Country Star Brandi Carlile On Ambition, Avoidance And Finding Her Place : NPR

“Queer people love country music,” says singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile. “… We just don’t think it’s going to open its doors for us. And when it does, it’s incredibly satisfying.” Austin Hargrave / AUGUST hide caption

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Austin Hargrave / AUGUST

“Queer people love country music,” says singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile. “… We just don’t think it’s going to open its doors for us. And when it does, it’s incredibly satisfying.”

Austin Hargrave / AUGUST

Singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile grew up poor in Washington state and learned harmony and rhythm when she performed as a backup singer for the father of a friend who worked as an Elvis impersonator.

“It was quite an interesting training to be in the back of the stage and look at the faces of the audience,” says Carlile. “I’ve learned the things they react to, how contagious a smile is. … And I remembered thinking when I stood in the back of my poodle skirt and said, ‘Actually, I want to be that guy.’ “”

But life at home was tough. She says her father was addicted to alcohol and she felt like an outsider. A turning point in her life came when her Southern Baptist Church refused to baptize her because she was gay.

“It made me think about where God was: Was God in this church? Was God in these people? … Or maybe God was in places I hadn’t gone before, like in music or outside of my city , on the way out of my house, “she says. “I had never been on an airplane at the time. When I knew it was time for me to look beyond my station.”

Brandi Carlile on practicing forgiveness, even when it is difficult

Carlile follows her path to country glory in the new treatise Broken Horses. To date, she has won six Grammys, including two consecutive wins for Best Country Song in 2020 and 2021. Her 2019 song with the Highwomen“If she ever leaves me” is written from a strange perspective. Carlile says she loved how well the song was received.

“Queer people love country music, and we’re kind of in the closet, I think, sometimes as a community,” she says. “But we love country music. We just don’t think it’s going to open its doors for us. And when it does, it’s incredibly satisfying.”

Highlights of the interview

When she nearly died of meningococcal meningitis at age 4

I have really detailed abstract memories of that time. I remember really specific things, things for children that a child would remember like what kind of toys I was given and what kind of food I ate and certain interactions with certain adults. But a lot of it is just based on what I’ve been told in my entire life. … I also felt a bit in tune with how adults feel and how adults walk the world, as opposed to how a child thinks adults walk the world. …

Brandi Carliles 'The Joke' takes you into the emotional stratosphere

The fallibility exposed when you find your parents have no control over whether you live or die – [it] is not something you should really realize until you get much older. I had this knowledge from the start because I saw my parents understandably reacting to the fact that I was a sick child. I saw parents who thought they were going to lose their child and those parents cry and react. And it’s scary because you have to see your parents as those pillars and protectors. And that was a look I got at the fact that it might not, and it had a lasting impact.

Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile

Broken Horses by Brandi Carlile

How surviving her childhood illness fueled her belief that God had a plan for her

I think I took it really seriously. And I think I’ve said that to myself a lot. And I believed it. And that made me feel special. And I think it’s nice when you’re poor, when you don’t have a lot and for many reasons struggle to be different, but you have a sense of specialty. … I think it really helped me move in the direction I was moving in as an artist and as a person. … It gave me a sense of belief in God that is unshakable from the whims of culture, from politics, from people … or from organized religion – especially the church.

When she dropped out of high school in 10th grade with her brother

We moved a lot at the time. Our father was the sickest he had ever been in his alcoholism. We both failed every class. I was in special school classes. [My brother’s] Fear was out of control. And I was out of the closet at school and that was a big deal. This is a really big deal to be around 14 and out of the closet in a small town. I was the only gay person. And just as I was starting 10th grade, one of our moves had led us to a change of address that would have brought me to a whole new school district for the first time in a long time. And I thought I can’t do this again. I can’t get out of the closet in a new place. And I’m so back I just want to be in my band and I just can’t show up anymore. And so we dropped out of school at the same time on the same day and continued our parents’ legacy of leaving school. It wasn’t a nice moment in our youth.

Making music with the Hanseroth twins Tim and Phil

It would be really hard to meet the twins and not see a turning point in them. They have a charisma, work ethic, and magic that is instantly recognizable to anyone who meets them. And I can’t tell you how many times, as your friend, I’ve seen the effect they have on people. So I know this is the effect they have had on me. …


Only that you meet the twins and just want to be with them. You just want to work with them. You just want to sing with them. You just want to play with them. And if you are lucky enough to call them your family or [to] Work with them, you would know what I mean. They are really spectacularly talented and have a mountain of charisma and positivity. You just can’t have a bad day with the twins and you can’t write a bad song.

About building a community – and living with them on their premises

I think I feel really solid and loved in my world. Maybe I’ve finally found my place.

I started getting allies, people who would help me stop me and help me move around the world. I don’t like to be alone. … I can’t do it for a day. When my wife says, “I have to go somewhere with the kids” or “We will see such and such,” and I have to be alone, I just call friends to see who will come and spend the night with me. And not because I’m scared. … I’m embarrassed to say this because I think that we see people who can’t be alone as deficient in some way, but to me it almost feels like everything that happens when you’re alone, just didn’t do it. ‘t happen. Food isn’t great and jokes aren’t funny and music isn’t groundbreaking and nothing feels right to me alone. I think it’s just the cloth I’m cut out of.

How the pandemic made them reevaluate themselves

Around the time the pandemic happened, it got to a point where I would start to see falling returns. You know I would start turning into old patterns I would start getting sick. I was slowly getting tired and hurt. And then it comes down to synthetic things like sleeping pills and things that I’ve had problems with in the past. And the pandemic kind of forced me to sit down and face the things that kept me on that treadmill and made me work, made me work so hard, and where ambition and avoidance intersect. So it was a real study. And can I sit still and should I sit more? And I think the answer to that is a resounding yes, I should sit still a lot more. …

I have to get a grip on my ambition. I need to start enjoying being here instead of constantly proving that I have the right to be here and constantly trying to adapt and assimilate. And at some point I have to realize that I am where I should be and that I don’t necessarily have to keep climbing. …

When I sit here and am 40 years old with my children and wife, I have the reassurance that I have always wanted in my music, and now I have written this book. I think I feel really solid and loved in my world. Maybe I’ve finally found my place.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced this interview and edited it for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper, and Meghan Sullivan customized it for the web.

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