The genre-defying artist is celebrating the acclaim for “the most revealing, painful and poignant thing I’ve ever done" — and wondering if she'll fit in at the Grammys in a wardrobe inspired by musical hero Elton John


By Nancy Kruh
February 01, 2019 05:20 PM
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Six Grammy categories are a lot to remember — even if you’re nominated in all of them — but Brandi Carlile effortlessly nails all six when she’s put to the test.

Album of the year, record of the year, song of the year, best Americana album, best American roots performance, and best American roots song.

They’re indelibly imprinted, says this year’s most nominated female artist, because “I can tell you with absolute honesty and authenticity that they all mean a lot to me.”

An Evening With Brandi Carlile
Credit: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage

In a list of nominations that refreshingly overflows with female artists, Carlile is the one who unexpectedly rose to the top. Now 37 years old, she’s been turning out critically acclaimed, genre-defying music and building a devoted fan base since her early twenties — all without attracting much Grammy love.

Carlile, for one, is grateful it’s taken so long. “I don’t know that I would’ve been ready,” she tells PEOPLE. “I feel like I’m ready to say and do responsible things. I feel like I’m ready to give a good performance and not get too nervous. And for that reason I’m really happy it almost wasn’t in my focus in my twenties, in my youth.”

Over the years, Grammy attention was so unthinkable, she says, that when a record exec texted her the news of her only other nomination, for best Americana album in 2015, she thought he’d made a mistake. She wrote back, certain that autofill had addressed his text to the wrong artist on the label.

I was totally unaware of the whole cycle of any of the awards shows,” she says, “because I just didn’t think that was a world I was ever going to be allowed into.”

2018 CMT Artists of the Year
Brandi Carlile
| Credit: Terry Wyatt/WireImage

Even more unthinkable? Where she is now, at the center of that world with three coveted all-genre nominations.

Carlile’s Firewatcher’s Daughter didn’t take home the prize in 2015 — she lost to Americana standard-bearer Jason Isbell — but that album gave way to the masterwork that’s now being so richly rewarded.

Carlile calls the 2018 album, By the Way, I Forgive You, “the most revealing, painful and poignant thing I’ve ever done to myself.” No doubt that assessment would stand with or without the nominations, but in Carlile’s mind, a Grammy nod conveys “massive, massive achievement.”

“People who say they don’t care are lying,” she says. “No kid sits in their bedroom learning how to play guitar and says, ‘I don’t want to give anybody my autograph’ or ‘I don’t care if I ever win a Grammy.’ You care.”

Having six nominations, including four for single “The Joke,” hardly dilutes that feeling. “It’s that times six now,” Carlile says. “I’m freaking out. I care — a lot.”

When Carlile imagines what it would be like to actually own one of those shiny statues, she thinks about not only the affirmation but also the opportunity: A Grammy, she knows, would elevate her already significant platform for activism, particularly for the plight of refugees.

That’s so much of her focus, in fact, that she’s startled when it’s pointed out to her the Grammys also are, well … a competition.

“Yeah, it’s true,” she says, chuckling at the realization.

She hasn’t thought about that?

“Until you said that, no.”

Oops. Sorry.

“No,” she says. “It’s good. I’m mulling it over for sure.”

In fact, if Carlile is known for anything, it’s her non-competitiveness. Her frequent Instagram posts and musical collaborations exude support for other artists, especially women; this weekend she is hosting “Girls Just Wanna,” an all-female-lineup festival at Riviera Maya, Mexico, featuring Maren Morris, KT Tunstall, Lucius, Ruby Amanfu and Shawn Colvin, among others.

Perhaps most significantly, that spirit extends to how she defines herself as a member of a trio rather than as a solo artist. From the beginning, identical twins Phil and Tim Hanseroth have flanked her, and “one of my biggest regrets,” she says, “is not having a name for this band and calling it my own name.”

The three have always divided everything equally; the Hanseroths share writing credit with Carlile on all 10 tracks of By the Way, I Forgive You. Carlile also plans for them to share the stage with her if a Grammy presenter calls her name.

“We’re big on equality and democracy and all that stuff,” she says. “We really want our kids to see that that works — to not have more than your neighbor, than your brother.”

Along with spouses and children, the threesome has grown to a dozen, which Carlile collectively calls “the Carliles” — “even though,” she notes, “they’re not all Carliles.” The family knot is tight, though: Phil Hanseroth is married to Carlile’s sister, Tiffany. Carlile and her wife, Catherine, have two daughters, Evangeline, 4, and Elijah, 10 months.

The entire gang will head off together from their Seattle-area homes to Los Angeles for a weekend of festivities before the Grammy ceremony on Feb. 10. Carlile is among the array of stars honoring Dolly Parton as the MusiCares Person of the Year on Feb. 8. (Parton appeared on Carlile’s 2017 tribute album Cover Stories, which benefited refugee children.)

2018 Americana Music Honors And Awards - Inside
Brandi Carlile
| Credit: Jason Davis/Getty

At the moment, Carlile confesses to a few pre-Grammy jitters, mostly centered on her wardrobe and whether “I can wear those clothes and still be me and fit in. If we’re honest, we’re all high school students at the end of the day.”

Her fashion sense, she explains, tends to take its inspiration from friend and musical hero Elton John, “which I guess,” she acknowledges, “is an odd thing for a 37-year-old woman to say.”

Carlile says she would be happy to receive any one of the six Grammys. If she leaves empty-handed, she says, she’ll take her satisfaction from the nominations. “If I have any fears at all, it’s just of letting anyone down,” she says. “I just don’t want to let anyone down.”

2018 MusiCares Person Of The Year Honoring Fleetwood Mac - Arrivals
Brandi Carlile
| Credit: Dia Dipasupil/Getty

Win or lose, the plans are for Carlile & Co. to all end up at Disneyland after the Grammy hoopla. The fact is, Carlile doesn’t like to go anywhere without her family.

Clearly, they are what keep her centered and grounded. In her song “The Mother,” she sings to her older daughter: “Oh, I’ll never hit the big time without you / so they can keep their treasure and their ties to the machine / ’Cause I am the mother of Evangeline.”

Lyrics like that can put the glamour of a Grammy in sharp perspective. And Carlile has two daughters who don’t let her forget the message, either.

“I realized that really early on,” she says. “We’d be on the tour bus, getting ready to go onstage … and my wife’s melting down with one of them, and there’s a s—ty diaper to be changed. You don’t get to think that you’re a rock star for very long when you’re changing a s—ty diaper right before you go onstage, you know. That’s real life. Those are real people. That’s what matters.”