You would not call 2020 a good year for trying new things. Or trying anything. Anyone who had plans probably is cursing their bad timing.
But even bad timing can turn out to be good.
Courtney Marie Andrews grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, and has lived as far apart as Belgium and Seattle, before moving to Nashville more recently. While it’s really the perfect home for someone like her who makes music which draws from a well of American traditions, sung in a voice that feels soaked in emotion (and just the right amount of Linda Ronstadt), it’s not been a great year or so for the country music capital. However, for Andrews there was some good fortune.
When a tornado hit the city in early March – ultimately killing 24 people – the singer/songwriter had just left town hours earlier for a tour which would sow the seeds for her next album Old Flowers. While her home emerged intact, the fiercest damage from the storm happened 10 minutes away, taking away homes and businesses and, a lot of small venues and bars which had sustained the alternative scene in Nashville.
With the pandemic shutdown that followed – ultimately killing that tour Andrews had set out on - and Black Lives Matter rallies and brutal police actions coming on the heels of the tornado, it has been what she calls “a crazy, crazy … non-stop madness”. A time in fact when more than ever we might need the spirit of the song which was the title track of – and spiritual guidepost for - her 2018 album, May Your Kindness Remain, a record whose soulful openness was matched by its lyrical generosity.
I’m not the first to think that.
“It’s one of those songs that lasted longer than I imagined it would, in many ways,” says Andrews. “I’ve been getting more messages and covers of it. It was written right after the 2016 election and I feel like I wrote that about the underbelly of all that’s happening now, all that’s surfacing in a big way now.”
No longer a rarity in that once politics-shy town – with the likes of Margo Price, with whom she toured Australia in 2018 , Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell fellow travellers - Andrews has been writing about the state of class division, crumbling support for the working poor, the creation of an underclass, and asking us to consider a preference for humanity over feral economics, for some time.
“I feel like that’s a theme that I’ve been thinking about and writing about on a daily basis, as far as my moral compass goes.”
Have some of the things that have happened this year challenged her confidence in ordinary people around her, or her lack of confidence in people making major decisions? “If anything, it’s made it even more apparent” she reckons.
“It is very easy to get caught up in a social bubble of people who are all fighting for the same things you are. The main difference between where I was and where I am now [is] I was living in a rural town in Washington state with very different people than me in a lot of ways. I was a bartender and what I saw was if you just talk [life] and you don’t talk politics, these people are all really, really great and their morals line up with ours,” Andrews says.
“But I think, now going to Nashville, you can easily be in this bubble and I think about how integrated I was with people who weren’t thinking the same as me. A lot of those songs [on May Your Kindness Remain] were borne out of that. And I still believe to this day that they were all very good people and I have so much love in my heart for humanity. It just makes me sad.”
Some of us would agree with her on the basic decency of people, especially if given facts and truth, but we can also swing to the view that morals are easily blown off course by fear and lack of knowledge, exploited by those with the loudest megaphones. Good people can make very bad decisions when there’s a Murdoch or a Koch, or worse, in their ear.
“Absolutely. I think that’s the biggest problem,” Andrews says. “If you are in one place your whole life, and you are fed disinformation, it’s very hard to break these cycles. When I lived in a small town became very apparent that this is not just a surface thing; it’s much deeper than we realise. At the end of the day, especially in America, there are a lot of people that are made to believe that if they have a lot of money all their problems will be solved. And that’s where that song came from.”
This would be Andrews’ inner voice, but it would mean little without the richness and character of her outer voice, the one which has developed in particular over her recent albums into that of a natural, complex storyteller.
She began in what she has called a “feminist punk band”, which do not necessarily encourage the soul-meets-country depth she inhabits, and later had a run performing at a blues bar. But they were it seems way stations.
“When I was younger I loved to sing country and soul music, and my mother would take me to honky-tonk places in Arizona and I loved singing songs there. I think I was always gravitating to songs with a lot of emotion, and singers with a lot of passion that tell a story,” she says. “That led me into punk because I was an angsty teenager and I thought I knew exactly who I was and so I related to the women like Bikini Kill, and I tried to sing with more of a gravel thing. Then punk led me to write my own songs and putting them up on the early Internet, which then led me to folk music and storytelling. And that took me to more melodic stuff.”
Andrews argues that she is still discovering her voice, though she concedes that the new album, Old Flowers, “is the most mature my voice has ever been” with her feeling the most in control and the most aligned emotionally with what she’s singing now.
“And I feel I’m channelling a voice that I’ve always aspired to sing like. I’m singing softly, more intimately, and it’s more of a personal conversation,” she says. “With every record I have think I’ve changed my voice to suit the songs and I’ve always worked that way. To me it only makes sense to play the role of the narrator, rather than being an orator. I’d rather be the actual person telling the story, with not only the voice but the lyrics too.”
Being the narrator rather than the orator does raise an interesting point. Honest Life, her breakthrough third album in 2016 came out of a breakup; Old Flowers, is the same. What’s the difference between the narrator, or the Courtney then, and the Courtney now?
“I will say that I was 24 when I wrote Honest Life, and in a lot of ways I was a very, very vulnerable point in my life. It was a real coming-of-age,” Andrews says, before adding a further twist. “That was the same relationship that this record is pertaining to: we had broken up for about six months and I was travelling and living in Belgium. I certainly wrote songs [for Honest Life] that I felt I had made this new mark in my writing, so the songs started to feel more like me, but me as a person was not together at all, not confident in my path.”
As she recalls, Andrew had “veered off my path” to do things like back-up singing gigs for the likes of American pop-punk band Jimmy Eat World and Belgian singer/songwriter Milow. “I loved lot of the people I worked for, but it wasn’t me.” Honest Life forced a change.
“So the biggest difference is Honest Life was definitely a child becoming a woman and there is a lot of hope in those songs for the better life, the better version of myself, and the better balance of home and road and wanting so badly to feel connected to somebody. Old Flowers is like a woman letting go of a very long relationship and accepting that. It’s much more a woman’s story, wiser in some ways and self-assertive.”
It also comes with maturity to see that that while some things were not good, not everything was bad. A number of songs talk about the connections not being severed, of the impact of the person now gone still being felt and still being valued beyond the relationship. That you can move on without necessarily disowning what had come before.
“I think that I truly believe that in my real life, and the narrator and me are the same person really,” Andrews says. “I read this one poem after my breakup that sort of explained were coming from with a lot of this record: Failing And Flying [by American poet Jack Gilbert].
“He basically says the love doesn’t have to be a failure when it comes to an end, it doesn’t have to be something that has failed because it ends. That’s sort of how it happened with us. We were together since we were kids and I still have so much love for this person, and I always will: we spent a third of our lives together. And that’s what a lot of this record is about: if you have ever been truly in love with somebody that’s how it is.”
It’s a generosity of spirit to others that May Your Kindness Remain applied socially, Old Flowers applies emotionally, and her social and political activism applies more broadly.
“This is definitely not a ‘fuck you’ breakup record”, for Courtney Marie Andrews or her country.
Old Flowers is released July 5 through Fat Possum/Inertia.