Leading by Joni Mitchell’s Example, Brandi Carlile Lets Us See Ourselves in Her Songs Carlile shares how radical forgiveness inspired her latest record in a candid conversation at the Grammy Museum
LOS ANGELES, CA- Joni Mitchell gave herself a test for songwriting: If you see me in my songs and wonder about my life, then I’m not doing a good job. If you see yourself, then I’m doing what I was meant to do.
When folk-rock artist Brandi Carlile first heard this, it blew her mind. She must’ve listened to the interview — an in-depth sit-down with the CBC in 2013 — at least 15 times. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that Carlile says she was listening to Mitchell almost obsessively while writing her latest album, By the Way, I Forgive You, her seventh studio release. She soaked in how Mitchell’s writing is so unapologetically rooted in time and place, evoking California and never thinking twice about singing “right on” or “groovy” or “you’re a mean old daddy, but I like you.”
A master of relatability in her own right, Carlile lays all her cards on the table on her latest record, which tackles forgiveness but also motherhood, losing a dear friend to addiction, the reality of aging parents and more — somewhere in there, it’s everyone’s story.
Carlile stopped by the Grammy Museum last week for a short performance and nearly an hour of candid conversation about the album, her process and her aspirations with the museum’s artistic director, Scott Goldman. She began by sharing her experience with the pastor who agreed to baptize her when she was 15. As her family and friends waited in the pews, he called it off at the last minute because of her sexual orientation.
“Over the years, I hadn’t really dealt with it. When we made the album, my wife asked me to forgive the pastor — kind of a challenge. So I did,” Carlile says. She originally posted a note about it on Facebook before the album’s release, saying she never thought the pastor intended to humiliate her, but, rather, struggled with the decision and ultimately ran out of time.
She rejects bitterness, spite and self-pity, and, by reminding us that this is a choice, reveals magnificent strength. Forgiveness is a challenge for both the forgiver and the forgiven, Goldman pointed out, not a word to be thrown around lightly. It’s a radical concept and a sometimes-ugly process, Carlile agreed, better viewed as emotional grappling than the buzzword it’s become.
And few songwriters can grapple more honestly than Carlile, who was flanked by her longtime songwriting partners, touring band and cherished friends, twin brothers Phil and Tim Hanseroth.
“I’d love to give my relationship with the twins over to a therapist,” she joked. With their respective families, all three even share the same property. Together, they’ve built careers weaving together compelling narratives like “Fulton County Jane Doe.”
“There is a Fulton County Jane Doe in Fulton County, Florida,” she says of the track, inspired by a news story about a woman who had remained unidentified for three decades. Found in a field at 30 years old, the woman’s body even had an identifying mark — a tattoo of Jesus on her hand — but till this day, no one has claimed her. As a new father of a little girl, Phil Hanseroth was especially moved. This was somebody’s daughter.
“I think secretly Phil is hoping he can get her identified by constantly talking about her, Instagramming her sketch and things like that,” Carlile says. “It really didn’t settle well with him that she left the world without a name, and he just wanted to write her a song. And I thought that was such a cool thing to sing about.”
It’s also an odd thing to write about, she admits. It’s an upbeat song, even, not a somber stroll in a minor key. But it’s all compassion: Their ability to wear their hearts on their sleeves without ever striking the listener as either superior or sappy is one of the trio’s more mysterious and lovely gifts, like Adele’s ability to make the coldest soul feel every shade of heartbreak, but never pity. For both artists, whatever she’s saying, it just is.
Produced by Grammy-winner Dave Cobb and acclaimed musician Shooter Jennings with powerful string arrangements by the late Paul Buckmaster, By the Way, I Forgive You has been hailed as not only a career-high for Carlile, but one of the finest lyrical and vocal performances of the year, noted for the poignancy of its messages.
Championing marginalized voices like Fulton County Jane’s is a recurring theme, from “Sugartooth,” a humanizing ode to a friend who lost the battle against addiction, to “The Joke,” an anthem of acceptance and hope that was met with a standing ovation at the Grammy Museum for its formidable vocals. Each track passes the Joni Mitchell test with flying colors.
“What the hell are you gonna do / When the world has made up its mind about you?” she sings on “Sugartooth.” It’s one of a dozen lines on the record that stops you short.
Goldman highlighted “The Mother,” in which Carlile pens a moving note to her firstborn, Evangeline. The song amusingly hits on the things people lose when becoming a parent — selfishness, sleep, plans with others. “Welcome to the end of being alone inside your mind,” she sings. “You’re tethered to another, and you’re worried all the time.”
She observes her friends out chasing their dreams and wishes she could run with them, but ultimately wouldn’t trade what she has gained as a mother, for “all the wonders I have seen, I will see a second time, from inside of the ages through your eyes.”
It’s an honest portrait of a parent of young children, in awe of her family, but also admitting she sometimes thinks about her own identity and worries she won’t know how to navigate life as a mother — and that’s OK.
“When my daughter [Evangeline] was born, I expected to have a feeling I didn’t feel. I expected not to have the feelings I did feel, and I didn’t really have anybody to talk to about that. I wrote ‘The Mother’ about that — about not feeling worthy of or typical of that word,” Carlile says. “By the end of the three and a half minutes it took me to write the lyrics down, I had changed my mind. I was embracing my feelings.
“As soon as I started singing it, other people started coming up to me and telling me they’d felt the same way. Not just gay people — trans people, straight people, and dads, surprisingly enough, but also not surprisingly, because I didn’t carry Evangeline. Joni Mitchell’s test held true on that, and it made me proud.”