Warner Music; Inset: Rich Fury/Getty Images
When Carlile stumbled on Cox's cover of her Grammy-winning hit "The Joke" on Instagram, she knew she had to reach out to the former Friends star. "It's astonishing how f---ing good [the cover] was," Carlile tells EW in a joint interview with Cox. "It was just great. Courteney's a badass piano player. So we met on Instagram and bonded over piano music."
Carlile DM'd Cox immediately and Cox, who is a longtime music lover, replied with an invitation to one of her Sunday jam sessions at her house. "I was so excited about it," Cox says. "I was practicing 'The Joke' over and over. I get performance anxiety, but I was so thrilled that she was going to come to the house."
But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck and all plans to become musical pals in person were set aside, until this spring when Carlile was in town for an awards show. "You invited me over and we became totally fast friends, soulmate type pals for life because we actually have a lot in common," says Carlile.
They've since become professional partners, collaborating on the music video for Carlile's first single off her new album, In These Silent Days, which debuts in October.
"Right On Time," directed by Cox, premiered Wednesday and EW sat down with these two legendary ladies to get the full story behind how their artistic partnership came about, the impact of Cox's roots in music videos, and how she helped Carlile overcome a lifelong fear of water for a crucial sequence.
BRANDI CARLILE: Courteney and I, before we met, we became aware of each other through a really eccentric, unbelievable stylist that works with the both of us, Maryam Malakpour. She had always been telling us that we would like each other and we were just abstractly listening. Maryam dreamed up the aesthetic of, I won't call it David Bowie, but it certainly touches on his brilliance, eccentricity, flamboyance, and gender neutrality. She was talking to Courteney one day, and Courteney basically said, "I've got an idea."
COURTENEY COX: All I know is they were still looking for a director for the video, and I thought, "Well, I direct, why am I not pitching myself for this?" I didn't want to be given it. I wanted to see if my idea was something that Brandi responded to. I was driving in the car as I do too much, and I thought of this idea because the song reminded me of something that I felt and then I pitched it to them.
CARLILE: The idea was so cinematic to me. I had never told Courteney what the song was about because I felt protective over it or maybe it was too abstract in some way. But her idea was so spiritually connected to what the song is about. It wasn't on the nose; it was better than that. As soon as I heard what she wanted to do, I was like, "That is it, that's the video."
Courteney, where did you get that concept of starting backstage after a show and the sense of being trapped in the theater, at least subconsciously?
COX: I was thinking about how we feel we have a certain persona and then we have roadblocks, and it's so often in our minds. I can talk myself into so many different things… I have my own roadblocks in so many areas of my life. I get nervous if I play the piano. Am I good enough? I do that to myself and then the more I just relax and go, "I'm going to say, 'F--- it,'" it's amazing what you can do.
CARLILE: When you put these huge walls in front of yourself to keep you from taking risks and following your dreams across the line, you come slamming up against this glass wall. And you realize you put these things in front of yourself and as soon as you wake up and realize they're not there, that's when you can really transcend.
Brandi, what was it that grabbed you about Courteney's pitch? Was there a specific image?
CARLILE: She literally acted it out for me. She's like, "We're FaceTiming," and then she acted it out, the facial expressions and everything. I was captivated. I really feel seen by Courteney. I don't feel like "Brandi Carlile" with her, I feel like Brandi. That's why the video spoke to me. I knew she was just seeing something about who I am and why I wrote that song that I didn't expect anyone to see.
Courteney, one of your very first jobs was a memorable appearance in Bruce Springsteen's music video for "Dancing in the Dark."
CARLILE: She's doing the dance right now, just so you know.
Does it feel full circle to have started your career starring in a music video and now be directing one?
COX: That little shy girl that didn't want to dance on stage with Bruce Springsteen [Cox was one of several actresses Springsteen was instructed to choose from in the crowd]. I'm not sure; I guess it's full circle because now I would dance in front of anybody. I was so shy back then, and I really did not want to get up on stage. I almost died, and that's probably why they wanted me to because I would give that reaction of, "No, don't pick me." But I love music, almost more than I love anything. I wish I started when I was younger and really did something with it because it's my favorite thing. It's the one thing that makes me happy even when I'm sad, or it makes me sad even when I'm happy.
CARLILE: It's cool that in that video she's like, "Don't pick me." And then when it comes to directing this one, she calls me and she's like, "Pick me."
It was a long time ago, but do you feel like you learned anything shooting that video you carried forward into this?
COX: I mean, you can always learn from Brian De Palma, but I'm not sure it was that video that I learned from. I've directed a couple of movies, and I've directed a bunch of Cougar Town's, and I've done a few videos, but this was special to me because it really wasn't a performance video, and it wasn't made with my iPhone. It meant something to me. And there's a line in a song that says, "I lose you in the silent days." And I think we all can relate to that line, however you want to interpret it. That line really haunts me and it's really real.
The climax of the video happens underwater. Can you tell me more about the challenges of filming that logistically?
CARLILE: Since I was a tiny little girl, I've had a fear of putting my face in the water. I don't do it. I do not put my face in the water. I've never put my face in the water without plugging my nose, and I've never opened my eyes underwater ever in my life. I went to adult swimming lessons for people with anxiety, so I could prepare to do that in the video because I really didn't want to let Courteney down. I wanted to meet her where she was. She set a really high standard with this idea. So, I went to this f---ing swimming lesson, and I had to stand in a three-foot pool and just put my face in and I could not do it. It took me an hour and a half to just even a little bit get my face in, but I couldn't open my eyes, I couldn't unplug my nose.
So I went to a hypnotist, and I got some weird subconscious mind work done, and then I practiced in Courteney's pool for two days. And we pulled it off. It was really peaceful and special for me. I felt like the girl in the video that had this thing in front of her, this immovable, invisible barrier, and I removed one. There's never been anything like that that's happened to me in my life or my career. It was pretty significant.
Brandi, this is the first single off your next album. Why was this the one you wanted to launch with?
CARLILE: Oh man, it just told us. It told us itself that it was the one. I've been waiting a long time to decide that I believe in a song as much as I believe in 'The Joke,' and so, there was really no question.
I was going to ask, you tweeted recently about it being four years since you believed in a song the same way as "The Joke." Why do you think it took that long?
CARLILE: I think it's because I don't know if I'm always a songwriter. Sometimes I don't know if I ever will be again. I'll write a song and then I won't for like two years. Sometimes I wonder, "Do I still write songs? Can I still write songs?" And then I'll just get smacked in the face with one. That's what happened. I was just waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and then right on time, it just came to me. Other songs had come to me before, but nothing that I was working on for the album yet had done that, had grabbed a hold of my heart in the way that "The Joke" did, where it terrified me because I felt like it was going to get beyond me or beyond my control. I've never had a song before like I had with "The Joke." I've always been an album artist, so it's an underdog career.
Courteney, what was it about the song that spoke to you and spurred that specific vision?
COX: You can hear that song one time and just be completely addicted to it, and that's so rare. Usually, it takes a couple of times. You hear a song, and you grow into it. But this one, it's haunting. You don't know whether it's something about a daughter, a wife, you have no idea, but you know you can relate to it.
CARLILE: The first person that I played it for live actually was Courteney because I played it here. Where we're sitting at Courteney's piano was the first time I ever played it outside of the recording. There's something about this place that nurtures artists into feeling comfortable, taking their work outside of that place. She's understated and modest about her jam sessions, but I've run into quite a few artists that have come here to recuperate and feel the same way.
Brandi, can you tell me anything more about the origins or intentions behind the song for you and what you wanted to say with it?
CARLILE: In these silent days and this time that's been imposed on us spiritually as a global community, really significant things have happened, babies were born, divorces were had, people died, and there's something really human about the obstacles that we've put in front of ourselves, and then deciding to just somehow explode through it and say, maybe I didn't come out of this right, maybe I didn't handle this the right way, maybe it wasn't right, but something had to happen — so it was right on time. How do you come back from these silent days, from what we've been through?