“You’re the soul who understands the scars that made me who I am/Through the drifting sands of time I got your back and you got mine.” As she sings in a song on the soundtrack to a new Pixar film, Onward, Brandi Carlile has long sought out and depended on the kindness, the kinship and the collaboration of others.
Whether it’s a songwriting partnership, bandmates, artists she’s producing or her country supergroup, The Highwomen – or for that matter the social activism she talked about in yesterday’s first part of this interview (read part 1 here ).
Today, in part two, she explains the roots of her longest-lasting partnership, and its role in the formation of her newest.
In any 20-year career there are friendships and creative relationships which come and go, burn brightly and then drift away. Or sometimes explode spectacularly. Even if, or sometimes especially if, love and family are involved.
Some, such as Underworld’s Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have lasted an age but still needed to be rebuilt decades in. Some, such as the Rolling Stones Mick Jagger and Keith Richards seem to exist with acrimony as the glue. Few last that long that you begin to lose sight of the origins or wonder where the joins are.
One of those has to be the three-as-one arrangement of Brandi Carlile and the Hanseroth twins, Phil and Tim, who have been inseparable since the three, all from America’s Pacific northwest, threw their lot in together. Phil plays bass, Tim plays guitar, Carlile is up front, but all write, all harmonise, and all work on their projects, whether they are Carlile albums, like her 2018 Grammy-winning By The Way, I Forgive You, her country music supergroup, The Highwomen, or the winner of this year’s Grammy for best country album, Tanya Tucker’s While I’m Livin’.
“That bond was formed in the early 90s in Seattle, Washington. It started with my admiration for them: they are older than me, they were cool, and I wasn’t cool. But they were kind and the sound that our voices made to me we created a complete chord,” says Carlile, who like most people inside and outside the band refers to the brothers simply as The Twins.
“For us it was an instant thing that just happened and we were completely freaked out by it. We didn’t understand how it was going to work out but they were going to quit their day jobs to hang out with a 19-year-old kid.”
They made decisions early on such as splitting their money evenly, merging families (with Phil married to Carlile’s sister), staying close (literally, with all three families living within spitting distance in Washington) and “setting individual parts of ourselves aside for one another”
“Which is not a hard thing to do with twins,” claims Carlile. “They have an understanding about the other that is different to the rest of us. Some people would say they are co-dependent fundamentally, but some people would say they understand something about being human that the rest of us don’t understand.”
Part of this kind of musical and personal relationship is understanding and respecting each other’s roles, rather than elevating ego. For example, David Rawlings, who is Gillian Welsh’s musical as well as life partner, used to describe the musical entity “Gillian Welsh” as a two-person/one face operation and it didn’t matter to him whether people recognised his role or were fixated on the lead.
For Carlile and the twins it is something similar.
“I always have been a little more hyperactive than them. I love entertaining people, starting conversations, and getting the attention, and they don’t. They didn’t want to be entertainers, but I did, so they don’t have to,” she says. “It’s interesting though because it wasn’t an issue, but when we all met we were in long-term relationships – they were married to other people than who they married to now; I was in a long-term relationship - and our band forming meant the end of the end of all our relationships outside of that. Nothing else could survive it because nobody else could understand how we could be okay with our arrangement.
“From that point on, anyone new that came into our lives understood that me and the twins can’t be separated and we won’t be competitive with each other. That’s just the way it is.”
What could she take from that particular adult relationship into a situation like the Highwomen, the band she formed and recorded with Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires – all of them female, all solo artists of varying experience, but each with a strong sense of who they were and what they wanted? (Read a review of The Highwomen album)
“Well [the twins] are in the Highwomen,” Carlile points out. “There is real feminism being supported by men. When that happens creates a contrast that’s really important. I feel like, and I will always know, on every level, that the twins were willing to stand behind me before anyone was talking about it, before it was politically equitable. Before people were talking about being feminist adjacent, they were.
“They are like that in the Highwomen, but they are not the only ones: we all have men that we collaborate with that are in that band and a purely supportive level. A really good example of that would be Jason Isbell [Shire’s partner and her collaborator in his band too].”
This arrangement of equals, at the front and the back of the band is “a really exciting dynamic for the Highwomen” who did contemplate having an all female band or just leaving it as the four of them. It would have made some commercial sense in terms of clean lines of sight for media looking for the easy angle.
However, there was something to be said for a further message being driven home says Carlile.
“We realised that having the men in our lives in a supportive role, underneath us, actually said a lot to the rest of the world,” she says. “And it says a lot to other men.”
Tomorrow, in part three, Brandi Carlile gets to grips with forgiveness and faith.
Brandi Carlile will play Hamer Hall, Melbourne, April 6; Enmore Theatre, Sydney, April 8; and Bluesfest, Byron Bay, April 9-14.