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Jun 19, 2009

Portrait of the artist as a young woman.

By Drew Stoga

Christina Courtin has been playing the violin since the age of three and holds a degree from the elite Juilliard School. But the Brooklyn home of the 25-year-old singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist looks more like that of a middle-aged rock ’n’ roll aficionado.
A collection of vintage guitars and rock memorabilia lovingly adorns the walls. There are no Yo-Yo Ma posters in sight.
“Sometimes music school can be really hard on your spirit,” Courtin says by way of explaining the change in direction of her musical life, and perhaps, her decorating style. “The people there weren’t really supportive of individual ideas, and that’s pretty hard for somebody who feels creative and that feels that they actually have something that can’t be put into a formula.”
The music that Christina is currently making—a mix of pop, jazz, chamber and country—doesn’t fit into any formula. Strings still play a critical role, but at the center is her otherworldly, and untrained, voice. Her singing exists somewhere between, and maybe beyond, the soul of Fiona Apple, the eccentric wail of Björk and the country twang of Emmylou Harris.
Is there a method to the madness of her genre-bending? Christina nonchalantly replies: “I don’t have any intentions about anything—I just do what I want…I just do it because it feels good.”

See the (Wo)man with the Stage Fright

Raised in Buffalo, N.Y., Courtin first came to Manhattan with the intention “to be really serious about playing the violin.”
However, she was quickly disillusioned and boxed in by the Julliard environment. “By my junior year, I was really sad and tired and just, like, not into college. I wasn’t feeling good. I really missed singing.” Bravely, she made a 180-degree turn, formed a band with electric guitars and drums and hit the city’s numerous downtown rock stages.
Despite a lifetime of performance training, she found that as a singer she suffered from severe stage fright. “For a while, I would drink a lot before the concerts. Just because I was so nervous—like painfully, painfully, painfully nervous.”
She realized this habit had to come to an end after watching a taped performance in which she took a drunken tumble on stage. “I saw that and I thought, woah. That is so crazy,” she remembers with a stunned laugh. “I can’t do that. That’s not the way it’s going to be for me.”
Courtin has since learned her lesson and has mostly gotten over her stage fright. “I still get nervous now, but it’s a lot better and I don’t drink nearly as much as I used to.”
Talent scouts from Nonesuch Records caught one of her stunning—and presumably sober—performances at the urging of operatic singer (and Nonesuch recording artist) Dawn Upshaw, who had led a workshop in which Courtin took part. The scouts were blown away by her fiery performance and signed her to a multi-album deal.

Making Music Together

Courtin and her boyfriend and frequent collaborator, Ryan Scott, radiate the confidence of veteran musicians, not a pair of youngsters just starting out. Perhaps it’s their time recently spent recording her self-titled debut with studio royalty like multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, drummer Jim Keltner, lap and pedal steel guitar player Greg Leisz and guitarist Marc Ribot.
Months after the recording sessions, Courtin is still in shock about her dream list of collaborators. “If I ask too many questions, I start to lose it. I am just really grateful and I learned so much from them…they are all very magical people and really special musicians.”
The resulting record, released on June 23rd, was co-produced by Courtin, Scott and “wonderful-bass-player-extraordinaire” Greg Cohen, who is chiefly responsible for assembling the all-star band. Sessions primarily took place at two legendary recording studios—Los Angeles’s Sunset Sound Recorders and Avatar Studios in Manhattan—and the finishing touches were made in Courtin and Scott’s apartment.
In addition to crafting the album’s intimate lyrics, Courtin also composed the vast majority of the music, quite a feat considering the countless number of instruments that appear on the record.
Interestingly, Courtin plays no violin on the album, though she does add a little viola and piano to the mix. “That’s just the way that it happened. I have so many wonderful violin friends…And, you know, if they can do it better than I can, then that’s fine, that’s great, I’m totally happy.”
The record opens with the playful “Green Jay,” a track that features plucked and sweeping strings, courtesy of the chamber quartet Brooklyn Rider, and the unmistakable touch of Jon Brion. On this song, as well as “Foreign Country,” Courtin’s voice soars and swings like a young Nina Simone or Diana Krall.
Her voice trembles and aggressively cuts on other tunes, like the dark “Hedonistic Paradise” and even darker “Laconia,” at which point the album’s momentum builds to an emotional peak with the hauntingly repeated questions of “how did I get here? And how do I get back?”
It is all quite impressive for a 25 year old who has all but rejected her formal training. But is Courtin satisfied?
“Maybe it will take a couple more years before I can’t listen to it anymore, but for now I still love it…I can sleep at night.”


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