[ Read an excerpt from “Broken Horses.” ]
The eldest of three siblings, Carlile was born to a 20-year-old hotel hostess mom and a 21-year-old prep cook dad. Her 1980s childhood was shaped by poverty, wild and domestic animals, frequent moves within Washington, her father’s alcoholism, and her mother’s nascent singing career, which soon included Carlile and her younger sister and brother.
From the age of 8 or 9 Carlile was performing in bars and at the Northwest Grand Ole Opry and finding that, though she often felt like a sensitive misfit in life, she was powerfully at home onstage. An early Elton John devotee, Carlile once entered a contest decked out like her idol: “I had seen a man’s white polyester suit at the Catholic church’s clothing mission where our family got a lot of our clothes. I had seen footage of him performing ‘Honky Cat’ in a white suit with glitter shoes and feather glasses and I decided THAT was going to be my act.” Though other girls in the competition favored a beauty pageant aesthetic, Carlile’s mother bedazzled and hot-glued the outfit her daughter had requested. In the short term, Carlile lost the contest; in the long term, she became close friends with Elton John.
Such satisfactions were still years away, however, and by the time she was 16, Carlile was both out of the closet and a high school dropout; a longed-for baptism went awry when the pastor asked her at the last minute to repent for practicing “homosexuality.” It’s a testament to Carlile’s comfort with contradictions and complexity that, to this day, she remains religious.
After Carlile connected with the Hanseroth twins in 1999, their combined talent, swagger and persistence found an ever-growing audience. One of the thought-provoking aspects of the book is the news (to me) that the name “Brandi Carlile” has become a synecdoche for all three of them, and that the Hanseroths wrote most of the megahit song “The Story,” as well as part or all of many other “Brandi Carlile” songs. “I haven’t been Brandi Carlile since 1999,” Carlile writes, “but that is to say that I’ve really been Brandi Carlile since 1999. Are you confused? So am I.”
That I finished reading without a clear sense of the personalities of either Hanseroth brother could reflect Carlile’s deference to their privacy or a blurring between their identities and hers. In a remarkable photo, they huddle in the cold looking as much like one being as three people can. Even more amazingly, all of their families live on the same property (Phil is married to Carlile’s sister), where for fun the bandmates ride A.T.V.s and clear trails.