Broken Horses

If you haven’t heard of Brandi Carlile by now that might be some sort of feat. Although she’s been releasing albums to a loyal fan base since 2005, her 2018 album “By The Way, I Forgive You” propelled her into the larger social consciousness, earning her 6 Grammy nominations (the most of any female artist that year), and winning three: Best American Roots Song, Best American Roots Performance, and Best Americana Album. If none of this is ringing a bell, you’re still sure to recognize her first breakout hit, “The Story,” with its raw vocals and improbably perfect execution in a challenging vocal range. On “The Story,” Carlile writes that she “wasn’t going to make anything that vulnerable ever again.” But she has, and it’s still her voice, just breaking in different ways. Brandi Carlile’s memoir, “Broken Horses” hits similar high notes, similar deceptively quiet lulls, and every time she dials up the intensity, you’re going to feel the need to sit up a little straighter.

“Broken Horses” is, I believe, best enjoyed by those already familiar with Carlile’s work and who are coming into it wanting to know more, not those seeking an introduction. But don’t let that deter you if that’s why you’re here – just maybe listen to an album or two first.

Much of “Broken Horses” is a reflection on the intersection of music, queerness, and faith, and those three twines have become entangled in the very fabric of Carlile’s life story. She has been out since she was 11, but speaks to her experience of coming out as not involving a single moment, but rather “an awkward and uncomfortable emergence” and an ongoing process. This is true not only of her queer identity, but also of her faith. The connection between her queerness and her faith was forged from a traumatic non-baptism, and it is a trauma which is echoed by many in the queer community with similar experiences.

When Brandi Carlile first began speaking about being refused a baptism, she says she was “made an example of” by the pastor. Is the version in “Broken Horses” reflective of this? What might have changed, over the course of writing this book, to cause a shift in perspective? How are those versions different from the first verse of “Looking Out”? “I went out looking for the answers and never left my town/ I’m no good at understanding, but I’m good at standing ground. / And when I asked the corner preacher, I couldn’t hear him for my youth/ Some people get religion, some people get the truth. / I never get the truth. / I never get the truth.”

From this experience also comes the contention that anything worth loving will scare you, and that fear is the beginning of wisdom. While she is speaking of her faith in this moment, queerness is often experienced in the same ways; fear of what embracing a shift in identity might mean leading to love and wisdom in self-identity. Carlile is no stranger to these shifts, not only in her journey through trauma to faith (doggedly pursued on her own terms and clearer for the church’s absence in her understanding of it), but also in her experience of gender dysphoria and an evolving sense of self that continues to change, and which is often inspired by (or made necessary because of) the release of a new album.

One thing is clear in reading this memoir: Carlile does not like to be alone. Beginning with the near-death experience that opens up the book, and weaving its way through her life, she has surrounded herself with a support system which she in turn leans on and lifts up. So averse to being alone even her name is a plural, as the band name of Brandi Carlile now represents not only her person, but also Tim and Phil Hanseroth. This multiplicity is something of which all three of them were prescient, a sort of tripod which has always been destined. Carlile tells us of the ways the twins had experienced reoccurring dreams in which they were completed by a third entity, and Carlile herself experienced something similar when she was fighting off fear at night in her childhood bedroom, listening to music to keep her company. One evening, after the last track has clicked off, a new song appears on her tape, one which has angelic harmonies, and which she has never heard before. It is interesting in this moment that it is not a single voice, but a multiplicity of voices. The mysterious song remains on the tape, despite Carlile’s fear that she will go to play it one day and it will be gone. The ways in which her experience with the tape mirrors the twins experience with their dreams lends itself to mystical interpretation.

Since almost dying from meningococcal meningitis at four, Carlile has had the sense that she was meant for something. Because of this, she often relies on a sense of destiny or intuition in forging connections and making decisions. What else in “Broken Horses” is guided by intuition, and does that instinct always seem to pan out?

Those moments when we do see Carlile alone are moments of intense vulnerability: lying in bed thinking of sliding through the wall into another dimension (as in the “Twilight” episode she had watched as a child), and later sitting on a hotel bed having a similar, but much darker and sinister interpretation of that original fear, staring down a handful of pills. It is in this moment that Carlile characterizes herself as “Just a tired mom alone in a hotel room, afraid to let anyone down.” For someone who has a healthy sense of ego, someone who admits to “always [thinking] I’m more famous than I am,” this persona is one which gets a lot of consideration in “Broken Horses”: the mother.

Carlile says that for much of her life she was two women – the performer and the woodsman – and that for “By The Way, I Forgive You,” she wanted to see what would happen if she let herself be one whole person. The mother, though, is a third woman in Carlile’s split self, one which is also allowed to be fully present in the 2018 album. Her journey to motherhood may be familiar to many lesbian parents; one in which birthing and breastfeeding classes are “so heteronormative,” oppressive and insulting, where a non-biological mother doesn’t want to be referred to as a father, where they wonder what their role will be once their child is born. Throughout the book Carlile projects a sense of steadiness, a sureness which radiates from the first time she performed on stage to pursuing her faith, but in motherhood she hesitates. It is from this hesitation that she and her wife, Catherine, seek out an alternative, queer-friendly pregnancy experience, and where they are counseled to adopt a mantra “for every time the world of motherhood felt like a template [they] didn’t fit into.” Carlile’s mantra: I am the mother of Evangeline.

Carlile writes that “Same-sex parenting might read clinical, but that’s only because it’s so new. Gay domesticity has a path, but it isn’t well-worn yet and we need to humanize these stories because history is happening all around us.” Reflect on your own experience with this topic. Do you agree or disagree with Carlile's assessment?

And through all of this, let’s not forget the music. Music, Carlile tells us, is God. Music is her proof that God is real. Music is also Joy. Music is a way she connects to her family history, a way she builds community, a way she garners the attention she is not shy about admitting she relishes. This memoir tells not only the story of her life, her identity, and her faith, but also of her music and her career as a musician. After each chapter, along with black and white captioned photographs of moments and memories touched on in the text, are lyrics of the song that were inspired by, or influential to, the memories she is sharing. This is an immense grace to readers, who can allow the stories to inform the songs, or maintain their own interpretations of them, as the songs are not analyzed line by line, or placed within the story as though those are the only stories they can belong to. In the audiobook these songs are sung by Carlile, stripped down and raw, with only her guitar or piano and her voice, an intimate and generous gesture which makes the audiobook an absolute necessity for those who want more of Carlile. Her acoustic version of “Caroline,” as well as her covers of her hero (and eventual friend) Elton John’s songs are highlights of the entire experience.

Music is interpretable by everyone who listens to it, and no two people may arrive at the same meaning when listening to the same song. Is that true of narrative as well? Is narrative as open to interpretation as music? When narrative and music are combined in this way, does that change what the song is, or what the story is?

Ultimately the themes of doubt, faith, and love are reconciled in one idea: Forgiveness. It is to this theme that Carlile returns most often, and she is as open to forgiving herself as others. Furthermore, she offers an argument for the rehabilitation of the idea of forgiveness, one which she feels has become misunderstood. “When they say ‘I forgive you’ they’re saying ‘From my position of righteousness I will accept you, even though you’re wrong and inadequate.’” To Carlile, to forgive is radical, and needs to be understood as such. This isn’t the only lesson she imparts; she also recounts a story of being invited to a rally in 2020 by the governor in Seattle, and realizes, while standing on stage, that she and the twins are surrounded by women of color, who are attempting to speak with a sound system that is broken, about a world system that is broken. Carlile and the twins begin, with their own equipment, to untangle wires and check connections, until they are able to better amplify the voices of the people on stage. They never play. “We didn’t save the day, we fixed a speaker,” she says. Carlile asks of her readers that they look for the cables that they have the power to untangle in their own lives. Forgive. And Amplify.

There is a lot in “Broken Horses” that merits contemplation and discussion, but there is also much levity, great story-telling, and anecdotes that will allow readers a glimpse into Carlile’s life. Some of the memorable moments include collaborations with other artists: jam sessions with Joni Mitchell and Chaka Khan, performing with her band The Highwomen and having Dolly Parton pray over her before the performance, the calls and parties that followed The Grammy nominations, meeting the Indigo Girls, Tanya Tucker, and of course Elton John. There are also quieter moments that are just as impactful: the three weddings she and her wife Catherine held, the work done with the Looking Out Foundation, and the everyday realities of living in the woods and raising children. “Broken Horses” is a deftly crafted memoir that reveals as much of the music as the person, allowing readers to better understand both.

Brandi Carlile contemplated naming the book several things, “‘Heroes and Songs?’ Too reductive and music-y. ‘The End of Being Alone?’ Too depressing. ‘Mainstream Kid?’ Too insignificant. ‘The Story?’ Really?” It is her daughter, Evangeline who asks, as she’s been trying to make a case for why she herself should be allowed to get a horse, how her mother could afford horses when she grew up so poor? “I couldn’t, I was given broken ones,” Carlile replies. “Evangeline: You should name your book ‘Broken Horses.’” What effect did the title have on reading Carlile's memoir? Did it inform or detract for the experience in any way?

About this book

  • ISBN:9780593237243
  • Price:$28.00
  • Page Count:336

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