Encountering the words and music of Courtney Marie Andrews takes its toll on you. I say that in admiration. We come to the work of some artists hoping to be jarred. Such is the case of Andrews, whose songs bear the weight of a thousand past lives. Indeed, she sings, “Feels like I’ve known you since before this life” on “If I Told”, revealing an old soul’s burden of innocence and experience.
That’s not to say her work isn’t peppered with glimpses of love and hope–“May Your Kindness Remains” alone renders obsolete the self-help cottage industry– but a somberness prevails throughout as pangs find their way into melodies, and melancholia manifests in orchestration that looms but never overtakes.
Given her catalog’s solemnity, Andrew’s latest work surprises. Rather than dealing in gloom or the apocalyptic, she responds to the last few years of turmoil and catastrophe with songs that are alive with bounce and possibility.
The first two singles from her latest album Loose Future are the title track and “Satellite”, songs that exist in the now, commemorating the temporal without much concern for eventual. Andrews and co-producer Sam Evian (Anna Burch, Okkervil River, Blonde Redhead, Big Thief) capture a sound that speaks to summer’s ephemeralness, as well as to the timelessness of the starry eyes that come with new love.
CF- I know you have a new album to discuss, but I’m a fan of your book of poems, Old Monarch, so I wanted to begin by asking you about what you’re reading these days.
I’ve been reading a lot of Barbara Kingsolver– Prodigal Summer is an absolutely beautiful book. I just read This Little Life, which was a very dark, but beautifully written book about four friends in New York. See, I’m kind of on a fiction train right now.
How do you differentiate between song lyrics and poetry? Some folks equate the two, while others see them as completely different mediums.
You can’t really mess with the way something is sung. A line could be read out loud in a song, and it doesn’t have quite the weight as once you put it to music and melody. It completely changes the weight of the line. I sort of look at songs as a kind of conversation in a way, where the voice of poems always feels like a god looking over the world and seeing it all, whereas songs feel like more of a one-on-one conversation or a conversation with myself; it feels much more personal. Poems are more like these overseers of the world.
Are there some song lyrics for you that walk the line, that you consider poetry?
Absolutely. I’ve had certain lines that definitely walk that line. Most of the time I know if it’s going to be a poem or a song. It’s just kind of a feeling, but occasionally one will make the transfer. The destiny feels very intuitive to me. I kind of know from the beginning which ones I want to be songs and which ones I want to be poems. Typically, these days, I write songs from scratch, and lines that come to me often end up being poems, and songs are something that I just sort of improv. That’s sort of how I’ve been treating them,
Do you keep a notebook of potential lines or fragments or scraps that you think of during the day?
Yeah, always. I always keep those near and try to remember to write them down.
Do you use a notes app on your phone, or do you still use a pen and notebook?
I use both. I always travel with a little notebook, but if I’m not in a position to write them down real quick, I will put them in my phone.
I don’t know why, but it took me years to finally use my notes app. I thought it was too artificial, less organic. I thought I could only use a Moleskine. As it turns out, it’s actually ultra-convenient.
(Laughs) Yeah, I used to associate with like, “Oh, I’m a romantic! I can’t be typing this on my phone!” It certainly does create a different atmosphere, though, when you pull out a Moleskine, I will say.
When you’re writing, do you warm up by reading or listening to other people, maybe to get inspired, or do you work in isolation and separate yourself from your influences?
I can’t be taking anything in. If I am too close to another writer or artist, I’m such an empathetic, sympathetic, receptive, person of my environment that subconsciously something will come out that’s similar, so I really try not to listen to one artist too much around the time when I’m writing. Also, I subconsciously tend to take breaks from music as I’m getting back to the writing phase. I listen a lot more when I’m on tour, and then when it gets to creation time, I step away from digesting other’s people’s work.
Your new songs I’ve heard so far– “Loose Future” and “Satellite”– are bouncy and alive, which run antithetical to a lot of the pandemic records I’ve heard over the last year or so, music that is pensive, anxious, or apocalyptic. How did you arrive on the other side with songs that are life-affirming?
The lockdown years were really important for myself and my self-development. I got really in touch with things that I had avoided and escaped from by being so busy and on the road during those decades leading up to those years. For the first time, I was able to face demons and come out on the other side a little more aware, a little bit little older.
Also, it’s such a sad time that I just couldn’t help but feel like the world didn’t need [more sadness] as well. I felt this new sense of summer in myself, if that makes any sense, the season of summer. I’ve lived a decade of winters and did that through my music a lot and felt very comfortable in darkness– and still do in a lot of ways– but I think when I was writing this record, I really felt the summer of self for the first time and also simultaneously I was thinking, “What does the world need, and what do I need right now?” And the answer to that was the feeling of summer. Even if that’s not the state where the world’s at right now– because it surely is not— I felt like for myself and for the world, I really wanted to put something out that was a little lighter. There’s so much doom and gloom, and I just wanted to create something that was a little bit of a relief from that, even if just for thirty or forty minutes.
Also, we’re all complex beings. I’ve bought into the idea that everything I put out needs to have this level of darkness, and I was like, “Well, I’m actually more complex than that,” and I really wanted to show other sides of myself.
I love the irony there. We usually associate darkness and solemnity with someone who is complex, but you subvert that idea here. What about your covers of Simon & Garfunkel’s “America”  and Bob Dylan’s “To Ramona” ? Was releasing those a cathartic experience, since they’re weighty?
Both of those were spontaneous. “To Ramona” was actually for an Uncut magazine compilation. They were celebrating Bob’s 80th and asked a cacophony of artists to cover his songs and asked me to be a part of it, so I did that song, and then we ended up releasing it.
“America” was a little more organic. During 2020, I did this writing residency at the very end where they had everybody test for COVID and then quarantine all together in this house for this residency. It was a songwriting residency with five songwriters. Two of the other songwriters there were Liz Cooper and Molly Sarlé. We hit it off and became great friends right away. We thought, “Let’s make a song together; we’re all here.” It just felt right to do “America.” It all happened so quickly. I recorded it in my bedroom, and we all three took a verse,” and we were like, “This is great!”
Was that communal writing experience a first for you?
Yeah, that was definitely my first writing residency. I actually was there on this island where the residency was for two months, living alone and finishing Old Monarch, actually. Then they decided at the last minute, “Let’s get the usual programming in. We’ll make it COVID-style where everybody has to get a test and quarantine before they come. It was my first communal experience; but not only that, it was during a time of such isolation that it just felt revelatory to be with those people, and honestly, just the act of singing a song with two other women was the most magical feeling at that time. It still is always magical, but to have spent seven months straight alone– I spent the first seven months of 2020 just completely isolated– so when I finally got there, and we were all together, it was just a feeling like no other.
Has the pandemic made you more of a people-person,?
It’s really funny– it’s actually gotten me more in touch with myself. I feel like I used to completely distract myself with people all the time, and I realized in the pandemic that one of the things that really got me in touch with my muse is my introverted side. So more than anything, it actually got me more in touch with my need for alone time, and how that fuels my creativity is really important.
Did you develop any new writing techniques or habits during the pandemic that you wouldn’t have indulged otherwise?
I kind of started my first “song-a-day.” I’d always been interested in that method of writing. I call it chunk writing. I love it with poetry, with collections and books and paintings, and writing songs. I love to do everything in chunks– I need to have like three weeks dedicated to whatever craft I’m doing. I like to be completely embodied into that craft. I really honed that and did a few chunks. I did two one-month song-a-day sessions. I love it because it’s like this beautiful mantra or meditation of waking up every morning, making a coffee or whatever, and you just write a song. It’s a very nice practice.
That leads to this question– how do you keep turning corners as an artist? How do you keep finding new things to say? I’m thinking of how Old Flowers is unlike your other works, where the words work alone on paper as much as they do in a song.
Well, thank you. I’m not really sure. I just know that I’m always trying to impress myself or shock myself when it comes to making things, and always thinking about what’s coming next. I think I’m just really enthralled by creativity, and it’s something that I kind of thrive off of and need as a sort of therapy or way of being able to exist in the world. I think more than anything, it’s my way of existing in the world, so I need to progress constantly and see what happens next.
Can you talk a bit about the recording sessions? Did you enter the studio with a guiding philosophy or mission statement?
I think my whole kind of new ethos in creating records or art in general, with poems and everything is, “Does it surprise me? Does it excite me?” Those are really the two questions I’ve been asking myself the most. “How does it make me feel?” is another question. I think that was the ethos with Loose Future: How playful can we be? What sounds can we make that are not sounds you’d expect to hear on a record? I’ve never been interested in making the same record twice, and that may be the worst or best way of being, but it’s what’s worked for me as an artist.
In the recording process, my two parentheses or brackets, or whatever you want to call them are percussion– like alternate percussion– and lots of harmonies. And that’s what we went in with. It was pretty much Sam Evian and I almost the whole time. We had Chris Bear come in to do drums at the very end, who’s the drummer of Grizzly Bear– he’s amazing–mbut it was mainly Sam and I for the whole summer. We were upstate, and we didn’t work very long days, like 4-6 hours a day, which is short for a studio day. We just made it sound the way summer felt. We did a lot of exploring on this record, sonically, which was very exciting for me because I’ve always done records very quickly and organically, in eight-day chunks of live recording. It’s the first record where I had taken my time to find the right sound or explore those kinds of sonic palettes. That was exciting for me. Sam and I just traded instruments, played a bunch of weird sounds through different pedals, and experimented, played pots and pans, whatever felt exciting to us.
I know you’re heading out soon for your tour. Did the pandemic derail any promotion for your last record?
Obviously, the tour occurred way later than we would have expected it to, but remarkably, at the end of last year in the fall, I was able to do an entire US and Europe tour. Some friends were joking, like, “Courtney, you were closing the countries down as you went.” I really was– I’d play the Netherlands, and then the next day, they’d say, “Another one just closed because of cases.” I’d managed to do an entire Old Flower tour a year after it was released, which was pretty lucky and remarkable. I know a lot of friends who had to cancel or didn’t want to risk doing a tour. I kept it simple, just me and my tour manager, just bare bones. We didn’t really leave our green room.
I checked out your previous touring itinerary and thought for sure all the listed dates had been canceled, but I was wrong! So that is remarkable. I also noticed that you’ve been on the road for years. How vital is traveling to who you are?
That’s constantly being questioned these days (laughs)! But, yeah, I’ve been on the road since I was a kid– since I was 16. It’s been a long journey of tours and that sort of thing.
Can you create without the road?
It’s funny you say that because really this year I’ve been learning that it’s actually much better for me to spend less time on the road, so I can create more because there was so much abundance for me in 2020 and 2021 as far as creating goes. I went full into my conversation with the muse in so many ways, and I’m realizing that it was kind of this pent-up stuff because touring is terrible for creating, especially the kind of touring I do. It’s beautiful for lots of things, but creating is actually not one of those things. You’re just so busy. Maybe if you have a tour bus, it’s easier to get more time, but I’m still in vans, hitting the dusty trails, staying in motels. So it’s not great for creating. I try to bring my little paint set, my little Moleskine for the van, thinking, “I’m gonna keep it going,” but it’s very distracting. You can’t really get into the full conversation with the muse there. I love traveling so much, and I think I’ll always be a touring musician– that’s part of who I am– but it’d be nice to find a balance with it, so I can also have a great at-home, creating life as well.