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Rock and Roll Book Club

Rock and Roll Book Club: Brandi Carlile's 'Broken Horses'

Brandi Carlile onstage at the Fillmore Minneapolis, February 2020.
Brandi Carlile onstage at the Fillmore Minneapolis, February 2020.Nate Ryan/MPR

by Jay Gabler

April 08, 2021

At the 2019 Grammys, as Brandi Carlile built up to the epic note that concludes her song "The Joke," one woman stood up in the middle of the star-studded crowd. Carlile describes the moment in her new memoir.

It was Janelle Monáe. It was such a kind thing she did...I've tried to tell her what that felt like, what it meant to me, but she may never really understand. She stood that way by herself for what seemed like almost a minute and it kicked me into high gear. Suddenly I was performing for her.

In a sense, with Broken Horses (buy now) — named after the injured animals that were all her family could afford for her in the equine arena — Carlile is paying it forward. Her book will inspire a new generation of women in music, and will be particularly meaningful for her fellow LGBTQ artists. She renders her life story with the eloquence and sincerity that will be very familiar to any fans who've followed her extraordinary career as a singer-songwriter.

Carlile loves to be considered part of the Americana genre, she writes, but she and her family chose to be country when she was growing up in the Pacific Northwest. In the wake of her beloved grandfather's death, Carlile's mother found her voice and formed a band; the young Brandi and her brother Jay also started singing, and the family moved to a mountaintop mobile home where they could more authentically live the rural life their adopted genre celebrated in song.

"'Country isn't Southern, it's Western!' is a Pacific Northwest slogan I've always been fond of," writes Carlile, whose family found success on The Northwest Grand Ole Opry Show. Carlisle's best-known musical family today are her longtime bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth, who've become family in every sense of the word: Phil married Carlile's younger sister Tiff.

During COVID-19 lockdown the two brothers and their families have been living on a compound with Carlisle, her wife, and their children. "My ex Kim lives here too (so lesbian)," she writes. "We ride four-wheelers to each other's homes and share a tractor."

Carlile realized in adolescence that she was gay, she writes. "The Ellen DeGeneres coming-out episode was the beginning and the end of any confusion I was having around my sexuality." She came out to her family and friends, despite a conservative Christian upbringing that caused tension with her truth. She became one of the music industry's leading advocates for justice and change, and in Broken Horses she writes about how much more is needed.

"I could hear women everywhere," Carlile writes about growing up a country fan in the '80s and '90s, "yet here we are in 2020, where we are hearing one woman an hour on country radio. What's worse is that now women are not even getting signed. They're not even getting a job at the label that could sign enough women to tell the story of the other half of the human race."

Carlile's book happened to come out just a couple of days after my colleague Andrea Swensson hosted her last episode of The Current's Local Show, and it occurred to me as I read Broken Horses that it's true of Carlile, as one of our colleagues pointed out about Andrea, that she's a moral compass in an industry that often lacks such devices. Again and again, Carlile's used her platform to not only represent her truth but lift the voices of others.

She writes with passion about projects like the Looking Out Foundation, which she launched following a series of violent attacks against members of Seattle's LGBTQ community in 2009. That charity work also connected her with her to-be-wife Catherine Shepherd, who was working as Paul McCartney's charity coordinator when she reached out and offered to help.

Carlile writes about her complicated relationships with her parents, with her "Irish twin" brother, and with women she's dated over the years, always leading with empathy and never painting herself as an angel. Although music is just a part of her story, she recounts the inspirations for various songs that were particularly important to her — as well as the inspiration she took from other artists' songs, with lyrics for several published between chapters of Broken Horses.

She recounts how her self-titled debut album was originally imagined as a record of "B-sides" from which she'd reserve her best songs for the album she'd record for Rick Rubin's American Recordings; that relationship fell through for business and other reasons, and Columbia released that album as well as the "A-sides" follow-up The Story, recorded in Vancouver with a "VERY eccentric" T Bone Burnett.

Carlile was indignant, she writes, when producer Dave Cobb challenged her to write a new song for 2018's By the Way, I Forgive You. "You haven't had a vocal moment as good as 'The Story,'" he said, "since 'The Story.'" The artist went to bed angry, she said, but she woke up with a song partially inspired by her drummer's 12-year-old son, who was enduring homophobic taunts at school.

That song became "The Joke," which she so devastatingly performed at the Grammys. "Singing and vocalizing in general create X-ray levels of emotional exposure," Carlile writes, and once again in Broken Horses she's made herself vulnerable for our benefit. It's a heartfelt, candid, rousing read.

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

April 15: Begin by Telling by Meg Remy (buy now)

April 22: Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (buy now)

April 29: Why Solange Matters by Stephanie Phillips (buy now)

May 6: A Little Devil In America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib