Courtney Marie Andrews needs to be alone.
That is, she needs complete solitude when she writes. Where other songwriters thrive on a bit of commotion or even chaos around them, not Andrews. She needs solitude because it provides her the best chance for self-reflection and an "uncluttered headspace" in the songwriting process. And she has to know that she's alone too. But she doesn't necessarily need to be at home when she writes: in fact, she often prefers someplace new. "I think it's more that I like to travel and feel out of my element, and I think my best songs come from that space. I lean towards writing songs in unfamiliar places," Andrews told me. Her process also involves what she calls "chunk writing." She doesn't like to write on tour; that's where she collects all of her notes for the later songwriting process. But when she gets off tour, she blocks off a two-week chunk on her calendar and does nothing but write.
Andrews is quite prolific: she's only 27 and her latest album May Your Kindness Remain is her sixth album (she released her first album ten years ago, slackers). May Your Kindness Remain is stunningly beautiful. Pick your label: confessional, country-folk, Americana, old-school country, whatever. It's incredible. It's also garnering awards: Andrews won for International Artist of the Year at the 2018 UK Americana Awards, and she was just nominated for Emerging Artist of the Year at this year's Americana Music Honors and Awards. Read my interview with Andrews after the video for "Irene."
How much writing do you get to do outside of songwriting?
I'm an attempted novelist! Laughs. I've started writing several books, but I've also journaled a lot. I love to write poetry. Except for journalism, I've really done every kind of writing.
Hold on. Let's get back to those attempted novels. Are they attempted, still in progress, or failed? What's the status?
I've had many ideas and urges to write books before, but I think the furthest I've ever gotten is maybe 60 pages. Laughs. I usually become disenchanted by then, so I think I finally realized that I like writing short stories better in the form of songs. The problem when I start those novels is that I become less inspired as I write. I start strong, but the follow through is weak.
Do you try to write every day?
I'm always thinking about writing. When I'm off the road, I'm absolutely writing every day. On the road, I don't write as much as I should. I do a lot of chunk writing: I sit down for two weeks and do nothing but write when I get off tour.
Is that a part of your ritual? That is, is this delegated time?
Now that I'm a full-time touring musician, I don't always have the time to write whenever the mood strikes. Between driving and playing, there's just not a whole lot of time. But yes, when I'm off the road I block off a chunk of time on the calendar and force myself to write. When I'm on the road, it's more about jotting down notes and making observations. I draw from those notes when I write. There's a lot of one line ideas in those notes.
Are you a disciplined writer? What kind of ritual do you have?
I must have my notes with me, those notes I've gathered on tour. They might become the first line in a song, or they might become the first line in the chorus. It's some kind of central idea that evolves into a song. I need those notes with me. If nothing in those notes or lines inspires me, I move to chord progressions and feelings. I try to strum up something that way. But I also do a lot of car writing: I write entire songs by singing them without instruments.
Where are you getting these notes from? Things people say? Lines you hear?
I never get them from one place. It could be the way that someone says something. It could be an idea that pops into my head. I never restrict when, how, or why a song comes to me.
Do you have a lot of discarded song ideas that you return to later?
Absolutely. And especially now that I've gotten older. The title track to new album, "May Your Kindness Remain," wasn't going to be on the record until about a month before we recorded. It was the last song we chose. It was about half finished when I played it for a friend, and they started weeping. I didn't really realize the power of it until that point, so that's when I decided to explore it more.
I'm a reactionary writer. I get a lot based on gut and emotions. That's where I've gotten most of my songs.
Is there an ideal emotion when you get your best writing done? Can you write from a place of extreme melancholy, for example?
All I really need is solitude. I can write in any emotion, but I need alone time. I have to be in complete reflection mode; I need to be able to go off and be in my own world. Not only that, but I need to know I'm alone. Good writing takes time, and that clear space makes it easy for reflection time. It's almost impossible for me to focus if people are around.
But that need for solitude has some backstory. I started writing songs alone in my room as a way to cope with the world when I was an angsty teenager. So that solitude feels natural.
Besides solitude, what else do you need to get your best writing done?
I actually have a difficult time writing at home or at other people's houses. I need to a place far away.
That's interesting, because I have my favorite places to write, and I like to go there because I've had success there in the past. But if I'm hearing you correctly, that's not as important for you.
Well, not necessarily. I'm actually pretty superstitious about where songs are created. I do like to go back to places that have worked out well. I tend to feel disconnected if I try to write a song in a place and it doesn't work there. It's hard for me to rekindle a relationship with that place if I couldn't write there before. I think it's more that I like to travel and feel out of my element, and I think my best songs come from that space. I lean towards writing songs in unfamiliar places.
But it's not that I can't write at home. It's just that I prefer places that offer a lot of stories or history. That inspires me. Writing in a big sterile house or an office sounds awful.
So if you could pick your perfect writing environment, what would it be?
It would be a farmhouse, one that's close enough to a town I could walk to but that feels rural. I walk a lot when I write; I like to aimlessly walk for an hour and write.
Is that closeness to nature especially inspiring?
I think so. I like a clean open space that feels uncluttered. The more cluttered the space, the more cluttered my head. Writers are observers of the world, so it only makes sense to be in a place that allows us to do that.
Can you write at any time of day?
I love writing in the early morning. In that sense, I'm probably the most uncool musician. I love morning and the renewal aspect of it. By the time night rolls around, the day is colored with so many events that it's hard to focus. Again, it's all about having an uncluttered headspace, and it's much easier to have the in the morning. There's a clean palette.
And do you have a favorite writing utensil?
I love ball point pens. But I'm not particularly picky. I hate to say it, but I'm not all about the romanticism of what the writing looks like.
Let's end with this: who do you like to read?
I love John Steinbeck. He's my favorite and a huge influence on my songwriting. I've recently been into a lot of non-fiction. I'm really into anthropology and stories of primitive or recently discovered societies. I just finished a book called The Lost City of the Monkey God. It's about a recently discovered lost city in the Amazon. The story of the real like explorer has always intrigued me. As far as fiction, I'm also a big Flannery O'Connor and a big Tom Robbins fan. I also like fantasy and science fiction. I'm all over the place.