Courtney Marie Andrews has spent the last ten years on the road with little country songs about big emotions. Two years ago, the American singer made her breakthrough with Honest Life, an album that was conceived in Belgium. Today, she has found a new gospel in May Your Kindness Remain.
“Flap flap, flap flap.” “What is that noise?” “What noise?” “That ‘flap flap’ on the background. As though you are walking on water.” “Oh, it is my windscreen wipers. We are driving through a snowstorm and there are big clumps of ice stuck on them.” Courtney Marie Andrews is on the road when I call her one morning in April. Courtney Marie Andrews is always on the road. The American singer-songwriter is driving from Minnesota, where the winter just won’t end, to the burgeoning spring in San Francisco, where she hopes to wear some flowers in her hair. “Thirty hours on the tour bus, yay!” Sounds like Highway 61 Revisited ad infinitum. “Ha ha, yeah. This is my life, every single day. It’s a life of extremes. It can be very exciting, but it can also be very lonely. But it feels good, this is exactly what I want to do.”
Andrews is only 27, but she has been traveling for an eternity. Since she was sixteen, in fact, when after immersing herself in feminist riot grrrl-punk in the band Massacre in a Miniskirt, she discovered the narrative power of folk, left school, and decided to make music her living. “As a child I was wide-eyed with wonder. A weird outsider, in one way or another.” She realised early on that Phoenix, the city in Arizona where she grew up, did not have enough to offer. “I wanted to see the world! Music was my escape. I started writing songs, scraped a record together, and booked a few shows. I really jumped in the deep end. And I often found myself in situations of which I thought: why am I doing this to myself?”
Greetings from Leuven
Andrews hitchhiked around the US, jumped from one Greyhound bus onto another, busked on street corners, sang covers of Patsy Cline, and made some extra money as a waitress. When she was nineteen, the punk-pop band Jimmy Eat World asked her to work on their album and to play keyboards during their live shows. Shortly thereafter, she moved to Seattle and became friends with the singer-songwriter Damien Jurado. He invited her to play guitar in his band. But it was our very own Milow who ensured her breakthrough. The Belgian singer-songwriter was recording his album Silver Linings in LA in 2014 and needed backing singers. His producer was friends with Andrews and recommended her. Milow subsequently invited her on tour, which brought her to Leuven.
“I lived there for four months in a little apartment, a fifteen minutes’ walk from the centre. Every morning, I crossed the street to a café and spent hours writing there. I loved the freedom. It was summer, and I was surrounded by great people. I would sometimes take the train to visit one of your beautiful cities.” But ultimately, it was not a very happy period. Her boyfriend had just broken up with her, and she missed her friends and family. “Emotionally, I was a complete wreck,” she admits. “But that is how I started writing the songs on Honest Life.” Following the EP Leuven Letters, that record, her sixth, gained huge traction two years ago. She was praised internationally and her raw country songs brimming with homesickness and crossed love were compared to the work of Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, and Joni Mitchell.
Her new album, May Your Kindness Remain, has more meat on its bones, which is manifested in gritty guitars, droning organs, and quavering gospel choirs. “I have always been a fan of Motown. And of bands like Little Feat, that blend country, rock, and soul. I had been thinking about using gospel backings in my refrains for a while. And now they are just right for the story that I am telling.” A story that Andrews describes as “loving through depression in the age of Donald Trump.” Is the title of her album an expression of hope or an imperative? “It is my personal gospel. If nothing else, try and be kind. Yes, there are many reasons to despair. It’s the only thing you can control.”
LA or not LA?
One time over dinner with a friend, Andrews told him she was considering moving to Los Angeles. “He said: don’t let LA change you. I was almost offended. But when I got home, I started thinking through the idea more deeply. By travelling a lot and often working in cafés, I met a lot of people. I have seen the destruction of the middle class, how the working class lives from pay check to pay check, how Americans keep clinging to the misleading idea of the American Dream, how we have been brainwashed by capitalism. Many of my family members still buy lottery tickets every day because they think it will ultimately bring them happiness. So, while the world is getting tougher every day, that idea of kindness grew. When you are confronted with misery, despair, and depression, human connection is very important. As the recent marches clearly demonstrated, it is still there.”
No, Andrews didn’t move to LA, but she did spend a lot of time there to record her album. Has she changed? Probably, the way everyone changes. “I have realized that I long to be that wild-eyed kid again, I want that naïve and innocent feeling back.”
Courtney Marie Andrews 16/4, 20.00, Ancienne Belgique