Brandi Carlile's soaring performance of her song "The Joke" at the 2019 GRAMMY Awards didn't necessarily make her a superstar, but it showed the world that she is one. And judging by her own reaction, she knew it, too: Carlile ended the performance with a flourish, throwing her head back to drive the final notes even higher, grinning and jumping up and down as she finished.
Already, she had six albums and plenty of critical acclaim to her name, but that night Carlile won her first GRAMMYs — three, to be exact — including two for "The Joke." Since then, she's added three more golden gramophones to her collection, and now boasts a total of 24 nominations — including seven at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Her 2021 album, In These Silent Days, is nominated for Album Of The Year and Best Americana Album; "You and Me on the Rock" is up for Record Of The Year, Best Americana Performance and Best American Roots Song; and "Broken Horses" earned nods for Best Rock Song and Best Rock Performance — Carlile's first in the Rock Field. (The album's lead single, "Right on Time," also earned her three GRAMMY nominations in 2022: Record Of The Year, Song Of The Year and Best Pop Solo Performance, the latter of which was another first for Carlile.)
Over her nearly 20-year career, Carlile has built a diverse fan base. Although she considers Americana to be her "home base," Carlile's music often doesn't fit neatly into any one genre, which is abundantly clear in her wide array of nominations for In These Silent Days. In fact, since her first GRAMMY nomination in 2016, Carlile has been nominated across six different Fields: American Roots Music, Country, General Field, Rock, Pop, and Music for Visual Media.
While Carlile's genre-bending prowess is essential to her musical vision, it's her powerful voice and range that captivates listeners. Beyond those, Carlile's canny ability to convey universally-relatable sentiments through songs, often based on her own experiences, solidified her standing as one of the most beloved stars in Americana and beyond.
From the get-go, Carlile established her broad appeal with her debut self-titled album in 2005, laying the foundation for her breakout album, The Story, released in 2007. The title track, a lilting love song — which spoke to millions with honest, relatable lyrics about how our personal histories make us who we are today — remains her biggest hit to date. (Though she didn't write it herself, the track was penned by Phil Hanseroth, one half of the Hanseroth twins, with whom Carlile has performed and written for most of her career.)
After The Story's resounding success, the singer continued honing her voice and performance on her 2009 and 2012 LPs, Give Up The Ghost and Bear Creek. Then in 2015, Carlile foreshadowed the precision and strength of 2018's By The Way, I Forgive You, with The Firewatchers's Daughter — which earned her her first GRAMMY nomination, for Best Americana Album. The album shifts from the powerful and personal "Wherever is Your Heart," to the rowdy, cathartic jam "Mainstream Kid" and the haunting "The Stranger at My Door," whose central character lends the album its name.
With By the Way I Forgive You, Carlile sharpened her songwriting chops, zeroing in on the same blend of candor and levity that makes her live performances so riveting. "The Joke," a profound love letter to kids who don't fit in, is arguably one of the strongest displays of Carlile's ability to distill emotion into lyrics. But "The Mother" is the album's lyrical standout, wherein Carlile neatly packages her profound and funny experience of becoming a mother.
As her own star continued to rise, Carlile made a point of speaking up for other artists, and even produced and co-wrote Tanya Tucker's powerful comeback album, While I'm Livin', in 2019. The album, the country icon's first in 10 years, earned Tucker her first two GRAMMYs, which she shared with Carlile (Best Country Album and Best Country Song for "Bring My Flowers Now").
Largely written by Carlile and the Hanseroth twins, While I'm Livin' showcases some of Carlile's best writing to date. Demonstrating her deep knowledge of the country music history, she penned tracks that fall within the country music canon but adeptly reject the roles the genre often outlines for women.
Keeping her outlaw evolution going, just two weeks after While I'm Livin', Carlile released the eponymous debut album with her country supergroup, The Highwomen, comprised of Carlile, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires. Together, they turned the male-dominated outlaw country genre on its head with a series of smart, hard-driving tracks, including "Redesigning Women," "My Name Can't be Mama," and "Crowded Table," the latter of which won Best Country Song at the 2021 GRAMMYs.
Carlile's most recent release, In These Silent Days, opens with "Right On Time," which, according to Carlile herself, picked up where "The Joke" left off. By mining her own past and experience for inspiration, Carlile produced her most poignant album yet. Written in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, its 10 tracks delve into how isolation liberates and confines us, love's many forms, and the pain and catharsis of exploring the past. A clarity of emotion permeates the album, making each track feel like a window into Carlile's life.
She follows up "Right On Time" with the sweet and catchy "You and Me on the Rock," a love song that delights in the small pleasures in the life she's built with her wife, Catherine. With backing vocals by Lucius, it shows off Carlile's dynamic ability to layer meaning into a seemingly simple song.
The slow burn of Carlile's career served her well, allowing her to perfect her writing and performance without the pressures of instant success. Reaching superstar status in her late 30s enabled her to realize its full potential, Carlile, who's now 41, says.
"You only have so many shots anymore," she told NPR last year. "And if you're not ready for that — like, musically ready, emotionally ready, physically ready and just mentally ready to, like, seize that moment, really take the bull by the horns, and go, 'This is my shot, I'm going to do this' — I don't think you can do that in your 20s on purpose."
In addition to scoring her most GRAMMY nominations in one year, Carlile had several other superstar moments in 2022. She was the cover star of Billboard's Pride Month issue in June; in July, she surprised the world by bringing Joni Mitchell on stage with her at the Newport Folk Festival (Mitchell's first full performance in 20 years), and became the first woman to headline Tennessee's Pilgrimage Music & Cultural Festival in September.
Carlile closed out the year with a return to "Saturday Night Live," her second appearance on the late-night sketch show in the last 14 months. Neatly linking her early breakout with her current hit, she performed "The Story" and "You and Me on the Rock" back to back.
As her most recent "SNL" performance hinted, Carlile delicately balances her roots with her present success. Wherever Carlile's star power takes her next, she's poised and ready for a bright and captivating future.
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