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  • Sue Shanahan

Brandi Carlile: Coming From the Heart

Updated: May 2, 2023

For me, I started answering the call at such a young age that I’m mixed up with what I’m called to do and what I love. – Brandi Carlile

I have never known anyone whose parents approved of them dropping out of school until I talked to Brandi Carlile. No one in her immediate family finished high school. She explains it like this, “It was one of those familial things where it just happens, you know?” By the time Brandi was a teenager she was pretty much playing music full time. It was getting harder and harder for her to see school as an element in her future. So she left.

A lack of a diploma does not translate into Brandi being uneducated. It’s obvious when chatting with her that she is well read. Poetry is woven throughout the lyrics of her songs. I am so moved by the beauty of her music I admitted to being a little starstruck to her. “Oh my goodness, no need for that!” she said. “I’m just a boring old mom sitting here in my pajamas.”

There is truth in that. Brandi does make the case for ordinary people accomplishing extraordinary things. She was raised in rural Washington state and for part of her childhood lived in a trailer on a dirt road. Yet she was gifted with a scenario that many of us long for. She grew up surrounded by love.

The confidence born from being cherished made it easy for Brandi to move forward with her goal to be a performer. She never had to take the time to build up her self-esteem or dim her light. “My parents and grandparents treated me like an adult and like what I said mattered. They didn’t smirk or smile at my dreams or things that I couldn’t control in my life – like being gay.”

Growing up, Brandi assumed her love of playing the guitar and singing meant that she would one day be a rock star. She now sees sharing her music as just an aspect of her calling. “I’m more of an entertainer than I am a singer and I’m more of a singer than a songwriter. But they are all a means to an end, which is just to be with and love people.”

The Looking Out Foundation is extension of that love. Brandi, along with band members, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, founded it in 2008 to empower those without a voice. Writing about Elton John and his Aids Foundation in a fifth grade book report made Brandi associate the heroic qualities of celebrity with activism. “Since then every artist I became infatuated with has had a heavy philanthropic angle.” In fact Brandi celebrated her 39th birthday with a virtual concert and fundraiser for two equality advocacy groups. Phil and Tim performed alongside her. They ended up raising over $100,000.

Attending one of Brandi’s concerts is like being in the center of the frequency of love. Her hope is for the show to open up parts of her audience that have been shut down. She wants to make them laugh, but also to make them feel comfortable crying. Her performance is a give and take kind of thing. “I’m absolutely being fed every day that I do this job. I need that, you know, to feel like a whole person.”

A big part of who Brandi is can be found in her faith. When I asked her what her spiritual practice is she said, “Well you could call me a Christian, but I don’t really need to use that word anymore just because I don’t think it’s necessary. It’s got a lot of baggage attached to it. I don’t think Jesus requires it. Brandi admits to having a problem with the box the Conservative Right has placed God into. She believes, “He is bigger than our holidays, bigger than our rules, bigger than our cultural slant, bigger than the color of our skin and all the things that we use to define God, you know? She has studied the bible and is disillusioned with how it has been interpreted.

“There’s a whole movement of change around it. There’s a reformed ideology and a way to interpret the Bible that I feel is more authentic. But it requires context, and vision. And a love of language. When it’s tainted with a puritanical, Western lens it can become really militaristic. And that never was the way the text was meant to be interpreted. It’s much more poetic than that.”

Brandi knows first hand how biblical teachings can be used to hurt others. It happened to her was when she was 15. She was at church waiting to be baptized when her pastor refused to go through with it because she was gay. Pastor Tim waited until all of her friends and family were present before he made that decision. As painful as her pastor’s actions were, Brandi came to terms with the need for forgiveness. Today she shares her story to help other LBGTQ kids who feel shunned. Brandi addressed Pastor Tim on social media, “I’d like you to know that I still love you and that I understand we’re all on a journey together, trying our best to walk through the world with honor and dignity – but what I want you to know most of all is that you did not damage my faith. Not in God, not in humanity and not in myself.” Posting her feelings was just part of her healing process. She continued to work through her heartbreak in her 2018 Grammy award winning album, By the Way, I Forgive You.

Right around the age of 27 another calling began to form inside Brandi. She realized that playing music was only a part of her life’s purpose. She was ready settle down and have a nest of some kind. “I just woke up one day and I was like, oh my God all I do is tour and sing.” She married her wife Catherine Shepard in 2012. They welcomed their daughter, Evangeline, in 2014 and their second daughter, Elijah, in 2018.

“Oh, I’ll never hit the big time without you,

So they can keep their treasure and their ties to the machine,

‘Cause I am the mother of Evangeline” – Brandi Carlile, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, The Mother

Brandi’s declaration of love in the song, a “The Mother” is so beautiful it gives me chills when I listen to it. I told Brandi when her first born arrived she must have had a shift in focus. What was essential in her life had changed. She still wanted to share her gifts with the world but her ego didn’t require her to be a mega rock star.

“Yeah, you interpreted that perfectly. That’s exactly what I’m saying. I knew that if I were to take what I do to another level, there would be a separation required. Not just physical, but emotional, because it would take more focus and it would get more complicated. I’m not trying to sound complacent, but I’m extraordinarily happy with my life as it is.”

(Based on a photo from Brandi’s Instagram feed, my watercolor of Evangeline).

“The world has stood against us, made us mean to fight for you

And when we chose your name we knew that you’d fight the power too” – Brandi Carlile, Tim and Phil Hanseroth, The Mother

She and Catherine named their first-born Evangeline as a manifestation of Brandi’s Christ-centered faith. “I wanted to take the word back from the evangelicals and make it mean the good news again. You know, the love of people, the love of equality and the love of one another.”

They chose the name of the prophet Elijah for their second daughter. Brandi says, “He was a truth-teller and signifies the returning of the light. I feel like the more we contemplate faith and God, the closer we grow to God, despite who you call God or who God is to you. And so, I like for my kids to be a reminder of that, you know?”

That made sense to me. I shared with Brandi that my daughter, Bridget, was pregnant with her first and had painstakingly chosen the name Bernadette for her baby because it means “brave as bear.” She wanted her girl to be a force to be reckoned with.

"That’s so tough!,” said Brandi. “I told my wife I don’t want a cute name for either one of the kids. They’ve got to have strong, powerful names. Where would Hilary Clinton be if her name was Candy? Or fucking Brandi? I mean I was given the most 80s pop-princess name and I’ve been fighting it my whole life!”

It was time to wrap up my interview. I had one final question for Brandi, “Is it possible for everyone to make a living by following their heart?”

“Oh man that’s a good question,” she said. “I think that you can make a life by following your heart but not always a living. And I don’t think that you can be defined as successful if you’re not truly following your heart.”

I think that may be the best answer I’ve ever gotten for that question. After I hung up the phone, I felt buoyed up. It occurred to me that Brandi Carlile is more than a dose of positive energy. She is a light.

Text and artwork © Sue Shanahan

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