It’s difficult enough to connect with another human being in the time of Covid, but that didn’t stop Courtney Marie Andrews from taking things a step further — by traveling from her home in Nashville to an isolated cottage on the island of Nantucket, where a reliable wireless signal to do an interview is about as rare as a seagull without designs on your lunch.
“I’m on a remote artist colony,” says Andrews, who was offered a residency to finish her first book of poetry, which she completed earlier this month. For the first time in years, the songwriter went somewhere with the intention of staying. “I derive so much of my inspiration from leaving and being in the presence of human connection. It’s been a really nice change to shift.”
Like many artists, Andrews was supposed to be on the road promoting her new record, Old Flowers, this year. And like many, she’s been grieving a future that never came as it was supposed to. “There is a part of us that is missing,” she says. “For the first two months it felt a bit like denial: maybe you will get back together with your ex, that underlying hope. To be honest, I just miss life and music.”
Appropriately, Old Flowers is an album about breaking up, moving on and rebuilding — in her case, about a long-term romantic relationship, but written and sung for anyone in need of a manual for how to let go. Right now, that’s pretty much all of us: an entire planet of people letting go of a year full of unrealized plans, promises, and memories that never even got a chance. “I’m alone now, but I don’t feel alone,” she sings on the title track, her voice so full of power yet still delicate every step and note along the way. “You can’t water old flowers.” She’s right. It’s best to simply start anew.
We spoke to Andrews about Old Flowers, poetry, and reflecting on both the past and what’s still to come.
Writing a “breakup album” is nearly a folk tradition at this point. Some of our greatest albums (see: Blood on the Tracks) are about making beautiful art from the ashes of a relationship. Does that come with a sense of responsibility?
I didn’t think, “Oh, I’m going to make a breakup record.” But every time I sat at the piano, these sorts of songs came out. With this record I wasn’t thinking about crafting an album so much as I was processing everything. It was all I could do. I’m a big believer that sometimes as an artist you really don’t know how you feel until you listen back to something. Songwriting, it’s the highest form of communication. And when I wrote “Together or Alone,” I knew. In many ways the moment I mastered the album and had it in my hand, I felt a chapter closing. There was a sense of hopping over that hurdle.
Though this album is, on the surface, about a relationship, there is a lot we can all take from it in terms of examining the process of losing something dear to us — a person, a dream or one of the million things we’re learning to say goodbye to this year.
Albums that are deemed “breakup albums” don’t have to just reveal parts of ourselves that are about love. Grief can be about so many different things. Breakup albums make you very vulnerable. The most vulnerable part of you. I feel like all my favorite records have a way of mirroring parts of myself I didn’t know were there. The goal is to do that in a song.
It was recently the four-year anniversary of Honest Life, your 2016 breakthrough album. How does it feel to reflect on everything that has happened since then, especially in such a time of stillness?
That record was such a catalyst for my career, and I feel so connected to it because of that, but also the span of four years is so little time in the grand scheme of things, though it feels like it was eons ago. It was the first record that allowed me to quit my bartending job. There are records that I look back on and wish I could change, but not this one. With Honest Life, in this strange way, it felt like an act of rebellion. I had worked with older men who wanted to co-write and to produce, but I stepped aside and did it myself. And for the first time I felt very in control of my art and empowered. I look back with a fondness for that time. It was the beginning of everything.
Your 2018 LP May Your Kindness Remain preaches kindness as a way through our tumultuous existence, part of a real moment in folk and Americana that advocated for forgiveness and empathy as political action, like John Prine and Brandi Carlile did with their albums as well.
In the proceeding years in which I wrote those songs, there was a cultural feeling of needing to perpetuate those good morals because, frankly, there were a lot of things that were revealed that weren’t good. A lot of us took the mothering approach to writing. This is a continuation of those years, this huge tradition. I will say I feel more vitriol than I once did. The really deep desire to want change and see it not changing can be very upsetting. But you can be kind and also be radical at the same time.
As you work on poetry now, is there a measured difference between how you approach poems and how you approach songwriting?
When I am writing songs I feel like an emotional archaeologist. I’m speaking for a character or talking to a friend. At least with this batch of poems, I feel like I am in more of a philosopher-type brain. Pondering the meaning of things, explaining the meaning of things. I have yet to flop from that and have switched to full poetry brain mode.
For all the disappointment that comes with releasing an album during a pandemic, is there a silver lining to be had in thinking about how people now have some time and quiet to take in the “emotional archaeology” of Old Flowers?
Old Flowers is a heavy record to digest. It’s not an open-air festival record. The upside is people are sitting quietly listening to it. If you are going to have an intimate conversation, the middle of a pandemic is a good time for that. People will have sat with it by the time we are out on the road. It’s so hard to feel pity for ourselves, because it’s happening for everyone – even Beyoncé can’t tour. I have my one day a week breakdown and ask, “Why is this happening?” But then you just get up.