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!’ “
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Brandi Carlile is opening up about her life and career in her new memoir, “Broken Horses.”
“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.
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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.
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.
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.