From an early age Courtney Marie Andrews had a burning desire to create.
Running away to seek out fresh paths, she started playing live shows as a teenager, quickly learning the ropes in front of difficult-to-please crowds.
Working with a variety of bands, she slowly, surely worked out her own identity, her own vision of what counted as musical truth.
Breakthrough album 'Honest Life' was aptly-named, the product of almost a decade of work, sweat, and other by-products of the process known as life.
Settling down to craft a follow up, Courtney invited Mark Howard to occupy the producer's chair, seceding control but gaining an extra voice.
New album 'May Your Kindness Remain' is a fascinating return, a breezy, emotive, infinitely listenable collection of songwriting recorded in the hills above Los Angeles.
Clash spoke to Courtney Marie Andrews about this intense, yet also rather relaxing, process...
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The album has just been announced, how do you feel?
Oh I’m so excited!
It’s your first album in two years but some of the material is a lot older, is that right?
I’m always writing so it’s hard to put a number on exactly how long I’ve been working on it. But as far as getting the songs together, rehearsing them, presenting them in a studio, and then actually recording and mixing them in the studio… it ends up being a couple of months. After everything is said and done. But the actual recording process was only eight days.
Does your experience make the recording process more concise, a little more intense?
Yeah. I’ve been in a lot of studio situations and had a lot of experience with that, and I know what I want. Or at least I’ll have an idea what I want – although sometimes that changes. I know how to be productive in the studio, so that’s definitely something you learn after doing it for a long time.
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I constantly see a song as a tree that has many branches...
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Was the material already in shape before you entered the studio?
Y’know, usually it’s fully done and collected, but there were actually songs that I finished writing while in the studio for this record because I just felt they were the right song and they needed to be tweaked a little bit. This was the first record where songs were being tweaked right up until the time we were recording it.
I’ve read a lot of interviews with songwriters I admire – like Leonard Cohen, for example – and I feel like the more you write, the more you’re never done writing.
Leonard Cohen could spend the best part of a decade on one song…
I haven’t got to that crazy point yet but I definitely feel like I constantly see a song as a tree that has many branches and many avenues which you can explore.
I give myself that option, so a lot of the songs are like that. Some are done but others were a work in progress right up until the end.
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Mark Howard sits in the producer’s chair, how did he help during this process?
I mean Mark is an engineer and he produced it so I feel like I got the songs to a place which I thought was interesting and cool, but he took them to this level that was just a different vibe. I like to call him a vibe-master… he’s really great at creating a vibe!
And I felt like I wanted to work with somebody who shifted the vibe so it didn’t sound like ‘Honest Life No. 2’. I wanted to explore sonically and he explored those places with me, so that was an exciting departure.
Were you conscious of wanting to do something different on this record?
Yeah I feel like I’ve always imagined myself as the type of artist who would make whatever record struck my fancy at any given moment. I feel like the one thing that is always going to be consistent is that I care about songs. I perform them myself and if a song is good with everything stripped away then it’s a great song. I feel like that will always be consistent, I’ll always want to write good songs, but the platform with which I display them is going to change, and I definitely want to change the feeling of this record, and change it sonically. It was definitely a conscious decision.
The need to challenge yourself tends to keep you moving forward.
Absolutely! I’ve always done that. I feel like it gets a little bit easier when you have the tools to do that, and there are people buying your record. I’ve always admired artists who do that, my favourite artists do that, so I aspire to do that as well. The album was recorded in eight days, which sounds incredibly intense.
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We did it in this house, in the hills overlooking Los Angeles...
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What was it actually like in the studio?
I think it was intense and also easy and peaceful at the same time. We recorded in a house in LA and we all sat around each other in a circle and played literally the songs live in the studio and that’s how the album was recorded. And then there were a couple of overdubs here and there, but there were no click-tracks, there was no desire for a completely perfect sound… Mark Howard just set up the mics and hit record. And if the vibe wasn’t right we’d discuss it and then we’d do it again until we all felt the song, until it all felt like this emotion we were trying to convey.
We did it in this house, in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, looking out at the Los Angeles skyline. And it was the most beautiful thing to look out onto everyday, and it was very symbolic of the record itself, too. It was intense but also it felt like exactly what we should be doing, and it felt natural. We went to sleep in the house we were recording in, we were living in the record, and it felt very natural because of that.
The right atmosphere must be incredibly important.
Absolutely. If you don’t feel it when you’re recording it then your audience isn’t going to feel it. That’s maybe not always the case, but it definitely translates. It does make a difference in some aspects.
If you recorded it live then does that mean that some of these songs are first takes?
Yes. Not all of them, but a few are first takes… if not, then a second take.
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I try not to dwell on wanting to change recordings.
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Was there a temptation to tweak the recordings?
I try not to think about that too much. By the time the record is mastered I really don’t want to listen to it any more… because I’ve listened to it so many times. I feel like a lot of times I’m very clear in the studio and I know that’s what I want at that time. And if my opinion changes over time it’s because I’ve changed. I try not to dwell on wanting to change recordings. And I also know that this isn’t the only recording of that song that’s ever going to happen, or the only way that the song could be played. I try not to dwell too much on that.
Lyrically, you dwell on the failure of the American dream, the manner in which economic pressures can crush down upon people. Why choose this moment to focus on this?
I feel like our economy is changing so much, and alongside that the American Dream, and our vision of that, of these heroes in our society, has changed a lot too. I grew up with my mom and my grandma buying lottery tickets, always believing that once you have a certain amount of money every problem would be solved. And I just feel like this time is a good time to talk about it because there’s starting to be an awareness of these types of things, with the political changes in America.
Also, it’s something that’s so deeply engrained in me that I’ve internally looked at it so much… and I looked around and noticed it all subconsciously, and it came out in my songs – in a batch of songs – and a lot of people struggle with depression because of these things, and also because they put themselves on this pedastal – that if they had these things everything would be solved. I’ve dealt with it as well… it sort of sub-consciously came out into these songs. I’ve no idea about the timing but it certainly seems to be the right time for it.
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Honestly, I don’t have to bar-tend and that’s a mild success!
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A general distrust of economic powers certainly seems to be the hallmark of an entire generation of young people.
Yeah. I mean, I had to use this term, but the Millennials are the first generation who I think are aware of those things, and how much they effect you… Peers and people around me get disillusioned by this thing. It’s not as bad as it was in our parents generation.
So how do you define success? Is it artistry, being able to perform live?
Being able to do it. There are a lot of years where I had to work other jobs to support music, and now I can just do music… and that’s success to me. I’m incredibly grateful and lucky to be where I am now, and I realise that a lot of people would love to do this, and don’t know how to get there, so I do have an awareness of that. Honestly, I don’t have to bar-tend and that’s a mild success!
Also, success is beating yourself to the punch, and always trying to be better at your craft.
Announcing this album is a great way to start the year, what else do you have planned? Not everything is planned, but the first half of the year is all booked! I’m going to be touring with the band for a lot of the year, doing festivals, ticking off America, Europe, and Australia… Just keeping the train rolling!
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'May Your Kindness Remain' will be released on March 23rd.
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