Opportunities abound today for musicians to raise their voices in protest. At marches and rallies nationwide, many do just that, and then pack up their instruments and slogan hats and head home. But when Brandi Carlile commits to a cause, she commits. That's not a surprise — the Washington state-based singer-songwriter is famous for the depth of her dedication, whether to family, a cause, or the gorgeously crafted songs that have made her a central figure in the 21st-century singer-songwriter scene.
Most recently, when asked by student organizers to perform at Seattle's iteration of the national "March For Our Lives," Carlile instantly agreed, and has now released a stirring video of the march and performance.
Carlile connected with the student organizers through a good friend who is a Seattle police officer. "She was attending a community meeting organized by the students to plan the Seattle March," Carlile says via email. "When they were asked who they'd like to be the performer at the end of the March they said my name. She offered to FaceTime me for them, because they didn't believe she knew me! When I picked up and heard the kids' idea I, of course, said I'd do it right there and then."
With a plethora of rock notables living in Seattle, the students chose Carlile precisely because she represents the convictions they, too, are learning to express. Organizer Lina Waughman, the Woodinville High School senior — and power lifting champ — who co-organized the March, later reflected on the experience of listening to Carlile there.
"Sitting next to the youth from all over the state of Washington while listening to Brandi sing about how the times are changing made tears come to my eyes, as I thought of how my generation was powerful enough to not only plan a march, but a movement that is not going to stop until what we are fighting for is achieved. Having a woman as powerful and strong as Brandi play reminded me of why I was there, why I was advocating, and why I was a part of the moment."
The video you see above was student-produced, another example of the initiative that made the March a national event. Carlile issued a statement to accompany the clip, which reads, in part: "The kids in this video left their houses, put down their phones and showed up in Seattle to protest gun violence and ask for the adults in this country to take responsibility for what's happening to them in their schools. This is the way I would want my daughter to communicate and this is a generation I am in complete support of."
What Carlile didn't know when she accepted the invitation to perform was that her wife, Catherine Shepherd, would give birth to their second daughter just days before the March, while her bandmate Tim Hanseroth welcomed his new baby on the same day. "Also, Phil [Hanseroth, Tim's brother and their bandmate] had walking pneumonia, so I think he felt that some walking was appropriate!" Carlile added. "The business of having babies is very, very emotional," she continued. "Every day that I'm lucky enough to be with my kids I develop a more sobering understanding of our responsibility as adults to keep them safe."
For her short set, Carlile chose her mega-anthem "The Joke," Bob Dylan's classic "The Times They Are A'Changin' " and "Hold Out Your Hand," the soundtrack for the new video. "I chose 'Hold Out Your Hand' because in some ways that song is about intentionally placed divisions and how defeating they are," she explains. "They're sanctioned and sponsored by the financial powers, who know that if we step out of our 'assigned' political party roles, we might actually be able to come up with a plan and achieve responsible mutually agreed upon gun violence prevention. This is bad news to the NRA, bad news to gun manufacturers, and bad news to political superpowers that control people with fear around the Second Amendment. There's big money in fear and there's unimaginable money in division."
As the debate over gun rights and gun violence continues in the U.S., Carlile believes the answer lies in dialogue across the typical political lines. Raised in rural Washington, Carlile grew up around hunters and says they are "some of the most fervent gun safety advocates I know — until someone — the gun lobby — convinces them that their guns will be 'taken away.' "
She thinks that many musicians have hesitated to speak out on any side of the gun debate because they fear being perceived as "hard-left or -right," and hopes that her engagement with the subject helps foster dialogue and find a middle ground upon which change can grow. "There are elements of the gun responsibility movement that gun owners and non-gun owners can agree on!" she said. "We can make a solid change and improvements to our laws without throwing the baby out with the bath water. I believe — call me crazy — that there are elements against change that are hard at work to make sure we don't find out that we agree on anything... Artists and all public people who make a living this way have a platform and a responsibility to use it for their own convictions and altruism, in my humble opinion."