BY LYDIA A. CYRUS
I think I heard her song "The Story" for the first time during a car commercial. It’s hard to actually pin it down now when I think about it. I’ve been listening to Brandi Carlile for a while now. Unlike Aimee Mann, I can’t recall when I found her music. However, like Aimee, I listen to her every day and her work has always been the kid I think about often. I had the opportunity to see her in concert once in Charleston. It was sometimes last year and I was looking forward to it very much. At the last minute, however, she cancelled the show. It was never rescheduled and I was depressed over it. Later, Brandi released a statement about it and said that she cancelled it because she was having troubles with her chronic illness, her endometriosis. I have endometriosis and cried when I read that. One of my musical idols, a woman who has accomplished so much, suffers from the same thing I do. In many ways, it made me feel closer to her.
Like with the liner notes I wrote for Aimee, I didn’t have a set list of which ones I would do nor is there an order. I would suggest that everyone listen to all of her work of course. She’s an important artist right now, especially in the resistance we’re experiencing against so many things. So here’s my notes on Brandi.
"Fall Apart Again" from the 2005 self-titled album Brandi Carlile
It’s interesting to me to see an artist go from their debut album through a series of albums and realize that very little has changed. Brandi’s sense of lyricism is incredibly poetic and emotional. This song in particular has always struck me as an outstanding achievement in producing powerful music. The line, "I think the world of myself but the world doesn’t think much of me," is my favorite in the song. The song echoes sentiments of not being able to turn to others when you feel broken. But it also seems to play like advice a present self would go back and give to a younger self. The experienced voice going back to the experiencing self. "And I still say that yesterday is best when left to sleep," reverberates the echo of advice giving. Much of Brandi’s first album does read as "self help" and I enjoy it greatly. As someone who gets to spend so much of my life in retrospection because I write it’s like reading an essay I wrote months or years ago and thinking oh yeah aren’t we better off now? Besides, who can say they wouldn’t go back and make it different?
Also listen to: "Happy"
"Losing Heart" from the 2007 album The Story
Brandi’s sophomore album, The Story, is most widely known (I would wager) because of the title track "The Story." While I love and find that song endearing, I think the rest of the album lifts up the narrative of heart breaking and rebuilding too. The song "Losing Heart" reiterates the idea of "I’m only human," which for me as been the most sorrowful realization yet in life. It’s the recognition that you bleed too and you are absolutely allowed to admit that you have feelings and wounds. I’ve always been moving fast at whatever comes next and treating every day of my life like a job: go, go, go. Sometimes I feel empty, I think most of us do. I feel tired and let down and I have swallowed many complaints and confessions for fear of angering someone else. All of which begs the question of forgetting oneself and what matters more. Which is the sort of question I think Brandi asks and subsequently answers.
Also listen to: "The Story"
"Before it Breaks" from the 2009 album Give Up the Ghost
"I’m alright, don’t I always seem to be?" That line sinks in and settles for me. This song if about "killing off the cold" and protecting oneself and seemingly being in denial about a passing of time or a relationship of some sort. The idea of letting of something go before it hurts worse echoes loudly here: "let it bend before it breaks." Kind of like that old adage of getting rope burn from holding on too tightly. The music in this song is heightened at a level that rises well above the quiet, folk tone of most of her songs. Which is absolutely fitting for the material at hand. Say you’re sorry I can take it.
Also listen to: "That Year"
"Keep Your Heart Young" from the 2012 album Bear Creek
Bear Creek might be my favorite of Brandi’s albums, though The Story is also a contender. This album strips down to a sense of nature and folk that I love dearly. I feel very much like the sort of thing Ralph Waldo Emerson would tap his foot to on a Sunday afternoon after church. This particular song is about staying young while you can. The opening line "my grandfather gave me a wheat penny" always drags up the memories I have of my beloved grandfather (we call him Papaw PAP-AW in West Virginia, not grandfather) and the time he gave me a giant tricycle to ride because I was the only granddaughter who couldn’t ride a bike. All the times he brought us lunch while we were out riding too.
Also listen to: "A Promise to Keep"
"The Things I Regret" from the 2015 album The Firewatcher’s Daughter
As someone who suffers from harsh episodes of depression sometimes I like to listen to this song as a cathartic experience. "There’s a hole in my pocket where my dreams fell through/from a side walk in a city to the avenue/there’s a leak in my dam ‘bout the size of a penny/and I can’t quite remember where the water’s getting in," perfectly encapsulates for me what my experience has been with depression. I typically experience a bout of it at the end of every academic semester because endings are always bitter to me, never sweet. This semester was no different and I experienced it intensely because it happens at the same time I was preparing myself for the one year anniversary of the death of a loved one. The song isn’t all sad though the line "for a heart that is broken makes a beautiful sound" is an important reminder. Whatever is broken, or leaking, is still beautiful.
Also listen to: "Murder in the City"
The 2011 album Live at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony
I tried to pick just one song from Brandi’s only live album to date. It simply cannot be done. The combination of her beautiful voice with the symphony is just overwhelming and fits together so well I couldn’t find anything to stand alone. It also features the sort of standard storytelling artists give during live shows too which is important. She mentions in one track how dearly she loves Elton John and how one of her songs reminds her of him every time she plays it. There’s also a beautiful cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s "The Sound of Silence" on there by two of Brandi’s bandmates that’ll give you chills.
Now for the really good stuff, the deeper cuts.
"Turpentine" from the 2007 album The Story
"These days we go to waste like wine." Goddamnit I wish I wrote that line. In the live version on the Benaroya album, Brandi breaks the audience in two and has them each sing the ohs in the song. At some point she steps back and says, "Listen to yourselves! You sound amazing." It brings tears to me eyes. This song is excellently (I’m running out of words here really) written that it makes me envy Brandi. This song is about growing up and away from someone. For me it’s probably my cousins who were my first friends, my siblings. People who are married and live away from me now. One of them is an alcoholic now and it breaks my heart. "I didn’t mean to waste your time, so I’ll fall back in line. But I’m warning you we’re growing up." When we were all much younger drinking was fun. We did it together around bonfires. My cousin John used to see how far he could throw his beer bottles into the woods. Hayley would get loud when she drank, very loud. Kirsten would cry and become suddenly very honest. And me? I would get tired and quiet and sit back with my dark, amber eyes and watch them all. Now we’re older and it’s not fun anymore, it’s killing one of us. Arguments come between us and we don’t see eye to eye on much anymore. That’s part of growing up and going to waste.
"I’ll Still Be There" from the 2012 album Bear Creek
If you could literally give someone the gift of a song and say, "Here, man. I love you and I want you to have this. It’s from me to you," this is the one I would give my closest loved ones. It’s just a song about telling someone you love when they’re going through a hard time. "It breaks my heart, but now you know. The broken binds are an open door," is just what I would say to my friends when they get dumped by anyone. Not just romantically either, anyone can break your heart. I used to say to all the time to my friends at their darkest moments that if I could eat their grief for them that I would take it away in a moment: I’d bare it for you. Not because I’m up for the pain but because I love them so much that to know they hurt hurts me.
"Rise Again" from the 2012 album Bear Creek
Another Bear Creek track, imagine that. I made a horrible decision when I decided I wanted to have a career in academia and writing. Why? Because I’m the most tender-hearted person I know. A woman at a bar once told me to practice shielding myself from negative energy because she could tell I was soaking it up like a sponge. I take rejection really fucking hard from anyone: people I’ve never met, people I know do not like me, and even from people I know and love. I can be taken advantage of easily because of that, I know that. I suspect most people who know me well enough know that too. "Rise Again" is about "falling like rain" which means to yes fall! Fall down! But then rise again for the next thing. Something I’m learning now and I feel very much that grace is akin to rain and if I can master that I’ll be okay.
"Pride and Joy" from the 2007 album Give Up the Ghost
I never met my maternal grandmother. When I was fourteen my Aunt Diane died of cancer. When I was twenty-one my beloved Aunt Martha died. My also very much beloved grandfather, Carl, is sick now and not aging well. These people have great influence in my life. They bragged about me all the time, maybe not my Nana, but I’ve been told that I’m like her and she would have adored me had we met. My grandfather however might be my number one fan. I worry that when he’s gone I’ll lose that sense of being rewarded with the recognition I deserve. I worry I won’t have someone in my life anymore to tell me that I am their pride and joy. I’ve never said that much out loud. Over the summer, my first mentor (I say first because I have another now and they’re both just has important in my life), Paul Martin, sent an email to my friend. He said so far as he was concerned she and I were his pride and joy and that he was never our teacher. He was there to answer our questions and concerns, but otherwise he knew it was best to "get the hell out of your way" and let us go. We’re always in touch, I haven’t seen him in a year, but I email him often to simply say I am alive, I am thinking of you, and I am thankful you entered my life. Anyway, all of that gets away from the point here, doesn’t it? Well it wouldn’t if you just listened to the song. I promise what I’ve said will make better sense then.
"Shadows on the Wall" from the 2007 album The Story
"It’s hard for me to weep when I’m strong" used to not bother me at all. I never thought much of it. I guess it took growing up to understand it better. I have often said that I didn’t want anyone to know anything about me. Unfortunately, that’s a really fucking dumb thing to ask of yourself. That’s not the way the world works. Still, I have always fancied myself to be tough. Just as Brandi says in this song, "It must have been the way I was raised," and so I don’t like to cry. It feels like a crack in the shield. Lately, I’ve thought more about the lines "It’s not that you would mess with my head, I believe that you believe what you said." In a moment of anger I’ve been witness to horrible things. Things you’d never say to someone outside of the context of your anger. Fortunately I understand that now and I believe that whatever was said in passing was believed in that moment. It may not be the case anymore, but it was then.
"My Song" from the 2007 album The Story
I saved my favorite for last. I do think of this one as my song. "But don’t bother waking me today. Here I am: I’m so young. I know I’ve been bitter, I’ve been jaded, I’m alone. Every day I bite my tongue. I you only know my mind was full of razors to cut you like a worry from this song." Remember when I said I swallow my complaints and confessions? There it is again. This song for my has always been about being angry at someone and lately I’ve had plenty of people to be angry at: my father, my peers, politicians, and people who don’t use their turn signals. My grandmother used to say that you catch more bees with honey than you do with vinegar. Sometimes you end up with vinegar anyway, make the most of it I guess. Brandi certainly does. Again, I envy her.
Lydia A. Cyrus (STAFF WRITER) is a creative nonfiction writer and poet from Huntington, West Virginia. Her work as been featured in Thoreau's Rooster, Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Albion Review, and Luna Luna. Her essay "We Love You Anyway," was featured in the 2017 anthology Family Don't End with Blood which chronicles the lives of fans and actors from the television show Supernatural.
She lives and works in Huntington where she spends her time being politically active and volunteering. She is a proud Mountain Woman who strives to make positive change in Southern Appalachia. She enjoys the color red and all things Wonder Woman related! You can usually find her walking around the woods and surrounding areas as she strives to find solitude in the natural world. Twitter: @lydiaacyrus