Since Carlile's early days playing the Paragon bar on Queen Anne, many in the LGBTQ community have rallied around the Washington folk star. As her Grammy nomination coup thrusts Carlile to new heights, her queer fans celebrate her achievements.

Share story

Brandi Carlile never had trouble making an impression.

With an astonishing six Grammy nominations — including three of the top four awards — making the homegrown, Americana-rooted powerhouse is this year’s most nominated woman. Carlile is reaching a wider audience than ever, hitting a new high in an already impressive career with the well-earned achievement.

In a sense, when Carlile takes the prime-time stage to perform during Sunday’s award show (5 p.m., KIRO), it won’t be all that different from her early days winning new fans in barrooms around Seattle. There’ll just be a few million more people watching.

In the early 2000s, Carlile and veteran Seattle guitarist Keith Wright held a Sunday night residency at the Paragon bar on Queen Anne. Back then, the neighborhood pub was better known as a pickup spot than live-music destination and when they started there, the acoustic duo was charged with entertaining a crowd more likely there for a bite or phone-number scavenging than the music. That would change the second a young baseball-capped Carlile unsheathed that knee-weakening voice that’d convert unsuspecting barflies into believers.

In the early 2000s, Brandi Carlile used to pack the Paragon bar in Queen Anne, where she and guitarist Keith Wright had a Sunday night residency. (Courtesy of Keith Wright)
In the early 2000s, Brandi Carlile used to pack the Paragon bar in Queen Anne, where she and guitarist Keith Wright had a Sunday night residency. (Courtesy of Keith Wright)

“It was one of the few bands that I had been in — especially on Queen Anne — where once somebody started singing the whole place just shut up,” Wright says. “Immediately, she had a really astute following.”

Soon, Carlile was packing the Paragon as word spread that some wunderkind folkie, with her merch-slinging mother and sister among the crowd, was blowing minds with three-hour sets featuring early versions of “Turpentine” and her fan-favorite rendition of “Hallelujah.” “Her mom would bake brownies — and not the 420 kind, just the kind your mom and grandmom used to make — and if you bought a CD she would give you a brownie,” says Paragon owner Todd Ivester.

It’s been a while since Carlile’s needed Mom’s baked goods to help get her music to the masses. But that rural King County earnestness hasn’t faded, even as she steps into the biggest spotlight of her career. On the strength of her most emotionally vulnerable and vocally powerful album to date, Carlile’s Grammy nominations — the most in one year by a born-and-raised Washington artist — have been one of the biggest stories of this year’s awards. “By the Way, I Forgive You” is up for the most prestigious album of the year award, its lead single “The Joke” — a hair-raising rallying cry for the marginalized — earning noms for song and record of the year.

It’s also fitting that Carlile is leading the charge in what’s been a big year for queer women at the Grammys, with a number of LGBTQ artists vying for music’s top honors. Since those early days at the Paragon until now, as Carlile transitions from beloved folk singer to household name, many in the LGBTQ community in Seattle and beyond have rallied around her as one of their own.

“When you are a young LGBTQ person, you’re constantly looking for these role models,” says Sunni Campbell, who used to slip in to those empowering Paragon shows with then-girlfriend Alec Zimmerman when they were still underage. “You’re really thirsty to see people like you being successful and being accepted. … That was part of what made those shows so pivotal or important at the time.”

Community support

“People in the lesbian community, there was a huge buzz,” says Martha Manning, co-owner of longtime Capitol Hill lesbian bar Wildrose, which is hosting a Grammy watch party in Carlile’s honor. “Word was getting out and people were really crazy for her at that point.”

Carlile, who performed relentlessly at the Dubliner in Fremont, Salty’s and several Duke’s Seafood and Chowder locations in addition to the Paragon, also played a number of gigs at the Wildrose. Much like the Paragon, the bar was slammed whenever it booked Carlile, with fans spilling over from the backroom where she and her band — including the twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth, says co-owner Shelley Brothers — would set up. Her rootsy folk songs and functional-flannel charm appealed to more than just the usual city crowd, and women from all over the region flocked to see the singer, who grew up around the Maple Valley-Ravensdale area, perform.

“It was a very queer-woman-centric audience,” says Zimmerman, whose older sister introduced her to the queer music scene, of the Paragon shows. “She brought a sense of community to the area, just being able to step into one of those concerts and know it was a safe space.”

That communal spirit among the Carlile faithful came with a few other advantages. As Wright recalls, they had a “crew of girls” who often helped them lug gear from venue to venue, drive them home after the shows or provide couches to crash on, as he and Carlile gigged everywhere from Enumclaw’s Yella Beak Saloon to Stuart’s Coffee House in Bellingham, where they drew standing-room-only crowds.

“This community kind of started and not just because of the [LGBTQ] movement, but because Brandi is also the sweetest girl on Earth,” Wright says. “She would look at you in the eye and hug you and say she loved you, and she meant it.”

“These are my people”

Carlile had outgrown neighborhood taverns by the time Karen Gray, like the rest of America, fell in love with Carlile’s music through her 2007 breakout “The Story,” which made Carlile a favorite on adult contemporary radio. Carlile’s acoustic folk numbers and “gorgeous” harmonies hearkened back to the music Gray grew up with in her house — John Denver, James Taylor and Peter, Paul and Mary — but for her generation.

Though other openly gay women like Melissa Etheridge and k.d. lang had come before her, Carlile was the first lesbian star who resonated with Gray, who came of age in the post-Lilith Fair era. Gray credits Carlile’s tender cover of the Avett Brothers’ “Murder in the City” — in which Carlile subtly tweaks a lyric to reference loving her wife — with helping her through her coming-out process.

Lisa Nielsen, left, and Karen Gray, right, seen at home  in Seattle, got engaged at a Brandi Carlile concert last year. The couple framed the poster from the 2018 Red Rocks show where Nielsen popped the question. They plan to marry this year. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Lisa Nielsen, left, and Karen Gray, right, seen at home in Seattle, got engaged at a Brandi Carlile concert last year. The couple framed the poster from the 2018 Red Rocks show where Nielsen popped the question. They plan to marry this year. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

“I don’t know how many other [gay] artists are so open about their marriage and their family, and just normalize it in this beautiful way, [showing] that it’s not something that’s on the margins or something you should keep in the shadows,” says Gray, a proud Northwesterner living in Broadview. “This is just normal people loving each other and in a very public, authentic way.”

(While Carlile’s never been shy about her sexuality, the Elton John worshipper has never made “a spectacle of it” either, as she told the Los Angeles Times in 2009. Carlile’s long credited the openly gay artists who came before her — like the Indigo Girls and the knighted Rocket Man — with laying the groundwork so she didn’t have to.)

That sense of community Campbell and Zimmerman found at those early Paragon shows, Gray discovered when she saw an already-famous Carlile for the first time more than a decade later. Gray — who was “not quite out yet” at the time — could feel it even before Carlile took the downtown theater stage that night.

“Not to be dramatic, but it was life-changing for me at that season of my life,” Gray says. “I remember standing in line outside of that theater and looking around — that’s as many visibly LGBTQ people as I’d seen outside a Capitol Hill bar, ever.”

“It was like ‘Oh, these are my people,’” she adds.

Since that “life-changing” concert, Gray’s seen Carlile perform many times, both in and outside of Seattle, and felt that same camaraderie at each one. Last summer, Gray and her now-fiancée, Lisa Nielsen, went to Denver to see Carlile at the famed Red Rocks Amphitheatre where Nielsen proposed during their song, the sweetly echoing ballad “The Eye.” At the end of the night, Carlile closed with an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace” with the landmark venue, walled by two massive sandstone monoliths, illuminated by cellphone lights.

Karen Gray and Lisa Nielsen kept the tickets from the Brandi Carlile concert at which they became engaged. Nielsen gave Gray this engagement ring after proposing at Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside of Denver last year. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Karen Gray and Lisa Nielsen kept the tickets from the Brandi Carlile concert at which they became engaged. Nielsen gave Gray this engagement ring after proposing at Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside of Denver last year. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

“That song just meant so much to us,” Gray says. “As people who grew up in the church and identify as Christian but are also out, it just felt like this is our space. And she’s our person.”

“Sharing her with the world”

In the months since Carlile’s Grammy nomination haul, Zimmerman jokes that she’s been “trying not to gloat” about seeing the ever-brightening star in a relaxed Queen Anne pub. The morning of the announcement, Campbell recalls “being filled with such joy” and dialing up friends eager to reminisce about those formative nights at the Paragon. But for Carlile’s LGBTQ fans, watching the self-described “small-town lesbian folk singer” ascend the industry’s highest mountain is more meaningful than an “I was there when” brag.

“She’s our girl and now we’re sharing her with the world,” Gray says. “She’s mainstream now and that feels really powerful. The LGBT community, even though we’ve come a long way, we still have a really long way to go. To be fully part of the mainstream, fully accepted by everybody and … her stepping into that light and getting that recognition is a step in that process for all of us.”

That progress at the Grammys, which have been criticized for its dearth of female winners and the Recording Academy’s (which presents the Grammys) lack of diversity in recent years, doesn’t end with Carlile. This year queer women are making their presence felt and notably in the four marquee categories. Behind her critically lauded “A Star is Born” (in which Carlile makes a cameo), Lady Gaga trails our hometown hero with five nominations, including the song and record of the year categories. Janelle Monáe’s empowering pop-funk masterpiece “Dirty Computer” is up for album of the year, while Bebe Rexha — who ruled Top 40 and country radio last year — is nominated for best new artist. And those are just the most visible.

“It’s refreshing to see a Grammys that are reflecting all of the diverse identities and orientations of society,” Campbell says. “It’s important for those voices to be recognized on this level.”

 

While old-school fans like Campbell knew Carlile was destined for something bigger than playing for burger-scarfing bargoers, few could have predicted that nearly 20 years later she would be the talk of the Grammys. Save for maybe one famous Seattleite.

Last year Wright bumped into low-key rock star dad Dave Matthews at a youth soccer game. The two got to talking about their mutual friend, Carlile. Apparently, Matthews had seen them one night at the Paragon and later recognized her voice when they played a parking-lot stage outside of one of his annual Gorge Amphitheatre concerts years before she made it big.

“Did you guys play at the Paragon?” Wright recalls Matthews asking him. “You guys were that acoustic duo that played there on the window. I didn’t stop and ask [her name]. I just figured I would see her at the Grammys.”