At the beginning of last year, very few people outside the USA had heard of Courtney Marie Andrews. After a UK release of her album 'Honest Life' was quickly followed by 'May Your Kindness Remain', Andrews was quickly established as an overnight success (many, many years in the making). Loose Music was the UK based label that brought Andrews' music to a wider audience, and it's Loose we also have to thank for bringing Carson McHone to our attention. Like her label mate Andrews, Carson McHone's appeal lies fundamentally in the fact that she is the real deal; honest and utterly genuine. For Carson, music is a way of life, not a career path. Like Andrews, Carson began early and has spent more than a decade honing her craft. Her debut album (of sorts, as it's a kind of re-release with additions) 'Carousel' is about to be released and Carson is promoting it with her first full UK tour. We were lucky enough to speak with her recently.
At twenty six years of age Carson McHone is beginning an exciting new chapter, one which sees her reaching out beyond her homeland. She first began writing and playing at age fifteen. Her first song? "I don’t remember what it was called, I think it was about a cowboy." She lists Townes Van Zandt, Patty Griffin, Alison Krauss, Tim O’Brien, The Dixie Chicks, Bob Dylan as early influences, and many commentators reference Van Zandt when describing her down to earth and authentic style.
Carson McHone is a product of Austin, Texas, a city synonymous with the SXSW festival and one with a long musical heritage. "I think for a long time Austin has been a place people could go to be creative. For the most part the atmosphere has been laid back and accepting, it’s been relatively eclectic, it’s been a place where 'hippies and cowboys' can hang...although I haven’t seen a hippie or a cowboy in Austin in a long time unfortunately. There was the outlaw country movement that happened when folks didn’t want to subscribe to the Nashville establishment, so I think that helped stamp Austin as a place you could go to just be yourself, but it wasn’t just because people were rejecting the norm, there were lots of venues and I think there was a 'scene'."
The Austin Chronicle wrote a piece on Carson in July 2015 and when you read it, what comes through is that Carson is very much a local girl, right at home in that 'scene' where every bar (or dram shop, as they are known) is a stage. Somewhat precociously, Carson took to performing live in these bars from the age of sixteen, blagging her way to a first gig, before quickly being given a residency at the Hole in the Wall. A Manager of the bar, Denis O'Donnell, recalled "She was not nervous, she was confident. She wrote most of her own songs, and they were sad. It wasn't contemporary music you'd imagine someone who's seventeen would attach to. It was unique, and her voice was unique. It had an Irish tinge to it."
Since that piece was written, Carson has been on the road almost continually. It's a way of life she appears to relish. "Touring has been the most incredible experience, there is so much you learn about yourself, your music, the people around you, the country, the world. You learn your limits on the road, the ones you can and can’t get around. Getting the opportunity to open for bigger acts has taught me a lot, it makes you look at your music very critically, and learn how to build sets, or how to alter them smoothly on a whim (she laughs)."
Apart from a week of pub gigs in London, Carson's not played live in the UK. Her tour begins shortly and North East music lovers are spoilt for choice with dates at Durham's intimate Old Cinema Launderette (Sunday, 3rd Feb) and Live Theatre, Newcastle (Saturday 9th Feb) on the schedule. We asked why it is, she thinks, that UK and European audiences feel connected to a style of music (Country) that's so quintessentially American. Also, how she feels able to connect with audience outside Austin and the US. "There’s something about genuine American Roots music that feels really honest and raw, I believe folks are drawn to it because of that, it feels authentic, like a dive bar, there’s something about the cause and affect that is beautiful about it, and sometimes sad. Not to say that something bright and shiny that perfectly fits into place isn’t beautiful or better, I mean, some people hate traditional music, it’s all about your taste, but I think folks are drawn to traditional music because they feel like it’s bearing all." As for her own music, "I am a terrible liar, so everything you hear come out of my mouth is just how I’m relating to the world around me, sometimes folks just connect with the sentiment, but I usually try to keep the 'events' more ambiguous, it’s more about the feeling than what happened, and in that way, I hope that my music can be relatable, even if we are completely different."
Both the UK and USA are experiencing turbulent times, with political events polarising opinions. We wondered if the political climate is something that finds its way into Carson's music at all? "Absolutely. We are so polarized right now, another reason in music to try and access those emotions that speak to all of us, that unite us. Of course, in some small tiny way of my own, I have a public platform, so I try to use that to promote things that are important to me."
Carson's music could be described as 'Country', but regularly you see the adjective 'alt' or 'modern' placed before that genre description. Carson's music certainly does sound like music of the modern age, not some throw-back. How does she see her songwriting develop, as her experiences broaden? "Change is inevitable. I have a bit of an aversion to the categories anyway, although I know that they can serve some purpose, but there’s no reason to limit yourself, whether you’re the audience or the artist."
We end our conversation by noting that Carson has come a long way, but that her real journey is only just beginning. Is she ambitious, we wonder? What does she hope to achieve in music? "I guess you have to be ambitious to pursue a career in music. I hope to have enough of a career to continue making music and I hope that it has some positive impact on the world, because if I’m gonna do any good I think it’s probably going to be in this field. Wish me luck!" Luck is unlikely to be the reason that Carson McHone will achieve her ambitions in music.