When Courtney Marie Andrews was growing up in Phoenix, she worked at a pizza shop downtown next to the offices of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Donald Trump's villainous border wall-loving buddy who somehow managed to stay in power for 24 years despite his penchant for racial profiling and prisoner abuse. Surrounded by the smell of mozzarella grease, Andrews would watch protests erupt on a daily basis, sometimes joining in too. Years later, that memory informed a song called "Border" off her newly released album May Your Kindness Remain.
"He's a nasty man," Andrews tells Rolling Stone Country, sitting on a couch in the green room at Nashville's High Watt club in white go-go boots and jeans, her thick bangs draping over her eyebrows. "He was completely inhumane to people. So I wrote that song from a perspective of an immigrant just trying to make a life here, and how so many people forget that they are privileged, just by being born here. But there is always a story to tell, and 'Border' is about trying to gain empathy."
"Border," fueled by a propulsive Grace Slick-like groove, is the story of a Mexican immigrant trying to gain footing in a world built against him: where a good job is anyone who's hiring and safety and security are never guaranteed. For Andrews, May Your Kindness Remain is dedicated to that process of putting herself in the shoes of others in order to find that empathy, and to seek out the rare concept of unsolicited kindness, an attribute that feels almost extinct in the era of presidential Twitter wars.
"Kindness" itself is not an accidental concept for Andrews, and on May Your Kindness Remain, there are two songs with that specific word included: the title track, and "Kindness of Strangers." A touring musician since her teens (she was an adjunct member of pop-punk band Jimmy Eat World) and longtime solo artist who started gathering critical acclaim for her last LP, the delicate Honest Life, in 2016, Andrews is not one to casually or carelessly lob lyrics. Her choices are potent and meticulous, always spiked by the power of her voice, which can range from a soft Joan Baez coo to a full-court, soulful belt. She's unsure if those choices come out of intention or some kind of preternatural process.
"I write songs and I don't really understand them right away," she says. "I'm not a religious person, but I realized that kindness is my own gospel. In this world we are living in, it's a hard thing to come by."
"I'm probably the loneliest person ever, searching for the most connection."
Andrews wrote "May Your Kindness Remain" after dinner with a friend in Seattle. She told him she was thinking of moving to Los Angeles, where the album was ultimately recorded, and traced the disappointment in his face. "He had this real change in attitude," she remembers – he was worried she'd become hardened by the place. "I went home and wrote 'May Your Kindness Remain' sort of from his perspective to me." It's the track that opens the record, and sets an unexpected tone, too. Starting out softly, it heads quickly into emotional gospel-soul territory, her vocals more St. Paul and the Broken Bones than wispy folksinger.
But Andrews hasn't moved to L.A. yet. Though she recorded there with Mark Howard (who has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Iggy Pop), she doesn't actually live anywhere at the moment. Her stuff is stashed in a storage unit, and home is a collection of friend's places or AirBnBs, until she decides where she actually wants to land. For someone who writes so adeptly about place – whether from a perspective of comfort, like on "This House," or the lack of it, like on "Lift the Lonely From My Heart" – it's fitting for her to exist in a bit of limbo. "I'm probably the loneliest person ever, searching for the most connection," she says. "And that's what this record is about. I feel so disconnected from people, but I constantly feel the need to connect."
With the current temperature of human connection being lukewarm at best, Andrews argues for kindness and empathy as a way through our tempestuous climate. But she does so in a way that focuses less on current events or explicitly political songs in favor of stories. "Border" is certainly the most topical, but it's also undated, not pegged to a particular time or person, despite its Arpaio inspiration. "I love to write political songs that aren’t political," she says. "You can say 'Trump' in a song, and while it's powerful in the moment, it doesn't last as long. My favorite songwriters can last in any era." Embodying the kindness she sings about, she clarifies, "There's no right way, though."
She points to writers like Bob Dylan, who are known for leaning on storytelling rather than aggressive rallying cries, as sources for the most sonic impact. "The tradition of songwriting is to be an empathizer for the world," she says. "To me, it comes naturally. But I always feel like people should tell their own truths and not just do it because they think they have to."
Now signed to Fat Possum/Mama Bird, Andrews is settling into her place as an artist-on-the-rise, a bit of a strange position for someone who has been writing and touring for a decade. It irks her once in a while, but she was always betting on the long game, anyway. "I knew I wasn't going to be an overnight sensation," she says. "There are moments of weakness, but when then I think, 'This is how I wanted it.' I didn't succumb to the producer or person who told me to do this or that to become famous. I just did what I wanted, and that's more important: to be true to the art."
Still, she's relieved by some of the perks that her rising success, particularly from incessant touring, has given her: "It feels good not to have to bartend."