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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Blades, who had played in a number of bands, found her Plan B: She would imitate the dart-toss trick. Wherever the dart landed, she would move there by herself.

Alone in a classroom, she threw a dart at a U.S. wall map. It landed in the Pacific Ocean. She tried again. This time, the titanium point struck in Arizona's capital city.

After getting accepted at Arizona State University, Blades moved to Phoenix in January 2009. Without a car to haul her stuff across country, she brought only one thing besides her clothes — a ukulele she had started playing two years before.

As a college freshman, she majored in religious studies and philosophy at ASU's downtown campus. She became known as the "girl with the ukulele," thanks to her on-the-spot sets at open-mic nights at Conspire, a coffee-shop/artist co-op on Fifth and Garfield streets. She instantly stood out from the rest of the poets and musicians, not only because of her olive skin and long blond hair (now dyed black) but because she sounds like Joni Mitchell on a tropical bender.

In spring 2009, Blades wandered across First Street from the Taylor Place dormitory and over to Downtown Civic Space Park, where Sean Bonnette of local punk-tinged folk group Andrew Jackson Jihad (signed to indie-renowned Asian Man Records) had just finished a set. Bonnette spotted Blades and Jones, who had been hanging out for the show, and introduced the two.

Blades told Jones that she played the ukulele. Bonnette chimed in: "You should listen to it. She plays it really different."

"What is [Sean] doing?" Blades recalls thinking.

But Jones was receptive. He told her that he had to make a trip to the record store down the street. Did she want to come? Sure, Blades said.

"Bring your ukulele," Jones said.

In the car, Blades played him a song. Jones had one question, she recalls: "Can you record tomorrow?"

Says Jones about Andrews and Blades, "Some producers go their whole lives trying to find one amazing musician to produce. I've found two in the past two years."

The Panama-born Blades has a music pedigree, in the sense that her uncle, Rubén Blades, once a presidential candidate in Panama, is a famous Latin-music star and character actor. Plus, Blades' father has produced Latin artists such as Marc Anthony. However, because her relationship with her dad's side of the family went sour years ago, Blades says her music career has been her own doing.

An extroverted 19-year-old, Blades isn't a typical acoustic musician. Her songwriting is more jazz improvisation, mostly because she doesn't write down anything. Everything is done on the spot, from the lyrics to tempo to chord progression.

She says, "When River and I recorded the first day, I was really self-conscious because he's like, "All right. Play a song." So I played a song. Then he said, "Do you want to do another take?" I said, "Yeah. The words aren't going to be the same." He was like, "No? What?"

Jones remembers being taken aback by Blades' make-it-up-as-she-goes approach: "I was a bit freaked out at first, but I soon realized that she has a constant flow of songs and thoughts."

In February, River Jones Music released Blades' first studio recording, Oh, Nostalgia!, in digital format. Jones decided to offer the album through an iTunes-like site called www.thinkindie.com at a bargain cost of $4.99. Jones took a similar route with Andrews' Painter's Hands and a Seventh Son, a 14-track, full-length LP. (At the time, Think Indie site manager Tony Davis called Jones and asked whether he had listed the wrong price.)

The move paid off, especially with Oh, Nostalgia! When Think Indie's Davis heard the tracks, he decided, for the first time, to become actively involved in promoting an album on the Web site's home page.

"I listened to [Blades' album] and thought that if this was heard by the right people, it could really take off in a Lisa Germano-type of way. All it needed was press," says Davis, who adds that Jones' decision to offer downloadable albums at $4.99 "is a very smart price point for a developing artist."

A French outfit took notice of the record, too, and booked Blades on a three-week tour of Europe, scheduled this month. The European label is pressing a bunch of CDs, as well, all at no cost to Blades, who is taking the semester off from ASU.

Blades needed to figure out a way to get overseas, and River Jones is making it possible. He had 45,000 frequent-flier miles from his days as a touring drummer that would soon expire. The label is using the airfare credit to get Blades to Europe. Total out-of-pocket cost: $133.20.

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Steve Jansen
Contact: Steve Jansen