A lot of things have changed for Brandi Carlile in the last three years.
The strength of 2018’s “By the Way, I Forgive You” (and that Grammys high note heard round the country) opened new doors for the hometown girl who used to pack ’em in at a little Queen Anne pub. The stages grew bigger, the spotlights brighter. The dreams a little wilder and closer within reach.
There’s been no shortage of rewarding turns on the road to Carlile’s highly anticipated follow-up, “In These Silent Days,” which enters the world Friday. The country supergroup with a purpose. Tanya Tucker’s comeback album. Tribute shows for her new jam buddy Joni Mitchell. And then there’s that bestselling memoir Carlile suddenly had a few more stories for.
With every new side project and new wrinkle in her live show, it felt like for all the milestones, Carlile and longtime collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth were really just getting started. Even “By the Way, I Forgive You” ended on a new beginning when, rising to a challenge from co-producer Dave Cobb, Carlile delivered the gutsiest vocal performance of her career with “The Joke,” earning song and record of the year nominations at the Grammys.
“I’ve never really been good at relaying emotion in studio performances,” Carlile said. “It’s always really hard for me without the audience. … And when I finished ‘By the Way, I Forgive You’ on ‘The Joke,’ it was kinda sad ’cause it was like, ‘Ah man, I just finally got there. I think I know how to do this now.’ And then it was over.”
Laying her heart down on studio tracks certainly isn’t a problem on her soul-baring “In These Silent Days,” Carlile’s seventh studio album. Song for song, it’s the most dynamic and unflinching collection of her career. Through all the side adventures (and subsequent pandemic isolation) of the last few years, Carlile “had it in my head that I wanted to go right back to the same place, with exactly the same people, and start where I left off,” she said. “So I went into [this album] ready to lay bare my feelings about those words and about this book and about this time in my life — these crazy silent days.”
Armed with a fresh clarity her memoir’s reflection and self-examination afforded her, Carlile began writing songs with “a lot more awareness” and intention. It was a break from her usual style, where a song’s meaning might not reveal itself to her until months later.
Early in the process, she told the Hanseroths this record was going to be different. She didn’t want to hold anything back. “We never really get direction for writing, but it was just sort of encouraged, like, ‘Hey, don’t be afraid to get ugly, get personal and get real,’ which we did,” Tim said.
The first two songs set the tone, or perhaps more accurately, cleared a path for the rest of the album. While much of it was inspired by memories and emotions the book stirred up, Carlile seemed to unleash all the metaphors she avoided using in her memoir, which was intentionally written in her “straight-shooter” prose fans know from her stage banter. (That’s where she learned to tell stories, after all.) On arresting closer “Throwing Good After Bad,” Carlile delivers one of the most evocative metaphors on a record full of them: “You’ve got a beautiful mind and the soul of a coyote, hunger driving you mad,” she sings with beautiful precision, the line sticking like an arrow into your conscience.
After the heavy-hearted piano ballad, a mode Carlile nails as well as any first-rate pop vocalist, came the fiery “Broken Horses,” which shares a title with her book. One night, Carlile was listening to (surprise) Elton John’s “Tumbleweed Connection” and plugged an electric guitar into an old Standel amp inherited from her great-uncle Sonny.
“I was having some generational, genetic, queer, maternal anger about the world making me or my kids feel marginalized in some way, while also knowing how much better it is and it would have been if I had tried to do this 50 years ago,” Carlile said. “I just wanted to scream and yell about it, and had a pretty amazing all-nighter, rock ’n’ roll evening of exorcising demons.”
It’s a barreling outlaw rocker unlike anything else they’ve written, kissed with co-producer Shooter Jennings’ piano work and guitar leads that wail like a pissed-off Lynyrd Skynyrd disciple. With its own power-note haymakers, theatrical lead single “Right on Time” might garner more attention for Carlile’s vocal might. But here, her voice whips and burns like a desert wind smacking you across the face.
The song really took off when Phil, who lives a quick four-wheeler ride away, joined Carlile in her garage-barn studio with his bass. “Every time we played it, it got a little more free and a little more experimental,” Phil said. “Honestly, that may have set the tone musically for going in to make the record, like it was the reason we thought it was OK to try something different.”
Carlile’s lyrics weren’t quite finished until they hit the studio. One of the chorus’s signature lines — “mending up your fences with my horses running wild” — came to her in a dream, and she ran it past Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist, who wouldn’t dare change a thing. “Bernie’s kind of a cowboy, anyway,” Carlile said. “He sends me lyrics all the time and there’s a lot of American West-themed, cowboy, horses and livestock and plains. Just talking to him conjures a painting.”
(Lest you thought Carlile’s side project slate was clean for a change, she and Taupin are talking collaboration. They’ve already written three songs together, his words and her music. “I played ’em for Elton recently, too,” Carlile said. “He loved ’em. He’s like, ‘They’re so weird!’ I’m like, ‘I know!’”)
“In These Silent Days” isn’t exactly a radical reinvention for Carlile and the twins, so much as it is a distillation of myriad elements and influences already in their arsenal, formed into something new. But “Broken Horses” is hardly the only song that distinguishes itself from their past work.
After “Broken Horses,” “there was a trajectory from there away from sadness and anger, and into celebration and acceptance and empathy,” Carlile said. “The book put me in touch with some righteous anger and grief that I wanted to reconcile, and I did.” By the end, Carlile was mining more uplifting moods with “Right on Time,” lovely folk number “Stay Gentle” and the change-of-pace “You and Me on the Rock” — a feathery soft rocker that sounds like Paul Simon and the Haim sisters came over to jam after getting their hands dirty in Carlile’s tomato garden.
“Those are celebrations and realizations that there’s a foundation in my life that I’m proud of,” Carlile said of the songs.
The word “unlocked” has assumed a prominent place in Carlile’s vocabulary in recent years, particularly when discussing Joni Mitchell. The two struck up friendship and Carlile helped organize all-star jam sessions at Mitchell’s house before the pandemic. She uses the word to describe an almost mystic quality possessed by some of the truly great artists — a deeper connection with “the source of where music comes from, the muse,” as Carlile explained it this spring.
Carlile’s quick to refute any suggestion she’s reached such a plane herself, but said she’s managed to “absorb some of that stardust coming off of [Mitchell] and put it in practice.”
“With people like Joni or Herbie Hancock or Miles Davis, it’s not what you learn from them, it’s what you unlearn from them,” she said. “But it’s so much slower to unlearn than it is to learn.”
The idea of being “unlocked” also came up while making the new record, according to Tim, who defined it as a sort of musical freedom. “I think our next record is gonna be like a bridge to that place,” he said.
One thing “In These Silent Days” makes clear is that “By the Way, I Forgive You” wasn’t simply a midcareer peak. “Unlocked” or not, Carlile and the twins’ 20-year journey together as songwriters and performers has entered a thrilling new leg. If the Grammys never call again (fat chance) or the spotlight dims to previous levels (don’t count on it), it won’t matter a lick because they’re chasing something more exciting.
“I feel like ‘By the Way, I Forgive You’ was just like a better version of one of our previous records,” Phil said, “or maybe we were just writing better songs and had a better producer. And when we went in to make ‘In These Silent Days,’ we knew we wanted to do something different, but we weren’t sure quite how to do that, and I think we’ve just now figured it out at the end of the process. We wanna make music, art that’s completely untethered to genre and to what we’ve made in the past. We know how to do that now.”
Sounds like they’re just getting started.