Broken Horses

A Memoir




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April 6, 2021 | ISBN 9780593237250

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About the Book

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • The critically acclaimed singer-songwriter, producer, and six-time Grammy winner opens up about faith, sexuality, parenthood, and a life shaped by music in “one of the great memoirs of our time” (Glennon Doyle, author of Untamed).

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR AND AUTOSTRADDLE • “The best-written, most engaging rock autobiography since her childhood hero, Elton John, published Me.”—Variety

Brandi Carlile was born into a musically gifted, impoverished family on the outskirts of Seattle and grew up in a constant state of change, moving from house to house, trailer to trailer, fourteen times in as many years. Though imperfect in every way, her dysfunctional childhood was as beautiful as it was strange, and as nurturing as it was difficult. At the age of five, Brandi contracted bacterial meningitis, which almost took her life, leaving an indelible mark on her formative years and altering her journey into young adulthood.

As an openly gay teenager, Brandi grappled with the tension between her sexuality and her faith when her pastor publicly refused to baptize her on the day of the ceremony. Shockingly, her small town rallied around Brandi in support and set her on a path to salvation where the rest of the misfits and rejects find it: through twisted, joyful, weird, and wonderful music.
In Broken Horses, Brandi Carlile takes readers through the events of her life that shaped her very raw art—from her start at a local singing competition where she performed Elton John’s “Honky Cat” in a bedazzled white polyester suit, to her first break opening for Dave Matthews Band, to many sleepless tours over fifteen years and six studio albums, all while raising two children with her wife, Catherine Shepherd. This hard-won success led her to collaborations with personal heroes like Elton John, Dolly Parton, Mavis Staples, Pearl Jam, Tanya Tucker, and Joni Mitchell, as well as her peers in the supergroup The Highwomen, and ultimately to the Grammy stage, where she converted millions of viewers into instant fans.

Evocative and piercingly honest, Broken Horses is at once an examination of faith through the eyes of a person rejected by the church’s basic tenets and a meditation on the moments and lyrics that have shaped the life of a creative mind, a brilliant artist, and a genuine empath on a mission to give back.
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Praise for Broken Horses

“A vulnerable document . . . The resilience of her sense of self, through poverty and fame, is transcendent. One of her great strengths as an artist is a willingness to stare herself straight in the face and not flinch.”—Amanda Hess, The New York Times

“[Carlile is] perceptive, vulnerable, humble, funny and above all else, a good storyteller. She’d already proven her storytelling chops as a lyricist and she proves them once again in these pages. She knows how to use a few words to make a big impact. . . . Readers walk away feeling like they know the real Carlile.”—Associated Press

“Intimate . . . Carlile's story is too big to fit in a song. . . . The memoir covers it all with conversational ease. . . . This pulls the veil back in a way [Carlile] hadn’t done before.”Vulture
“I thought I knew Brandi through her music and friendship, but I didn’t truly know her until I finished the last page of Broken Horses. I don’t think I truly knew myself until I finished the last page of Broken Horses. I read much of it with my palms sweating, heart swelling, tears falling. This book is a gift from Brandi’s soul to the reader’s. Broken Horses will go down as one of the great memoirs of our time.”—Glennon Doyle, author of Untamed

“I fell in love with Brandi’s voice, and then serendipity took over and I fell in love with the artist, the writer, and the woman. I believe we were fated to be true soul mates. Reading this book confirms my love and respect for her. If anyone ever has a doubt in their mind that the wildest of dreams can be realized from complicated circumstances, they should read Brandi’s story. It is about perseverance, humor, forgiveness, and manifestation. I absolutely loved it.”—Elton John, author of Me

“A good storyteller tells you about their life. A great storyteller guides you so deep into their heart that you actually end up seeing yourself. Brandi is one of the most gifted and generous storytellers of our time. Broken Horses led me right into Brandi’s heart, and my own.”—Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly

“An intimate, life-affirming look at a musician whose artistic journey is far from over.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
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Broken Horses


Meningitis and the Early Education of an Empath

The Carliles are nail-biters. I started biting my nails at three years old. Everyone told me that if I didn’t keep my hands out of my mouth, I’d get sick.

I contracted meningococcal meningitis at age four.

We were living in Burien, Washington, in a single-wide trailer near the Sea-Tac Airport.

It was our third house since I was born. I’m the first born into my family and the first grandchild on both sides, contributing to my inflated sense of self-importance and burden of perceived responsibility. My life really starts here.

Before all that, though, my parents met at the Red Lion Hotel. My mother was a hostess and my father was a breakfast prep cook. My dad is very intelligent and intense, with a sick sense of humor. He’s one of six siblings raised dirt-poor on a dirt floor by a single mom in south Seattle. He’s got a father, too, but he and my grandmother divorced very young, and like many of the men on the Carlile side very rarely speaks a word. There are some quiet men in my family but none as quiet as Grandpa Jerry . . . you can feel how much he loves you, but he probably won’t ever say it. It almost seems like a genetic trait, this strange brand of anxiety and quiet intensity. He had a daughter later in life, bringing the number of Dad’s siblings to seven.

My mother had a more comfortable childhood. She’s one of three girls and like her mother has always been very charming and mischievous. She can read a room like no one else. She’s vain. She loves music and art. If she’s sunny and happy, then everyone she meets is too. Her enthusiasm can’t be resisted. If she’s not in a good space though, you’re not going to be either.

To put it mildly, they’re special . . . and sparkly and complicated. When they met, my mom was twenty and my dad was twenty-one. Mom’s family had temporarily relocated to Colorado, so she moved straight in with the crazy Carlile family. When my mother got pregnant with me, she and my father decided to get married. Like so many people who married this young, they are still married . . . and in many ways, are still very young.

For this and many other reasons, we moved around a lot after I was born. Fourteen houses actually. And lots of different schools. It’s deceiving because sometimes they were all in the same district. Beverly Park Elementary for kindergarten and then to Hill Top Elementary, from there to Cascade View to North Hill Elementary to Olympic Elementary and then back to Hill Top, then there was Rock Creek Elementary, Tahoma Junior High, Glacier Park. And that was all before high school.

I don’t think there was ever a housing transition I didn’t want to make. There was always an exciting and dramatic buildup to the moving. Sometimes we moved because of evictions and job changes, sometimes for good reasons, like a better housing opportunity or a step up in comfort thanks to some connection that my charismatic parents had made. Either way, due to my frequently changing scenery and the undercurrent of chaos that poverty often creates, I developed somewhat of a photographic memory. It appears in all of its vivid detail right around the age of two.

Bedrooms change, the color of the wallpaper, the smell of a hand-me-down couch, the hum of a rental unit’s avocado-colored refrigerator. There’s a washing machine that is frequently mistaken for an earthquake, or a friendly neighbor with a horse called Pepper, or someone who lets you hop their fence to retrieve your Frisbee. Different houses sometimes came with different pets and the loss or abandonment of the old ones at the old place. And of course, there were the feuds. . . . I remember every drunk neighbor. The busybodies and gossips, the liberals and the divorcees. I can recall the name of just about every landlord who evicted us and my parents’ list of grievances against them. I also remember every helping hand. Every nonjudgmental influence over our family and the impact of such relationships on our lifestyle. More than all this I remember worrying quite a bit.

Most people live in their childhood homes for a while. It softens the edges on the memories and gives them a comforting wash, a kind of afterglow, set against routine and consistency. For kids like me for whom every experience is set against a different visual and intense circumstance, it’s really easy to remember details of an early life. I see this now as a priceless gift . . . but it isn’t one I’d give to my kids. They’re going to have to get scrappy some other way ’cause I don’t have the stomach for it anymore.

Burien is all concrete and strip malls now, but parts of it used to feel like the country.

The airport has since shut down most of the land our trailer was on. When I got sick I think it was in a fuel dump zone, or some FAA law changed and it became uninhabitable somehow.

My little brother, Jay, and I were Irish twins. He was irresistible, with blond hair and blue eyes, full of pure drama, charisma, and conviction from birth. At only eleven months and twenty-seven days older than him, I thought he was adorable—and he was mine. He was tougher than me. My parents had to implore me to stand up for myself physically with Jay, because while we didn’t really fight in a mutual sense, he fought the hell out of me. I couldn’t work out whether he was supposed to be my formidable foe or my protected baby brother. It’s an odd age difference. I was getting ready to start kindergarten. My dad wanted me to be homeschooled, but he came up against too much resistance from the rest of the family . . . I understand both inclinations now. The one to keep your kid at home when they seem so small and underprepared and the one that urges us to overcome all that and send them anyway.

I was shy and quiet but very clever. I was good at rhyming, had an extensive vocabulary, and had already dreamed up some songs—“Smile at the sun, smile at the sun, life is so much fun, when you smile at the sun.” I still hear the melodies. My parents had no experience with children but had been told by enough people that I was advanced. So when my grandmother on my dad’s side heard from a neighbor about a program at the University of Washington for gifted children, she hipped my mom to it and I was enrolled at the age of four. I have memories of wearing a lead jacket and playing with children’s toys . . . presumably whilst being X-rayed? Now it seems dubious to say the least, but let’s chalk it up to the ’80s.

I had been a colicky baby with some weird infancy health issues that I had grown out of, but my mother had never grown out of her irrational tendency to worry about me. My dad was well aware of this and didn’t attempt to hide his annoyance. Every sneeze or childish complaint would send my mother rushing to the phone to dial “24 Nurse” or Poison Control.

My illness when it hit felt like an extra-dreamy flu to me. Nausea and vomiting, but also a sense of euphoria that I can only imagine must be what morphine is like. My mother’s first call was to my dad. They had a fight. Mom had no car and he wasn’t about to leave work for yet another fruitless night in the ER for strep throat or gas. She hung up and called 24 Nurse. The TV was on. I remember vividly what it felt like to sink into our brown floral couch feeling so heavy and relaxed I couldn’t hold my head up or stay awake. Mom was describing the symptoms to the woman on the phone and after a couple of minutes, she appeared at the couch. “Does she need to be sitting up?” she asked as she propped me up on another pillow. That’s when my mother asked me to try and touch my chin to my chest. The last thing I remember was my mother frantically shouting into the phone, “Her eyes are rolling back in her head!”

I wound up on the floor in the backseat of my parents’ car. I don’t know how I got there. There wasn’t time for a car seat and I vaguely remember being so uncomfortable sitting up that I was whimpering and asking if I could get on the floor. I don’t know why they didn’t call an ambulance. Dad’s work was very close, and I am guessing they didn’t call an ambulance because deep down they still weren’t sure if they could trust themselves about what was an emergency and what wasn’t. I don’t remember arriving at the hospital, but I’m told that my heart stopped forty-five minutes later.

About the Author

Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile is a six-time Grammy Award–winning singer, songwriter, performer, and producer. Since her debut in 2004, she has released six studio albums and was the most nominated female artist at the 2019 Grammy Awards, with six nominations, including Album, Record, and Song of the Year.
Founded in 2008 by Carlile, the Looking Out Foundation amplifies the impact of music by empowering those without a voice, with campaigns focused on children living in war zones, prevention and reduction in incarceration and recidivism, racial justice, violence prevention, food insecurity, and more. To date, the foundation has raised over $2 million for grassroots causes.
Beloved by fans, peers, and critics alike, Carlile and her band have performed sold-out concerts across the world. Brandi Carlile lives in rural Washington State on a compound with her bandmates and their families, as well as her wife, Catherine, and their two daughters, Evangeline and Elijah. More by Brandi Carlile
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