Brandi Carlile served as a featured speaker at AmericanaFest on Thursday afternoon (Sept. 12). One day after being named artist of the year at the Americana Honors & Awards, the singer sat down with Tracy Gershon for an informative panel titled Change the Conversation with Brandi Carlile.
Held at the Westin in downtown Nashville, the singer discussed her rise to prominence (“I have poor kid work ethic. So, I’m scrappy and I’m a hustler and I’d like to get up every day and work until I fall asleep.”), producing albums by Tanya Tucker and the Secret Sisters, and her latest endeavor with the High Women (“Amanda Shires came up to me at the Basement East and said, ‘I want to start a band with you called the High Women.’”). Throughout the hour-long discussion, she also touched upon launching an all-female music festival and why the ongoing conversation about the lack of women on country radio is a systematic problem.
Here are five of the biggest takeaways during Carlile’s discussion.
Carlile asked to be a part of Tanya Tucker’s new album.
A longtime fan of Tucker’s, Carlile was surprised to hear from Shooter Jennings that the singer was doing well and still singing strongly. Carlile had believed the rumors she heard that Tucker had succumb to her vices and given up a music career. When she learned this wasn’t the case, Carlile was adamant about working with her.
“Just like everything else, all my feminism, all my activism, comes from me realizing I was being part of the problem,” she told the packed room of AmericanaFest attendees. “Then I suddenly realized, ‘Oh, I’m a part of the stigma that’s attached to Tanya Tucker from her past and for some reason she doesn’t feel welcome in this forum.’”
Carlile also realized that she did want to hear from Tucker and work with her. “I wanted to hear that female perspective on what she went through and why and what she’s got to say about it,” she added. “I sought out the ability to be involved in this record, and Shooter was kind enough to let me really move in and now I’m determined to tell the story about Tanya Tucker.”
The Secret Sisters’ next album will be “a big departure.”
Carlile also serves as producer on the Secret Sisters’ forthcoming project, slated for 2020. She gave some insight into the album, sharing that there was an “interesting dynamic” in the studio between each member this time around as one member was struggling to get pregnant while the other was pregnant.
“It’s an incredible album of political awareness, wokeness, fertility, love and complication,” Carlile said. “The Secret Sisters are a unison project. They sing in harmony. They’re a super linear, parallel force. I said, ‘Y’all aren’t on the same page emotionally.’ And they were like, ‘No.’ So [I said], ‘Then you aren’t going to sing together.’
“They sang separately for the first time in their lives and it turned them into singers. They weren’t one instrument anymore. And then when we wanted that harmony to happen, they would get on one microphone and do the Secret Sisters thing. It’s a big departure,” she added. “I’m really proud of it because I think that my job as a producer is to be honest about where people are emotionally while we’re doing the work so that it sounds authentic to you.”
Carlile wrote letters to invite Dolly Parton to Newport Folk Festival’s historic female super jam.
Carlile prides herself on assisting Newport Folk Festival producer Jay Sweet to deliver an all-female headlining set. The first time in the festival’s 60-year history, a female collaboration headlined the event and Carlile had the room laughing as she recalled booking Dolly Parton for the bill.
“I saw it. I was like, ‘I gotta get Dolly.’ So, I started writing Dolly letters. I didn’t get a no, so I started talking to everybody like Dolly was definitely coming,” she said. “I managed to pull together a cast of characters who made history, changed history and impacted my life. We had a great time. Dolly came out and the ship had landed. She showed up at that festival looking like the Grim Reaper. She had a full-body hood and all you could see were these fingernails and these high heels walking through the festival grounds. Everybody knew somebody really special was under there, but nobody guessed.”
Even Carlile had a hard time booking females to play her Girls Just Wanna Weekend.
While the first two years of Carlile’s Girls Just Wanna Weekend sold out, she admitted the booking process was an education. She said she struggled to find women to come and do the festival in Mexico and realized U.S. bookers must be struggling too.
“That’s when I realized how systemic the problem is. It’s the level of who’s getting signed, who’s getting played on the radio, who is getting booked at the club level, who at the executive level is even in the position to sign women. Are there enough women working at the labels?” she said. “It’s a systemic issue that we’re all addressing and talking about and it’s such a beautiful thing in my mind, but I know it’s not just promoter’s fault.”
“I’m not interested in doing anything other than being part of the solution.”
Carlile has seen the plight of women at country radio, on tours and festival lineups so she decided to only take out women as support acts for a year. But, that wasn’t enough for the singer, so she started pitching herself as an opener to females she admired.
“I’m not interested in doing anything other than being part of the solution of that problem,” she said. “It was actually better in the eighties and the nineties. I had so many women in country music to choose from … Representation for women is a problem because we tell, through the arts, the story of the other half of the human race.
“When I’m 9 or 10, and I’m only allowed to listen to country music I have LeAnn Rimes and I have the Dixie Chicks and I have the Pam Tills, Patty Loveless, Lorrie Morgan, Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tanya Tucker. I’ve got so many women telling my story,” she said. “I’m trying to picture in my head a 10-year-old girl right now in rural America, who is only allowed to listen to that country radio station her parents [play]. And only every hour to hour-and-a-half can she hear a song that’s not about blue jeans and boobs, and beer and trucks and back roads. What does that say to her about life? That’s not a small problem.”
AMERICANAFEST week continues through this Sunday, Sept. 15.