The grainy portrait of Courtney Marie Andrews (almost like those pictures of lost kids on American milk cartons) which adorns Honest Life’s cover is close up, intrusive. The grain suggests a zoomed in crop of a larger picture, the surroundings unseen, allowing the listener to imagine the background, the baggage that inevitably clutters most photographs. What is undeniable is that Ms. Andrews’ stare is unflinching, defiant almost. Here she sets out her wares, crafted by her own hand and hewn from her own experiences and this fierce independence infuses the album as she sings of trials and tribulations and offers a sense of dignity to the downtrodden.
Still only in her mid twenties Andrews has packed a lot into her ten years in the music business. There’s a back catalogue which is somewhat confusing with several albums withdrawn apparently. Aside from her own ventures she has been an in demand musician and singer for various artists including Damien Jurado and Jimmy Eat World, a gig that ended up with her residing in Belgium playing for several artists there. The genesis of Honest Life occurred in Belgium as Andrews broke up a relationship and returned to the States taking up a job as a barmaid in a small tavern several miles out of Seattle. Here she served tables and heard the tales of the tavern’s denizens, several of which have made their way onto the album. She strips the tales and her own experiences down to the bone, the Honest Life(s) of the title, no aggrandisement here, the result recalling the naked emotions stirred on Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Crafting the album Andrews courted several producers but felt that their ideas didn’t tally with her wish to deliver a raw and relatively unembellished record so she took the bull by the horns and produced it herself.
The result is an album of glacial purity with Andrews’ voice cool and clear over a subtle and perfectly executed band setting that has glistening guitars and warm pedal steel complemented by superb keyboard playing. The sound does hark back to Mitchell’s first forays into group arrangements and that “Ladies of the canyon” vibe so popular with the folk rock mafia of that time but such is the strength of the songs that Andrews surmounts any accusations of mere copyism. There’s a heart and soul to these songs which bleeds from the speakers with dignity. Irene is perhaps the best example as a powerful country rock pulse twitches with her forensic lyrics, “The heart is funny Irene, you can’t control who it wants to love, so let it love Irene, man or woman, or anyone it wants. You dream of the north Irene, well then that’s where you oughta be. But you gotta want it Irene, don’t follow any path half-heartedly.”
Paths and roads feature heavily on the album be it the routes (mainly dead end) leading to a local dive or the paths Andrews herself follows. The album opens and closes with ruminations on a journey. The opener Rookie Dreaming positing her as an ingénue with romantic notions of sixties movies in her mind as realises romance is not all sugar and spice. On the closing song Only In My Mind she’s somewhat wiser, able to recognise that the notion of a perfect love is mainly in the mind. In between there’s the winsome Not The End, a song that captures the transience of true love. Part of Andrew’s voyage is her time bar tending, her muse here the customers of the bar she worked in and she captures perfectly their dramas and woes on several of the songs. Table For One paints a picture of a lonesome traveller stopping off for liquid succour while How Quickly The Heart Mends is Andrews’ version of a honky tonk song with a sting in its tail as she sings,
“I can’t believe I got all made up, put on this dress that you love, only for you to go and pretend, like all those years meant nothin’. So go on and forget, act like we’ve never met, leave with your new friends, how quickly your heart mends. The jukebox is playin’ a sad country song, for all the ugly Americans. Now I feel like one of them dancin’ alone and broken by the freedom.”
The album is packed with such lyrical acuity and all the songs are gracefully delivered, the band excellent on all accounts. It’s early days but Honest Life is already a contender for one of the albums of the year.
Ms. Andrews will be touring in the UK (supporting The Handsome Family) at the end of February and she was available for a short chat with Blabber’n’Smoke at the tail end of last year. We started off by asking her about the writing process for Honest Life.
I started writing songs when I was really young, a teenager but for this album I started writing when I was in Belgium. Then I was a bartender in a small town bar in Washington State and that’s where I finished writing the songs.
They’re pretty sad songs
I was going through a hard time, a breakup.
Some folk think that breakup albums are some of the best ones
Yeah, well songs are a great way to express emotions, sometimes I think when you feel pain it’s easier to express that in a song.
There are lots of images of roads, trains and such. Is the album like an emotional journey?
I’d say that it is. I was talking to an interviewer a few months ago and we kind of came to the conclusion that even the sequencing of the songs was like a travelogue. The beginning, the opening song Rookie Dream is getting on the train, the beginning of the journey.
I take it that Rookie Dreaming is one of the earlier songs you wrote as you’re singing about moving too fast to see the paintings in Paris and the sunrise in Barcelona so presumably it was written in Europe.
Yeah. It was written way before all the other songs, that was actually a different time when I was in Europe some way back
I was going to ask you about your lyrics in that song when you say you felt like you were a 1960’s movie. Did you have a particular movie in mind?
No, I didn’t have any one movie in mind there. It’s more of a “feeling ” lyric if you know what I mean but now that you ask I wish that I did have one in mind, that’s a cool question.
Again, talking about paths and roads in Only In My Mind you sing, “life is a road without any turns” and I wondered if this is in any way related to the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken.
Well again, I didn’t have that in mind when I wrote that song but I love Robert Frost and it’s great that it has that effect on you when you listen to it.
Most of the album is just you and the band but there’s a string arrangement on Only In My Mind which is wonderful and sounds as if you had an orchestra in the studio with you.
That was my friend Andrew Joslyn. There’s a story behind that. He and a friend of mine were dating and they went on vacation and when they came back their house had burned down. I’d asked him to write an arrangement and it was only a couple of days after the house burned down so he said that he wrote it in a kind of fervour, feeling all the pain and hurt he had and he managed it all in under an hour. There’s a lot of emotion in it and it really adds to the song.
You produced the album yourself.
Yes. I spoke to a few people but they weren’t really in line with what I wanted it to be, at least for this batch of songs. I wanted it to be raw and real.
People have compared the album to Joni Mitchell and I certainly thought that were elements of her and artists like Judee Sill and Carol King, an early seventies singer songwriter feel to it.
Well those women are definitely huge influences on me and I respect and honour them but for me it wasn’t so much getting the sound of a certain time as getting a more timeless sound, one that you couldn’t pin down to a certain age. I think that when you have a more organic sound and instruments on a record that people think of an older time and an older sound just because that’s what those records had on them.
The album’s being released here in January but I believe that it’s been out in the States since last summer. Has it done well over there?
It’s quite a big gap between the two release dates so it’s been a slow ride but yeah, it’s done well and it’s been a good time for me
For some of the songs you drew on your time spent bar tending.
Yes. In these small time bars in America there’s all sorts of characters, people who don’t really seem to have many ambitions, not afraid to be themselves and especially when they’ve had a few drinks they’ll start to talk. They’ll tell you stories and I’m always willing to listen and be empathetic and try to connect with them. I think that everyone has a story in them but some are just more willing to tell you about it and those are the ones I wrote a song about.
In How Quickly Your Heart Mends you sing, “The jukebox plays a sad country song for all the ugly Americans.” It’s a very evocative lyric, a Hopper painting meeting a Tom Waits song.
Well when I played that song to some members of my family they were like, how can you say ugly Americans? But then it’s small town America and most city folk just don’t have the experience of being there. They don’t understand what that small town feel is. It’s people who have been stuck in a small town forever and that’s what I was trying to convey.
As we said Courtney Marie Andrews is touring the UK with Loose Music stable mates The Handsome Family. Dates are here