Life out on the lonely road… It’s a tale that many rockstars sing about, longing for a day they can actually come home from traipsing around the world, meeting faceless fans and playing show after show. It can get lonesome on tour, and yet, somehow, they can’t shed their vagabond ways.
But that’s not the case for Courtney Marie Andrews, who had toured in other people’s bands for a decade before taking a break to bartend in a small Washington town these past few years. Pushing pause on non-stop touring allowed her to sit back and re-evaluate, sparking the thesis for Honest Life (out now in a wider release via Fat Possum Records, with a pressing of the deluxe edition in the Vinyl Me, Please store). At 16, Andrews left her Arizona home to become transient, playing and busking in bars and cafes around the country. She continued on as a session singer and touring musician for nearly 40 artists, from Jimmy Eat World to Damien Jurado. Her work took her all around the world, but at some point, she realized she’d lost touch with reality.
“You can start to just stop calling people or stop keeping up with the people that you know and love,” Andrews said, calling from an unseasonably warm Seattle. “All of a sudden it’s been three years and you haven’t seen them.”
In Washington, Andrews made connections again, getting to know people at the bar and laying down tracks for Honest Life with a trusted group of musicians. Together, the band sounds like home. Drums chug away at moderate paces, piano glitters organically over top and the guitars are cozy. In the final track, she even added a somber arrangement of strings, gifted by her friend Andrew Joslyn. Over the majority of the album, a pedal steel guitar drifts lazily under the melody, tangling with Andrews’ voice. With her Emmylou Harris-like pipes and the pedal steel, the album is what some people have called “country.”
“When I went in to make Honest Life, I didn’t think, ‘Oh, I’m making a country record,’” Andrews said. “It’s more about creating a timeless sound. Something that can be released now or in the ’60s or whenever… I take pleasure in being a songwriter and creating a record that’s hard to place where it’s from.”
Honest Life is technically her sixth album, although she’s kept the first three for herself. It’s her first LP on a label. The album made several best-of-2016 lists, including Rolling Stone’s 40 Best Country Albums of 2016, NPR’s Albums of the Year (Folk Alley) and Stereogum’s 20 Best Country Albums of 2016. The accolades couldn’t have come at a better time, she said, when she was wiser about the industry and had gotten some time to grow.
“Some people get lucky and their first record is just like a masterpiece fully formed, but that was definitely not me,” Andrews said. “I feel like I’ve really come into my own as a songwriter in the past few years. ... I’m glad [the recognition] happened now when I’m a good songwriter, rather than when I was young.”
To improve her craft, Andrews studied up on the greats—Neil Young, Bob Dylan, etc.—and in turn, she gained notice from other impressive songwriters, like Ryan Adams and Jurado. With practice and careful observation of legends and her contemporaries, she perfected the “tasteful way of revealing things” in her music.
“When I was younger, I would write a song and I would reveal things in every single line, and that was the problem,” Andrews said. “We don’t need to know all that. The listener is overwhelmed. It’s like when you’re at a bar and somebody’s telling you their life story and you’re like, ‘Whoa, calm down.’”
Andrews’ songwriting is more subtle now, but not cryptic. The first track, “Rookie Dreaming,” reflects on her troubadour life and the missteps of what Andrews calls “blind youth.”
“I was moving too fast to see / All the paintings in Paris or sunrise in Barcelona / I was too broke too shallow to dive deep / Too busy carrying the weight of everything,” Andrews sings, her voice rife with mild vibrato, swooping with a twang that’s not Southern, but something unique altogether. She punches syllables that condemn her apathetic lifestyle—“TOO broke, TOO shallow”— while letting other verses flow freely, warm with harmony.
While she criticizes herself in “Rookie Dreaming,” she turns her perspective to address a meek friend in “Irene.” She sings directly to the title character, a pseudonym for the real-life subject, delivering the type of constructive criticism you might not have the guts to give to a friend’s face.
“Gain some confidence, Irene / If you speak let your voice ring out / But keep your grace, Irene / Don't go falling in love with yourself,” she sings. An organ warbles as Andrews delivers her sermon.
“‘Irene’ was originally written for a friend, but I feel like probably every growing, youthful woman has felt like Irene at one point or the other,” Andrews said. “Every woman who’s amazing but doesn’t really know it yet. We feel like all these magazines and articles that are saying, ‘No, we’re not good enough’ ... It’s sort of realizing that that’s total bullshit and you are awesome and you just have to know it.”
Not only did Andrews take care of all the songwriting on Honest Life, but she was the sole producer on the album—essential for keeping control in the studio.
“With this record, I knew so clearly what I wanted that I didn’t want distractions or arguments,” Andrews said. “One person sees it one way, one person sees it another way. Sometimes it makes a great record, but for Honest Life, I just wanted the sort of clear, easy, raw and realness. And that’s what we did.”
As for settling down and slinging drinks, Andrews knew that wouldn’t last forever. She said she’s always going to travel in the name of music. But this time, she’s not going to be singing anyone else’s songs. She’s at center stage now, and she’s ready to brave the lonely road once more.
“A lot of Honest Life was realizing that I didn’t want to tour as a backup singer anymore,” Andrews said. “If was going to be on the road, it was going to be for me, for my songs, for the dreams that I’ve always had as a teenager and as a young adult. Bartending is not my career path. Music is everything.”