Cortney Tidwell sings with a haunting, powerful voice inspired as much by Southern Gothic as gothic rock. Her debut full-length album “Don’t Let Stars Keep Us Tangled Up” blends the beauty and tragedy of Patsy Cline and Tennessee Williams with the sounds of Mazzy Star and Portishead to produce something breathtaking and unique.
It was only a matter of time before Cortney started recording. It’s in her blood. Music permeated her childhood in Nashville, Tennessee. Her grandfather performed at The Grand Ole Opry and recorded for the legendary Decca label. Her mother was also a frequent performer at the Opry, and a successful recording artist. And her father remains a prominent Nashville recording engineer, whose own father founded the country label Chart Records.
Despite Cortney’s country pedigree, the usual trappings of the genre are restrained on this album — a steel guitar here, a banjo there — though a sweet country lilt in her voice creeps in around the edges.
Goth-flavored psychedelia crops up more often. “I fell in love with goth rock at a young age,” she told me by phone. “I was really into Joy Division and Morphine. I’m obsessed with gothic culture in a way.”
As for goth culture, consider this: Her great-grandfather was the caretaker of one of the biggest cemeteries in the state. Her grandmother was born in a cemetery. Cortney learned to drive and lost her virginity in a cemetery. And when her grandmother had a picnic, they would go to the cemetery. She also reports vague memories of the legendary ghost of the Bell Witch. “A couple times I thought she was in my bedroom when I was a girl.”
It may seem odd to juxtapose such darkness and gothic melancholy with country until you consider certain devastating events in her formative years. Cortney’s mother wanted to be a star, and was well on her way. But she was obsessed by music, Cortney says. “It became a negative obsession that drove her mad. I watched that growing up, so it had a big effect on me.”
Her mother’s apparent madness was eventually confirmed as a bipolar disorder, with elements of paranoia. From the time Cortney was five, her mother went to a mental hospital every autumn. Though she loved music and what her mother did, young Cortney believed that it was music itself that made her crazy. She recalls her mother “banging on her piano … playing the saddest songs imaginable. I would awaken most nights to the sound of that piano, and I hated it.”
Cortney did her best to escape. “When hell was going down, I would lock myself in my room and turn up the radio,” she says. In doing so, she discovered rock and roll, and briefly swore off county.
Eventually she came full circle, incorporating goth and many other elements along the way. The song “New Commitment,” Cortney proclaims, is a tribute Joni Mitchell. “The Tide” transforms from a simple soliloquy into a grandly thrumming soundscape reminiscent of Vangelis’ music in Blade Runner.
Some compare her to Bjork. This is most evident on the pensive, free-form pieces such as “Illegal” and “I do not notice,” which express Cortney’s late-night musings and apprehensions.
Themes of falling thread through many of her lyrics, such as “Our Time,” where she sings, “You tumbled out of stars / and we’re on our own in the wilderness of clouds.” She admits to being wary of succumbing to her mother’s fate. “Every day I wake up and think, ‘Oh God, am I sane? Is everything okay?’ ”
Many of the album’s ensemble pieces are accompanied by members of Nashville bands Hands Off Cuba and Lambchop. Singer Kurt Wagner of Lambchop joins Cortney on “Society,” lending a beatnik baritone croon.
Cortney’s husband Todd co-produced the album with her, creating lush, sometimes cavernous atmospheres with found sounds and electronics. This is especially evident in the title track, an interstellar love song about an alien girl falling in love with a boy on Earth. “When I was a little girl, I really studied the stars a lot,” she says. “Every kid goes out and looks at the stars at night, but I probably did it more often. I’m sure it has a lot to do with that, and me feeling isolated from the mainstream.”
The album is full of production surprises, such as the breezy “Pictures on the Sidewalk,” which segues into a wispy a cappella coda, recorded off the cuff late one night on the porch of a house deep in the woods. “We just stuck it on the end — a little ghost voice.”
As my phone interview with Cortney wound down, she apologized for missing my earlier attempt to contact her that day. She was out with her family. “I was actually at the cemetery the first time you called. That’s what we do on Sunday.”
“Don’t Let Stars Keep Us Tangled Up” is available now on Ever Records.
To learn more about Cortney Tidwell, visit http://www.everrecords.com/cortneytidwell_tangledstars/.