a long talk

Brandi Carlile’s Story Is Too Big to Fit in a Song

The folk-rock star’s memoir Broken Horses offers the most intimate look into her life yet.

Photo: Jai Lennard
Photo: Jai Lennard

Brandi Carlile has been plagued with terrible sore throats since she was a little kid. Every time there’s a major performance or life event on the horizon, her tonsils swell, her larynx closes in, and her voice — strong enough to reach the rafters of any given venue — calls in sick.

In Broken Horses, her debut memoir out this week, the beloved singer-songwriter recounts several times her throat betrayed her. In 2018, she and her longtime collaborators, Phil and Tim Hanseroth (a.k.a. the Twins), were scheduled to play three sold-out nights at New York’s Beacon Theatre while touring behind By the Way, I Forgive You — her sixth studio album, which later earned her first three Grammy Awards — when a vocal cord cyst threatened to rupture. She treated it with steroids and played on, but wondered if tapping into her subconscious could shed light on the root of her chronic ailment. In 2019, she had planned to pay tribute to one of her idols, Joni Mitchell, by singing through her 1971 album, Blue, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. So when she felt the symptoms of her throat’s impending mutiny the day before, she reached out to a hypnotist who advised her to “imagine a glass filled with blue marbles,” put her fear of onset illness into a single green one, and push the green marble down into the glass until it disappeared.

It worked. She woke up the next morning ready to sing. Broken Horses revisits the moment she was finally able to mentally confront her physical stress before her body did it for her. But the hypnotist made her realize something else: There are many sides to Brandi Carlile, and sometimes — when her fears or concerns as a mother, wife, and parent collide with her needs as an artist, or when shades of her past selves brush up against the present — they clash, and she relents.

“I like wearing expensive clothes, drinking champagne, standing in a spotlight, striking a Shakespearean pose, and singing for people in this kind of grandiose way,” she told Vulture ahead of the book’s release. “And then there’s this other part of me that needs to only wear ripped-up jeans, have very dirty hands, catch fish, grow vegetables, tell only the truth, and not glorify myself. What the hypnotist did for me was make me understand that those two women will fight if something is going to happen that is a risk, that threatens rejection.” She continues, “And when they fight, the result of that is often an ailment. There’s a certain amount of meditation and mediation that needs to happen in those moments for me to acknowledge and make space for both of those people to exist inside of me.”

Broken Horses is, in a way, mediation on the page and in practice. Carlile, 39, has been an open book since long before she decided to write one: Across her nearly two-decade-long career, her shows have been peppered with effusive banter and profound anecdotes that tether her songs to their inspirations, be they a news story she read on the tour bus or a snapshot of her life with her wife, Catherine, and their two daughters, 6-year-old Evangeline and 3-year-old Elijah. From her rough-and-tumble childhood in Seattle up through the last shows she played in the weeks leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, the memoir covers it all with conversational ease: her youth; her complicated relationship with Christianity; coming out as a queer teenager in rural Washington; struggling in the music business and her eventual breakthrough 2007 single “The Story”; her family life; and meeting and collaborating with her idols. (A digital book tour will even include heart-to-hearts with Dolly Parton, Glennon Doyle, Leslie Jordan, and more.) With Broken Horses, Carlile didn’t just make space for the varied women inside herself — she handed over her pen to each of them and mined their memories.

You’re a mother, a wife, a rock star, a folk singer-songwriter, and a producer, and all of these facets of you are present here. What prompted you to write about your life this way?
A lot of people had told me that I should, but they didn’t know my whole story — what happened to me around my adolescence, coming out of the closet, and my clashes with faith. So I sat down one day in a hotel room to write a synopsis, like, Well, if I did [a book], what would I write these chapters about, and how many chapters would it be? I intended to write a paragraph or a page about what each chapter was gonna be. I started, and the first chapter was one page, and the second chapter was two pages, and by the time I was on the fourth chapter, I was writing 15 pages a chapter. I realized I was writing the book. It was stream of consciousness; it wasn’t thought-out. It was almost like a mediumship of my memories as just a child and a person, how I walked through the world with my ambition. I just decided to stand behind it and make it a book.

You wrote this during one of the busiest periods in your career to date, too: You were still touring behind By the Way, I Forgive You when the wheels started turning on your country side project, the Highwomen [with Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby, and Amanda Shires]. This is obviously a shake-up from your typical writing process —
It’s totally a process I was not used to.

But there’s something to that: You can express something personal with universal language and metaphor, and create distance between yourself and the source material. You also end each chapter with a collection of lyrics for the songs you referenced in the previous pages, so there’s no ambiguity. You’re drawing direct connections between the words of your songs and the moments in your life that inspired them; this pulls the veil back in a way you hadn’t done before.
There’s something on every page that scares the shit out of me. I just kept making the decision to walk through those doors and keep doing that. Part of me, I think, will always be coming out of the closet; part of me will always be emerging beyond what your understanding of me is, because there is an element to our industry that kind of glorifies, congratulates, and sells superhumanity. I have a wicked case of impostor syndrome anyway, and I guess I feel like if I just keep trying to tell the truth about my humanity and my just-like-you-ness, then I’ll start to feel more like I belong here [in the music industry].

Writing the book has made me feel a little bit like I got my high-school diploma: I get to relive the awkward, slow, painful emergence of my coming out of the closet in a more evolutionary way. It makes me feel like I can grab a shirt off the rack at the store and ask the clerk how much it costs because I’m not worried about [them] thinking I’m poor anymore. It’s healed things, and it’s helped me make conscious decisions to emerge. But with that, there are consequences, and there’s anxiety, and there are all the things I wasn’t expecting when I decided to do this. I’m trying to hang on and learn from it.

This time has forced us all to be very introspective, whether we like it or not. Do you think you would’ve approached Broken Horses in the same way had we not lived through this crisis?
Everything but the last chapter. It took me five weeks to write the rest of the book, and then six months to end it … It was very difficult for me to not know how to end it. I didn’t know if my job was coming back. I didn’t know when I’d see my friends again. I didn’t know who was going to win the election. I didn’t know if I was always going to be able to live here. I didn’t know if I was going to be fighting for my marriage, in a legal sense, the following year. There was so much I didn’t know. It was a whiplash moment, coming from these peak moments in my life — the Grammys, By the Way, I Forgive You, the Highwomen — and then no job, no friends, no ability to travel. How does the book end? Does it really end here? That’s where I really was challenged.

Has this last year underlined why you wrote your memoir?
Absolutely, and it made me realize how uncomfortable I am with the continuum — with not knowing how anything ends, and to sit quietly with that, and realize I’ve never known how anything is going to end, and there’s no such thing as attainment. There’s no such thing as arrival. I think I love knowing that.

Your prose is so conversational, and your voice changes throughout: It’s familiar and casual when you’re talking about your childhood and your family, and direct and analytical, at points, when you’re talking about the business. What was something that struck you about your narrative voice in Broken Horses?
I did set out to be conversational in my style of writing, and I wrote the whole thing myself. There were some things in there that I had to defend [to my editor]. There would be a misuse of a word, or too many all-caps, too many ellipses, all these things that were making it read like a fucking Instagram caption. I had to kind of fight to hold my space in a literary sense, and say, “Well, but this is actually who I am, and I know it doesn’t tick all the boxes of your traditional memoir by any other author — but I’m not any other author. I’m a high-school dropout. I lack education in a really big way, but I am conversational, and I strive to be honest, charismatic, and seen for who I really am, so I kind of need you to leave these things, even if you feel like they’re gonna make me look stupid.” There was a lot of me doing that, and every time, I would hang up the phone terrified that the book is gonna come out, and people are going to write negative reviews about how obviously uneducated I am, or how it’s so clear that I didn’t get past the first month of tenth grade. That’s not good! That’s not reality. Those are the things I worry about.

Have you read Springsteen’s memoir?
I haven’t, I’ve only read excerpts from it for inspiration because he’s so poetic.

So he also wrote the whole thing himself, and you can tell. If he felt like writing four exclamation points at the end of a sentence, that’s what was published.
[Laughs.] It was a little like that. I love Glennon Doyle as a person. She had never heard my music, and I hadn’t read Untamed, but my wife connected us on something personal, and we became friends. I called her before I called my editor about [my writing style]. I was like, “Tell me the truth. Level with me. Do I need to adjust to this system, or does this system have room for who I am?” She was like, “This system absolutely has room for who you are, and needs to make room.” She gave me the strength to call my editor, and tell my editor how I was feeling about it. The editor was like, “Don’t say another word. I totally get it, I’m behind you. Just do it.” I had turned in handwritten captions to the photos, and I misspelled tons of words. There’s backwards letters. They would send it back to me, and they would highlight it and go, “Are you sure you want to let this slide?” I’d grit my teeth and go, “Let it slide! I guess we’re doing this!” [Laughs.]

Did you read anything that left an impact while you were working on Broken Horses?
In terms of my childhood and representing my complicated dance with faith outside of my queerness, I had read Educated by Tara Westover. Ellen DeGeneres actually gave it to me and told me to read it based on a conversation we had one night. I don’t have a similar childhood to Tara Westover in terms of religion or poverty or mental illness — it’s not really about that. It’s more about a vibe, this rural, complicated, charismatic upbringing. The fact that Tara took the thing that she had the least access to and then made that the thing she was about — the fact that she had the least access to education, and then became a Rhodes Scholar — I had the least access to acceptance, and I was rejected by the basic tenets of my faith. Then I took that rejection, spiritually, and I became widely and wildly accepted in my queerness, in my faith, in a wider community based in something audacious: music. The opposite of what you feel like doing when you’re rejected is standing up on a stage in front of more people and making yourself more vulnerable. But that’s what I did. I don’t know how or why, but that’s what happened. When I read Educated, I realized there was a parallel between the biggest obstacle and the biggest result being the same thing.

How was it to touch on your journey and education as an activist who is constantly learning?
My advocacy is not a sacrifice. It’s wildly satisfying; it’s the most fun; it’s the most fulfilling part of what I do. It’s given me nothing but sheer joy to champion things and then watch those things take root. To see what’s happening in country music, to see what happened with the Highwomen, to see what happened with Tanya [Tucker], and to get contacted by other queer people, queer young people … I read tweets that say [that] I was part of someone else’s coming-out story when I had my own allies that were a part of my own coming-out story.

People always say representation matters — it’s a combination of buzzwords in a way that we may sort of gloss over and not really stop and think about it. But if you read my book, and other people’s books like mine, and you go back to those two chapters where I’m coming out of the closet, or my adolescence is colliding with my orientation in the way it did, and you remove Elton John, and you remove the Indigo Girls, and you remove the film Philadelphia, and you remove Ellen DeGeneres and [her] coming-out episode, what do you really have there? You have a girl who had never met a gay person in her life, and was coming out of the closet — and that is because of representation. It’s because I had it in the broader culture. And if I hadn’t, we may not be talking right now. That’s why I think that’s a combination of words that can’t be overstated. It was pivotal in my life. It’s satisfying to know I’m a part of that story for somebody else.

How did Broken Horses change your idea of storytelling?
This memoir has opened my mind in terms of how I tell stories. I probably won’t ever be as abstract a storyteller as I used to think. I used to believe that for a song to be loved, no matter how honest, no matter how personal it is to you, that you should steer clear of specifics or identifying markers, because then that’s not a cloak that someone else can put on and wear to heal or recover from a situation. And then I wrote “The Mother.” I’m specifically saying, “I am the mother of Evangeline,” but I can’t tell you how many mothers of children not called Evangeline, or fathers, or queer parents, trans parents, or children who miss or love their parents — it’s become this thing where I’ve heard all these people’s different perspectives, and the more specific I was, the more clear I was about who I was talking about, the more trusted I was.

When I wrote the book, I think I realized that I don’t have to have the same story as everybody else for someone to be helped by my story. I can be specific, and I can be really honest and accepted for who I really am — and maybe, throughout that process, help someone else.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Carlile and her wife, Catherine, are currently based in Washington, but Catherine is a U.K. citizen; Broken Horses details fears over visa complications. In 2020, the country legend won her first Grammy awards — 47 years after her first nomination.
Brandi Carlile’s Story Is Too Big to Fit in a Song