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By Marc Hirsh
April 06, 2021 at 10:00 AM EDT
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Broken Horses Collage
Credit: Crown

Brandi Carlile has had an extraordinary past three years, thanks in large part to a thrice Grammy-winning career-peak album in By the Way, I Forgive You, plus three more albums' worth of material she created for Tanya Tucker, the Secret Sisters, and her own country-folk supergroup, the Highwomen. Topping it off with a memoir came out of a hunger that's pushed Carlile to keep working, and Broken Horses is a product and examination of that hunger. It's also an exegesis of empathy: how it took root within her, the ways it's dictated her relationships, its role as the engine driving her songwriting. The same things that make her music so remarkable can be found in her prose: If you're a fan of Carlile, you already love this book.

The story itself waves at a number of familiar beats in the journey of an artist of her ilk: the electric thrill of performing for the first time, the friction of being a gay teen at a time when support was hard to find, the hardscrabble years of hustling to be heard in front of an audience, the successes tempered by complications like prescription-drug addiction and romantic self-sabotage. Carlile is reluctant to simply recount one milestone after another, instead offering through-lines that generate connections, like a recurring theme about her litmus test for anyone entering her orbit — from her wife, Catherine Shepherd, to producers and agents — whether she falls in love with them right away.

Even the book's structure is sneakily sharp, with each chapter followed by lyrics to relevant songs (usually, but not always, hers). In another context, that could be dismissed as filler. Here, they are crucial to the story, providing reflection and putting a microscope on Carlile's songwriting process; the words to "Sugartooth" follow recollections of how a friend's death by suicide affected those who loved him, revealing one glimpse among many of how her life begets her art.

Carlile writes in a voice that's earthy, frank, endearingly dorky, and open-hearted (see her letter asking Eddie Vedder to contribute to a benefit album she oversaw). She's generous with her faults and generous to them, admitting that she can be "a narcissistic, insufferable a--hole" with "a way of finding the kindest people to let down" while also extending forgiveness to herself.

As the singer writes in her book, before she first got signed, she agreed to put her "B-sides" on the demo that became her self-titled debut album, so that her A material could be recorded properly later. Carlile's since learned not to save the good stuff for later. Besides, she's always found more of it around the corner. Grade: A

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