A songwriter whose yearning, probing spirit is matched by her powerful, soaring voice, Brandi Carlile made a splash with her eponymous debut album in 2005, yet when she received six Grammy nominations for her 2018 album By the Way, I Forgive You, the mainstream acclaim was so sudden it almost seemed that it arrived overnight. Between those two albums, Carlile had her share of success — the haunted, churning “The Story” won her a gold certification for the album of the same name — but she worked steadily and reliably, building up a cult audience and industry connections that all crested with By the Way, I Forgive You, which wound up taking home half of the Grammys it was nominated for. Her visibility elevated, Carlile capitalized on her stardom by joining with Amanda Shires, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby in the country supergroup the Highwomen, whose 2019 debut helped underscore Carlile’s stardom and artistic depth. Carlile returned to her solo career in 2021 with In These Silent Days, which yielded the 2022 companion set In the Canyon Haze.
Brandi Carlile was born in the small town of Ravensdale, Washington, an isolated community 50 miles from Seattle. With few neighbors or friends nearby, she grew up learning to make her own entertainment, which included hiking trips in the nearby woods and self-taught vocal lessons. Carlile also grew attached to the classic country music her parents doted on, specifically Patsy Cline, and she made her stage debut at the age of eight after she was taken to a local country radio show by her mother. At 17, Carlile picked up the guitar, having developed a taste for rock & roll through Elton John’s classic albums of the ’70s, and began hitting the Seattle bar scene, playing anywhere she could get a gig (including a stint singing backup for an Elvis Presley tribute act).
While playing clubs, Carlile encountered a band called the Fighting Machinists, featuring twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth. Impressed by their instrumental skills and spot-on harmonies, she became an instant fan of the band, and when the group broke up, she persuaded the Hanseroth twins to form a new group with her. While they started out as an aggressive rock & roll band, Carlile’s emotionally powerful songwriting and acoustic guitar work soon became the dominant component of their sound, and they began touring regularly, headlining small venues and opening shows for Dave Matthews, Shawn Colvin, and India.Arie.
In 2000, Carlile recorded the first of several self-released recordings that sold briskly at shows. By 2005, she’d gained enough buzz to secure a contract with Columbia Records, which released her self-titled debut later that same year. The album earned enthusiastic reviews, and Carlile was named one of 2005′s “Artists to Watch” by Rolling Stone. In 2006, Carlile and her band began work on her second Columbia album, The Story, with T-Bone Burnett producing. The record was released in spring 2007 to warm reviews, and the inclusion of its title track in several commercials (most notably a General Motors ad that aired during the 2008 Beijing Olympics) helped boost sales. Give Up the Ghost followed in late 2009 and cracked the Top 40, featuring production from another high-caliber studio hand, Rick Rubin, as well as a duet with childhood idol Elton John.
Carlile rang in 2010 by issuing a Valentine’s Day-themed EP, XOBC. She also continued to tour, making a well-received stop at the annual Bonnaroo Festival that summer and collaborating with the Seattle Symphony for two shows in November. The symphonic concerts were recorded and released the following year as Live at Benaroya Hall. In 2012, Carlile returned with the album Bear Creek, featuring production from Grammy Award-winning mixer/producer/engineer Trina Shoemaker. Taking its title from the Washington recording studio in which the album was recorded, Bear Creek included the leadoff single “That Wasn’t Me.” Carlile returned to Bear Creek Studios to put together her follow-up, The Firewatcher's Daughter. Opting for a loose and live feel for the album, it was recorded almost without demo’ing any of the songs or overdubs. It appeared in the first week of March 2015 and earned Carlile her first Grammy nomination, for Best Americana Album.
In 2017, she commemorated the tenth anniversary of The Story by assembling a star-studded charity album for the nonprofit War Child, Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of the Story. Inspired by an Adele cover of “Hiding My Heart,” the album also featured Dolly Parton, Pearl Jam, Kris Kristofferson, Jim James, and the Avett Brothers, among others. Carlile returned with her sixth studio album, the Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings co-production By the Way I Forgive You, in February 2018; the LP became Carlile’s highest-charting outing to date. In October 2018, she teamed up with English singer/songwriter Sam Smith for a lush orchestral version of album closer “Party of One,” and two months later, she received six Grammy nominations, including three of the biggest categories: Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year. Carlile took home three trophies when By the Way I Forgive You won Best Americana Album, while “The Joke” scored Best American Roots Song and Best American Roots Performance.
Early in 2019, Carlile was featured on country singer Maren Morris’ second album, Girl, which reached the Top Five of the Billboard 200. Following an appearance at a Loretta Lynn tribute concert celebrating the singer’s 87th birthday that April, Carlile, Morris, Amanda Shires, and Natalie Henby made their festival debut as Highwomen at the Newport Folk Festival in July. The quartet’s eponymous debut album arrived on Elektra in September 2019 and reached the U.S. Top Ten while topping the country chart. That October, Carlile performed Joni Mitchell’s album Blue at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Carlile published her autobiography, Broken Horses: A Memoir in April of 2021. That September, she reunited with producer Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings to record her seventh album, In These Silent Days. It hit number 11 on the Billboard 200 and became Carlile’s fourth consecutive release to top the U.S. folk chart. It was reissued one year later with a companion album of acoustic versions titled In the Canyon Haze. ~ Mark Deming