By the Way, Brandi Carlile Breaks Through

By Erik Philbrook, ASCAP Editor in Chief  •  December 14, 2018

With a powerful album, six Grammy nominations and an all-women festival bearing her name, the acclaimed singer-songwriter hits new heights with both feet on the ground

Pictured above: Brandi Carlile at the 2018 Newport Folk Festival (Photo by Erik Philbrook)

When the Grammy Award nominees were announced on December 7th, Brandi Carlile's name kept popping up. In fact, Carlile ultimately was nominated for 6 awards, more than any other woman this year. That was no surprise to fans of folk-rock singer-songwriter, who has been creating an incredible body of work alongside her longtime collaborators, twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth, for well more than a decade. Carlile’s 2018 album, By the Way, I Forgive You, is an emotionally powerful tour de force that confronts complex issues that only an experienced songwriter could weave into works of such poignant art. While Carlile has long cultivated a passionate fan base, she has also been a songwriter’s songwriter, and has gained the admiration of artists from across the musical spectrum. This year she elevated her craft and career, collaborating with Sam Smith and creating a video with actress Elisabeth Moss for her song “Party of One,” announcing her own all-women music festival [Brandi Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend] to be held in January 2019 in Mexico featuring Maren Morris, Indigo Girls, Margo Price, Patty Griffin, Lucius, KT Tunstall and others, and performing one of the most memorable sets at this year’s Newport Folk Festival. We had a heart to heart with Carlile backstage at Newport about her family, music, foundation and her hope for the future.

Your album focuses on the subject of “family.” You have your own growing family and you have people with whom you make music together - your bandmates – who are another type of family. What does family mean to you and how has it been important to you to have people in your life to support you on your musical journey?

Family is so important to me in a tangible way. They keep my feet on the ground, you know? This dream that we live in where we get to play music can often times feel so abstract and ethereal, you almost have to be out of the body to stand up in front of that many people and bare your soul like that. And so I think a lot of people have a hard time coming back into their body. But because I’ve got to come back into my body and change diapers and put my kids in a time out, and argue with my wife, but also be uplifted by them and their realness, I stay a more integrated person because of them.

Having a child and being a mother is such a life-changing event. You wrote a song, “The Mother,” about your daughter. Was it daunting to try to write about something that was just so larger than life up to that point?

The reason why it was daunting to write about it is because it’s not a glowing review of motherhood, you know? It’s the reality of the whiplash and the shock that can come from it. I think there’s a stigma attached to admitting that there are tough things about crossing the threshold from being a person who’s alone inside her mind to a person that will always and forever share their soul and psyche with other human beings, you know? No matter how many kids you have, no matter how old they get, until you die you’ll never be alone in your mind anymore. That’s a big commitment. There’s some grief that comes with that. Of course, it’s brilliant but that’s what "The Mother" is really about.

The title of your album, taken from a lyric, is By the Way I Forgive You. That’s such a simple statement but it’s so loaded with emotion. What inspired that choice of album title?

Once the album was done and the songs were standing in line, I could see that there was a commonality and a broader acceptance of life’s ebbs and flows, the ups and downs, and not an acceptance to be confused with complacency, but to be confused with radical and difficult beginnings.

I felt your last album [2015’s The Firewatcher’s Daughter] was such an artistic high water mark for you. And with this album, you’ve reached even higher. I know when you set out to write songs and record and to make that magic happen again you just never know how it turn out. But now that this music is out in the world and reaching audiences, how do you feel about this record and the creative urge you were trying to satisfy?

This record, certainly lyrically, set the bar for me in the sense of digging in and saying what you mean and meaning what you say. That’s going to be a hard thing to continue to do, you know. You never really know if the next record will be that way but I know we did it in this moment in time. This record was an excruciating record for us to write and perform.

You’ve been joined so many fellow friends and musicians onstage at Newport this year. What does this festival represent to you? There is so much history here.

You know, this is the place where the activism begins. It wouldn’t surprise me if people leave here after this weekend and go out and make a difference in the world because this is the kind of place where that seems possible.

I wanted to ask you about your foundation, Looking Out, which you founded with your longtime collaborators Tim and Phil Hanseroth. Not every artist feels comfortable using their voice in that way. What compels you to do it?

Well, when I was 11 I fell in love with Elton John and did a fifth grade book report on him. I don’t know if you have kids or if you’ve seen a kid react to a book report, but they freak out. Like, if it’s on whales they know everything about whales for 15 years. So I did a book report on Elton John, based on the Elton John AIDS Foundation.

And from there, you know, I fell in love with Freddie Mercury, U2, George Michael, Neil Young, Willie Nelson. All of these people are activists and they have foundations. Neil Young has the Bridge School, Willie Nelson has Farm Aid. From before I was even a teenager, I realized that expression and a dream has to be balanced in an appropriate way with activism and belief.

What are you most excited about going forward?

I’m really excited about the women’s festival that I’m putting on in Mexico. I want to prove something by doing that. I’m hanging my hat on it. I want to show the festivals in the US that if we can get several thousand women to spend several thousand dollars and leave the country to see women headline a festival, what would they do at home? What if we took the risk and put more women up in the top lines of those festival posters, you know?