randi Carlile’s first Seattle show this year came on a drab Saturday in April. Flanked by her two longtime collaborators, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, whom she calls “the twins,” the local singer-songwriter posted up beneath the Pike Place Market sign. The three took out acoustic guitars and sang a couple songs. Then she addressed someone in the audience—“Want to do a Beatles song with us?”—and Dave Grohl stepped forward, donned a guitar, and the four launched into “Let It Be.”
Carlile called on the crowd to sing along, and they did, though she soared above, an emotional conduit. That belting voice—muscular and pure, varnished with a drawl—will also suit her final local shows this year: a three-night stint with the Seattle Symphony in December. She can rise above a crowd; she can rise above an orchestra.
The performances will mark the fourth time (following 2008, 2010, and 2012) that Carlile and her band play with the symphony. At the 2010 show, released as a live album in 2011, she coaxed the crowd into mass harmony, too. Her love of sing-alongs should come as little surprise. It makes physical one of her powers—a universal appeal, her ability to sing with and through many.
Carlile has been beloved for years, but quietly. Tom Douglas named his downtown restaurant the Carlile Room after her. Her fans include Elton John and Barack Obama, who included her music, twice, on his year-end lists of favorite songs. Yet when Carlile and her album By the Way, I Forgive You were nominated for six Grammy awards, the most for any woman that year—Song, Record, Album of the Year, and the three Americana categories—national press responded with many variations of “who is Brandi Carlile?”
The sustained omission feels odd in a way. Whatever genres color her music—folk, rock, country, roots—Carlile is a pop singer, and a good one. She has the radio-ready hooks and the easy swagger and the earnest walloping voice, ready to wring a lyric for all its emotion, Adele via the woods.
The omission feels less odd when you consider that Carlile is an outspoken lesbian working in an industry that still favors straight white guys—the Grammys came under fire for just that in 2018. This year she became the first LGBTQ person to win for Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song. And she’s a sort of protest artist. Sort of, because her music, largely, does not fall under the genre’s precepts. Her lyrics on By the Way, I Forgive You do not grapple with legislation, do not read as direct calls to action. Take, for instance, the final song, “Party of One.” On it she struggles with her marriage after her daughter was born. Carlile acknowledges the particulars of this in a gay marriage: “Don’t even think about your freedom or taking that flight / Or going back upon your promise after fighting for the right.” But the rest of the song parses more general feelings: “I am tired / I don’t want to go home anymore / I don’t want to throw stones anymore / I don’t want to take part in the war.” She told The Guardian that straight couples tell her how meaningful the song is to them. Indeed, she even resituates songs herself: She wrote “The Joke” about marginalized people—thinking, in part, about Syria. But earlier this year, she said she envisioned the Southern border conflict when singing.
Such songs invite anyone to walk their emotional topography. By situating them in stories explicitly political, she demands that we recognize our shared humanity. Her recent songs don’t trade in can’t we all just get along platitudes; they impress that we’re not all so different. Accessing the political through the personal isn’t unprecedented, but in the pop realm it still carries great force.
Perhaps Carlile’s move to proper stardom is finally underway. She swept the Americana section at the Grammys and her performance of “The Joke” drew a standing ovation. It was widely considered the night’s best. On December 3, the Museum of Pop Culture gives her the Founders Award, which has previously gone to artists like Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson and the Doors. She’s the youngest recipient, by far, in the award’s 13 years. And she’s been on a crazy production jag this year. She started a wine club (profits go to her Looking Out Foundation). She started an all-female music festival in Mexico, Girls Just Wanna Weekend. The second event, in 2020, already sold out. She headlined the Gorge for the first time. She founded a feminist country supergroup, the Highwomen, who’ve made a grab for radio play with a single that confronts traditional gender roles. She told Rolling Stone the group is “not a band. It’s a movement.” The type, surely, as at those symphony shows, to get crowds singing a new song.
► Brandi Carlile with Seattle Symphony: Right Now Is at the Speed of Light, Dec 13–15, Benaroya Hall, Sold Out
► The Founders Award, Dec 3, Museum of Pop Culture