Margo Price is five months pregnant, so it’s a bit confusing when I meet her at a low-lit sushi spot in West Hollywood where the menu is loaded with mercury. But as it turns out, Price didn’t pick the restaurant: Her pal, and our dinner date, Brandi Carlile, did.
“I’ve got you,” Carlile reassures her as we slide into a booth. She speaks with a tender, mama-bear drawl that commands authority. “I know this menu front and back.”
“Knew it!” says Price, happily tossing the leather folio onto the table. “Do your thing.”
Within minutes, a rainbow spread of fresh vegetables, cooked fish, cocktails (a Rockin’ Cucumber for Carlile) and mocktails (“something spicy with lime and ginger!” for Price) arrives, some of which is on the menu, some of which is not. “I’m pretty good,” admits Carlile. “I love to order for the table. It’s a problem. I pick out all the dishes and then forget to eat because I’m too caught up in seeing what people like.”
“She does,” says Price with a nod. “Just go with it.”
The pair first met in 2016, when Price, then an emerging voice in Nashville’s outlaw country scene, opened for the seasoned Seattle folk singer in upstate New York. They bonded over a bottle of whiskey in the greenroom (they were both drinking more back then, they say) and recognized in each other a kindred resilience shaped by hardship: Carlile’s gut-wrenching ballads have traced her battles with poverty and addiction, while Price’s honky-tonk meditations have mourned the loss of her family’s farm and, in 2010, one of her children. (Ezra, one of Price’s twin boys, died a couple of weeks after birth from a heart ailment.)
In person, Carlile, 37, exudes a mixture of toughness and earnestness, while Price, 35, is more lighthearted, with an infectious laugh. But at their core as artists, they have a lot in common. Both are plainspoken, clear-eyed songwriters who veer between folk, rock, country and Americana; write vividly about loss; and -- like their staunchly feminist forebears Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Patti Smith -- view activism as an artistic duty. “Our honesty, struggle and perseverance seem to resonate with, and maybe represent, some of America right now,” says Carlile. “People want to hear real stories.”
Clearly, The Recording Academy agreed: Both artists, far from the mainstream though they may be, are up for big honors at the 2019 Grammys. Price is one of six female acts nominated for best new artist, honoring her second album, All American Made. And Carlile, who will perform at the show on Feb. 10, is the most nominated woman of all, with nods in six categories, including album of the year (for By the Way, I Forgive You, her third Billboard 200 top 10 entry), song of the year and record of the year (her tear-jerker of a misfit anthem “The Joke”). She also has nominations for best Americana album, best American roots song and best American roots performance. “It must be one of the greatest anomalies in the history of the awards that I’ve been nominated in this many categories,” says Carlile. Price shakes her head and leans in: “This is proof that people are yearning for honest music.”
Carlile and Price have always engaged with politics in their music, and as mothers with young children -- Carlile has two young daughters, Elijah and Evangeline, with her wife, Catherine Shepherd, and Price has son Judah with her husband, Jeremy Ivey -- they’ve become even more firmly dedicated to the resistance. At dinner, Price wears a leather jacket covered in pins: a gold star that says “feminist,” a buffalo roaming the plains and a Native American woman emblazoned with the words “The Earth Does Not Belong to Us.”
“We have to be a voice for what we believe in,” says Price, and recently she and Carlile -- both of whom had their best touring years as headliners in 2018 -- have done just that onstage together. In July, they played a cover of Dolly Parton’s anthem of women’s empowerment, “9 to 5,” at the Newport Folk Festival. “Love this, ladies!’” Parton later tweeted with a blue butterfly emoji, to which Price, whose voice is often compared to Parton’s, replied, “Ahhhhhhh! This made my day/week/year/life!” In September, they sang it again on the roof of Third Man Records, Price’s hometown label in Nashville (Carlile is signed to Elektra Records), as part of Americanafest. Earlier that evening, they had attended the Americana Awards, where, among the six awards voted on by Americana Music Association members, just one woman won. “That night was odd,” says Carlile, shaking her head. “But I felt a change in the room happen right then. I said, ‘Something’s going to happen at the Grammys.’”
Whether they win or not, the prospect of collaborating with more women seems to be just as exciting to the duo, if not more so. The weekend before the Grammys, Price was to perform at Carlile’s inaugural Girls Just Wanna music festival in Mexico alongside Indigo Girls, Maren Morris and Patty Griffin, among others. “I have so many girlfriends who will be there,” says Price, who later had to cancel. Carlile lights up.
“I have these matriarch tendencies. My grandmother did too,” she explains. “Everybody comes to my house for the holidays. I just love it. I want to lift other women up. I want to put bands together, I want to produce records, I want to curate lineups, you know? That’s just who I am. I want to order for the table.”
The two of you have been good friends for a few years now. Did you feel an immediate kinship when you met?
Margo Price: She was so warm and inviting. Her whole band just let me in.
Brandi Carlile: We started talking about music and Nashville, not being in our 20s anymore and feeling older than everybody else. We saw each other as peers. I was already getting to a point where I was feeling like I’d heard just about enough from male country singers. I wanted to hear somebody that was loud and fierce and able to hold their ground, who had real grit and who could just deliver on all levels -- emotionally, intellectually, vocally. Margo could. You can hear her strength on her records. That is not a tiny voice.
That must have felt refreshing.
Price: Definitely. The air in the room is different when two women respect each other. It was refreshing to go out and open for someone who was not from mainstream male country. Now, every time we bump into each other, we wind up singing together.
You’ve been singing Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” Why that song?
Price: It feels timely.
Carlile: Will you be pissed if I cover that a couple times? I love singing it with you so much that now I want to do it [myself].
Price: Hell no! Go for it. I think everyone should be singing that. It has been more than 30 years since it came out, and it feels every bit as pertinent.
It sounds like you were both partying pretty hard when you met. What changed?
Price: At some point you’ve got to be a grown-up. In college I could drink these football players under the table, and it was a party trick. Then I started smoking weed, but then after I got to Nashville and was floundering -- I couldn’t get anywhere in the music business and then I lost my child -- I started drinking again because it numbed the pain. I had a wake-up call when I hit a telephone pole and tried to outrun the cops. That was about five years ago.
And now you’ve developed a strain of cannabis with Willie Nelson. Was that part of a larger lifestyle change?
Price: Yeah. Ironically, I was pregnant when it came out, so I can’t even smoke it. I have it saved and sealed at home. After this pregnancy, I’m going to roll a Snoop Dogg-size blunt.
You both became mothers after many years of building your careers. Did motherhood change you as artists?
Carlile: It changed everything. It has made me so spiritually happy, and as an artist, that doesn’t look like what I thought it would. I was worried about where I’d find my friction, my tension, my sadness as a mother. But my bandmate Tim [Hanseroth] said, ‘When you’re happy, you can do everything better, even write sad songs.’ And it’s true. I’ve written some of the saddest shit and had some of the most intense, angsty performances post-motherhood than any other time. Motherhood has set me free.
Price: I’ve been trying to make it in the music business for 16 years, and it wasn’t until three or four years ago that things took off for me. But when I became a mother eight years ago, other musicians would ask me, “So, you going to quit now?” I was like, “No, I’m not going to quit!” It drove me nuts. Nothing lights a fire underneath me like wanting to prove people wrong.
Carlile: Before Evangeline was born, I did an interview that still upsets me to this day. They said, “Good luck with the whole motherhood thing but, you know, don’t lose your edge.” Jesus Christ. Fucking edge? What are you talking about?
Price: The shit that comes out of people’s mouths when you’re expecting. Recently a friend told me this pregnancy could “ruin my career.”
Carlile: Three words: Prove them wrong.
These Grammy nominations must feel especially good after that.
Price: I’m thrilled. I’m even more thrilled for Brandi because, I mean, album of the fucking year! It just means more for everybody -- everybody who makes authentic music, every woman on her own path.
Carlile: Listen, I’ve been doing this for a long time -- it’s not like I didn’t put in the work -- but I’m the smallest artist to have been nominated at this level in a really long time. To say it’s an honor doesn’t serve how mystical it is. It speaks to the soul of our community and what change they want to see.
Both of you write what are often labeled as protest songs. Do you think of them that way?
Price: What did Bob Dylan say? Something like, “All my songs are protest songs.” I don’t mind them being labeled that way, because ultimately they’re songs written during and about a humanitarian crisis in America. I was moved from an early age to write songs for the underdog, whether it’s middle-class Americans, farmers or kids who need to feel safe in school. I believe artists have a duty to be a voice for what we believe in.
Carlile: Activism is at a level that didn’t exist in the artistic community three years ago. As a gay woman approaching 40 who was married before it was legal, to say it’s refreshing is an understatement. Do I hate what’s happening in Washington? Do I feel ashamed of the White House? Absolutely. But I’m more inspired than ever by my sisters and activists who’ve realized that this shit -- these deportations, this institutionalized racism, institutionalized sexism, institutionalized homophobia -- has been going on for way too long.
A few years ago, I was doing a photo shoot at this older woman’s bar out in the country. She says to me, “Do you mind a little criticism from an old lesbian?” I’m like, “Sure.” She says, “Your generation, you lack purpose. You think progress moves in one direction and never goes back the other way. You’re all asleep. You have things to protest and you’re not writing about it because it isn’t slapping you in the face yet, but it will...” I swear to God, the morning after Trump was elected, I thought, “She was right.”
Is that in part because it’s difficult to speak out in the music business?
Price: Completely. The industry wants to silence it. Everybody wants music to be a distraction. I wrote “All American Made” during the Obama administration, and originally the line at the end was “I wonder if the president gets much sleep at night/And if folks on welfare are making it all right.” Given the weight of the election and how it turned out, the song suddenly had a different gravity, so we changed the lyric to “I wonder how the president gets any sleep at night/If the folks down by the border are making it all right.”
Carlile: It’s prophetic, isn’t it?
Price: Kind of creepy.
Carlile: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Margo has committed country music suicide.
Price: I’ve always known my songs would not be accepted in Nashville, and for a long time they weren’t. My first band, Secret Handshake, was inspired by The Kinks and their social and political messages. People hated it. We cleared rooms. But if you don’t speak up, who will?
Carlile: It all comes back to representation, which is a problem everywhere but especially in country music and especially at festivals. If my kids were teenagers and wanted to go to Bonnaroo, I’d say, “Let me see the poster.” If women weren’t headlining at least half of that thing, I’d say no. Not just because of politics, not on principle, but for safety. Representation creates an environment where women can feel at ease.
Are you pleased with the steps The Recording Academy has taken to improve representation?
Carlile: I think [outgoing academy president/CEO] Neil Portnow’s exit is well-timed, and his “step up” statement was awful. But I don’t think he should go down in history as a misogynist, which is an important distinction. Having said that, the word “representation” can’t be used enough, because for some people it’s life or death. For queer kids, it’s life or death. For me, it was life or death. When I was introduced to the Indigo Girls, k.d. lang, Freddie Mercury, George Michael or my hero Elton John, I realized this other “accepted” way of life didn’t have to be my life. I didn’t have to wear the right clothes and/or say the right things or have a man. That’s why it’s so important.
How did you find out about your nominations? And more importantly, how did you celebrate?
Price: Obviously I didn’t drink or smoke a giant joint. [Motions to belly.] Actually, I called Brandi and told her to drink a glass of champagne for me.
Carlile: Which I did.
Price: [Winking.] I’m sure you drank maybe two for me.
Carlile: We toasted to you, too! We said, “To Margo.” I found out at 5:31 a.m., and by 6:30 I had three emails from Elton John, who has been my hero since I was 11. I was him for Halloween every year. I wore homemade Elton John jewelry. My shoes said “EJ.” There wasn’t a single piece of my bedroom wall that didn’t have his face on it. The end of every one of my records is dedicated to Elton John. The first email was, “Congratulations on your nomination, no one deserves it better than you.” The second goes, “Multiple noms? Oh, my God!” The third goes, “I can’t believe you can’t hear me screaming from Atlanta, Georgia!” And at the end, he said, “‘The Joke’ is my ‘Madness.’” Anyone who knows me cries when they hear that, because they know how much it means to me.
Did a part of you wonder: Why now? Why this year? Why this record?
Carlile: I made a resolution last January to change gears. After a cycle of summer touring, I was starting to feel like we were becoming a beer-garden band. We only played our uptempo stuff and shaped our setlists around which songs would make the beer drinkers stand up and clap. It fucked with my writing. After a couple of epiphany concerts and that epiphany election, I resolved to write about the things I hadn’t confronted yet -- healing from addiction and poverty, institutionalized homophobia, the trauma of becoming a gay mom. I think that’s why this record is different.
Price: Similarly, I like to think the differentiating factor was that I wrote honestly. I wasn’t afraid if the songs exposed who I was or if it was ugly. I had hid a lot of things from my family; when I got my DUI, I hid it from everyone back home because I didn’t want to be judged. Eventually, though, I realized that people relate to the underdog. We all have a little bit of that in ourselves.
Carlile: We live on a compound -- me, the twins [brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth, from her band], their families, one of the guys from Pearl Jam. We’re like a big family-slash-cult. My fantasy, even when I was 10, was having a log cabin with a creek and a horse that nobody fucked with, where I’d play my music and make my own money. I’m proud to say I made it happen. Margo, you in?
Price: I think we could make it work.
A TALE OF TWO CAMPAIGNS
A nomination is only half the battle: Since Dec. 7 -- and, really, long before then -- Carlile, Price and their teams at Elektra Records and Third Man Records, respectively, have been planning every step toward a Grammy win. And though they’re up for different awards, both have carefully strategized approaches in progress, aimed at educating voters and expanding their listenerships.
PLAY THE LONG GAME
Carlile’s By the Way, I Forgive You was released in February 2018, so her team focused on keeping attention on it throughout the past year. “That’s always a challenge,” says Elektra co-president Gregg Nadel. “Whether it was an NPR piece or launching at triple A radio or a new video or an Austin City Limits livestream, [we wanted to] come up with something every month that we were driving to.”
Because Price’s album arrived in late October 2017, and because she’s up for best new artist, her mission wasn’t to remind, but to inform: “She’s still answering a lot of the questions she would get during the first album” rollout, says Third Man co-founder Ben Swank.
DON’T JUMP THE GUN
The music video for Carlile’s “Party of One,” starring Elisabeth Moss, was “done and in the can” ahead of the nominations, according to Nadel, but her team held it because the video for Carlile’s duet version with Sam Smith had just dropped. The strategy worked perfectly -- once Carlile’s nods were announced, her team had a new piece of content to launch the following week.
After Price’s nomination, Swank started retargeting her catalog with her label’s distributors and digital service providers, increasing Price’s presence on playlists, in stores and on radio. “She’s a musician and singer, and we want to keep things focused on that,” he says.
Carlile’s on a major label and Price is on an indie, which affects how their teams view the next stage of exposure before the show. “We are trying to hit every target and expose [Carlile’s album] to as many different audiences as possible,” says Nadel. Prior to Carlile’s nominations, she appeared on Ellen and The Howard Stern Show for the first time. “Not something [you think of] when you start a campaign for a Brandi Carlile record,” says Nadel of the latter, which encouraged him to explore all opportunities going forward.
Price’s team is likewise pushing her to do press with outlets outside her home genre of country, but they know where to draw the line. “If all of a sudden [Margo is] glammed up on a million different advertisements, I don’t think that scans well,” says Swank. “We don’t swing the same way as the majors. We act very instinctually.”
-- LYNDSEY HAVENS