Talks with Courtney Jones
Awake & Dreaming
CEV: When was it that it became apparent to you that being a singer/songwriter was the life for you?
CJ: I made the decision to drop everything and pursue music full time when I was in my third semester of college. Songwriting was something I had just picked up about a year before that, and even though I really only had one decent song at the time, it just felt right to go for it. It wasn't exactly the life of a singer/songwriter that drew me in, it was finding what I was good at, finding where I fit, and feeling like this could be what I do with my life from then on.
CEV: When you made the decision to pursue music as a career what was it that you as an artist did to "break in" to the business?
CJ: My dad became my manager, and as a two person team we just followed some basic philosophies: 1) Be nice to everybody 2) Work hard. We would find someone who was just ahead of me and figure out who they were working with, where they were playing, and what they were doing to be there. When the status of one or both of us would change, we would look at someone new. We made a lot of friends with the artists around us, but also managers, bookers, anyone and everyone we came into contact with. Networking is huge. When we started we didn't know anyone in the industry, so everything we've accomplished is built from scratch. We've discovered that success comes from a lot of prior failed attempts. You'll try and you'll fall, miss an opportunity or have things just plain not work out, and then suddenly something else entirely comes through and then you have someone else thinking "how on earth did they get that gig?".
CEV: Tell me about some of your first live performances and what you learned from doing shows in front of an audience?
CJ: Not including choir concerts and the like, I believe my first live performance was singing the National Anthem to open up a Jo Dee Messina concert at the Oregon state fair. There were 4,000 people in the crowd. I was 14. I'm sure that's one of those instances where someone in the audience was thinking "how on earth did she get that gig?" and I'll tell you. The previous year, I had been booked to sing the National Anthem for the opening day's act. And then there suddenly was no opening day's act. So instead, I was invited to sing at the horse show for the fair, which I did. And I was told that the next year I would get to pick who I wanted to open for. After the Jo Dee concert, I had the opportunity for several years after that to sing the Anthem for the State Fair's biggest concerts, including Sarah Evans.
CEV: Does an artist need a dual personality to be both successful as a songwriter and a live performer? It seems like you would need to be an extrovert to be able to do all of your live shows and interact with all the people necessary to do what you do but at the same time being a songwriter tends to be a solitary pursuit done while you are isolated away from others. True? How is it that you blend both of these personalities?
CEV: Is the songwriting process an easy one for your or do you agonize over every word that goes into your songs? Are you usually working on one song at a time until it is complete or do you work on multiple songs a little at a time?
CJ: Both. What usually happens is I'll have a line or a main concept come and stick in my head, and if it doesn't leave me alone for a few days or so I'll sit down and try to work it out to make a full song of it. It's a habit I've gotten into, and something that generally does feel natural, but I am very particular about my word choices and I want each one to mean something. I want every word to have a purpose. I write one song at a time, it just happens that way. I can't write half a song and work on something else and come back to it, I don't know why. Sometimes I'll write a song and then be able to write one again the next day, sometimes it'll take weeks or months to have another workable concept, it varies. While you can't force creativity you can't sit back and expect it to drop in your lap of it's own accord either, so there has to be a willingness to sit down and focus to write.
CEV: I'm sure that most songwriters get this question but where does the inspiration for your songs come from?
CJ: My writing is primarily observation based. Whether it's taking in what's around me or interpreting thoughts or feelings, my songs are mostly pieced together by what I see.
CEV: Is there a particular subject that you feel drawn to over and over again in your lyrics?
CJ: I find myself writing about travel and time more than other subjects. I really try and make sure I'm writing about a variety of things so every song has its own identity, but I do find myself alluding to travel and time fairly often.
CEV: I'm sure a lot of people have a perception of a singer's life as being a carefree kind of existence punctuated by concert tours to exotic places while getting paid big bucks. What is it like for you as an indie artist these days in terms of making a career out of your music and making it work well enough that you have enough money to live on?
CEV: Do you feel that you are in direct competition with other artists in general and other female artists in particular to get the attention of your listeners? Is the pie big enough that everyone (if they are talented and apply themselves) can get a piece of it?
CJ: It's not so much a matter of competing with a specific individual- it's competing with EVERYONE that makes life as an artist difficult. But even if you are in direct competition with others in your genre you can't act like it. You can't try and be better than someone; what you should be doing instead is focusing on how to make your own music the best it can be. I don't believe that listeners, unlike labels, perhaps, choose only one artist per genre to listen to and be a fan of. Every songwriter has their own perspective and tastes that shape their unique sound. You have to own it and hope it catches on. There sometimes doesn't seem to be a whole lot of rhyme or reason to how some artists get launched into huge success while others fall by the wayside, and the truth is that some artists, no matter how good or how applied, may never make it into a long-term sustainable career. But as with most things, a lot can be determined by your own willingness to work and your own definition of success.
CEV: In the last 10 years or so there has been some major shifts in how music is recorded and how it is eventually sold to the fans. Has this been good for artists such as yourself? Has it really leveled the playing field in regards to an artist not having a major label contract?
CJ: It's good in that it has made resources available to independent artists. From being able to order up a few thousand discs, to finding distribution, networking, and so much more independent artists have the tools they need to have a career without a label. However, the downside to having all those resources available is that much more is expected of an artist before labels will take serious interest. There is also a lot of over-exposure, and in terms of competition and hoping to stand out, you're suddenly in the mix with thousands upon thousands of artists and bands on Myspace, CD baby, Facebook, iTunes, and other sites. Also, music is a very expensive endeavor and with no one backing you financially it can be extremely difficult.
CEV: Your new CD is called Awake and Dreaming. Any particular message in that title that you would want to share with the readers? And how does it relate to the songs that listeners will find on the CD?
CJ: I am guilty of a daydreaming habit, for one. But more than that, I wanted to speak to being physically somewhere and mentally somewhere else entirely. When we get lost in thought, that's when we make decisions, when we figure things out, play out situations, find reasons or find there are none. It houses our fears, our beliefs, our dreams and our demons. It's where we fight or where we give up, and where we stay until we pick one or the other. There's a world that lives in someone's head. I wanted to try and reflect that in-and-out of awareness that comes with being preoccupied. That place is where I write.
CEV: When you are writing songs that you know will end up on a particular project that you are working, like Awake and Dreaming, do you consciously mold them to flow into a theme that the CD might have?
CJ: It wasn't a conscious thing for me. It could've been an underlying knowledge that these songs were going together on a record but they seemed to fit so well together, like chapters of a book. And like a book, when I wrote the last song for the album I felt that close and a new project open with my next song. A new song came very soon after finishing the recording for Awake & Dreaming and I just knew it belonged with a new collection of music, that this fit with the next album. I could feel it. It's hard to explain, it just made sense in my head.
CEV: What will listeners find in terms of styles of music when they pop your new CD into their players or download the songs to their iPods?
CJ: I've gotten a lot of varying comparisons as far as my sound goes, which I think is great. I figure I'm doing alright if I get a number of different names coming my way. Based on response and my own opinion, it's kind of a Sarah McLachlan, KT Tunstall type sound. Female singer/songwriter that leans alternative pop.
CEV: I know I shouldn't ask but do you have a particular song that you are quite proud of that you wrote for this CD?
CJ: I'm proud of different songs for different reasons. I come back to Passenger a lot, as far as lyrics and overall sound goes. It's easily one of my favorites. But as much as I like the metaphor that runs all the way through it, I like Relief for it's simplicity and straight-forwardness. The song I'm most proud of recording would have to be Weightless though. I had a vision early on about having the final track on my album be a cappella. I asked Peter to trust me and just put me in the vocal booth for awhile, and record track after track and see what happened. I honestly had a pretty loose idea of the song going in, as it's fairly impossible to practice a 14 part vocal to perfection. Or at all. But I had it in my head and I got it out as best I could, and after many hours of recording and then Peter's editing, I had this song that captured everything I wanted it to. I wanted it to reflect a kind of dream state, I wanted it to be a little unstructured and loose. Given the final product, and how different it was to my normal writing style, I have to say (with all the modesty in the world, of course) that I'm quite proud of Weightless.
CEV: Tell me about who else was involved with making this album and why was their involvement so valuable to the final product? (musicians, producers etc.)
CEV: How was it that you communicated your ideas and desires for Awake and Dreaming to those you work with to make it happen?
CJ: I was very lucky to have worked with a producer who I could talk to about my own ideas, but feel comfortable letting him take the reins on songs as well. It was a very easy-going atmosphere in the studio, and I'd throw out an idea or one of the musicians would, or Peter would say "Let's just try this real quick" and we'd see what came out. There's no one right way to record a song, so it was kind of a team effort in exploring our options with the music. But obviously Peter was at the lead- without his vision and big picture perspective we would've been pretty lost.
CEV: It used to be that videos were quite important to whether an artist made it or not. Is that still true today in regards to your work as an indie artist?
CJ: It's worth it if you do it well (but that goes for any product or representation of yourself and your music you put out there). A video is a piece of the overall package you're trying to sell. It's one more thing that can show off your song, your look, your image, your level of professionalism, etc, and in a business where any one thing can be the difference between fame and a part time job, it's worth a shot.
CEV: What is it that you like most about being a singer/songwriter that continues to hold your attention regardless of how much time will pass?
CJ: As a songwriter, I like the challenge. My aim is to write music that is personal, honest, and specific, but it has to be universal enough that others can connect with it. The goal is to have each person in the audience think that song was written for them. It's my form of expression, my outlet. I also feel like this is where I belong, so whether I'm playing shows to hundreds or thousands of people or just the piano in my living room, that doesn't change.
CEV: You are quite the touring person when it comes to promoting your music. How does this help in regards to taking your career to the next level?
CJ: It was important to me from the beginning to have a good live show and to build a fan base. In order to do both of those things, we made it a point to schedule a lot of shows early on to really get me and my music out there. Not only do I think it's important for an artist to have a solid live show, I really enjoy it. That's the payoff for me. You get to share your music, come face to face with fans, and represent yourself as an artist in pure form. Venues come in all shapes and sizes, and audiences vary even more greatly, but it's an awesome experience and you learn very quickly what you need to work on and why you're a performing artist in the first place.
CEV: What do you personally get from performing in front of a audience that came to hear you play? How is it that you tailor your performance to fit the different venues that you play in?
CJ: As much as I would love to deliver my ideal concert of an hour and fifteen minutes each time I play, it really depends on what the venue is. For outdoor shows, like the fairs and festivals, it's best to stick more to the uptempo numbers. If you're playing a dark little coffee shop, it's alright to pull out more ballads as long as you keep the set dynamic. If I only have a half hour or 45 minutes, I'll do mostly songs off the record and try to keep it moving with the best songs that fit together. You really have to read the venue, and sometimes I'll wait to write or change a setlist for when I can see the place and get a feel for the kind of show that would be best for those specific circumstances. As mentioned earlier, you'll have your fair share of shows where no one is listening, but when they are, suddenly the room is alive and you can feel that connection and it's a rush. You can feel it. I love it.
CEV: The Internet brings things up close and personal that in the past wouldn't have been possible. Do you like having that kind of contact with your fans and the media?
CJ: I do. Fans shouldn't be anonymous and certainly shouldn't be avoided or taken for granted. And they are more likely to help your career than a label. Fans are the reason anyone becomes or remains a success, so it's wise to get to know them and make yourself accessible to them. Also, the Internet gives many more outlets than traditional media, and that's a good thing for independent artists.
CEV: Have sites like MySpace or Facebook changed the way indie artists market their music? Has it been a good thing and has it paid off in terms of reaching fans who might not have known about you otherwise?
CEV: When you are unwinding what is it that you listen to in terms of music?
CJ: It varies. Right now I'm listening to a lot of John Mayer's Continuum. And I've just started listening to the Kooks. Before that it was various mixes of artists I stumbled onto after a lot of clicking around on iTunes. The ones I always go back to, though, are Butterfly Boucher, her sister's band Lovers Electric, Train, Patty Griffin, Keane, Kate Havnevik, Coldplay, more John Mayer. I'm a huge Pink Floyd fan, and of course the Beatles. Boston. Really depends on my mood.
CEV: To finish up what kinds of long term goals do you have for your music and for your career?
CJ: Goals in music are tricky because they are often out of your hands. With that in mind and moving forward, however, I would love to get a good music placement on TV. I'd love to release a second album. And I would love to do this for a living- not even a rich and famous, money-no-object-living (although that would be nice too)- just a living.
CEV: Thanks so much for your time and for the thoughtful answers that you gave to these questions. I wish you much success in your career in the coming years.