Singer-songwriter-guitar player Courtney Hartman’s young career has wandered its way from bluegrass band member (a stint with Della Mae) to collaborator (recording albums with Robert Ellis and Taylor Ashton) to recording her own EP (2016’s Nothing We Say). Before writing songs for her first full-length solo record, she undertook (voluntarily!) a 500-mile trek on the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrim trail in Spain. She came back to her then-home in Brooklyn to record Ready Reckoner (our review is here), an album full of pensive songs and outstanding guitar work. Finally, she returned to her childhood home of Colorado shortly before the album’s release in June.
Americana Highways: So you just moved out to Colorado? How long have you been out here?
Courtney Hartman: I grew up in Colorado and left for school and was away living in Boston and Brooklyn for about 10 years, and then moved back last summer. So the return is relatively recent.
AH: Musically, does it affect you differently here in Colorado versus the East Coast?
CH: I think it has, just in the spaciousness of it. Even if that feels mostly subconscious.
AH: Listening to the album, listening to “January First” and “January Third”, it seemed to be cautious optimism versus realism in the two songs. Is that kind of what you had in mind?
CH: Which was which, as you were hearing them?
AH: “January First” seemed a little more…leading into the New Year, of course, we all make the promises of what we’re going to change, and then you kind of get two days into January, and reality hits you.
CH: That’s very accurate. And I think, subconsciously, written exactly that way. Those were not really made-up dates. Those were literal dates of when I wrote them. So that’s kind of, at least for me, a really common entry into every new year, those feelings.
AH: Because you’re a little bit on a holiday hangover, and by the time you get back to work or get back to normal life, reality hits, and it’s, “Oh, this is what it really is like.”
CH: Exactly. “Alright, OK – it’s just January.”
AH: Right. Nothing’s changed since mid-December.
CH: Exactly. I’m just hopefully less busy.
AH: I noticed, on both “Hold Still” [from Courtney’s album with Taylor Ashton, Been On Your Side] and on “Too Much” from this album, you used a lot of natural sound. Is that something you’ve done frequently?
CH: Only a handful of times. On “Hold Still,” we had a fire going in the room that we were recording in, and we pulled some of that sound. On “Too Much,” the footsteps there were a recording of my own footsteps while I was walking on the Camino. I had a lot of recording from that time, and that felt like it created kind of a bit of a dispersed rhythmic thread throughout that song, and it felt like it held it together, so we used that. And it’s a loop of somewhere along the trail. My feet and my walking stick.
AH: And that was a 500-mile, 40-day trek?
AH: What brought you to do that?
CH: It was something that kept kind of creeping into my awareness in strange ways. And, when things like that happen, if it’s, like, the sixth time that something shows up in our lives, I think we all take notice. And, strangely enough, I don’t think I met anybody along the way that HADN’T had that experience before stepping onto the trail. I also wanted to know if walking and writing is something that came fluidly.
AH: Do you feel like it did?
CH: Not necessarily (laughs). Yeah, not necessarily, but the rhythm and the quietness of it, I think, gave birth to something, gave birth to the things that came out of it. But it wasn’t like it was, all of a sudden, I was just pouring with melodies and words and couldn’t contain them. It was still the kind of daily, disciplined kind of work that it is anywhere. At first I found that INCREDIBLY frustrating. And disheartening. And then, after the fact, I actually am grateful for it. Had it been any different, I would’ve maybe just stopped
AH: You probably have this image in your head of walking down the trail and, like you say, songs just pouring out of you, and an epiphany and all that…
CH: Totally! Like everything will change, and you’ll have clarity on your past and your present and your future. And, in reality, it was just clarity on getting one foot in front of the other.
AH: I assume you camped along the way?
CH: Because it’s a passage that’s existed for so long, and you’re on two different phases of different religious pilgrimages, it’s been over 1,000 years. So the infrastructure is very present. So there are places called albergues where you stay as a pilgrim. Sometimes they’re by donation, sometimes you pay. And I stayed outside some, as well.
AH: But I can see, like you say, the daily grind of, maybe not surviving, but getting to the end of the day intact, is more present on a daily basis than any creative impulses.
AH: Did you do a lot of hiking here in Colorado, or was this a new thing for you, this long trek?
CH: I did, as a kid with my family, but I’ve still never climbed a 14er, which is crazy.
AH: Oh, even I’ve done that!
CH: I know! But I left when I was 18, and as a teenager, I had really bad asthma, so that made it challenging. And that was a thing, also, I wasn’t sure if it would crop up again while I was walking. So I had never backpacked before. That was brand-new, on the first day!
AH: You have, from my way of looking at it, had three different forms of a career. You were in Della Mae, and you’ve done a couple of collaborative albums [with Ashton and Dear John with Robert Ellis], and a solo album. All, I assume, very different experiences musically and creatively. Do you have one that you prefer, that works best for you?
CH: All of them feed something different. I love collaboration and the communication that you can have with someone through music, and I will always love that and thrive on that. With this project, I was able to do that, but just through my own material, and carry more responsibility as far as what I was wanting and needing to hear and how to make that happen and home in on that. But every single one of those phases or outlets absolutely has strengthened me in different ways and challenged me in different ways.
AH: And this was your first time producing?
AH: How did you enjoy that? What did you think of it?
CH: It was not necessarily what I thought I wanted to do, going into it. But, in the end, it was something that Shahzad [Ismaily, the album’s co-producer] and I did together, and he kind of eased me into that role, ultimately by just requiring that I knew what I was wanting to hear. But even when I said, “I don’t know,” that just meant that I needed to be quiet and listen more deeply for a moment, and then come to a place of decision. So taking ownership in that way was a HUGE learning curve and lesson. And just understanding that most of the time, I DO know what I want to hear, and learning to communicate it is a life-long thing.
AH: Right. It’s got to be a little different from writing the material, and really being ultimately responsible for bringing it ALL the way home.
CH: Exactly. Yeah, absolutely. And I really admire people who do that well.
AH: You have a duet here with [jazz guitarist] Bill Frisell [the instrumental “Neglect”]. How did that come about?
CH: That was…so great, and a total dream. I had met him at the Fretboard Summit, which is something that Fretboard Journal put together. And we played briefly there with a group of people. He spends a lot of time at Figure 8, which is Shahzad’s studio, and at one point, that piece originally was a song, and I was considering just taking the lyrics out. And Shahzad actually was like, “What do you think about this?” And I was, “Uh, yeah, duh. That sounds amazing!” So he had initially reached out to Bill: “Do you remember Courtney?” And Bill was just so, SO gracious and sweet, and just came and hung out for a couple of hours, and we played the tune a bunch and hung out. And that was that!
AH: Well, it’s good when it works out that way!
CH: Yeah, totally – it was really fun!
AH: When I was listening to the album and staring to write it up, my reaction was, “It’s a headphone album.” It’s great to listen to and really FOCUS on it. Not every album is like that. But I went back to my notes for the album you did with Taylor, and I’d written almost exactly the same note for myself. I hadn’t even remembered that I wrote that! Is that something you’re going for on the album, something you really have to lean into and pay attention to and listen to?
CH: I don’t think I consciously do that, although I really enjoy listening to things that way. That’s the only time I’m actually listening, really. And you just live in it for a minute.
AH: Do you have anybody that you like that you feel maybe we should be listening to?
CH: On a couple ends of the spectrum, I think I’ve liked all of the work of Ola Belle Reed. I love her work. The other inspiring woman whose record I got pretty possessed with was Laura Marling.
AH: Are you planning a lot of dates behind this album?
CH: There are a few. And there will be more. But not quite yet.
AH: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the album?
CH: For me, it chronicles a year of inward motion, and I think if it serves of a sort of momentary guide to anyone else’s chapter of motion, that’s a beautiful thing. That makes me happy and excited.
To purchase or download Ready Reckoner, go here: https://www.courtneyhartman.com/store
To keep an eye on those tour dates, go here: https://www.courtneyhartman.com/tour