Story by Allie Volpe
As a child, Courtney Marie Andrews had a penpal. Although the return address was from a prison, the correspondence was welcomed. Inside the envelopes were beautiful paintings her Uncle Michael had created to pass the time during his incarceration. The poignant memory poetically bubbled to the surface on Andrew’s 2013 album, On My Page on a delicate piano ballad, “Paintings from Michael.”
“I like the one with the sky storm / The one with the abandoned barn / I heard you painted in prison, right before they took your brushes away,” she sings, her voice a striking vehicle for somber recollections.
Experiences like these, rich and unique, inform Andrews’ songwriting, wrought with vulnerabilities and snapshots of humanity. “Often do I use my feelings to paint my mood,” she sings on the title track of On My Page. With but a few verses and choruses, Andrews manages to say the thousand words every photograph expresses.
“I started writing about things in my life that needed a voice,” she says. “I try and gravitate toward non-traditional stories so it’s not a whole album of the same idea.”
Over the course of six albums, including 2016’s Honest Life, Andrews has grown from a teenager in Phoenix — busking on the street and organizing a local folk festival — to a seasoned backing vocalist and player — she provided backing vocals for Jimmy Eat World and toured in Damien Jurado’s band — and eventually a worldly woman with wisdom beyond her 26 years.
The earthy sonic palettes are grounded by acoustic guitar, piano and Andrews’ rich alto croon that drip over wistful country compositions like thick caramel. Andrews’ body of work possesses a warmth and intimacy paired with timeless lyrical references doused in a yellow, folk haze a la Joni Mitchell and Hurray for the Riff Raff. On Honest Life, Andrews references the lives of the traveler, the solitary, the heartbroken.
“I feel like in some way, songs are prophetic,” Andrews says. “They’re either prophetic or they get all the ugly parts about yourself that you don’t really like. Sometimes it’s hard to listen to older records because of that. With Honest Life, I feel like that’s the first record where I feel wise rather than naive.”
The inspiration for Honest Life, however, was the confrontation of months of pain. A week into her stay in Belgium, where she was singing backup vocals for a local pop artist, Andrews experienced a breakup that left her homesick and heartbroken. Banishing herself to her bedroom with a bottle of wine, she began to write Honest Life.
“All I've ever needed is a little time to grow / A little time to understand that things that I know / So that I can listen to you lovingly / Instead of getting up to go / Some people take a little more time to grow,” she sings on the album’s title track.
After the tour, phone therapy sessions with a spiritual guru she found on the internet and months of self-reflection, Andrews returned to Seattle, where she now lives, to tend bar and to reconnect with those she felt she was neglecting while spending months on the road. It took about a year, but she realized she was OK.
“I was a very fragile, broken person at that time,” Andrews says. “[Honest Life] definitely has some sad songs, but they’re more self-reflecting rather than ‘pity me’ things, which I think is the biggest step for me in my own songwriting: owning your heartbreak and sadness rather than making it somebody else’s problem in your writing.”
While currently working on Honest Life’s follow up, Andrews is not calloused by her sorrow, but more emotionally versatile. Unlike the emo music of her teenage years, Andrews feels no need to wallow in sadness, but to flourish despite of it.
“Now you’re smarter than that pain.”