When Christina Courtin was recording her self-titled Nonesuch debut, one would think that she would be working her violin’s strings to death. Instead, Courtin, an already accomplished Juilliard-trained violinist, didn’t see that as a decision that needed to be made. While other artists would be rushed to portray a sense of individualism on their debut, Courtin saw otherwise.
“I love violin, but there was no conscious decision,” Courtin explains over the phone from Brooklyn. “Basically, I have my friends, and they are a string quartet, and I would rather have a group that has a sound to come on in and do something than just me. And I’m all over the record; I have so many friends who are wonderful musicians and string players. It worked out well—it totally wasn’t a decision, it was more like, ‘I would love for them to play on it, too.’”
The truth is that Courtin’s voice and words often steal the show on her debut album. The Brooklyn-based artist, who lists Neko Case as an artist she’s been listening a lot to these days, has created ten songs that are able to sustain a magical level of wonder for the listener. It’s a promising start for a wildly talented musician.
Glide recently had the opportunity to talk to Courtin about her Juilliard background, the Nonesuch label, and the recording process of her self-titled debut.
Can you talk about your background a little bit?
I started playing violin when I was three, and I definitely was singing when I was very, very young as well, so those things went hand in hand. I grew up in Buffalo, and I have two brothers and a sister, and we all played violin. We were Courtin violinists, which is funny! But yeah, I ended up going to Juilliard to study classical violin, and I started playing in a band when I was 16, and I started writing songs when I was 16. And then I moved out to New York City, sort of quit that, and studied to be a serious violinist, which really didn’t work out so well. And, you know, here I am.
The time you spent at Juilliard, how did that happen for you?
You apply, and if they accept your application…you have to audition, you have to go in front of all these professors and play your instrument, and they give you a list of what they want to hear. So, it’s kind of intense. You get calls back, you don’t get calls back. It’s just this intense and weird process—something to make you feel intimidated, basically.
So, I got accepted, and I got a considerable amount of money to go there, so I decided to go there. It wasn’t like my lifelong dream to go there; some people have their sights set on that place, but I didn’t really. It just kind of worked out that way, which was cool. And I got to be in New York City, which was awesome.
I was reading where it said something like only 6% of the applicants get accepted.
I think it’s like Juilliard and West Point (as far as strict admissions go). It’s really hard to get in—I don’t know how I got in. I certainly didn’t ask any questions after (I got in).
So, with your experience at Juilliard, how did that help you with this album?
Well, I got to play some really cool music, which was really nice; things that I wouldn’t have been able to do at another place. But mainly, I got to meet a lot of my friends there and people who I really admire and respect musically--and I learned a ton from them about what it is to not take things personally…and to just be professional and not have everything be this personal battle. For me, being a sensitive musician, and have somebody say, “Oh, can you not do it like that?” I would take it as an attack, which it’s not. And it took me a long time to learn that and get over it. And I’m really glad that it is gone, because it has opened up a world of different people’s ideas. You’re not the only person in the world!
And with releasing your debut album, there’s always going to something that is said that you’re not going to agree with.
Oh my goodness—like every day there is something that is like, “What, I’m not a jazz singer!” It’s cool—you just have to pick your battles. I can’t take offense in things that people write about me…they don’t even know me. They have never seen a show; they don’t know what my intentions are. I’ve worked for like three years on this record and you’re just going to write it off in two sentences? That’s not fair, but that’s cool. I’ve read a lot of nice reviews as well!
Well, I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to the record, and the one thing about it—it moves along at a really nice pace…
I especially love the first song, “Green Jay.” How did that sort of come along?
That was a song we brought to L.A. A lot of these tunes are four or five years old. Jim Keltner and Benmont Tench really took “Green Jay” to a different place, which is really beautiful. We put strings on it, and I don’t know…I’m just so happy with it. Generally, the record is a little more subdued than the live performance; it’s a little laid back, and I’m really happy about it. It’s a very mellow journey. (laughs)
How was working with someone like Jim Keltner?
From Jim, I guess one of things I took from him is that there are so many surprises in music, and there are no mistakes. He’s the kind of person that makes a mistake not a mistake. Do you know what I mean? There is no such thing as a mistake to him. He’s so far gone, in the best way possible—he doesn’t give a shit about what anybody thinks. And I’m getting there! He’s really a cool guy.
I would imagine that a lot of these songs went other places…
They took these songs I have performing for years, and they just did their thing with them, without really knowing anything about the songs. They made them fresh again. That was really cool. They kind of brought them back to life for me, in a way.
Did your record label (Nonesuch)…did they give you freedom to do anything you wanted?
They are awesome—they are a true artist label. I can’t be grateful enough toward them. I’m just amazed. I wasn’t actually sure how it was going to go down, and when I realized how much control I was going to have…it was cool, but it was also a little like, “Well, I better get my shit together to know what I really want!”
I don’t think it’s like that for everybody…
No! It’s like that for nobody. Besides Nonesuch, there are maybe a couple of other labels that give you full freedom.
With the album being released, how does your mindset change? How long can you be focused on it before moving on to the next one?
I’m still pretty focused on this one. I write a lot anyways, so I have a pretty good idea of what I want to do with the second record, but I’m definitely in the world of the first record right now, and I hope people can hear it.
And who decided on the cover of your album? I really love it.
It’s funny you say that. The cover was something that was hugely debated; it was kind of traumatic for me, because I’m not a designer! We had really conflicting ideas. I was pretty much alone pushing for this cover—it was me and the head of the label that loved it. A lot of other people thought it was too quirky. But, I don’t feel like that at all. If you know me, I have a sense of humor. The record is so serious, and to have a really serious cover as well…I’m not that serious. It’s cool to hear you say that, because it took a while to figure out what it was we were going to choose.