Longform

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

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Six days earlier, the Valley native and two girlfriends hopped in the car, which has seen better days, and drove to Topanga Canyon, California, where Vincent Pascoe — who's made videos for disturbed alt-rockers I Am Ghost and Cuban-American rapper Sen Dog — filmed a $20,000 piece on spec. According to Andrews, the shoot for her six-minute-plus song "The Buffalo and the Bird" went well, but the jaunt to the Topanga bohemian colony near Los Angeles (unintentionally founded as an artist enclave by Woody Guthrie in the 1950s) did have its tense moments.

Before leaving Phoenix, she had only $54 to pay for gas and food. Her friends didn't have money to spare, so Andrews asked her mom, who raised Courtney without a father figure, for a loan. That didn't work because Andrews' mother had just made a mortgage payment.

Once in Topanga — which continues to be a neo-hippie spot made famous by past residents Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison, and Marvin Gaye — the film crew trespassed to put up a tree swing attached to a 50-foot piece of rope. Luckily, they documented the key shot just before an old man in a pickup made it clear that they weren't welcome.

Three days after the shoot, Andrews recorded six tunes at the Tempe studio of Jim Adkins. The vocalist and guitarist of major-label pop band Jimmy Eat World had heard about Andrews from a member of local emo-core group Reubens Accomplice. At the time, Adkins listened to her MySpace tracks and was impressed enough to attend one of Andrews' album-release shows.

A few months later, during one of Adkins' solo performances, he invited Andrews — who's drawn to great black female singers Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin, as well as to the dark lyricism of Elliot Smith and the simplicity of Nick Drake — to sing Wilco/Feist's "You and I."

"She did a pretty good Feist," Adkins says, "so I thought it would be fun to use her on a few songs in the studio."

The tunes that Adkins cut with Andrews will appear on Jimmy Eat World's upcoming album (scheduled for an early-fall release) — a major breakthrough in Andrews' career. About the two days of sessions, Adkins says, "She brings it. She's super-solid on pitch and delivery. I've never heard her do a bad take, just different takes. She's all pro for how young she is."

The quiet and pensive Andrews, who writes all her songs, comes across as grounded and humble; she learned the hard way through an impoverished upbringing in the West Valley. Despite the upcoming music video and major-label debuts, she continues to live the life of a starving artist. When she's not scratching out lyrics in a spiral-bound notepad or talking adamantly about her astrological chart (she's a Scorpio), she finds support in a community that she helped create.

Andrews has spent her entire life in northwest Phoenix. In school, she always felt like a weird eccentric, and she was prone to lying to fit in. When she transferred to a new school in sixth grade, she tried to be cool by telling people she was a surfer in San Diego during the summers. "It didn't work," Andrews says.

Things didn't improve much during her freshman and sophomore years at Barry Goldwater High School. At lunch, her classmates would sometimes toss fries at her and her friends.

Outside school, things were happening. The 14-year-old Andrews started booking shows at coffee shops that didn't typically host live entertainment, such as Mama Java's on Indian School Road and the Coffee Bean in Peoria. Her first gig was at Fiddler's Dream, a place that hosts weekly acoustic music showcases.

At 15, she started sharing the bill with Ryan Osterman, an Ahwatukee-based singer-songwriter who now plays under the name Owl & Penny. A year later, Andrews and Asher Deaver, who lived in Cottonwood at the time, found each other through MySpace. Shortly thereafter, Andrews played a Gilbert coffee-shop gig and met Bradley Cluff (a.k.a. Bradley and the Materials), who ended up as her first tour mate. In just two years, many young and talented musicians living in the sprawling Valley had found each other, thanks to Andrews.

As she played more out-of-state shows in modest venues up and down the West Coast, Phoenix's reputation for pop-folk grew. "I remember one of my first shows in L.A.; the kids there were singing all of the lyrics to my songs. I was like, "Whoa, where did they come from?'" says Andrews.

Some in the Pacific Northwest took it a step further. The Benjamin Clocks, a Seattle-area indie-rock band, wrote a song called "The Medicine" that shrouds the Valley in a sonic cloak of anonymity, thanks to the bridge: "Phoenix sounds like / Phoenix sounds like / Phoenix sounds like such a mystery."

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Steve Jansen
Contact: Steve Jansen