Brandi Carlile wins Grammys, for herself and others; writes songs, for herself and others; takes a stand, for herself and others. As she says, she’s not doing this alone.
Along the way she’s made a career out of being not quite on the inside but not afraid to be on the outside, whether that be the country market, the pop market, the rock market or that bit in between them all that has plenty of names but no real home.
In this three-part interview ahead of her Australian tour (where she’ll be joined by someone else not quite in or out of a number of categories, British singer Yola - read a review of her album) she talks heroes and villains, faith and forgiveness, the bonds you make and the fights you must have – against sexism, racism, homophobia and more.
Today, we begin with lessons learned from a rebel, and how that came full circle decades later.
Heroes come in all kinds of packages, and with all kinds of reputations.
For the teenage Brandi Carlile, growing up in a small town in semi-rural Washington state, it came one day on the TV in the form of a small but intense singer with a gift for being a handful, and a strong desire not to be like the other girls in American country music.
“For me, coming from a place of gender dysphoria and not understanding why I felt I needed to feel so tough as a little girl, realising I was somewhere on the gender spectrum that was different from my siblings and friends, Tanya Tucker really satiated that in me,” says Carlile.
“She had this wide gait and she was the female Elvis and she screamed and hollered. I was like, I really like that, I don’t know why but I really want to perform that way.”
Jump forward 25 years and two decades into Carlile’s career as a lyrical, storytelling singer/songwriter of rare quality, the kind who straddles roots music, Americana, pop and country and reached a golden climax with a triple-Grammy score for 2018’s By The Way, I Forgive You album, she could repay Tucker’s moment of inspiration.
Carlile wrote and produced with Shooter Jennings, son of Tucker’s old drinking partner, Waylon Jennings, this year’s Grammy-winning country album, While I’m Livin’. It was a comeback of sorts for Tucker, long sidelined by the establishment, and the circle was complete.
So how much of her interest in working with the veteran – whose first hit was in 1972, blossoming for the next decade before watching her career shrink in the 1990s - was to connect or celebrate that teenage self and what Tucker meant to her then?
“Some of that was subconscious I’m sure, and I love that experience in retrospect [but] at the time I was feeling a little bit slighted as an American roots artist and wondering why so many of our matriarchs had been forgotten or not upheld,” Carlile says. “And the reasons for that, especially with Tanya, were blatantly misogynistic.
“The exile that was imposed by the country music establishment was just a purity test, plain and simple. She had a problem with drugs, she had had a problem with alcohol in the past, she got around town and caused problems and closed down bars. Basically did all the things that we worship her male counterparts for doing. With her it was deemed inappropriate and she was blacklisted.”
So there was some element of righting a wrong? Of doing right by her?
“I thought if there was anything I could do with this time in my life, after a Grammy and my album doing so well, it was to illuminate this issue and get involved with it,” she says. “When I was invited to become part of the project I became obsessively determined.”
That respect for a woman who was willing to be frank, direct and defiant, in a field where women for so long were asked to be anything but, extends into the even murkier world of politics.
When we speak it’s soon after Elizabeth Warren eviscerated presidential aspirant, Michael Bloomberg. Carlile is yet to see the Democrat debate, but is already primed.
“Oh yes!, Whoa!” she says excitedly as I detail some of Warren’s best lines. “I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Warren’s, huge. I think she is fantastic. I’m actually quite fond of about half of our candidates. I’m probably going to have a glass of wine and watch [the debate].”
It’s clear that Carlile has long abandoned any idea that being a political animal is risky for an artist. She told a newspaper last year, that being political doesn’t come from outside her anymore, it comes from who she is. Or as she puts it today, if you’re existing outside the borders of what once was assumed to be the only way to live “you become innately political just by trying to change the understanding of that”.
“So much of my life and so much of my understanding of civil rights and politics in this country has to do with me being gay, and the fact that I got married before it was legal,” says Carlile, who is married to former philanthropy manager Catherine Shepherd, with whom she has two young daughters.
“[And] what I had to go through to live in the same country with my wife, the fact that I am listed as the father on my children’s birth certificate because we don’t have a template for same-sex parenting, or parenting and family structure outside of our cultural understanding of it,”
From this has sprung a wider passion, with Carlile citing the plight of displaced people and refugees; the struggles on America’s southern border; her country’s relationship with firearms; “and a problem with greed and our inability to look out for the poor or the other or to want to take care of anyone who looks different to us” as causes she won’t stay silent on.
“These are political issues that I have awoken into by being gay, becoming a mother, trying to raise daughters in this time of the world,” she says. “If you are not political, you are lying to yourself.”
Somewhere, Tanya Tucker is applauding.
Tomorrow: in part two, Brandi Carlile explains the three-way musical and personal relationship which has been at the core of her career and her life, and how that has played out in her latest collaboration with three other strong women in music.
“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.”
Brandi Carlile will play Hamer Hall, Melbourne, April 6; Enmore Theatre, Sydney, April 8; and Bluesfest, Byron Bay, April 9-14.
A version of this story was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald.