Brandi Carlile Has a 'More Intimate Relationship with God' Now Because She Had to 'Fight For It'

The singer-songwriter opens up to PEOPLE about reconciling her sexuality and her religion as a young teen

brandi carlile
Brandi Carlile. Photo: Dia Dipasupil/Getty

If there's one thing Brandi Carlile wants people to know about her story, it's that "extraordinary things can come from complicated beginnings."

In her new memoir, Broken Horses (out now), the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, 39, recounts just how complicated her early life in rural Washington was as she tried to reconcile her sexuality and her Baptist upbringing, among other struggles.

"I of course was told for most of my childhood by multiple sources that to be gay was a one-way ticket to hell," Carlile writes in her book. "Homosexuality and suicide were the 'unforgivables,' and I believed this wholeheartedly."

At watching the historic coming-out episode of Ellen DeGeneres' sitcom Ellen at age 15, Carlile came to terms with the fact that she was gay herself. It was "the beginning and the end of any confusion I was having around my sexuality," she writes in her book.

"I came out of the closet before I'd ever even met a gay person in real life," Carlile tells PEOPLE in this week's issue, on newsstands Friday. "I hadn't had anything close to a girlfriend, but I knew because I had representation in the larger culture. If you take Elton John and the Indigo Girls and the Philadelphia soundtrack and Ellen DeGeneres out of my adolescence, where would I even be?"

Carlile's idols in music and pop culture were her guiding lights during her adolescence, especially as she faced rejection from her church because of her sexuality.

After attending a week-long church camp as a teen, Carlile was set to be baptized in front of her family and friends. But then her pastor asked her before the big moment whether she "practiced homosexuality" — a question that sent her running.

"In the years following that event, I had physical reactions to sermons, Christians and people who would profess their faith in an outward way," she says. "If somebody said that they forgave me, or if somebody called themselves blessed, I would just get so tense. I'm just preparing for the rejection all the time."

"Any time something happens physically to your body around something that scares you or upsets you, it raises questions," she continues. "And when questions get raised for me in my mind, it pushes me closer to God."

Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile. Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Now, Carlile says she feels much "more rooted in my faith."

"I feel like I have a deeper spiritual understanding because I have to fight for it," she says. "It doesn't come easy to me. I don't fit the mold. And in that way, I feel lucky, like I have a more intimate relationship with God than I would if I had an easier time with acceptance around the basic tenets of my faith."

After her upsetting baptism experience, Carlile also gave herself "permission to leave the parts of [religion] that didn't serve me anymore."

"It pushed me towards rock and roll music and counter-culturalism in a big way," she says. "And the day it happened, I went home and I listened to 'Hallelujah' by Jeff Buckley and I departed. Music and art was a big safe space for me."

Though she's been out for nearly a quarter century, Carlile — who married her wife, Catherine Shepherd, in 2012 — still feels she has something to prove.

"I don't know if that comes from being in the closet as a kid, but I'm so averse to living a lie that I feel like I'm always needing to tell my truth," she says. "I'll read an interview or I'll see something about myself and think, 'God, that's not the whole story, though.' Everything in me just wants to demonstrate my humanness as much as I can."

"You kind of get up and you decide to come out of the closet every day for your whole life," she adds. "My whole life, I'll be coming out of the closet. I have been coming out of the closet as poor, coming out of the closet as a person of faith, coming out of the closet as a person with a temper, as a person that used to be extremely racially insensitive when I was young and as a person who just doesn't have it figured out yet."

By sharing her story in her new memoir, Carlile — who kicked off her Broken Horses virtual book tour on Tuesday — is hoping to help people feel "a little more comfortable in their own skin."

"We could all step into our awkwardness a little bit more and realize that life's not like the movies," she says. "Telling the whole truth means nothing to hide, lightens my load and I think that that helps other people inadvertently in more ways than I can really quantify."

For all the details on Brandi Carlile's struggles, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.

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