If Martin Courtney appears uneasy in the video for “Northern Highway,” it’s not because it was his first video as a solo artist. It’s because the Real Estate singer was in danger of being arrested if he spent too much time on it.
Pulling over on a median of the Taconic State Parkway in an attempt to marry images with the song’s title, Courtney and crew drew the attention of the New York State Police, who told them they couldn’t film there. One of the directors appealed to reason and the cops let them do one quick run-through of the song.
“That whole first shot of the video, there’s cars driving by, and just next to the camera there’s two state troopers standing there, and I’m trying to lip-sync,” he says. “It was extremely awkward. And then I obviously forgot to take my phone out of my pocket and then that’s the first shot.”
It’s not just the mild frustration regarding a discernible rectangular protrusion in his jeans that suggests Courtney is the type of person who likes to take his time. It took him a year-and-a-half to make Many Moons, his full length debut under his own name, which came out late last month, but it took him a lot longer to decide he was even going to make it.
His Real Estate band mates Matt Mondanile and Alex Bleeker had already been releasing music outside of the band since 2009, in the side projects Ducktails and Alex Bleeker and the Freaks, respectively, so in a year that was going to see albums from both of those entities, Courtney realized it was about time. Fittingly, Many Moons is all about time. It’s right there in the title. When he’s not wistfully remembering bygone days, he’s expressing trepidation for the future, sometimes even within the same song.
“Freaks and friends that I once knew, will they smile like they used to?” he sings in “Vestiges.”
“That’s not necessarily directed at Bleeker, or his band,” Courtney insists. “It’s just about friends in general.”
Real Estate is definitely still a going concern, says Courtney. In fact, the band will reconvene early next year to record a follow-up to 2014’s Atlas, and Courtney says the band’s most recent tours were spent workshopping each other’s solo efforts.
“We were all kind of listening to our mixes and working on lyrics and stuff, while we were traveling and touring together with Real Estate, and we were just playing our songs for each other and getting each other’s feedback on stuff,” he says.
The music on Many Moons is cleaner, quieter and strummier than Real Estate releases. The chord progressions guide the melodies, and there’s introspection that can only come with age. He says a number of contributing factors led to this, most notably, the birth of his daughter in 2014. “There’s kind of a clear demarcation because we finished writing all the songs for Atlas, and then I found out I was going to be a dad, and then I started writing these songs,” says Courtney. “Some of them were written before she was born; some of them were written after, but I knew that I was going to have a kid pretty much the whole time I was writing all of these songs.”
So does his daughter like these tunes? “She says, ‘Da-da’s song!’ all the time,” he reports proudly. “All she wants to do is listen to my record. It’s really awesome, but I don’t even want to listen to my music that much. But she’s constantly asking for it.”
Another recent change Courtney has made is to leave Brooklyn for the town of Beacon, upstate. Like most of his decisions, he thought about it for many moons. “I was living in Williamsburg for three years, and I think after the first year I was already pretty sick of it,” he says. “We had a one-bedroom railroad-style apartment, with no doors, so it was basically like we were living in a hallway, and now we’ve got a three-bedroom house with two floors and a big backyard, so it’s pretty insane. It’s great!”
On Friday, Courtney will make that 90-minute drive down the Taconic State Parkway, past the site where he was immortalized with a phone imprint in his pocket, to play Brooklyn again.
“I often think, ‘That shot was cool,’” he says, “and then I’ll pass by another spot and think, ‘That shot would have been cooler there.’”
Next time, he’ll take more time.
As for the show itself, he’ll be joined by players who he isn’t able to bring on his West Coast dates, including a flutist and string section, to fill out Many Moons lush, soft sound.
“We’re going to have strings and the full band,” says Courtney, excitedly. “We’re putting a lot of time into it.”
Martin Courtney plays National Sawdust on November 20.