Even on Her Best Days, Brandi Carlile Cleans Up Vomit

The singer-songwriter explores the intersection of fame and ordinary family life in her new memoir, “Broken Horses.”,


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A Memoir
By Brandi Carlile

One morning in December 2018, the singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile was awakened at her home in rural Washington by a 5 o’clock phone call alerting her to the fact that she and her bandmates had received six Grammy nominations for their album “By the Way, I Forgive You.”

A short time later, as Carlile writes in her new memoir, “both my kids woke up vomiting. That’s what I love about the juxtaposition of my jobs. You’d think that it would be a total downer to spend a day like that getting life-affirming news and simultaneously being thrown up on and stuck in front of ‘Dora the Explorer’ all day, but it was PERFECT.”

Carlile and her wife Catherine’s phones exploded with texts; Carlile gave countless media interviews; and, as “courier after courier” delivered bottles of Champagne congratulating her on “the Grammy noms,” they’d “look at my little cabin and my green little fever babies and be thoroughly confused. It’s one of my favorite days.”

If you’re already a Brandi Carlile fan (I don’t think there’s any musician I’ve listened to more in the last five years), there’s an excellent chance you’ll find “Broken Horses” charming, funny, illuminating and poignant. If you’re not a fan, “Broken Horses” might well make you into one, especially now, because the book feels like the antithesis of social distancing — replete with Carlile and her identical twin collaborators Tim and Phil Hanseroth touring in vans and buses (more recently with their wives and children in tow) and performing songs they’ve written together to celebratory crowds. Carlile’s warmly colloquial tone evokes listening to stories, possibly in a bar, told by a friend who leads a life far more interesting than your own. Each mostly chronological chapter concludes with a plethora of photos, handwritten captions and song lyrics by Carlile and others.

[ Read an excerpt from “Broken Horses.” ]

The eldest of three siblings, Carlile was born to a 20-year-old hotel hostess mom and 21-year-old prep cook dad. Her 1980s childhood was shaped by poverty, wild and domestic animals, frequent moves within Washington, her father’s alcoholism and her mother’s nascent singing career, which soon included Carlile and her younger sister and brother.

From the age of 8 or 9 Carlile was performing in bars and at the Northwest Grand Ole Opry and finding that, though she often felt like a sensitive misfit in life, she was powerfully at home onstage. An early Elton John devotee, Carlile once entered a contest decked out like her idol: “I had seen a man’s white polyester suit at the Catholic church’s clothing mission where our family got a lot of our clothes. I had seen footage of him performing ‘Honky Cat’ in a white suit with glitter shoes and feather glasses and I decided THAT was going to be my act.” Though other girls in the competition favored a beauty pageant aesthetic, Carlile’s mother bedazzled and hot-glued the outfit her daughter had requested. In the short term, Carlile lost the contest; in the long term, she became close friends with Elton John.

Such satisfactions were still years away, however, and by the time she was 16, Carlile was both out of the closet and a high school dropout; a longed-for baptism went awry when the pastor asked her at the last minute to repent for practicing “homosexuality.” It’s a testament to Carlile’s comfort with contradictions and complexity that, to this day, she remains religious.

After Carlile connected with the Hanseroth twins in 1999, their combined talent, swagger and persistence found an ever-growing audience. One of the thought-provoking aspects of the book is the news (to me) that the name “Brandi Carlile” has become a synecdoche for all three of them, and that the Hanseroths wrote most of the megahit song “The Story,” as well as part or all of many other “Brandi Carlile” songs. “I haven’t been Brandi Carlile since 1999,” Carlile writes, “but that is to say that I’ve really been Brandi Carlile since 1999. Are you confused? So am I.”

That I finished reading without a clear sense of the personalities of either Hanseroth brother could reflect Carlile’s deference to their privacy or a blurring between their identities and hers. In a remarkable photo, they huddle in the cold looking as much like one being as three people can. Even more amazingly, all of their families live on the same property (Phil is married to Carlile’s sister), where for fun the bandmates ride A.T.V.s and clear trails.

By the memoir’s conclusion, Carlile is a celebrity who wears her success lightly, an enthusiastic collaborator with other performers (including the all-female country group the Highwomen) and an impassioned activist. She pals around with President Obama, enjoys jam sessions with Joni Mitchell and still manages to remain a scrappy outsider. As she told a reporter after her 2018 Grammy nominations, “I’m basically a lesbian chicken farmer mom who’s somehow been invited to the party.”

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