Brandi Carlile on Joni Mitchell, inclusion and playing loud

A woman stands in front of a huge frond

Speaking of Joni Mitchell’s set at the Newport Folk Festival in July, Brandi Carlile says, “We had no idea it was going to happen until it happened.”

(Michelle Terris / For the Times)

A few hours before we met at her Nashville hotel, Brandi Carlile — six-time Grammy winner and best-selling author — took to the stage at City Winery and did what any up-and-coming artist in town would do: attend a good old-fashioned songwriting Round. It was a midday event during the roots festival and conference Americana Fest to celebrate Carlile’s new music publishing company, Northern Lights, and she brought along singer-songwriters like SistaStrings and Ashley Ray for a song swap while she watched from a stool. Artist and friend Allison Russell turned up for a duet, and Carlile even talked country legend Tanya Tucker – who arrived in a pink embroidered number but had no intention of performing – into singing.

“I said, ‘Tanya, you’re wearing a nudie suit. Didn’t you think you’d come over here and sing?” says Carlile, sitting on a couch in the lobby in a tan tracksuit, sipping a tequila cocktail. “And Tanya says, ‘That’s all I had!’ And then she told a story about winning a bird in a poker game.” She did sing, however, because standing next to Carlile on stage seems to bring that out in people: a comfort, a community, a freedom to speak up and shut up see what comes out, even if it’s been days or years, or in the case of Joni Mitchell at the Newport Folk Festival last July, two decades.

Carlile, 41, started Northern Lights with her close friend, music executive Tracy Gershon, at the start of the pandemic — and between her album In These Silent Days and her memoir Broken Horses, it wasn’t like she was missing anything things to do But they also didn’t want to officially launch until they had the right list. “When I first get my hands on a pen to sign something, I don’t want it to be just white straight people,” says Carlile. She didn’t want it to be just young people either. Tucker, who is not normally (and incorrectly) considered a writer, was one of Carlile’s first signings.

At City Winery, Carlile watched Tucker – and SistaStrings and Ray – with the same face we know as she captured the awe of the world during her 2019 Grammy performance of misfit anthem “The Joke,” or as she stood next to Mitchell in Newport, the singer’s first performance in over twenty years, or when she hit that monster tone on “Saturday Night Live” in “Right on Time,” a lifelong dream came true. It’s a face full of joy, euphoria and bewilderment: Her head tilts back, her eyes are narrowed, her eyebrows shoot up, her nose wrinkled. It’s there when she plays for her pal Elton John, and it was there this afternoon too, because Carlile is still totally into music.

She’s thought a lot about Linda Ronstadt, as she does with so many women she looks up to as icons. “She went from the stadiums to Mexican music because it was educational and fun,” says Carlile. “She didn’t really judge it. I’m not judging any of this and I don’t know how temporary it is. People always say that on the way down you meet the same people you meet on the way up. And some people say, ‘Oh.’ And I’m like, ‘Right up!’”

Carlile is all about her people. Mitchell, Tucker, John, Russell, The Northern Lights List and many more. Genre, community, whatever you want to call it, this is where Carlile thrives. “I know what it can feel like to be in a community that you know you’re not a part of,” says Carlile. “And how joyful it can feel to be in who you are. I hate bringing everything back to being gay, but it really is my lens. Queers, we don’t have the luxury of being vulnerable. We see the genres a little more comfortably.”

She brings up a line from the original demo for the Highwomen’s “Crowded Table,” written by bandmate Natalie Hemby and Lori McKenna: “I want a world where there are no labels.” Ultimately, Carlile proposed it to “Let’s conquer the world”. She couldn’t relate. “I love these two soulful women so much, but I felt the heterosexuality in those lyrics,” she says. “Not having a team means not having people around to defend you if the s— hits the fan.”

A woman leans over a balcony.

“The higher her star rises, the more of us she brings with her,” says Americana artist Allison Russell of Carlile.

(Michelle Terris / For the Times)

Her 2021 album In These Silent Days is all about what happens when the S— hits the fan. And this “glamorous Americana rock record,” as she calls it, just received a gorgeous re-release called “In the Canyon Haze,” inspired by her time at Mitchell’s house, where Carlile gave the songs a Laurel Canyon treatment missed. It’s not stripped down, but a lush reinterpretation, now set in “gloomy, soggy ’70s beauty,” which popped into her head one afternoon, reminiscing about the bygone days of the canyon with Mitchell, as Mitchell shared stories about when Mama Cass and her friends would jump into the pond with their clothes on.

And then there’s Mitchell himself. Carlile still hasn’t come down from that Newport set and at one point grabbed her iPhone to share a few photos like a parent does with a newborn. “If you thought what she did was a miracle, just know it was even more of a miracle since we had no idea it was going to happen until it happened,” says Carlile.

Few things make her smile like seeing her icons get their due and her friends walk in the door. It has become a mission to work with Mitchell, Tucker, Sheryl Crow and certainly more (Joan Jett is on her mind today). “There’s that period between 55 and 70 years where women just disappear from the face of the earth,” says Carlile. “The boys don’t do that much. That didn’t happen to Tom Petty or Neil Young. And it’s not that these women lack visibility. They should be in stadiums like the Rolling Stones.”

Carlile partly credits her own success to the fact that it came when it came – in her late 30s. “‘SNL’, the Grammys, those were the moments where I could get off the high and I’m 41,” she says. Carlile won her first three Grammys in 2019, two more in 2020, another in 2021, and she’s a favorite for more this year, including perhaps Producer of the Year, Non-Classical, for her work with Lucius on her album, second nature”. Part of Carlile’s mission is to make this idea — success in your 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond — achievable, especially for marginalized people.

In her environment there is a term for this work: “BOB” or “Because of Brandi”. Live Nation’s Ali Harnell coined it to explain the “untold kindness that can be traced to their willful, unwavering mission to make this world a kinder, gentler, loving place,” Russell said. “The higher her star rises, the more of us she brings with her.”

For Carlile, it’s all about building a coalition greater than its individual parts. “It’s really fascinating to see the tables turn, that we outnumber the problem,” she says. “That makes this a great time to be doing this job, even if there’s something going on in the world.”

Two singer-songwriters stand together on stage and wave to the crowd

Joni Mitchell and Brandi Carlile on stage at the Newport Folk Festival.

(Nina Westervelt / Newport Festivals Foundation)

Carlile’s primary way of dealing with it – the turbulent political world – was through her Looking Out Foundation, which her wife, Catherine Carlile, directs. Although the organization focuses primarily on displaced people, it has also gone into “instant triage mode for racial justice, reproductive rights, anti-trans and gay laws, whatever” when needed. “I can’t get into this Twitter fire though, it’s too traumatic,” Carlile says, speaking of her Highwomen bandmate Maren Morris, who took to social media about the transphobia spread by country singer Jason Aldean’s wife Tucker Carlson of Fox News had in turn called the “Lunatic Country Music Person”. “Maren is tougher than me,” she says.

What’s next for Carlile? After spending the night with her kids and wife – it’s their 10th wedding anniversary – maybe a little more rock ‘n’ roll.

“It’s very abstract,” says Carlile. “But every night I enjoy playing ‘Broken Horses’ and it’s really intense. And Elton – I’m Liza Minnelli Level Name-Drop here – bought me a Les Paul. He said: “I would really like to see you play. This is a moment.’” Carlile has a good British accent; Catherine is English. “I see myself getting into it a little bit more,” she adds. “I would love half the songs [a potential next record] Being Led Zeppelin-esque.”

That doesn’t mean, however, that Carlile would leave Americana behind. “I mean, it’s still Americana, because guess who was at the Americana Awards?” She says. “Robert f— plant!”

She thinks back to last night – spotting Plant in the crowd, presenting her icons, the Indigo Girls, with an award, hugging her friends, hugging Russell for her album Outside Child, the highest received award. The eyebrows rise again, the nose wrinkles: Brandi Freudensicht is on the way. “It’s the lyrics of ‘The Joke’ that come true,” Carlile says of the Grammy-winning song, in which the misfits and misfits end up triumphing just because they are themselves. She shakes her head, a combination of disbelief and mischievous combat. “Some of us are winning and that wasn’t planned. It happens.”

A woman sits on a brick outside staircase

“Some of us win and that was not intended,” says Carlile. “It happens.”

(Michelle Terris / For the Times) Brandi Carlile on Joni Mitchell, inclusion and playing loud

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