Listening to the audiobook “Broken Horses” by Brandi Carlile brought a wave of memories over me. It was 2019, and the last overseas flight I had before the pandemic changed all our lives. After a wondrous trip and feeling homesick, flying home from London – especially after missing my son’s musical set at a local carnival – took its toll. On the plane, I was feeling a strange mix of heartbreak and hope. That’s when I discovered that for in-flight entertainment, you could watch Ms. Carlile’s episode of “Austin City Limits.” I did. I watched that hour-long show around eleven times in a row, literally wiping tears away, hoping other passengers didn’t think me insane. It made the joy of returning all the more impactful, and I’m not afraid to admit that her music brought a well-needed personal breakthrough that watching the latest cinematic blockbuster would not have satisfied. And with her latest memoir, I discovered it brought all the emotions I had on that 10-hour flight back in waves. Perhaps that’s similar to the feeling our storyteller gets listening to Joni Mitchell’s masterwork “Blue” or a gorgeous Elton John tune like ‘Your Song.’ This power is in her music. But it’s much more than that.
“Broken Horses” is an exceptional work on its own. Brandi tells incredible tales about growing up with very little and finding the beauty of music to help satisfy your soul. Her story begins with the chapter “Meningitis and the Early Education of an Empath.” From there, she explores her youth in a shockingly open way. Early on, it’s clear that she shows no intention of creating some flawless mythical musical hero. She paints a family portrait that comes from love but must deal with the trials and tribulations of alcoholism, sickness, and financial hardships. Most importantly, even in her younger years, she discusses these challenging times without delving into self-pity. In many ways, her outlook on her own life is reminiscent of hearing Dolly Parton talk about growing up dirt poor and finding solace in music and writing songs. It’s a beautiful message.
As she moves on to discovering her budding adoration of musical influences and song, she also faced the challenges of realizing she is gay and coming out and how that began to form her life, as well as those around her. What’s especially potent about this is the humanity she brings to the subject. Her understanding of who she is and how she dealt with family members and circle of friends after the fact brings a little focus into the challenges that those who have yet to “come out” feel regularly. Considering how challenging the world is currently, this is a subject that is necessary to discuss. All too often, it’s handled with pity, dismissiveness, judgment, or much worse. Not here. “Broken Horses” is exceptional in how it humanizes the experience in such a sincere and profound way.
While every story explored reveals a sense of heartache or joy or compassion, one of the most moving moments can be found in Chapter 7, ‘This Year.’ In it, she tells of an old friend from her teenage years who committed suicide, somebody that she still thinks about today. If you’ve ever known someone who has taken their own life, you will most assuredly be moved by this. Opening up to the many complications that life has to offer, Brandi brings a sense of understanding to those who struggle in any way. The impressive balance of the pain and passion that fuel this memoir creates a vivid portrait of a musician, a wife, a mother, a songwriter, and someone who has fought back against adversity. This is something we could all use, and whether you are a fan of her music or not, the storytelling here is nuanced and yet so incredibly relatable.
You’d never expect someone that has worked so hard and has made such a name for herself to be as humble as this. As she gets further into her career and opens up about her successes – including five Grammy wins and many other accolades – you have to admire the sheer adulation she wears on her sleeve. When she is telling tales of spending an evening playing music with Joni Mitchell, Chaka Kahn, Elton John, Shooter Jennings, and Tanya Tucker, Ms. Carlile remains as hopeful and exuberant as when she was playing small shows as a child. Her detailed description of performing Mitchell’s classic album is delightful. It’s hard to imagine anybody pulling off the wildly gorgeous vocals brought to life by Joni on “Blue,” but Brandi was able to pull it off brilliantly.
As impressively written as “Broken Horses” is, the audiobook is simply a must-own for music fans. With nearly every chapter aside from the first, Brandi plays a song or two or three connected to the experiences she discusses. You’ll find around an hour and a half of her familiar songs and covers. Frankly, it’s worth owning for that alone. All done with a simple piano or acoustic guitar, the gorgeously produced tunes amplify every word and exploration that came before. While the music is weaved in between chapters, you can find them gathered together in the ‘Acknowledgments’ and ‘About the Author’ sections. If you even remotely appreciate her music, this is well worth the cost for that alone. Yet, the complete work makes it truly exceptional.
Brandi Carlile’s engaging memoir “Broken Horses” is a moving and passionate work. As someone who has found beauty in her music, it’s impossible not to be completely moved by this powerful journey – one with a final chapter that is especially relevant for all of us. Her writing is sweet-natured, occasionally silly, immensely charming, engaging, and most of all, she made it easy to be proud of being a bit of a “misfit” as she lovingly refers to herself and the people she shares her life with. This is a triumph. If you’ve ever felt lost or misunderstood, or perhaps you are struggling with demons yourself, this is an absolute must. I guess, in a way, most of us can ultimately understand what it feels like to be a ‘Broken Horse.’ Here’s hoping that we get to a place where that very understanding will bring compassion and love instead of division and fear. A damn good place to start healing is sharing in Brandi Carlile’s emotionally impactful story.