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Astrology, Creativity, Breakups, Medieval Witches, And Courtney Marie Andrews’ ‘Old Flowers’

On July 7, 2020

Courtney Marie Andrews is generous, and her generosity colors the art she creates and her approach to creating it. She sees songwriting (as well as her output as a poet and a painter) as more than an instrument for catharsis: In her capable hands, creativity is a teacher, tool, and “balancing mechanism for the mind and the heart.” When we spoke, she also emphasized her firm belief that even your most personal experiences no longer belong to you and you alone once you commit them to song: after you translate them to this medium, they’re part of the broader human experience, there for anyone who might need them to be a mirror or a map. It doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that Old Flowers could be both.

Andrews wrote Old Flowers about the end of — and at the end of — a nine-year relationship spanning the majority of her 20s. She and her former partner became adults together—and in her own words, the album is her way of “preserving each memory like an emotional archaeologist,” honoring the time invested, the growth achieved, the lessons learned. When you can’t save the thing itself, becoming an emotional archivist is the next best way to ensure what’s true, good, and important doesn’t disappear with time or distance. In this way — though the subject matter is more personal — Old Flowers feels like a natural extension of May Your Kindness Remain’s warm, nuanced portraits of the types of people we often overlook or underestimate. Here, she turns her discerning eye and capacity for empathy and compassion back on herself in a way that feels both intensely personal and eminently relatable.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Vinyl Me, Please: Obviously I want to talk to you about Old Flowers, but over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself getting annoyed on work calls when people just gloss over everything that’s happening in the world right now. How are you doing? What have you been doing, reading, thinking, and listening to?

Courtney Marie Andrews: This is a cultural awakening that’s been — it should have happened a long time ago. My view is that the pandemic was a kind of catalyst: people had enough room and time to sit with themselves and really begin to address these issues that have been long overdue: not just to talk about them, but to act on them. But, me personally? I’ve been taking the time to just educate myself in ways I haven’t before. I went the more historical route and started listening to this podcast, 1619

It’s so good.

It’s so good! I’ve gotten really into podcasts during quarantine. I do a walk every day, and I’ve been making episodes of [1619] part of that daily walk.

It’s weird; I’ve actually been listening to 1619 on my walks, too. I just finished the second-to-last episode, the first half of June Provost’s story about his family’s sugarcane farm going under because the bank won’t give him a large enough loan and won’t give him the money at the right time, and it just makes me want to burn the whole world down.

It’s insane. And also, obviously, it’s true — America has been looters forever. That’s how we got Hawaii: sugarcane. One of my favorite songs — sorry, this is not pertaining to the subject matter, but it sort of is, because it’s about American looting. In the early 1920s, the Hawaiian queen [ed.— Queen Liliʻuokalani] wrote this beautiful song while she was imprisoned in her own house when America was taking Hawaii. And then later, Elvis covered it. You have to look it up! It’s in Hawaiian, and I can never remember the name [ed.—“Aloha ‘Oe”]. It’s such a beautiful song, and she wrote it about freedom.

But back to 1619: that podcast has been so awakening, especially the music episode. I’m glad we share the walking and listening to 1619 experience. Obviously, we have so much farther to go, but even in the last week, just how much discussion there’s been about making real, lasting change and early steps toward hopefully bringing it about — all we can hope for is that we will all sustain that energy and momentum.

It feels like a moment where we pivoted from learning that we need to say that racism is a systemic problem, to actually talking about how to make change that is legitimately systemic: like dismantling the police force, and rebuilding it from the ground up in a completely new way. I’ve got my fingers crossed hard.

Yeah, me too. It's a long time coming.

I think the songs that you write — on this album especially — emphasize change as a means of healing and that feels very appropriate right now, even though the change you talk about on this album is very personal in nature. But that general idea feels very appropriate for the moment, and it’s just comforting to listen to an album about deep human connection while we’re in this weird space of feeling more and less connected to one another than any other time in recent memory.

I’ve always felt like even personal songs, once they’re written, aren't yours anymore. When you’re writing them, they’re yours — they’re so yours it can make you cry, or realize things that you never knew about yourself, or about somebody you love. What we have in common is that we're all human. My story has different shades than yours, but the subject matter is the same, you know? That's how I feel about songs and giving them to the world.

That generosity really comes through in your songwriting. Your songs are self-reflective, but they aren’t navel-gazing. Your sad songs never seem to ask the listener to feel sorry for you.

I think [that’s] how I felt at the end of this relationship. There’s this Jack Gilbert poem called “Failing and Flying” and it talks about love as a triumphant thing. I think a lot of the time in Western culture, we have this “poor me” view of love — and obviously I’ve written songs from that standpoint — but for Old Flowers, I really wanted to serve love in a triumphant way. And it is sad, and sad things happen, and we’re bad people sometimes, and we don’t treat each other like we should. But in the end, you did love each other, and you want to remember that. And that’s what I wanted to serve.

In my personal experience, it’s been easier to get into that mindset at the end of a long relationship than at the end of something that burned bright and fizzled out quick. The man I was with before I married my husband, I was with for about a decade as well. There’s just so much history, and so much to reflect on, and it can take so long to finish the breakup process that you end up being able to be reflective and objective about the relationship in a way that’s harder to do with shorter relationships.

I don’t know if your relationship was when you were really young, but I’d known this person since I was 17 years old, and I grew up with this person, and they honestly helped me become who I am today. If you’re with somebody that you loved for that long, and it just didn’t work out for one reason or the other, how can you be bitter? They’re a part of you. And maybe you are bitter! But how can you let that be the one emotion you let yourself feel or acknowledge? It’s just so much more nuanced than I think people give it credit, I guess.

I was in the same situation: nothing was wrong; we were just wrong for each other. It can be really hard to end something like that. And if you figured out how to become adults together, it’s impossible to disentangle your life from that other person's life: you both exert so much influence on one another at such a critical moment. I think this album captures all of that very well and very accurately: but in kind of an Impressionist painting way, where all these little moments and feelings don’t seem connected one by one but add up to a full-picture understanding of what you’re trying to communicate.

That’s so funny that you compared my music to impressionistic art, because just a month ago I started oil painting and my biggest influences are definitely the Impressionists!

With these songs, there was no strategy at all — I’ll just say that. Of all my records, this was probably the most inspired — and by inspired, I mean I wrote all these songs in under 10 minutes, and it was out of necessity. That happened with only a few songs on May Your Kindness Remain. With this album, it was like a lightning bolt hit me, and I needed to get it out, to process these emotions. When you’re with someone that long and suddenly you’re not, every day you’re trying to learn how to be alone, and it can be really confusing. That’s all I wanted to write about. I couldn’t think about anything else.

Were you working on another album before the breakup happened and your writing shifted course?

Not really. I think “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault” was the only one I wrote pre-breakup. In a weird way, it was a kind of foreshadowing of the breakup.

This isn’t totally true of that particular song — but many of the songs on Old Flowers have a sort of “hymnal” quality to them: in the melody, and the chord progression. When I think about the role that hymns play — a reaffirmation of what you believe, mostly to yourself, but done in a form that allows you to connect with one another — it feels really apt for the album. Kind of calls back to what you were talking about earlier: that you write a song for you, but once you finish it, it’s not for you anymore.

Yeah! I’m not religious, but I am spiritual. Walking through the woods is my spiritual place. But I am drawn to that sort of music that sounds like it comes from the human soul, and maybe that’s where the hymnal feeling comes from. Melodies that feel like or come as a comfort.

One lyric that jumped out to me was, “I'm a woman alone in the world but happy to know herself.” I’m curious to hear what you learned about yourself through the relationship, and through the process of chronicling it in these songs.

I think in your first long-term relationship, you learn that it’s really hard to communicate, and resentments build up, and pretty soon — you’re a journalist, so I assume you’ve read Brené Brown? She talks a lot about the stories we create, and my ex and I got really good at creating stories about our relationship instead of talking things through. We sort of became each other's stories.

Now, I’m rediscovering who I was before this relationship, and this period of quarantine has given me even more time and space to get in touch with why I do what I do, and why I love it.

What, specifically, have you rediscovered about yourself?

I am a person who needs a lot of creativity — a lot more than normal humans, I think? When I cut myself [off] from that, there’s a lot of negative self-talk, and some withering. And because we knew each other so well, [my ex and I] could be very critical of each other and it often stopped me from doing creative things that I normally would have given a go. I think I cut myself off from my creative and spiritual self in a lot of ways. I'm very vulnerable and sensitive, and tried to be tough when I didn't need to be. But I think vulnerability is a strength. So, you know, the usual Brené Brown stuff (laughs).

I think you have to get to that place before you can begin the process of breaking up. You have to get comfortable being vulnerable enough to admit that it isn’t working, and that you’re not a failure by bringing it to an end.

It took me about a year. Because the thing is, when you’re with somebody that long, there will be slumps, and you get through them. You go through these waves of happy and sad times, or hard times. But if the wave of a sad time is more than a year, then it’s probably not going to right itself again, you know? Coming to terms with that is very hard, especially if you do still really love the person.

I’m still processing it all. That relationship was a third of my lifetime! The record definitely helped, though. Putting it into words and music helped me process and helped me learn. I’ve always said it’s the best therapist. And it doesn’t cost me $150 an hour.

You mentioned that quarantine has given you additional time and space — are you a person who is creatively inspired in times like this? Or is it more like you’re just sitting with it, versus actively working?

I feel like my only safe place is when I create. Creativity is the only thing that centers and grounds me. I haven’t been writing songs lately, though: generally, before I release an album I don't write new songs. It’s like I have to wait for the record to be out to know my next step. But I am working on a collection of poetry.

I think of songwriting and poetry as having similar creative processes, though to clarify, that’s an opinion coming from someone who doesn’t do either of those things.

To me, it doesn’t feel like the same space, but it's hard to pinpoint what the difference is. Maybe it’s this: when I’m writing a song, I think of a conversation. When I’m writing a poem, I feel like a philosopher. Where I’m pondering something bigger than myself, even if I'm speaking about internal, very personal things.

Also, going back to great podcasts: Cheryl Strayed started this one called Sugar Calling where she interviews authors and poets. She’s interviewed Margaret Atwood, David Blum — there’s one with the current Poet Laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo, who is the first Native American Poet Laureate. One of her poet guests said the greatest thing about poetry is the mystery of it. I think when I'm writing a song, I don't want to be mysterious; I want to be revealing. And I think in poetry, there’s always one big universal truth, but the way you talk about it leaves some mystery to it.

Back to the album: May Your Kindness Remain felt so expansive and outward-looking to me; you were telling other peoples’ stories, and dipping into other experiences, especially with songs like “Border.” And Old Flowers is obviously very personal. Which is harder to tell: your own story or someone else's?

I think it just depends. There are easy external songs; there are hard external songs. There are easy internal songs; there are hard internal songs. With this record, it didn’t boil down to whether it was easy or not: it was just all I could write about at the time, like we were talking about earlier. I bounce back and forth between internal and external. Maybe because I have a lot of Gemini in my chart (laughs).

Thank you for bringing your birth chart into it, by the way.

When I was a teenager my friends made fun of me because I bought this book to learn how to read charts. People were like, “Oh, you know Courtney, she’s obsessed with astrology — what a weirdo,” and then BAM! Five years later, everyone’s an astrology expert.

If you’re interested in the human experience, if you love psychology, it’s really fun. I don’t think it’s the end-all-be-all truth, but I really appreciate it as a tool to learn about ourselves and others.

There was this fascinating piece in The New Yorker a couple of months ago about the growing popularity of astrology in the context of a growing disinterest in (and outright mistrust of) organized religion, especially among younger people. Like we need something to help assuage anxiety in the same ways religion does, but from a place that feels less anchored to places and systems we’ve found to be corrupt.

That makes so much sense. I’ve been taking this Coursera course on witches in the Medieval Era — it’s been interesting to learn how occult and religion butt heads and come together. This article sounds like it’d scratch the same itch.

What are you proudest of about this album?

How much I stuck with my gut and heart on it. Also, the way I pushed toward exploring sonic spaces. I think I'm just in general proud of the exploration on this one, and that I wasn’t trying to work any strategic moves. I didn’t try to go for a Triple A type record with up-tempo beats that would get played on radio stations because it’s not what I was feeling at the time. I’m proud for sticking to my guns and doing the record that felt right to me at the moment. It might be to my detriment, but at least I did something I'm proud of.

I actually think people can tell when something is meaningful to the person who created it and it really influences their response, whether they realize it or not. Authenticity can make something that doesn’t seem marketable popular.

One hundred percent. I’m just trying to grow. I think that’s the best thing you can do as an artist. I can’t remember who said it—but the quote is something like, once you have arrived, you’re no longer an artist; you’ve got to always keep evolving.

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Susannah Young

Susannah Young is a self-employed communications strategist, writer and editor living in Chicago. Since 2009, she has also worked as a music critic. Her writing has appeared in the book Vinyl Me, Please: 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection (Abrams Image, 2017) as well as on VMP’s Magazine, Pitchfork and KCRW, among other publications.

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