“It was kind of at the forefront of my mind in 2019,” Courtney Marie Andrews tells me over the phone from quarantine in her aunt’s house, a few hours from her home in Nashville. “It was all that I thought about and every time I sat down to write, it was all that I could really write about.”
The country-folk singer is explaining the genesis of 'Old Flowers', her fifth solo album to be released before she’s even hit 30. It was borne out of the ashes of a nine-year relationship, more out of a cathartic sense of necessity than a conscious choice: “It wasn't even that I set out to make this thematic record. It was really just a product of me and how I was emotionally reflecting at the time. The songs came so naturally and in such a fervour and such a passion that it wasn't like previous records that I'd like set out to write. I really wrote the songs because I needed to in a lot of ways.”
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In her notes on the record she speaks of the moments that led to her realising the relationship with the person she'd believed to be her soulmate was coming to an end, as she glimpsed the woman she could be but was yet to become. In the wake of its demise, she set out “preserving each memory like an emotional archeologist”, with the writing of songs itself becoming a healing technique as they came to her through vivid dreams, too much wine and many tears on lonely nights in cities from Bisbee to Lisbon, Nashville to London. “I drove myself mad,” it reads. “I drove myself to the smoky mountains just to drive back. I danced with a Portuguese boxer and cried on his shoulder in a Fado café. I did everything an artist is ‘supposed to do.’ But at the end of the day, beyond all the romance, these songs are my truth.”
That the confessional tracks on the album came straight from the heart is audible. Working with producer Andrew Sarlo, there was a focus on keeping the tracks stripped back to their bare bones, resulting in what feels a raw and authentic expression of feeling: “These songs are intimate conversations,” Andrews explains. “When I was sending Sarlo songs, we both had agreed that they needed to remain intimate conversations sonically as well. You can't have an intimate conversation over blaring symbols and organ,” she adds with a laugh. “So we really wanted to reflect that mood and vibe in the recording.”
Not only that, but each of the songs tells the story of her journey through the breakup, each one a chapter of a greater whole: “Every track is so nuanced. I realised I actually put the order of the songs in this story format of a grieving process. So Burlap String’ is the beginning when you're in shock and you want to go back and change things, but you can't. And then the end is ‘Ships In The Night,’ sort of the farewell, like the letter you send years later just wishing somebody well and hoping that they're happy. They all belong.”
But the sentiment of the album she says is captured in the title itself: "Old flowers are something that's beautiful and that you appreciate for having in that time of your life, especially when they're in full bloom. But once they're gone, you can't get them back. And that's sort of how I feel about love, you know?”
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While her ever-shifting feelings about her breakup are most aptly held in the words of Burlap String: “Everything in the process comes in waves: ‘Some days are good, some are bad / Some days I want what we had / Some days I talk myself into a lie’ and it's really those lines that say everything. It's an ever-changing palette. Some days I wish we had, what we had, and then other days I'm so happy to be alone and to know myself. I just think that's part of life, at least for me.”
Of course, while writing from the heart in this way was no doubt cathartic – “sometimes you don't even realise how you feel about something until you write a song about it” – it can also make you incredibly vulnerable, serving up your innermost thoughts and feelings for public consumption. But facing that vulnerability head on, Andrews asserts, is part and parcel of being a songwriter: “I feel like if I had a hard time doing that, then I wouldn't be a very good songwriter. That's your number one goal, to be human enough for somebody to see themselves in it. And so I've never really shied away from that honesty. If I say what I mean then most likely another human has had that same experience. And I think that's when you know you've got a good song.”
Inevitably, 2020’s unexpected arrival of Miss Rona meant original plans for the album's release went thoroughly out the window. And that was after surviving a tornado: “It’s crazy, it’s been just one thing after the other here in Nashville.” While of course this brought a level of disappointment for Andrews, she’s quick to highlight she hasn’t made a martyr of herself: “Obviously I had some mourning or just like the letting go of what it was, what it could have been. Some days I really wish that we could just have a regular record cycle for this – but this is just how it is. It's honestly hard to feel any self-pity whatsoever because it's happening to everyone, and it's something that's so out of our control. It's a crazy year for everyone.”
Plus we discuss how in fact music is one of the things that people have come to appreciate more than ever during lockdown as a source of solace, comfort or respite: “Even in the fields of war, there's bagpipes playing. There's always music. I think you just got to kind of press on. It's just sort of rolling with the punches at this point.”
And if a bit of soothing is what your soul is after right now, you could do much worse than settle into the lilting Americana of Old Flowers. Beautiful, clear vocals over Andrews' piano chords and guitar strings. There’s an ethereal atmosphere created, the ‘intimate conversations’ as she terms them, drawing you in to share her in the journey of her loss as well as her sense of catharsis. Her truth becoming your truth. As her repeated questioning climaxes on Carnival Dream, “I may never let love in again / Will I ever let love in again?” there are parallels to be felt to those suffering under the weight of the events of 2020, wondering if anything will ever feel normal again. It moves through any hint at anger to land on acceptance, wishing her ex: “Hope your days are even better than the ones that we shared” on 'Ships In The Night'.
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Lockdown itself has quite an experience for Andrews, having spent most of it completely solo, bar the odd park walk with a select group of mates. That brought with it a mixture of emotions: “I've been completely alone in lockdown. So the only thing keeping me busy and sane is creating something.” Though with a record already on the way out, it’s actually not been music as such that’s been keeping Andrews occupied. “Before starting a new record, it takes me a while to get on my feet and really think about what I want to do next. So I'm not really in a songwriting phase right now.”
Instead, she’s turned to other artforms: “I'm writing a lot of poetry. And I started oil painting. My creativity is manifesting in this very different way. I think it’s healthy to not bang your head against the wall and write songs every day and to take a step back from things and really assess. So I've been making a lot of different art. And I've written a few songs, but I'm mainly finishing a book that I'm writing.” That is, her first collection of poetry, Old Monarch.
She also reflects that having the unique opportunity to completely switch off was perhaps something needed more than ever in an industry perpetually on the move: “People in the music industry are working a mile a minute. Sometimes it's hard to turn off. So although I hope this isn't how it always is, it's been a nice break to reflect on a career that we just like are endlessly, non-stop working on. Just work on our art and be creative.”
“I think business can actually kill your creativity. I've been noticing that just being forced to be home and sit with myself has made me more creative, because I'm just there with myself and you kind of go back to that. Because of the quarantine, I think there will be some amazing art born out of this time. There's always great art born out of struggle. That's just the age-old philosophical truth. From really dark periods of time come great things.”
And the relentless pursuit of a music career is something that had dominated her life. While Andrews’s big break came with 2016 album Honest Life, her route into music was a seed sown very early on in her life: “I just started singing when I could talk.” It was the sounds she was immersed in as an Arizonan kid that would permeate the music she would go on to make, particularly soul and country music: “I loved both those things. My grandpa was an Arizona rancher and my mom loved country music. None of them are musical, but they just that's the radio that they listened to.
“My mother would take me to these Honky Tonk, karaoke-type bars in Arizona and I would sing there and just loved it. I loved performance. I loved being on stage and I also loved storytelling. I had a little book of stories that I'd written when I was a kid. When I realised you could do both, it was kind of this mind-blowing experience. It's all I wanted to do. I just wanted to sit in my bedroom all day as a teenager and write songs.”
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Since those first days as a youngster on a stage, her influences have inevitably evolved: “Now it’s been over ten years of doing that in which that journey has shaped and morphed over time. It's had so many different phases I feel like I've lived a lot of life within that timeframe! I sort of rebelled my teenage years and became really into punk music. I loved Bikini Kill and I started a feminist punk band. And then from there when I started writing songs, I really got into just lyrics and words and which wasn't sometimes the focal point of punk music. I discovered Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan and sort of felt like I found my idols in that realm.”
After dabbling in punk with her band Massacre in a Miniskirt, busking across the US and even performing with Jimmy Eat World in 2010, it wasn’t until in 2016 that all those experiences and influences seemed to coalesce for Andrews to land on a sound that struck a chord, put out into the world almost entirely off her own back: “Honest Life was a record that I made with backup singing and bartending money. I just finally wanted to get myself out there. I feel like I was a kid learning to be a woman. In a way it was my first record. I had a lot of hope and a lot of dreams. There's a lot of hopefulness on that record.” After being burned by a ‘weird’ record deal in her youth which meant three of her albums barely saw the light of day, it was this self-produced record that formed a turning point, a raging success in the US and reaching number one in the UK Official Americana chart.
Her follow-up, 2018’s May Your Kindness Remain, saw a shift in tone, a reaction to the political turmoil brought on by the 2016 presidential election. Much of her former hopefulness necessarily gave way to something more immediate and questioning, looking outward rather than in: “A lot of friends were just like feeling very hopeless and so that that record was a reflection of the world rather than myself, stories about everyone else. Whereas Honest Life was definitely more of an introspective, coming-of-age record, May Your Kindness Remain is like a study on characters in America, about how the American dream is so tainted. I didn't feel like it was a time for a personal record.”
Does she think that a future album will see a return to that more politicised voice, bearing in mind it will come in the wake of – dare we say it – the unprecedented era of coronavirus, the Black Lives Matter movement, and another presidential election? “Yeah, I mean, absolutely, how can this year not affect us? It’s impacted everyone. I have no idea how it'll affect me and what will come out. But I think art should reflect the times.”
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She feels the BLM movement specifically has galvanised a generation to make their voices heard, bringing with it the tentative prospect of genuine change: “These are issues that have penetrated the American justice system since the beginning of America. Every 20 to 30 years, it’s a new level of things that need to be addressed. Everybody's taking it out to the streets. Even in small towns, people are protesting. It's a very intense time but it needs to happen. And it's also all under the umbrella of an election year. The protests have actually awakened a consciousness within my age group, people getting more involved with local elections which is very important in the States. You’ve really got to be making these changes locally even down to like your county. I think people are really, really gonna get fired up to vote. But obviously, you know, there's no predicting how these things will go down.”
Before all that 2020 would unexpectedly bring, I hark back to how our focus had been on women’s position in society in the wake of the #metoo movement. Having been on the music scene from a young age, and touring since she was 15, she’s certainly seen a few things but believes the industry is – slowly – improving: “For a long time we were pitted against each other. Because you’d have people saying things like, ‘Oh, we just signed a girl, we can't sign you’ or ‘there's so many girl singer-songwriters.’ It's like, that's never been said about a man. There's a million men out there getting deals, you know? So when you hear that all your life you have to deconstruct those belief systems that have been placed on you as a woman.”
That’s not to say it’s perfect now. But she does see that there’s a shift underway: “There's still mostly men running the industry. And that's a problem. There's still work to be done. But I do think day by day it’s getting better and people are becoming more aware of making their workspaces more diverse, not only with women but with people of colour. I just feel like there's a cultural awakening happening.”
And what words of wisdom would she have to those coming through now? “Persistence and resilience,” she says without missing a beat. “And also the ability to have self-criticism, to be self-aware. You’ve got to fail a lot – a million times – in the music industry to get somewhere. A lot of us who have any sort of audience now for years played to no audience. At the end of the day what you have to love the most is the actual music itself – the glory and the fame or whatever you want to call it, the success has to be an afterthought. You just have to continue to always grow and push yourself artistically. You can't give up or have a plan B. I think those are all things that I sort of swore by.”
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And what about her move post-breakup to base herself in Nashville – does the city live up to its reputation as a songwriter’s mecca? “It does historically have this magic to it. Some of the best songs and all the world were created there. I don't know what it is, if it's a vortex or it's just that it's been a bed for music for so long. People are always trying to catch a song there. I think that's why it's a special place for it. It’s a common thing to say if you live there, ‘hey, you want to write some time’ and that's kind of how you hang out with people. So I really, really love it there.”
Bearing in mind the record’s subject, and that she’s been in a relationship for the best part of her 20s, I hesitantly broach where she’s at now romantically. She’s quick to point out dating during a pandemic is less than ideal: “Oh God, don't even get me started,” she says with a laugh. “I keep joking that I'm gonna be that crazy old Santa Fe art lady I always dreamed I'd be. Like, I'm not a dating app person at all. That's just not me. So you, yeah, I'm kind of just married to my art right now. It's okay. I was with somebody for nearly a decade. I can have some time alone.”
And when, realistically, does she think she’ll find herself back in front of a live audience once again? “The ideal situation is that we're back on tour by the fall. But most band tours have been cancelled in the fall because we don't know if there's gonna be a second wave or something. There's a lot unknown right now, but 2021 is kind of what we’re looking at.”
Overall, she reflects the whole experience of the last few months as one with some positives to take away, in spite of the devastation and heartbreak. Like one giant reset button for society: “There's been a lot of really a lot of pain and horrible things and loss. I've lost people to this disease. So it's been sad, very, horribly sad.”
“But the world is so busy in Western culture and I think we all needed to just slow down for a minute and really think about our earth and the people on it. I think it's been good for our brains to just take a step back and just reflect.”
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'Old Flowers' is out now.
Words: Sarah Bradbury
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