While Courtney Marie Andrews released Honest Life last year back in the US (via Mama Bird Recording Co.), those of us on this side of the Atlantic have had a longer wait to get our hands on the record. Luckily, the ever-reliable Loose Music stepped up to the plate and are releasing the album this Friday (20th Jan).
As we explained in a preview piece, Andrews left home at 16 to hit the road as a touring musician, roving up and down the West Coast playing for anyone who would listen. In the years since, she has played guitar and added vocals for almost forty artists, from Jimmy Eat World to the legend that is Damien Jurado. Throughout that time she was also working on solo material, releasing a full-length, On My Page, back in 2011, before hitting the road again. Now she’s back with what looks to be a breakout record of sorts, a coming of age album about growing up on the road, and returning home to try to find the titular Honest Life.
The result is an album which carves out its own niche, indebted to classic songwriters and contemporary heavyweights but also set apart, Andrews bending rules and conventions as and when she deems necessary, all in an attempt to say what she wants to say. As such, the songs don’t play like variations on a formula or a development of a theme. In fact, in the way they avoid cliche, they don’t feel like songs at all. There’s something in the dynamism of the album, the constant movement between conviction and doubt that gives it an altogether more organic feel. These are conversations, confessions, conflicted thoughts and feelings thought and felt then spoken aloud, still-hot words emerging with urgency. Tales of an honest life.
Hi Courtney, thanks for speaking with us. How is life treating you at the minute?
Life is great at the moment. I’m currently at a bar in Los Angeles, drinking a gin & tonic, and replying to your questions!
While travelling and change are common themes in music such as this, Honest Life strikes me as a particularly dynamic album. Much has been made of your extensive touring and recording, and I was wondering if you feel that your constant movement bleeds into your writing? In the alternate universe where Courtney Marie Andrews grew up and stayed at home in Arizona, how different a record would this be?
Movement and change are crucial to my personal growth. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a deep affinity to being on the move. One of my mother’s favorite stories to tell, is of me getting caught drawing a map in daycare, and trying to escape to go on some grand adventure. Leaving, is a part of my core. If I’d of stayed in Phoenix, who knows where I would be now. But I know that it would be somewhere very different than where I am now.
Then there’s the question of genre, which pops up quite a lot in reviews of the record – with uncertainty as to whether to label your music country or indie rock or folk or whatever else. Do you feel you belong to any one camp, or consider yourself inter-genre? Or do such issues hold no interest for you at all?
Genre was not really on my mind when writing and recording these songs. It never occurred to me that they could even be considered country until this radio guy in New York said, “hey, this has pedal steel, so we will have to play this on country radio.” I love country, but I definitely never sought out to write in any particular genre. All that mattered to me was that the songs were good. Good songs come in every style.
Sticking with country music, I’m interested in the nameless You that is the subject of the majority of the best and worst examples. There’s a section in David Lipsky’s book with David Foster Wallace where they’re talking about music, specifically the cheesy mainstream country music that makes up much of Midwestern radio, and Wallace floats the idea that all the romantic stuff is a metaphor: “[What if] what they’re really singing is to themselves, or to God? … [What if] the romantic shit [is] just to make it saleable… [and] they’re singing about something much more elemental being missing, and their being incomplete without it?”
Without wanting to get into anything too personal, I guess the question is whether this in any way resonates with you? Or, to put it differently, have/could you write such sad, lovelorn songs without a clear You in mind?
When writing songs, you are stuck with YOU. No matter how much you detach a song from yourself, it’s still coming from you, the writer. If you’ve ever felt, empathized or listened to anyone but yourself, and I mean TRULY listened to another, than that’s the start to writing another’s story well. World, and human to human empathy is where great storytelling derives from. You can write a sad story any day, but if you don’t understand where that pain comes from, or how it is shaped, than it will be hard for your listeners to grasp it, if lyrics and ideas are what they are searching for in your song.
Regardless of how personal or specifically targeted, I think it’s fair to say the songs carry a palpable honesty. Do you ever have issues with sharing such sincere words? I guess experienced touring musicians become uniquely adept at opening up to strangers, but there must be an element of difficulty and apprehension in sharing thoughts and feelings from an unguarded place?
I’ve said this before, but in all honesty, once I write a song, it only takes playing it a couple of times before it’s not my story to keep anymore. Once a song is finished, it feels like a closed book. I can tap into those feelings of the song in live performances, but it’s very easy for me to turn on and off. I’m a big believer in the tradition of folk music, in the sense that once you write a song, it’s up for re-interpertation. It is the world’s to be felt now.
On a similar topic, by playing and releasing these songs you are in effect taking something personal and inherently you and offering them up to the audience. I wonder if this process is difficult, or cathartic, or just plain joyful? How does the feeling differ from playing (and thus sharing) other people’s songs, such as when you play with Damien Jurado?
Writing and performing are very different. You are a storyteller on stage, relaying a story. It’s joyful for me to tell stories. I get excited to sing a good line, or hit a certain note. That’s very gratifying. As a backup singer and session player, I find joy in performing my best for the artist that I am playing with. It’s all about getting deep into the moment, and kicking ass.
Finally, could you name 4-5 artists you think we should be listening to right now? They can be new or old, popular or obscure, whatever you find yourself returning to.
For those who can’t get into Grateful Dead, start here: Jerry Garcia (Lonesome Prison Blues)
60’s folk obscure with an amazing modern day return: Bill Fay
Just damn obscure: Blaze Foley
Honest Life is out on the 20th January and you grab a copy via Loose Music. Also, Andrews is set for a pretty comprehensive UK starting at the end of February, and you can find the full list of dates below:
21 Feb – NORWICH, Arts Centre (supporting The Handsome Family)
22 Feb – MANCHESTER, RNCM (supporting The Handsome Family)
23 Feb – GLASGOW, St Luke’s (supporting The Handsome Family)
24 Feb – EDINBURGH, The Caves (supporting The Handsome Family)
25 Feb – GATESHEAD, Sage 2 (supporting The Handsome Family)
26 Feb – DURHAM, Old Cinema Launderette
27 Feb – LEEDS, Brudenell Social Club (supporting The Handsome Family)
28 Feb – CARDIFF, Clwb Ifor Bach
1 Mar – COVENTRY- The Tin
2 Mar – LONDON, Union Chapel (supporting The Handsome Family)
3 Mar – BRIGHTON, Concorde 2 (supporting The Handsome Family)
4 Mar – GUILDFORD, The Keep
6 Mar – LONDON, The Social
Photo by Susy Sundborg