Singer, songwriter, speaker, producer, artist, activist, author… I have a special place in my heart for Brandi Carlile.
From the clarity and creative brilliance of her music to the essential work of her Looking Out Foundation, she is a force of nature, driven to make a difference in this complicated world of ours. ‘Amplifying the power of music by empowering those without a voice’ is the way she describes it.
Along multiple other accolades, she’s won an incredible six Grammys, and also became the first openly gay musician to win the Album of the Year award in Grammy history.
In compiling my Brandi Carlile top 10, I’ve started right back at the beginning of her career. Then, as now, her music had a compelling power and sincerity, driven by the deeply rooted conviction that has expanded her reach and influence in the past few years, from the Americana community that she still embraces, to the wider global recognition she acknowledges with such dignity.
The list begins with my introduction to Brandi’s music: the opening track on her eponymously titled debut album, released in June 2006.
Beginning with just acoustic guitar and vocals, it builds up to a beautiful, swirling, Beatles-esque orchestral crescendo, before breaking back down again to end how it started – with simplicity and space.
For a first track on a first-ever album it is stunningly accomplished.
Another song from Brandi’s debut release, a truly lovely, emotionally revealing record full of thoughtful, heartfelt songs.
Brandi wrote ‘Gone’ with Tim and Phil Hanseroth, affectionately known as ‘The Twins’. From the very beginning of her recording career to the present day, they have been Brandi’s go-to for pretty much everything.They are her friends, supporters, backing musicians, harmony singers and co-writers.
After the success of her debut album, the release of the follow-up in 2007 confirmed her arrival as a powerful new voice.
Produced by the great T Bone Burnett, it added an electric-guitar-sharpness to Brandi’s lyrical vision. The harder, floor-to-tape sound which T Bone captured felt exactly right. ‘The Story’ is the title track and it absolutely rocks.
Featuring just vocals and piano, this is the touching closing track from While I’m Livin by Tanya Tucker, co-produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings in 2019. It was Tanya’s first collection of original songs for more than 20 years - a legacy-enhancing moment in the five-decade career of a country music legend.
The album was a passion project for Brandi who was determined to put Tanya back in front of the audience she felt she deserved, and it turned out to be a record touched by magic.
It won two Grammys and some of the best reviews of Tanya’s career. ‘Bring My Flowers Now’ was the song she and Brandi performed together on that triumphant, award-winning night.
Another extra-curricular project, The Highwomen are a collaboration between Brandi, Maren Morris, Natalie Hemby and Amanda Shires - a quartet of powerful women meeting at a crowded table to talk about their rights and aspirations in a space where ‘everyone belongs’.
Co- written by Brandi, Natalie Hemby and Lori McKenna, ‘Crowded Table’ was another Grammy winner, picking up the award for Best Country Song in 2020.
Throughout her career, Brandi has surrounded herself with top collaborators. For her Give Up The Ghost album in 2009, these included producer Rick Rubin, keyboard player Benmont Tench, Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, master string-arranger Paul Buckmaster and her great friend and mentor Elton John, who plays piano on this jaunty ode to Brandi’s niece.
The Firewatcher’s Daughter is Brandi’s rock n’ roll album. Equal parts raw, beautifully melodic and emotionally rich, the album perfectly synthesises Brandi’s love of country music, West Coast pop and Roy Orbison!
‘Wherever Is Your Heart’ is the opening track. Driven by crashing corner-chords and powerful harmonies, it provides the perfect setting for the range of Brandi’s incredible voice.
Described by Rolling Stone as “righteous Americana”, this is the track I’ve probably played most on my Radio 2 Country Show.
The opening song from the album By The Way, I Forgive You, which, following the rocked-up vibe of The Firewatcher’s Daughter, returned Brandi to a more controlled acoustic sound.
I love this track. The harmonies are sensational and, like everything she does, you can tell she really means every word of this heartfelt heartbreak song.
Few tracks in Brandi’s repertoire sound as confidently rounded as this wonderful song from her 2021 album In These Silent Days. The record, like her memoir Broken Horses, was written during lockdown, the two projects feeding into each other as Brandi looked back over her life.
As is often her pattern, ‘Letter To The Past’ builds from just a single piano and vocal into a full production sound that beautifully showcases and enhances the contemplative narrative of this glorious song.
Endorsed by Barack Obama as one of his favourite songs of 2017, ‘The Joke’ was written for “the unloved, the under-represented and the illegal” and was the moment that elevated Brandi onto superstardom.
It won her International Song of the Year at the AMA-UK Awards, before going on to win two Grammys for Best American Roots Song and Best American Roots Performance.
Born from a conversation between Brandi and producer Dave Cobb, the track spectacularly showcases the extraordinary range and emotional depth of Brandi’s unique and powerful voice and underlines her place as one of the major artists of today.
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You can find Bob Harris at Under The Apple Tree, the home of the finest sessions in Country, Americana and Roots.
You can also tune in every Thursday night for the BBC Radio 2 Country Show.