Brandi Carlile calls 2019 “the greatest year of my entire life,” and it’s easy to see why: This year’s Trailblazer sold out Madison Square Garden in New York, won three Grammys and launched her Girls Just Wanna Weekend music festival in Mexico. And she did it all while lifting up other women along the way -- co-producing Tanya Tucker’s Grammy-nominated While I’m Livin’ and hitting No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart with The Highwomen, her supergroup with Amanda Shires, Maren Morris and Natalie Hemby. “We are four women that have chosen to work together instead of competing with each other, even knowing that there are less than half a dozen spots in country music for us to be heard or seen,” says Carlile, 38. “We decided to try to occupy one of those spots as a group -- [and] leave the door open for many other women to come into The Highwomen as a movement.”
You use your platform to talk about everything from gender inequality in the music industry to parent-child separation at the U.S.-Mexico border. Does that come naturally to you?
As I get older, I wake up more naturally political every day, just by the fact that I’m married to a woman and raising two daughters. I was married before it was legal; I was denied a basic civil right in my own country for most of my adult life. There’s really no way for me to get onstage and not be political. I would have to get onstage and not be a woman or not be a singer. It goes against the grain in a lot of ways for me to not use my voice to illuminate suffering and injustice. It’s just who I am.
2019 was a busy year for you, from launching Girls Just Wanna Weekend to headlining Madison Square Garden.
That’s interesting that you mention Madison Square Garden and Girls Just Wanna Weekend in the same breath. I once was invited on tour with a band I worship. One of the dates was to open for them at the Garden. There was a promoter [for another show on that tour] that wanted to take me off the tour, saying they wanted a male, guitar-fronted band to open. I lost the tour. I was so appalled, and of course, not until it hit my battleship did I realize what a problem it was -- that women weren’t given a voice, particularly where this promoter thought men were more important, would buy more beer, would spend more money. That’s when I started Girls Just Wanna Weekend. I thought, if I can cause thousands of women to spend thousands of dollars to leave the country and see women headline a festival, it’s going to send a message to bookers at home.
What was the first year like?
It sold out -- but I will tell you there was a struggle in booking the festival that gave me a new empathy for promoters. Getting to go to Madison Square Garden after this emotional journey was a fucking cosmic lightning bolt to me. I just couldn’t believe where I’d come from, which was crying in my bedroom for being kicked off a tour to headlining that show and having it sell out.
Your Grammy-winning song “The Joke” has become an anthem for marginalized people in today’s political climate. What does it mean to you in 2019?
It heals me every single night. I wrote it as a salve for myself from a place of despair. When I wrote about “carrying your baby on your back across the desert,” I was writing about Syria because of the work I was doing with [humanitarian organization] War Child. I didn’t know yet about family separation or what was going to happen at the Southern border. I [slip] into that place, emotionally, when I sing that verse every single time. The audience won’t let me not slip into it. I see their eyes. I see their conviction. I see like-minded thinking. And if it’s not like-minded thinking, I see consideration, which is the most beautiful thing about music -- it sounds cliché, but [music] really is the universal language. I don’t think anybody, regardless of their political persuasion, resents me for believing what I believe when I sing that verse in “The Joke.” To me, that makes it more powerful than I ever thought it was when I wrote it.