The story of Brandi Carlile, who celebrates her birthday on June 1, is that of an artist who's always marched to the beat of her own drum -- and been rewarded for it.
A native of rural Washington state, Carlile hails from a long line of country singers, which explains why she found herself onstage at the age of eight singing Rosanne Cash’s version of “Tennessee Flat Top Box" alongside her mom and also gravitated toward the Indigo Girls as a teen. After meeting the Hanseroth twins, Phil and Tim, she found her creative foils, and her career began to take off.
Carlile's gold-certified second album, 2007's The Story, spawned the hit title track (which gained traction due to a placement on Grey's Anatomy), while subsequent full-lengths have cemented her status as an artist who effortlessly mixes influences from rock, folk, Americana, roots, blues and soul. This eclectic approach culminated with 2018's By the Way, I Forgive You, which was co-produced by Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings and affirmed Carlile's status as a singular, empathetic chronicler of the human experience.
By the Way, I Forgive You took home a Grammy for Best Americana Album, while its song "The Joke" nabbed statues for Best American Roots Song and Best American Roots Performance. For good measure, Carlile brought the house down with a performance of "The Joke" on the 2019 Grammy Awards telecast, which introduced her to even bigger audience.
Read on for The Boot's Top 10 Brandi Carlile songs:
"Every Time I Forgive You"From 2018's 'By the Way, I Forgive You'
The title of Carlile's 2018 full-length comes from the first song on the album, a moving rumination on forgiveness and gratitude, and what it means to still care about someone from your past. Swells of harmonies and gentle acoustic guitar riffs cushion wrenching lyrics, and amplify the impact of Carlile's careful kindness.
"Josephine"From 2007's 'The Story'
Carlile's Dolly Parton fandom is evident on the sparse folk song "Josephine." The aching tune emphasizes moving a cappella vocal harmonies, simple acoustic guitar and lyrics full of reminisces about a long-ago relationship that still haunts: "Now I'm standing alone and I'm trying to remember / Sometimes I wonder how I ever started loving you."
"Dreams"From 2009s 'Give Up the Ghost'
Carlile shows off her hollering pipes on this strident folk-punk barnburner. The urgency in her voice makes sense, however, as "Dreams" is a rumination on the disconnect between what you want and what you actually have. While this song could be about anything -- a relationship, a career goal, or simply your emotional equilibrium -- Carlile's optimism makes the frustration easier to take: "And now, in my dreams / I can feel the weight, I can just come clean."
"The Eye"From 2015's 'The Firewatcher's Daughter'
This stripped-down live favorite is about being good to yourself, even when things seem tough, and acknowledging that forgiving yourself can be the hardest thing of all. Carlile and the Hanseroths unfurl close harmonies that emphasize the intimacy of the song, and underscore that reaching out a hand can be a powerful thing: "I am a sturdy soul / And there ain't no shame / In lying down in the bed you made / Can you fight the urge to run for another day? / You might make it further if you learn to stay."
"Heart's Content"From 2012's 'Bear Creek'
"Heart's Content" is a playful ballad about misaligned expectations in relationships -- and how even the best-laid plans can go awry. "Maybe you thought I hung the moon / Maybe you thought we were Johnny and June / Maybe we thought / It was just us two," Carlile sings, before adding, "Maybe we spoke too soon." Playful piano and majestic strings add classical grandeur and whimsy, as Carlile adds, "Love will find a way."
"Wherever Is Your Heart"From 2015's 'The Firewatcher's Daughter'
Carlile channels Bright Eyes' sturdy, propulsive indie-folk on "Wherever Is Your Heart," which is an ode to finding comfort in another's inner being. "Wherever is your heart I call home," she sings on the chorus, repeatedly.
"That Wasn't Me"From 2012's 'Bear Creek'
One of Carlile's most moving songs is the Elton John-esque "That Wasn't Me," which boasts gospel vocal flourishes, soulful piano and powerful lyrics about expectations, salvation and forgivness. "It's about addiction," she told Songfacts. "What's happening in my family. An addiction recovery and the reaction people are expected to have after one recovers from an addiction after years of turmoil."
"Raise Hell"From 2012's 'Bear Creek'
The live favorite "Raise Hell" shows off Carlile's steely country side, what with its stomping rhythms, heavy banjo and bluesy, match-strike guitar riffs. Lyrically, the tune's ominous vibe and omen-heavy lyrics ("I dug a hole inside my heart to put you in my grave") make "Raise Hell" one of the more intense corners of her catalog.
"The Joke"From 2018's 'By the Way, I Forgive You'
In large part due to Carlile's powerful vocal performance, "The Joke" has emerged as the standout track of By the Way, I Forgive You. And although the surging, piano- and string-decorated tune didn't win the prestigious Record of the Year or Song of the Year Grammys, "The Joke" did take home two awards, for Best American Roots Song and Best American Roots Performance. Perhaps the song has resonated so much because its message is simple, but powerful: You might march to the beat of a different drummer -- and that might cause problems with some people around you -- but being true to yourself will help you ultimately prevail.
"The Story"From 2007's 'The Story'
"The Story" was Carlile's breakout song originally, as it reached the Top 5 of the AAA charts, and it remains one of her most recognizable tunes. Penned by Phil Hanseroth, the song describes a relationship that's perfectly imperfect -- a sentiment Carlile expresses perfectly with a ragged, emotional delivery. None other than Dolly Parton covered the tune on Carlile's 2017 War Child benefit album Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of The Story.