ND ARTIST OF THE DECADE: A Front-Row Seat to the Evolution of Brandi Carlile
From left, Amy Ray, Brandi Carlile, and Emily Saliers in 2006 (photo courtesy of Amy Ray)
EDITOR’S NOTE: As the 2010s draw to a close, we at No Depression wanted to honor the artists who have had the biggest impact on roots music over the past decade. We chose four artists and are bringing you their stories — as told by fellow musicians who know them well — throughout December. We asked Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray to tell us about how her friend Brandi Carlile has shaped roots music over the last 10 years and beyond. Don’t miss the articles about our other Artists of the Decade, Chris Thile, Rhiannon Giddens, and Jason Isbell.
The first time I heard Brandi sing live it struck me like a bolt of lightning. Emily had turned me on to her music after our friend, filmmaker Kathlyn Horan, passed Brandi’s music on to her. This is how it happens, word of mouth, this is the way the music sticks. The good word on Brandi spread fast, a grassroots movement that laid a strong foundation, built organically, created staying power, and exploded into the mainstream of Grammy fame. Brandi is a fascinating combination of both the old and new school. She understands celebrity and how to put on a show like the best of them. In the tradition of performers like Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, or Elton John, she admittedly is a “show” person, and indeed she gives a riveting performance. And in her newness, she is a true believer, a representative of her generation of women that refuse to wear the robes of cynicism and bitterness. The organic part of her, what’s in her heart, will not to bow to convention; she embraces the journey and evolves, and responds to the world as surely and wholeheartedly as she leads the way. Her voice reveals all this in a flash, and that’s what felled me.
My own emotional response sort of shocked me, it was so reminiscent of the first time I sang with Emily in high school; the excitement I felt, the ache in my heart, it was like I was going through that same emotion and being in the throes of an everlasting high school pep rally for the outsiders and the underdogs. And after 14 years of watching Brandi roll through life, I suspect this is not unique to me. Her impact on her audience and who she crosses paths with in this ecosystem of musicians, songwriters, producers, and engineers is absolutely arresting, and her magnetism is a proven force.
When we met in 2006, I had become a circumspect person, I had run through the wringer, and seen all the extremes of the music business. I could be pretty jaded and usually passed on whatever was hyped up too much. I felt like I had spent my days always too earnest, too enthusiastic, too idealistic. Cynicism was rearing up, because it seemed a safer path. But the truth is I was hungry for my scrappy feelings of old, my idealism and insatiability were rumbling deep down inside. When Brandi recorded a harmony on one of Emily’s songs, “Last Tears,” for our 2006 release Despite Our Differences, I realized that we had been introduced to a person who had a rare gift for harmony and could fit in between our parts and blend with flair. She made us more than we were. So, we traded harmonies and ended up on her song “Cannonball” for her record The Story. That studio session was on a gorgeous fall day in Atlanta, Georgia, and we ended up at Eddie’s Attic playing a benefit for the Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault. The recorded Brandi was full of dimension and depth, but the live Brandi was a whole extra layer of profundity. Brandi was unassuming and disarming but also self-assured. She knew what she had, it was just a part of her on a cellular level. She blew the audience away, she blew us away, and from that point on, we started playing gigs together and this began a musical relationship that has taught me as much as any I have ever had.
At first, when Brandi, along with Phil and Tim Hanseroth and the band, started touring with us, we would do a few songs together, but by the end of the band’s days opening for us, Brandi was singing and playing on half our set. We spent about three years touring together off and on, collaborating on art and activism. Emily and I knew that it would be short lived and the tables would turn soon enough, and indeed, we got a front row seat to witness her meteoric, much deserved ascent. Those were special days. I met my match in many ways, someone who challenges me, who won’t let me off the hook. Brandi has an infectious curiosity, an insatiable work ethic, a determination to not let the bastards get her down. She’s always reshuffling the deck, making you look at your life, your art, and business differently. She’s done a lot for me; has spent hours singing harmony on my solo records, invited my solo band to open for her, even when it was a risk, sat in with me at the sweaty club land shows, nothing that would advance her career per se, but just for the experience of it and because she decided long ago she’d take me under her wing, as surely as I would take her under mine. Having someone like Brandi believe in you is bound to help you get better, work harder, and believe in yourself that much more. For all that, I am thankful.
I’ve watched Brandi evolve in every way. Her inventiveness in the business came from years of studying what was happening and really dissecting it; she’s smart. She’s the kid in high school that defied the odds, turned everything on its head through sheer determination. I remember some years back, we were talking about the Americana scene in Nashville; she was frustrated, felt shut out — like she was beating her head against a wall. She was figuring out her moves, how to make inroads, and was gonna crack that nut. I told her she deserved to be in those ranks, but in my head, the reality of the Nashville Americana scene felt pretty off limits to queer girls like us. Well, I had to eat my words. I watched her conquer it, make it her own, and what’s most important, as soon as she made it on that scene, she started giving back. She started turning it inside out, found her allies, and started down the path of making it better for all of us. Brandi has taken every lesson she’s learned, every triumph she’s won, and paused for a moment to dive down into the sea of possibilities, to come back up to tell us all what the potential is and how we can access it. On the flipside, when she takes a misstep, she’s not afraid to face it, and she’ll retrace her footfalls and correct it. She’ll realize midway through a press campaign that she’s not giving enough credit to the women in her life and she will literally realign and the next thing you read, she is giving credit where it is due.
Even with all her irons in the fire, the building of her future as a musician, activist, entrepreneur, and producer, Brandi has also kept an eye on the past. She knows where she came from, and whose shoulders she stands on, so she has ventured into really important relationships with her elders, people like Kris Kristofferson, Tanya Tucker, Joni Mitchell, Elton John, and John Prine. She’s not just meeting her heroes for a day here or there and gleaning wisdom and moving on, she’s invested in these relationships in a deep and nurturing way. While most people would shrink from the challenge and vulnerability, she rises to it and has sincere gratitude for the artists that paved her way, and she pays them back with energy and respect.
And while she could settle in and just enjoy the ride, she keeps working harder; to stretch her voice to its full potential, to be a student of songwriting and to never stop searching for words and melodies, and to use her success to fuel activism and to take it seriously and invest in it over the long haul. This is a beautiful, inspiring evolution. It happens in her life, in her songwriting, her melodies, her vocal abilities, her activism, and her friendships. Brandi has a spiritual center that guides her and she’s not afraid to listen to it.