By David Templeton | From the July-August 2020 issue of Strings magazine
Bitter Better, the new album from indie-folk outfit Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards, was always going to be steeped in a sense of joyous, defiant survival from challenging experiences. And it was intended to make people want to dance.
That it’s coming out in the midst of a global pandemic is, of course, a wild twist of fate, something Cortese and her ensemble of bold string players could never have imagined. In retrospect, though, Cortese firmly believes that Bitter Better—released July 17, delayed from its original planned release date in early May—is emerging into the world at precisely the right moment.
“It was written for this exact kind of need,” says Cortese, speaking from her home in Belgium, to which she relocated after more than a decade and a half in Boston. “These songs were created to tap into a certain sense of resilience and relief and release. Yes, I was writing them from a different origin place, a different reason and a different why, but it’s still the same set of feelings we need to tap into right now, all of us, definitely.”
As a case in point, there’s the gorgeously crafted song “From the Ashes,” initially written in response to the California wildfires of 2017, 2018, and 2019. Cortese grew up in San Francisco, and has close friends who suffered tremendous losses in those disastrous conflagrations. With fiddler-vocalist Sumaia Jackson, bassist-vocalist Zoe Guigueno, cellist-vocalist Valerie Thompson, and fiddler-vocalist Jenna Moynihan (plus Jeni Magana on bass guitar, D. James Goodwin on drums, and Sam Kassirer on synth and piano), Cortese created a sound that is rooted in Americana but with a strong, edgily uplifting contemporary feel. The chorus of the song goes, “I’ve come from the ashes of what was begun, what will begin again.”
Listened to in the summer of 2020, “From the Ashes” speaks as well to battling the fear and uncertainty of COVID-19 as it does to the ache and grief still lingering after so many homes were destroyed and lives lost to wildfires. “I hadn’t thought about that connection,” says Cortese, “but I have a very dear friend I was talking to, who texted me—after I sent him a copy of the album—and he said he’d been listening to ‘From the Ashes’ on repeat, literally 100 times, weeping the whole time. And I said, ‘Is this a good weep or a bad weep? Are we talking about a useful feeling or a not-useful feeling? I really can’t tell.’ But he was really exited to have something to emote over, and the song gave him a way to move some feelings along that he’d been stuck with.
“So,” she continues, “that’s when I thought, ‘Maybe this is the next song we should release as a single,’ because it could give people something positive, a helpful feeling, something they can really use right now.”
In interviews given in the spring, when everyone was still planning on a May release of the album—which represents a significant evolution in sound and style from previous Dance Cards efforts—Cortese revealed that the project was born out of a sense of isolation, yet another coincidence, considering the historic isolation experienced by people all over the globe.
“Well, I was thinking more about the isolation that comes from moving to a new culture and country, and having to learn a new language,” says Cortese. “And even though you have the friends of your new partner, it’s not like they’re the friends you’ve had for your whole life, the friends you’ve had for the last 18 years living in Boston, the people who know you at least as well, if not better, than you know yourself. It’s a pretty small city that I’m living in here in Belgium, and there’s a really wonderful music community, but everything is scaled way down, compared to what I’d become accustomed to.”
For what it’s worth, Cortese does speak Dutch now.
“Even the people who live here are surprised,” she laughs. “They say, ‘Why would you want to learn Dutch?’ But it’s made a big difference. It’s all part of changing and growing and getting through that isolation thing.”
Clearly, Cortese’s life and her music are dancing to the same tune. The new album was created in close partnership with Kassirer, who also produced California Calling, Cortese’s previous album with the Dance Cards. That it is so different from previous albums, with strong synth involvement blending in unexpected ways with her own voice and fiddle, Cortese says she considers it a reflection of natural artistic growth.
“The way I look at it is that we are constantly evolving in some way, because once you’ve done the last thing, you sometimes just want to do the next thing,” she says. “You ask yourself, ‘What other options do we have?’ It’s an attempt to expand our own musicianship, to not just always fall back on ‘Well, this is what I do,’ but creating out of a place of curiosity. ‘What are our skills now? What are we listening to now?’
“Back with California Calling,” she continues, “that album sort of winks at some of these ideas, but now we are fully inhabiting that. That album was more about four people playing in a room together. We added drums, we added some synth and keyboard, but it was all dialed down a little.”
The evolutions in sound displayed on that project were, she admits, a bit subtle.
“With this album,” she says, “it was more like, ‘How can we serve the song best with the talents of the musicians we have?’ We all play strings, but what are all of the different ways we can play these things? Does there always have to be a strummed fiddle, or just some of the time? What if we put a synth in there in a really prominent way? Can we sound more symphonic? What happens if we add a banjo but also have really symphonic strings? What are the ways we can combine the sounds we know and love, in ways we’ve never tried before?”
Her first meeting with Kassirer to discuss the project was in the fall of last year, when the talk was largely theoretical, examining various ways the album would function. “That’s when I first started talking about this idea of relief and release and resilience,” Cortese says. “That’s what I wanted the sound and feel of the album to be, but I also wanted freedom to write any song that I thought might be great, about any subject matter, even dark stuff. But I still wanted the delivery to have this feeling of uplift that would allow you to recharge, even if the song was about a difficult topic.”
One obvious way to make that happen sonically was to focus on things like overall rhythm and groove, and bass lines that make you want to move your body. “When you move your body, you tend to let everything go, especially when you are dancing for yourself,” Cortese allows. “Not like being a trained dancer, but you just crank up the radio and shake off whatever negative stuff you are carrying. We started from that place.”
In February of 2019, Guigueno, Thompson, Jackson, and Kassirer all gathered in Belgium to start working out how to play the songs Cortese had been working on. Kassirer had already asked them all to record dozens of different sounds on their instruments—drumming, chopping, hitting the instruments to make different hollow percussive noises—and had built a loop out of those sounds electronically.
“So then we sat in my living room here and we played those things,” she says. “We just pieced together how we could play those loops together on a stage. If it wouldn’t fly with us playing it live, we knew it wasn’t necessarily a good idea.
“That was our test.”
The album was ultimately recorded in April, at Motor Music, in the ancient town of Mechelen, Belgium. The studio is on the grounds of a historic beguinage, a medieval community where women lived together and devoted their lives to religious contemplation and service. “It really felt like an adventure,” Cortese says. “Working in a beautiful, ancient town in this inspiring, historic place was pretty amazing, and I think that sense of adventure comes through on the album. Everyone was in a sort of stimulated state of creativity, inspired by the place, by not being at home, by being together in a totally creative and communicative headspace.”
It is Cortese’s hope that the ensemble’s dedicated fanbase shares that sense of creative adventure in embracing the risks they’ve taken in bringing the album to life.
“The way I feel is, when musicians I love take a risk, I’m thinking, ‘Yes! This is what I’m here for,’” she says. “When an artist does something unexpected, it excites and inspires me so much. It makes me want to do things I have yet to expect of myself. So with Bitter Better, I hope our fans—especially those who are musicians themselves—all say, ‘Hey, this is not what I expected. But, do I hear the steps they took to get here? Yes I do! Oh look, they just made a left turn! Wow! Are we authorized, as artists, to take left turns? I guess we are! Okay, well if they can take left turns then I’m going to take some left turns, too.’
“I hope,” Cortese adds, “that these songs give everyone who listens a major sense of creative freedom, and that they take that out there and do something creative themselves.”
And of course, she also hopes they will dance.
“Oh, absolutely,” Cortese laughs. “We are definitely going to make people dance.”