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Grammy nominee Brandi Carlile on her comeuppance and the industry barriers she still faces
Judy Woodruff: When the Grammy nominees were announced recently, there was Brandi Carlile with five nominations, including record and song of the year, heady stuff and now almost expected for this star of American roots and country music.
But not so long ago, things were quite different. Jeffrey Brown met Carlile in Seattle for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: Brandi Carlile calls her new record, "In These Silent Days," a pandemic album born from a time of isolation with family at her rural home an hour outside Seattle, a time to stop and reflect on her climb to stardom and where it began, in places like Seattle's Paragon restaurant and bar.
Brandi Carlile, Musician: I remember coming in here right around this time of day, when I knew I could talk to the manager, and it wouldn't be too busy.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Brandi Carlile: And I said, hey, I have got a P.A. system and a guitar player. And if you give me -- like, maybe we will start at 6:00 p.m. on Sunday nights, we will do it for free for a month. And if, a month later, you have seen that you have an uptick on Sunday nights, then you can start paying me or feeding us, or...
Jeffrey Brown: You might consider paying me?
Brandi Carlile: Yes, yes.
Jeffrey Brown: Gigs at local Seattle spots were the norm for years, along with busking for tips at the famed Pike Place Market, the hardworking life of a very hard-working musician trying to make it.
Brandi Carlile: I was really interested in things like printing and hanging posters and busking and stopping people on the street and handing them a pamphlet and telling them about the show.
It's a city that sort of rewards that and values that.
Jeffrey Brown: I got in last night, and I was taking a walk, and I saw somebody hammering their poster into a...
Brandi Carlile: You did, still?
Jeffrey Brown: Yes, I did.
Brandi Carlile: Yes. Still got it. Seattle's still got it.
Jeffrey Brown: That was you, huh?
Brandi Carlile: That was absolutely me.
Jeffrey Brown: Her stunning performance at the 2019 Grammy's of "The Joke," a ballad to those who feel marginalized, brought her national attention.
Now 40, Carlile told her own coming-of-age story in a recent memoir titled "Broken Horses," about growing up poor in rural Washington state, moving from place to place, her father's battles with alcoholism, her mother's aspirations to be a country singer.
A self-described misfit, Carlile writes of being gay in a community with few role models and a church that didn't accept her. From the beginning, though, she says, addicted to performing.
Brandi Carlile: Well, it's easy to get addicted to performing, because it's quite an adrenaline rush, you know? I would say that it was something that I experienced so young that I just always wanted to do it. I wanted to do it. I wanted to feel understood and seen.
Jeffrey Brown: Did you feel misunderstood and unseen?
Brandi Carlile: No, not for the most part, but I felt like I chose those moments to reveal myself.
Jeffrey Brown: Her musical collaborators and soul mates, identical twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth, Phil on bass and Tim on guitar. They traveled for years in an old van now permanently parked outside Easy Street Records, another Seattle music landmark where Carlile took us to browse the bins of her heroes, some of whom have become close friends, like Elton John.
You wrote in your book about how you wanted nothing more in life than to be Elton John, it sounds like, when you were a real little girl.
Brandi Carlile: Yes.
I fell in love with him when I was like 11 years old. And he was just such a magical beast to me, that I felt a kinship to him.
Jeffrey Brown: What's kind of cool, I imagine, is now you're right across from him.
Brandi Carlile: I know. Actually, when you put it that way, it's utterly surreal.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes, is it?
Brandi Carlile: Yes, it's very surreal.
Jeffrey Brown: I mean, these bins, like, these record store bins that you come to as a young music fan, and you flip through, you dream about seeing yourself there.
I thought it'd be C.D.s. But what did I know?
Jeffrey Brown: What she did somehow know for certain is that she would make it, even if that took longer than she'd hoped. She writes of being 15 years into her career before receiving a first Grammy nomination.
And only later did she come to see how gender and sexual orientation could be barriers to success.
Brandi Carlile: I definitely am still having to overcome it, and I definitely had to overcome it. I wasn't paying much attention, because I was in a state for a long time of just euphoria that these dreams would come true, and these things are happening in my life, not knowing that it could still have been bigger and better, and that it indeed was bigger and better for my male counterparts.
Jeffrey Brown: It's been particularly true, she says, in her world of country and American roots music.
Brandi Carlile: I chose that album cover.
Jeffrey Brown: That's pretty good.
She points to another musician who would become a friend, Tanya Tucker.
In 2019, Carlile co-produced a critically-acclaimed comeback album with Tucker decades after Tucker had fallen from favor for an outlaw image for which her male counterparts in the 1970s were celebrated.
Brandi Carlile: It made me realize that there are just two very different lanes for women and men, particularly in roots music.
Now, forget BIPOC or LGBTIQA+ people. There's not even a lane. I knew I wanted to get involved in that, because it's really challenging, and it made me feel like I felt as a kid in church. Like, I don't belong here, and that's why I'm going to stay. It's an act of defiance.
Jeffrey Brown: Seems to be changing a little, perhaps? I don't know. What's your impression?
Brandi Carlile: Yes, it's changing in the tributaries. It's changing on the edges, in Americana, folk, roots, bluegrass.
There's still a giant metallic steel door shut to country. But we will see. Somebody's going to get that thing opened. And, when they do, we're all going to come running in.
Jeffrey Brown: Today, Carlile and her wife, Catherine, are parents to two daughters.
She's part of a country super group called The Highwomen formed in 2019. and she speaks up as she sees necessary, including with the recent Grammy nominations. She expressed gratitude, but also wondered aloud why her song "Right on Time" was shifted to a pop performance category, rather than country or Americana, where she sees herself.
Brandi Carlile: I think a lot of queer people are cognizant of, if not sensitive to being disenfranchised.
And the thing that makes that poignant is that there's so many American roots people, there's so many rural people in this country, people that live in not downtown Seattle that are so systemically rejected by the correlating culture.
Country music, roots music has a vortex. It has a culture. And there are country queers. And they need to see acceptance and affirmation in those places, you know?
Jeffrey Brown: For now, Brandi Carlile awaits the Grammy Awards ceremony and plans to take her pandemic era album, "In These Silent Days," on tour, pandemic allowing, in the spring of next year.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Seattle.
Judy Woodruff: Such terrific music.