Since 2005, the folk and Americana singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile has quietly put out albums that are well-received by critics and her fairly modest fan base — Barack Obama included — and that was enough for her.
She landed the occasional song on a big soundtrack, and in 2015 she was nominated for her first Grammy, best Americana album. Her LP “The Firewatcher’s Daughter” didn’t win, but it was a big deal nonetheless.
On Friday morning, all of that became prelude as Carlile woke up to find that she had been nominated for six Grammy awards in 2019, including album of the year. She’s the most nominated female artist, and behind just Kendrick Lamar and Drake over all. Her most recent album, “By the Way, I Forgive You,” was released in February and will compete against those rap stars — along with Post Malone, Janelle Monáe, Cardi B, Kacey Musgraves and H.E.R. — for the biggest prize of the night, while her empowerment ballad “The Joke” is up for record of the year, song of the year, best American roots performance and best American roots song.
[Kendrick Lamar leads nominees and women dominate major categories: see the full story.]
Carlile took a break from responding to a flood of text messages to speak by phone about her shocking morning. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Who do you think was more surprised and confused this morning: you or fans of Post Malone?
I don’t know, I saw a lot of pictures of Belinda Carlisle and some pretty solid misspellings, so I imagine it was equal doses of shock all the way around.
How did you find out?
[My publicist] called me at 5:30 in the morning and I just stumbled over to my home alarm and started trying to disarm it so I could walk out of the room, because I didn’t want to wake up my baby. Honestly, I didn’t know if I was awake — I was in absolute disbelief. Within 15 minutes, I had about 130 texts.
How would you describe Brandi Carlile, the artist, for those people who are finding out about you for the first time?
Well, I’m 37, I have a wife and two kids, and I’ve been doing this since I was a child. I’ve put in my fair share of miles and time in a van and this is for all intents and purposes, in my opinion, my seventh album and something that I poured my heart and soul into. To see it recognized this way is stunning.
You’ve said that “By the Way, I Forgive You” is about “radical forgiveness” toward all of the people who may have wronged you in various ways throughout your life. But was there anyone you thought of this morning, in a flash of pettiness, like, “Oh, man, I showed you!” Be honest.
Totally — three or four. Actually we were just talking about that and I was like, “I won’t even let their names pass my lips because the gratefulness is the lesson I’m learning most from this day.” I realized all along that I really essentially am a privileged white person in America who’s never had anything other than my dreams come true. Even though I did work really hard, I have perspective on this. And I wouldn’t by any means say I deserve it.
[Who got snubbed, and whose nomination was a big surprise? See the round table.]
Did you have a sense in crafting this record with the producers Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings that it might be a breakout for you? You’ve had commercial success before — a song on “Grey’s Anatomy,” for instance — but this feels like another level.
I thought it might emotionally be a breakout for me. I was reading a Joni Mitchell interview about the emotional state that she was in when she came to believe that it was time for her to write a record like “Blue,” where it wasn’t observational, but personal revelations. I knew it was that for me, and it was the first time I wasn’t hiding behind phrasing and punch lines and jokes.
But in terms of something like this, no, it never even crossed my mind. I’m a chicken farmer. I’ve never won anything, not even a karaoke contest and I’ve been in a lot of them.
You make music in a more traditional mode than someone like Post Malone, who is drenched in Auto-Tune, or Cardi B, who came up on Instagram, and we all know which direction the Grammys biases tend to go. Does any part of you worry about being the more niche, left-field spoiler, like Esperanza Spalding, Beck or Bon Iver?
No. Not at all. At the end of the day, especially right now in this country, people want truth and forgiveness and healing. Those things aren’t coming from me, but anything that alludes to them, I think, draws people in at the moment. That’s what we’re seeing.
Are there artists in the main crop that you’re a fan of?
Every single one of them. I’m obsessed with Kendrick Lamar and Drake. And I cannot stay off Cardi B’s Instagram. My wife has a policy: No Cardi B Instagram in bed because it will wake up the kids.
In “The Joke,” you have this line: “You get discouraged, don’t you, girl? It’s your brother’s world for a while longer.” Where did that come from?
I was in London on Election Day, two Novembers ago, and I woke up just feeling so utterly exposed. For eight years, I’d been so comfortable in my politics because I felt like we had a president that represented my worldview in way that I didn’t need to say or do much. I just remember this sense of shame when I woke up in another country and saw what happened in mine. I started thinking about those words then, before it was ever a song. And I knew that it would awaken a generation of activists and that if it was my brother’s world, it wouldn’t be for long.
After a year in which the Grammys faced a lot of backlash for its gender representation, how does it feel to have a song that’s kind of about those same ideas nominated in all the big categories? Does it feel like an apology from the Academy to womankind?
I think it’s a shift in the collective consciousness — of the voters and the administrators, and it’s a conversation that just kind of took place in the astral plane of sorts. I know I sound like woo-ey old lesbian, but it happened and we’re seeing evidence of it today.
Unlike some other awards shows, the Grammys have not really been a stage for resonant protest in recent years, despite the upheaval in the country. As a gay woman in America in 2018, can you imagine bringing politics to the show in your time onstage?
In the music I can. I’ve been twice and seen Kendrick Lamar just completely — literally — set the place on fire. I find those the most inspiring performances by far. Because it reflects a time for me in music when musicians were activists and activists were musicians during the Vietnam War. I don’t know if it’s because of the devastation we’re seeing in the landscape of American politics and the Supreme Court, but I think for the first time, the music matters again like it did then. And the people that are leading the charge, in my opinion, are African-Americans, women and artists pushing the envelope outside of the boundaries of genre.
Does your daughter know yet about the nominations, or care?
I told her this morning and she didn’t give a [expletive]. She’s like, “Can I watch ‘Paw Patrol’?”