Brandi Carlile Talks New Album and Upcoming Tour: 'I Am Transformed by Standing on Stage'

Brandi Carlile
Alysse Gafkjen

Brandi Carlile

There are many themes that enter into the inspiration of the songs that appear on By The Way, I Forgive You, the just-released sixth studio album from Brandi Carlile. But, given the title, one would rightfully gleam that there is a certain degree of self-acceptance: Just what exactly has she had to forgive herself for?

“So many things,” she surmised to Billboard. “I had to forgive myself for some of the stumbles in my life, and find out ways to work through my anger of not accepting people in my life if they didn’t meet my requirements and needs. I had to forgive myself for not being more of a natural mother, and to transition my life into the role of domesticity and having that not come easy. I had to learn to step into and embody that role while all the while realizing that it’s life’s greatest honor, but also life’s greatest challenge.”

Motherhood, in particular, has been on her mind quite a bit as of late. Last October, she announced that her wife Catherine was expecting the couple’s second child – their first, daughter Evangeline Ruth, was born in June 2014. She admits that the adjustment to motherhood took a while: “It has changed me entirely and so fundamentally. The big lie that I bought into is that it changes you naturally.”

That transition influenced much of the new disc. “A lot of the writing on the record has to do with the fact that I wasn’t just going to wake up one day and be the perfect mother, and understand babies and how to walk through the world that way.”

She covers the topic of parenthood from the other side -- as a daughter -- on the heart-tugging “Most Of All,” of which she says “I wouldn’t minimize the broader concept of what our parents are to us, and what we are to our parents. Your parents are your first love, and they won’t always be here. They’re going to leave you, and there’s a very important lifelong forgiveness that needs to take place about that concept. I watched both my parents lose their mothers in the past year. That was certainly very impactful.”

Other topics addressed on By The Way, I Forgive You include a couple of stories about the dark side of life -- particularly the modern-day Southern Gothic sound of “Fulton County Jane Doe,” which was written by her brother, Phil Hanseroth. “He had just had a little baby girl, and he was reading a story in the newspaper about a woman who was found in a field. She was unidentifiable, and thirty-six years later, no one has ever claimed her. So, she died, and is left without a name. As a new dad, that bothered him fundamentally, so he wrote her a song.”

Another slice of non-fiction comes on “Sugartooth,” about having to tell her brothers that their childhood friend had taken his own life. “That was also a real person, and such a real moment for me and the guys. They had lost someone real close to them, and I had to tell them. Maybe it’s just our age, and what we’re going through right now, but suddenly, everyone is someone’s baby. Nobody is just a junkie anymore to us.”

By The Way, I Forgive You was produced by Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings. Carlile knew she wanted to work with them both – yet wasn’t aware of their close friendship. “Those two guys are like brothers, but I didn’t know it when I met either one of them. When I met Dave Cobb, I was doing the Cover Stories record. I met his wife, who is an Albanian refugee here seeking asylum, and married Dave really young. He was helping me with the project, which was to benefit refugees. His vision was totally undeniable for the thing that we were working on, “The Story,” the Dolly Parton track. I knew that I wanted to make a record with Dave Cobb really bad.”

The professional union with Jennings was sparked initially by their love of '80s pop culture.

“I met Shooter at Johnny Cash’s 80th Birthday Celebration. We got to talking about all kinds of mystical shit from the 1980s, and all the movies we loved -- like Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, and particularly The NeverEnding Story. He was remarking on my The NeverEnding Story tattoos, and he had done an album that was a tribute to Giorgio Moroder, where he did the NeverEnding Story song. I loved that about him, as I always try to act on a creative impulse to write about things that we’re actually dealing with right now, as opposed to being retro-obsessed -- like so much of my generation singing about hopping trains and acting like we’re living in the dustbowl, which we’re not. Those kind of lyrics don’t really embody who we are.”

She says that watching Cobb and Jennings create was an amazing experience. “Getting them together for the record is like having two kids in the basement who are trying to build a spaceship. It was absolutely inspiring and super cool.”

Carlile has a full slate of dates to promote the new music -- beginning March 3 in Vancouver, BC. She says she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I’m going to tour the shit out of it. That’s everything.  That’s all I’m made up of anymore -- skin, bones, and live show adrenaline.”

There’s nothing – not even being in the studio -- that compares with the live experience for her. “That’s my absolute goal as an artist, and that’s my favorite thing, to hear somebody singing the lyrics back to me," she explains. "That’s especially true if I get the idea that they are singing that lyric back about themselves. That’s how I know that I’m doing a good job. Joni Mitchell said ‘If you see me in my songs, and you wonder about my life, then I’m not doing a good job. If you see yourself, then I’ve done what I was sent here to do.’ That’s how I feel about songwriting."

And make no mistake, Carlile can tell when she strikes an emotional bond with someone in the audience. “I love standing on stage, and watching people dance -- and sing," she says. "But I am transformed by standing on stage and watching someone cry. You’re witnessing an epiphany. You’re witnessing a moment. And it doesn’t belong to me -- but I get something from seeing it.”