THE READING ROOM: Brandi Carlile Lets Her Story Run Free in Warm, Honest ‘Broken Horses’
Brandi Carlile knows how to captivate; she invites us into her songs with her ability to evoke feelings of isolation and loss, forgiveness and hope, love and joy. Carlile entrances us with her stories of people just like us, facing the same challenges and losses, the same comforts and victories, the same hard lessons that life lays in our paths, and she compels our attention because of her heart-on-her-sleeve honesty. With Carlile, we know we’re seeing and hearing the person behind the song laying her heart and emotions out there for us all to share and from which we can all learn.
In her new memoir, Broken Horses (Crown), just as in her music, Carlile’s ability to turn a phrase and to name an emotion with just the right word is majestic. Every page of her memoir, which came out Tuesday, reveals a soul trying to find its way, a woman candidly acknowledging her own shortcomings and trying to find her place and herself in an often chaotic world, and a woman who discovers redemption in music and a certain amount of peace in the struggles of life. Like the sailor she is, she’s looking out on the horizon, seeing the breakers and knowing that turbulence sometimes swirls beneath the calmer waters beyond them, but she now has the tools to navigate whatever roiling seas come her way.
While the trajectory of her life is here for us to follow — growing up poor in rural Washington state; dropping out of high school; singing in a bar band with her mother; beginning to think she was gay; setting out on her own to make music; meeting up with the Hanseroth twins and starting a band that has now grown into a family; winning Grammys for best Americana album (By the Way I Forgive You), Best American Roots Song (“The Joke”); and Best American Roots Performance in 2018; marrying Catherine Shepherd in 2012 — the golden threads stitched on every page of this book are Carlile’s clear-eyed reflections on her struggles and the lessons she’s learned from them. “Artists I love never seem to reveal themselves later in life as a person who struggled to get by in their youth and also a person who is a narcissistic, insufferable asshole at times,” she writes. “I just personally find it liberating to tell you this because it’s true. I can’t be seen as an angel in these times or any times, although I wish it were so. I have been lost, racist, religious, brutal, and broken before. I hurt people as much as I’ve been hurt.”
As a child, Carlile discovers the power of music to soothe and comfort. One day while she’s visiting her grandmother, she’s set in front of the TV with lunch while her grandmother vacuums. Poltergeist is playing, but by the time her grandmother discovers it, the damage has been done, Carlile says. She’s often scared at night, and since she knows she’s supposed to pray when she’s scared, she does.
“I just wanted God to answer me. For real. I needed real-life assurances. And those assurances came from the most unlikely source. I still fight a strange embarrassment in telling this story. Honestly, what I’m about to describe makes me feel a tad cringy and self-involved. The thing is, though … it happened. It was a gift.”
She begins listening to Teddy Ruxpin tapes to soothe herself, first inside the stuffed bear itself, and then in a cassette player an aunt gave her. But the tape would always end and pop out, and she’d jump out of bed, sprint across the room, and start the music and stories again. But one night the tape didn’t pop out. “After a few deep breaths, I was preparing to run across the floor dimension to inspect my broken Zen machine, when something unusual happened,” Carlile writes. “Real music started playing … not Sesame Street kid music, but big, gorgeous, angelic voices in multiple layers of complex harmony. It sounded like a hundred people or angels (I feel weird saying angels), but the lyrics were about unseen guardians and peace — it was absolutely epic. … This experience and a few others have also given me a faith that is as impervious to political extremism as it is to the whims of culture. That tape was my comfort blanket or that one tattered stuffed animal that a child is fundamentally attached to. I must have lost it in one of our moves. I think things disappear when we don’t need them anymore. I listened to that music every night. It was my proof that God is real. Music is still my proof that God is real.”
By the time she’s a teenager, Carlile discovers the Indigo Girls, whose songs reveal that music is about more than just relationships. “It was around that time that someone slipped the Philadelphia soundtrack into my stocking at Christmas and also I discovered the Indigo Girls. I can’t say enough about them. The Indigos were huge for me. They had androgynous music and images. They were singing love songs and using same-gender pronouns. That should have felt normal, but to me it was radical. I felt like I knew them … and I couldn’t understand why. Whatever it was, it was in their voices. They sounded like they were resisting something … I couldn’t make sense of it at the time, but I knew that somehow I was in that fight too.”
With an exquisite openness, Carlile recalls her early attraction to the church and the pain that comes with her dawning recognition that her pastor won’t baptize her because she won’t disavow her lesbianism. In spite of that initial rejection, Carlile continues to see grace and mercy woven through the fabric of her world, and she often hears the echoes of redemption most clearly in music. “Looking back on it now, I see grace everywhere. There was grace in the outrage my public rejection incited in my family and in that tiny town. I hadn’t fully seen it until then. That’s how real ‘heart change’ is made. Consciousness that shifts not as the result of triumph, but of sacrifice, even sometimes humiliation. That’s where the mercy creeps in.”
Carlile falls asleep listening to Jeff Buckley sing “Hallelujah” — a song with which she often opens her shows. “I was becoming more and more awake, more certain that I had been looking for my salvation in all the wrong places. My obsession with ‘Hallelujah’ had begun to transform itself into a fantasy future life full of concert stages and deep and meaningful relationships with friends.”
By the time she’s writing By the Way, I Forgive You, Carlile begins to understand and embrace who she is as an artist: “I understand who I am as an artist because I understand that I don’t understand who I am as an artist. It can all change at any time. I don’t make apologies for that anymore. If I write one song in two years and my art takes on the shape of entertainment or finish carpentry for a while instead, that’s absolutely okay. I need that one song to mean something. It doesn’t have to necessarily be heavy or even profound, it just needs to come from the ‘muse’ and not the ‘ick,’ to quote Joni Mitchell. I’m done with song manufacturing. If music needs to find us, it will.”
Carlile’s book doesn’t revel in settling scores or in toting up sexual conquests, as so many memoirs do. She opens her heart and shows us its scars. She confidently shares her fears and her hopes and her passions for life (“Fishing sometimes defines me. Some days it’s all I can think about. I’m so obsessive, but nothing’s really ever got ahold of me the way fishing and music have.”), and talks to us just as if we were sitting on her boat with her or in chairs around her studio. Broken Horses is one of the best music memoirs of the year.