a branded t-shirt.

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Truth is, she’s actually a little nervous. In a few hours, Carlile will join Anderson East and Brent Cobb to play a club gig in East Nashville, a holiday party for their label, Low Country Sound. Carlile recently made the move to the Dave Cobb-helmed Atlantic imprint from ATO to release her new LP, By The Way, I Forgive You, and to work with Cobb himself. But she’s barely played any of the new songs, and she’s worried that things might get emotional up there. And if a woman who’s sung for, and become a favorite of, President Obama is feeling the jitters, it’s clear she really means it. 

“I don’t know how I’m going to do any of these fucking things,” she says, laughing uneasily. There’s the technical stuff that has Carlile a little uncertain, like a new drummer and that new material, but it’s also the content that she’ll be singing about: for the first time, Carlile and her bandmates, twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth, are getting more personal than ever, and political, too. Known for resisting any discussions about the meaning behind their lyrics and seeing her songs as “cloaks” — in other words, keeping things broad enough that they can be worn by anyone — By The Way, I Forgive You comes from the lives and experiences of Carlile and the twins in a way they are more willing to talk about than ever before. These tracks aren’t just cloaks. They’re the skin and bones underneath.

Carlile, the owner of one of music’s most otherworldly voices, has been making changes left and right these days: a new label, two new producers (Shooter Jennings and Cobb tackled By The Way, I Forgive You together), a new baby on the way — she and her wife Catherine Shepherd are parents to a daughter, Evangeline, and they’re expecting a second girl soon — and a new way of writing and talking about her songs. And it was clear as soon recording began in the legendary RCA Studio A in Nashville that all of these transitions were going to breed some heavy releases, like the way deep massage can unleash years of repressed emotions, stashed away in a knotted shoulder.

“We are all so northern, we are basically Canadian. We don’t cry or express ourselves except through music,” Carlile says. She and the twins all live within miles of each other 45 minutes outside of Seattle, and they moved their families to Nashville for a month to make the album, living in a house in the Belle Meade neighborhood. “But we were recording and got through most of a song, and then just burst into tears. And it was the second day. We all ran to each other and we were crying and it was the weirdest thing that ever happened to us. I think it scared Dave pretty badly.”

Cobb wasn’t too fazed (“You can’t freak me out,” he says), and they went on to make By The Way, I Forgive You over the course of three weeks, adding stunning instrumental arrangements from the late Paul Buckmaster to songs like the scorching political roots anthem “Hold Out Your Hand.” “She walked in ready to kick butt and tell the truth,” says Cobb. “And you can’t underestimate the twins. They are such a big part of everything.”

Indeed, the dynamic between Carlile and the Hanseroths has been one of music’s most distinctive partnerships: they peform under Carlile’s name, but write the songs together and thoroughly consider themselves a band — even a family, which became reality when Phil married Carlile’s sister. But up through their last record, 2015’s The Firewatcher’s Daughter, they still divulged who was responsible for what when it came to the track listing. Phil Hanseroth gets credit for their breakthrough hit “The Story,” and Carlile and Tim Hanseroth the more recent single “Wherever Is Your Heart.” But on By The Way, I Forgive You, they’ll keep it vague, neglecting to disclose who actually composed what at all.

Carlile with bandmates Tim and Phil Hanseroth. Photo by Pete Souza

“All of it says, ‘All songs written by Brandi, Tim and Phil.’ We just always feel like we are waking up and looking through the same windows,” Carlile says. “We live on property with each other. When somebody gets divorced, we are all at divorce court. When somebody gets married, we are all at the altar. When somebody dies, we are all at the funeral. We are all writing each other’s story. Everybody that has died, went to jail, took their own life, went to rehab, it has affected all of us. It’s the story of what makes us more than a band. And we want it to be everybody else’s story, too.”

Cobb didn’t just want their story — he wanted “The Story,” again. To be exact, he wanted a moment where Carlile could show the full range of her vocals and let those abilities ring through in a way she hasn’t quite done since that seminal single. See her live, and it’s there full force — Carlile can wield her voice to quiver like a bent note at the end of a guitar solo and soar as loud as an opera singer, still managing to keep a tender touch of rasp — but she hasn’t let it go wild on her recordings in the same way. Cobb wanted her to go there again, so he asked the trio: can you make another “‘Story’ moment?” It was a bold request that didn’t go down easy at first.

“It really upset the twins,” Carlile says. “Asking you to do something similar to something you did a decade ago is hard. It felt like he was saying, ‘You haven’t done anything as good as this since you did this!’ But don’t we all want to be how we were at our best moment? It started to feel like a faith-based request more than a criticism. That I didn’t want to let him down, and I wanted to try.” Carlile started thinking it over more carefully and that night, as she went back to their home in Belle Meade and asked her wife about it, she got a hard bit of truth. “I told her that he asked us to do a song like ‘The Story,’ and said that I haven’t had a vocal moment like that since then, and can you believe this shit?” she recalls. “And my wife said, ‘Darling, if you’re honest, is he right?’”

What came out of that debate was “The Joke,” the record’s first single and a soaring ode to championing individuality and silencing the naysayers in a world overflowing with them. Inspired by a friend’s son who wasn’t being accepted at school, it’s the most cloak-like of the bunch. “It dawned on me that sometimes we have a tendency to put boys into boxes,” she says. “I was thinking about him, and all the girls who were so excited before this election and really believed that something would happen.” In “The Joke,” the joke’s on everyone who says no or why or “you shouldn’t be that way.” And it’s also within the sheer power of Carlile’s voice.

“It was really, ‘Come on, show people what you can really do,’” Cobb recalls of egging her on in the studio. “She got a laugh out of that. When she goes crazy at the end, it’s all that emotion but being like, ‘Yeah, all right, let me school you jokers.’ But it wasn’t hard to coax that out. She’s a natural.”

“The Joke” might unlock those vocals but it was the album’s opener, “Every Time I Hear That Song,” that really exposed the personal nature of these recordings before most of them even began. “I knew right then and there this was going to be a confessional,” says Carlile about the genesis of that song. It’s about divorce “in awful circumstances,” and what it means to forgive someone — and it was also quite clear that the process of spelling this all out in an album wasn’t going to be easy. For anyone. “All the current people in our lives were going to have to hear things they didn’t want to,” Carlile says.

Carlile also let things get more political on By The Way, I Forgive You. Always a passionate activist — her album Cover Stories, celebrating the 10th anniversary of The Story with appearances from the likes of Dolly Parton, Adele, Margo Price and Pearl Jam and a foreword written by President Obama benefitted the organization War Child — she and the twins founded the Looking Out Foundation, which “aims to amplify the impact of music by empowering those without a voice.” But she stopped short of taking any sort of political stance itself when it came to songwriting. Until this record.

Carlile with her daughter Evangeline and the family dog. Photo by Catherine Carlile

“I used to think I could be more ambiguous with politics,” Carlile says. “I used to say ‘I don’t support politics, I support issues.’ But, you just have to get in with both feet, and now I totally disagree with that. You have to really rage against what oppresses people.” She admires Price, Shovels and Rope, Jason Isbell and the Avett Brothers as a few of the modern examples — Price, in particular, jumps out. “She’s really brave,” Carlile says. “She knows she is in an industry that might not be receptive to it. And she’s not 23. She can’t afford to take chances, but she is still doing it. That’s what I love about her.”

“Hold Out Your Hand” includes a fiery vocal assault on police brutality and gun violence; “Sugartooth” tackles addiction; and “The Joke” is the perfect antidote to the culture of rage and hatred in the Trump era. But they are still glaringly personal, too, with “The Mother,” written for Evangeline, perhaps being the most potent example. Since becoming a mother herself, Carlile has had to grapple with even more transitions — from the sweeping life changes that innately come with parenting to the smaller, stickier ones, like how it’s impossible to keep a car tidy when there’s a toddler in the backseat, and how to manage a house full of toys when you can’t stand the presence of a million plastic doodads.

“She’s made me come into her lane on so many things,” says Carlile. “Everything has to be stimulating and vibrant. Everything was dark and gray and hip before she came along. Literally and metaphorically, she brought color into my life.”

It was crucial for Carlile to bring along that color to her Belle Meade homestead as she and the twins made the record: In the morning, they’d all get up, have breakfast and play with the kids or dangle their ankles in the pool, and at night, they’d be back for the bedtime routine. While some artists like to decamp to secluded cabins or Gothic castles to make records, leaving the realities of daily life and personal attachment behind, Carlile needs to be surrounded by what she knows.

“I think some artists want to be away from that when they are creative because it’s what grounds you,” she says. “And it’s really hard to feel larger than life when you are around your kids. And if you want to just be rock star, that’s one thing. But if you just want to connect with people, they need you to be down to earth. People need you to stay in real life.”

With that, Carlile pops her boots back on and heads out across town to get ready for tonight’s show — where she’ll bound onto that stage like the rock star she is to a packed house as Miranda Lambert, East, Dave Cobb, and Dave’s cousin Brent Cobb look on. Evangeline was supposed to be there, too, but she had a tantrum and ended up in bed instead, a story Carlile recounts as she introduces “The Mother,” alone with her acoustic guitar and coming back down to earth.

“Having a daughter was the most incredible, most enlightening, most awful and inconvenient thing to ever happen to me,” she told the audience. “I struggle with it daily. But I love her with all my heart, and I just feel like songwriters are put here to tell the truth.”

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