Singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile is headlining a sold-out show at Thompson’s Point with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on Saturday. Carlile released “By the Way, I Forgive You” in February. It’s her sixth studio album (she also has a live one) and is by far the biggest one of her career. It debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s current albums chart, rock albums and Americana/folk Albums charts and No. 5 on the Billboard 200 chart. The album was recorded at Nashville’s historic Studio A and was co-produced by Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell) and musician Shooter Jennings. String arrangements were done by the late Paul Buckmaster who worked with Elton John, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Carly Simon and many others. The songs on “By The Way, I Forgive You” were written by Carlile and her longtime collaborators and bandmates, twin brothers Phil Hanseroth (bass, vocals) and Tim Hanseroth (guitar, vocals).
“By The Way I Forgive You” is the latest example of arresting lyricism and stellar musicianship. On this album more than any others, Carlile’s vocals can send even someone wearing cement boots into orbit. Its 11 tracks include the gorgeous heartbreaker “Every Time I Hear That Song,” the spirited “Hold Out Your Hand,” the poignant “Whatever You Do” and the tear-jerking “Party Of One.” The song, however, that’s the heart and soul of “By The Way, I Forgive You” is the single that was released in November. “The Joke” is huge, sweeping, anthemic and almighty. With strings like a cascade of shooting stars and vocals the likes of which I’ve never heard from Carlile, the song is a masterpiece with lines like “Let ’em live while they can/Let ’em spin, let ’em scatter in the wind/I have been to the movies, I’ve seen how it ends/And the joke’s on them.” It was written after the 2016 election and Carlile told National Public Radio, “There are so many people feeling misrepresented, so many people feeling unloved. The song is just for the people that feel under-represented, unloved or illegal.” My musician friend Ryan Dolan told me that he thinks the song is the new “Life on Mars” (David Bowie) with the orchestra, glorious vocals and message. He’ll get no argument from me.
Like many Carlile fans, I first heard her in 2007 when her second album, “The Story” was released. It was love at first listen, and I’ve followed her career closely and savored each album release. I’ve also seen Carlile live more than most other acts I love. The appeal of these shows isn’t hard to explain. Carlile and her band put on earth-shaking, soul-splitting performances and serve up album tracks along with some of the best chosen covers one could ever hope to hear. I have no doubt that the show at Thompson’s Point will be a memorable one, especially with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit as the co-headliner.
I spoke with Carlile via telephone from her home in Washington state just as she and the band were about to get back on the road for a massive summer tour. Right out of the gate, I asked what it feels like to have an album out that is getting such a tremendous response and has led to appearances this year on “The Howard Stern Show,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” Carlile said it feels amazing and also weird that it’s happening on her seventh album.
“Everything in my career has been a little bit atypical, and I’ve really been proud of it. So I guess it makes sense that this would be that way too that I would make a record that would gain recognition at this level this late in my career is really kind of an honor.” As for appearing on “Ellen,” Carlile said that was a dream come true. “I came out of the closet when I was 14 and that was right in that 1997 window when Ellen DeGeneres had such a big influence on the world and how media and advertisers and families were seeing LBGTQ people assimilating into all of these different chapters. She created a lot of conversations in my household. She was enormously influential to me and to get to meet her, it was pretty special.”
As for the making of “By The Way, I Forgive You,” working with Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings is something Carlile hopes to repeat. “I want that spontaneity again with those two and so do the twins. Me and the twins have fully integrated with those two as creatives in a way that has taught us a lot. I’m 37 and they’re 42, so like I said, seven albums in, just to still be learning, you can’t really ask for much more than that.”
When “The Joke” was released last fall, the positive, swooning response to it was swift, and I wondered if Carlile had an inkling that it would resonate so much. “I kinda did. I’ve been around enough to know, and I’ve seen fans and people react enough to a sentiment to know that this was something they’re already saying, I just got the honor of being able to elevate it into a song. People were already talking about these things in this way, and I knew that I would be able to find joy in being an interpreter of it.”
The video for “Hold Out Your Hand” was intentionally released on June 1 to coincide with National Gun Awareness Day. The clip was created in partnership with The Alliance for Gun Responsibility, The IF Project and TinFish Films. It was filmed during Seattle’s March For Our Lives on March 24 where Carlile both performed and participated. I asked Carlile if she had been subjected to any backlash from those on the opposite side of the gun issue and Carlile said it’s clear where she stands politically and that, in her life as an activist, she has two motivations. One of these it to depoliticize and de-objectify children by addressing the issue of the free movement of displaced peoples, including asylum-seekers, economic migrants or refugees. “To depoliticize those people and the children of those people is my objective and foremost in life,” she said.
Carlile’s second objective is to remove the perceived partitions between people that cause them to believe they can’t work together. “I think there are forces at work to prevent, specifically Americans, from seeing things outside of the two-party system because the powers that be, in a corporate sense, benefit too much financially from those divisions. If I can seek to do both of those things and I can find my way around the hard edges of some of these sensationalized issues like water, I can talk about guns with hunters, and I can talk about all different kinds of things.”
“Sugartooth” is another song I singled out. The song is about addiction with these lyrics: “Looking to help for the something sweet to make his life feel less incomplete/What in the hell are you gonna do when the world has made its mind up about you?” Carlile said that this song is the one she’s heard from people about the most. “You can’t even articulate how these people died kind of namelessly because they get kind of surmised as just a junkie when the steps that led them to that place, I don’t want to say are avoidable or preventable or politicize the concept, but the line that says, ‘He only took the pills when the doctor told him,’ is something that I think is an important line in that song.”
There was time for one final question and I knew what it had to be. I asked Carlile what it feels like when she’s on stage and sees someone in the audience having an emotional reaction to a song. “That’s the goal for me to try to achieve that level of experience. When it happens to me, and I’m the one on the other side of that it’s always a really good thing.”
7 p.m. Saturday, July 21. Thompson’s Point, Portland. $46 in advance, $50 day of show (SOLD OUT). statetheatreportland.com.