Courtney Jaye is a longtime friend of Birmingham. Since her days in Nashville, she’s regularly performed in the Magic City and gotten frequent airplay from Scott Register at Birmingham Mountain Radio.
She has an amazing new record on the way. It’s a bit of a spiritual journey, and one that she began writing years ago–nearly a decade now. I feel certain that even by year’s end, it will be one of the best things that I heard in 2021.
Courtney and I spoke about her own spirituality and how that has been shaped by the state of the world around us and the places across America that she has lived during that time. We talked about mental health and the battle many–especially musicians–have had with it over the course of a pandemic. Since May of 2019, she has called Hawaii home, and that has given her the same kind of peace that her new record gives me. Maybe that was the secret.
I guess it’s been a bit more peaceful in Hawaii the past few years than it has been on the mainland.
Yes. I lived here for a bit when I was 19-years-old, and I had always said that I wanted to come back and spend time here. Decades pass and you’re like, “Okay, when am I ever going to do that? If I’m going to do it; I need to do it because I’m not getting any younger.” So I came here for three months to finish writing a record in summer of 2019, and two weeks after I got here, I had a death in my family, so I flew back to Atlanta. It kinda threw everything off for me. I didn’t have the headspace for writing. I finally started really writing in August and that was when I was supposed to leave to go back to LA. It didn’t feel right to leave. So, I just stayed. And I haven’t looked back since.
Is that the foreseeable future? Do you think you’ll ever come back this way?
Absolutely for sure! I think the goal is eventually to have a place over on the mainland somewhere and to also have a little spot here. I have to come back to the mainland for a record that I just made. At the moment, everything is kind of up in the air. I don’t know what the release will look like yet–or what releases are going to look like at all, post-pandemic. I’m kind of a nomad in many respects, and in the past have usually gone where my music career has taken me. The decision to stay here was based on a personal decision and something that I wanted for my life, separate from my music career. I hadn’t really made a decision like that for at least 20 years.
There is something really powerful in taking chances like that. At the time everyone thought I was crazy, like I had quit music. But I didn’t care. The reality was that I came over here to take a step back from the music industry, and to ask myself what it was that I wanted from my career moving forward. I knew that I needed to make some changes if I was going to keep making and releasing records. I needed to take a step back and recalibrate. Coming back here was a gift in a lot of ways, and I was finding that I was more inspired and immersed in music than I had been in years. I heard a quote once “That which man does in secret is made manifest in the world around him”, and that is what my time on Kauai has been. A resting period to get myself ready for the next phase of life, my career and this upcoming record.
We lost your friend Neal Casal a little over a year ago. And while that was before the pandemic happened, it speaks to the mental health struggles of touring musicians. What has that been like for you and your peers?
It’s tough. It’s been really tough. Losing Neal was a type of loss that I can’t really say I had ever experienced. Like many others, I loved that man. It was just completely out of the blue. But in retrospect, you can kind of see the ways in which he kept his struggles hidden. It’s heartbreaking. I’m honestly still in shock about it, and it’s been a year since he passed away. I think it’s going to take some time for all of us. I had the opportunity to sing one of his songs for an upcoming tribute album, and that experience was incredibly helpful and healing.
We’re definitely within a place right now in the music community where mental illness and the struggles that musicians are facing–the psychological issues–we’re all literally in fight or flight mode with this pandemic. The fact that that we can’t really do our jobs right now, we’re just in a constant state of the unknown. That can be really scary, especially when it’s your world and all that you know. I think it’s going to take a while to regain ourselves after this whole experience, and I really hope the concert industry can rebound. The best thing right now is checking in on friends that are musicians; friends that have lived on the road for many years. If anyone pops into my mind, I’ll text them in that moment and see how they’re doing. It’s like everyone is just constantly checking in on one another. Community in the truest sense of the word, even though everyone is all over the place geographically.
What have you found has worked for your own self-care throughout the past year? Is Hawaii part of that?
Whew. 100%. I completely lucked out, really. This place has always been my place of solace. I feel very much at home, even though this land belongs to Hawaiians and I will always be a visitor. I have a community of friends here that I’ve had for a long time, who I consider family, and I have such respect for the Hawaiian culture. It’s so beautiful. Every day for me–without a pandemic–I’m just in a constant state of wonder. I just walk outside and see a rainbow; take a walk and you’re in the most beautiful spot. That’s a big part of it for me. I’m fortunate enough to have moved here prior to this all happening. There are so many beaches you can visit here where you see no one. That and making this record are what have gotten me through it. 100%.
I love the upcoming record a lot. I suppose it to be an exploration of your own spirituality. Do you find yourself a religious person? A spiritual person? Where do you fall on that spectrum?
I’m definitely not a religious person. Definitely more on the spiritual side. I grew up with Judaism. My parents just threw me into Sunday School when I was young. And I did not enjoy it. It was very confusing to me, and no one explained it. So I was just dropped in around all these other kids that sort of knew what was going on and I had no idea. I felt like an outcast. I never fully connected to the religion itself. I still haven’t to this day. At a certain point, my parents were like, “Well, you have to have a bat mitzvah!” And I was like, “Ugh. Really? I have no idea what I’m doing!”
I sat my parents down and I said, “Here’s the deal. Let me find God in my way, and I promise you that it’s something I will explore. I will have some type of connection to God in my life if I don’t have a bat mitzvah.” They agreed to it–I don’t think they wanted to spend the money (laughs)–but they agreed to it. Years after that, when I started high school, I took a deep dive into spirituality–New Age and Native American spirituality was something that I connected with. I moved to northern Arizona to go to college and study Native American culture. I ended up not going to school, working with an acupuncturist and pursuing music instead, but it is something that always stuck with me. That was my starting point. I have Native American blood, so it makes sense to me that I see God in the earth. Listening to a bird sing. Swimming in the ocean. Looking at a rainbow or watching a sunset. I start to get very depressed if I cannot connect with nature in some way. That, and meditation, is what communing with God looks like to me. It was an intrinsic, natural connection that I had. Through the years, I would go in different directions and study different philosophies here and there, but organized religion was something that I stayed away from. I’ve always believed that love is the basis of everything. And in regards to organized religion, I could and would never accept that God is something to fear, or some vengeful man that is judging my every move, or anyone else’s. It’s absolutely ludicrous and so limiting, confining, and hilarious if you really think about it.
The record gave me a lot of peace. And for me, it sounds like you making your own peace with the nature of religion in the South.
Trying to (laughs).When I was living in the South–when I was writing this record–I started to get really pissed at religion. In seeing what it has done through the years; the wars, the division, the hatred, bigotry, and racism. People hiding behind their beliefs, and using GOD as an excuse for it all. It’s unconscionable to me.
There were many iterations of this record. I started writing it in 2014, so this music has taken me on quite a ride through the years. There were many forms that it took. At once point my friends were calling it “murder gospel” (laughs). I had some very controversial songs that didn’t make it. I moved away from that energy because the whole concept shifted and it became more universal in it’s messaging. It’s mainly about my life journey, and going through hell—in childhood, adulthood, in the music business and in personal relationships—reconnecting with God in a deeper way later in life and through that, doing the work to heal, and eventually finding my power and my actual voice. It’s been a long road but I wouldn’t change it for anything. I had to get honest with myself and face a lot of things. It was a painful process but through that, somehow it brought me closer to whoever God is.
I would like to think that the record is saying, “Maybe religion hasn’t worked. Maybe we tried. And maybe we need to do it a different way by simply loving one another.” It sounds so simple, but for human beings it is apparently very, very hard. Myself included in many moments. I think it’s also important to state that I don’t have any answers. I’m not here to push my beliefs onto anyone with this music. That’s important to me, because I find it incredibly disingenuous when people do that. There is no right or wrong way to connect with God. I call it “gospel”, but honestly, it’s spiritual music for weirdo’s (laughs). That of which I very much am (laughs).
You went viral a lot over the past few years with your songs about the state of the world. What was that experience like for you?
It was wild, and I learned a lot from it. It was an exercise in many different disciplines for me, in regards to writing. I am used to taking my time writing a song. With this, writing anything from scratch had to be written and recorded within 48 hours of any current news, or else we were on to some other fresh hell. So I didn’t have time to edit anything. I usually would toss anything out if it took me longer than a couple hours to write. I looked at it as if I was writing jingles. I think only a couple could I classify in the “song” category. They were mainly little mini-commercials to express my feelings about what we were going through, while also trying to find some humor, seeing that everyone was so worn out from his presidency, and on edge. It was like the final mile of a marathon. How do you get people engaged or make them have a little laugh when everyone is so tired? Those are the questions I would ask myself. Even though I was incredibly tired, it was like some type of adrenaline kicked in. I don’t know. I’m not a comedian. And I wasn’t really trying to be. They were literally just channeling my disgust at Trump, and anyone who supported him.
The past four years, like many of us, were not easy on my mental state, and humor was definitely a way for me to cope. But I reached a boiling point when he gassed the protestors. That was when I resorted to all-out war. Straight up warrior mode. I made a decision at that time to dedicate every single second of my life to working on getting that man out of office. It became like a 9-5 job for me—from June, all the way up to the election. If there is one silver lining to the pandemic is that it opened up a lot of time for activism. I also learned that harnessing my rage can be an incredibly powerful creative tool, and one that I plan to utilize for as long as I need to in order to attempt to make this world a better place.
You can find those two tracks on Courtney’s Bandcamp. The new record will be out soon.