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Nashville, Tenn. • For years, acclaimed singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile kept her personal life exactly that personal. As other gay entertainers made pronouncements about their relationships, Carlile, while not hiding her sexuality, kept the public focus on her music.
But with gay marriage embroiled in the political landscape, Carlile is taking a stand, and on Saturday, Sept. 15, she did it with the biggest step of her life by getting married to her partner, Catherine Shepherd.
"It was a crazy feeling while I was filling out the paperwork because I felt like I was breaking a law, like somebody was going to come in and say, 'You know you can't have this,' " said Carlile of getting her marriage license. "It was so exciting. And her mom and dad were there and it was just really special. So we have a marriage license in Massachusetts."
The couple had a small ceremony in Boston, the first of three they plan to hold to celebrate their marriage. They also plan to hold a large reception Sept. 28 outside Seattle where Carlile grew up and will have a third ceremony in London, where Shepherd was raised, early next year.
As she described her plans earlier this week, she admitted she never thought she'd have the chance to celebrate love this way.
"It's so surprising," Carlile said, "and so hard fought. … I wouldn't have been able to picture myself married or successful or pursuing my dreams if there hadn't been other people that had done it before me, like role models, and that's why talking about it is so important. If a 14- or 15-year-old girl reads this in a small town who's gay, then she knows that someday she might get to go get a marriage license and get married, and there's no reason she should stop dreaming about a white wedding, because I didn't."
Carlile started off in the Seattle coffeehouse scene before attracting attention from people like Rick Rubin and Burnett, who have produced her albums, and Elton John, with whom she's collaborated. Though she has yet to have wide commercial success, she has matured into an artist who fits into several worlds simultaneously country, folk and rock as she showed during a visit to Nashville for performances during the Americana Music Association conference and awards.
That overarching sense of freedom is informing every part of Carlile's life, from the recording of her latest album, "Bear Creek," to her charitable work to her ideas about taking a stand in politically exciting times.
Speaking out is a personal thing for Carlile, but it's also a very public act as election season nears. She hopes to do her part to help pass Referendum 74 to legalize same-sex marriage in Washington along with other issues she feels are important, like opposing the Defense of Marriage Act.
"There's a political undercurrent around equality right now that just demands a voice, voices to rise up and say, 'Yeah, I'm one of these people too and I believe this thing as well,' " Carlile said. "So that's what we're doing right now. We're on the cusp of a civil-rights movement, and so I have to be a part of it, and I want to be."
The 31-year-old singer's closest friends say Shepherd's presence has changed Carlile in many ways, not just personally. It's even reflected in "Bear Creek," released earlier this summer. The album was recorded in a mellow, experimental atmosphere.
Carlile thinks "Bear Creek" is her best record because of that total freedom. Bandmates Tim and Phil Hanseroth, twins who play guitar and bass for Carlile, think Shepherd made it all possible.
"[Carlile] is the fearless leader of our group and things have just been really sunny lately," Tim Hanseroth said.