Courtney Krause is, in my mind, responsible for one of the defining moments in 80/35 history.
The Des Moines Music Coalition’s signature event sells tickets based on the strength of each year’s main stage acts. And while there have been more than a few great performances from acts like the Wu Tang Clan and Flaming Lips, 80/35’s heart and soul has always lived on the free stages, born from Amedeo Rossi’s Rain Man-like ability to suss out great local and regional talent. Weezer sells tickets. Courtney Krause gave people a memory.
It was Friday of the 2016 edition of the event, and Krause had been tapped to kick things off on the Kum and Go stage. Those first crowds always start small, but have a way of growing quickly, especially when the act is good. Krause is very, very good. By the time she’d reached the final songs of her set, there were probably 300 people milling around. That was when she played “I Understand.”
Watching Krause perform the song—any song—is memorable enough on its own. She melds with her guitar with the same kind of passion that Tori Amos used to attack a piano. Krause isn’t full of the same restless, kinetic energy that, say, Bonne Finken brings to the stage, but she definitely gets into what she’s doing, and her guitar headstock moves like a paper airplane on the wind, sometimes dipping down almost to stage level, before swooping back up again in a graceful arc.
But on this day, as the song started, four or five of Krause’s friends started making their way through the crowd, handing out flowers. They didn’t say anything, or at least didn’t have anything planned to say. They just walked between the people listening, handing flowers out. A few people thanked them. But most just took the gift in the same, silent reverie with which they were given and continued to listen to Krause weave her song. Now and then, someone’s eyes would break away from the stage, and glance down at the flower, and to the little card tied to the flower with a piece of twine. Each card had a handwritten note.
“This is better than not feeling anything before...”
Reading it now, if you weren’t there, doesn’t make it sound like you missed much of anything. It was just a shared moment, one of dozens that happen at events like 80/35 all the time. But if you were in that spot at that time, you know exactly what I’m taking about. It wasn’t a moment that changed your perspective on life, or caused anyone to quit drinking, stop stealing from their boss, or treat their spouse any better. It wasn’t life-changing. But it was, nevertheless, one of those deeply special moments that you wouldn’t give back for anything.
That, really, is what Courtney Krause excels at. She never tries to reinvent the wheel, she’s just looking to make those intimate, invaluable, daily connections. And that moment in particular is Krause’s music in a neat little package: Not flashy, but elegant in its plainspoken simplicity; not life-changing, but rather deeply life-affirming. The moment wasn’t spiritual, it was simply beautiful.
Krause’s debut album, “Thoughts and Sound” was one of the best local offerings the year it was released. Since then, it has been topped by—maybe—two or three others. It remains an incredibly well-crafted album and an important piece of the Des Moines music landscape. For her follow-up, Krause has not strayed far from home. The pieces all feel comfortably familiar, but it’s what she’s done with them that illustrates how far the growth spurt has taken her.
Krause has a band now. She’s always had musicians who have played with her, but it was in the time between her last album and her new one that she settled on a lineup of people that she’s comfortable with, who pick up what she’s putting down, and who are willing to get on the same page with her and just play. That simple change has done two big things for her. First, it’s given her sound a more rounded feeling of cohesion. These people are in it for the long haul, and are have committed to being with her day in, day out, show after show. Not having to worry about who your guitar player is going to be next Saturday means that practices are more fluid, and that translates to a more uniform sound from song to song, show to show.
But more importantly, it’s given Krause a greater feeling of confidence. This is her band. They perform under her name, and play her songs. That can be a very difficult thing for a young, inexperienced artist to fully grasp and be comfortable with. Go ask Finken.
On her new single, “Tongue Tied,” Krause finds herself in a similar emotional and creative place as Finken did when she released 2014’s “Fairytales/Love Affairs,” the album that has thus far been Finken’s creative high water mark, and that vaulted her to regular rotation on college radio. Krause’s sound is about as far from Finken’s as you can get, but the results could be very much the same.
Not one to be on the lookout for a pop smash or “next big thing” status, Krause has viewed her music as a kind of emotional jigsaw puzzle. One where her words and her listener’s emotions are the component pieces. All she’s doing is looking for where the bumps and curves line up, and looking to make a match. The more matches she can make—the more people her music directly connects with—the bigger and more complex the final picture. To that end, “Tongue Tied” might create her largest tapestry yet.
“Thoughts and Sound” had an approachability to it that was largely a product of how genuine and unassuming Krause herself was. Combine that with her voice, which is one of the sweetest in the city, and you have the makings for a solid album. But where “Tongue Tied” ups the ante is in that previously mentioned level of confidence. Everything about this new single is a step above even her best work on “Thoughts and Sound.” The songwriting feels more fluid and even more honest. The music is fuller. The vocals...lordy, the vocals. Krause never tried to do too much with her voice, and was always happy to live within her range. Nothing about that has changed, but “Tongue Tied” showcases just what an extra couple of years and a little more self-belief can do for a person; you can feel the longing in these lyrics. Her voice has progressed, to steal a phrase from the writing biz, from telling to showing. You could play this song to someone who doesn’t speak a lick of English, and they’ll know in their bones what she’s singing about.
That ache, and the ability to tap into it, is what makes Krause something special. It’s that ache that makes songs like “Hardwood Floors,” off “Thoughts and Sound,” and “Tongue Tied” hit people they way they do. It’s that ache that makes people hit play again and again, until they know a song so thoroughly, they hear it in their dreams.
“Courtney Krause crafts some of the most genuine lyrics I’ve heard in the Des Moines music scene,” said DMMC Outreach Coordinator Lindsay Keast. “Her songs are unpredictable and familiar all in the same beat. Easily one of the most authentic artists I’ve had the pleasure of working with in Des Moines.”
You can’t teach authenticity. It can only be learned through time and life and loss and the confidence to tap into all of it with intention.
Courtney Krause has already given people moments they will not forget. And she’s just getting started.
Listen to "Tongue Tied" now: