On a recent Saturday I visited one of Nashville's most venerated and long-standing rock clubs, the Exit/In, to see one of the city's most unique singer/songwriters – Cortney Tidwell. As a lifelong Nashvillian with parents who were themselves musicians, Tidwell, from an early age, has been surrounded by a sea of Music City songwriters, both those well known and others desperate for attention. Amidst that backdrop, Tidwell has developed her craft into a distinct embodiment that is both removed from the city's musical heritage, yet unmistakably indebted to it.
As demonstrated on last year's Don't Let the Stars Keep Us Tangled Up (Ever Records), Tidwell's sense of tradition collides head on with a penchant for otherworldly sonic landscapes. The title track itself encapsulates this cross section, detailing a love affair between an alien and an earthling. The combination is striking a chord amongst more and more listeners, especially in Europe (the album was released by a German label), all while garnering praise and positive reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.
During her performance, Tidwell's voice washes over the crowd and fills every corner of the building. Her band provides the pedestal upon which her ethereal melodies spring forth and weave their way in and out of the room. The musicians swap instruments in between each song and introduce new textures as the night progresses. Tidwell herself played an acoustic guitar on only a couple of the songs, instead spending much of the night behind the drum kit and playing Omnichord – exemplifying yet again an unorthodox approach to familiar templates. I caught up with Tidwell a few days after the show to talk about her record and the songwriting and influences found in it.
Dish: How old were you when you wrote your first song?
Tidwell: When I was about seven, probably. My mom was a singer; my grandfather was on Decca records. I mean, I came out of the womb loving music because I was around it so much.
Dish: Do you remember the first record you ever bought?
Tidwell: A 45 of Johnny Cash's “Ring of Fire". It was on red vinyl.
Dish:For music that at its essence is singer/songwriter music, a great deal of attention went into the atmospheric and sonic aspects of the record. Is there a solid idea of what sort of life a song will take on when it’s recorded?
Tidwell: Stream of consciousness, nothing is premeditated. That's usually how I write.
Dish: When performing live, are you attempting to recreate the same atmosphere of the recordings?
Tidwell: No because that would be pretty boring and impossible since there is so much overdubbing [on the album]. The only song on the record that was cut live is “Society,” and that was in one take. Everything else starts out with me and one instrument, and then we just build and build and build. But no, you don't ask an artist to paint the same painting over again. There's no way. I don't know how bands do it, and some of them do.
Dish: Having the record released overseas, how has the reaction differed between there and here?
Tidwell: I'm selling more records over there, and the response is great. Most of the time they're really big shows because I have a really great publicist [over there], and I open for some really great bands. It just so happens that those audiences are really fantastic; Andrew Bird had the greatest audience. Europe is really quiet, though. In America, audiences are getting drunk. They're raising hell, and they're screaming. In Europe, everyone is very demure and very reserved. They're staring you down, and it's very intense.
Dish: Is it sort of an arms crossed, 'impress me' sort of crowd?
Tidwell: Yes, absolutely, and a lot of people say Nashville's that way, I just don't feel that way. Nashville is like, 'let's have fun.' I don't know. I guess for the most part I can appreciate coming home and playing to a Southern audience (laughs)
Dish: I read a review that claimed that the influences on the album are distinctively European. Do you think there is any truth to that?
Tidwell: No, because I'm too much of a country music fan. I mean, it's too ingrained; I can't get away from it. I think it's just a mixed bag. I don't think you can pigeonhole me into that. I love a lot of bands from Europe, and I love a lot of American bands. I love Canadian artists -- my favorite songwriter in the world is Joni Mitchell.
Dish: I also read that the title track of the album was given sort of a club remix by [dance DJ and producer] Ewan Pearson. How did that come about?
Tidwell: Ewan is from Berlin. I met him through a mutual friend, and we just hit it off. He's a sweet, sweet man. He saw one of the first European shows I did. We talked a long time afterwards and have hung out since. He's really great at what he does – he's a great producer, he's a great engineer, he's a great DJ. He's just an awesome guy. I asked him if would do a remix, and he agreed. It's exciting.
Dish: I still haven't heard the track, but is it strange to have a song that is presumably refocused from the perspective that perhaps you wrote it in?
Tidwell: Yeah, of course, but he did a fantastic job. And I like dance music a lot too.
Dish: I know there is an element to that song that has sort of a dance backbeat behind it.
Tidwell: Yeah, four on the floor, but still, my songs – you wouldn't really come to one of my shows and expect to dance. But it was fun to put that on and listen to it for the first time and hear one of my songs kicked up like that. It was neat.
Dish: Is he putting that on any sort of release?
Tidwell: It's coming out on vinyl; I just found out about this. It's been available online, just download only, but now they're putting it out. I'm really excited about it.
Dish: Being a mother, songwriter, and a recording artist is bound to be taxing. Does one role ever have to take a back seat?
Tidwell: Of course, and it sucks. It's the toughest thing I've ever had to do, getting on a plane and having to say goodbye to them. But ultimately I want them to realize that you can't stop chasing your dreams. That's what life is. I think I'm able to give more to them because of what I'm doing, and I want to take them to Europe too. They haven't gone with me yet, but I want them to see the world. This is one of the only ways I can see that happening.
Dish: What have you been listening to most lately?
Tidwell: Lately I've been listening to Can, a lot of Joni Mitchell again, and I really like Aphex Twin. I have gone back and pulled the Loretta Lynn CD that Jack White produced, and I think it is quite possibly one of the greatest records she ever did.
Dish: What's the plan for the rest of 2007?
Tidwell: To finish the record; I'm making a new record. Just recording, recording, recording, and I'm going back to Europe to do more shows.
More information on Cortney Tidwell can be found at www.everrecords.com/cortneytidwell, as well as www.myspace.com/cortneytidwell. She'll be back in Europe for a handful of dates in Germany and the UK at the end of this month and early August.