To say Brandi Carlile is riding a career high would be an understatement. The 37-year-old folk-rock troubadour’s seventh album, By the Way, I Forgive You, is up for six Grammys, making her this year’s most-nominated female act and third-most-nominated artist overall (behind Kendrick Lamar and Drake). Her inaugural all-female music festival — the Girls Just Wanna Weekend, inspired by her life-changing girlhood Lilith Fair experiences and featuring a lineup of Maren Morris, Shawn Colvin, the Indigo Girls, Margo Price, Lucius, KT Tunstall, Secret Sisters and Ruby Amanfu — takes place in Mexico this weekend. And she recently got to perform for one of her idols, Joni Mitchell, at the all-star Joni 75 tribute concert, which will play in more than 400 cinemas as the film The Music Center Presents Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration for a one-night-only celebration on Feb. 7 from Trafalgar Releasing — three nights before Carlile performs at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards.
It hasn’t always been an easy road for Carlile. As an openly gay singer-songwriter and mother, she has struggled to be heard and understood. She has even struggled with “internalized sexism” that at first made it difficult for her to appreciate Mitchell’s artistry. But those struggles have informed her Grammy breakthrough album, and now the Recording Academy’s voters aren’t her only high-profile fans: Former President Barack Obama included two By the Way, I Forgive You tracks on his famous Spotify playlists, and he even wrote a foreword for her 2017 War Child benefit compilation, Cover Stories.
Below, check out Carlile’s enlightening conversation with Yahoo Entertainment about the significance of her multiple Grammy nominations, her politically charged anthem “The Joke” and how Joni Mitchell changed her life — and her wife’s life — forever.
Yahoo Entertainment: You’ve had an amazing year, capped off by your many Grammy nominations and the historic Joni 75 concert. To tie these two milestones together, I have to ask, how did Joni’s music specifically influence By the Way, I Forgive You?
Brandi Carlile: Well, sometimes I tend to learn more from musical influences that I didn’t get when I was younger — like retrospective potency. What happened was [producer] T Bone Burnett tried to make me hip to Joni Mitchell when we were making [the 2007 album] The Story. He played me some of Blue, “All I Want.” But the lyric “I wanna shampoo you, I wanna renew you” bothered me so much, I could never accept it. I thought to myself, “Joni Mitchell doesn’t sound tough.” … That was just where I was at in my musical evolution, because I was young my goal was to be tough. If I was going to be country, I was going to sound like Tanya Tucker; if I was going to be rock ’n’ roll, I was going to sound like Joan Jett. So Joni Mitchell sounded too feminine to me, and that lyric just seemed like this ultra-hetero, pandering thing.
And then I met my wife. My wife has been obsessed with Joni Mitchell since her childhood. We were dating for a week, and she was like, “I don’t think I can be with you until you understand Blue — probably Blue and Court and Spark, at least.” So I was like, “Holy s***!” She was dead serious. So, I dove into Blue, and my life changed at that point. Now I’m in my thirties. Now I’m starting to understand what “tough” means. And Blue hit me like a ton of bricks. I suddenly realized [Mitchell’s Blue track] “Little Green” was the toughest song I’ve ever heard written about anything. It completely not only changed me musically, but it changed how I see women. What I had to confront with my head-over-heels fall into love with Joni Mitchell was my internalized sexism and institutionalized misogyny.
On that note, 20 years ago the Grammys were dominated by women. All five 1999 Album of the Year nominees were women — Lauryn Hill, Sheryl Crow, Shania Twain, Madonna and Garbage with Shirley Manson. But obviously that momentum didn’t last. And then last year, Grammy president Neil Portnow made that controversial “women needing to step up” statement that got him in hot water. This year, we are seeing some progress, with a lot of female nominees — and you lead that pack. That’s so cool.
It certainly is cool. I just deal with these ripple effects, these waves of joy that just come over me, all day, every day — not just for me, but for women and for people that make real music. It’s something that I’ll never take for granted. In 1999, yeah, we were on top of the world back then. I was going to all the Lilith Fairs, and women were on the radio — it would end on a female-fronted song, and it would go straight into another female-fronted song, and straight into another female-fronted song. It was like Ruth Bader Ginsberg said: “What’s the number of judges that you would be happy with on the Supreme Court that are female?” And she said, “Nine.” And before that sounds one-sided or audacious to you, remember that there have been nine male judges on many occasions. It’s that way with music too.
And I never thought it would get worse — that we’d be here, 20 years down the road, looking at music and going, “Oh my God, it’s the first two months in a row that there’s no women in country music in the top 20.” And some of these festivals [that I am playing], that’s really my world. … You go into their headlining stats, it’s abysmal, probably well below 10 percent. I’m raising two daughters from that realization, and it’s a real letdown from 1999. But I felt that the Grammys this year were a glimmer of hope — not just because of my nominations, but because they addressed the problem of the internalized and institutionalized misogyny that we are all trying to overcome.
My one fear is it will be seen as sort of a Band-Aid, like, “Oh, hey look, we fixed it! We nominated a bunch of women this year. Everything’s OK now!” I hope people realize these women’s nominations are deserved and not just an attempt to meet a quota or address a controversy.
That’s a valid concern, but it has to start somewhere. Why not with us? I know my [Girls Just Wanna] festival is like that, where it’s like, “Is it really a good idea to have a knee-jerk response where you have an all-women festival and name it as such?” Well, yes, it is an appropriate response. A knee-jerk response is the appropriate response to this problem.
For two years in a row, Barack Obama has included tracks from By the Way, I Forgive You, “The Joke” and “Every Time I Hear That Song,” on his Spotify playlists. The irony isn’t lost on me that “The Joke,” which was inspired by the fallout from the 2016 presidential election, was celebrated by a president very different from the one currently in the White House…
Well, I certainly have a lot of respect for [Obama], and I think the irony of what you pointed out is certainly an interesting perspective too. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right. And if you listen closely to “The Joke,” you can hear him in it. You can hear Obama’s influence on me in that song. He influenced me in big ways during his presidency. I saw my parents get health insurance for the first time. I proposed to my wife on the day that he became the first American president ever to come out in support of marriage equality — and it had always bothered me that he hadn’t up until that point. I had the ring for a long time, and I had been waiting for the opportunity to propose to Catherine [Shepherd, who is British], but we kept hitting roadblocks with DOMA. We kept hitting roadblocks with the airports and the borders, and getting to and from the U.S. together without having to lie about our relationship. We were very discouraged at the time. So when [Obama] came out [in support of gay marriage], it was like the sun came out.
Is “The Joke” the song you’re going to perform at the Grammys? Some people don’t like when awards shows are political, but I appreciate that.
I like it too. I like it when our cultural events reflect the times. I think it’s amazing for posterity for our kids to see that when they look back. I wish there was better technology during the Vietnam War, so we could see some of that era when that was happening within the musical community. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say which song I’m performing, but I know it’s pretty obvious I’m performing “The Joke.” I’m not used to all of this secretive celebrity bulls***. Like, I’m just like a chicken farmer. [Laughs]
All of your albums have been critically acclaimed, but what do you think it is about By the Way, I Forgive You that struck a nerve with Grammy voters?
I think it’s a big gamble any time an artist starts to take a really hard left turn anywhere, and it came down to a kind of tumor I saw growing in our creativity as a band where we had been touring real hard. … I’m actually more of an entertainer than even an artist, and I started noticing what made the crowds stand up, what made people do “the wave.” First it started with me cultivating set lists to make that happen, and then it started with me writing songs to make that happen. That’s when I think I took an emotional hit as a songwriter, when I realized that I was still just entertaining. So I made a New Year’s resolution with the twins [longtime bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth] to make a different kind of album. I remember them looking at me like, “Holy s***, we’re going to go broke!”… But I just didn’t want to write for the summer tour anymore. So, we did a deep dive and just trusted each other, and this is the album that came out of it. And I think it owes as much to the emotional state the country’s in as it does to the emotional state that we were in when we wrote it.
There are detractors out there who think artists should just “shut up and sing” and keep politics out of music…
Being told to “stop being political” is just hilarious to me. I wake up every day political: a gay mom raising a house full of women. There’s really nothing not political about that. So, I can write about my own personal experience and have it be wildly political. That just happens to be the life and the hand I was dealt.
What are your biggest concerns, or hopes, for your daughters as they grow up in this crazy world?
One of the primary ones I’m thinking about right now is representation, because I feel like representation is life or death for some people. … I think that I owe a lot of who I am and where I am to Lilith Fair and to the LGBTQ artists that I saw from my platform in a small town as my way out, as a window for me. And so I need my girls to see other successful women doing the things they want to do. If [my daughter] Evangeline wants to be an astronaut or marine biologist, I need to make sure there’s at least 50 percent female astronauts or 50 percent marine biologists for that little girl to see, so she knows she stands just as good of a chance of getting in as anyone else does. It goes that way for music as well. It spans across all professions, but with music in general, being the universal language and the thing that brings us all together regardless of affiliation, we need that representation to be fifty-fifty. Because music is the emotional voice of America, if not the world, and it’s not yet [equal]. I really want to work on making that happen. It was [not equal] when I was young, so I hate that it’s not [equal] when my girls are young.
A final question about the Joni 75 event: Did you get a chance to speak with Joni there?
I did meet her, very briefly. I was like, “Listen, I don’t know what to say to you, except obviously, thank you.” She’s like, “Thanks, man. Good job, man.” She called everyone “man,” whether they were a man or not. Very tough. She almost sounds like androgynous when she speaks. And that was it. I snapped a picture of me looking ridiculous next to her face or whatever, but my wife — and this is how you know that there’s mysticism in the universe — had bought me a really amazing print of Joni Mitchell to hang in our house, and thought maybe on a whim she could get Joni’s assistant to get it signed for me. I’m not going to go into the details of how it happened, but my wife wound up spending the afternoon with Joni alone in her house, looking at paintings and feeding koi fish and talking about bears. And she’ll never be the same. And I’ll never be the same because it happened. And now I have a Joni Mitchell print in my living room.
This article originally ran on Yahoo Entertainment.