If a musician's career is a series of peaks and valleys, consider this current chapter of Brandi Carlile's an Everest-level summit.
2019 has been a banner year for the folk-rocker: her 2018 album By the Way, I Forgive You and its lead single, "The Joke," yielded three Grammys in February (she was the most-nominated woman at the ceremony). The weekend before the Grammys, she launched her first Girls Just Wanna Weekend, an all-female festival in Mexico; the event sold out, and its 2020 edition has as well.
Carlile then announced that she was joining forces with Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby as country supergroup the Highwomen, and proceeded to curate an all-female set at the Newport Folk Festival in July, where she not only performed with the Highwomen, but sang an "I Will Always Love You" duet with Dolly Parton. As summer slipped into fall, the Highwomen released their album on Sept. 6. Carlile closed out that release week by headlining New York's Madison Square Garden for the first time, and the following day, the news broke that the Highwomen's LP debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 and No. 1 on the country albums chart.
Instead of resting on her laurels or taking a much-deserved break from the road in the wake of these accomplishments, Carlile is sharing her shine, going from headlining the biggest gig of her life to the small print on the bill. Carlile announced that she'd be opening for Courtney Marie Andrews for a one-off date in San Francisco on Sept. 23, and now she's added another date with Lucie Silvas in Boulder, Colo. on Sept. 26. In a moment when the spotlight's on Carlile, she's interested in directing it elsewhere — specifically to artists she loves who aren't getting the kind of attention she believes they deserve.
Carlile unpacks this decision, how this personal mission informs her other pursuits and who she hopes to open for in the not-so-distant future.
I was thrilled to see your announcement that you’re opening for Courtney Marie Andrews, and now you’re joining Lucie Silvas on the road, too. You’re “walking the walk” and showing up by literally supporting other women. What prompted you to do this?
Like most social and societal problems, I discovered a problem by discovering that I’m a part of the problem, usually, because I’m a bit simple in that way. It’s just how I learn of there being issues, by reflecting on it and realizing that I’m part of the issue. I’ve certainly been guilty in the past of picking openers for shows or deciding who I’m going to open for, or not open for, based on what kind of numbers they have — how successful they are and how it makes me look. (This is in my distant past, my late-20s and early 30s. I was really concerned with that.) It always kind of bothered me. I asked a person in the music industry if I could have this other woman that I won’t name open for me at a gig, because I loved her and I loved her music. The response that I got back was a sentence that’s always been with me for a really long time: it was just a simple “She’s not worth anything.”
I know that he just meant, like, in the market. She’s not worth the number of tickets that you’re depending on her to sell, those kinds of things. But just that line, it really stuck with me, and it’s always been on my mind since I read it — that somebody definitely said that about me in the past, that it’s definitely been said or thought about me in the past. That’s just something I’ve got to eradicate in my own career. I was thinking about how I [announced] my plan to only take women out on the road for a year — which I’ve done for the past year, and I’ve now kind of completed that. But the language of it, I was like, “I decided to only take women to support me on the road.” Rolling that sentence around in my mind, “to support me, to support me, to support me," I was like, “I wonder if I can set all that rank and competition aside and just actively support some of the women I admire, just because I admire them — not because they’re playing in a big place or because it serves me in my career, but just because I want to.” I just reached out and asked a few of my favorite songwriters.
You’re playing with Courtney next week. When did you get to know her music? What makes the two of you a great fit on a bill?
I discovered her [when she was] opening up for me, actually. I was upstairs getting my makeup on, and I just heard this voice, and it freaked me out. I walked downstairs with my hair in clips and one eyebrow on, and I was so blown away by “May Your Kindness Remain,” just completely blown away by it, that I bought everything she’s ever made, became a massive fan, and, you know, have just fallen in love with her music.
When were you introduced to Lucie Silvas?
I got to know Lucie through friend circles in Nashville. My friend Tracy Gershon who’s this epic tastemaker, connector woman, not just in Nashville but all over the country, she gave me her music for the first time and was like “You need to know Lucie Silva.” Then I realized she’s been [performing] for a really long time, like as long as me, and she’s absolutely amazing and deserves so much more visibility than she gets. Only recently did I realize that she’s a monster singer. I also really want to open for Yola, Lucy Dacus and Our Native Daughters if they’ll have me. I want to open for those three artists as well.
Speaking of Yola — the fact that Mavis Staples sang Yola’s verse on “Highwomen” during your Madison Square Garden show had me thinking about how she was supporting you as your opening act, just as you’re opening for these women. How does that performance connect to what we’re talking about here?
I’ve always looked at that like a favor and a show of love and support from Mavis, because she certainly doesn’t need to open for me or anybody, you know? She’s one of the most inspiring people of the last hundred years. I’ve had that experience a lot throughout the years, other women that have chosen to support me or be with me out of love and respect. It’s taught me a lot. I went out for a long time and supported Sheryl Crow in the beginning of my career. The tour would end, and she would write, an open, public letter asking people to listen to my voice and buy my records. There have been so many times that women have shown me generosity and non-competitive acceptance.
That goes hand-in-hand with the spirit of the Highwomen, too — and this initiative to support other artists comes after your huge release week, which is serendipitous timing. It feels like an extension of the project's ethos, almost, of this inclusivity and this support expressed in tangible ways. Is this initiative related to your work with the Highwomen or the inspiration behind that project?
It absolutely is. Without any religious connotation attached to it, it’s a total repentance, which is by definition to turn around and walk in the other direction. I’m just trying to walk in the other direction… I would love to see other women [support female artists] at all different levels. I think it would be incredibly impactful. It would send a huge message to the establishment, that women support other women and won’t be pitted against each other, and that we want to consume each other’s art and hear our story told by other women.
It’s worth investing in, too. Didn’t the first run of your Girls Just Wanna Weekend festival sell out?
And the second one sold out immediately!
So supporting women doesn't lose money, it's the opposite, really: it’s a lucrative business. It’s important to note — not in a capitalistic way, of course.
I get what you’re saying. It’s not about social justice entirely. It’s also a worthy endeavor. It’s actually going to pay off for the people that walk the walk and put their money where their mouth is.
Brandi Carlile will perform with Courtney Marie Andrews in San Francisco on Monday (Sept. 23) and in Boulder on Thursday (Sept. 26) with Lucie Silvas.