Brandi Carlile On Practicing Forgiveness, Even When It's Hard

Feb 14, 2018
Originally published on February 15, 2018 10:58 pm

Early in her career, Brandi Carlile bent and broke Americana and folk stereotypes as an openly gay woman with outspoken progressive politics. Leading up to the release of her latest album, she posted an open letter on Facebook to the Baptist pastor who refused to baptize her because of her sexuality when she was 15. She forgave him.

At 36, Carlile has earned Grammy nominations and topped folk charts with a half-dozen critically acclaimed albums, many of which tackle personal topics from the singer's life. For her seventh studio release, By The Way, I Forgive You (out Feb. 16), she focused her songwriting on "radical forgiveness" — what she characterizes as an ugly but ultimately rewarding act, whose benefits can extend as much to those who were hurt as to those who did the hurting.

Carlile spoke with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly about the journey that led to By The Way, I Forgive You. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited transcript below.

Mary Louise Kelly: The topic of forgiveness is such a big thing to tackle. What made you decide to take it on?

Brandi Carlile: Well, it kind of appeared out of my record, and my writing process, like a sculpture would appear when you take the pieces of stone away that don't belong: I didn't realize that that's what I was writing about until I was looking back on it. But it's a word that I think is kind of evangelicalized ... or glossed over by kind of a "hashtag blessed" way of looking at it. It's a really radical and ugly, difficult process that, you know, great beauty comes from.

The song "Most Of All" is specifically about your connection to your parents. As you put it, parents can be your first love: You write, "If your parents are still alive, don't forget to tell them that you love them, and mean it."

I watched both my parents lose their mothers last year. It was really interesting, because throughout the process of growing up, I listened to all of their grievances and gripes about their mamas, the things that kept them from answering the phone sometimes and all that stuff. And then as soon as those women were gone, it was like all memory of any of that immediately just evaporated, and it was all funny stories and good things. There are people that could criticize the way that we that we react towards our loved ones when they're gone, and say that we make them inhuman or perfect — but then, there is the argument to be made that suddenly we see things for real for the first time.

You also write about the process of becoming a parent and how that's changed you. The first line of the song "The Mother" goes, "Welcome to the end of being alone inside your mind."

[Laughs] It's so true, man. Curse it.

Why? Because she's always in there with you, your daughter?

Yeah. A woman called Trina Shoemaker, who engineered Bear Creek and The Firewatcher's Daughter — good friend of mine, really mystical crazy person — she told me when the baby was born, "Welcome to the end of being alone inside your mind. You'll never be alone in there again; there'll never be a day where you don't wake up wondering what Evangeline needs. Not when she's 50." And boy, is that the truth.

How old is Evangeline now?

She's going to be 4 in June. She's a little Gemini baby, like me.

And what's her reaction to that song when you play it for her?

She knows it's about her; she loves it. But any of the bad stuff, she doesn't associate to her. She asks me things like, "Mama, who is the lady in the song that trashed your car?" I'm like, you are the lady in the song that trashed my damn car.

You took to social media recently and asked people to share stories of people they forgive, or wish they could forgive. And you told a story of your own about a pastor, Pastor Tim. Would you share it with us?

Yeah. That whole campaign, by the way, shook me to the core, seeing the things that people are forgiving people for. I stopped reading it when I got to when that woman forgave someone that ran over her 7-year-old little girl. Forgiveness is so radical and so filthy, and it gets made out to be such a casual concept, when really it might be one of the deepest things that we do as humans — to forgive for real deep hurts.

The one that you're talking about is a specific hurt to only me, but: I was young, and I was part of the church community in my small town. I had committed myself to baptism, and the pastor let me go through the process — you know, there's kind of a process part of getting baptized.

Right — you have to meet with the pastor, do some Bible study.

Yeah, and then your family and your friends come and they sit in the church and wait. And it's after hours — it's not on a church day — and you get dunked in the water, which I was always nervous about. I just remember walking to the church with my bathing suit on under my clothes, and getting there and seeing all my family in the seats ... and then, Pastor Tim telling me that he couldn't do it. But waiting until all that had happened.

That he couldn't do it why?

He couldn't do it because I was gay, and because I wouldn't say that I was going to change that or that I could change that.

And how old were you?

15.

And he waited until you had your whole family and your friends and everybody there expecting this event to happen?

He did. He called me for days and days afterwards begging for my forgiveness. He said that he struggled with it for so long that he just ran out of time, that he thought he was going to do it right up until the time, but he just couldn't. It took me a long time to forgive him and it threatened my faith; it threatened my self-worth. So I was like, "Well, if I'm asking other people to do it, I'm going to do it." So I did it and I felt weird about it, and I still feel weird about it, to be honest with you.

Had you forgiven him right up to that moment where you started to go public and tell the story?

I think I thought I had. But there is a publicness, actually, that almost has to take part in the forgiveness thing. It's not a neoliberal, disenfranchised thing that you can do by yourself quietly in a room. I think you really have to do it, and it feels weird.

The first track released from the album, "The Joke," has a moment where you talk to a little girl and say, "You get discouraged, don't you, girl? It's your brother's world for a while longer." How come?

Oh, you know, the marches and the protests that I was part of last fall and winter, seeing the little girls with all their Hillary Clinton swag and all their belief that in their time they were going to see a woman have the audacity to lead something like the United States of America. And then seeing that defeatist look in their eyes and all of the messaging after the fact was heartbreaking.

Is there a political message that runs throughout this work, or is this more your coming to terms with the struggles you've got going on in your own life?

It certainly is throughout the whole thing. But I think that people are feeling politics more personally than they've ever felt them before. And it's not just because of the sensationalism or because of the exposure those things are getting — I think in America our politics are particularly personal. We tend to spend a little bit more time on social issues than other people do, and we have a long way to go in terms of social justice. So when I sing about politics, it's intertwined with my marriage, which couldn't have happened just a number of years ago.

You're married to a woman and that wouldn't have been legal a generation ago.

And my child wouldn't exist if not for the changes that we've seen politically in our landscape. So for me, politics get really personal, and it's certainly worth singing about.

In the liner notes for this album, most of the songs have long pieces of writing attached to them — paragraph after paragraph. For the song "Hold Out Your Hand," you have one sentence: "Sometimes when the weight of the world feels too much, I want to dance with a redneck and shotgun a beer."

It's true.

I envy you with this song, because when I get to that place where the weight of the world feels like too much, I'm stuck shotgunning a beer. You get to belt out a song like this one. It must be liberating to sing that way.

Oh yeah, it really is. I love people so much, you know? I love people that don't think the same way I think, and I do want to hold out my hand and be joined to other people that are different than me, at the end of the day. ... I'll probably shotgun a beer with you, though, sometime.

You've said your philosophy for a long time had been to save everything dramatic and traumatic for when you're live, not when you're in the studio recording. You threw that away with this album: There is drama and trauma and everything else going on here. What changed?

Well, [producer] Dave Cobb just wasn't having that. He wanted to challenge my belief that there is a way to do things live and a way to do things when you're making a record. And it's hard to challenge your beliefs when you're a little ways into making records, but Dave believes that if there's something that you would do live — if there's a chance or a risk that you would take — that you should do it in the studio more than anywhere, because it's a document of what you would really spontaneously do, instead of this kind of perfect, contrived, packaged version.

It really changed the way I would do things. [Until now], I finished a record and then it's time for rehearsals, and like the first thing I do is go, "OK, how can we change everything?" "Now we can do double that guitar solo." "Come on, let's do an outro." "You know what, I'm not going to sing this chorus — I'm gonna scream it, because it's live." And Dave was just offended by the concept that I would wait until after doing something so permanent to take those risks. On this record, you will hear me screaming and hollering at the top of my lungs. Four-minute outros. We cut our first fade on this record, where we actually don't ever stop playing ... and it made me feel like Elton John. It's deep and it's about filthy, ugly, difficult radical forgiveness, but it's also fun. It was really fun.

Web intern Stefanie Fernández contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUGARTOOTH")

BRANDI CARLILE: (Singing) He wasn't really known for breaking the rules when he arrived in the second year of my high school. He wasn't so...

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The singer Brandi Carlile has a big voice. And at age 36, she has already enjoyed a big career. She's topped folk charts, earned Grammy nominations, smashed Nashville stereotypes. Now Carlile has other things on her mind.

CARLILE: (Reading) Whoever's reading this, your parents will die. You may have been hurt or loved by them - probably both. But can you forgive them for leaving in the end?

KELLY: That passage is from the liner notes of Brandi Carlile's new album, which is called, appropriately, "By The Way, I Forgive You." And she joins me now from our New York bureau. Welcome.

CARLILE: Thank you very much for having me. Wow, what an honor.

KELLY: It's a pleasure to have you. Let me start with that topic of forgiveness. It's such a big thing to tackle. What made you decide to take it on?

CARLILE: Well, it kind of appeared out of my record and my writing process like a sculpture would appear when you take the pieces of stone away that don't belong. It's really radical and ugly, difficult process that comes - great beauty comes from it.

KELLY: And you write about it specifically in regard to your parents in one of the songs on here. This is the song "Most Of All."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOST OF ALL")

CARLILE: (Singing) I haven't seen my father in some time, but his face is always staring back at me. His heavy hands hang at the ends of my arms, and my colors change like the sea.

I watched both my parents lose their mothers last year, and it was really interesting because throughout the process of growing up - my parents had me when they were real young, and I listened to all of their grievances and gripes about their mamas. And as soon as those women were gone, it was like all memory of any of that was immediately - had just evaporated. There are people that could criticize the way that we react towards our loved ones when they're gone and say that we make them inhuman or perfect, but then there is, you know, the argument to be made that suddenly we see things for real for the first time.

KELLY: Or you let yourself forget, which is a line I loved in this song where you're writing about, you know, maybe forgetting is the first step to forgiving.

CARLILE: Yeah, maybe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOST OF ALL")

CARLILE: (Singing) But most of all, he taught me to forgive, how to keep a cool head, how to love the one you're with and, when I'm far into the distance and the pushing comes to shove, to remember what comes back when you give away your love. Give away your love.

KELLY: You write about the process of becoming a mother and how that changed you. It's another song called "The Mother" on here. Let me - I wonder if we can hear a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MOTHER")

CARLILE: (Singing) Welcome to the end of being alone inside your mind. You're tethered to another, and you're worried all the time. You always know the melody, but you never heard it rhyme.

KELLY: That very first line there, welcome to the end of being alone inside your mind...

CARLILE: (Laughter) It's so true, man. Curse it.

KELLY: Why, 'cause she's always in there with you, your daughter?

CARLILE: Yeah. It was actually - a really interesting woman called Trina Shoemaker, a good friend of mine, really mystical, crazy person - she told me when the baby was born 'cause I finished that record, like, 72 hours before the birth of Evangeline, and...

KELLY: Oh, my goodness, yeah.

CARLILE: Yeah. And she said to me - she goes, welcome to the end of being alone inside your mind. You'll never be alone in there again. There'll never be a day where you don't wake up wondering what Evangeline needs - not when she's 50. And boy is that the truth.

KELLY: It is. How old is Evangeline now?

CARLILE: She's going to be 4.

KELLY: What's her reaction to that song when you play it for her?

CARLILE: She knows it's about her. She loves it. But any of the bad stuff she doesn't associate to her. She asks me things like, mama, who was the lady in the song that trashed your car?

KELLY: (Laughter).

CARLILE: I'm like, you are the lady in the song that trashed my damn car.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Who's thrown Cheerios into every receptacle of my life.

CARLILE: Oh, yes, just somehow you're just sticky. I don't know why.

KELLY: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MOTHER")

CARLILE: (Singing) They can keep their treasure and their ties to the machine 'cause I am the mother of Evangeline.

KELLY: I want to ask you about a different story. You took to social media recently and asked people to share stories of people they forgive or wish they could forgive. And you told a story of your own about a pastor.

CARLILE: Yeah, that's true.

KELLY: Would you share it with us?

CARLILE: That whole campaign is - by the way, shook me to the core, seeing the people - things that people are forgiving people for. I stopped reading it when I got to one that - woman forgave someone that ran over her 7-year-old little girl. And the one that you're talking about, you know, is a specific hurt to only me. But I was young, and I was in a Baptist church - a pretty good one. I had committed myself to Baptism. And the pastor let me go through the process. You know, there's kind of a process prior to getting baptized where you have to do a lot commitments and...

KELLY: Right. You have to meet with the pastor and...

CARLILE: Yeah, and then you get, you know...

KELLY: ...Do some bible study.

CARLILE: Right, and then your family and your friends come, and they sit in the church. And they wait. And it's, like, after hours. It's not on a church day. And you get, you know, dunked in the water (laughter), which I was always nervous about. And I just remember walking to the church with my bathing suit on under my clothes and Pastor Tim telling me that he couldn't do it.

KELLY: That he couldn't do it why?

CARLILE: He couldn't do it because I was gay and because I wouldn't say that I wasn't going to change that or that I could change that. And...

KELLY: And how old were you?

CARLILE: Fifteen.

KELLY: And he waited till you had your whole family and your friends and everybody there?

CARLILE: He did, yeah. He called me for days and days afterwards begging for my forgiveness and said that he just struggled with it for so long that he just ran out of time and that he thought he was going to do it right up until the time but that he just couldn't. And it took me a long time to forgive him. And it threatened my faith and my self-worth. So I was like, well, if I'm asking other people to do it, I'm going to do it (laughter). So I did it, and it feels weird, and it feels weird right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD OUT YOUR HAND")

CARLILE: (Singing) I run a lot of miles of life and crime of mountain climbs and quitting times, packing that load of lying rhymes and tired jokes and wooden dimes. I've been everybody's friend, everybody's friend.

KELLY: I want to ask about the song "Hold Out Your Hand." You write about all - you have a big, long note when you write about a lot of the songs on this album paragraph after paragraph. For the song "Hold Out Your Hand," you have one sentence you write, and I'm going to quote it to you. You write, sometimes when the weight of the world feels too much, I want to dance with a redneck and shotgun a beer. And I have to say, I read that, and I wrote down in my own handwriting, hell yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD OUT YOUR HAND")

CARLILE: (Singing) Hold out your hand. Take hold of mine now. Round and round we go.

Oh, yeah. I love people so much, you know? I love people that don't think the same way I think. And I do want to hold out my hand and be joined to other people that are different than me at the end of the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD OUT YOUR HAND")

CARLILE: (Singing) The hand comes around, and the trumpet sounds. And his number calls. And the moment he falls in the haunted halls of man, he will understand. He will comprehend. He will not pretend. He will not pretend

KELLY: Thank you so much, Brandi.

CARLILE: Thank you so much. What a great chat.

KELLY: That was the singer Brandi Carlile talking about her new album, which is titled "By The Way, I Forgive You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD OUT YOUR HAND")

CARLILE: (Singing) ...As you can take. The devil don't take a break. That devil don't take a break. The devil don't take a break. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.