Christina Courtin puts down her violin and warms up her vocal cords
July 20, 2009 | 7:29 pm
For most teenage violinists from upstate New York, a scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School would be a dream come true. But for Christina Courtin, it was the beginning of the end.
The third of four violin-playing siblings raised in Buffalo (by parents who, oddly enough, were not musically inclined), Courtin was ill at ease in the big city, intimidated by her jet-set classmates and constrained by the school's fixed curriculum.
"It wasn't collaborative," she said over tea near Manhattan's Chelsea Market. "It was more like, 'I'm going to be told what to do and I'm going to like it.' That never has worked out for me. I'm not into authority."
Courtin's iconoclastic bent made for a couple of unhappy years, but her discomfort paid dividends, prompting a course correction that culminated in the release last month of the 25-year-old's self-titled debut album, which has drawn persistent comparisons to fellow college-trained New York songbird Norah Jones. She performs on Tuesday night at Largo at the Coronet.
Recorded in Los Angeles and co-produced by Courtin, her longtime boyfriend and bandmate Ryan Scott and jazz bassist Greg Cohen, "Christina Courtin" features an almost preposterously accomplished supporting cast: eclectic multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, ubiquitous session drummer Jim Keltner and Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench, among others.
The album is highly polished but still retains a sense of individuality, largely because of Courtin's unpredictable singing, which can veer from country to jazz phrasing in the course of a single line, and her penchant for changing styles with each track.
"I'm impulsive," she said. "I'm not this brooding, what color am I going to paint the kitchen, freaking out for four days before I do it type. I'm just going to go to the store and get the paint and do it."
Juilliard might not have made much of a contribution to Courtin's music, but it did help her secure a spot in a 2004 Carnegie Hall workshop with cellist Yo-Yo Ma. He pulled her out of the orchestra to sing, which led to a vocal workshop with soprano Dawn Upshaw and Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose recommendations helped her land a deal at Nonesuch Records.
The songs on "Christina Courtin" date back to Courtin's student days. Some, like "Foreign Country," a dorm-room lament composed over a lonely summer break, betray their undergraduate origins, although the lyrics can also read as a seven-year-itch-inspired rebuke to romantic overfamiliarity.
In spite of, or perhaps in reaction to, her classical background, the arrangements are generally sparse. On "Green Jay," the string quartet Brooklyn Rider adds pizzicato accents to the metallic bounce of Tench's celesta, giving warmth without swamping the song's delicate framework.
"Each thing that I've recorded has less business going on in the track," she said. "That's the kind of music and art I love the most: minimal, attention to space, long phrases and cool stuff like that. That's what I want to do. A simple, Tom Petty kind of vibe."
But Scott points out that the songs only sound simple, hiding unusual elements beneath their smooth surfaces. "The songs are very straightforward, but the harmonies can be really weird," he said. "There are some crazy chord changes in there, some odd bars that don't feel awkward in the actual song. She has all that stuff in her head, I guess from playing classical music all those years, so she hears things moving in a more advanced way."
Courtin does not play violin on the album, although she does perform with the Brooklyn chamber ensemble the Knights, who have backed her at a handful of live performances.
Though her first solo album is only a few weeks old, she's already looking over the horizon.
"I think the record is like the very beginning," she said. "I just started to finally realize kind of what I want to do."
Photo credit: Autumn De Wilde