(Music) COURTNEY MCKENNA
Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Courtney McKenna creates music with roots in folk and indie rock. She has been a featured performer at numerous New York City cultural events, and she has also created a soundscape in collaboration with artist Sirikul Pattachote for the wellness and art experience Flower Offerings. In this interview she discusses her current projects, along with her earliest musical endeavors, and the atmospheric influence of the Arizona desert environment of her upbringing.
What's one of your earliest musical memories, such as the first time you sang or played an instrument?
One of my earliest musical memories was in the first grade. Our music teacher at church taught us how to use the shape our mouths to create different vowels as we sang. I remember thinking what we learned was profound and I couldn’t stop singing afterward. I had never paid much attention to shaping my own voice until then. Around the same time, I remember my Grandma giving me piano lessons and playing “Heart and Soul” with her as a duet.
When did music develop as a primary form of expression for you? Do you come from a very musical family?
I have always had a deep connection with music. No one in my family is a professional musician but they are all fairly musical - we would never watch The Sound of Music without sing-a-long lyrics, for example. At family gatherings, it is difficult to get through a conversation without someone breaking out into song spurred by a play on words or a punny dad joke.
I used to sing as much and as often as I could. I even got in trouble for singing on several occasions. I wanted voice lessons, but we couldn’t afford them so my Mom always encouraged me to sing in church. I sang in the kid's choir and then praise band. When I got to high school I joined our school’s Chamber Choir and I was in Symphonic Band. I played the clarinet for eight years before realizing that the guitar was much more conducive to songwriting. I used to write songs in high school but I would never share them with anyone. There are definitely some old tapes floating around somewhere that I recorded using a Karaoke machine.
When I got to college, I studied Consumer Science and Marketing because I knew I wanted my own business and I didn’t know that music was an option at the time. I thought I had to work in events or fashion to be taken seriously when I first moved to the city. I had some really great experiences making costumes, wearable art and creating nightlife experiences, but I never felt fully satisfied with where or who I was until I came back to music.
In 2014 I realized that my instinct to sing and write songs was more of a gift and a calling than a mere distraction to all my other creative endeavors. It was the only thing that made me feel truly present and one with myself. That’s when I really committed to practicing guitar and writing as many songs as I could to give my first performance that October.
Who was a singer-songwriter that really got under your skin at an early age? Someone whose sound, look, and artistry helped shape your own creative development?
I don’t think I can credit one single artist. When I moved to New York I lived in a rock’n’roll loft style apartment and it really expanded my knowledge of music. I grew up in a relatively conservative family so we listened to a lot of Christian, Country and Classical music. I used to watch the Disney channel a lot (LOL) where I remember being fascinated by Leanne Rimes yodeling “Blue” at a state fair and Christina Aguilera’s booming voice. Later on in elementary school, my friend’s older sister introduced us to Alanis Morissette on cassette and I learned every word to “Ironic,” practicing it at the top of my lungs.
I’ve always been attracted to powerhouse lady performers – studying everything from what they wear to how they dance, and of course how they sing. The first musical item I ever bought was the CrazySexyCool album on tape by TLC. I was turned onto them through my step-brothers and MTV. I was obsessed. I also listened to Toni Braxton, Mariah Carey, and Whitney Houston. I really loved Destiny’s Child for both their music and their style. I used to make coordinating costumes for my self and friends inspired by Tina Knowles.
In high school I was slightly obsessed with Judy Garland – I even learned that we have the same size hands after visiting the Hollywood Walk of Fame one New Year’s Eve. That obsession led me down a rabbit hole of classic jazz singers and movie stars like Marilyn Monroe, Etta James, and Hedy Lamarr. It even continued into my twenties when I got to work with Ami Goodheart and we made dozens of Ziegfeld Follies inspired showgirl uniforms.
There is a very southwestern vibe to your music. There can be a calm sparseness to some of your compositions, reminiscent of the open spaces and desert solitude of your home state of Arizona. How much do you think your origins in that region have influenced your music?
Most of my songwriting for my upcoming album happened in New York, but some songs I finished in Arizona such as “On the Fence,” which has a very surf-rock cowboy vibe to it. In parts of that song, I like to channel a flamenco guitar player as I strum. My Dad lived between southern California and Hawaii so we would visit him often from Arizona. All three states had their impact on me but the Sonoran Desert is a very special place and unique to the rest of the Southwest.
My song “Desert Skies” in particular is an ode to Arizona and this region. We used to live next to a large national park called Sabino Canyon and I would run there every day in middle school cross country. The canyon is full of Saguaro cacti and other diverse life forms. I find that when I am alone in nature it helps me to take the space I need to breathe. Some of my deepest processing of emotions happened in that canyon during my crazy pubescent years; fear of being left alone, fear of not being good enough, self-pity for having a broken family and all the intricacies that brings into one’s life. In moments when I was crying my eyes out and thinking I wouldn’t make it, that canyon held me. I still visit it each time I am back in Tucson.
Making music helps me to process my emotions and so I often think of the peace and solitude that the desert provides when I am writing a new song in order to find my grounding. “Satellite” is a song I wrote here in Brooklyn but the images are also closely derived from my experience of growing up in Arizona. In Tucson, in particular, there is a general excitement surrounding space exploration, flight engineering, and the cosmos. At the university they have star watching parties where people of all ages gather together on the mile-long strip of grass they call “the mall” to observe the planets, satellites, and meteor showers. Sometimes professors will bring out their fancy telescopes to share and it all feels pretty magical – people gathering together to marvel and wonder. “Satellite” is a post-breakup song but it’s derived from this wonderment of something larger than our own planet.
Your soundscape work especially embodies this aura of calm sparseness. Your Sanctuary recording, made as part of Kay Sirikul Pattachote's Flower Offerings art show, seems like a very harmonious accompaniment to what I have seen of her work. What was the impetus for this project? How closely did you collaborate with Kay while you were creating the soundscape?
Thank you! Sanctuary was made intentionally to promote the healing feminine energy that Kay’s work radiates. We met four years ago when I was managing a community art space in Bushwick. We became friends over gardening in McCarren Park and bonded over our love of flowers. I enjoyed Kay’s show at AG Gallery a few years prior to last summer’s show and so I was delighted when she asked me to create a soundscape for her new work. I had the idea to create a meditative soundscape like “Sanctuary” for several years and so this was the perfect opportunity for me to give it a try. The whole process felt very mystically synchronized.
I have always felt that sound has great power over the human psyche and so I wanted to create something subtle that was both beautiful and inspiring. It was Kay’s idea to use positive affirmations but ironically I was experimenting with them already in my own spiritual practice. I knew I wanted to use electric guitar and pedals to create a drone texture and sound loops. Kay suggested I add bird sounds and so I found a relaxing sound sampler to mix into my melodies. I recorded “Sanctuary” with my producer The 83rd using his analog studio set up, so the piece has an overall warm sensation to it.
You also incorporate sung affirmations into the Sanctuary recording. What are your thoughts on the interplay between words and music in this piece? Did the words come to you before or after you wrote the music, or relatively simultaneously? Did the formulation of this piece emerge from a very personal space?
I wanted the words and melody to feel as one blended piece. I wrote the first few lyrics while I was improvising and strumming along with an acoustic guitar. Then I started to think about the affirmations that I felt were strongest to me and pieced them together with melodies.
It definitely is a very personal piece even though I wrote it for the masses. I chose the affirmations because I thought they would help others but I was only able to choose them after knowing how they also helped me. Every time I played through the piece, I would find new meaning in the words and the melodies seemed to resonate. If you tell yourself something enough times, you start to believe it and then to become it. 2018 was a huge year of transformation for me on so many levels and I am grateful to have captured that in “Sanctuary” – it is about self-care, self-respect, and self-love as much as it is about spreading positive energy.
Your recent EP Renegade showcases your more indie folk style of songwriting. I understand that this is a preview to more of your solo acoustic work. Are there plans for a full length solo acoustic album release anytime soon?
Yes! I recorded a full 9-track solo acoustic album last year called Afterglow, with The 83rd and currently have plans to release it this Spring. Many of the songs I wrote 4-5 years ago and so I am happy to finally release them into the world as I am always writing new ones. I started to record a few of the songs 3 years ago with a full band but it ultimately didn’t feel right. When I re-connected with The 83rd and we discovered we had a similar analog recording vision, everything seemed to click.
We recorded the album live using vintage tape machines so you can hear everything – full bleed, no auto-tune. Some people might listen to the tracks and consider them to be demos because they are so used to hearing overproduced music but it was important to me to capture my humanity in the songs. We are so used to being distracted by technology and media these days that we are often uncomfortable with sparseness. I wanted to challenge this new norm and my hope is that when people listen to these recordings they feel encouraged to take action and find determination for new beginnings.
You also play with a band, which can be heard on your other recent EP, New York Christmas Blues. How was your experience of playing and reinterpreting these holiday standards with other musicians?
It was wonderful, magical, and amazing. I always used to joke about recording Christmas music but it turned out to be a very fun experience. On one hand, I felt proud to carry on a family tradition that I often don’t think too much about. On the other hand, it gave me the opportunity to finally put together a band of artists I admired. Playing with this band feels like finding balance for the first time on ice-skates. Reinterpreting the songs came naturally to us.
I hear a more minimalist folk sound woven into your version of a Christmas song such as “Midnight Clear” and spirituals such as “Go Tell it On the Mountain.” There is a subtlety and beauty in the presentations of these classics. How did you conceptually approach the recording of these standards? What elements did you want to incorporate in order to bring out new textures or different atmospheres to these songs?
For both of these recordings, it was more about the people I was bringing together to play with me and less about the desired outcome of the song. I knew what talent and vibe each person brought and once we sat down to play the song – that was pretty much what we recorded.
Aside from his impeccable guitar skills, Idan is a great composer so we were able to work out a new sound pretty quickly. I especially like “Go Tell It On The Mountain” for its subtle guitar layers and the contrast to its original Baptist choir composition. I thought about singing it in the traditional style but once Idan started to improvise this new melody on guitar, I knew we were on a brand new path that was totally unique.
Do you plan to continue collaborating with other musicians such as Idan Morim, and visual artists such as Kay Sirikul Pattachote? Are there any upcoming projects you would like people to be on the lookout for?
Absolutely. I think that collaboration is the key to our future. It always helps you learn about yourself and the result is always greater than what you could accomplish solely. Before I fully committed to music, I dabbled in experience production and design so it is very near and dear to my heart. I believe that art is the best therapy one can involve their self in – it heals both personal and collective wounds.
I will be traveling to Copenhagen at the end of June to sing at my friend’s wedding and so I’m working on booking solo shows in Europe this summer. I would love to do a collaboration of some kind while I am out there. I will most likely visit Amsterdam to perform for Pause Fashion Hub and I’m thinking to check out Sweden as well. I’m open to recommendations!
I’ve been low key planning a wellness retreat in Hawaii this September which will be a week-long experience with music, yoga, reiki, and hiking - extending the female empowerment vibes of Kay’s “Flower Offerings’’ show. I am also creating a soundtrack for my friend Shavana’s Space Goddess art film about Venus and the Milky Way. She makes incredible 3D printed shoes and giant paintings of outer space. This project will most likely be out around the same time as Afterglow — this spring.
As far as working with Idan and Guy go, we have just started our musical journey together and I imagine our sound will continue to evolve. My goal for 2019 is to play as many shows as possible and to continue writing my next album. I’ve been experimenting more with pedals and layering sounds so I imagine it may be quite different from this year’s solo acoustic release. If you’re interested in learning more or staying in touch, please join my mailing list!
Top photo by Justin Woo
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