Inside the Songs: Laura Cortese Moves Way Beyond The Fiddle
I’ve always known Laura Cortese as a fiddler first and foremost, and though of course she’s a wonderful singer and also a powerful and insightful songwriter, it took until her new solo album, Into the Dark, for me to realize that her music had moved far beyond her roots in New England’s vibrant fiddle scene. On Into the Dark, which -full disclosure- we promoted to roots radio, Cortese’s songs touch on much more serious topics than the usual roots music album. And the fiddle’s there, though refracted through a new lens. Using pizzicato, innovative string arrangements based on the rural rhythms of American fiddling, and some of the best guest artists possible in New England and beyond (Hanneke Cassel, Mariel Vandersteel, Natalie Haas, Valerie Thompson, Brittany Haas, Dirk Powell, Kris Drever, Dietrich Strause, and more). But those songs. I kept coming back to those songs. There’s so much depth in this songwriting, and the songs fall into my most favorite category of songwriting: using traditional forms to subvert the tradition. I had to know more about the songs, so I’ve been chatting with Laura for a little while now and figured she’d be perfect for our next “Inside the Songs.” NOTE: Though Inside the Songs are usually about songs the artist has written, I had to ask Laura here about her cover of the traditional song “Train on the Island.” She totally re-envisions what many see as a “throwaway” song in old-time music, drawing so many new meanings out of the old, and strange lyrics.
Inside the Songs with Laura Cortese
” “For Catherine” was actually the hardest song on the album to finish. I started working on it after my mom told me about a gang rape that happened in Richmond, CA. I lived there from age 3 till 10. The incident took place at a school homecoming dance, over 20 people watched and didn’t intervene or even call the police for two hours. I started to do some research and learned about “Bystander Effect”, which basically means that when large groups of people are present individuals are less likely to get involved and stop something. I kept reading and found out about Kitty Genovese’s rape and murder case which prompted the first investigation into the bystander effect. I started to read a lot about rape victims, their personal accounts, just trying to understand a small part of what they must have to process. As I worked to retell the story eventually I came to the idea of prayer, one victim praying to Catherine, recounting the story but also trying to heal.”
Train on the Island (traditional):
I first heard this tune from the playing of Bruce Molsky. I remember hearing it, loving bruces voice, his chord choices, the melody and vaguely following the story until he got to the lyric “me and my love we fell out, might be for the best”. That perked up my ears…A little heartbreak always does. The song has evolved for me over the years. It has come to mean more to me now than when I first heard it.
“Run and tell my true love he’s the one I love the best”…being on the road away from my loved ones far too often, singing this line is really an effort to send my love home. Not really being in the presence of people you love, wanting them to know that they are the ones who are important to you.
“Run and tell my true love he don’t know what he’s worth”…We all question our purpose at times. Sometimes I’ve witnessed people whose question of purpose is so apparent in their body language and attitude that it is obvious that they aren’t aware of their intrinsic value. I know I am going full bore Californian here…with the rare exception nearly everyone I have met in my life has something beautiful to offer this world. Sometimes it is easier to see the value in others than in yourself. When I see someone who doesn’t know their value, I want to tell them all the wonderful ways they touch my life…In the end we each have to find our own relationship to that value.
About two years ago we were asked to perform at the home of a man who was dying of cancer. It was a gift from his fiddle playing friend. He was there with his wife, daughter and another family friend all together to enjoy the music together. We sang a few songs and then came to ‘Train on the Island’. To look into the eyes of a man who knows he is dying while you sing the lyrics “run and tell my true love I’m sick and I can’t go” is something I will never forget. I rarely sing this song without thinking of him and his family.
When you finally get to “run and tell my true love, I can’t hold the wheel” you’ve been on a journey. The desperation of communicating love, and one saying to the other, I just don’t think I can keep this going in the right direction…
I am not sure I have found out exactly what “train on the island” really means…I have come to think of it as relationship. Relationships are often about momentum…they take a lot of energy to start or to redirect when they have gone wrong…I love the image of a train on an island…it is emotional, not literal.
“I wrote this song after reading a Patti Smith quote from Dream of Life. The quote involved being a child not having time to day dream. I invented a scenario of a girl who would have had that experience. When I first started the song it was a series of vignette’s to explain the first verse…
“When I was a girl on the Village Green, I hadn’t time for day dreaming, I carried linens soft and bright, I carried secrets through the night.”
The first draft was all the secrets she witnessed walking through her town. In the end the song was much more about the girl and her own secret wishes and dreams. And it was really about me…struggling with the constant battle between a need for time off to just live and the impulse to work hard to give my life meaning. It comes together in the last verse…
“I would not want for petticoats or gloves of crocheted lace
But for a story worth being told, pen to a page
How I wished to sit and take in the violet’s smell
As the music slowed I awoke from the spell!”
This post originally appeared on the Hearth Music Blog. Check out our website and roam through our blog to discover your next favorite artist! We’re dedicated to presenting today’s best Roots/Americana/World musicians.