Singer Brandi Carlile Talks Ambition, Avoidance And Finally Finding Her Place
The six-time Grammy winner got her start as a kid, singing backup for an Elvis impersonator. Her new memoir, Broken Horses, is about her early life and the family she's built.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Grammy Award-winning songwriter, singer and guitarist Brandi Carlile, has written a new memoir that gets off to a dramatic start with her near death from meningococcal meningitis at the age of 4. She had a lot of tough times growing up, periods of poverty, moving around a lot with her family. Her father drank too much. She was bullied and was a bully in school. She felt like a misfit.
But things got better. She realized she was gay. She found women she loved. And she fulfilled her childhood dream of becoming a successful singer-songwriter. She met the Hanseroth twins, Tim and Phil, and they formed a band together that has stuck together. In 2019, their album "By The Way, I Forgive You" won best Americana album of the year. And the song "The Joke" won for best American roots song and American roots performance at the Grammys.
Carlile is also part of the group The Highwomen, along with Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby. That group won three Americana Music Awards in 2020 and a Grammy for best country song in 2021.
Carlile and her wife Catherine have two daughters and live on a compound in the state of Washington with the Hanseroth twins and their children. Phil Hanseroth Roth is married to Carlile's younger sister Tiffany. Carlile's cellist is married to Catherine's sister. Brandi Carlile's new memoir is called "Broken Horses." Let's start with the song "The Joke," the song that won two Grammys in 2019.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE JOKE")
BRANDI CARLILE: (Singing) You're feeling nervous, aren't you, boy? With your quiet voice and impeccable style. Don't ever let them steal, your joy and your gentle ways to keep 'em from running wild. They can kick dirt in your face, Dress you down and tell you that your place is in the middle when they hate the way you shine. I see 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. The joke's on them.
GROSS: Brandi Carlile, welcome to FRESH AIR.
CARLILE: Thank you. It's so good to be here with you.
GROSS: That song is kind of about, you know, being a misfit, being excluded because of who you are, being seen as less than. So I think your book starts with a reason you might have felt like a misfit right from the start of your life. And that's what I referred to before, getting meningitis when you were 4 and, you know, nearly dying, being in a coma and flat-lining several times while you were in the coma. Doctors weren't sure you'd pull through. When you think about that moment, that period - and I know your memories of it - I'm sure you don't really remember being in a coma. But when you think about when you learned that you were in that world between life and death, what do you think about?
CARLILE: I think I have really detailed abstract memories of that time. And I remember really specific things, kid things, you know, that you'd think a kid would remember, like, you know, what kind of toys I was given and, you know, 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 throughout my life and in a way that I felt when I came out of that, which is that I felt a little bit too in tune with how adults feel and how adults walk through the world, as opposed to how a child thinks adults walk through the world.
GROSS: What do you mean by that?
CARLILE: Well, I think that the fallibility that gets exposed when you realize that your parents don't have any control over whether or not you live or die is not something you're supposed to really realize, I think, until you get a lot older. So from the get, I had that realization because I - you know, I saw my parents react understandably to me being a sick kid. I saw parents that thought they were going to lose their child and that those parents, they cry. And they react. And it's scary because you sort of need to see, I think, your parents as these kind of pillars and protectors. And that was a glimpse that I got into the fact that that might not be so, and it had a lasting impact.
GROSS: Did you grow up afraid of death and that it could take you at any moment?
CARLILE: Yeah, kind of. But I did believe that there were mystical reasons why it didn't. It was kind of part of my narrative.
GROSS: Yeah. Your family thought that you survived because God had a plan for you. How seriously did you take that? That's a - kind of a lot of pressure in a way (laughter), isn't it?
CARLILE: It is a lot of pressure. You're right. I don't know. You know, I think I took it real seriously. And I think that it was something that I told myself really often, and I believed it. And that gave me a sense of, like, specialness. And I think it's nice when you're poor, when you don't have a lot and you struggle, you know, for a lot of reasons with being different, but you have a sense of specialness - you feel that you have a sense of specialness. I think it really helped me move in the direction that I moved in as an artist and as a person.
GROSS: Did it give you a sense of faith in God that you maybe wouldn't have had otherwise?
CARLILE: It did. It gave me a sense of - the faith in God that's an unshakable by, you know, the whims of culture, by politics, by people.
GROSS: Or by organized religion (laughter).
CARLILE: Or by organized religion - by church specifically. Yeah, exactly.
GROSS: So you knew when you were a child that you wanted to sing, and when you went with your mother to, you know, the regional opry where she was auditioning, you saw a 9-year-old sing. And you thought, if she can do it when she's 9, I could do it when I'm 9. I don't have to wait till I'm an adult. And you started singing and auditioning when you were a child as a result of that. Did you start to feel at that point like maybe that was the special thing that God had singled you out for?
CARLILE: Um, I don't think I drew that conclusion right away. But the epiphany of realizing that that was something I didn't have to wait to start is like, you know, what do you get asked as a kid all the time by adults? Like, what do you want to do when you grow up? What do you want to do when you grow up? And it never occurred to me that music wasn't something I had to wait to grow up to do until I saw Amber Lee strut her stuff out on that stage and sing Dolly, I realized that, yeah, I can get this going right now. And I did. And that was mystical in its own sense without me having to draw the correlation to my childhood illness. It took a long time for me to be able to do that, probably up into my 30s.
GROSS: You wanted songs that belonged to you even when you were a child, and you didn't know how to find a songwriter. So you thought, well, maybe I'll write some songs myself. Do you remember the first song that you wrote?
CARLILE: Yes, I do remember the first song that I wrote. I had just gotten the opportunity to open for the country singer Shelly West. And at the end of it, I remember just being manic, like, high as a kite because I had just played this tremendous show, and the audience reacted really explosively. And I was so excited about it. And I remember telling my mom that the difference between me and Shelly West was, like, almost nothing and that it was going to take almost nothing for me to just be a gigantic country star...
CARLILE: ...Like 10 or something. And she, like, leaned down to me and said something about how she just met a composer. And he had two originals that he wanted her to sing. And I was never competitive with my mother or anything. But I remember that that was the worst news because it occurred to me there was a thing called an original and that if you don't have an original, you're just acting. You're just singing other people's songs. And I was obsessed at that point with having a song that was written for me. And when I realized that I was 10 and wasn't going to have access to that...
CARLILE: ...I wrote one (laughter). It's called - and it was called "Ride On Out." And it was about, you know, riding on out into the sunset.
GROSS: Can you sing a few bars of it?
CARLILE: Yeah. It was like, (singing) I'm going to ride on out. I'm going to hit the road. I'm going to take to the trails with a speedy mode, leave you behind in a dusty cloud, sing nature's song both quiet and loud. And when the sun sinks behind the mountains high, I'll sing my sad songs beneath the purple sky and fall asleep inside my saddle deep, awake on up to the morning sweet. I'm going to ride on out. I'm going to hit the road. And that was it.
GROSS: What were you thinking about? What was the story in your mind that accompanied the lyric?
CARLILE: I was thinking about cowboys or cowgirls riding through the desert on horseback and falling asleep next to a campfire and their saddles and, you know, picking on acoustic guitars and spending the days with the tumbleweeds in the night with the stars and the coyotes. And I just had this imagery in my mind of leaving and just taking my music and going.
GROSS: Well, that's great. Well, thank you for singing that for us. Your friend Amber, who loved to sing, started singing with you. And her father was an Elvis impersonator. So you and she became his backup singers and had to learn the parts of the Jordanaires, who sang backup for Elvis Presley. What did you get out of studying Elvis recordings and the Jordanaires' harmonies?
CARLILE: Well, I mean, that is not a bad education. It was like - it was a lesson in pitch. It was a lesson in delivery. It was a lesson in blend, but also countermelodies - the fact that the harmonies didn't happen at the same time the lead vocals happened, the fact that they were in rhythm, that you could hear snaps and movement and feet stomping. They were just musical bodies. They were the greatest, probably, that's ever been. So I came out of the gate with really high expectations for background vocals in particular. And to be honest, I also learned a hell of a lot by watching people react to Elvis' moves, even if it was on a impersonator. It was pretty interesting education to be on the back side of the stage looking at audience faces, which is where I've actually learned a lot in my life.
GROSS: What did you learn from watching the audience?
CARLILE: I learned the things that they react to, how a smile is contagious. I learned about comedic timing. I learned about sort of, like, physical communication, especially because Elvis was such a physical communicator with the audience. And I remembered thinking, standing back there in my poodle skirt, going, you know, actually, I want to be that dude.
GROSS: Now, was that the black-leather dude or the white-suit dude?
CARLILE: Both. You name it. You name it.
GROSS: (Laughter) Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brandi Carlile. She's a Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and guitarist. Her new memoir is called "Broken Horses." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAKE SHIMABUKURO'S "FIVE DALLARS UNLEADED 2010")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with singer-songwriter and guitarist Brandi Carlile. She's won Grammys, Americana Music Awards and a Country Music Award. Her new memoir is called "Broken Horses."
So you write in your memoir - this is referring to your period when you were in school. And you dropped out when you were a sophomore in high school. You wrote, my need to be perceived as confident and strong was starting to consume me. This period is, to say the least, a fragile time in any child's life. gender dysphoria, as I understand it now, is a natural concept during adolescence. But I had no language for it. Would you describe what you were experiencing?
CARLILE: It's abstract. But I think I was experiencing, you know, the beginnings of puberty and not really understanding how to be in my body. I think that's a pretty common adolescent experience just in general. But I didn't know any gay people. And I lived in a really small town. And I didn't know how to call what I was feeling. And so I think that I developed kind of a style of interacting with people that was in character, like a persona. And I remember just trying to feel and appear really strong and confident and charismatic when that's obviously the opposite of how I felt inside.
GROSS: I don't know if this song exactly fits here. But I want to play it. And the song is called "That Wasn't Me." And you describe it in your memoir as a song that's your deepest healing song. I'd like - before we hear it, I'd like to know what you mean by that.
CARLILE: Well, I think that I wrote that song about my father's addiction and recovery. And...
GROSS: His addiction to alcohol?
CARLILE: Addiction to alcohol and recovery. And, you know, I grew up in Al-Anon/Alateen. And, you know, I was sort of steeped in a philosophy and that kind of language and that sort of understanding. And when my dad finally did get sober as I was an adult, I wrote that song kind of, like, from his perspective or maybe what I felt like, in some ways, I needed him to say or what I knew that he would say if he could. So that's what that song is about for me.
GROSS: So I like this a lot. So let's hear it. This is Brandi Carlile, "That Wasn't Me" from her 2012 album "Bear Creek."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THAT WASN'T ME")
CARLILE: (Singing) Hang on. Just hang on for a minute. I've got something to say. I'm not asking you to move on or forget it. But these are better days. To be wrong all along and admit it is not amazing grace, but to be loved like a song you remembered even when you've changed. Tell me, did I go on a tangent. Did I lie through my teeth? Did I cause you to stumble on your feet? Did I bring shame on my family? Did it show when I was weak? Whatever you see, that wasn't me. That wasn't me. Oh, that wasn't me.
GROSS: So that was my guest, Brandi Carlile, her song, "That Wasn't Me." Your parents didn't go to church much, but you did. We talked a little bit earlier about feeling that, you know, God had a plan for you and that's why you were spared from death when you were 4 and had meningitis. But, you know, the church you went to is pretty hostile to homosexuality. How did you reconcile that when you started to figure out that you were gay and that the church was not going to approve of that?
CARLILE: Well, to be honest with you, I don't know why I overlooked it. I think that I've always just felt that even if the culture or the environment of where I'm at isn't where I'm physically at, isn't where I'm at emotionally or spiritually in my life, that just my - by my being there, I can affect it positively or pull it forward, you know? It's another way of saying that, like, wherever you stand out the most might be where you're most needed. And I remember knowing that the church I was going to at the time with my brother felt that way and had those tenets and principles. But it didn't discourage me from going there. I think I thought I could reconcile it somehow or even improve the church culture or the church environment by standing in contrast to what they were saying and what they were believing. But that wasn't the case. And, you know, that was just me not realizing that people don't change unless they want to. Yeah.
GROSS: Well, you weren't able to be baptized. How were you told that you weren't going to be baptized?
CARLILE: Well, you know, I mean, anybody that was raised Southern Baptist or has been a Baptist at times they know about the kind of process of baptism. And they know about public accountability. And there's a lot of, like, everyone close your eyes and come forward if you want to give your life to the Lord or you want to declare that it's your time to be baptized. And those kinds of things happen a lot. And there's a lot of these kind of audience-based testimonials and declarations. And I always kind of avoided those things for obvious reasons. But, you know, one day I didn't. And I felt compelled. I felt like I wanted to be baptized. And looking back on it, I can see that it's that I wanted acceptance in a broader sense. My being gay never came up, although, it was well-known. I used to come to church with my girlfriend sometimes. And, you know, I had, like, two inches of hair on top of my head. And I declared that I was never going to eat meat again. And...
CARLILE: I was kind of - I was doing the things I thought I was supposed to do. And - but on the day of my baptism where my friends and family had all been invited to the church to see this go down, I got there and was taken aside and told that, you know, unless I declared that I intended to no longer be gay that I couldn't be baptized that day. And it just came as such a shock. And it was that kind of deep public humiliation stuff that I was always afraid of, you know? And that's what that whole thing was about. Trying to feel confident and strong and brazen was about trying to avoid those moments. And then it happened. And it was a big shift in my life spiritually and musically and emotionally.
GROSS: What was the shift spiritually?
CARLILE: Well, it made me rethink where God was, you know? Was God in this church? Was God in these people? Was God in these displays of piety, like, this grandstanding of baptism and these testimonials? Or was God maybe in places I had yet to go, like in music or outside of my town, out on the road, you know, out of my house? And I had at that point never even been on an airplane before. So it's when I knew that it was time for me to seek beyond my station.
GROSS: We need to take another short break here. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter and singer Brandi Carlile. Her new memoir is called "Broken Horses." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I BELONG TO YOU")
CARLILE: (Singing) I belong to you now. I belong to you. I belong to you now. I belong to you. I belong to you now. I belong to you.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAMES HUNTER SONG, "I'LL WALK AWAY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with singer-songwriter and guitarist Brandi Carlile. She won three Grammys in 2019, three Americana Music Awards in 2020 and a Country Music Award in 2021. In addition to fronting her own band, she's part of the country group The Highwomen, along with Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby. Brandi Carlile's new memoir is called "Broken Horses."
You left high school when you were a sophomore. And your younger brother, who's just about a year younger than you, left at the same time. Did that have anything to do with not getting baptized? I'm not sure of the chronology.
CARLILE: No, uh-uh. I think that it had - it was that - there were a lot of reasons for it at that time, and it wasn't clear to me then. But when I look back on it now, you know, I see why it happened.
GROSS: Which is?
CARLILE: Well, I just felt that what I was going to do, I didn't have to wait to start. And that's not to say that I don't have any regrets or that it wasn't a really - that it didn't lay a burden on my shoulders because it did, and it has for years. And actually, this - writing this book has done more for me reconciling my lack of an education than anything ever has. But at the time, you know, we were moving a lot. Our dad was the sickest he'd ever been in his alcoholism. We were both failing every class. I was in special education classes. Jay's anxiety was out of control. And I was out of the closet at school, and that was a big deal. That's a really big deal to be, like, 14 and out of the closet in a small town. I was the only gay person.
And just as I started 10th grade, we had - one of our moves had led us into an address change that would have put me in a whole new school district for the first time, you know, in a long time. And I was like, I can't do this again. I cannot come out of the closet in a new place. And I'm so behind. I just want to be in my band, and I just can't show up here anymore.
And so we dropped out of school on the same day at the same time and continued our parents' legacy of dropping out of school. And it was not a beautiful (laughter) moment in our adolescence.
GROSS: Did that open the door to doing more music?
CARLILE: It did after a minute. I think for a minute, we were in grief about it without really knowing that that's what it was. I remember my brother and I went to a yard sale. We picked up a big old box of unlabeled VCR tapes, and we just laid in bed for months and watched mystery movies and didn't talk. We didn't talk about it. We didn't talk to our parents. We were just total losers. And when we came out of it, we came out of the gate really recommitted to and solidified in our music and in our band. But we did have a grief period where we realized that we were those kids that had dropped out of school really young.
GROSS: Well, you've had several turning points in your music life, but one important and lasting one was meeting the Hanseroth twins, Phil and Tim. And they play guitar and other instruments and sing harmony and write or co-write songs for your band. Did you realize it was a turning point when you started playing with them?
CARLILE: It would be really hard to meet the twins and not see a turning point in them. They have a charisma and a work ethic and a magicalness that is just instantly apparent to anyone that meets them. And I can't tell you how often, as their friend, I have witnessed the effect that they have on people. So I know that's the effect they have on me.
GROSS: What effect are you talking about?
CARLILE: Just that you meet the twins and you only want to be with them. You, like, only want to work with them. You only want to sing with them. You only want to play with them. And if you're lucky enough to call them your family or work alongside them, you'd know what I mean. They're really spectacularly talented, and they've got a mountain of charisma and positivity. You just cannot have a bad day with the twins, and you can't write a bad song.
GROSS: I want to play a track in which the three of you harmonize together. It's called "The Eye." It's from your 2015 album, "The Firewatcher's Daughter." And do you want to say anything about recording this? It's just - it's really beautiful.
CARLILE: Oh, thank you. Well, we recorded this with Trina Shoemaker on our album "Firewatcher's Daughter." And we all stood around in our configuration, which is, like, three microphones in intertwined stands that face each other and bring our faces uncomfortably close to one another to where it's very important that we've all had a mint that day. And we just sing...
CARLILE: ...Three-part harmony at the same time. And something - the tension between the three of us keeps us all in sync. And that's how we record three-part harmony on everything. But on this song in particular, it's a little extra special because the three-part harmony is what makes the three of us what we are. And this is the first time we decided to really do it front and center for a whole song.
GROSS: So let's hear it. This is my guest, Brandi Carlile, and the Hanseroth twins. And this is "The Eye."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE EYE")
CARLILE: (Singing) It really breaks my heart to see a dear old friend go down to the worn-out place again. Do you know the sound of a closing door? Have you heard that sound somewhere before? Do you wonder if she knows you anymore? I wrapped your love around me like a chain. But I never was afraid that it would die. You can dance in a hurricane, but only if you're standing in the eye. Where did you learn to walk? Where did you learn to run away from everything you love? And did you think the bottle would ever ease your pain? Did you think that love's a foolish game? Did you find someone else to take the blame?
GROSS: That was "The Eye" from Brandi Carlile's album "Firewatcher's Daughter." And we heard her singing harmony with Tim and Phil Hanseroth - the Hanseroth twins. And they've been together as a band since what year?
CARLILE: I mean, probably 2000, 2001 - somewhere around there. Yeah.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brandi Carlile. She's a Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and guitarist. She has a new memoir called "Broken Horses." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBEN FORD AND BILL EVANS' "CATCH A RIDE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with singer, songwriter and guitarist Brandi Carlile, who's won Grammys, Americana Music Awards and a Country Music Award. Her new memoir is called "Broken Horses."
Your first really serious long-term partner, Kim, was 17 years older than you. And you write a little bit about what you describe as your attraction to older, androgynous women when you were younger. And you say at the time, you told yourself it's because you were special and you were an old soul. How do you think about it now looking back?
CARLILE: I think that I was looking for something. I was trying to stabilize from my childhood. And I needed to connect to some really soulful older people in life. And I did that romantically. I did that in my friendships. I did that in my work relationships. And I can see that now, that that was something that I was really consistently seeking out. And I'm glad I did.
GROSS: And Kim, the woman we're speaking of, she was and maybe still is a police officer. What did that expose you to just in terms of the kind of - I don't know - crime that she had to deal with or protests or whatever? I mean, police officers have different lives than the rest of us.
CARLILE: Yeah, that's such a good question, actually, that no one's ever asked me before. It really was a lifestyle to be with a police officer for nine years. And there was a lot we disagreed on. We clashed a lot because of it. And there was also a lot of times that I felt a really overwhelming sense of pride for her and fear for her at times.
But that's an intense place for a spouse or a partner to be in, is to be with a police officer because they just live differently than we do. I don't want to put a generalization on police, but the level of adrenaline that they're dealing with day in and day out, it makes them react differently to things. And that makes for an interesting style of communication that was really good for me to learn how to navigate at that age.
GROSS: Like more combustible style of communication?
CARLILE: Definitely more combustible, but also more repressed in a way. There's a lot of self-sacrifice that happens. And Kim in particular was so critical of policing, or more importantly, the enforcement side of policing and was a big proponent of prevention-style policing and worked in - really intensely in reconciliation. She had programs that she started called, you know, The Doughnut Dialogues, where she would talk with and spend time with street kids and addicts. And she had The IF Project, where she went into prisons and helped people that are incarcerated to write short memoirs.
And she is an exciting person and was a really interesting kind of police officer. And she took a lot of flak for that at work, but it's been neat seeing her on the right side of history all these years.
GROSS: Was she out on the police force?
CARLILE: You mean out on patrol?
GROSS: No, just among other officers.
CARLILE: Oh, out of the closet?
CARLILE: Oh, yeah. There ain't no closet for Kim Bogucki.
GROSS: So how were you - how was she treated and how were you treated as her girlfriend?
CARLILE: I didn't notice any kind of treatment of me, per se. And I think that Kim has been an officer that's probably received a lot of accolades just for her community work and her outreach. But, God, I could write a book about Kim sometimes. She continues to be my best friend. And she lives next door to me and Catherine, and she's my kids' Aunt Kim. She's really important to us.
GROSS: Yeah. I love that she lives on the compound, too. You've really created this incredible family of, you know, like, blood family and family by marriage and people who become family because you're just that close to them.
CARLILE: Yeah. My dad pointed that out to me recently. When I was just starting writing the book, I talked to him about that. And we were sitting at the table. And he doesn't say very much. He's a very quiet man. And he said, I noticed you start to do that after your baptism that didn't happen, that never was. He said, I noticed that you started to bring in people to your life to support you and to make you feel a part of something. And he's right. I did realize I started bringing in allies, people to help hold me up, help me walk through the world. I don't like being alone.
GROSS: Right. So you not only created your family of choice, you created your community of choice.
CARLILE: Yeah, while holding on to my, you know, my OG Carlisle five (laughter).
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. So this thing where you say, like, you really don't like to be alone, has it always been that way?
CARLILE: Oh yeah. Girl, I do not do alone. I can't do it for one day. If my wife's like, I got to go somewhere, you know, with the kids or we're going to go see so and so, and I got to be alone, I just start calling friends to see who will come and spend the night with me.
And it's not because I'm afraid, but it's like I almost feel - and I'm embarrassed to say it because I think that we look at people who can't be alone as deficient in some way, but to me, it almost feels like anything that happens when you're alone just didn't happen. Like 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 from.
GROSS: So I want to play another song. But this time it's not your band. It's a band that you're in with several other women, with Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby. And it's called The Highwomen. It's a play on The Highwaymen. You've won music awards with this group. So the song I want to play is "If She Ever Leaves Me." And it's a great song, and you sound great on it, but it's a song from the point of view of a lesbian who's singing to this guy. If she ever leaves me, it won't be for you (laughter). So talk a little bit about the song before we hear it and what it means in country music 'cause this got a country music songwriting award. So what does it mean in country music to have a song from a lesbian point of view?
CARLILE: I think it's so important to have a country music song from a lesbian point of view, actually, just from a queer point of view in general because queer people love country music. And we're kind of in the closet about that, I think, sometimes as a community. But we love country music. We just don't think that it's going to open its doors to us. And when it does, it's wildly satisfying. And so the fact that "If She Ever Leaves Me" has been so well received in the genre has been kind of an exciting ride for me. And yeah, it's about a woman - in this case, me - who is, you know, in a situation where she's watching some - just some ignorant cowboy pick up on her girl. And she's basically telling the guy - she's, like, listen, pal. I hate to break it to you. But she might leave me. This might not work out. But if she ever does, it certainly ain't going to be for you, buddy.
CARLILE: That's what it's basically saying. I get such a kick out of singing that song.
GROSS: That's a great song. So this is Brandi Carlile with the group The Highwomen.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF SHE EVER LEAVES ME")
CARLILE: (Singing) I see you watch her from across the room, dancing her home in your mind. It takes more than whiskey to make that flower bloom. By the third drink, you'll find out she's mine. I've loved her in secret. I've loved her out loud. The sky hasn't always been blue. It might last forever, or it might not work out. If she ever leaves me, it won't be for you.
GROSS: That was Brandi Carlile singing lead with the group The Highwomen. And the song is "If She Ever Leaves Me." Thank you. That's such a (laughter) great performance. Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Brandi Carlile. She's a Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and guitarist. Her new memoir is called "Broken Horses." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DYLAN'S "WIGWAM")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with singer, songwriter and guitarist Brandi Carlile. She's won Grammys, Americana Music Awards and a Country Music Award. Her new memoir is called "Broken Horses."
So I want to talk with you about life during the pandemic. You know, so many people are, like, you know, shut in in small spaces, a lot of people alone, a lot of people alone with a small family. A lot of people are either lonely, or they're driving each other crazy. And you live on this compound over a series of acres or miles kind of in the country - right? - in the state of Washington? So...
GROSS: Acres, acres. So tell me what your life was like during the pandemic. I mean, first of all, we have that you can't travel like you're used to, although right now you're in a studio in Nashville producing an album for Monica. But tell me what it's been like for you to be at home, not be on the road and to be with this whole community that you've built around you on your compound?
CARLILE: Well, it's been both supportive and restricting. Like, the travel situation is just now starting to ease up. So I can just now get out. But we've had pretty strict rules that we've all had to follow to be together. And it was a high price to pay, but it was really beautiful to be able to weather the storm with my family and my community. And we would just take turns cooking. And we'd try to always get together every couple of days and air our anxieties and our fears and our hopes about the future after the pandemic.
We've been able to support each other through, you know, a new child coming along. We had a new baby born onto the compound during the pandemic. Many of us couldn't see our parents. And we needed each other, and we had each other. But as a result, we had to to limit things that we did outside of the compound so that no one got COVID. And we didn't. We didn't get it. And we're all just starting to venture out into the spring now.
GROSS: You know, you write that during the pandemic, when you couldn't travel and couldn't perform and you had to just, like, be in one spot pretty much, that you had to sit with your workaholism for the first time in your life. Workaholism - workaholic is a very negative word. It sounds like a terrible habit, you know, that needs to be broken, that's very destructive. But being a hard worker is something that has very positive connotations. So why do you call yourself a workaholic, and what does that mean to you?
CARLILE: Well, I think I make jokes about how many times I've danced on the edge of really being a workaholic because I - that's what I do. I joke about serious things. And it was getting to the point around the time that the pandemic happened that it was - I was going to start seeing diminishing returns. You know, I was going to start veering into old patterns. I was going to start getting sick. I was going to start getting tired, getting hurt. And you know - and then that brings in the subject of synthetic things like sleep aids and stuff that I've had problems with in the past.
And the pandemic, it kind of forced me to sit and confront the things that were keeping me on that treadmill and making me work, making me want to work that hard and where sort of ambition and avoidance intersect. So it was a real study in, can I sit still, and should I sit still more? And I think the answer to this is a resounding yes, I should sit still a lot more.
GROSS: So how do you think your life is going to change now when things eventually, we hope, start to normalize?
CARLILE: I need to get a grip on my ambition. I need to, like, start enjoying being here instead of constantly trying to prove that I have a right to be here, constantly trying to fit and assimilate. And at some point, I need to realize that I am where I'm supposed to be and that I don't necessarily need to keep climbing.
GROSS: Do you sometimes feel that when you're not really performing or, you know, getting accolades or something that - and without your performing career that you will just become a child again, that you will be seen as you were when you were a child and you were bullied and you felt like a misfit?
CARLILE: Yeah, exactly. It's just - I think that I will go away or that people will realize that I'd slipped through the back door of the party but didn't have an invitation and that it will go - you know, it'll go back to that. So I have this constant proving sense, a kind of a constant imposter syndrome. Like, when people find out, you know, that I'm just a totally normal, weird girl, they're going to, you know, move on with all of their grandiosity and their beauty and their exceptionalism and leave me in Maple Valley.
And it's kind of a beautiful thing. But as I'm sitting here and I'm looking at 40 and I got my kids and I got my wife and I have some of the affirmation that I always wanted around my music and now I've written this book, I think I'm starting to really feel sort of solid and loved in my world. Like, maybe I've finally - like, maybe I've kind of finally found my place.
GROSS: Brandi Carlile, it has been just such a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much. And I really enjoyed your new book as well, of course, as your music.
CARLILE: Thank you. I really appreciate it. It's been so wonderful to talk to you. You're just amazing.
GROSS: Oh (laughter), thanks.
Brandi Carlile's new memoir is called "Broken Horses."
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be culture critic and poet Hanif Abdurraqib. His new book, "A Little Devil In America," was described in Publishers Weekly as a luminous survey of how Black artists have shaped and been shaped by American culture. He's also the author of the collection of essays "They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us." I hope you'll join us.
We'll close with one of Brandi Carlile's early songs, "Cannonball," from her 2007 album "The Story." I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANNONBALL")
CARLILE: (Singing) I was born when I met you. Now I'm dying to forget you. And that is what I know. Though I dreamed I would fall like a wounded cannonball, sinking down with my heart in tow. Bright lights like white lightning - who shot me down? Who shot me down? Who cut me down? Who cut me down? I'm frozen in my bed till the day comes around. How I'm lost, how I'm found. There's a man all alone telling me his friends are gone, that they've died and flown away. So I told him he was wrong, that your friends are never gone if you look to that sky and pray. Bright lights like white lightning - who shot me down? Who shot me down? Who cut.. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.