Brandi Carlile talks new memoir, LGBTQ parenting and her ‘gay pen-pal father figure’ Elton John

When Brandi Carlile was in junior high, she performed Elton John’s “Honky Cat” in a local singing contest. She wore a thrifted white polyester suit with drugstore boat shoes and pipe cleaner glasses that her mom bedazzled herself. 

She lost the competition but ultimately had the last laugh: The six-time Grammy winner now considers John one of her good friends and mentors. He first reached out in 2007 to say he’s a fan, and soon became her “gay pen-pal father figure,” Carlile writes in her new memoir “Broken Horses.”

“It’s weird, he barely knew me, but I felt so compelled to tell him everything,” Carlile tells USA TODAY with a laugh. “I’d be like, ‘Elton! I got nominated for a Grammy!’ And he’d be like, ‘Great honor! Love you!’ “

Brandi Carlile is opening up about her life and career in her new memoir, "Broken Horses." (Photo: Austin Hargrave / AUGUST)

“Broken Horses,out Tuesday, traces Carlile’s impoverished childhood in rural Washington singing country songs and playing music with her family. She describes coming out as gay at age 15 – prompted by Ellen DeGeneres’ historic coming-out episode of “Ellen” in 1997 – and the intolerance she faced as a result. (Carlile’s pastor refused to baptize her and she was kicked out of a band.) 

The folk-country star and her wife of eight years, Catherine Shepherd, are now proud parents to two young daughters, Evangeline and Elijah. (Their biological father is Carlile’s childhood best friend, David.) Carlile, 39, recently caught up with USA TODAY from her home in Washington state, where she’s been fishing, hiking, gardening and writing during lockdown. 

Brandi Carlile is also a member of all-female country group The Highwomen, which she formed in 2016 with Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires. (Photo: Mike Lawrie, Getty Images)

Question: I love how you describe your coming out as a series of “awkward and uncomfortable emergences,” because that’s exactly what mine was, too. What surprised you most about the experience?  

Brandi Carlile: That the older people in my life accepted it so much more readily than even people my age. My great-grandma Carlile was 91 when I came out. She was a stringent Southern Baptist woman who used to send us Scripture in the mail. In my very early 20s, I got a dobro (guitar) in the mail that belonged to my great-grandfather and all these clippings of local newspapers that had been covering me. She was so proud to see the Carlile name in there that she invited me to her assisted living facility (to visit). 

I remember she asked me, “Will you be bringing your husband, the policewoman?” (Carlile’s then-girlfriend was a police detective.) She didn’t know you could call someone “wife” if you’re a woman, so she wanted me to know she was OK with my “husband, the policewoman,” coming along. My grandparents were like that – there was just a different level of wisdom in their acceptance of me. It was less loaded, it wasn’t so radioactive. 

Brandi Carlile, left, and wife Catherine Shepherd pose with her awards at the 2019 Grammys. (Photo: Dan MacMedan, Dan MacMedan-USA TODAY NETWORK)

Q: You write about the frustration you and Catherine felt during her first pregnancy, after being boxed into traditional gendered parenting roles while attending birthing classes. How did you overcome those initial anxieties? 

Carlile: I didn’t talk about it at first because I was really embarrassed. I felt like I had been downgraded from mother to partner – or worse, to dad, which didn’t fit my gender identity. I realized we’re given dolls and indoctrinated at an (early) age. You start picturing yourself as a parent when you’re like 4. And all you have is this imagery that pop culture provides you, which has been so largely heteronormative for most of our lives. It doesn’t provide me a space to imagine myself in that (mom) role if I’m not pregnant. 

Cut to all the birthing classes, visits to the doctor, and even the marketing and things you have to buy – they’re all so focused on hetero norms that it can be really hard to find your way into (same-sex) parenting unless you get really imaginative and seek out representation. And that’s what we had to do in the end. Catherine had to admit she wasn’t really a fan of her body pregnant, and I had to admit I wasn’t a fan of the fact that I wasn’t pregnant. We took our marriage to a much deeper and important level after that. 

Q: Do you have any advice for new or aspiring parents in the LGBTQ community? 

Carlile: Try to replace your images of hetero domesticity with – hard to find, but available – images of families that look like the one you want to have. Once we got past being competitive and deciding who was having the harder time with the process, Catherine went home and found a birth coach who actually helps same-sex parents through the pregnancy process in a way that was so intuitive and cool. If you’re in the process of starting a family, I would really recommend not letting yourself be squeezed into templated parenting instructives and that you actually seek stuff out (that is LGBTQ-focused).  

Q: Your song “The Joke” (from 2018 album “By the Way, I Forgive You”) won two Grammys and has become a queer anthem. When did you first realize that song had really touched people? 

Carlile: I couldn’t get through it without crying for three months – it took me a long time to harden myself enough to be able to sing that song. But when the boy I wrote the beginning of that song about found out it was about him, his reaction was really the thing that mattered most to me. And I’m really proud of the young man that he’s been able to become. I don’t have my fingers on the pulse of the queer community all the time, but I watched that 12-year-old be helped by it and that’s when I knew it was going to help other people.

Q: What do you remember about performing it for Joni Mitchell at the Clive Davis pre-Grammys gala in 2019? 

Carlile: Well, I nailed it that night but she didn’t say (expletive). She just made fun of my jacket and that’s exactly what you would want Joni to do, you know? But she one time told me that “The Joke” is a really good song, and when Joni Mitchell tells you you had a really good song, you basically just do backflips in your mind.

Q: Along with your book, you also wrote your next album during lockdown. What can you share about the new music? 

Carlile: The new music is a level of drama I haven’t taken it to before, and it’s because of the book. The book just gave me permission, I was like, “Oh, it’s all out there.” It made me write things I wouldn’t have written, but it also just gave me this key to some room in myself that was locked up. So the vocals are over the top. 

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