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Out100 Icon Brandi Carlile Is the Voice of LGBTQ+ Hope and Healing

Out100 Icon Brandi Carlile Is the Voice of LGBTQ+ Hope and Healing
Luke Fontana

Be it on the Barbie soundtrack or the Grammy stage, Brandi Carlile uses her voice to provide hope and healing in hard times.

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Peak summer was fading into fall, but Brandi Carlile gave no indication that 2023’s heady months of post-pandemic concerts were over.

In early September, the multiple Grammy winner performed at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. There, she and her wife, Catherine Shepherd, wowed with their churned-down version of the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine,” hot off the Barbie soundtrack. A few days later, she joined a friend, fellow Washingtonian and country musician Brandy Clark (“the two gay Brandys”), at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles for a performance supporting Clark’s eponymous album that Carlile produced.

Carlile traversed the country this year with live performances, several at stadiums with Pink. And she kicked off Pride Month with a history-making three-day festival at Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington State. It was a display of musicianship and sisterhood, where she acted as host for her friend Joni Mitchell — it was the “Big Yellow Taxi” singer’s first ticketed performance in more than 20 years.

Before the world went sideways in 2020, Carlile performed a soaring rendition of her Grammy-winning song “The Joke” at the 2019 Grammy Awards. Since that career tipping point — she recorded her first studio album in 2005 — Carlile’s reach has been boundless. She thinks Pink is the “hardest working woman in show business.” But Carlile is also tireless. She’s a wife to Shepherd and a mom to their daughters, Evangeline and Elijah. She’s a performer, collaborator, producer, cofounder of the Looking Out Foundation nonprofit and XOBC Wine Cellars, and author of the memoir Broken Horses. She even has a hobby of finish carpentry.

Brandi CarlileBELLA FREUD Black Satin Chrissie Waistcoat; Black Cavalry Twill David Trouser; ANOTHER TOMORROW Black Men’s Shirt anothertomorrow.coLuke Fontana

Carlile calls herself a “witness” when she’s onstage looking out at collective joy and sometimes grief — like her concerts at L.A.’s Greek Theatre after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022. In those instances, many view her as someone to provide hope, healing, and an acknowledgment of dark times.

“Stay gentle, keep the eyes of a child. Don’t harden your heart or your hands. Know to find joy in the darkness is wise. Although they will think you don’t understand,” Carlile sings in “Stay Gentle.” She closed her Greek concerts with that tune before singing “Over the Rainbow,” the stage alight in Pride colors. The lyrics, sweet joy, social justice undertones, and queerness in that moment are pure Carlile.

“You read the room. They know what they want to hear. They know what they came for,” Carlile says of her audience. “I am a polarizing artist, just by virtue of the fact that I’m queer. And then I’m a woman. And I’m living in these times raising women. My audience is a bit of a bubble to me at times.”

“Because there are so few performers to concert attendee ratio, I’m one of the few people that gets to witness the audience. And I wonder if those 10,000 people know what they look like and what their energy feels like in those moments,” she says. “I wouldn’t say it’s easy, but you feel led to say the right thing by the energy that’s being hurled at you by that congregation, [the] people.”

Brandi CarlileBELLA FREUD Prince of Wales Check Bianca Jacket; Prince of Wales Check Chrissie Waistcoat; Prince of Wales Check Bianca Jacket; Prince of Wales Check Bowie Trouser; CELINE Thin Scarf Biscotto Silk Charmeuse Brown celine.comLuke Fontana

Between the Red Rocks show and her talk with Clark, Carlile paused for a one-hour photo shoot in an intimate West Hollywood space. The multi-Grammy winner poses in a black shirt, tying its poet’s bow with a playful grin. For other shots, she wears a more traditional tux. In a gray suit with a vintage vibe, she appears introspective, as she does artistically in a song like “Right on Time” from In These Silent Days.

In public appearances, Carlile is renowned for her sartorial flair — like the red crushed-velvet tux she sported to honor Mitchell with “River” at 2021’s Kennedy Center Honors. There’s easy freedom to Carlile in a bespoke suit, wielding her guitar while she flips her hair during a rock anthem like “Broken Horses,” a song that added two more Grammys to her growing collection this year. The suits are an innate piece of her unabashed queerness, an exhilarating and affirming beacon that opens doors for others.

As the suits project authenticity, so too do the “crinkles” around her eyes that she doesn’t want retouched. Age is a topic Carlile mentions a few times in conversation. She credits Mitchell with helping to change her outlook on it.“All of her emergences over the past five-plus years have just been like witnessing miracles over and over and over again,” Carlile says of Mitchell. “It’s amazing because it makes me really less afraid to age.”Early in her career, Carlile occasionally slept on the Indigo Girls’ bus for the pleasure of performing with her heroes. Now she sings with those who inspire her regularly — like Elton John, “my greatest hero of all time,” at Dodger Stadium during his farewell tour in 2022.

Carlile has a huge picture of John’s iconic 1975 performance at Dodger Stadium. “It’s a piece of memorabilia that I was always going to cherish whether I ever got to be part of any reprise. But the fact that he did it again, and then I got to sing ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’ is just fucking surreal.”

“My heart was audibly pounding,” she recalls of the experience. “It felt like it was pounding everywhere — my throat, my ears, and my hands.” But Carlile thrives in those moments. In 2022 she recorded the concert In the Canyon Haze — Live From Laurel Canyon in a long take atop Los Angeles’s famed music hotbed that once housed Mitchell, Carole King, Mama Cass, and James Taylor.

“So many things could have gone wrong. And that razor’s edge is right where I love to be when I’m making music and performing,” she says. “It’s so probably unhealthy for me. I don’t know how long of a life I’ll have. What I love to do is when everything could go to total shit and be completely cataclysmic. That’s when I think the best, most permanent music gets made.”

At the Gorge, she became a conduit for generations of musicians and their fans to commune. Sarah McLachlan and Annie Lennox took the stage with artists like Allison Russell, Celisse, Lucius, and Marcus Mumford. On the final night, Carlile performed with the Highwomen, the supergroup she cofounded that includes Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby, and Amanda Shires. Country legend Tanya Tucker — whose album While I’m Livin’ Carlile produced — joined them onstage. All were part of Carlile’s musical chosen family, along with longtime collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth. And then there’s Mitchell, who triumphantly returned to the Newport Folk Festival in summer 2022 after recovering from an aneurysm that had initially left her unable to sing or play. Carlile was at her side for Newport and the Gorge.

Brandi CarlileBELLA FREUD Black Satin Chrissie Waistcoat; Black Cavalry Twill David Trouser; ANOTHER TOMORROW White Men’s Shirt anothertomorrow.coLuke Fontana

“To just watch this person with all this reverence and determination and grace overcome the things that she’s overcome…. I’m a lucky person that I got to witness that from the passenger seat,” says Carlile.

“I’m watching it knowing I’m collecting these moments, collecting these memories. And then even sometimes feeling probably like the closest thing I’ve had to a boss is Joni Mitchell,” says Carlile, adding that she chuckles when she’s given credit for Mitchell’s return to the stage. “I’m like, Oh, they don’t know Joni Mitchell. I’m definitely the Robin to her Batman.

There’s a YouTube video a fan recorded of Carlile at the Gorge introducing surprise guest Lennox to sing her ’90s hit “Why.” The crowd goes wild as Lennox appears and Carlile bows in the presence of greatness. Carlile’s ability to rock the hell out of a suit owes some debt to Lennox. Queer women of a certain era were inspired by Lennox’s cropped red hair and suit in the “Sweet Dreams” Eurythmics video. Of the nearly eight-minute performance of “Why” at the Gorge, Carlile says, “[Lennox] starts preaching and she starts thinking about the contents of her head [a line in the song], and she’s pointing at the ground and everybody in the crowd was just screaming like it was the Beatles.”

“That was a super sapphic iconic moment for me for sure,” she adds.

“We know who these women are. Younger people even know who these women are, whether they know it or not. They know Joni through Lana Del Rey, and we’re hearing Joni’s music permeate the culture through younger people,” Carlile says. “Being one of the people that’s been allowed to hold a flashlight on that and say, ‘Hey, this is where this came from,’ has been a pretty exciting thing for me.”

This summer, women like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift blew the doors off concert venues. Carlile was a part of another boon for women when she sang “Closer to Fine” with Shepherd for Greta Gerwig’s Barbie soundtrack. Out of reverence for Indigo Girls’ Emily Saliers (who wrote “Closer to Fine”) and Amy Ray, she did her due diligence before joining the Barbie bandwagon.

“When I first heard about it, I was defensive and protective of the Indigo Girls because I hadn’t seen the placement yet. And I’m so annoyed with how culturally they’ve been parodied at times. I don’t like it,” she says. “I think they’re brilliant contributors to pop culture and should be totally revered. So I was concerned about how a movie called Barbie was going to integrate ‘Closer to Fine’ in a respectful way.”

Not only was Carlile impressed with how “the greatest song for seekers” was woven into the film, but she shares her adoration for Barbie’s director. “I love the film. I love Greta as well. I think she did a great job. Thanks. I have a crush on her. She gives me gay vibes, right, Cath?” Carlile asks her wife, who’s in the room with her. Shepherd agrees before Carlile mentions Gerwig’s jumpsuits as part of that gay vibe.

With all her accomplishments, Carlile has yet to write a Broadway musical, unlike her friend Clark, whose musical Shucked was nominated for nine Tony Awards. But Carlile has a deeply queer remedy to that. “I was talking recently with some people wanting to turn Fried Green Tomatoes into a musical. Which I think is such a good idea. And if they do that, then I’m their girl. I would do the music,” Carlile says nonchalantly. “Can you imagine the lesbians actually trying to survive that?”

Carlile has performed with so many of the greats over the years. Who does she dream of singing with next? She mentions Paul McCartney and U2 as candidates, as well as k.d. lang, whom she dreamt of singing with since her youth. “When you listen to my voice, you can’t not hear the influence that k.d. had on my voice.”

And then it hits her. “Tracy Chapman,” Carlile declares of the elusive singer-songwriter whose song “The Promise” she’s performed with Shepherd at several shows. “We’ve got to hear from her again. I mean, I respect that she doesn’t want us to, but I’m gonna keep writing her letters. I write her at least one letter a year.”

For all her lesbian bon mots, Carlile also knows the LGBTQ+ community is in peril from right-wing legislation, including drag bans and queer erasure in schools. Being a visible LGBTQ+ figure in this period “feels like a proud responsibility,” she notes, “now maybe tinged with a little more fear than I had early on in my life and career.”

“I don’t know if it’s because of the incredible amount of toxicity right now in the zeitgeist about LGBTQIA people or it’s just because I have kids. But I feel nervous — not nervous enough to keep my mouth shut, but nervous enough to point it out so that I could incite a mixture of empathy and common sense with the people who are perpetuating it.”

Brandi CarlileBELLA FREUD Black Satin Bianca Jacket; Black Satin Chrissie Waistcoat; Black Cavalry Twill David Trouser; ANOTHER TOMORROW White Men’s Shirt anothertomorrow.coLuke Fontana

But Carlile is also an action-taker. The Looking Out Foundation she started with her musical collaborators Phil and Tim Hanseroth in 2008, which Shepherd executive-directs, donates $2 of each concert ticket toward humanitarian causes. Her nonprofit is “funding resistance to those in every dark corner and shining light…showing up in places that are difficult to show up in, like Texas and Florida, and just being there and working there,” Carlile says. She adds that it is “raising money to combat the issues that are plaguing our people and our friends. The Looking Out Foundation, since my kids were born, has been focused not primarily on, but certainly consistently on the plight of displaced people, refugees and asylum seekers, economic migrants, anyone seeking out a better life for themselves would fall into that category for me equally.”

Even in the face of challenges, Carlile is an optimist. “We have a youth in this country who are trying to do away with a gender binary, which is so healthy. And I see that in so many ways — that defined gender roles are so unhealthy,” she says. “They’re so unhealthy to parents. They’re so unhealthy to people in domestic roles and people in work roles. They’re financially unhealthy. They’re physically unhealthy.”

“Watching young people try and destroy this age-old shackle is one of the most exciting things I’ll ever get to witness in my lifetime,” she says.

Carlile is also enacting change through a forthcoming book she wrote with Shepherd about modern queer parenting. “It’s maybe like one-third comedy, and one-third memoir, and one-third sort-of benevolent how-to,” Carlile explains.

“We really just felt so underprepared for parenting. As LGBTQI people we felt uncomfortable in our gender roles — in our preconceived notions. We realize that we don’t have even a casual documented history, like television commercials and movies, and just little micro glimpses of queer life. Those things are starting to emerge, but we wanted to add in a big way to the annals of LGBTQIA domestic history by writing this cool book.”

The book is part of a discussion that deserves more attention in the broader media: LGBTQ+ aging. Among Carlile and Shepherd’s friends are Olympic soccer superstar Abby Wambach and author Glennon Doyle. And during one visit at their house, Wambach asked her, “Do you think you’re going to live a long life?”

“That question really bothered me, because honestly, I don’t. And I always wondered why I felt that way or why I thought that I’m going to probably die young or something,” Carlile says. She replied to Wambach that she didn’t see a long life for herself, and Wambach shared that she didn’t either.

“The reason for that is because we don’t see any old dykes in pop culture. We don’t have a Golden Girls for lesbians,” Carlile says Wambach told her. “We don’t have representation of seeing old nonbinary, gender-ambiguous, androgynous people, women or men depicted in enough film, television, literary work, and pop culture for us to see ourselves as older. [There are] so many queer people walking around thinking that they’re not going to live a long life just because so much of who we think we are is absorbed through pop culture.”

“That really got me thinking, well, if I don’t think I’m going to get old, then how is, you know, a lesbian mother that didn’t carry the child going to feel like she can call herself a mother, how is a queer father going to understand or be able to accept and believe in his own paternity in this situation?” Carlile says. “I thought it’d be really fun to see a lot of queer people write about this…[and] create community.”

One thing is certain. At 42, Carlile is already an icon. And she and her music will shape culture and create community for a long time to come.

BELLA FREUD Prince of Wales Check Bianca Jacket; Prince of Wales Check Chrissie Waistcoat; Prince of Wales Check Bianca Jacket; Prince of Wales Check Bowie Trouser; CELINE Thin Scarf Biscotto Silk Charmeuse Brown celine.comLuke Fontana

photographer LUKE FONTANA @lukefontana
style director MARYAM MALAKPOUR @maryammalakpour for The Only Agency
style assistants LIV MCPHERSEN @oliviamcphersonnn and YURGA JUOZAPA @yurga_juozapa
make-up HINAKO NISHIGUCHI @nhinako_makeup for A-Frame Agency @aframe_agency
hair PAMELA NEAL @pamwiggy for Exclusive Artist @exclusiveartists using R+Co
videographer MIGUEL TORRES @angelflightmedia

This cover story is part of the Out November/December issue. The Out100 list will be released October 17 on and October 31 on newsstands. Support queer media and subscribe — or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.

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