Courtney Marie Andrews has been playing the music game for a good while. Andrews is no novice when it comes to both writing and performing, having put out six LP’s since 2008, but it’s the latest of these, ‘Honest Life’, that’s seen Andrews really breakthrough worldwide.
I have the pleasure of catching her final UK performance in 2017 at the wonderful Bush Hall venue in Shepherd’s Bush, London, and have been granted a generous twenty minute slot for an interview. I’m led upstairs through the charmingly restored trad-musichall decor to meet Courtney, who seems at home and relaxed dressed in ripped jeans and jumper, like any other 26-year-old. She’s friendly and engaging, making me feel welcome as we settle into our chat…
KG: Hi Courtney, how are you doing?
KG: Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself, how and why you got into music?
CMA: My name’s Courtney Marie Andrews, I’ve been playing since I was a kid. I started making records when I was about 15 years old, and I haven’t stopped since!
KG: So when you wrote songs as a 15 year old, did you feel that you had a burning need to write? Or was it…
CMA (interrupting enthusiastically): Oh yeah, I couldn’t stop – I’d spend about 4-5 hours in my room every night, trying to figure out how to write songs. I think it took that much time to figure it out.
KG: 10,000 hours and all that?
CMA: Absolutely – writing is a craft, like any other – you don’t immediately know how to use a wrench, fix an engine or whatever. You need to log thousands of hours of practice before you become a mechanic – it’s the same with being a songwriter.
KG: And good teachers, I suppose?
CMA: Yeah… my teachers were the records I loved, I suppose. Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, you know. I definitely didn’t go to school for songwriting – I was just listening to the songwriters that were deemed good, and trying to learn from them.
KG: Do you think that people who do go to school for songwriting actually write good songs, is it possible to really teach it that way?
CMA: I don’t know! I guess I’m a little bit punk rock – school doesn’t teach you, you teach yourself. That’s how I’ve always treated it. There are some cool rules you can learn, but whether you should go to school 5 days a week for it, I don’t know. I think a lot of the learning and practicing comes from you sitting down yourself and figuring it out. Otherwise all the songwriters are gonna sound exactly the same.
KG: Is that reflected by the homogeneity in pop songwriting these days?
CMA: Well pop music sounds the way it does because it’s written to a formula. This needs to be like this – this sound is hip right now, vocals in after 5 seconds etc…
KG: I suppose the industry, like any other industry, wants to apply standard business logic to its product – create a factory production line – separate the roles of writer, producer and performer and individually optimise each component. It’s great for some things, but its very difficult to write personally if there are eight co-writers!
CMA: Yeah, and I guess it’s always easy to tell if a song has been through that process, if you’ve been doing it a long time.
KG: So can you tell us a bit about your songwriting process?
CMA: It’s sort of evolved over the years. I used to have a kind of superstitious thing going on, like “it just needs to come down from the universe and hit me like a brick”. But now I look at it more like a journey. I’m more delicate and I take more time with my songs. I feel like writing as a kid is all about this fury and passion – you have to just release this tension. I was 15 when I started to writing and I kind of needed an excuse to release all the angst. But now I’m older and wiser, I feel more like an author – I evaluate my songs, reread through them and make sure they sing right. It’s more like poetry now, I guess. But there’s no specific process really.
KG: So you’re not a “lyrics first” or a “music first” kind of writer?
CMA: It depends, sometimes it’s the chords that come out, and I’m like “that’s the exact thing I wanna write to right now.” Sometimes I just write a song without any music at all, like a poem, and I put music to it later.
KG: You said that when you were younger, it was a bit more raw and passionate. Why are you taking a more measured approach? Do you think that it’s reflected in the sonic timbre of the music you make as well? I was listening to ‘Bumper in the Hail’ this morning and it’s got more of a rock sound than ‘Honest Life’.
CMA: I was only 21 when I released ‘No One’s Slate is Clean’, so I was still learning. I feel like what I learned was that you can be honest in a song, and you can be raw and real. But you can’t force that down everyone’s throats every single line. It can’t be EMOTION EMOTION EMOTION and no substance. It’s like having a one-sided conversation – “This is how I feel, This is how I feel, This is how I FEEL,” over and over and over again. In songs, you can’t do that – you have to have give and take. You get a more complex story that way. That’s the biggest lesson I learned that led me towards becoming a wiser songwriter.
KG: I suppose the best songs have a kind of universal quality – they can mean something personal both to the writer and the listener. The line “Sometimes good people draw troublesome things” in ‘Irene’ really struck me like that – I found myself applying that to my own life. How do you think your life experiences have played into that maturation process as a writer?
CMA: They’ve absolutely played into it. I think that’s because I’ve had a lot of time to write and to wonder why…you know I played to empty rooms for like 10 years. I got a little bit lucky in the backing singing department, played with a lot of great bands, and I got to open for some great people. But, I was constantly asking myself – What I need to do to be better? How can I improve myself? So I guess…I’m sort of grateful for that. Things weren’t always going well, so I was constantly pushing myself to be better, trying to prove that I actually could BE better.
KG: Do you think that life is sometimes harder for people who have that kind of drive? Because you’re never willing to just sit, and let it happen – you always feel the pressure. Do you feel the burden of expectation?
CMA: Yeah I’ve felt it, but I also knew that there was nothing else I was ever gonna be good at. I was a writer and singer at heart since I was a kid. Its always what I wanted, and what I did, even if I didn’t know that it would become my career or whatever. It was kind of like “sink or swim”. That’s how I’ve always thought about making music for a living – it’s the only thing that works nowadays. Backup plans are not an option in this industry.
KG: You’ve gotta lay it all on the line…
CMA: Some people get really lucky and don’t have to, but all the people I know who’ve really succeeded have really gone for it. Even if they have a job that’s supporting that, music is all they’re really doing.
KG: Let’s change direction a bit – Americana is having a bit of a resurgence in the UK. Why do you think that is?
CMA: I think it’s because Americana’s still relatively new in the scope of music…
KG: Someone once said that Americana’s just a term for country music that you like. [Courtney laughs]. In the UK there’s sometimes stigma attached to country music – it’s thought of as “hillbilly music” by ignorant people, which completely isn’t fair. But do you think Americana is more than just a marketing construction, or a re-brand for country?
CMA: It’s just sort of how the cookie crumbles, I feel like now’s the time for it. Americana was created for people who take from many genres. I mean The Band is the prototypical example – it’s got blues, folk, soul and country all in one sound. It’s more than just country. I mean in my set I’ll do a couple of traditional to form country songs, but our whole set isn’t that way – that’s why we’re Americana rather than just pure country. It’s roots music really.
KG: Sorry perhaps I phrased my question clumsily…
CMA: No no! People have just started to discover that it’s a genre that’s been left by the wayside. Maybe it speaks to our generation because of it’s values – honesty and verisimilitude. In our generation, there are so many different sounds – Americana’s perfect because it’s a blend of so many different influences.
KG: I grew up listening to Neil Young, Bob Dylan and The Band etc. There’s this pervasive feeling amongst some people in our generation that people aren’t doing stuff like that now. The thing is, people ARE actually doing it – and we’re responding. There’s a feeling, in the UK, that music has been dominated by electronica for the last ten years…
CMA (interrupting): And Americana’s real?
KG: Maybe… don’t get me wrong I’m a huge electronic music fan, but Americana is providing something that got lost along the way. People are missing music that really tells a story, rather than just being all about the moment. Both approaches have their place.
CMA: And also, the millennial generation grew out of the Baby Boomers, who were listening to the roots of Americana – people just called it all rock ’n’ roll back then – but nowadays, a lot of it might be classified as Americana.
KG: I suppose the increasing segregation of genres forces everything into it’s own little niche a bit more though – back then everything was rock ’n’ roll, but now there’s simply so much music out there that things have to have their own specific sub-genres so they can hit their target markets. Back to your music – what do you want the story of the current album to be? What do you want it to say to people?
CMA: Well, I’ve always really liked when people have drawn their own interpretations of a record – because that’s what makes them like it more. What it means to me…it’s a very personal record. I wrote it when I was on tour, but also going through heartbreak. It’s sort of a travelogue breakup record… it’s about getting closer to knowing who you are. The more you get into your twenties, sometimes the less you know yourself, or the less you think you know yourself…
KG (interrupting): Sounds familiar…
CMA: Yeah, so its about trying to remember that person that you always wanted to be, or that you saw yourself being when you were younger. Trying to be true to those morals and values… I feel like the world can take from you, you know? – it’s just about trying to be the best version of you that you can be, and live honestly…
KG: Amen to that… So what can we expect tonight?
CMA: Well, its a little bit of everything – I brought my band! It’s the first time I brought my band to Europe. I like a lot of dynamics in my sets – I like to rock, but I like to play ballads just by myself as well. I like building all types of songs into my sets – bit of rock ’n’ roll, bit of country, bit of folk…
KG: You’ve played other shows in the UK as well on this tour…
CMA: We did Leeds, Manchester, Bristol and we did Mosley Road Folk in Birmingham and End of the Road in Cornwall…
KG: Ahhh, End of The Road is a great set-up!
CMA: Yeah it’s so well booked! I saw Lucinda Williams, who is one of my favourite songwriters – she’s a legend. It was my first time seeing her, so it was really emotional. Then, right before our set, John Moreland played, who was great. Later in the day, we saw The Lemon Twigs – they were absolutely awesome – really cool, and Father John Misty.
KG: Never had the chance!
CMA: He’s amazing. He was a Seattle guy for a little bit.
KG: So what are you listening to as a music fan at the moment, as opposed to an artist?
CMA: Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Bobby Charles, Little Feet.
KG: Are you the kind of listener who’ll find something and listen to it obsessively for months?
CMA: Definitely – I’m not a playlist person. I obsess over an album, and then when I know that album so much that I’m sick of it, but still love it because its so good – I’ll branch out to other records. I’m really a long term relationship person with music – when I love somebody’s music I’m in it till the bitter end.
KG: People say that playlists are killing the album…
CMA (interrupts): Oh they definitely are!
KG: I mean how many times have you listened to a record and glossed over a song, and then a month later it’s your favourite song on the album? I think Spotify is driving us ever further towards instant gratification in music. Do you think we lose something when we focus just on that?
CMA: I actually think that’s been happening since long before Spotify. I mean, I can’t tell you how many day-to-day people even bother listening to records anymore. Music lovers do – music lovers buy the record and savour it…
KG: Do you buy vinyl?
CMA: I do! Not as much as I used to, because I live in a storage unit and there’s nowhere to put it…(I don’t really live in a storage unit, but I keep my stuff there). Yes I’m a huge vinyl fan – it’s the coolest way to listen to music.
KG: Yeah I always try to explain to people that it’s not necessarily because it sounds better (because it doesn’t), but the whole experience is just more intimate.
CMA: It’s like putting your phone away for dinner. You’re really in the moment when put vinyl on.
KG: I’m conscious of the time – I could prattle on for hours, but you need to get ready for the show. What’s next for you?
CMA: After this tour we’re going to the studio – make a record in LA. Then we’re doing a US tour opening for Hamilton Leithauser.
KG: Awesome, what can we expect from the new record? 180 degree direction shift?
CMA (Laughs): No…I think it’ll be different, but it won’t be shocking. It’s nothing that will throw people through the loop, but it’ll be a little more rock and upbeat compared to ‘Honest Life’.
KG: Great, let’s wrap things up there!
CMA: Thank you, lovely to meet you!
It’s 9:00pm and the venue’s filling out as we wait for Courtney to take the stage, replete with road-worn gear ranging from ageing Fender amplifiers to a pedal steel guitar. A cheer rips through the crowd as she leads her band onstage, now transformed into a modern-day Joni Mitchell by a full length red pantsuit, complete with singer-songwriter bangs. She has the commanding stage presence of a seasoned performer and the band rip into ‘Rookie Dreaming’.
Courtney promised me a dynamic set and I’m immediately impressed by the band’s energy – they’re not re-inventing the wheel, but it’s a very authentic interpretation of the idiosyncrasies of Americana. Restrained folk and country-influenced guitars mix creamily with soulful electric piano, bass and drums, to deliver the perennial sound that everybody identifies as “classic”. Courtney’s voice is that of a classic white American songstress – she invokes memories of the power and range of early Joan Baez, coupled with a slightly less vibrato-laden delivery that laces her tone with innocence. It translates perfectly in the setting we’re in – close your eyes and you’re transported through time and space, to the early Seventies.
As the set goes on, Courtney keeps her promise – we have folk ballads, rock ’n’ roll, and a few genuine country songs. Midway through the set, she is joined by the illustrious B.J Cole on pedal steel guitar, who’s worked with as diverse a range of musicians as you can find in a hired gun, including everyone from Björk to Elton John. It’s a nice touch, as pedal steel guitar is rarely found these days considering the difficulty of its practice and the relatively small number of applications it has these days.
An honest criticism would be that whilst Courtney’s set features an excellent mix of pace and lyrical tone, the songs themselves seem to settle on a particular vibe and stay there rather than building or fading – that is to say that the dynamics are really in the setlist, rather than existing within the songs themselves. Andrews also has a propensity to focus on major keys, meaning that there are still new harmonic avenues that she has yet to apply her skills to. That having been said, there’s always a lot to be said for finding a good sound and just sticking with it – this approach really allows the rustic textures that the band put together to shine from the background, as the listener is drawn to the quality of the voice and the clarity of the lyrics.
Courtney wraps things up with ‘Honest Life’’s lead single, ‘Irene’, before returning for an upbeat encore with deep cut “Took You Up’. Overall, whilst it’s not the most progressive or groundbreaking show I’ve seen, it’s heartwarming and honest, backed up by high quality musicianship, stagecraft and a voice full of character. I’d recommend seeing Courtney Marie Andrews live if you can – it’s a gladdening experience that proves that folk and country inspired music most definitely has a place in the 21st century. As long the genre’s practitioners are as vocally talented as Ms Andrews, there will always be an audience for these sounds, since as she makes out in our interview, they’re a perfect vehicle for authentic human connection.
The new album ‘Honest Life’ is out now – and can be purchased on various formats here.
For updates on Courtney Marie Andrews’ latest gigs and music releases, head to the Website.