I have long suspected something about Brandi Carlile, but it wasn't until I read her new memoir, Broken Horses, that I fully knew it to be true: she is the scrappiest mystic this side of G.I. Gurdjieff, if not Joan of Arc. For the past 13 years, my suspicion was rooted merely in watching her cast a lasting spell on pretty much everyone who is lucky enough to step into her orbit. It turns out, though, the real magic of her life is explained by numerous inexplicable moments — pivotal, soul-stirring moments that definitely count as “mysteries”, with some even coming close to “miracles.”
But let's back up a bit, because when it comes to understanding Brandi, it's best to start at the number 1. Specifically, 1 is her enneagram type – the scientifically-defined number that categorizes our personalities. As described by the Enneagram Institute, “Ones are conscientious and ethical, with a strong sense of right and wrong. They are teachers, crusaders, and advocates for change: always striving to improve things, but afraid of making a mistake. Well-organized, orderly, and fastidious, they try to maintain high standards, but can slip into being critical and perfectionistic.”
If you've seen Brandi's Instagram videos regarding sheet-folding, then that “fastidious” part rings true. Likewise for the “striving” bit, when she's caught singing a third harmony part along with an Indigo Girls live stream. She simply can't help herself on either account. The rest of those characteristics come into incredibly sharp focus in Broken Horses: a thoroughly compelling memoir that presents a series of snapshots of a person who was always destined for success - not just because of her immense talent, but also because of her steadfast values. That is to say, Brandi has done well because she both is good and does good. Perfection in herself and advocacy for others are the two main winds in her sails.
A second key to understanding Brandi is that she is deeply, DEEPLY charismatic. When you meet her, she gives you her full attention, as the rest of the world falls away for just a little while. She homes in on something that connects the two of you — a logo on your t-shirt, a gap in your teeth — so that you know, without any doubt, that she sees YOU and appreciates YOUR presence in that shared moment. That is quietly evidenced page after page, as she brings the reader into her world to witness each step of her own journey towards being seen, appreciated and connected.
To quote her in a section about writing down the story of your life, “It feels wonderful to be known, even if it's just by you.” She's not wrong. Telling your own story allows you to understand it objectively as just that - a story. In doing so, you undercut the power it holds over you, be that rage, resentment, or regret. There's no doubt in my mind that the puissant display of vulnerability within Broken Horses helped Brandi understand and undercut many of the less-positive forces at work inside herself. This lends itself, of course, to her pursuit of personal perfection.
That said, by filling Broken Horses with vividly detailed stories of her life, Brandi makes the space for indelibly etched memories from our lives, too: the mind-blowing moment of realizing parents are fallible humans rather than superheroes; the deep-seated shame of poverty consciousness that never really leaves you; the exhilarating heartbreak of being someone's emotional lover yet never more; the foundational impact of a life in constant motion that never lets you rest; the soul-scarring humiliation of being rejected for who you are; and so much more.
Even as she does so, though, she never wavers in either empathy for others or hope for herself. One of Broken Horses' greatest take-aways is the lesson that, if you feel special or out of place, hold onto that feeling. Not in an arrogant way, in an ambitious way. Let it pull you out of your circumstance and onto whatever “stage” is meant for you. Once there, let yourself fall into the vulnerability of being on that stage and trusting that the audience — proverbial or real — will hold you up. You can even dress up like a Honky Cat, if that's your jam. (Spoiler: It very much is Brandi's jam.)
The circumstances out of which Brandi pulled herself involved deep poverty and social isolation. To borrow from Maya Angelou, “Music was [her] refuge. [She] could crawl into the space between the notes and curl [her] back to loneliness.” I, and probably many of you, know that song all too well. The thread of music weaves through our lives providing refuge and respite whenever we have needed it... which has been often.
Having moved around a lot as a kid, much like Brandi did, I have also categorized memories based on what house or school I was in at the time. That kind of existence requires an ability to mold yourself to each moment in order to fit in everywhere, while never belonging anywhere. It's a rough go at any age, but is especially taxing as a teen, and that's only the surface-level effect. Underneath that is a constant state of in-betweenness, a life lived in shades of grey, always on high alert for what's coming next. Somehow, Brandi found a fix that’s allowed her to bask in a vibrant inner world while still soaking up every drop of the outer. It's a very particular die that was cast for her at four years old.
In the first chapter of Broken Horses, Brandi recounts her early-life survival of meningitis, during which she spent time in a coma. She writes of the liminal state that “informs who we are in between two worlds... which is probably who we really are.” Thus, we have arrived at another of the book's best lessons: the integration of our different selves into a whole Self.
In the middle of chapter 13, Brandi alternately describes Brennan Manning as a “pop-culture Christian icon” and a “disgraced, divorced, alcoholic Franciscan priest,” singing his praises, all the while. She notes that his work taught her to replace “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want,” with “The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing.” She goes on to explain, “This subtle difference is night and day to a self-punishing person.” And, yeah, it sure is — even to a non-Christian, self-punishing person like me. It's also a milestone, if not a gateway, on the path to a whole Self.
As she tells it, Brandi's life is a kinetic, in-progress example of this quest. From her past as a poor kid and a bad student with notable talent and big dreams, to her present as a successful artist and a tireless crusader with a fishing obsession and control issues, the balance of those differences is one she never quite managed to reconcile; until her now-wife Catherine showed up.
These days, Brandi's whole Self comes replete with said wife, two kids, a left, a right, a dog, a cat, a compound of loved ones, a throng of adoring fans, a bunch of awards and a New York Times #1 best-selling book. In so many examples throughout that best-seller and beyond, Brandi is the rising tide that lifts every other boat around her – metaphorical ones of which there have been many. Brandi collects her people, gathers them up and keeps them close. Being the center of a circle is the surest way to belong, after all, yet there's more to it than that. Having been an underdog and an outlier for most of her life, she will forever fight for her kind and, frankly, the good money is on her winning. Every time.
To read Broken Horses is to witness the human version of kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing cracks with gold. Through her stories, Brandi examines the beauty of her own brokenness as repaired by forgiveness, resilience, humility, and grace. And, in that revealing, she allows us to view our own flaws in the same tender-hearted way, so that we too might heal our wholes.
Brandi Carlile's Broken Horses is out now, and is also available in audiobook format. Click here to purchase.
Photography courtesy of Red Light MGMT / by Jai Lennard