Laura Cortese has always been a prolific performer. She’s released several solo projects — Simple Hearts, All in Always, Acoustic Project, Two Amps 1 Microphone, Hush, Blow the Candle Out, Into the Dark, Even the Lost Creek — as well as an album under the aegis of The Poison Oaks prior to connecting with the Dance Cards, with whom she recorded 2017’s California Calling. With the pending release of the band’s sophomore set, Bitter Better, her creative energies remain fully fueled and ready to be rekindled.
Born in San Francisco, Cortese attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, and became a staple of the New England traditional music scene. Over the course of her early career, she performed with Tao Rodriguez-Seeger as part of the Anarchist Orchestra, as well as with Uncle Earl, Band of Horses, the late Pete Seeger, and Hanneke Cassel and Lissa Schneckenburger. The Dance Cards became an extension of those earlier endeavors while also providing a new direction for her at the same time. The band consists of several singing string players — Cortese (vocals, fiddle), Valeries Thompson (cello, harmonies), Zoe Guigueno (bass, guitar, harmonies), Sumaia Jackson (fiddle, banjo, harmonies), Jenna Moynihan (fiddle, harmonies), Jeni Magana (harmonies, guitar, bass), Sam Kassirer (production, piano, synths, keyboards, D. James Goodwin (drums, percussion) — who drive the sound through their imaginative arrangements, precise precision and close-knit ethereal harmonies.
As the band’s website states so succinctly, “It’s not a string band, not a string quartet, not an indie band, but somehow all of those at once, all while staying firmly rooted an identity of folk instrumentalists.” The new album lives up to that description, thanks to a series of enticing tunes that charm the listener through easy, breezy serenades that are plucked, picked, and strummed.
“The Dance Cards grew out of an experimental period in my career about ten years ago,” Cortese explains. “I decided to do a series of projects that featured various collaborations, including one with my string playing pals from fiddle camp called The Acoustic Project, and one with my vocal pals from the songwriter scene in Boston called Simple Heart. As I started to tour behind The Acoustic Project, I realized that having strings as the main engine behind original songs felt authentic to my story as a fiddler. I was very inspired by Simple Heart as well, so I decided to combine the two concepts. Having strings and intriguing vocal parts felt like a great palette for years of exploration. The players ebb and flow like any good collective, but creativity and collaboration is always a central goal.”
Cortese, who now resides in Ghent, Belgium along with her husband, absorbed a myriad of influences while growing up, most of which were gleaned from her parents’ record collection. She cites such artists as Otis Redding, Alasdair Fraser, Bill Withers, The Sundays, Bruce Molsky, Ray Charles, U2, and The Bangles as having the most profound effect. “It was eclectic,” she says. “Staying true to those influences is more about excavating the residue of all those influences and seeing what new inextricable mix they’ve created somewhere inside me,” she suggests. “Most of us in the band have had experience with traditional Scottish, Irish and English folk music and song, as well as Appalachian old-time or bluegrass music. We all have our contemporary music favorites and guilty pleasures. As an experienced player or listener in any of those traditional genres, you can hear where the influences are combining. Still, at this point, each player has a distinct personal style that is a unique mix of their particular influences.”
That said, Cortese explains that the songs on the new album evolved out of a conversation she had with producer Sam Kassirer prior to pre-production. “Things felt pretty dark and stressful in the world, and I wanted our concerts and our album to feel like a release from that,” she reflects. “I didn’t want to shy away from writing about difficult topics, but I wanted the music to make you move. So we decided to focus on songs that would take well to strong grooves and bass lines. I had a prolific songwriting burst over the last couple of years. In the end, I sent around 40 songs and snippets to Sam. He sent back ideas for loops and soundscapes. In some cases, he was drawn to a song that was only a snippet of a melody or one line, and I set out to finish writing them.”
In February, 2019, Kassirer and several members of the band members went to Belgium to visit Cortese and plot their next move. “We had a pre-production retreat where we expanded the soundscape to the strings,” she explains. “We sat around cowriting some of the songs that weren’t entirely done, while drinking Belgian beer and eating great bread and cheese. When everyone went home, Sam and I continued to send ideas back and forth. I also continued to cowrite remotely with some band members on anything that didn’t feel complete. I ended up writing at least one more song before everyone reassembled in Belgium in April to record here at Motor Music in Mechelen.”
Indeed, Cortese was determined to reflect themes that could complement the music while also digging deeper. “It’s about staying open and letting the songs lead and figuring out the story that feels most authentic, but also challenges both the band and the listener to grow a bit,” she maintains. “But it has to feel good. Even if that means it’s a good cry.”
Indeed, the new album marks a significant evolution from the band’s initial offering California Calling, which consisted of songs she either wrote or selected on her own, which the band then helped arrange. “Sonically, it was more about four people playing music in the same room with a few extra textural overdubs,” she recalls. “With Bitter Better, most of the arrangements began with a central instrument, riff or groove, and we built the textures around it. It felt more collaborative and creative from the cowriting through to the arranging.”
For Cortese and her crew, that means staying true to the music’s roots while also attempting to push a few parameters. “I make an effort not to make concessions of any kind beyond authenticity to the creative process,” Cortese insists. “I would say our most considerable overlap with bluegrass is that we are all devoted to singable songs and strong instrumentalism.”