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The Last Word: Brandi Carlile on Worshipping Dolly Parton, Her “Cult-y” Living Situation, and Telling Her Inner Child to Shut Up

“I dove into the concept and majesty of Joni Mitchell, and it totally changed me as a writer and as a person,” says Carlile

Illustration by Mark Summers for Rolling Stone

Brandi Carlile was looking forward to some time off when she finished work on her bestselling memoir, Broken Horses. But instead, when her friend Bernie Taupin sent her some poems he’d written, she found herself inspired to write an album’s worth of songs — just as reading his words in the album art for Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy sparked her early songwriting as a kid.

The resulting album, In These Silent Days, is one of her best. “When I finished the book, I suddenly had a chronological understanding of my life and what has made me who I am,” she says. “That has been a source of inspiration for me.” In a Last Word interview also featured in a new episode of our Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, Carlile talked about her evolving singing voice, her role models for a long career, her family life, and much more. (Carlile also told us about her dream of fronting Soundgarden.)

Your singing voice has only gotten stronger and clearer over the years. How much of that is vocal training and how much of it was breaking through psychological blocks?
Man, there’s so much in that question. When I came out of the bars, I had spent my whole life screaming our sets through smoke, and thinking that was really punk rock and loving that. I had this raspy voice, and I was really preoccupied with sounding tough. So there was some psychological gender stuff in that for me too. I didn’t want to sound feminine or bell clear. I wanted to scream and yell and sort of resist.

Do you mean resist what you saw as stereotypical femininity?
I started shedding affectation and restrictive gender-binary concepts vocally at the same time that I was actually healing my voice from brutalizing it. I developed some real damage. And then it made me question my relationship with alcohol and drugs and being self-destructive on the road. When I got my shit together, in life, my voice got its shit together. My voice has always been with me, healing and hurting and expressing itself right alongside my soul. It reveals what’s happening in my body and in my mind.

You became a serious Joni Mitchell fan later in life through your wife, Catherine, and then became good friends with Joni. How has that fandom affected you?
I’ve gained a lot in life through latter-day love, getting married later than all my siblings and having children in my mid-thirties. And my love for Joni Mitchell developed later in life than most really visceral influences. I dove into the concept and majesty of Joni Mitchell, and it totally changed me as a writer and as a person. When T Bone Burnett played her for me [circa 2006], what I heard was unapologetic femininity, which sounded like vocal submission to me. I had such an adverse reaction to it. As soon as I would hear something that I deemed too feminine, I just would go, “not for me.” And I really had to evolve out of that.

You have a unique living situation — a compound where friends, relatives, an ex-girlfriend, bandmates live alongside your family. What led you to that?
I think a lot of queer people hit a certain age and realize they have to surround themselves with people that understand them. Because even the best intentions of your family don’t translate to you being seen in the uniqueness of the way that you’ve been made and born to walk through the world. And so a lot of queer people find themselves themselves in these cult-y situations like the one that I’m in and that I’m so proud of, and that has given me such an unspeakably beautiful life. My dad actually pointed out to me that it comes from isolation and rejection, whether perceived or actual, and you surround yourself with cheerleaders. You try to surround yourself with unconditional love.

“Cult-y” is a funny word to describe it.
Yeah, it felt really cult-y during the pandemic, because we couldn’t see anybody except for each other. And we were really grateful for that and creeped out at the same time.

What do you think your teenage self would say to you now if they could?
My teenage self would stand in utter disbelief at what my life has unfolded into. And I am totally in touch with her. She’s right here on my sleeve at all times going, “What the fuck is happening?”

You wrote in your book that sometimes you have to sort of suppress your young self when, say, you’re at the Grammys. What is that about?
I’ve just got to, like, give her a little guitar and set her down in the seat next to me and say, “You’re not welcome here right now. Because I got to do my job.” She’s hungry and nervous, desperate to be included and for her dreams to come true. And she doesn’t know that it’s already happening. And that that is what my life has become: That I don’t have to be hungry, I am included, my dreams are coming true. So she’s constantly nervous it’s all gonna fall apart. 

You’re on a path to have a very long career. Who do you look to for inspiration on the long road?
Dolly [Parton]. God, Dolly. But she’s a whole other ball of wax. She’s just a totally different kind of public person, musically, spiritually. She’s a really good person and a major bridge builder between people. So I love the way that she walks through the world. I don’t know where we’d be without Dolly, actually. And then, also, on a level of how I’d like to be seen — or felt or understood in 20, 30 years — I’m a really big fan of Bonnie Raitt. I think Bonnie Raitt is just the picture of dignity and independence and artistic integrity. And John Prine: the way that John Prine never stopped becoming a better songwriter.

How does your experience growing up and specifically the kind of parenting you had, for good and bad, affect the way you parent now?
Well, I try and allow myself to be influenced and told when I’m perpetuating the bad parts of it. But there’s some really good, unorthodox eccentric shit too that I want to pass on, that I’m really excited about. People see me parenting that way, and they think I’m like the character from [the movie] Captain Fantastic or something. But we’re different. I want us to live differently. And I want my kids to be compelling, virtuous, and happy people. Just that kind of countercultural way of living communally — loving yourself, but not putting yourself first all the time. 

Is the new song “Mama Werewolf” ultimately about not passing on the impact of your father’s addiction issues?
Well, it’s my kids’ favorite song. They think I’m heavy-handed, that I can’t touch anything without crushing it. They won’t give me a bug because they think it’ll die in my care. They don’t think I talk; they think I scream. But in that song I was thinking about what you what you picked up on. And that’s a [bandmate] Tim [Henseroth] song. And I picked up on right away the message of that song and related to it immediately. And thought, “Yeah, I don’t want to pass this shit on to my kids, I don’t want to pass on my character flaws.” Being an adult child of an alcoholic, I want to better control my temper, I want to better control my tendency for co-dependence. It’s a vulnerable concept to admit how much we as parents have to resist passing on generational, oppressive traits.

On your last album, By the Way I Forgive You, that track “The Mother” is one of the most powerful songs about parenthood, ever. Is it hard to perform without getting emotional?
It was for a really long time. And then it got easier, because I was able to kind of carve out a little neural pathway and do the whole muscle-memory thing. But to this day, if I catch eyes with somebody in the audience and they’re crying, I will lose my shit. And it’s, strangely enough, especially [true] if it’s a man. I haven’t unpacked that yet. But I will look out there and I will see men with tears streaming down their faces when I sing that song. And I don’t know what they’re feeling, if it’s that they’re relating — because parenthood is the same whether you’re a mother or father — or if they’re thinking about their mother, you know? And if something like that happens, and I’m singing the song, I am a paper-thin margin away from falling apart.

Are you averse to the idea of ever having a hit single?
It seems like another universe. And you know, I’ve always been anti-hit, my whole career. A hit is the kiss of death, you don’t want a hit. You want people to love your albums, you want people to sing all your songs, you don’t want the hit. You don’t want to see that line of people leaving your concert after you play the one song. And so I’ve always just rejected the concept of a hit.

From Rolling Stone US