Longform

By the Time I Get to Phoenix: Courtney Marie Andrews Is the Biggest Star in the Valley's Blooming Pop-Folk Scene

It's 1 p.m. on a blustery Sunday afternoon, and more than 100 music fans are lined up outside downtown Phoenix's Modified Arts. The doors to the intimate venue don't open for another hour — and the headliner, Courtney Marie Andrews, won't take the stage for nine hours — but that doesn't deter the throng of people waiting.

During recent folk festivals in the Phoenix area — featuring local artists in their late teens singing stylistically updated singer-songwriter music in the vein of Bob Dylan and Carole King — people came from all over the country. One carload of teens traveled all the way from Ohio.

Today's turnout is no exception: the line snakes 75 yards down Roosevelt toward Fifth Street. Because Phoenix's reputation for this musical form has burgeoned, these fans aren't taking any chances of getting turned away.

Nine hours and 14 bands later, it's finally Andrews' turn. Modified Arts (which has since ditched nightly concerts after changing ownership) is packed with teens, some of them fellow musicians sitting knee-to-knee on blankets spread out on the floor. Many are hyper-focused on the songstress with long black hair and bangs that cover her eyebrows. One teenage girl, who clutches a pink lunchbox depicting the Beatles, seems especially hypnotized.

The room is silent as Andrews launches into a song from her latest album, Painter's Hands and a Seventh Son, a disc that listens like a pared-down Björk playing a singer-songwriter set for her best pals in a park. Andrews, wearing a black dress and brandishing a black acoustic guitar, sings with closed eyes. Her stage presence is deceptively mature for a 19-year-old, and her songs contain wisdom that's accessible to both the teenagers and adults in the room.

As she closes the 30-minute set with "Darling Boy" — a simple yet powerful aria about love that's just out of reach — the girl with the lunchbox is so wrapped up in another world that it would take a human-size spatula to pry her off of Modified's wood floor.

Over the past few years, the Phoenix area has quietly become an epicenter for a new breed of folk-centric musicians. In the past, many talented creative types have ditched the Valley for more culturally relevant places like New York City and Portland, Oregon. However, thanks to the growth of the pop-folk movement here, a number of musicians have moved to the Phoenix area to become part of a grassroots community.

Some who aren't able to relocate here pine for Arizona over the Internet, whether it's exclaiming, "I Wish I Were in Phoenix!" in their MySpace profile headlines or traveling from the Midwest to see locally produced music festivals. A Seattle band even wrote a song that chronicles its perceived magical view of Phoenix.

The reputation of the area's pop-folk — which encompasses other styles, such as indie rock, and whose themes range from unrequited love to poppy front-porch-style storytelling — has made noise throughout the country.

Largely because of Courtney Marie Andrews. The recent high school graduate and face of the movement built the community by recruiting talented musicians from across metro Phoenix and playing do-it-yourself shows all over the country. Says a prominent musician with national cred, Andrews, who will make her major-label debut this fall, is on the verge of making it big-time.

Though the Valley is an affordable place to create music — thanks to the availability of inexpensive recording technologies, as well as the Internet's ease of getting music out there — the area remains, culturally, a small town. One legit label owner, who's been integral to the pop-folk movement, claims that a larger indie label would have signed Andrews if she lived somewhere like the Pacific Northwest.

Because only a few are anchoring the local pop-folk trend, the price of notoriety has taxed the scene's limited resources, causing a number of inexperienced producers and engineers to emerge. As a result — and coupled with the loss of Modified Arts, which was the music's main home base for live performances — the Phoenix area's pop-folk scene and its homegrown future are at a crossroads.


Courtney Marie Andrews makes a beeline to her car at a downtown Phoenix parking garage. The rear window on the driver's side of the gray four-door sedan is gone, the result of a burglary months earlier, which is why Andrews takes her acoustic guitar (which needs new strings) from the vehicle wherever she parks.

She walks to the front of the vehicle, where the front bumper hangs near the structure's concrete wall. To lift the bumper off the ground, she must maneuver her petite, 5-foot-3-inch frame into the small gap between the car and the wall. Otherwise, she will drag the bumper along the pavement on her way to a job interview. If she doesn't secure employment, she won't be able to fund her next tour or pay to re-string her weathered instrument.

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Steve Jansen
Contact: Steve Jansen