When we catch up with Brandi Carlile over the phone, she’s free to talk because she’s traveling by train from Washington, DC, where she sang at the Kennedy Center Honors the night before, to New York City, where she is currently appearing with Marcus Mumford and Jon Batiste for a War Child benefit gig. From that show, she’ll head straight into rehearsals for her second Saturday Night Live performance of the year. That East Coast whirlwind actually started a few days earlier in NYC, where she headlined the American Museum of Natural History’s annual gala and gave everyone a FOMO moment when Steve Martin took the stage to bang the banjo with her to play.
In other words, it’s pretty much a typical week in the life of Brandi Carlile circa 2022. Blink, and you’ll miss out on what might be an exhilarating career highlight for most other artists, but this for her… well, probably one, too intoxicating is a career high, but one of many to be ticked off in a row as she arguably becomes the most consistently sought-after and well-liked singer the world has right now.
Our conversation is set to focus on the love she’s getting from the Grammys, with Carlile going into the 2023 edition with seven nominations, the most she’s had in a single year, having received at least two for the last four ceremonies in each year got consequence. But when talking about their year as well, there is so much more to talk about than could even be mentioned for a moment in an hour-long conversation. To tick off some, if not all:
Joining Elton John to sing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” at Dodger Stadium for his last stop of the all-time American tour on the internet. Develops ‘Joni Jam’, soon to be live album, with lover Joni Mitchell at Newport Folk Festival. The co-driver (along with Batiste) for Mitchell’s MusiCares all-star salute. Tribute to Dolly Parton with Pink and others at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony. Knockout performances at nationally televised memorial services for Naomi Judd and Loretta Lynn. Going out on select dates of the Judds Farewell Tour to take Naomi’s place alongside Wynonna (with her brother Jay in the backing band). Giving an Imax live concert that went to hundreds of cinemas in real time. As executive producer and part subject of a feature documentary, The Return of Tanya Tucker – Featuring Brandi Carlile. Another edition of their annual Girls Just Wanna Festival in Mexico. Celebrated by the Human Rights Campaign. Releasing a deluxe version of their Grammy-nominated “In These Silent Days” album, which includes a completely separate version of the album with various re-recorded arrangements. Co-single with girlfriend Allison Russell. A guest slot on Mumford’s solo debut. Producing an album for Lucius (her “SNL” backing vocals) in 2022 and one for Tucker and Brandy Clark in 2023. “SNL” x2.
Oh, and singles aside: a full tour behind “Days” (and “Daze”). One of the year’s top four nominees for the Grammys for their recorded publications. And motherhood.
If you imagine her exhausted from all this as the year draws to a close, imagine that again. “I love work. I really do,” she says. Unsurprisingly, for her, it’s about connections as much as it’s achievements. “The other thing about so much work is that you really feel like you have family everywhere,” she says. “Everything has felt a bit like a family reunion lately.”
With Saturday Night Live, it’s hard to imagine many people doing it twice in the same calendar year. We don’t know what that means, other than that people really like watching you on TV, that speaks for itself.
can i tell you what i do I hope that’s a good idea, but I’m going to do The Story. I was young when we released this song and it’s such a special song and it resonated so much with people beyond us. It just left us. It went to other people, the other people covered it, and it was used in movies and TV commercials, and we kind of progressed and worked our way up when we saw how this song almost had this little parallel life with us, almost kind of like – on a much smaller level – Joni with “Both Sides”. It’s been on every American Idol and The Voice, and it’s like a take-out karaoke song. And I think, man, if I get an opportunity like this, maybe I should treat it more like a victory lap than that constant all-or-nothing feeling I always have about everything I do. And maybe I should just go ahead and just sing this wonderful song that I’ve had with me all these years and have some kind of reclamation.
In the last four years you’ve gone from being a fairly seasoned artist who was never nominated for a Grammys to someone people associate with the Grammys, whether it’s the many nominations each year or your explosive performances on the show are. You’re someone that people can look to and be proud of in music and how the Grammys represent it. It was kind of mutually beneficial.
Absolutely. It has had such a positive impact on my life in so many ways, personally and professionally. I was really moved by my ability to be recognized in this way by my peers. It’s kind of huge. And I’m so glad that didn’t happen to me when I was younger.
In your book Broken Horses you talked about putting up with accolades and being okay with being celebrated that way.
I see it in a really craft sense, you know what I mean? I was Fred Meyer’s Employee of the Month once when I was 16 and I got a jacket and all and I had my picture on the wall. It’s like every job has awards or recognition from peers, and it gives you a reason to go to work every day like your best self, so to speak, whether you’re an artist or you do another job. So I let go of some of the shame of awards [laughs] that I’ve felt over the years. Because when I think back to Fred Meyer… I mean, I have to say, there’s definitely more to winning a Grammy, but I really loved that jacket and my picture on the wall!
I also thought about it a lot last night at the Kennedy Center Honors because, God, that’s such a high honor, and to be able to witness that, it’s kind of an elixir for everything else that’s going on in the world, if basically just sitting somewhere and being happy for people for a few hours. It’s even better than the awards shows where there’s that big aha moment of who won or who didn’t win because there’s no fear. You can just be happy for people, which in a way produces tremendous endorphin. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was like that a few weeks ago. I just sat there and enjoyed other people’s approval.
You could see some of the people in your immediate circle of artist friends getting recognition this year, or even in the last few years – Lucius, Allison Russell, Yola… “Grammy nominated” still means something to people, and people feel it too deeply when really worthy artists and records still don’t get in there.
I’m so happy for my friends when they’re recognized and I don’t get mad when they don’t. … The thing between being motivated and being competitive is that you want to win and the people you love to win, but you don’t want anyone else to lose. You know, my daughter, she’s competitive. She wants you to lose. [Laughs.] It’s like it’s not enough for her to win; then you have to lose too. So we’re working on that. [Laughs.] But that’s not how I see healthy competition. I look at it more from the perspective of being driven.
And, you know, the Grammys, it’s so many things… It’s an award given by peers, but it’s not just about the art you make, either. I mean, it’s about the art you make, but it’s also about how you make the art you make visible. Because it can’t be a tree that falls in a forest. You then have to take that ball and run it all the way across the field and show up and say yes. And so I respect both things. I respect the sacredness of making a record, an album and a song, but I also respect the way an artist works to continue that performance or that album.
Speaking of which, you have this seeming inexhaustibility that creates visibility, even when a lot of the things you do seem like they’re just for fun. They often host one-off events in different cities on back-to-back nights. It just has to be an innate thing you’re capable of that would exhaust others.
My little brother and I have had the same jobs our entire lives. We were roofers. We worked together at Fred Meyer. And we’ve both always had a really tireless work ethic. He is a snow plow driver. And every job he’s ever taken, or every city he’s ever moved to, when he leaves, it’s like he’s the mayor and the head of the job. Because it’s just family we come from – we love people. and we love to work. And I’m always very moved when I see someone with a really strong work ethic. So I chose my heroes like this: Dolly is like this and Elton is like this. I guess I get a lot of emotional satisfaction from knowing that I work – that the journey is the reward.
SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE – “Steve Martin & Martin Short, Brandi Carlile” Episode 1834 – Pictured: Musical guest Brandi Carlile performs “You…