The debut album from singer/songwriter Courtney Hartman, Ready Reckoner opens with the understated yet undeniable glory of “Hollow,” a track whose title traces back to her recent fascination with the concept of resonance. “The definition is perfect: ‘a resounding from the sides of a hollow instrument of music; a sound returned,’” says Hartman, who wrote “Hollow” while walking the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile pilgrimage route across Spain. “This whole record comes from a hollowing-out within myself—from being quiet and learning to listen again, allowing space for a resonance.”
Born from purposeful self-examination, Ready Reckoner finds Hartman taking the helm as producer transforming her most private ruminations into songs both bracingly intimate and magnificently vast. In that process, the Loveland, Colorado-based artist worked in collaboration with co-producer Shahzad Ismaily (a composer and multi-instrumentalist known for his work with Lou Reed and Tom Waits) and assembled a close-knit community of musicians, including a number of her friends as well as renowned guitarist Bill Frisell. Recorded mainly at Figure8 in Brooklyn and mixed by Tucker Martine (Neko Case, My Morning Jacket), Ready Reckoner unfolds in extraordinarily detailed textures, a nuanced yet wholly unpredictable sound equally given to moments of hushed simplicity, improvisatory freedom, and flashes of symphonic splendor.
With its endless shift between moments of exquisite stillness and delicate chaos, Ready Reckoner is a work of constant movement, its deliberate wandering a sonic parallel to Hartman’s 40 days on the trail. Carrying a Bourgeois guitar along with her pack and abstaining from music-listening for the extent of the voyage, Hartman walked from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, and soon began a routine of periodically stepping off the trail to write.
Although many of Ready Reckoner’s songs first emerged while walking, Hartman wrote much of the album in her former home of Brooklyn, sometimes in days-long solitude in her old apartment. Penned on New Year’s in 2017, the gently lilting and elegantly guitar-heavy “January First” sprang from one such session, with Hartman musing on the improbably weighted significance of the day. Another track from that same writing period, the brightly hypnotic “Belfry” was inspired by Hartman’s meditative trespassing onto her building’s rooftop, in addition to her reading of the prophet/poet Amos. “For me that song is an acknowledgment of feeling led to do or to be something, and then feeling the terror of walking toward that,” she notes.
On the revelatory centerpiece to Ready Reckoner, Hartman further contends with fear, carefully questioning her place in the world as an artist. Written toward the end of her time on the pilgrimage, “Too Much” threads its sparse arrangement with recordings of her footsteps and walking stick, its lyrics speaking to Hartman’s realization that—in her own words—“If I could not write and listen in that near-to-perfect place, then I need not write at all; my life energy would be given elsewhere.” But while her vocals channel self-doubt with unguarded honesty, “Too Much” steadily telegraphs a quiet courage, a subtle determination to move forward in the face of the unknown.
Elsewhere on Ready Reckoner, Hartman drifts from the soulful urgency of “Won’t Be Satisfied” (a defiant and harmony-driven outcry for protection of our earth-home) to the mesmeric reverie of “Neglect” (her intricate guitar duet with Bill Frisell) to the otherworldly and often-unsettling tension of “Koyaanisqatsi” (a piece drawn from the experience of creating a live-score performance to accompany Godfrey Reggio’s film of the same name). And on “Here’s to the Ones,” Ready Reckoner ends on a tender benediction for those who have journeyed in and out of her life, closing out its wide-eyed reflection with a transportive synth melody from Ismaily.
For Hartman, the making of Ready Reckoner was inarguably shaped by the support of others, despite the profound solitude that informed its creation. During her time on the trail, for instance, it was the companionship of her fellow pilgrims that abated her fears of the task ahead. “I’d never walked with a pack before, never hiked as far as I needed to go that first day—let alone for 40 days in a row.,” she remembers. “I didn’t realize how afraid I felt.” By the same token, Hartman’s collaborators in the studio helped guide her through the daunting prospect of producing for the first time. “Initially I thought that Shahzad would be producing, but as we talked more, he told me, ‘That’s not my role here,’” says Hartman. Seeking solace prior to the first session, Hartman unearthed her walking journal, and stumbled upon a recurring theme. The fears I faced on the trail were no different than what I was feeling in that moment, the weight of doing something that you feel led to do, and being shaken by it,” she says. “In both cases, I felt very much alone, but at the same time surrounded by people who I knew would care for me.”
Describing the recording process as a transformative learning experience, Hartman gradually discovered a deeper self-assurance through certain directorial responsibilities assumed in the studio. “Working on the album, I realized that I often know exactly what I want to hear in my songs, even if I can’t always articulate it,” she says. “There was so much growth in acknowledging that I really do know what I want, and in being perfectly honest when I’m at a loss.”Hartman’s finely-honed musicality has firm roots in her upbringing, which included taking up violin at three, learning to play guitar at 11, and writing her first song at 12. She spent much of her childhood immersed in the bluegrass world, a factor that eventually led to her seven-year stint in Grammy-nominated band Della Mae. During her time with the band, Hartman also released a collaboration album with Robert Ellis (2017’s Dear John) and another with Taylor Ashton (2018’s Been on Your Side).
With Ready Reckoner, Hartman ultimately provides the listener with a conduit for self-exploration—a factor that fulfills one of her greatest hopes in sharing the album with the world. “If you listen to any of these songs and step away feeling lifted or carried to a different place, that is a real and true honor,” she says. Indeed, for Hartman herself, the process of creating Ready Reckonerhelped bring about a newfound devotion to deep listening, as revealed in the truly singular sound and sensibilities of the album. “Slowly I am allowing myself to be completely who I am, with whatever sounds and stories that stirs up,” she says. “If I can claim all those things as my own—without shame or fear—then maybe it will begin to take away any need to be someone else.”