If you’re not familiar with Brandi Carlile, go search “Grammy 2019 The Joke.” I’ll wait.
Okay, so the first time I encountered Brandi Carlile’s music was at a John Prine concert where she was advertised as a special guest. At that point all I knew about her was that she wasn’t Belinda Carlisle. But after listening to her titanic singing voice on a couple of my favorite Prine songs I quickly resolved to seek out her stuff.
My timing was pretty good as it seems many other people were discovering Carlile around the same time. The album she had just released went on to win a bunch of awards, including three Grammys. She went on Ellen, performed with some of music’s biggest names, and sold out Madison Square Garden. Barack Obama is a fan. In her late thirties, she was seemingly an overnight success.
Broken Horses is Carlile’s first memoir and with unsparing honestly she details the long, hard road she took. Growing up in poverty outside Seattle, the future singer and her family moved all the time as their precarious economic situation dictated. Carlile details going to 14 different schools as a child, when she went at all. When she tried to get baptized in her church at age 16, the pastor shamed her for her sexuality. It’s an incident that she says wound up bringing her closer to God in the aftermath.
That’s a comment typical of Carlile, who has a philosophical bent to her that is captivating and a little hard to discern. In addition to her religiosity she’s an unabashed believer in signs from the universe, saying that’s she seen too many to deny them. Seeing how far she’s gotten and all the dreams she’s had come true it’s hard to blame her. After years of struggling financially, artistically, and romantically, Carlile is now happily married and has two children with her partner Catherine. They live on a compound with bandmates Tim and Phil Hanseroth, the latter of whom is married to Carlile’s younger sister Tiffany. Carlile relishes in detailing the group’s ridiculous life on tour with all those babies on board the bus.
There are some puzzling omissions in Broken Horses. Fans of Carlile’s supergroup The Highwomen will be disappointed to learn that the project barely rates a mention in these pages, with no details about the writing or recording of their debut album. Similarly, while there are extensive passages detailing Carlile’s relationships with mentors Elton John and Joni Mitchell, there is comparatively little specifically about John Prine. At other times, Carlile is perhaps too reluctant to name names, including a passage where she criticizes a fellow artist for boorish behavior at an awards ceremony. Perhaps she’s just too nice, but the information is readily available on the internet, so the omission feels unnecessary.
Overall, though, Broken Horses is a winning account of a fascinating life. Carlile really puts herself under the microscope in a way few other public figures would be willing to. If you’re not a fan already, her story will probably make you one and if you are one, your appreciation will only deepen.