Courtney Marie Andrews arrived in Anchorage a day after the year's first snowfall. The hushed acoustics that come with winter proved to be a perfect backdrop for the plaintive and lonely-sounding music she brought with her. Walking carefully across an unplowed driveway, she looked down at her worn cowboy boots. "I'm going to need some better boots," she says.
The 23-year-old singer-songwriter first became interested in touring Alaska when she heard a story about the Anchorage-based Monolith Agency on NPR's Marketplace ("Indie bands tour Alaska to make 'a chunk of change,'" July 26, 2013). The radio piece brought the agency a lot of attention from musicians across the country, but it wasn't until they heard the wry, nostalgic sound of Andrews' music that they found themselves ready to commit.
"I was floored when I first heard Courtney's voice," says Evan Phillips, one of Monolith's three partners. "I honestly can't say I've heard a voice as classic as hers since I was a kid listening to Joni Mitchell. Listening to Courtney is a lesson in honest songwriting."
Andrews' Alaska tour consists of house concerts, several live radio broadcasts, and some shows in smaller venues, including her Nov. 24 Anchorage performance at Sugar String Studios in Turnagain. It's a touring style that suits Andrews' wistful songwriting style.
"If you're playing in a new town, the last place you want to play as a singer-songwriter is a bar," she says. "People get chatty and you can get drowned out. House concerts are great because they're an actual show. People come to listen. It's good to build a fanbase in that way."
At a Nov. 14 recorded performance at Studio 2200 -- the first in a series that Monolith plans to stage to showcase the musicians the agency represents -- the crowd was unusually attentive. Andrews' voice is precise and nimble but also rich, rounded and mature. Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian and Nanci Griffith are ready comparisons.
This is Andrews' first trip to Alaska, but she's no stranger to adventure. Soft-spoken and petite, she and her guitar travel about six months out of the year, often alone. Asked about the challenges of her have-guitar-will-travel lifestyle, she says, "I guess I've always known how to fend for myself." Growing up an only child, she adds, "I've just always had that will to not be afraid."
In between songs, Andrews doesn't offer much banter. Her lyrics tell stories of the weary, the disappointed, and the lonely. "Growing up as an only child, that loneliness is very real. A lot of my writing comes from isolation and feeling disconnected."
That loneliness is an inescapable aspect of the life of a performer, she says. "You can make great connections but often it's with people that you're meeting for the first and last time."
In her song "Woman of Many Colors" off her most recent album, "On My Page," she sings: "Of the ones I've met, I loved many / Of the ones I loved, I knew few /They'd always know I'd be leaving / Sooner or later they'd be too."
In person and offstage, Andrews seems to lose her vulnerability. After the show, she chatted with audience members, making jokes and getting hugs. "I'm just very feeling-oriented," she says.
"Emotions are the thread that strings us all together -- our feelings are the human condition. I just try to be as honest as possible when I'm singing."
Andrews started writing songs when she was 14 (she released her first album at 17). But, she says, her song-writing process is still maturing -- gaining speed on the rails of experience. "I used to think that songs just kind of hit you," she says. "Sometimes it just pours. Like, the song-gods were totally gracious that year."
Recently, though, while writing her upcoming album, she's adopted a more disciplined process. "I realized that I can write by sitting in a room and working from 9 to 5. It's a new experience. I never thought I could be that kind of writer."
Andrews grew up in Phoenix, Ariz., and is now based in Seattle. Her early music memories are of singing with her mother in the car. "That was a really crucial part," she says. "My mom listening."
She went through some of the normal musical phases: Broadway musicals, Top 40, R&B, then an intense feminist stage during which she listened to punk -- with its "angsty, very extreme statements" -- that inspired her to start writing. "That kind of music just really rings true with you when you're that age," she says.
Her mother was supportive through it all, even when Andrews was wearing all black and sporting lots of dark eye makeup. "She let me live that part of myself out. That's the biggest part of why I kept going -- how encouraging my mom was."
This year, Andrews will tour Europe with indie rock singer Damien Jurado. "This is one of my first big support tours, so I'm really excited," she says. They'll perform in Germany, Belgium, Spain, Denmark, Italy, England and Ireland.
The touring life, the writer's life, the lonely, often under-appreciated life of a musician takes bravery to pursue. I asked Andrews what keeps her motivated on the road and coming back for more. "It's definitely the connection that people have with the songs," she says.
"I'm just the middle man. I'm the connection between the song and the listener and that's what really matters. I'm putting those songs out there for people to have. Creation is so important in the world."