Her latest album tackles subjects like radical forgiveness and LGBTQ parenthood, and just might be her best yet.
Marilyn Drew Necci | May 4, 2018
Brandi Carlile is coming to Richmond next week to kick off this season of Maymont Park’s annual Music At Maymont series, and if you don’t have your ticket yet, you should really fix that now. Carlile is a singer-songwriter who’s been described as folk, Americana, country, and other things but is ultimately resistant to simple genre tags. Really, she just rocks.
Earlier this year, Carlile released her sixth album, By The Way, I Forgive You, and it just might be her best yet. As part of the lead-up to the album’s release, she asked fans to share their own stories of forgiveness, and, in the spirit of fair play, shared one of her own. On her website, she wrote about forgiving the pastor who refused to baptize her when she was a teenager because he knew she was gay. “I had committed myself to baptism, and the pastor let me go through the process,” she told NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly. “I just remember walking to the church with my bathing suit on under my clothes, and getting there and seeing all my family in the seats … and then, Pastor Tim telling me that he couldn’t do it. But waiting until all that had happened.”
The incident could have crushed her, but she chose instead to make it an inspiration. Writing directly to the pastor on her website, she said, “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. The experience inspired me to help other gay kids and my spiritual LGBTQ brothers and sisters come to terms with the disappointments they’ve endured on the rugged road to peace and acceptance. I think you’d appreciate that process.”
Carlile’s music is just as inspiring. First gaining fame with the title track to her 2007 second album, The Story, Carlile drew attention for her dramatic vocal performance, pushing her voice almost beyond its limits at the song’s dramatic crescendo. However, on more recent successes, including her 2015 fifth album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter – which made a big enough impact to hit Number 1 on the Billboard Top Rock Albums chart — Carlile practiced a more restrained performing style, at least in the studio.
That went out the window when she began working with producers Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings on By The Way, I Forgive You. “I’d always felt like making records was more of a formal documentation of what you do, and that you should keep the drama at bay,” Carlile told NPR’s Ann Powers. “Basically, it’s been my philosophy to save everything dramatic and traumatic for the live experience. But Dave was like, why would you do that? I can capture it all.”
The result is a passionate document of Carlile’s music delivered at full power. While her sound is still infused with a lush beauty, often courtesy of string arrangements by music-biz legend Paul Buckmaster (who previously worked with David Bowie, Elton John, and many others, and who passed away before the album was released), Carlile is nonetheless letting it rip, bringing out her folk and country sides on tunes like “Harder To Forgive” and “Fulton County Jane Doe,” but always giving them a driving undercurrent that is undeniably rock n’ roll in nature.
“The Mother” is a particular highlight; a song she wrote about her daughter Evangeline — the first of her two children with wife Catherine Shepherd (the second, Elijah, was born in March) — and all the ways being a parent changed her life. “The first things that she took from me were selfishness and sleep,” she sings. “She filled my life with color, canceled plans and trashed my car.” Then she makes a pointed reference to the struggle LGBTQ couples have faced, and continue to face, in order to get married and raise families. “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.”
Like a lot of these songs, “The Mother” is a musical knockout punch. But none of the songs here will lay you out as surely as first single “The Joke,” an anthem for kids growing up marginalized. “There are so many people feeling misrepresented [today],” Carlile told NPR. “So many people feeling unloved. Boys feeling marginalized and forced into these kind of awkward shapes of masculinity that they do or don’t belong in… so many men and boys are trans or disabled or shy. Little girls who got so excited for the last election, and are dealing with the fallout. The song is just for people that feel under-represented, unloved or illegal.”
The music matches the power of the message, finding Carlile at her most vocally intense and dramatic — finally reaching the heights she hit on “The Story.” The resemblance isn’t an accident — producer Dave Cobb may have goaded Carlile into it. “It started off with Dave insinuating that we haven’t had a vocal moment like ‘The Story’ since, well, ‘The Story,’” Carlile tells NPR. “I was like, who tells you to rewrite a song that you wrote a decade ago? But it just kept nagging me — like the truth does, you know.”
Whether you’re a longtime fan or a recent convert, By The Way, I Forgive You is sure to bring you joy. And the best part is that the purchase of a ticket to Carlile’s show next Wednesday at Maymont will include a free digital copy. So if you haven’t gotten it yet, you can kill two birds with one stone by breaking our your credit card now. Lawn tickets are still available, and will cost you $36. You can purchase yours here. The show will take place at Maymont Park on the carriage house lawn, and doors will open at 6 PM. It wouldn’t be the worst idea to show up early and take in the sights around the park, either — it’s beautiful this time of year.
Photo by Alysse Gafkjenh