A lot of young American female singer-songwriters are lumbered with the unwanted tag of ‘the new Joni Mitchell’. Phoebe Bridgers, a 23-year-old from Los Angeles, is the latest woman to have this particular millstone hung around her neck. Courtney Marie Andrews has also been compared to the great Canadian. But Andrews is closer in style to Emmylou Harris or Linda Ronstadt. Really, though, she is a singular talent and she just may have a claim to be the greatest young singer-songwriter in America. Period.
The rise of Andrews, from Pheonix, Arizona, and four years older than Bridgers, seems to have been meteoric to those of us on this side of the Atlantic. But she has been touring since leaving home at 16 and has had vast experience as a backing singer and guitarist.
She has also produced six albums with 2017’s Honest Life and the sixth, May Your Kindness Remain, the breakthrough records. Andrews, who has signed a deal with the independent label Loose Music in the UK, has also proved on a recent tour to Britain that she is a dazzling live performer.
Produced in Los Angeles by Mark Howard, who has also worked with Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, May Your Kindness Remain is a showcase for her writing talents. Andrews, like Bruce Springsteen, has been candid about the subject of depression, having lost family members to suicide, and the lyrics on the album are unsparingly honest.
Like Springsteen, she writes narrative songs about people toiling on the margins. The bluesy Border, for example, takes as its subject a Mexican migrant worker struggling against the odds to make a buck in the desert sun.
And when I get to the Land of the Brave Gonna buy me a hammer and work all day Send it all back to the family Save a few bucks for that bull canteen Stand outside that hardware store Don’t matter the job they need me for
There are echoes here of Springsteen’s Sinaloa Cowboys, a song about Mexican brothers living, working and dying making methamphetamine in the desert. And in Border there lurks the dark shadow of Donald Trump and his wall that will never be built.
Most of Andrews’ songs on her latest album recognise that Trump’s America is a deeply divided country and people are straining, emotionally and financially, to keep their heads above water. And they acknowledge that communities and empathy are more important than ever in these hard times. Two Cold Nights in Buffalo, for example, is just that with some particularly powerful lines.
A snowy prison out on Main Street, heaters hang from the cells A bum searches for shelter, so cold he dreams of hell It’s that American dream dying, I hear the whispers of each ghost Of the wealthy man who once dined in downtown Buffalo
Andrews and Springsteen would never mention Trump by name in their songs, for fear of making them sound dated, but she did acknowledge in a recent interview with Neil McCormick in the Daily Telegraph that Americans have larger-than-life dreams and that the president taps into this desire. ‘So many people are buying lottery tickets or getting addicted to the casino, like one day they will have all this money and it will solve everything and somehow forgetting the values that already make them rich, like kindness and love. There’s a kind of shadow culture I guess Trump represents, an illusion that distracts us from what we really want out of life.’
Andrews, with her four-piece band, appeared at a series of intimate venues in the UK, including Komedia in Brighton, a cinema basement packed to the rafters with myself and 300 other people who went home feeling they had seen something remarkable. The band were faultless, particularly the Seattle guitarist Dillon Warnek, whose reverb solo cuts into the title track of the new album a minute into its start and gives it an extra intensity.
Warnek’s sound provides the band with a rockier edge but it is Andrews who is the captivating presence. Wearing a green cloak, like some elvish princess in Lord of the Rings, she moves between guitars and keyboards to display her instrumental skills. But her voice is the most disarming instrument, a powerful quivering vibrato that fills the room.
For their encore the band returns and Andrews sits at the keyboards to sing Let The Good One Go from the Honest Life album. She has been forthright too about the break-up of a long-term relationship and this song reaches a rare emotional pitch.
Where are you tonight? Do you think of me when you close your eyes? Do you wake up and reach for me by your side? They say good things never die Well if that’s true, then our love’s still alive If that’s true, then it’s safe to say it will never die Oh you will know When you’ve let a good one go
Andrews, and her songs about the sadness and hopefulness of ordinary lives, is certainly a good one. One intriguing question is whether this rising star of Americana music, no longer that Rookie Dreaming, will be swapping these tiny venues for the Albert Hall in years to come.