With just six songs, it’s astonishing how Courtney Hartman’s debut solo recording tells such a vivid story. Nothing We Say is flush with intimate ruminations on her life as a traveling musician and a deep curiosity about the world around her.
“This album is a collection of songs that I wrote and labored over in hotel rooms, late at night, early in the morning, on the road, or at home during a few days of rest and laundry,” says the revered roots musician. “They are outpourings of the last couple years that I spent touring the world with Della Mae. Observations of the people and places that have infiltrated my mind.”
The luminous EP, released Sept. 30, delivers on the promise always apparent in her work as a guitarist and songwriter for Della Mae, the Grammy-nominated string band, along with her collaborations with Jim Lauderdale, Robert Ellis, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Mike Campbell, among others.
A sense of home threads through these songs, as a tribute to Hartman’s Colorado heritage and how it continues to inspire her wherever she goes. Although she’s based in Brooklyn, her home state still looms large, as evident on the closing “Take Me Back Colorado”:
The sky is clear and cold there
My lungs fill with sharp air
I'll stay out till the stars fill my cup
Take me back Colorado
I'm headed home
In the dead of a Colorado winter – under clear, cold skies and, at night, an unending panorama of shimmering stars – Hartman recorded the album with co-producer Jacob Blumberg in a small cabin on a ranch in Del Norte. Bassist Mark Schatz and drummer Michael John McKee fleshed out the songs with graceful precision, giving them room to grow and explore, and Taylor Ashton added close harmonies on “When You See the Morning.”
Hartman casts a gimlet eye not only on her own life, but also that of others. Take “Noah,” a hymn-like lullaby that relays the heartbreaking story of a mother who lost custody of her young child. Meanwhile, the title track aches with the hard truth that sometimes connection is simply fleeting. “I can love you today, but don’t ask for tomorrow,” she warns on “Nothing We Say.” “Don't ask if tomorrow I can stay/ With the sun arising/ I've got to be travelin’/ But we can make a night of it again someday.”
Adding to her five original songs, Hartman puts a freewheeling spin on the folk standard “Cumberland Gap,” reimagining it with fresh and downright wild variations. An instrumental, it’s also a prime showcase for the flatpicking guitar prowess that has earned Hartman acclaim from the magazines Acoustic Guitar and Fretboard Journal and peers such as jazz virtuoso Julian Lage.
Holed up in that secluded cabin, where the temperature outside rarely climbed above the teens, Hartman and her crew conjured warmth and communion. We hear the shape of the room on these unvarnished recordings, as if you’re seated beside them. We hear the quietude of the landscape, the crackle of the wood-burning stove as Hartman fingerpicks the melody on “Take Me Back Colorado.” She wasn’t afraid to leave in the imperfections, knowing that they reflected the honesty at the heart of her lyrics. She was more interested in capturing what she calls “an urgency of solitude.”
“I’ll put an extroverted album out into the world one day. But this one isn’t quite that,” Hartman says. “I wanted the songs to sound whole with just my voice and guitar, and then slowly add what was wanted. What I didn’t want was for a listener to hear it and ask, Yes, but where is Courtney?”
There’s no mistaking where and what Hartman is on Nothing We Say: She’s open-hearted and in the spotlight. Right where she belongs.
– James Reed
Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Courtney Hartman started playing guitar at the young age of eight, after having already spent several years on the fiddle and mandlin. Her early years were spent steeped in American Roots music, and today she has fused a diverse range of influences from Norman Blake to Bill Frisell, creating music that acknowledges and pays homage to her roots, while pushing beyond its defined boundaries.
Courtney left her native Colorado for Boston, where she studied in the American Roots Music program at Berklee College of Music. It was there that she joined Della Mae, and began to grow as a songwriter, contributing songs to the group’s second and third albums. Her solid rhythm playing and melodic improvisations has brought her accolades from the guitar oriented press. She appeared on the cover of Acoustic Guitar’s 2014 30 under 30 issue where her flatpicking prowess was lauded as “Staggeringly good” by the editors and the Fretboard Journal heralded Courtney as “...easily one of the greatest flatpicking guitarist performing today.”
Courtney now lives in Brooklyn and tours frequently, playing some two-hundred days a year, both at home in the states, and in countries as far off as Pakistan and Vietnam as part of the US State Department’s Music Exchange program; an experience that has had a profound impact not only on her music, but her world view. Her literary songwriting is filled with stories about changing relationships, life on the road, and—implausibly enough—a song that finds beauty and longing in jet lag. In addition to her solo work and touring with Della Mae, Courtney has worked with a range of musicians including Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s Mike Campbell, Buffy St. Marie and Hot Rize’s Bryan Sutton. Her solo project, Nothing We Say, was just released on Sept 30.