When Brandi Carlile won her Grammy for Best Americana album her speech was not just a moment of personal celebration, it was also a statement about the genre itself:
Americana music is the island of the misfit toys. I am such a misfit. It is this music that has shaped my life and made me who I am. I came out of the closet at 15 years old…and I can assure that you I was never invited to any parties and never got to attend a dance. To be embraced by this enduring & loving community has been the dance of a lifetime. Thank you for being my island.
To find a place where your difference makes you not an outcast but part of a kind and harmonious patchwork of people is not just what a musical genre can be, it’s an ideal that America, and the world itself, should strive for. A lifted lamp by the golden door. A welcome for all.
Interestingly in her memoir ‘Broken Horses’ Brandi details how the speech was written in direct response to something said by Tyler Childers at the Americana awards in 2018. After winning ‘Best New Artist’ he accepted the award with nothing short of ungracious posturing, rudely saying: ‘Americana ain’t no part of nothin’. Brandi was rightly upset by his comments, looking around the room at all the artists in the Americana genre with admiration: ‘These are not people often recognised by mainstream music of any kind. They deserved it. They weren’t part of ‘nothin’; we were part of ‘something’ for once.’ And so that idea became a mantra for inclusion going forward.
By joining Amanda Shires to form The Highwomen she extended her light, aiming to build a ‘Crowded Table’ where everyone belonged. From there she orchestrated a Newport Folk festival triumph featuring Dolly Parton, created the Girls Just Wanna festival, worked with Tanya Tucker and became best friends with Joni Mitchell and Elton John, all while promoting new artists and worthwhile causes. Her life seemed like a success story that few could have even dreamed, let alone lived.
Then the pandemic hit. Everyone was sent home to think again. Isolation from the world was a test for even the most solitary loners amongst us. For someone like Brandi who seemed to thrive on constant energy, touring, making fans, famous friends and connections it’s hard to imagine how challenging it must have been.
Her new album ‘In These Silent Days’ explores how this was actually a blessing of a kind. A chance to stop, think and begin again. As Jeff Tweedy says in his memoir: sometimes we need to go somewhere in order to truly appreciate getting back home again.
Brandi begins this new album then with Right on Time, a song about an argument, turning her dramatic musical heights to the domestic sphere. Turn back time, help me to rewind and we can find ourselves again, it’s not too late. The emotional catharsis of her voice remains unmatched in modern music – even Adele pales in comparison.
From that stunning beginning she offers On The Rock a happier moment lyrically inspired by her marriage, family and musically by her friendship with Joni Mitchell. On paper Brandi and Joni don’t seem likely musical bedfellows – there is something darkly existential about Joni’s poetry, something solitary, fragile to the point of brittleness at times which Brandi just doesn’t have. Somehow that makes their real life friendship all the more beautiful and cheering. When Brandi played On This Rock to Joni she said it ‘sounds like a hit’, which is exactly the truth. In a way it reminds me of the Graham Nash song ‘Our House’ more than any Joni track – a harmony of codependency and contentment.
This doesn’t mean Brandi has left her Seattle grunge roots behind her, after all Americana is about embracing all your disparate influences, and so Broken Horses is a powerful, raw moment of angry rock. She uses this album to question her own self with brave personal candour – something that perhaps was somewhat obscured on the story songs of the last album. Songs like Letter to the Past, Mama Werewolf and Stay Gentle offer lessons learned from being a parent, a way to understand your own upbringing and past through your children. Even songs written solely by her band mates the Hanseroth twins, This Time Tomorrow and When You’re Wrong, still feel personal and inward looking.
Despite her being vocal about the political upheavals of the last year only Sinners, Saints and Fools deals directly with wider world issues. Even this one is written from her own faith-based perspective, ruminating on the hypocrisy of the church and what it really means to offer grace and charity.
The final song is a piano ballad, much like ‘Party of One’ which finished the previous album. On the surface Throwing Good After Bad sounds like it’s about someone else, a family member or an ex-lover but on second listening it actually sounds like a rebuke to herself, (maybe from her wife’s perspective even?). We all need a warning sometimes, a reminder to slow down and be more thoughtful. Brandi has a hunger, the soul of a coyote for sure. Most of us can only watch in awe at what she has achieved, at the firecrackling life force that she has.
In These Silent Days burns with compassionate heartfelt energy, letting us feel a part of something – a shared emotional humanity. Thank you to Brandi and the twins for being our island of pure gold.
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