One of the more shocking moves by the Recording Academy came before this year’s Grammy nominations were even announced, when singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile’s song “Right on Time” was moved from the American-roots field, where she had previously competed, to pop. The song, as Carlile noted in an October Instagram post, was recorded with the same team and at the same studio as her previous album, By the Way, I Forgive You — which earned the Grammy for Best Americana Album, along with Best American Roots Performance and Song for its single “The Joke.” “The importance of staying and working in Americana is greater than just me,” she wrote. “There is not a moment where I don’t view my role as something larger. I feel great responsibility in representing marginalized queer people in rural America who are raised on country and roots music but are repeatedly and systematically rejected by the correlating culture.”
A month later, she’s more than representing them, receiving five Grammy nominations on Tuesday — including both Best Pop Solo Performance, for “Right on Time,” and Best American Roots Performance, for her duet “Same Devil” with Brandy Clark. Carlile is also nominated for Record and Song of the Year for “Right on Time,” with a second Song of the Year nomination for “A Beautiful Noise,” a collaboration with Alicia Keys. Despite earning six total nominations from I Forgive You a few years ago, Carlile was still shocked and humbled by the new nods when she spoke to Vulture just hours after the announcement. It hasn’t interrupted her day as a parent — she was getting ready to take her daughter to kung fu class after this interview — but she was looking forward to celebrating over dinner later tonight with her wife and her songwriting partners, “the twins,” Phil and Tim Hanseroth.
How’s it going?
Oh my God. I’m having a very, very good day.
How did this day begin for you?
So my wife left to drop our oldest daughter to school, and me and my youngest, we pulled up the livestream to see how it would all go down. And I was just basically screaming every five seconds because, like [Laughs], either somebody I love was getting nominated, or I was nominated. So I was having a pretty radical morning.
What do these nominations mean to you?
I’m one of those people that feels really life-affirmed by accolades like this. I think it comes from being a sort of under-the-wire music-maker from the time I started. You know, making music not really for accolades or for commercial success but seeing it as forward thinking, and it may not always be understood by the masses. So when my peers nod to me and say they understand what I’m doing or they think something I’m doing is cutting edge or exciting, it’s really, really encouraging to me. And then life-affirming because there’ve been a lot of instances in my life where inclusion hasn’t come easy to me. These kinds of acknowledgments make me feel really seen. And they make me feel really hopeful for younger LGBTQ+ people — not just music-makers but in every profession and every walk of life.
You had another big Grammy year a few years ago, with By the Way, I Forgive You, but it sounds like you’re still not used to it, like it’s still a bit of surprise to be seen this way.
I know. And what is that all about? I’m actually thinking about that a lot this morning. Like, Why am I so shocked every single time? Why does it feel like something must be wrong, or there must have been a mix-up and the real envelope is going to show up in the mail and they’re going to call me and go, “Well, there’s been a mistake”? I don’t know, but I genuinely still feel this way. I guess it makes me not the brightest bulb.
It sounds like you’re able to stay humble, though.
I just think to myself, Wow, had a couple good ones. I guess this is it, I guess this is where I peak. I’m always waiting for that day to come when the album comes out and they’re like, “Well, that was it. That last one was the best one,” or something like that. It hasn’t happened yet, but in some ways, I think women are conditioned to think that way, that we’re always nearing our expiration date.
You had some confusion a few weeks ago when it came out that “Right on Time” was going to move to the pop field rather than being in roots, where you’d been entered before. But then that got a nomination in pop today. What was that like for you?
I’m still trying to wrap my head around that. I mean, all those brilliant people that I’m nominated with could’ve all exited my birth canal. It makes me feel acknowledged by my peers, that there’s something I’m doing that is unintentionally popular. What more can you ask for than that? It’s very exciting to be pop. I still think it’s really important for me to plant my flag in roots music, as a change-maker in that space, so I will continue to work and serve in that community. But I have to say, I am really excited and satisfied to be nominated in pop.
Well, I think the other cool thing about your nominations today is, when you spoke about “Right on Time” getting moved, you were talking about being a queer voice in roots. And then here you are with this nomination in roots as well with Brandy Clark, which also felt pretty significant.
Really significant! And also Allison Russell is queer, who’s also nominated in roots. Like I told you, I did a lot of screaming this morning, seeing Allie’s name pop up, and Rhiannon Giddens, and Yola, and Brandy. And Jon Batiste, freaking 11 nods. I FaceTimed him immediately. It’s been a really, really good year for people making avant-garde, forward-thinking, unique, and honest music.
What was that call with Jon like?
We both answered the phone and just started going Whooo! and pointing at each other. I don’t want to speak for him, but the way I see all these nominations — I don’t know, is that a record, by the way, 11?
It’s something wild. It’s so unbelievable.
He is a virtuoso. He is a Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones–level genius, the likes of which we don’t see very often. He’s rare, and he works so hard all year long. And these are his peers just acknowledging him over and over and over again, 11 times today. I’m very excited for him.
You have this other Song of the Year nomination that I was pretty surprised by, with Alicia Keys.
“Beautiful Noise” is something we wrote in that 11th hour in the 2020 election where we knew we needed to find a way to pull, particularly, women together into understanding that their voices could make a difference in this historic, pivotal moment. So a bunch of us got together and wrote this song from really different perspectives, because we all lead really different lifestyles, and sent it to Alicia because I do feel like she’s one of these mystical people that just always seem to be sort of in touch with the future. She loved it, and she wanted to do it live in this super-stripped-down, unusual way of recording a song and release it. So I was really surprised to see it too, but I think it affected a lot of people.
It sounds like there’s this driving message politically with all these nominations for you.
Well, I’m a person whose life is politicized. So I’ll wake up that way every day, and everything I create is sort of a product of it, whether I want to be or not. Whether I’m creating music or children [Laughs], it’s all kind of revolutionary if you look at it in the arc of history.
Now that you’re thinking about going back to another Grammys ceremony, with five nominations, what are you excited about for that?
The thing I’m most excited about is getting all dressed up and celebrating with my friends that were nominated this year that I was just really, really excited to see acknowledged. Like, I’m gonna be hanging out with Joni Mitchell; Joni got her nomination for Best Historical Album. I’m gonna be working on a project with Jon. And then me and Yola and Allison, we’re all going to go together. We’re all going to get dressed up to go together to the big ceremony. And then after that, we all take off for Mexico for the Girls Just Wanna Weekend festival [put on by Carlile]. It’s basically going to be a solid month of partying with my friends and wearing top-shelf suits, if I can help it.
That’s awesome. This seems to cap off this big year for you. It started with that Grammy win for the Highwomen, and it saw you putting out your memoir, Broken Horses, and then putting out this new album, In These Silent Days, and now you get to end it with this recognition. Can you put your year into perspective for me?
If you count this year as hopefully the mid-to-end-pandemic year, it speaks to more. The acknowledgments that have come our way this year have meant just a little extra because it’s just not been an easy year. Not for us, not for anybody. And there’s just something that much sweeter about getting a little extra love at the end of that journey.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.