“That’s how you know it’s on vinyl,” Kaysy grinned. From the speakers, the crackle of the record could barely be heard –– but in the empty room, it was clear as any other voice.
“What’s the typical phrase…” Gwen mused, tapping her chin. “It sounds ‘warmer?’”
“I’ve never understood that,” said Dania. “It’s music, how is it gonna be warm?”
Seemingly in response, the album began just as Dania finished speaking, with a strum across the guitar and an insistent rhythm on the bass string. Before more than a moment had passed, a voice joined the tune and provided the beginnings of a story.
I went out looking for the answers / and never left my town…
“She has such a resonant voice,” Eleanor commented.
“Doesn’t she?” Kaysy replied, taking a seat on the nearby couch. “When I first heard it I became obsessed with it. Like, how does she sound both gritty and crystal clear? The way she flips between her head voice and chest voice like a little yodel gets me every time. I use to try to copy that in every song I sang.”
“She also plays the guitar here, right?”
“Yes,” Kaysy answered. “Although it’s more than that. The Hanseroth twins, Phil and Tim, have been a huge part of her band since the beginning. They play multiple instruments throughout all her albums, co-write many of the songs with her, and often add beautiful harmonies. I like calling the band ‘Brandi and the Twins’ but it seems like Tim and Phil are totally at peace backing up an incredible frontwoman.”
“Are they the ones behind the harmonies in the background?” Gwen asked. Responding to her, a lyrical line floated up behind Carlile’s vocals –– normally divorced from gender but now heard again in the twin’s voices.
“It’s certainly a musically complex layering,” Eleanor said. “Just how much instrumental power is underneath that voice, and it still stands out in front.”
“Brandi Carlile doesn’t overuse syncopation in her music,” Gwen pointed out. “It’s aggressively straight-laced, rhythmically. You get a few offbeats in the drum fills, but guitars and vocals are almost always on the one and three. It gives the sound a real self-assurance.”
The quartet listened as the album transitioned into its second track, the minor “Dying Day.” Sure enough, the only offbeats to be found were buried in the chorus. The impactful moments of the song –– those that your heart repeated days later –– were strictly in time.
“You identified this album as a queer album when you suggested it?” Dania asked Kaysy.
“Well, Brandi Carlile is a lesbian,” Kaysy began. “But it’s deeper than that, obviously. Most songs don’t scream “I’M GAY,” except “Caroline” which is very obviously a love song for a woman.”
“Which is, fascinatingly, the one song where she brought on a male vocalist to sing backup,” Gwen pointed out.
“But it’s Elton John,” Eleanor added, rolling her eyes. “The queen of gay camp.”
“I think there are parts of the queer experience in every track,” Kaysy continued. “For example, “Dreams” is about loving someone that you can’t have. While a straight person could still identify with the sentiment, I definitely imagine this song being about having your first big gay crush and you can’t tell that person how you feel. Maybe it’s because they are straight, or maybe you aren’t out yet…”
“Or maybe they’re straight,” said Eleanor. “I speak from experience.”
Kaysy nodded. “Maybe you just haven’t learned to communicate your queer feelings in a heteronormative world quite yet. So you just long for them and daydream about your perfect gay life together. But, it’s a jubilant song, because even if you can’t have this first crush you can still dream about the beautiful queer life that lies ahead of you.”
Again, seemingly timed out, the song “Dreams” began just as Kaysy completed her thoughts on it. The song’s constructed build, adding one instrument at a time under Carlile’s smooth vocals, led up to a crashing chorus that breathed new life into the midpoint of the record’s Side A.
I keep it to myself / I know what it means / I can’t have you / but I have dreams
“This album feels so young, compared to her newer songs at least. Her most recent record, By the Way, I Forgive You, has themes of motherhood and giving advice to the next generation. Give Up the Ghost is from a younger perspective, and it doesn’t seem to give any answers. There’s so much searching, living and trying to understand it all.”
“There’s something interesting about that, right?” Eleanor said, sitting up. “So much of this album, to me, is about miscommunication, which is so integral to the queer experience. Not having the words to say what you want to say –– or having them, but not having the confidence to say them at the time.”
“And the regret that you retrace a decade later,” Kaysy added. “Not just in romance, but in friendships as well.”
“It’s excellently coded messaging,” said Gwen. “There’s obviously the one song where she sings ‘I’m your man’ to a presumed female listener. But beyond that, the queerness of the song is so much in the deeper implication of the narrative than it is in the lyrics proper.”
“And maybe I’m making all of this up!” Kaysy said, laughing, “I always try to find narratives in songs and her lyrics are perfect for this. I hear clear emotional stories in her music and create specific relateable scenarios for the songs that may not actually exist.”
“She keeps talking in the second person, too,” Dania pointed out. “Always ‘you’ and ‘us.’”
“It’s part of why I like her so much,” Eleanor said. “There’s an implied person she’s speaking to in every song, but it changes often. Sometimes mid-song, if you read it as––”
“Oh, hold on, this is my favorite song on the album,” Kaysy said, holding out a hand. The gentle strings were a notable departure from earlier in the album, and Carlile’s lyrics seemed further stripped of artifice to match.
Eleanor cocked an ear. “This one is your favorite? ‘That Year?’”
“Definitely,” said Kaysy. “It’s funny because it’s one of the more simple songs in the album but I’m always returning to it. It’s this soft, emotional song right between the biggest bangers on the album, “Dreams” and “Caroline”. The song is her reflecting back to high school when she lost a friend to suicide.”
Kaysy continued: “Relating this back to the queer experience, as a community we have lost too many of our young people to suicide. The song reflects beautifully on a traumatic loss that she is finally making sense of and making peace with. I find this song terribly sad and terribly healing all at once.”
Gwen sat forward, considering. “Absolutely,” she finally remarked. “There’s so much isolation felt in the lyrics, across the album. Maybe By The Way is about an older generation, but Give Up The Ghost is about the lack of one. Queer elders are hard to come by, due to the AIDS crisis and fewer people having really grown up knowing who they were. That can be isolating.”
“But also joyous, right?” Eleanor said. “Look at the other songs on the album. It’s not impossible to find pride in the struggle, to embrace who you truly are and turn that into something that shouts out, like ‘Caroline.’”
“Her style jumps all over the place,” Dania said. “Is this considered rock, or country? Or pop?”
“The technical term is Americana, but these things are liquid,” Eleanor explained. “When you have lots of acoustic instruments, elements of bluegrass and gospel mixed in, that’s the closest I can come to defining it.”
“She leans more on the country side of things for me,” said Gwen. “The guitar is so present, and that clear and lonesome voice often reads like the open wind.”
The song played out its final wisps of lyrics (“I was angry / I was a Baptist / I was a daughter / I was wrong”), which offered no resolution but to vanish into the ether of the record’s pops and scratches.
“…and then we drop right into a happy song,” Kaysy laughed, as the drums kicked off the high-energy “Caroline” –– impossible to miss, for Elton John’s guest run on the piano throughout.
Dania swayed to the bouncy rhythm. “Again, that jumpy tone,”
“It’s certainly intentional,” Gwen pointed out. “Side B seems more downtrodden overall, more internal and contemplative.”
Kaysy nodded in agreement. “You don’t really notice that if you’re not listening on vinyl but the second half is less punchy. Much more intimate. The queer experience is not just about yelling in the streets, obviously. It’s also in all the interpersonal experiences, the romantic and the platonic.”
“Maybe that’s why the album ends on such a strange light note,” Eleanor said. “Less drum backing, more of Brandi singing alone, or with the backing vocals reserved only for choral tones and not lyrical harmonics. ‘Touching The Ground’ has a more driving feel, but it still feels within the world of the second half.”
“Definitely”, Kaysy said. “I love this album. There are so many lyrics, musical riffs, and feelings that I connect with on a personal level. Do I think it’s perfect? No, but every time I listen I ruminate on so many things. I’m grateful for this record and how it’s uniquely queer rather than explicitly queer.”
“Well, she is a lesbian,” Eleanor said. “Let’s not pretend the queerness of the album, buried as it may be in subtext, isn’t a vital piece of it.”
Kaysy nodded. “Let me be clear: There is nothing wrong at all with explicit queerness and I think it’s important to have that in the vast world of queer music. But, everyone has a different queer experience and I definitely connect with this one.”
“So do I,” agreed Eleanor. “Hopefully another generation will, too.”
Kaysy Ostrom is an actor, teaching artist, director, playwright, singer-songwriter, and arts administrator from Seattle, Washington. By day, she teaches and directs the next generation of theatre artists and by evening she consumes much art, reads many books, hangs with her beautiful fiancee and her beautiful cat, rehearses plays, and creates stuff. You can find her on YouTube under the username kaysyconundrum or visit her website: kaysyostrom.com.
Image Source: Amazon