Courtney Marie Andrews is an observer. She’s seen the world at its best and its worst, and written a few songs about it — but observing, for Andrews, isn’t just a surface-level thing. She doesn’t hesitate to dive deep into the root of someone else’s problems, or to analyze the economic state of America through the places she’s seen and people she’s met. It probably helps that she’s a skilled storyteller with a natural knack for empathy, values kindness above all, and finds glimmers hope and optimism wherever she goes.
Andrews may write about the lives of others, but lately eyes have been on her. She is XPN’s Artist to Watch this month, and she’s been touring constantly behind her new album May Your Kindness Remain. (That tour will bring her back our way this summer for the XPoNential Music Festival.) It’s fitting that when we talked on the phone, Andrews was on the road, driving to San Francisco to play a show later that night. She’s spent a lot of time on the road — not just lately, but over the last decade or so. May Your Kindness Remain is Andrews’ fourth full-length, but it was only with her 2016 album Honest Life that she started to receive critical acclaim. Now, with a new record in tow, she’s preparing for her voice to be heard by more listeners than ever before.
In a world like ours, and with a nomadic lifestyle like Andrews’, it seems all too easy to become jaded and worn down. “When you’re trying to be tender but instead you come off cold; when your sweetness surrenders to the cruelness of this world,” Andrews sings on “Kindness of Strangers.” “All the small stuff, and the bad luck, when it all becomes too much, how do you find solace in a place so quick to judge?” She says she doesn’t have an answer to that question; there’s no easy solution. But just a moment later in the song, she does answer it, in a way: “You rely on the kindness of strangers.”
Read our conversation with Andrews below.
The Key: You’re XPN’s Artist to Watch this month, but you’ve been doing this for a while now — over a decade. Is it strange to be getting so much media attention right now, and to be called an up-and-coming artist when really you’ve been up-and-coming for a longer time than people realize?
Courtney Marie Andrews: No, it sort of makes sense. I mean, this is my first record where I have a proper team and a PR person and all that stuff, and all the right things in place. It feels like these are the right records for it to happen with (Honest Life and May Your Kindness Remain), so I’m happy that it’s with these records.
TK: You’re kind of a nomad right now, touring and traveling all over the place, but you recorded May Your Kindness Remain in a house in Los Angeles. Can you tell me what that process was like?
CMA: The producer for the record, Mark Howard, that’s just what he does, he makes records in houses. So we rented an AirBnB in Los Angeles and we all lived there for about a week. We’d wake up in the morning, record till night. His phrase that he’s calling it is “living in a record.” And it was a really unique, inspiring way to make a record, because it just felt comfortable and real and raw. It didn’t feel too 9-to-5-ish, like go in the studio, lay down some tracks and go home, it was much more of a live-in experience.
TK: It really only took a week to record? That seems so fast.
CMA: Yeah, it was eight days. We did, I think, fifteen songs in eight days. We were working our asses off. A lot of the basic tracking was live, and it’s not like we were doing one track at a time or anything, so we tried to capture a performance in one take.
TK: I want to talk about touring life a little bit, since you’ve been crisscrossing the country a lot — and the world, really. And a lot of your songs tackle the loneliness and isolation that comes along with that. Has touring always been that way for you?
CMA: It ebbs and flows, it’s a life of extremes, so I think sometimes it’s like that, but sometimes it’s the opposite of that. You’ve got to be pretty malleable, I think, as a touring musician. There are moments that you face those things, and there are moments where you’re in complete elation and everything’s in the right place. A lot of ups and downs.
TK: A lot of your new album is inspired by the strangers you’ve met along the way. How does the world treat touring musicians when you’re on the road?
CMA: You get everything. The world treats us the same way it treats everybody else, which is varying. I think most people are kind, but every once in awhile you get somebody who’s having a bad day and isn’t as gracious. That’s like, every other day.
TK: How do you go about trying to make connections with strangers, and listening to their stories, and getting them to tell you their stories? Does that happen naturally?
CMA: Yeah, I think I have a personality where, I don’t know why, but people just tell me their life stories a lot. I’m one of those people. And you know, if you’re good at observing and listening, it’s not hard to find stories.
TK: How do you connect other people’s stories with your own?
CMA: Over the years of doing this, I sort of subconsciously stock up things that I hear and relate to, and they make their way into my songs. You know, things that continue to affect me over and over again. But I’ve just always been a very curious person, so it’s easy to take those feelings and stories and intertwine them, honestly without even thinking about it. I just bottle it all up and then write when I have time. If you’re thinking about it all the time, then it’ll come.
TK: Everything I’ve read about you mentions restlessness. Is that something that you’re always dealing with, and something that you have a way to manage?
CMA: Absolutely. I have a hard time, like, chillin’. And I guess my personal way of managing it is trying to consciously go on a walk or a hike or just slow down a little bit, but honestly I’m kind of just drawn more to chaos and being busy. That’s how I am. I’m not sure that I’m too good at self-maintenance as far as that goes, but sometimes I’ll allow myself a break.
TK: I really love the sense of place in a lot of your songs, whether it’s a specific city that you mention, or just the description of a house. Is it important for you to ground your songwriting in a specific place or an experience?
CMA: I’ve always been really drawn to imagery in a song. I did film photography as a hobby for a long time. I haven’t done it in awhile, but those sorts of images and places and time always make [their] way into my songwriting. I like to create a story and a picture that people can grab onto, so it’s not just vague and unrelatable.
TK: One of the most striking songs on your new album is “Two Cold Nights in Buffalo,” especially that one line about the American Dream dying. Do you have any stories to share about that song?
CMA: It’s funny, I’ve gotten a few messages about people thinking that I’m bashing Buffalo, and really, for me that song is just about the state of a lot of American cities. I just feel like America’s in this really weird place where there isn’t a balance for a lot of economies, and the middle class is definitely dwindling, and that song is sort of an observation of the economic state of America from my point of view. Or actually, from a traveler traveling through Buffalo’s point of view. If you leave and come back it’s easier to see the progression than if you’re there in it.
TK: Have you seen the idea of the American Dream, the standard of success that people want to live up to, affecting the people that you encounter, the people that you write about?
CMA: I think that there’s a lot of delusions of grandeur of what the American Dream can offer. I think people get carried away with it, and that maybe at one time in America it may have been attainable for a certain demographic of people, i.e. the white man, but I’m not sure what it is anymore. I think that we’re very lucky here in the sense that we have a lot of freedom, but I also feel like there’s a lot of restraints as well that are sort of invisible, [that] we’re not even aware of. And there’s also a lot of people who think that if they just win the lottery then all their problems will be solved.
TK: The song “Border” really stands out on the album — even just that title has some really obvious connotations these days. Is there a story behind your inspiration for that song?
CMA: That song was written from the perspective of an immigrant trying to make a life in America, who has actually written to try and gain empathy from the sheriff; the sheriff in Phoenix for maybe sixteen years, Sheriff Joe Arpaio. [It was] such a troubling problem in Arizona and caused a lot of issues. And I’m from Phoenix so I grew up around it. And so I wrote that song from the perspective of an immigrant to tell Sheriff Joe the immigrant’s story, rather than just think about, you know, his own sort of agenda [and] narration of how the world works.
TK: Has the current political situation changed the way you approach songwriting?
CMA: Everything affects you as a songwriter if you’re thinking about it. Absolutely. I can’t help but let those sort of stories affect me, because I’m witnessing it and hearing about it every day. I feel like that’s actually where the kindness theme of the record came in — the only thing you can really control is yourself, and what you do, and how you act and react. And [in] a world that is so steeped in darkness sometimes, the one variable that is in your power and in your control is yourself.
TK: I know you’ve been busy touring in the weeks since the record was released, but what kind of response have you noticed so far?
CMA: I think it’s off to a great start. I always feel like I gain more from being at a show or something than I do from online. [It’s] so anonymous, like who are these people? Do they really think this way? But when you’re at a show and somebody tells you that sort of thing, it always goes a lot longer of a way for me. It just feels more real. Because it is more real; I can see them. There they are! They’re crying, they’re laughing, they’re smiling.
Courtney Marie Andrews is XPN’s Artist to Watch for the month of April. She will play this year’s XPoNential Music Festival on Saturday, July 28. Find more information at xpnfest.org.
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