In an interview, Seattle-area folk star Brandi Carlile reflects on her Grammy nomination spree and the biggest headlining show of her career at a major venue in her home state.
Welcome to the top of the world, Brandi Carlile.
For all the critical acclaim and sold-out theaters over the years, Washington’s homegrown folk star hasn’t exactly been a household name. That appears to be changing after the veteran singer-songwriter became one of the biggest stories coming out of the Grammy nominations announcement Dec. 7.
Carlile’s six nominations trailed only hip-hop superstars Kendrick Lamar and Drake, making her the most nominated woman in what could be a tide-changing year. The Recording Academy expanded the fields in its top categories after criticism for a lack of diversity in recent years.
Her well-deserved nomination spree surprised the music world, with her excellent sixth studio album “By the Way, I Forgive You” and its arresting lead single “The Joke” earning nominations in three of the most prestigious categories — album, record and song of the year. To top it off, Carlile announced the biggest headlining show of her career at the Gorge Amphitheatre on her birthday (June 1) next year, with Neko Case and Emmylou Harris.
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We caught up with Carlile as she was preparing to hunker down in her Maple Valley home with her wife and two kids, still taking it all in.
Are you home for the holidays now?
I am, yeah. We always host, so everybody comes to us. It’s really nice. We spend, basically, five days not getting dressed, we just hang out in our pajamas.
What was your reaction when you found out about all those Grammy nominations?
Oh man, I was completely shocked, obviously. Then shortly thereafter thrilled — beyond thrilled. I’ve been so happy about it ever since. I feel a strong sense of joy around the whole thing.
You guys do anything special to celebrate?
Yeah, the twins [longtime collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth] came over and brought the kids. We let ’em all play in the living room while we just drank and hung out, and talked about all the years that we put into this.
You’ve had a lot of success, but did this feel like another big step?
It’s felt like the biggest step, in some strange way. We’re really overwhelmed. We’ve never been acknowledged at this level before. We’re still dealing with it and getting our heads around it, but like I said, the intensity and shock, and the initial reaction really just gave way to joy. I just feel really content in my heart that we’ve been seen like this.
You’ve talked about this record being an emotional breakthrough for you. How does it feel to have this body of work, specifically, recognized?
[It] is my favorite part about the whole thing. It’s not that I don’t love our records and our previous work, I do. [But] I felt that this record was a breakthrough for us in a lot of ways, emotionally and musically, and the affirmation that we’re receiving for that has been really satisfying.
With “The Joke,” did it feel like you were onto something special?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s probably my favorite song I’ve ever written. When we wrote “The Joke,” it was in such an unorthodox way. The studio was closed, it was dark, it came to me on a day off. I went in there and wrote it really without even playing an instrument. I just had my cellist, Josh [Neumann], go over in the corner of the room and play a series of chords and I wrote the song to that based on an old melody that Phil had.
The Grammys have been criticized for a lack of diversity recently. But this year we’re seeing more artists coming from different backgrounds. Does this year feel like a turning point?
I think that the Grammys have definitely taken a turn for the better. They’ve extended their peripheral vision to start to see more female artists that have always been there, but I don’t think had been seen clearly in the past by almost any academy. It’s been a tough struggle, a disconcerting one, because it’s actually gotten worse [than] it was even in the ’90s. But I’m really impressed with what the Grammys have done this year. My nominations aside, there are some really worthy people in this year’s nominations.
Any particular artists you’re a fan of?
I think Kendrick Lamar is a genius. He’s really fabulous and is leading the charge in protest music for his generation. Margo Price is a total country star without the support of the country establishment. There’s too many to list.
Are you going to be performing?
I don’t think I’m allowed to say [laughs].
How was your Grammy experience when “The Firewatcher’s Daughter” was nominated [for best Americana album in 2016]?
It was really nice. I felt no pressure, because everybody knew Jason Isbell was going to win. It was just a reason to get dressed up, go out and listen to great music, feel really special for a day. I actually went the following year when I produced The Secret Sisters album and it got nominated for best folk album. We thought they were going to win, so that’s when I experienced the heart pounding in my chest, ringing in my ears, stress and anticipation. And then when they didn’t win, just the intense disappointment [laughs]. Honestly, that was my first experience with that feeling and I don’t cope with it very well. It’s not that I’m a poor sport or even that I’m competitive. It’s just such a strange new pressure. I’m 38 and I’ve put out seven albums — I am not used to new feelings around music and my job.
So how do you think it will be for you this time around, with six nominations of your own?
I’m just so confused about how I’m going to feel. I remember the nominations coming in and all these people calling me and saying “Oh man, are you ready? Now it’s going to get crazy.” And I just couldn’t combat the fact that what I really feel is just so relaxed and like I climbed the top of the hill. I really can’t imagine climbing much higher. I feel like what I had to prove, we proved it with the nominations and I’m just so content with them. It’s not that I don’t [have] drive or more aspiration for the band, I’m just so pleased with being the most nominated woman at the 2019 Grammys. It’s hard to want any more.
Got a baby-sitter lined up yet?
[laughs] They’re all coming with me.
Another milestone, the Gorge concert…
Now, how about that, huh?!
How does it feel to be headlining such a landmark venue for the first time in your home state?
It doesn’t get any more important than the Gorge. When I started in bands, we’d have weekends at the Gorge. We’d go even if we didn’t have tickets and just stand in the [general admission] line and play songs for people. It was my dream just to get up on the stage one time, not even to play music, just to stand up there and see what it looked like. In my wildest dreams — and I’m quite the dreamer — I could not have really imagined headlining the Gorge. So, this is almost as big of a deal to me as the Grammy thing.
Were there favorite shows there that stood out to you?
All three Lilith Fairs. Those are my favorite coming-of-age experiences in life. I don’t think I would be the artist that I am now without Lilith Fair. The thing I remember so clearly was that seeing all those women on stage and command that massive, monster of a venue the way that they did really made it all seem possible for me. We don’t have that kind of representation right now in music. … That’s why I’m so happy about the Gorge and the Grammys — because I want to be a harbinger for change in that sense.