Courtney Marie Andrews was just sixteen years old when she left her home in Arizona armed solely with an acoustic guitar and a tough-minded ambition to become a working musician. A decade later, after touring the world as a backing singer and guitarist with over 40 different acts, including Jimmy Eat World and Damien Jurado, Andrews has suddenly found herself catapulted centre stage by the astonishing reception afforded the release of her sixth solo collection, Honest Life. Her distinctive vocal style, which blurs the dividing line between Folk / Country and Americana, combined with a rare gift for sharp-eyed storytelling, has seen Andrews compared to a whole host of groundbreaking singer / songwriters, ranging from Joni Mitchell and Emmylou Harris to Iris Dement and Dolly Parton. In the wake of Honest Life’s European release last month, Andrews embarked on a long-overdue tour of the UK. Kevin McGrath managed to catch up with the critically acclaimed singer ahead of her visit to Cardiff.
People might be forgiven for thinking that in getting paid to travel the world and play your songs, that you’re really living the dream. However, there are plenty of examples on your new record Honest Life which reflect a completely different reality. It’s a state of mind that you describe as ‘road-worn’ on “Put the Fire Out” and which you explore in detail on “Table for One”-
‘Table for one / I’ve got no one I’m waiting on / I just pulled into town an hour ago/ From the streets of Houston / To this diner in Ohio / I’m just waiting for the bar to open / Cause I’m a little bit lonely / A little bit stoned / And I’m ready to go home’.
You’re back on the road again now, though, and all set to play for us in Cardiff, so presumably you’ve found a cure for that severe bout of homesickness?
When writing some of the songs off ‘Honest Life,’ I was going through a tremendous heartbreak, while spending nearly two years mostly on the road. Touring is a huge part of my life, and most of the time, there is nowhere else I’d rather be. But, when you’re not mentally in the right state, it can be an internal disaster. You feel very out of control, and detached from reality in a way. You do feel “a little bit lonely, and a little bit stoned,” and home becomes this star in the sky that seems nearly impossible to reach, but constantly beckons you with its brightness. Once you get home though, you realize life is how it’s always been for the most part, and you get achy to get back on the road. It’s definitely a recurring cycle. I’ve found that most musicians’ who have a passion for touring, get burnt out, take a break, then get back up again and keep going. It’s an integral part of our lifestyles.
Having taken the decision to produce Honest Life yourself, I’m sure that you had a clear vision of just how you intended the record to sound as you headed into the studio? Did anything surprise you, though, about the way the album eventually turned out?
‘Honest Life’ was by far the easiest record I’ve ever made, in the sense that once something clicked musically, there was very little resistance. The only surprise in the studio was the strings for “Only in My Mind.” That song was just gonna be me and piano, but then I thought of strings at the very last moment. So, I called up this local Seattle friend, who is an amazing composer, Andrew Joslyn, and asked him if he could whip up a string arrangement in one night, and come by and record it. His house had just burnt down, and he was in a very fragile state, but he agreed. He wrote those parts in a night, and laid them down the next day. It was pure magic.
You’ve described Honest Life as ‘a coming of age’ record. What is it about this particular album that makes you hold it in such high regard?
For most of us, our early 20’s can be a very transformative time. We think we’ve got life pinned down, and that we’re ready to take on the world, but most of the time reality hasn’t quite broken through our mental barriers yet. I wrote most of these songs during that time, but also after years of making record after record. For me, this record is the record where I figured it all out, and made sense of everything I was trying to say on my past records.
The album’s title track, and I would say its emotional centrepiece “Honest Life”, poses the question ‘How to be honest, how to be wise and how to be a good friend’. Your answer, initially at least, appears to be an optimistic one – ‘But my head’s up high, and I ain’t got nothing but time / To work at living an honest life’. The counterpoint to that optimism is to be found, though, on the album’s final track “Only In My Mind” where you sing ‘In my mind I had the answers / Every dream was within sight / Every heartache could be mended / Happiness came with time / but it was only in my mind / Yes, it was only in my mind’. Have you been able to resolve that conflict – whether we can really learn to live up to the ideal we have of our better selves, given time, or whether that’s merely an illusion, ultimately achievable only in the mind?
The end statement with a lot of these tunes, is, we’re not perfect, and we may never get it exactly how we envisioned it, but damn, we gave it our best shot. “Only In My Mind” was written about these unrealistic ideals and boundaries we put on our lives, and accepting that those can vanish if we want them to. Life sometimes chooses your path, rather than us choosing, but it’s about how we react to those changes.
There’s a couple of interesting break-up songs on the album in “Not The End” and “Let The Good One Go”. Both songs are remarkably free of bitterness and self-pity, which is a clever twist on the familiar theme of unrequited love. Is that a sign of a growing maturity in your songwriting?
Absolutely! When you’re younger, you can be quick to react bitterly. I didn’t feel bitter, I just felt remorse for something so beautiful coming to an end, so I wasn’t gonna use a song as an excuse to convey false emotions. When I first started writing songs, I’d over-exaggerate in an angsty way to get a point across, but I think if you’re a good songwriter, you can say something simply and have its meaning come clearly across.
Was music always in your blood? Do you come from a musical family?
I have absolutely no idea where it came from. I’d say both my parents are shower/car singers, but that’s about it.
Was it written in the stars that you would become a storyteller? Did you scribble down fragments of poetry and song as a child? Did you like to tell stories more than any other child might?
Definitely. I have been writing short stories, poems, and songs since I could pick up a pencil. If callings are real, I’d say this was mine.
Can you explain the discipline that supports your song writing? Do you lock yourself in a room for a certain number of hours a day sweating blood until a song emerges?
I’ve done a bit of everything. I’ve tried writing a song a day, vacationing to write, writing in hallways and behind dumpsters, staying up late for hours, hopeful that a good song might emerge. It all works. If there is any story or emotion in you at all, you’ll cast your web, and songs will stick.
Is your work influenced in any way by other art forms – literature, painting or film?
Literature plays a big role in my songwriting. Books are friends, and they hold so many secrets to this world that are worth discovering. Hemingway, Steinbeck, Robbins, and Kerouac, have all influenced my writing greatly.
Your singing on Honest Life has seen you compared to some of the all-time great folk and country artists. Which are the singers that you find yourself listening to time and again?
Aretha Franklin taught me to sing. I’d sing along with her records to figure out how she uses her voice. As far as singers go, she’s at the top of the list.
Hopefully the forthcomimg show in Cardiff will feature many of the songs from Honest Life, but will we also get the chance to hear your cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless” or your version of “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”?
I can take one of those tunes off the shelf for the night.
Steve Earle has this great quote about his favourite songwriter – ‘Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that’. So, which songwriter would you champion to the death, even going to the extreme of stomping all over Bob Dylan’s coffee table?
I’d stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table, and tell Bob that he’s the greatest songwriter of all time, but Townes comes a close second in my book, with Tom Waits, and Joni Mitchell up there too. There are so many great songwriters, but the volume of good songs Bob has released is unreal.
On “Rookie Dreaming”, the album’s opening track, you sing ‘I was moving too fast to see all the paintings in Paris / Or the sunrise in Barcelona’. So, where is the one place that you really fell in love with on the road and that you might like to live someday?
I fall in love with places easily, and can slip into romanticizing them. The Scottish Highlands were pretty dreamy. I love Italy and Spain. I never get to stay long enough to know if I’d wanna live any of those places though. That’s the downside to touring. I’ve been to Paris at least 15 times now, and never once have I seen the Eiffel Tower.
Nina Simone said that ‘it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live’. Is that a statement that you would endorse, particularly in light of the election of a demagogue like Donald Trump?
I agree and disagree with that statement. Trump becoming our president was very heartbreaking for me, and a lot of our country, but some artists aren’t capable of reflecting those issues. I think it depends on the artist.
I believe you are part of the Our First 100 Days project, which aims to release a song a day for the first 100 days of the Trump presidency, in order to ‘inspire progress and benefit a cause for change’. How did your involvement in the campaign come about?
I’m a part of Secretly Canadian’s Publishing company, and was asked to be a part of it. It’s a great idea, and I’m very excited for everyone to hear the duet I did with Will Oldham for it. They’ve raised a lot of money for some great organizations.
Tim Finn claims that ‘the joy of songwriting only gets messed up if you’re trying to follow up a big success’. Given that Honest Life has been such a well-received, critically acclaimed piece of work, do you feel under extra pressure to simply repeat a winning formula and make Honest Life Volume II?
I don’t feel pressure, because I need my songs. They are my children. I personally need them to process day to day life, so following up Honest Life doesn’t scare me.
Courtney Marie Andrews plays Clwb Ifor Bach on the 28th February.