Everyone approaches heartbreak differently. Some of us like to cram our feelings into a box, lock it tight and chuck away the key. Others – perhaps more sensibly – process their grief by picking apart exactly what went wrong.
Alt. country storyteller Courtney Marie Andrews very much falls into the second group, deftly weaving the aches and pains of human existence deep into the fabric of her deeply personal songs. Recording and releasing music for half her life, her latest album ‘Old Flowers’ is an intimate Emmylou Harris-inspired revelation that sees her coming to grips with the end of a nine-year relationship.
We called Courtney at her Nashville home – where the Arizona native has lived for the past year-and-a-half – to discuss channeling sorrow into songwriting, along with some less sad stuff such as singing with Dolly Parton, making her granny sell her merch and how she kinda used to be a member of Jimmy Eat World.
Your new album ‘Old Flowers’ deals with the end of a long relationship. How easy was that for you to write?
“I think that was my way of processing it and understanding how I felt about a very confusing time. I sat down a lot with myself and those are the kind of songs that came out. I think what is fruitful for me in writing is human connection and experience, those things have penetrated my work forever. It’s why I always paint humans. It’s why I always write poetry about humans. I love the interconnected relationship driven narrative.”
Only two other musicians feature on the album: songwriter Matthew Davidson and Big Thief’s James Krivchenia. Your last album, 2018’s ‘May Your Kindness Remain’, was big and lush – why go so minimal for this one?
“Because these songs are a personal conversation that I was having. It didn’t feel right to have loud music over this quiet conversation.”
You’ve been occupying yourself during lockdown with art and tweeted a picture of your very first painting, which is of a topless lady with a bottle of wine…
“I’ve sort of started this collection of topless lady paintings. They’re all in one little drawer in my house. I would be too embarrassed to ever hang my own paintings on the wall!”
You’ve also been getting into gardening. How green-fingered are you?
“This is my first garden I’ve started and I have to be honest: I’m not the best gardener. But I’m trying. I have an abundance of tomatoes and cucumbers and I actually did harvest quite a bit of lettuce.”
Last year you said you wanted to read every single poem by Pulitzer prize-winning poet Mary Oliver poem in existence. Have you completed that challenge?
“I’ve gotten pretty close, although I’ve expanded my poetry wheelhouse and I’m diving into different variations of poetry. But she’s one of my heroes. Her work is poetic, yet it’s accessible and relates a lot of the human experience to nature, which I feel very connected with. Joy Harjo is a Native American poet and the poet laureate of the United States and I’ve been very much in love with her poetry during lockdown too. She’s wonderful.”
You also write your own poetry – how much of that have you managed to get into recently?
“I’m actually writing a book of poetry right now! I am about halfway finished with it – I have like 50 pages done.”
When you’re writing, how do you know what’s going to be a song lyric and what’s going to be a poem? Are they interchangeable up until a certain point?
“There are certain lines that are interchangeable, but I feel like my rhythm in poetry is very different to my rhythm in songwriting. Everything is coming out as a poem now but once I’m finished with the book I’ll probably transition into the songwriting frame of mind.”
Recently you went on one of Nashville’s big Black Lives Matter protests. Why was it important to you to show up?
“Because systematic racism in the US – and many other places – has been in place and affecting Black lives for centuries and I think it’s about time that it’s acknowledged. It’s one of the biggest movements in history. My friend lives in this small town, Murray, Kentucky, and even they had a couple hundred people out for a protest. I think it’s just something that we’ve all known was there, but nobody ever acknowledged. [But] the police killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd have shown there is a very deep, systematic problem that needs to be brought to the attention of the nation.”
What music have you been getting into during lockdown?
“I’ve been on a really big jazz kick, actually. I’ve been listening to a lot of Billie Holiday and Charles Mingus and also a lot of Hawaiian slack-key guitar, which has been very meditative and beautiful to listen to in the morning. My wheelhouse is really the 1950s to the 1990s and more in the songwriter realm of stuff, but during lockdown I’ve gotten into instrumental music, I think because maybe there are no words for this time.”
How did you end up singing backing vocals on ‘9 to 5’ for Dolly Parton at the Newport Folk Festival last year?
“That year was the first all-female headline Newport Folk Festival and Brandi Carlile had this great idea for the big finale to invite Dolly. It was a huge surprise; there were rumours but nobody knew for sure. Then about an hour before, somebody goes ‘Hey, can you come sing on stage’. Me and all my songwriter girlfriends were just like, ‘This is unreal’. It was a moment I’ll never forget. We shook hands, but she had a fleet of security. My grandpa’s a cowboy from Arizona and listens to old country radio and I’ve loved Dolly ever since then.”
You’re known for your Americana and country sound, but you have a secret emo past… you used to sing with Jimmy Eat World. How did that come about?
“Well, I’m from Arizona and I was writing by the time I was 15 and releasing music and playing locally in Phoenix and Jim [Adkins, frontman] came to one of my shows and asked me to sing on their record. Jim’s doing some sort of podcast series about songwriting that I’m gonna be on this Saturday, actually.”
I’ve seen your grandmother’s been modelling your merch. Is she your biggest fan?
“A couple of years ago she said to me that she’d never been to Europe – she’d never been outside the country except for to Mexico and Canada. She was 85 at the time and I said, ‘Well, that has to change’. So I bought her ticket to Europe and took her on tour with me. She was my merch lady for a couple weeks. It was such a highlight for her – it was her first time over there and she still talks about it. We had so much fun – she’s a good-time gal!”
You turn 30 later this year – what would be your ideal celebration?
“For someone to say we have a Coronavirus vaccine and that you’re going on tour in a month!”