Brandi Carlile Ranks Her Five Albums
The singer talks about the records that led her to ‘By the Way, I Forgive You,’ as well as same-sex parenting, missing out on the grunge movement, and working with Rick Rubin.
In Rank Your Records, we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
It’s customary to be humble about awards. “It’s an honor just to be nominated” is the traditional PR-speak artists dutifully dole out when asked about being up for Oscars, Emmys, and the like. But Brandi Carlile, an otherwise modest person, lacks humility on this particular subject. When asked if she’s hopeful her latest album, By the Way, I Forgive You, will win a Grammy, the singer responds with a refreshing amount of poise: “Yeah, I really am, and actually, I think it will.”
Carlile has plenty to be confident about. By the Way, I Forgive You is the most fully realized version of the sound she’s been chasing since she dropped out of high school in Ravensdale, Washington, 20 years ago in pursuit of a music career. Featuring a jaw-dropping showcase of her incomparable vocal abilities, it’s a mature record centered around themes of forgiveness, perseverance, and maternity. It doesn’t browbeat the listener by being overtly political, but is inherently so, given that she is penning songs about her experiences with same-sex parenthood in a country where that is still a radical act.
“I just want it to happen once, and if it happens once, I’ll be fine, I can go on with my life,” she says of her Grammy aspirations. (Her 2015 album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter, was nominated for Best Americana Album but lost to Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free.) “My bag is happily full, and filling increasingly day by day, but that one would be big. I feel like I might even be able to zip it up after that.”
Carlile's full bag includes a long list of personal and professional achievements. In addition to sharing the microphone with the likes of Elton John and John Prine, she's also had her songs covered by Pearl Jam, Adele, and Dolly Parton, and has been active in humanitarian work through her Looking Out Foundation. She also just announced the creation of Girls Just Wanna Weekend, a music festival in Mexico that will feature an all-female lineup. On top of all that, Carlile and her wife, Catherine Shepherd, recently welcomed their second child.
To understand the journey that led Carlile to pen her strongest work yet with By the Way, I Forgive You, we had her play favorites with the five albums that got her there. Here's the order she came up with.
Noisey: What puts this one at the bottom in your mind?
Brandi Carlile: It’s funny, I still love Bear Creek, and there’s moments on it that I revisit every night without fail—”Raise Hell,” “That Wasn’t Me,” “A Promise to Keep”—those are really special moments on that record. But it felt really unguided. It was our first one without a producer. And not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we just reacted to that freedom like an 18-year-old in college, like we took every drug. Not really, not real drugs, but we put every experimental thing we could put on there and it sounds to me a bit like demos sometimes.
Also, we were in a situation with our record label where we knew it would be our last thing with Columbia. We were being made to demo every single song and send them in, and they were even sending us back revisions on our demos. We’d never done anything like that before, so it felt like we made Bear Creek three times before we really went in to make the record. So I really felt chaotic going into that record, and there’s really, really good things about that that showed up on that record, but there were other things that I just don’t revisit at this point in my life.
If you could remake the album, what would you do differently?
There are songs I wouldn’t have put on there.
Like which ones?
Probably “I’ll Still Be There,” maybe “Rise Again,” maybe even “Just Kids.” I love those songs but maybe I’d put them on different things, or side projects, or revisit them. But the main thing I would’ve done differently is: I would have dug my heels in and not demoed those songs before we got into the studio to record them.
This was coming off the acclaim and success of The Story and then Give Up the Ghost. Did you feel pressure to top that?
You know what’s funny is, in retrospect, I see those as a success. And I’m so proud of them, but we were being told then that it wasn’t a success. So we were feeling a little bit desperate about Bear Creek, and that was a position we’d never been in before, and we’ll never be in again, where we really felt like we had to please an unseen entity.
So you said it felt like no one was guiding the ship on this one?
No, no, there wasn't. But there were a few really magical moments on Bear Creek where it’s like it wasn’t me. But then there were some songs where I needed to go in after the fact and do the vocals, instead of doing them live with the band. I remember this one moment that was so heartbreaking which was: I went into an isolation booth to do my vocals, and I’m a person who really needs an audience, and it’s always best to do my vocals with the band so I can get their reactions. The way they react to my singing is really important to me. So I’m in the isolation booth and I can’t see the control room from there, and I picture everyone in there listening to me. So I got past the second verse and I heard a pool break, like when somebody’s shooting pool and they break the triangle. And I realized that the whole band was playing pool. And I just went home. I was like, “I dunno, man. I don’t know if I’m meant to be in recording studios.” [Laughs]
You turned 30 when writing this album. Did hitting the big 3-0 mess with your head at all?
Oh my god. That whole Saturn Return thing, I so didn’t want that to be true for me, because I hate clichés, but it was so true. You’re gonna tune out because it has to do with astrology, but they say when you turn 28 to 31, at some point, you’re gonna have a crisis if you’re a woman. And boy, did I have a crisis. And it was during and after that record.
Did that reflect on the record?
I think that the unhingedness reflected on the record, just the directionlessness of where I was at that time. I was really lacking direction.
You got signed to Columbia for your first album. Was there a lot of pressure having your debut on a major or did it just seem normal?
Well, my debut was a chapter in a two-part thing. There’s a prequel to my time on Columbia and to The Story, which is that I had another life where I had met and worked with Rick Rubin. American Recordings was kind of on a freeze at the time. We were gonna sign to American Recordings but they couldn’t sign anybody because of their issues with their parent company. And Rick Rubin saw our need to work and have something to sell at our shows and earn a living. He took our songs we gave him and he divided them down the middle and said, “These are good songs, and these are the B-sides. If you want to record the B-sides so you have something to sell at shows, I’ll oversee it.” So we went in and made Brandi Carlile out of a list of reject songs for The Story. In the middle of that confusion, we gave it to Columbia and they released it for us. So it was this soft release. We didn’t even consider it an album, that’s why we didn’t have a name for it. Now, when I look back on it, I hear all that innocence and hope and ambition and gratefulness.
When you listen back, do you think you’ve evolved a lot as a songwriter?
Sometimes I think that, but sometimes I think, “Man, I wish I could write a song like that again.” It’s hard to say.
I can see a line between the two periods. I can hear a song like “Follow” and link it to “The Joke.” Thematically, they’re the same—not letting the world making you feel like an outsider.
It’s funny to connect “Follow” to “The Joke.” Thematically, “The Joke” is a retrospective. It’s me thinking about young people, and “Follow” is me being a young person. So it’s a compliment to know I can accurately reflect on youth, still. [Laughs] There was a real innocence and intensity to my writing at that time. I remember I would write a song and listen to it 25, 50 times, and obsess on my feelings and what I was thinking—really self-involved in a way I don’t even have the ability to be anymore now that I have two kids.
You grew up just outside of Seattle during the grunge boom. Did that have any effect on you as you developed as a young songwriter?
It completely escaped me! I lived in a really rural space. I might as well have lived in Montana or Idaho. Then I met the twins [musical collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth]. And then I got this immediate, concentrated, almost regretful feeling about it, especially since Kurt Cobain had already died. Then I really wanted to have been involved, and they were involved—they had been at the Colourbox and the Sit & Spin and RKCNDY, and they’d been in all those venues. They were a little bit older than me, and I was like, “Holy shit. I love rock and roll, I didn’t know it, and I missed it.” And then I latched onto Pearl Jam.
So you were a late bloomer on rock.
Late bloomers are always the most obsessive, though, you know? [Laughs]
You started to break out as far as recognition goes after this album came out. Did you find it hard to evolve as a person in the public eye?
I think that, for me, it’s always been easy to have a normal, personal growth trajectory. I know that sounds sterile, but the reason for that was just because me and the twins made this symbolic decision early on to split everything we make three ways. I know that monetary shit doesn’t matter, but it’s symbolic. We made that decision and it kind of spread out to be this emotional thing where we really hold each other up like a tripod. We don’t let each other believe the hype, we don’t let each other get too down, but we don’t let each other get too up, either. We’ve been such a good barometer for reality for each other all these years. We wouldn’t let each other get weird.
What do you remember about making this record?
Everything. It felt like our first record. There was no pressure with Brandi Carlile. That was just B-sides in my mind. I was just waiting until we could record The Story. I had the name of the album and everything. I met T Bone Burnett in a New York City hotel bar and he started talking to me about live recording and it kind of blew my mind. So we started out at his house, almost like taking classes, listening to him talk. Every song had a lesson—usually the lesson was about Appalachia or early American music or a specific artist like The Everly Brothers. And then we would meditate on that for a couple of months and eventually we met up with him at a recording studio in Vancouver, British Columbia. People give T Bone a hard time, like they do with anybody who’s a massive success—Rick Rubin and T Bone get a pretty bad rap at times—but they’ve got their credit where credit is due. I’ve heard a lot that T Bone isn’t present in the studio when making an album, but I feel like we wound up in a really unique situation because T Bone got stuck up in Vancouver. [Laughs] He was in that studio with us all day and all night. That was an amazing lesson for a 23-year-old, or however old I was.
I read an interview where you said you are only nervous to sing in front of T Bone Burnett and God.
Yeah. And when you’re with T Bone for too long, you stop seeing the line between the two. [Laughs]
If you could go back and talk to the 2007 version of yourself, what advice would you give her?
I would’ve given myself some encouragement about my guitar-playing and my voice, about the uniqueness of it.
When did you feel like you finally had a moment where you understood the uniqueness of your voice?
By the Way, I Forgive You. I’ve come through in moments, but I’ve always felt rudderless and lost without an audience, and that record is the first time I didn’t feel that way.
This was your first album after having a daughter?
No, it was just prior. She was born, like, 48 hours after the record was over.
Did that influence the songwriting on this record?
Yeah, man. It absolutely permeated every single square inch of it, whether it was my songwriting on the album or my absence from it completely because of how preoccupied I was with the baby coming. The Firewatcher’s Daughter was probably the most Tim-and-Phil-led album we’ve made to date. I wasn’t even sure what we had until they told me.
I saw your show in Brooklyn this summer and you talked a lot about how people in this generation are pioneers of same-sex parenting. Do you think there’s a weight of responsibility that comes with that?
I feel like there’s a weight of responsibility that comes with gay or LGBT domesticity in general. That’s what I wrote “Party of One” about. When the gatekeepers step aside and allow access to marriage equality or domesticity, they’re just watching you and waiting for you to fail at it. And whether they are or aren’t, you think they are in your head. So you don’t just get to be a normal person in a relationship or a normal person in a marriage. You have to be a person in a marriage making it work because you said that you could and that you deserved the ability to do that. Same thing with parenting. The pressure’s on. I think we’re gonna see that this generation of kids of gay parents are extremely well adjusted. [Laughs]
But obviously, parenting, marriages, relationships, domesticity, these are not easy things. Do you feel like you can speak honestly when things are difficult? Or do you always have to put on this air of things being very good?
I feel like I can speak honestly, and I feel like I have to speak honestly. I feel a duty to acknowledge the fact that there is some pioneering involved with this generation of gay parents and that it’s OK to be in a normal relationship that’s hard. It’s OK to not be the perfect parent, and not know what to do, and not know if you’re even worthy of it because you’ve been told for so long that you’re not. Doubt and faith are really the same word.
You post a lot of photos of your kids on Instagram. I know some artists, specifically male dads, who choose to keep that side of their life private. Do you feel like you even have that luxury? Or do you have to create visibility for gay parents?
Well, I’m just so excited about them that it’s all I care about. I think if the rest of the world is paying attention, then they have the opportunity to witness the joy of a generation that’s been given a civil right in their lifetime. There’s real, unbridled joy in that. All our Instagrams are of our kids and our wives and our weddings, and we’re celebrating it in a way that straight people have gotten jaded about.
Has that ever resulted in fans feeling too familiar, where someone oversteps boundaries?
Yeah, I’ve worried about it before. There’s been times that someone has found something online and sent me a video of my kids getting onto an elevator in a hotel or something. I get how, right now, that feels overly intrusive and worries me, but I have to have a little faith in God and his plan for my family. Because this is a moment in time and history where, if people are interested in my family, and that makes its way to a 15-year-old in rural Idaho that needs to know that she can grow up and get married and have kids even though she’s gay, then it’s worth it to me if it’s a little bit creepy. If it helps a kid the way I needed to be helped, it’s worth it to me.
You also said at that Brooklyn show that all of the fathers in your Lamaze classes told you that you would cry when your daughter was born but you didn’t.
[Laughs] Yeah, I went to two of those classes and then the third one, I broke down crying in the parking lot. And my wife’s like, “What’s wrong with you?” She was the pregnant one. And I was like [sobbing] “I’m not a dad!” So we had to turn around and leave. We’d go to therapy—we had a special child birth coach who works with gay people come to our house and it was amazing. She recognized that there’s a growing need, particularly for women who aren’t pregnant, to be involved in the pregnancy in a way that makes them feel like they’re not being gender-assigned. So she filled up a bucket of ice water and made us both put our arms in it so that we could both feel the pain of ice water. She made us do it for the timing of what a contraction would be so we could support each other. She got it. So I endured all this insecurity for nine months, wondering who the hell I even was in this thing. I’ve never talked about this, by the way. I can’t believe I’m talking about it right now.
But it didn’t help that I realized that all my friends are straight people, and the dads ended up talking to me and the moms talked to Cath. And they all talked to me about how disconnected they felt to the pregnancy, but the minute the baby comes into the room, it hits them, what’s happened. And it’s so emotional that nine months catches up to them in one minute, and they all cried. But when that baby came out, I just didn’t cry. She was just this yellow thing we’d been trying to get out for 11 hours. I was way more concerned about the placenta and how Catherine was doing than the baby. I didn’t understand how to bond with Evangeline. It took a minute for me. And then when I started talking about that, I learned even birth mothers feel that way.
I feel like I haven’t asked you about The Firewatcher’s Daughter. What endears you to this record so much?
Well, The Firewatcher’s Daughter, there are a whole bunch of things, physically, that were amazing and special for me. But then there were so many things that were emotionally special for me. One of them is that, like I said, the twins were really at the helm. Everything I’ve ever taken on since I was a little girl, all I can remember is being the boss—I’ve got my notebook, I’ve got my notes, I’ve got a plan, everybody’s gonna get in line behind me and we’re gonna get this done. It’s been like that every record, every record deal, every concert. I’m a very leader-y type of person. That said, I don’t always get it right. But making Firewatcher, I was the spacey artist person. I couldn’t find my phone anywhere, I got a couple flat tires, I was just staring into bonfires and spacing out and writing songs. I didn’t know who was gonna be there or what time I should be there, I was late every day. I was just kind of in outer space, but really being a real artist. I’ve gone through glimpses of that in my life, but never for such a sustained period. I think I was just preparing for being a parent.
Using that last bit of freedom.
Mmhmm. But the twins, they had the notebook. They led this thing and led the mixes. Sometimes I’d show up and there’d be a microphone and the candles would be lit and they’d be like, “OK, you’re doing this song in this key.”
Is that how you record your vocals, with candles around?
Yeah, I love candles. I have a problem.
Do they add to the mood and ambiance of your singing?
Yeah, fire and candles are a thing for me. I live in a log cabin with no heat. I’ve lived there for 17 years. Every morning, I have to get up and start a fire or the house is cold all day. Candles are the same thing.
You performed in this album cycle on Seth Meyers when Bernie Sanders was the guest and you dedicated a song to him. Was he your candidate?
[Laughs] Man, I’ve been feeling the Bern before anyone even knew he was running.
Did you get to meet him backstage?
I didn’t. He was in and out really fast. I wanted to so bad. But it didn’t matter, I still wanted to send that song out to him so bad because I think he speaks to my generation and I agree with everything that’s ever come out of his mouth. Sorry, dad.
Aside from ...I Forgive You, what puts this one as your favorite in your head?
It was just really hard-won. It was this snapshot moment in time when I felt the most on my game as a songwriter. I feel like I was truly revealing myself and not holding anything back while going through a really hard time.
What were you going through at that time?
Sort of coming-of-age romantic drama. It’s the record that, for years and years, I played the most songs from live. Even when I’d go out and need to be spotlighting Bear Creek or Firewatcher, I'd still have to show off Give Up the Ghost.
When you sing songs from this period now, is it hard to emotionally get back to that place or are you detached from the work?
It’s easy to emotionally get back there and it’s dangerous. [Laughs]
So does it feel like you’re carrying around that ghost? Do these songs feel like weight you want to get rid of or is it good to remind yourself of that time?
It’s just a very adult perspective on that time. That was a time when I was alone inside my mind. It was just me and the pining, trying to figure out what love was gonna look like for me, like I was in training for being a real, whole person. I’ve always wanted to be older than I am.
You mentioned that people have misconceptions about Rick Rubin’s production style. He worked on this record. What was he like in the studio?
It’s hard to talk about that because Rick Rubin was a different person than Rick Rubin is now. I have a lot of love for him and he’s taught me so much, but that record wasn’t a high point for either of us. [Laughs] Which is another reason I say it was hard-won. He never came to the studio.
So how does he end up with his name on a record if he’s completely hands-off?
He wasn’t, that was the problem, you know? We had to do the work and then drive out to his house and play it for him, and then go back and change everything we’d done all week. Around that time was when I was the most depressed and was in the most pain and the most unhealthy in my life—living in LA, too thin, hair’s falling out, just completely off course and feeling really lost, and not getting along with anyone except the twins.
And yet you regard this record so high in your catalog.
Yeah. [Laughs] Isn’t that weird?
Is it because you see it as a triumph over that period?
Yeah, I look at it as a triumph, and my ability to still reveal myself even though it was really painful at the time. I did things like—I was in such pain when I wrote songs like “I Will” that I made myself get up at six o’clock in the morning just so everybody knew how tired I really was. I just wanted it to go down in history like: I’m fucked up right now and I want it to sound like it. So I listen back to it and think: I’ll never be that person again, I hope. It’s just an honest record.
You also worked with Elton John on this album, who I know you’d been a fan of.
It seems like at this point you’ve checked off so many career goals like that. Is there anything still to do on your bucket list?
Oh yeah, man. I’ll never run out of those little things—the carrots I dangle in front of myself to keep me alive. Singing with Elton live, that would be a huge one. I’d love to meet Joni Mitchell someday. I want to make a record in England. I want to headline The Gorge, which is a mecca where I saw all my favorite concerts growing up. I’ve got a lot of things, man. I want to sing with Dolly Parton.
She covered one of your songs from The Story, right?
Yeah, she did, and she sang the shit out of it. She sang me under a table. That’s her song now. I can’t sing it anymore without deviating to her melody.
I remember reading an interview with Trent Reznor once and he said the same thing about “Hurt” after Johnny Cash sang it. Like, “Yeah, that’s his song now. He owns it.”
That’s the way it is. If Dolly sings your song, it changes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.