When Brandi Carlile reaches the stratospheric climax on her song “The Joke,” her voice does exactly what she intends: It cracks, nearly shattering into little jagged slivers. It’s raw and visceral and not always pretty.
“When my voice gets to a certain volume and pitch, it breaks apart,” Carlile said recently. “That last note is such a wild card, and I just have to accept it and ask everybody to overlook its vulnerability. I mean for it to be that crazy.”
Taken from the singer-songwriter’s latest album (“By the Way, I Forgive You”), “The Joke” is Carlile’s meditation on celebrating our differences and owning our struggles. It’s the rare aspirational pop song whose message doesn’t bludgeon you with cheap sentiment, instead unfurling through plainspoken vignettes.
It pricked up the ears of Grammy voters, who honored Carlile with six nominations for February’s awards ceremony, including in the top categories of song, record and album of the year.
Those nods took Carlile by utter surprise; she wasn’t even awake the morning they were announced and her publicist called with the good news. “I’m in total disbelief. It’s a very foreign feeling to me. I’m not used to this level of affirmation,” she told The Times on the phone later that day, still in her pajamas.
Carlile heads into the 61st Grammy Awards as the most nominated female artist this year, competing in categories with commercial heavyweights such as Drake, Cardi B, Kendrick Lamar and Lady Gaga.
Win or lose, her surprise nominations confirm what fans and fellow musicians have known for a long time: Brandi Carlile is a gale force well beyond the realm of Americana music. The industry — and worldwide spotlight — is simply catching up to her.
Since roaring out of the gate with her self-titled debut in 2005, her career has been a slow burn, giving her enough room to weave in and out of folk and country circles, devoted to music as much as activism. In place of Top 10 hits, her peers and influences have often championed her. To mark last year’s 10th anniversary of her debut, Dolly Parton, Adele and Pearl Jam were among the big names who recorded versions of that album’s songs.
Carlile, 37, was previously nominated for one Grammy, in 2015 for Americana album (“The Firewatcher’s Daughter”). What, then, does this new Grammy recognition mean to her more than a decade into her career?
“An acknowledgment from the Grammys means that the people I idolize are saying that I made something worthy. To me, that’s one of the most powerful things about it,” she said, adding that she had gotten three emails that nominations morning from Elton John, “my greatest hero of all time.”
“I’ve never really known what that feels like till now,” she said. “It means they probably always were pulling for me.”
Dave Cobb, one of Nashville’s studio sorcerers, co-produced “By the Way, I Forgive You” with Shooter Jennings. As gently as possible — which is to say not very — he told Carlile that he hadn’t been quite moved by her work since 2007’s “The Story.” That fired Carlile up, enough so that she went right to work on “The Joke.” Its lyrics and stark, accompanying video sketch the ache and isolation of feeling ostracized, particularly on the chorus:
Let 'em laugh while they can/ Let 'em spin, let 'em scatter in the wind/ I have been to the movies, I've seen how it ends/ And the joke's on them
“I hoped that song would strike a nerve the way it has,” Carlile said. “Part of who I am is that I have a need to be understood by people. I hoped that people would understand what I was saying in ‘The Joke.’”
The nominations cap an already impressive year for Carlile. You see and hear her singing briefly in “A Star Is Born.” In November she galvanized the crowds at the “Joni 75” birthday celebrations in honor of Joni Mitchell at L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, singing a tender duet of “A Case of You” with Kris Kristofferson, her celestial soprano the lace to his leather.
“Handmaid’s Tale” star Elisabeth Moss stars in the new video for her song “Party of One,” her heartbreaking account of a relationship on life support. (Carlile recently reworked it as a duet, too, trading verses with British pop-soul singer Sam Smith.)
“This is gonna sound Pollyanna of me, but by the time I was 8 years old, I always wanted to be famous,” Carlile said. “I’ve always approached my career with a sense of flamboyance. I don’t know if that’s because of my love for the Grand Ole Opry or my love for Elton John and Freddie Mercury.
“But this does feel like my moment,” she added. “And that’s saying something.”
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