In 2005, a young singer-songwriter from rural Washington state released her debut album, Brandi Carlile. In the years since, the woman of the same name has become a musical powerhouse. Both a critical and commercial success, she has earned eleven Grammy nominations, six Grammy awards, released seven acclaimed studio albums, and collaborated with legendary musicians like Tanya Tucker, Dolly Parton, and Alicia Keys. Alongside all of this, Carlile married her wife, Catherine Shepherd, became a mother to two girls, and founded Looking Out Foundation, a non-profit that aids disadvantaged people around the globe. Carlile’s musical body of work is enough to cement her as an icon, but her greatest strength comes from her ability to use her art to elevate the ideologies and causes she stands for. Authentic in both her music and her lifestyle, Carlile serves as a rare example of how all of us—but especially those of us with influence and power—can lead lives that integrate our passions and talents with positive change.
While it has become commonplace for musicians to work politics into their music, the result is often less of a meaningful, strong-willed statement and more of a glaringly-obvious cash and clout grab. Their attempts at charity, too, generally feel performative and rely too heavily on soliciting donations from their fans via a tweet rather than exploring how they might use their fame to uniquely tackle one of the countless crises that plague our world. Carlile, however, is willing to roll up her sleeves and get creative. Instead of attempting to make her music a catch-all for personal expression and political activism, she allows herself to write what comes naturally. Politics may bleed into her songs from time to time—more so now than in her earlier work—but this is because she is an unflinchingly honest storyteller. She draws inspiration from her own feelings and life experiences, many of which come from existing in and witnessing the harsh realities of our highly politicized world. She recognizes that there is no clear separation between a person—artist or not—and their politics. This is especially true for her. In an interview with The Guardian, in regards to her status as a gay mother, she explained, “Being political doesn’t come from outside me any more. It comes from who I am.”
Queer motherhood (“The Mother”), harmful gender norms (“The Joke”), and the power of democracy (“A Beautiful Noise” featuring Alicia Keys), are just a few examples of how Carlile works subtly powerful statements into her music. By avoiding the in-your-face, neon-lights political messaging many other stars have adopted in recent years, Carlile allows her convictions to emerge naturally through her captivating lyrical stories. In doing this, the messages that underpin her songs resonate with listeners in a more meaningful way. The honesty that accompanies her entire discography means that at times her songs are more melancholic than joyous, but through all of them there runs an undercurrent of hope. “When you’re all alone, it’s a quiet breeze / But when you band together, it’s a choir / Of thunder and rain,” she sings in “A Beautiful Noise.” “Now we have a choice / ‘Cause I have a voice.”
Alongside infusing her music with themes of love, acceptance, and togetherness, Carlile backs up her messages with real-world action. Looking Out Foundation is a non-profit she founded with her longtime music collaborators, Tim and Phil Hanseroth in 2008. The organization has provided aid for a myriad of causes, including community development, women empowerment, education, the environment, health, human rights, the arts, racial justice, and, more recently, COVID-19 relief. A prime example of Carlile’s ability to utilize her talent and mobilize her musical connections can be found in Cover Stories, a rerecording of her sophomore record, The Story, which saw artists from Adele to Pearl Jam cover each of the original album’s tracks. Barack Obama, a longtime fan of Carlile’s, wrote the foreword. Wildly successful in both musical and charitable terms, proceeds from the album raised thousands of dollars for War Child, an organization that seeks to support, educate, and protect children affected by war. Furthermore, Carlile redirected the attention the album received back to the children it sought to help. In 2016, the Looking Out Foundation began regularly introducing the world to individual children affected by war through stories told in their own words.
Despite her superhuman humanitarian work with Looking Out Foundation, Carlile is, above all, a musician. While politics and world events do inform her music, much of her work simply centers around her personal experience. In “Wherever Is Your Heart” she sings of growing up and searching for a place to call home. “Whatever You Do” sees Carlile grappling with the feeling that at times life feels like nothing but an uphill battle. And, of course, she often sings of love. With a wife and two children, her love songs run deep. In “The Mother,” she sings in praise of her first-born: “You’re nothing short of magical and beautiful to me / I would never hit the big time without you / So they can keep their treasure and their ties to the machine / Cause I am the mother of Evangeline.”
Her latest single, “Right On Time,” marks Carlile’s triumphant return after the break the COVID-19 pandemic forced upon many musicians. Starting simply with only gentle piano and intimate vocals, the track kicks into gear in the second verse and works up to a soaring finish. Lyrically and sonically, this is Carlile at her best. Her words read like poetry and she gives her all to the chorus, with belts that prove – despite her impressive discography – she can still outdo herself.
Her upcoming album, In These Silent Days, is out on October 1st. In the meantime, listen to “Right On Time” and get excited for her recently-announced tour. She will play a show in Columbia, MO at the Roots N Blues Festival. Purchase your pass to see her here: https://rootsnbluesfestival.com/tickets/.