Finding Happiness Isn't Easy But Brandi Carlile Is Doing the Best She Can
We talked to the pacific northwest folk singer about her latest album, 'By The Way, I Forgive You,' gay motherhood, how shutting the hell up is activism.
Photo by Pete Souza
Despite the very real and concrete strides that have been made in the name of female equality, it is still radical for women to be honest and open about our emotions and experiences. In doing so, one risks the loss of the social capital of being “the cool girl” and having every decision you make or reaction you have judged and questioned time and time again. When you’re confronted by such skepticism from everyone you meet as you try to be honest to yourself and your loved ones, it can feel toxic. In spite of that, here is Brandi Carlile, with a new album that pushes through all the skepticism and negativity.
By the Way, I Forgive You, Carlile’s latest record and 6th studio production, finds the Seattle-born folk singer processing becoming a mother and diving headfirst into raising a child with her wife, Catherine Shepard. Carlile, who gained notoriety in 2007 when her song “The Story” was featured on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, has always had a knack for entertaining—she was at one point a background singer for an Elvis impersonator—and a talent for emotionally crippling songwriting, which is showcased brilliantly on this album, in songs like “The Joke” and “The Mother.” By The Way, I Forgive You, unsurprisingly, is about forgiveness— forgiving yourself for anticipating a fantasy only to be let down by reality and forgiving others for the harm they’ve done to you—and how it’s easier said than done. This album is a testament to Carlile’s strength and bravery in approaching the most fearsome things with an open heart and compassion for days, and in producer Dave Cobb’s ability to produce some of the most cuttingly intimate and stunning albums of the last decade.
“Everything we do is clumsy and trite and human and everything we do is the best that we can,” Carlile says, recounting to me a story of an awakening she had shortly after Trump was inaugurated as president. She had been asked to play at a rally protesting the first iteration of the president’s racist immigration ban, but when she and twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth, who have been her backup singers/guitar accompanists for 18 years (and who she affectionately calls “the twins” for short) arrived, they weren’t able to play because of a broken speaker and because there were too many people on stage waiting to say something. But Carlile and the twins were able to fix a broken speaker, thanks to their time in garage bands. “That was a metaphor for what Americans need to do right now,” she says. “We need to fix the speaker We need to shut up and we need to give them a chance to speak.”
For years, Carlile and the twins believed that making an album should be nothing more than recording what the band did during their shows. “Making records is not my favorite part of my job,” she explains. “Playing live, entertaining people, trying out my thoughts and feelings and seeing how other people react to them on their faces is.” Some of Carlile’s previous producers include T. Bone Burnett, who has worked with Elton John; the Coen Brothers, and oversaw the music for True Detective; and producer Rick Rubin. The decision to work with Cobb, who favors, in comparison, a more nuanced approach to instrumentation and expressive vocal track, signals Carlile’s shift toward a more mature sound. Cobb wanted more drama on this record, and they felt it was more than they could pull off. “I had to be agitated into that [mindset],” Carlile says of Cobb’s expectations, and noted that when it came to addressing “real drama”—the kind that’s so routinely present it doesn’t immediately register as important— “We always thought was kind of indulgent and against the rules.”
“Everything we do is clumsy and trite and human and everything we do is the best that we can"
On By the Way I Forgive You, Carlile introduces us to her new outlook right from the get go. “The Joke” is a reassuring follow up to her 2007 song “The Story,” an arresting folk-rock ballad about falling in love. “I see you tugging on your shirt/ Trying to hide inside of it and hide how much it hurts/ Let 'em laugh while they can/ Let 'em spin, let 'em scatter in the wind/ I have been to the movies, I've seen how it ends/ And the joke's on them” Carlile croons, her voice like a compassionate a hand on a shoulder from someone who knows that the journey to loving yourself and finding your place sometimes takes an achingly long time.
On “The Mother,” in which she sings “You are not an accident where no one thought it through/The world has stood against us, made us mean to fight for you” isn’t just a celebratory song of Shepard and Carlile’s first child. It’s about Carlile’s first foray into motherhood, which she admits she struggled with. Plenty has been written about parenthood by heterosexual couples and, as Carlile points out, there’s no template for what she and her wife are doing. “We don’t know what to do with certain feelings because they’re foreign. And we can’t sit down with a straight counterpart and ask “What did you do when you felt this way?” because it’s different.” Writing “The Mother” helped Carlile reckon with the guilt she felt for not having an experience that mirrors her straight friends’ and it’s inclusion takes the album from a mature reflection on growing up even more to an album that feels radical in its honesty. “I might not feel radical [right now]’ she says, “but in the arc of history and humanity it is radical to start gay families. There’s no template, we’re creating it.”