Belgium based San Franciscan folkster Laura Cortese is about to release her latest studio album, BITTER BETTER. Having been privy to an advanced listen, we can highly recommend adding it to your record collection. It is a stunning collection of observational pop, which doesn't abandon her original folk leanings. Rather than us tell you about the release, we have asked Laura to.
First and foremost, hello and how are you?
Hello there. I am doing as well as can be expected. I am feeling grateful for a tiny garden and an abnormally long stretch of sunny days here in Ghent, Belgium.
Tell us about the record you have just released…
We recorded BITTER BETTER, out on Compass Records July 17, last spring here in Belgium. Technically I wasn't allowed to leave the country at the time as I was in the middle of a residency application, which was the perfect excuse to fly the producer, Sam Kassirer, the engineer, D James Goodwin, and the whole band to Belgium to record. The album I influenced by experiences that lead to me relocating to Belgium as well as the contemplation that goes along with uprooting your life and finding a new home. Themes that seem incredibly relevant in our current situation, like transformation, resilience, rebuilding, reflection all delivered with a bit of a bite.
I was adamant that no matter how heavy the subject matter of any given song, the story needed to be engaging and empathy inducing and for the ultimate feeling when listening to the album or the band playing live to be relief and release. Sam and I discussed how nothing makes you feel as free as moving your body to a groove, so we set out to cull through my songs to find the ones with the best potential for rhythm and bass lines.
I had written over 40 songs as we headed into pre-production. Sam Kassirer listened to anything and everything I sent him, including snippets of songs. He pushed me to make the good ones better and finish the intriguing snippets. Sam and I went back and forth via email with him composing synth riffs and loops made of samples from our cello and fiddle sounds. I co-wrote with band members Valerie Thompson (cello) and Zoe Guigueno (bass) on a pre-production retreat here in February and with Jeni Magana (bass) over a shared google doc while she was traveling the US on tour with another band. I kept writing up until the week before the band arrived here in Belgium to record at Motor Music in Mechelen. One of the most personal and danceable songs, "Dreaming," was the last one I sent to Sam before he got on the plane to come here. It was a luxury to have all the band members in one place for the week. The Dance Cards are usually a rotating collective of players, and finally, we were all in the same room able to play and sing together and feed off each other's creativity. I made sure to give everyone a taste of European life with daily pastries, good cheese, wine, and a few Flemish specialty dishes for dinner. I like to think you can hear a sense of adventure imbued in each song.
How do you feel when releasing a record?
Releasing a new album is always a little charged. You've played and listened and discussed and evaluated what you are hoping to transmit. You get it to a place where you feel content and proud and confident in the vision. The ultimate test is, will it translate to the listener? It helps to have a record label like Compass Records, who believe in artists being artists to give you the confidence that it translates to them. Then it's just a leap.
What inspired the record?
The news for the past few years has been pretty anxiety-inducing. There are a lot of people wanting change and working hard for it. With a heavy touring schedule, I can't always be in the right place on the right day to help demonstrate or be very consistent in volunteering for organizations I believe are doing good work. Watching friends push harder and harder and burn out made me want to use the tools I have to help rejuvenate people over the long haul. This pandemic has only made the need more poignant.
If the record were an animal, what animal would it be?
Probably a red fox. Like the album, the fox is an adaptable animal that is just as suited to wilderness as rural and suburban living and even metropolitan environments. Like a band, they've got a nightlife being most active when the sun goes down. They're playful and curious, not to mention their elegant and beautiful red coat.
What was the first song that caught your attention?
A friend gave me her cassette player and made me listen to side 1, song 1 of U2's Achtung Baby. Before that, I had mostly heard my parents' music; Motown and 60s/70s rock. I listened to the whole cassette alone. After that, I went back to the beginning with U2. I loved the raw punk energy of 'Boy' and 'October' even more.
What was the first song you bought?
I don't have any idea. It's lost somewhere due to digital-memory overload.
And the first album?
Perhaps Cake, Fashion Nugget from 1996. I remember going to see them at the Filmore in SF and knowing all the words. I may have also translated "She's Going the Distance" for my high school french class.
What was the best concert you have ever seen?
That's a hard one. Either Pete Seeger's 90th Birthday Celebration, which I played on about half of but also got to watch the other half, and it was incredible to see so many world-class performers take the stage one after another in tribute to Pete. The other option would have to be Paul McCartney in Halifax with Joel Plaskett opening, and my pal Rose Cousins singing in Joel's band. It was powerful to see Paul play for 3 hours straight, all the hits, so joyful and energetic. His energy was infectious. We went home after the show and stayed up another two hours recording a live cover of 'Say, Say, Say' by Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson. I think that is still floating around on Youtube somewhere.
What did the experience teach you that you have translated to your own shows?
One considerable similarity between both shows that I bring to my performances is the power of breaking down the fourth wall and just being with the audience. To ride the unique wave of each night and just play the songs that will lift us all higher.
What other artist are you most excited to hear from?
Patti Smith, I'm a fan of her books, live shows, social media presence, and music.
If you could work with them, what would you hope to record?
I'd love to co-write a song and experience her process first hand.
If you had to pick three artists to be filed next to, who would they be and why?
Haim - love their dance moves and bad-ass musicianship.
Andrew Bird - he seems to always be on the hunt for unique sounds and stories. Plus, he plays the fiddle.
Feist - her artistic integrity is a guiding force.
If you could jam with one artist alive or dead, who would it be?
All the artists I think of I would rather just watch them play. Bill Withers & James Gadson, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack...I could keep going.
If you could have written one song by another artist, what would it be?
Motion Sickness by Phoebe Bridgers. I don't want to experience what she experienced to write that song, but I am addicted to how she plays with consonance in the chorus:
I have emotional motion sickness
somebody roll the windows down
There are no words in the English language
I could scream to drown you out
Someone is making a film of your life, who will play you?
I'm torn between an actress I enjoy like Juliette Binoche, an actress who could have written the screenplay like Nia Vardalos, or an actress like Zooey Deschanel, who people say I look like (it must be the fringe).
Lastly, tell us one thing you have never revealed in an interview…