How Brandi Carlile Made Her Way to the Grammys

When you listen to Brandi Carlile’s music, especially when it’s live, it is very obvious that that’s what won her those three Grammy Awards in February.

But there’s more to her success story than just the songs. In fact, it’s what you hear between the songs that gives you a sense of the time she’s put in.

On Saturday night (June 29), when Carlile played Chicago’s Huntington Bank Pavilion on a peninsula on Lake Michigan, I listened to everything she said about her path to fame. And how, in her words, her life changed overnight.

But first let’s go back to Duke’s Clam Chowder House.

Early in her show, Carlile painted a picture of what the Seattle music scene was like when she first got together with longtime creative partners, brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth, about 20 years ago. “I don’t know if you remember what was going on in the late 90s, but it was a lot of rock and roll, and a lot of revolutionary grunge and shit. But I can tell you what wasn’t going on: our sort of Peter, Paul and Mary attempt at folk music from inside the walls of my rental house in Ravensdale.

“Back then, we were playing a lot of chowder houses. We played every Duke’s Clam Chowder House from Green Lake to Alki. And we played a place called Bill Medin’s Ravioli Station, every Friday night. It was a gas station refurbished into a ravioli restaurant,” Carlile said.

In other words, those Grammy wins that changed everything for Carlile in 2019 took years of dues paying. And the rewards for all of it include the said Grammy trophies themselves — for best Americana album, best American roots performance and best American roots song — but also the doors that open once you’re declared a winner.

“I’ve been doing this job — and it is the greatest job in the world — for such a long time. But overnight, my life changed. The craziest shit that happened is that the night after the Grammys, we got to go out to dinner with Joni Mitchell. She made us all drink Pinot Grigio and ordered all our food for us,” Carlile explained. “She’d had an aneurysm about six years ago, and she was unconscious in her kitchen for two days before they found her. And she was already a polio survivor, and has had to learn to walk and talk again twice in her life. But she’d sworn off music.

“At end of the night, she said to me, ‘The only thing that bothers me is I’ve got all these instruments in my house. Maybe you’d want to put together a group of young people and come and play.’ I didn’t tell her I’m like the world’s shittiest guitar player,” she laughed.

As the story goes, Carlile brought Hozier with her to Mitchell’s house the next week. They drank more wine and ate enchiladas. Carlile and Hozier played for Mitchell for a while. And then, in walked Chaka Kahn and then Herbie Hancock.

“Our hearts were in our throats. And we were just terrified, but the vibes were good on that magical night. Herbie’s hands started gliding around the piano while we’re all introducing ourselves. And then from the middle of the room, we hear this voice sing, ‘Summertime, and the living is easy.’ And it’s (expletive) Joni Mitchell. She opened her mouth and she sang again, and she didn’t stop singing for an hour. I don’t think I’ve been so inspired in my life.”

In a way, the chowder house tour and the night at Mitchell’s house kind of bookend Carlile’s career so far. But she also opened up about what was going on behind the music scene, at home, for her and her wife Catherine, and their daughters Evangeline and Elijah.

“I’ve been married for about seven years. And it means so much to me to stand up here in front of you in a great city like Chicago, and talk to you about my family and our right to exist in this country. But it was such a strange thing when my daughter Evangeline was born. I was so unprepared for it. All these people were telling me how I was going to feel. It was mostly straight people. Straight people try to recruit other people to have kids. They’re like, ‘You don’t know who you are until you have children. You don’t exist,’” she said. “There’s some truth to it, but it’s complicated. You’re never really alone again. You’re always occupied with this other life.

“They say it’s like letting your heart run around outside your body. It is like that,” she admitted, adding that for a few months after Evangeline was born, she wasn’t sure how she felt about motherhood. “I feel like this song has universal appeal for anybody that’s a mom or a dad. This song applies to you. Because the truth is, we all fall in love with our children in our own time,” she said to introduce her song “The Mother.”

One of the last stories Carlile shared before the concert was over was how far gay families have come. She missed Chicago’s Pride Parade by about a week, but the crowd still applauded Carlile’s support for the movement.

Before the movement, she told the crowd, it was a time when gay couples couldn’t live together, were getting detained at airports, and had to pretend they were just friends. “That’s a story that I’ll always tell my daughters, so that they remember that progress doesn’t just move in one direction. We have to be so careful. We’re witnessing a generation of people gain access in this country to a basic civil right.

“But it’s complicated. Because now there’s a lot of pressure on us to make our marriages work,” she laughed as she started her in on her “Party of One.”

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Alison makes her living loving country music. She’s based in Chicago, but she’s always leaving her heart in Nashville.