A version of this story about Brandi Carlile first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
If Brandi Carlile had first seen Pixar’s “Onward” by herself, she might not have ended up writing and performing the song “Carried Me With You” for the film about two elf brothers trying to bring back their late father. But the filmmakers first showed her footage from the film in the company of Phil and Tim Hanseroth, twins who have been her closest musical collaborators for her entire career — and when the footage ended, she looked at the brothers.
“They were choking back tears, and I thought, ‘It’s an animated movie — what’s going on?’ And then they turned to me and said, ‘We want to do this. This is a story about brothers, and we want to write a song.'”
Director Dan Scanlan and the Pixar team said they were looking for a song that wasn’t sad but wasn’t so rock ‘n’ roll that you wouldn’t pay attention to the words. “Carried Me With You” came within three days, with Carlile saying she “mined the twins’ experiences” as she wrote the song with them.
“A lot of times when we write our songs, they write drawing from my experience,” she said. “They’ll observe a situation in my life and start to write something about it, and then pass the ball to me and I’ll take off and write about it from experience. But this time, I just remember asking the twins if there was a time growing up when their lives got hard and they took one another for granted. And we were able to tap into that experience of theirs. I think they really understood the adult subtext of the film.”
Within three days of seeing the footage, Carlile and the Hanseroths had the song written. “We made a little acoustic demo of it in our dressing room backstage before a show, sent it to Pixar and said, ‘Is this what you guys were thinking of?’ And they said, ‘That’s exactly what we were thinking.'”
But the filmmakers, she added, did ask for one tweak. “They took issue with one lyrical theme that was almost like a nautical theme,” she said. “They were like, ‘There’s just nothing nautical about this movie.’ I’m like, ‘You know what? You’ve got a really good point.’ I take criticism really well, and I found that to be really satisfying and fun, the back-and-forth with those guys. I mean, look at that film, look at all the Pixar films — the creativity is off the charts. We’ve got nothing on them when it comes to creativity.”
As they were writing the song, though, Carlile said she and the Hanseroths were also conscious that it should work outside the context of the film. “It has to work in the movie, but I don’t write songs for kids’ films,” she said. “It would have to be able to be a standalone track on one of our albums for me to rest well. But it turns out that the movie has really adult themes. I took my 5-year-old daughter to the premiere and she covered her eyes through half of it — not because she was scared, but because she was emotional. So it just lends itself really well to a tortured folk singer being able to write the song.”
While the song was the first that Carlile wrote and recorded specifically for a movie, it was far from the first time that she was interested in the intersection of film and music. “All the way into my teenage years, having the visual to accompany certain kinds of new music was the way that I made inroads and forays into new genres of music that I wasn’t being exposed to by my parents,” she said. “I listened to only classic country music in my household growing up. So I would see a Disney movie or hear a Giorgio Moroder soundtrack, and I’d be like, ‘Oh, my God, what is this amazing sound?'”
“One of the most influential pieces of music in my life actually came in my preteen years when I got the ‘Philadelphia’ soundtrack. And I mean, on that soundtrack alone, there was Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, the Indigo Girls and opera. That soundtrack — to this day, I’m still chasing it down in my writing.”