By Richard Skanse
By the time she hits 30 this fall, Courtney Marie Andrews will have officially spent half of her life as a performing artist and songwriter. Or actually a little more than half, if one goes all the way back to her salad days as a 13-year-old riot grrrl plotting her escape from Phoenix, Arizona.
Although her first band, a Bikini Kill-inspired feminist punk trio called Massacre in a Miniskirt, never did get around to playing anywhere outside of rehearsal, by high school Andrews had redirected all of that earnest intensity into a prolific outpouring of strikingly mature acoustic confessionals that would make her the toast of a burgeoning Phoenix coffeehouse folk scene. In short order she had three full-length albums and thousands of miles under her belt, using MySpace to book solo gigs on both coasts and touring as far afield as Australia as a backup singer and keyboard player for Arizona alt-rockers Jimmy Eat World. All by the ripe old age of 20.
But Andrews’ story isn’t that of yet another teenaged wunderkind, because at 21 she effectively hit the reset button on her career by moving to the Pacific Northwest and leaving her first three records behind, figuratively if not literally buried in the Arizona desert. Or, as she’s put it herself, “I’ve erased them from the world,” blithely dismissing them as reminders of being “sort of burned by a bad deal I did when I was a kid, because I didn’t know anything about the music industry yet.” Jaded but unbroken, she began (somewhat) anew with 2012’s No One’s Slate is Clean and 2013’s On My Page, continuing to tour but surviving in large part through bartending and a steady run of studio and side gigs, ranging from playing “psychedelic” electric guitar for songwriter Damien Jurado to singing backup for European pop artist Milow. It was on account of the Milow job that Andrews found herself living for a spell in Belgium, nursing her way through a recent breakup and reflecting on the inherent loneliness of a rootless “Table for One” existence lived not “free,” but rather “always chained to when I leave.” The resulting songs shaped her beautifully introspective Honest Life — Andrews’ sixth album overall, the third that she still acknowledges, and in many ways, her first to really count.
“I used all of my bartending money to make that record, because it just felt like so much was at stake,” she’d later recall. “Which I guess is kind of funny, because when I made Honest Life, I was playing to like, three people a night.”
But the album’s release in August 2016 put an end to that — and her bartending days, to boot. As Honest Life garnered critical acclaim and landed on multiple year-end lists, Andrews’ shows began selling out on both sides of the Atlantic, leading to her “International Artist of the Year” win at the third annual UK Americana Music Awards (following previous winners Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell). Her next record, 2018’s even more widely lauded May Your Kindness Remain, won her another UK Americana award for “International Album of the Year,” along with a nomination for “Emerging Artist of the Year” back stateside at the Americana Music Association’s Honors and Awards at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. And although she didn’t actually win that one, the fact that she was asked to sing alongside Brandi Carlile and Irma Thomas for the evening’s closing tribute to Aretha Franklin left little doubt that she’d made the team. The handful of unforgettable dates she played opening for and duetting with the great John Prine the following spring — a year to the month before his death — just made it official.
With all of that momentum at her back, Andrews was on pace for what most likely would have been the biggest tour of her career when her next album, Old Flowers, was announced, back in the first week of March of this year. Of course, COVID-19 nipped that right in the bud, along with pretty much everyone else’s original plans for 2020. But from a glass-half-full perspective, upon its eventual arrival in late July (seven weeks later than originally scheduled), Old Flowers proved to be a profoundly apt soundtrack for life slowed to a more meditative crawl under quarantine lockdown. In stark contrast to May Your Kindness Remain, a robustly soulful, full-band set that showcased Andrews’ boldest vocals and most outward-looking songs to date, Old Flowers is a quiet storm of a record, as intimate as an epiphany after a dark night of the soul or a private conversation between lovers. Andrews describes it as an album “about heartbreak,” with all 10 of its songs written in the wake of a nine-year relationship coming to an end. But calling it a “breakup album” doesn’t really do justice to the emotional range and thematic sweep of those songs, through which Andrews surveys the entire relationship in deeply personal yet remarkably relatable detail. In the title track, sequenced right at the halfway point, she makes it patently clear to both her ex and herself that a backslide is off the table: “Please go home now, I can sleep on my own / I’m alone now, but I don’t feel alone.” But it’s telling that for all the implicit sadness between those lines, there’s no real rancor in that moment, let alone much in the way of regretful hindsight to poison the happy memories she revisits in the first half’s wistful “Burlap String” and “If I Told.” Mind, there’s definitely some blood on the tracks here, too, with just enough still-raw vulnerability laid bare to keep things honest. But long before Andrews comes to the zen denouement of “Ships in the Night,” Old Flowers reveals itself to be more of a sincerely heartfelt, clear-eyed tribute to the most impactful love of her adult life — and the independent woman that emerged in its wake — than an embittered postmortem.
It’s also, at least to this avowed Honest Life evangelist, the best album that Courtney Marie Andrews has made yet — and a frontrunner for my personal favorite album of 2020, period. Having first interviewed Andrews two years ago for a profile that I unfortunately never could quite pin down, I was grateful to finally have the opportunity this summer for a proper re-do. We talked by phone in June, a few weeks before the release of Old Flowers.
I remember you saying in our interview back in 2018, a little before your last album came out, that you didn’t really have a “home” at the time because even when you weren’t on tour, you kind of just hopped from Airbnb to Airbnb in different cities. Is that still the case? Or did you finally plant roots somewhere?
Yeah, I have! I have a house in Nashville now.
What made Nashville “the one”?
You know, I don’t know if I’ll ever think any place is the one. But it’s the right one for now. (Laughs) But I kind of landed here because I made some really great friends here, and it’s an easy place to tour out of.
In theory, at least! I know quarantine has been hard on most artists who make their living from gigging and touring, and assume it’s been especially weird for you, given how used you are to moving around so much for so long. But have you found any silver lining in the stillness?
Yeah, actually it’s probably been really good for me, to just sort of stop for a minute. I think creativity has been a saving grace during this time. I’ve just sort of travelled inward and started exploring my creativity in new ways, and that’s been really, really great. And it’ll just make tours that come up all the more memorable!
Well, I can’t say that I’ve been all that productive myself over the last three months, but I have listened to Old Flowers a lot in that time. I became a fan of your music with Honest Life, then going back to everything I could find that came out before and of course everything since. But in the three months that I’ve had my advance of this new album I think I’ve already listened to it more than all of your other ones combined.
Ah, man, thank you so much! I’m so happy to hear that.
In a note you posted about the album and the relationship that inspired it, you wrote, “These songs are my truth. I think they might be yours, too.” Just as a listener, it’s really remarkable to me how songs that can seem so unabashedly personal, down to those really fine details, can still somehow be so relatable to others. Does that ever kind of mystify you, too, from the writing end?
Um … no. (Laughs) Because I’m a human, and you guys are humans too! And we all have moments that maybe are shaded a little bit differently, but they’re kind of all rooted in the same, you know, story.
We’ve literally all “been there.”
But that said, making even some of the most specifically detailed parts of your own story resonate in a way that feels familiar to the listener is kind of a hallmark for you. My favorite song of yours is “Near You,” which I was happy to hear you do in your first quarantine live-stream back in April. I assume that whole song is a true snapshot of an actual personal experience of yours, but every line somehow really hits the bullseye for me. And I imagine you hear that from people about a lot of your songs.
Thank you. Yeah, “Near You” is actually a song that has sort of resonated with a lot of people, which is funny because it’s not on a record. I wrote that song when I was like 19 years old, so it’s getting to be a decade old now. (Laughs) But I thought that for quarantine it was kind of a perfect anthem.
I knew you had a version of “Near You” on your Leuven Letters EP a couple of years before re-recording it as a single in 2017, but I didn’t realize it was that old. So I’m glad that you let that one stick around, unlike the three whole albums you made in your late teens that you’ve since purged from your catalog. And I can understand why did that, but there’s a few old clips of you performing some of those early songs still on YouTube, and the couple I’ve heard, especially one called “Darling Boy” — the maturity that was already on display there is staggering to me. Do any of those songs ever come back to the surface in your set lists these days, or have you completely divorced yourself from all of them?
I’ve probably divorced myself from all of them, just because of the time that they were born out of was a particularly painful one. So I just try to avoid singing them all together. But also I think artists just have a hard time with the really early catalog stuff, you know? I was raised right when the internet was becoming a thing, a classic millennial, and we didn’t have that kind of blessing-in-disguise of having to wait to record our songs. So the first songs I wrote, I recorded at home and put out …
With no filter.
No filter! (Laughs) But then you learn so much as you get older and develop this whole skill set to where, when you look back … I think it’s just easy to get over-critical about those records, you know?
Well, luckily I guess you felt you’d learned and developed just enough by your fourth and fifth albums (No One Slate is Clean and On My Page) to let them stick around and even be reissued, and by Honest Life you were clearly confident enough to really put yourself out there. Coincidently, just like now with Old Flowers, I remember you describing Honest Life as sort of a break-up album, too — or at least one that you wrote in the wake of a break-up. Without meaning to pry too much, was that the same relationship?
It’s the same person, yeah. I’ve known that person since I was 17, and we kind of, you know, dated since we were so young, broke up a few times, got back together. So it was definitely … I learned so much from that relationship, and wrote all of my records in that relationship — or out of it for a month or two at a time. (Laughs)
I think the real beauty of Old Flowers is that you use the whole album to reflect on that one long-term love of your life, as if saying something that impactful deserves more than just one song or a even few songs here and there. You really give the story room to breathe, and allow yourself the space to examine it from different angles.
Yeah. I mean, it’s so nuanced, love — it’s not just, you know, “hey I love you, this is it.”
Each song on the album plays like a memory, but it sounds like they’re not necessarily all in chronological order, because of course memory doesn’t really work like that. So some songs reflect where you’re at right now, others flashback to the very beginning of the relationship or to more recent history, and then “Ships in the Night,” the last song, sounds like it’s you looking back from months or even years further down the line from the present. Unless I’m reading that one wrong.
No, that was super intentional. “Burlap Strings,” the first song, is in sort of that first stage of grief, where you’re wishing you could go back and change things. And then the album sort of follows the trajectory of all the different emotions you go through. And then “Ships in the Night” is like, several years later, where you’re sort of reflecting on it all and wishing the other person well, in so many words.
This might be a weird thing to ask a songwriter, but when you commit to a project like this, or maybe when you first realize where it’s going — do you ever do any kind of research? All of these songs have clearly been lived and experienced, but just in terms of helping you focus or maybe express or approach something in a way that maybe you haven’t before, were there any writings or even other albums that you studied or kind of marinated in?
I don’t think I’ve ever done research intentionally. But I think as a songwriter I personally have always done subconscious research, where I’m just like, reading something and it affects my writing but I don’t even realize it until later. And that sort of happened with Old Flowers. I was listening to a lot of instrumental music during the making of this record, instead of listening to a lot of songwriters, like I’ve done in the past. But what I was doing was a lot of reading, like a lot of Mary Oliver poems, and Jack Gilbert. And I feel like those two poets really sort of penetrated my view love in a lot of ways, and the feeling of grief and coming to terms with the end of love. I really respect both their views on that, and I think it’s very in line with my view on it. So I think that that was my subconscious research that I didn’t even realize until later.
The way you write yourself about “coming to terms with the end of love” is really what defines this record. It’s full of heartbreak, but there’s not really a song on it that’s like, “you hurt me.” I mean, you do sort of play around with that conceit in “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault,” but it’s clear that you see through that.
Yeah. And I think “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault” is almost like a stab at my own ego. (Laughs) It may be not clear in that song that I’m aware of how silly that is to say, but we have all been guilty of that. And I think I was making myself very aware of how we all place blame on somebody else, because it’s easier. It’s easier to do that, or to place blame on something that happened in our lives. But really … well, there’s this Jack Gilbert poem, “Flying Not Failing.” It’s a poem that I’ve actually loved for a long time; an English teacher gave it to me a long time ago and said, “study up.” And his poem basically says, in so many words, like, love doesn’t have to be a failure because it came to an end; it can be a triumph, it can be this beautiful thing that happened. And yes, it didn’t work out, and yes there was crying and wanting to jump out of a driving car when you get into a fight — all these things that are sad, because in Western culture, we so often just make it this sad, poor me thing. But with Old Flowers I just wanted to take ownership of the fact that I loved this person for a long time, you know? And we did hurt each other — but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t triumphant that you spent this time with somebody. So I guess that’s just a thread throughout it.
The name is escaping me at the moment, but what was that movie with Jim Carrey, about completely erasing all memory of someone after a breakup?
Oh, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Yeah. Anyway, I thought it was a beautiful film, but that whole premise of actually wanting to erase someone who was that important to you from your brain, just because things went south — I couldn’t relate to that at all. Because I just can’t imagine it being worth losing all of the good memories, too.
Right! And that kind of reminds me of that Blaze Foley line (from “Clay Pigeons”): “I could build me a castle of memories, just to have somewhere to go.” I think that says a lot about how I view love as well.
It’s also telling how, in “Carnival Dream,” you sing, “Will I ever let love in again? / I may never let love in again” — but never “I will never let love again.” You hear a lot of songs where people definitively say “never again,” but you stop short of going that far. Because you don’t know!
Right. And I think that’s sort of my view on life in general: I don’t know! (Laughs) I sort of take the philosopher standpoint where you can just continually ask questions forever if you want to.
The story you’ve told about that song is really something, about you and your ex both having essentially the same dream about trying to find each other at this carnival. But that’s also what the album as a whole kind of sounds like to me; there’s a fever dream quality to it, like it’s literally haunted. It’s like you’re going from room to room through an old house, or that Blaze Foley “castle of memories” you just mentioned, and the floor and walls creak with every step. So I kind of laughed when I noticed the band credits for “meanderings” on the song “Break the Spell.” Can you explain what that entailed? And speaking of “Break the Spell,” what is that weird, ghostly howling sound in that song?
Well, there’s a harmonium on there, or maybe it’s a pump organ — I can’t remember which one it was, but it’s some kind of woodwind key situation. And then the “meanderings” was just … well, I should first mention that the studio we were working at (Sound Space in Los Angeles) is just this insane play land of vintage gear. Like, everything from ’80s synths to super old world music instruments. So we’d do probably five or six takes of us not hearing the song at all, but just playing on whatever instrument called to us, and that’s what that is. And we did a lot of that kind of stuff, just creating these moments in the room together, and keeping a lot of first takes. We didn’t pressure ourselves to make things perfect; it was about, “Wow, I could tell you really felt something on that take — we’ve got to run with that.” There’s mistakes throughout the whole record, but that’s what we were going for.
There’s just you, producer Andrew Sarlo, and two other musicians on the record. I read that Matthew Davidson and James Krivchenia are in a band together (Big Thief), and Sarlo had worked with them before, but how did you come to work with them?
Well, my manager also manages Big Thief. And as for Andrew … I wanted to do a test run with producers this time, rather than just choose somebody and go with them, you know? So I chose like three producers I was going to go and meet with, but then Andrew was the first one and I knew immediately, so I just went with him, afterall. (Laughs) I knew right away just from the way he talked about the songs that I’d sent him, his commentary on them. Because when you send Andrew a song, he’ll send you paragraphs back about it, and a lot of people just don’t do that anymore. He was so articulate and so invested from the very beginning, and I just really, really loved working with him.
Well, you made a beautiful record together, and whether or not you work with him again, I look forward to hearing what direction you go in next. Honest Life felt very intimate and introspective, and then on May Your Kindness Remain you started looking more outward and it was more about empathy for others and the world around you, with you really belting out a lot of the songs Aretha-style and the production leaning more towards big and bold, classic Memphis-style soul arrangements. But Old Flowers really turns that focus back inwards and feels even more hushed and understated that Honest Life did. Obviously that makes sense given the subject matter of these songs, but — just because I remember you talking about how much fun you had making May Your Kindness Remain, were you at all surprised to find yourself going back to that quieter place so soon?
Yeah. But I just never think about things in a strategic career sense. This is just something that happened in my life and my art reflected that. The next record, who knows what will call to me? But I feel like it’s important as artists to always just do what feels right in the moment and to trust that. Because you know, if I was to think about my career strategically, I would have made a lot of different choices! (Laughs)
My time’s about up here, but I’d be remiss if we didn’t talk a little about the video you made for “Burlap String.” When you premiered it back in April, you wrote about filming it in Bisbee, Arizona, at the site of a memorial to your musician friends Derrick and Amy Ross, who both died in October 2013 (Amy from a blood infection and her devastated husband by suicide later the same day). I first read about their tragic story after hearing your song, “A Song for Amy Ross” (from the 2014 Leuven Letters EP), which is honestly one of the most moving songs I’ve ever heard.
Oh, thank you.
I know they performed together as a duo, “Nowhere Man and Whiskey Girl,” and you described them as your “DIY music mentors.” How so? And how far along were you in your career when you met them?
Well, I had already released many records before kind of meeting them. They were maybe 15 years older than me, and living in Bisbee, where they would play a weekly gig at this place called the Grand Saloon on Wednesdays, like three hour sets. And Amy … she had one of those crazy musical brains where she could hear something on the radio and play it that night without looking up the lyrics or anything. She was just a really inspiring woman. But they were both inspiring to me in the sense that, they assured me that I could be a lifer doing this, too, even if it might not look like how you would expect it to. You know what I mean? It might not be like living in the Hollywood Hills or Topanga Canyon in the ’60s. Instead, I might be living in a studio apartment in a little town like Bisbee, or you know, just bumming around — but still doing what I want. They did that and lived true to that, so I think in that way they were my mentors. Their outlook on life, and their outlook on creating, are very intertwined with my own ethos about those things, and I hold all of that very close to me.