In his famous commencement speech to Syracuse University writer George Saunders said, ‘As a goal in life you could do worse than: try to be kinder.’ Of course, he explained, kindness can be hard. We are inherently selfish beings. But if you fail to be kind to others your life will be filled with regret. Such truths form the central theme to the new record ‘May Your Kindness Remain’ by Courtney Marie Andrews. Drawing on gospel and soul influences these beautiful songs could lift the hate from even the coldest heart.
Title track May Your Kindness Remain was inspired by a conversation with a friend who was worried when Andrews said she wanted to move to L.A. – after all how could anyone stay grounded in a superficial place like that? So she wrote from his perspective, advising herself to be kind no matter what rags or riches life throws at her. After all ‘a kind heart don’t cost a dime’. It’s a powerful way to open the album, and shows a real maturity in songwriting. Her voice is a revelation – gone is the quiet indie folk delicateness of her debut Honest Life – now she reaches the rafters, sounding like she’s been singing in church her whole life.
There is another song on the album with the word ‘kindness’ in the title, underlining the significance of the theme. On this one the music goes back to her country influenced roots, singing about relying on the ‘Kindness of Strangers’, because ‘the ones that stick around are the hardest ones to find’. She wants to connect on a deeper level, but it’s hard, especially out on the road. So you need those small everyday interactions with strangers to get you through. The title echoes a line from Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ where the tragic heroine Blanche DuBois is destroyed by the cruel reality of life. Williams used her fate to show that without kindness delicate souls simply can’t survive. I’m not sure if Andrews intentionally referenced the play but she understands that truth, for sure.
Loneliness is another concern of the album, with Andrews recently admitting ‘I’m probably the loneliest person ever’. So on ‘Lift the Lonely From My Heart’ she wants to be in love but her own insecurities get in the way. At the end of the song she realises ‘only I can lift the lonely from my heart.’ You can’t rely on others for happiness. Being kind to yourself is sometimes the most difficult and important thing you can do.
Political kindness is here too – ‘Border’ is a compassionate story song about the immigrant experience, inspired by her experiences growing up in Arizona. ‘Two Cold Nights in Buffalo’ explores how big businesses and big money have ripped the heart out of America. Without a collective community, a shared sense of belonging and an understanding of our own history how can we ever work together to improve the world?
Andrews is always concerned with striving to be a better person, even if she admits to being ‘Rough Around the Edges’. That song was one of my favourites from the two recent live performances I’ve seen and it’s great to hear it with the full band sound. ‘When will I learn to shut my mouth?’ She muses to herself. Hopefully never.
‘Took You Up’ and ‘This House’ concern her belief that money and material possessions are not as important as love and a place to really call home. On the cover of the album she relaxes on a sofa in a comfortable living room but look more closely and you can see the hazy blur at the edges: this is but a dream of a life. Courtney still lives on the road or in a succession of Airbnbs and friends’ houses. Being a highway vagabond gives her lots to sing about but you can hear a longing for love and security at the heart of these songs.
So it’s fitting then, that the album finishes with the song Long Road Back To You. Both her and her love are out on the road, headed in different directions. Maybe they will never be reunited but her wistful voice suggests the thought of a better future might just keep her travellin’ thru.
In a recent interview with Rolling Stone Courtney said, “I’m not a religious person, but I realized that kindness is my own gospel. In this world we are living in, it’s a hard thing to come by.” In our secular world we do need reminded sometimes to look for the good in people, to love thy neighbour so to speak. Music has the power to bring people together and even to change how people think, especially gospel and folk music which are key influences on this album. Songs as spellbinding as these can surely only help make the world a better place.
And so to those music critics who insulted this album or those who maybe gave this one a good review but are relentlessly cruel to others, I say: go back and listen again. We all need to learn from these songs. Open your heart and may your kindness remain.