Hello everyone. This Spitfire Review will be breaking from the norm. This is the first time I have interviewed a musician on my website.
I am a fan of the buskers on the Southbank of the Thames and through them I attend several music gigs in and around London. I first encountered Courtney busking in Camden Market several years ago. I took one of her business cards, watched several of her live streams and the promotion for her latest EP Moments over social media. Moments was released on Thursday 20th February to critical acclaim. I knew that Courtney would have a very interesting story to tell and the story behind Moments is explained below.
Q: Hi Courtney, thank you for visiting my website. How are you feeling after the launch of Moments? Still buzzing?
A: Yeah, it’s really exciting! I almost exclusively perform solo and this is really the only way most people have seen and heard me, but I’ve found that I really enjoy playing with a band. My favourite compositions work best with a full band, too, which means I haven’t played them much, so it’s really thrilling to share these songs in this format.
Q: How long has you been working on Moments?
A: I started working on these tunes in my third year at Leeds College of Music, so it’s been about 16 months. The songs themselves were written over about six months.
Q: What is your writing process for a new song? What was your writing process for Moments?
A: It tends to differ per song. I’m not one of those artists who often spouts new music – the writing process can be really frustrating, actually! While studying there was a lot of pressure to write, since my final exams were performances, and I often stressed that I wasn’t writing quickly enough or didn’t have the right ideas.
Sometimes songs come along fairly suddenly, and sometimes their process is like getting blood out of a stone.
There are two things I make a habit of doing that help: firstly, to start any practice or writing session, I stick my phone onto record and sit at the piano or guitar and just mess around without thinking too much. It’s easiest on piano because I’m not a pianist, so I just find sounds I like. On guitar, I was inspired by Jon Gomm to write by putting it into strange tunings (effectively decreasing my skill-level and forcing me to do what I do on the piano and write with my ears, not my mind). The second thing I do is conceptual brainstorming. Instead of trying to come up with lyrics, when I have an idea I’ll just write everything that comes to mind. Sometimes I’m writing things I want to say to someone, things I’m feeling, and sometimes I’m writing a larger concept out and thinking of the different aspects of that concept.
Many of my songs come from using snippets from the improvisational sessions and marrying them to lyrical concepts. This part can happen quite suddenly. Sometimes I’ll revisit a written concept and something will just click. For Sudden Movements, I’d scribbled down a bunch of thoughts from the perspective of someone grieving one night, all in a minute or so without stopping, and then left it. A while later when I came back to it, I tried rephrasing my thoughts to be more lyrical, and what resulted was pretty much exactly what it is today.
Q: When you are working on new material, how do you know when you have a finished piece?
A: I’m not sure that pieces are ever really finished. There’s always room to revisit, always things that can be improved or simply changed. Sometimes what stops a song from feeling complete is that there are so many creative options, and there aren’t any correct answers, only different ones! And then the lyrics, melody, chords and structure can be ‘complete’ (performable), but you could still spend ages arranging the song for a band, for example. Usually though, once I can play the full song with all of its chords and lyrics and not feel like it’s missing something or is clunky in places. It’s at that point I’m likely to start performing it or taking it to other musicians, and then it will continue to be refined.
Q: For anyone who is unfamiliar with your work, what instruments do you play?
A: I’m first and foremost a singer, but I play guitar and ukulele and can kind of vaguely work my way around a piano (but not really). I also play the flute and the recorder and could pretend I play harmonica. I’m terrible at drums, even though my sense of rhythm is fine.
Q: Can you tell us about your history as a musician, I know it is quite an interesting story.
A: Sure! I grew up singing in choirs – school choirs, and then a children’s choir which went on to hold the title of best children’s choir in South Africa, and later one of the best in the world. We toured around South Africa a lot, and went to Germany, Switzerland and Belgium. It was during my time in that choir that developed a love for voice and harmony, but I left the choir at 16 because I wanted to sing solo, and I didn’t feel like I could develop as a solo singer while in the choir. I played at a few open mics and farmers markets in my home town, but really wasn’t doing much until I finished high school and got a job (by some strange chance) on a cruise ship in the United States. That was a truly life-changing opportunity which allowed me to perform almost every day for three to four hours while also allowing me to travel, explore, and meet amazing people. In 2016 after almost three years on ships I moved to England to study a Popular Music degree at Leeds College of Music. Shortly after the move I started busking as well as playing in restaurants, bars, and for private functions. Busking has afforded me some really exciting gigs – a couple of years ago I was flown to Reno, Nevada to play a wedding! I did a few more cruise ship contracts in my summer breaks, but now that I’ve graduated I want to stay on land and focus on original music more.
Q: When you were singing on the Cruise ship you visited some amazing places. What was your favourite location?
A: Japan was pretty spectacular, and unlike anywhere I have ever been. New Zealand is really special, too – it’s a bit like Scotland, but with better weather!
Q: When I’ve seen you on live steams and busking you always looks confident. Do you suffer with performance anxiety? When you’re performing on the cruise you must have had quite a large audience.
A: Thank you! I don’t always feel very confident. It’s very easy to get stuck in your own head when you’re playing and I’ve been working hard to stop doing this – not necessarily obsessing over the technicalities of the performance but more on the audience. It’s easy to look at people’s faces and imagine all the negative things they might be thinking about your performance. Sometimes (too often) I’ll finish a covers gig and be genuinely surprised when someone compliments me because I’ll have spent the past hour imagining that they can’t stand hearing me. This is, I’m sure, a reality for most musicians – we’re full of self-doubt!
Q: Out of all the songs you have penned, which is your favourite?
A: This is tricky. I have a few that haven’t been recorded yet that I love. From this EP, it’s probably Magpie, although Moments is very close to my heart, too.
Q: What is your favourite cover to perform?
A: A trickier question! Really it depends on the day, who’s listening, and how I’m feeling. I really like singing Norah Jones, though. We’ll go with Don’t Know Why for now.
Q: What songwriter do you most aspire to be like?
A: Oh, gosh. There are so many fantastic songwriters! At the moment I’m strongly influenced by Elbow and The Unthanks – their arrangements are so effective. Lyrically and conceptually they’re great, too. The Unthanks have a song about a pigeon! Regina Spektor is also an amazing songwriter. If I could be a bit like those three I’d be happy, I think.
Q: Being a full time musician is a very interesting and varied line of work. What is your favourite thing about it and your least favourite?
A: My favourite thing is definitely the people. I meet so many interesting people doing my job, from all walks of life, all over the world. I hear so many great stories! Also just being able to share music with people – I’ve always said that my goal is to make people feel something, so it’s really great when the music I’m playing brings people joy. When I’m busking, children are definitely my favourite because they’re not great at hiding their emotions. It’s so wonderful seeing them entranced by the music!
My least favourite thing right now is commuting. I don’t drive, so I rely on trains, buses and cabs to get me to and from places. They’re notoriously unreliable systems, so some days I feel like I’m a professional commuter rather than musician, based on the ratio of time spent traveling versus playing! The uncertainty with regard to income is a constant stress, too. All too often there are cancellations or gigs are difficult to find, but I’m still happy to be playing music for a living!
Q: Now that you’ve released Moments, what do you plan to do next?
A: I want to play. I perform for a living, but it’s always other people’s music, and originals are always solo. I want to start performing my own music more often, and hopefully also with the band. I recently acquired a loop station, so I’ve been figuring out arrangements of the songs that will allow me to perform them without a band and still sound good! But really, playing with other musicians is the ultimate goal. Also to spend more time writing new material!
Q: Finally, do you have any advice to musicians who are reading this and following your journey?
A: A friend I made a few years ago, just before moving to the UK, told me to remember that we’re all just winging it. That’s really helped me. It’s easy to imagine that everyone else has it together and that you don’t, that you’re ‘behind’ and should be better. We’re all living separate journeys, and they don’t have to be identical. You don’t have to be the musician who started playing when they were three and wrote their first song at six and had their first big break before they were 18 and thinks of songs in their dreams so is releasing new music every week. You can be, if that’s the journey you’re on, but it’s not a prerequisite for success. Just do you. Make the music. Practice. Self-doubt is normal, we all have it, and we’re all winging it, all the time.
You can download Moments by clicking here and selecting whichever format is most suitable for you.
Courtney’s social media can be found below.
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/cbvmusic
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/cbvmusic
Youtube – https://www.youtube.com/vissercourtney
I hope you enjoyed reading, take care and I’ll see you all next time.