April 21, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Brandi Carlile seeks out guiding lights in ‘Onward’ song

When the makers of Disney/Pixar’s “Onward” approached five-time Grammy winner Brandi Carlile to write an end-credits song, they didn’t need to give her much direction.

“This song wrote itself based on it being such a great film, plus the themes of loss, grief and emotional reconciliation, familial connection and a theme that I constantly return to: chosen family or family in nontraditional roles,” Carlile said of “Carried Me With You,” which is nominated for a 2021 Grammy. “When I look at families that way, songs just come out of me.”

Lyric video for Brandi Carlile’s “Carried Me With You,” from Disney/Pixar’s “Onward.”

“Onward” is an animated road movie set in a world populated by mythical creatures (unicorns-pegasi eat out of trash cans; some cops are centaurs). Two blue elf brothers (Ian, voiced by Tom Holland, and Barley, voiced by Chris Pratt) go on a magical quest in their sketchy van to cast a spell that will allow them to visit with their long-dead father for one day.

Carlile praises the film’s final reveal about the true nature of the family’s bonds (not spoiled here): “I could get emotional just thinking about it … I mean, you can almost write a song about it without being a songwriter. It’s just so beautiful. It’s so beautiful.”

Though Carlile and her wife have two young daughters and she acknowledges that was a main motivator for taking a Pixar gig, she didn’t turn to her kids for inspiration.

“I just really thought about the boys in the film. I thought about grief and nontraditional family structure. I thought about that mom trying to raise those two boys without any help, and what kind of character-building love that was formed during that time.

“I’m glad I didn’t think of my kids, because I probably would have projected. They would have called me: ‘This is Pixar. This really sounds like a lesbian melodrama,’ ” she says with a jolly laugh.

One of her favorite lines to make it into the song is “Like a lighthouse in a storm/you were always guiding me,” because, she says, “we all have a lighthouse somewhere, and it’s out there trying to bring us to shore, trying to make us realize we’re not alone. But you have to seek it out. It doesn’t really find you; you find it.

“I love that theme, because the boy in the film was seeking out a light that was gone. And when he opened his mind to the light that was there, that’s what really brought him back to shore.”

“Carry Me With You” is a country-pop road song, with driving drums and a big chorus. Carlile is a powerful songwriter and singer, with a unique voice featuring an enviable high-end range. She’s probably best known in the alt-country space but has released songs in many other genres, such as the seductive ballad “Throw It All Away” and the stirring, towering empowerment anthem “The Joke.”

“I’ve got a lot of lanes out in front of me for songwriting. I’ve got, like, deep, dark, lesbian, introspective folk music. I’ve got kind of punk rock — you know, Amy Ray‘s solo record-kind of thing. I’ve got Diane Warren, Elton John, ultimate diva, power-ballad obsessions. But then I’ve got this kind of like, forward-moving, aggro kind of folk thing,” she says with a sly smile.

“When you say ‘road song,’ I think you mean that kick drum that’s just ahead of the beat the whole way through. It just keeps moving forward, keeps the wheels turning. I picture a big tractor. We always double the bass, because it brings up this bottom end, and that kick drum’s pulling you forward, and you’re kind of hanging on every word because you gotta keep up. It’s like a ball rolling down a hill.

“I wanted it to feel like this forward-moving road song that causes you to take pause in the choruses to kind of appreciate the beauty and look around. And then the chorus ends, and you’re back on the road.”

Carlile was happy to hit the road herself to take her family to the movie’s premiere.

“We traveled to L.A., we got styled, and we walked the red carpet, which for ‘Onward’ was blue. There’s all these things laid out for the kids, and they honestly thought the whole thing was just for them, this big party. And then we’re in the movie theater, and [the actors] got up and thanked us for writing our song, and my daughter is looking at me like,” she imitates her kid’s drop-jawed amazement, “making the connection. I finally achieved peak coolness with the kids.

“We pointed out that there is a gay character, and word is that was the first LGBTQ+ character in a Pixar-Disney film. And they didn’t think anything of that, because they don’t even really understand ‘gay.’ I mean, they’re the only ones they know, really, with two moms. But in subtle ways, it did help our family to have representation in that film.

“It was very cool watching the credits of that song roll down the screen and for them to make the connection: ‘Hey, that’s Mama, but for the first time she’s singing to us.’ ”