The indie-country star discusses the intrepid spirit that lives deep within new album May Your Kindness Remain
Journalists don't mess around when it comes to Arizona-born singer-songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews with comparisons to Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty and Joni Mitchell abounding. And for once they feel earned. On new album, May Your Kindness Remain, Andrews worked with producer Mark Howard (Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Neil Young) to craft a record both timeless and timely, personal and political, cementing the singer's precocious credentials as one of contemporary America's most astute commentators.
'It's probably the most live record I've ever done,' Andrews admits, reflecting that most of the tracks were recorded with the whole band present in a room, 'facing each other' and 'getting a take together'. Inflected with gospel tones and an intrepid spirit of collaborative immediacy, May Your Kindness Remain is Andrews' most extroverted record yet, mapping emotional waypoints with boldly interwoven stories.
After the observational tales from the road that made up 2016's Honest Life, the new album meditates more on questions of belonging and home. After more than a decade of touring, Andrews has seen her fair share of endless highways, rustbelt towns and motel loneliness. On May Your Kindness Remain, Andrews suggests that home itself becomes 'more of a striving for human connection'. Throughout, she narrates this striving from perspectives that are sometimes personal, sometimes borrowed. The harmonic catharsis of the title track provides humble counterpoint to 'Kindness of Strangers', a rockier paean to unexpected intimacy and solace in hard times of regret.
With an outward-looking, lively country feel, these tracks draw tight the comforting threads of human compassion that run through the album. Elsewhere, Andrews is more explicitly political, gesturing towards what we mean when we sing of the 'land of the free' ('Border'), or mourning a town's lost history ('Two Cold Nights in Buffalo'). Her vision is sharp but also open enough to extend commentary beyond the fleeting detritus of daily news.
With her songwriting, 'the end goal for me is timeless,' she says. 'I want to make music that fits into any time period and will be relevant years from now.' Telling stories from other points of view, Andrews offers a cinematic panorama of melancholic experience, a keenness of social awareness beyond her years that manifests from the slightest domestic detail to sweeping, philosophic quips on life: 'a kind heart don't cost a dime'. Music can be a form of memorialisation; the true meaning of folk as 'tradition,' as 'passing on stories'.
Nevertheless, she's sensitive to the problem of appropriating other people's tales, suggesting that 'the most important way to preserve history and art is to tell it in your own way'. Andrews isn't going to write songs about being on a coal-bound train anytime soon. It's for this reason that the songs feel urgent and alive, fresh evocations of whatever Andrews has experienced or seen; rather than dusty, appropriative tropes of old-time country wedged in as a nod to genre.
Andrews is a highly observant writer, capable of spinning an enduring yarn from the offcuts of daily impression as on 'Took You Up', where 'frozen dinners' and 'karaoke on a Monday night' tell an earnest story of love in the time of material scarcity. 'For me as a songwriter,' Andrews says, 'it's important to not always need something personal to happen to write a good song. Otherwise you're always in a constant state of despair, searching for the feelings.' When Andrews does delve into the personal, however, it's with nuance and charm in lieu of self-indulgence. 'I've Hurt Worse' sarcastically dissects a failing relationship, while 'Long Road Back to You' closes the album with the irresistibly lilting, twilit romance of a travel ballad.
Throughout the album, Andrews is uncompromising in her exploration of poverty, isolation and human suffering, mature in her awareness of musical responsibility and legacy. May Your Kindness Remain, she confesses, 'was actually influenced by musicians who have committed suicide or overdosed. I always felt that was their way of escaping, because you can get so lonely on the road.' In its own right, the record validates Andrews' talent while testifying to the emotive endurance available in music. The title appeals to 'those little bits of kindness that are so integral to the human spirit', the forms of deep connection we draw in our lives and may call upon in times of trouble. Tender and dreamy, yet bristling at the edges with political notes, May Your Kindness Remain illustrates Courtney Marie Andrews' knack for classical folk wisdom, balanced against sorrow and hope in contemporary America, the embers of longing beyond our present.
Courtney Marie Andrews plays Summerhall, Edinburgh, Thu 19 Apr; May Your Kindness Remain is out now on Loose Music.