INTERVIEW: Dayna Kurtz grows her American roots in New Orleans

Dayna Kurtz, the singer-songwriter from New Orleans, has had a busy few months. She has been touring night after night and recently released her new album with Robert Mache, a live CD called Here Vol. 1. She’ll also play the New Orleans Magazine Cabaret Stage at Palm Court Jazz Cafe during this year’s French Quarter Festival. She’s scheduled to play 2 p.m. Friday, April 7.

Her partnership with Mache has been a fruitful one, and she often tours and gigs with him around New Orleans. “I had started touring with my friend, Robert Mache, who I’ve known for a very long time, but we only started playing together a few years ago,” Kurtz said recently in a phone interview. “The shows were just so beautiful. We have a really nice chemistry, and he’s such a lovely player. And we developed this kind of simpatico, and I wanted some kind of record of it really.”

That’s how Here Vol. 1 came about. The live album features songs such as “Fred Astaire,” “I’ll Be a Liar,” “Billboards for Jesus” and “Love Gets in the Way.” The two trade off on vocals and guitar playing, combining their efforts into one amalgam of smooth sounds and deep-down, bluesy bellowing.

“One of the reasons that I love playing with Robert so much is that it’s so loose,” Kurtz said. “Every night we just sort of play what we felt like playing, and we do that. It’s like the ease of a solo gig without the regimentation you need with a band. When you play with a full band, you can’t make up the set list as you go along. It’s too hard.”

Kurtz has toured solo, toured with a band and toured with Mache. The decision to go in one direction or another is as much a creative one as it is a financial one. To bring an entire band together behind her guitar playing and powerful voice can be a difficult monetary proposition.

“It’s like how much are the gigs paying me, and how much do I need,” she said. “It’s very much a financial decision, which is why I started touring with Robert in the first place. I was really enjoying playing with a band, but I just couldn’t afford to take four guys on the road. And I really like playing as a duo. … Touring alone is lonely. I did it for very many years, and I got a lot out of it. But I’m over it.”

Kurtz said New Orleans is a wellspring of musicianship, if one is the right type of musician. She reasoned that a lot of the bands in New York City wouldn’t necessarily make it in the Crescent City because NOLA calls for a specific kind of musician. “Basically if you play American roots music, it’s just one of those places that’s just very inspiring,” she said. “Austin is like that.”

Music has always been a part of Kurtz’s life, although she was not raised in a musical family. She remembers that her grandmother and grandmother’s sisters played music. Kurtz herself wanted to be a musician ever since she was young, but she was a “late bloomer” as far as finding her style.

“I knew what I wanted to be, but I knew how far away I was from it,” she said. “I don’t think I wrote really good songs consistently until I was in my late 20s.”

Today, she plays a host of venues in New Orleans and around the world. One look at her calendar, and it becomes clear that her sound is versatile to many different stages. Other than French Quarter Fest, she’ll play SideBar Nola, Buffa’s and Three Muses, all in New Orleans. She’ll also play the Winter Palace on Marais Street with her new blues band, Lulu and the Broadsides. So perhaps the life of a duo artist or solo artist is not wholly permanent.

“I love the sound of being in a packed rock club,” she said. “That’s actually one of my favorites. Sometimes a theater can give you a really beautiful, heady performance if it’s a really great theater, but … there’s a certain kind of rock club that I love to play. But the fact that they don’t happen very often actually makes it more special. I like the variety of the sorts of gigs I do. I like how some of them are really small and intimate, and some of them are larger. And sometimes I open up for other people, and it’s a large crowd. But it’s not my large crowd, which has its own difficulties and rewards, trying to win people over or trying to cross a bridge between your music and theirs, which is a lot of what being an opening act is, and I did that for a long time.”

The calendar is solidly packed, and the recording continues from Kurtz. But the music industry has changed dramatically since she started this profession and fed her passion. She does not mince words about the difficulty of being a gigging artist.

“It’s particularly bad,” she said. “I mean, I’ve been in the music business for a long time scraping by. Scraping by is a different thing now. I mean, it is for everybody. Like everybody is working for longer hours for fewer benefits and rewards. It’s part of the American condition for most of us, but musicians were always on the edge anyway. So I know a lot of people who quit. It’s actually pretty hard to be a musician right now. I’m doing OK, but nobody’s selling records. Nobody’s buying records anymore. That really was what made it. Our publishing royalties was what kept us alive, and streaming has ruined that. So it’s killed the livelihood of a lot of great artists.”

Even though record sales have dropped in the industry, Kurtz finds it important to master her sound in the studio and continue releasing new material.

“It’s important for me artistically,” she said. “I like to have some sort of record of where I’m at, and I love studio craft. I love being in the studio. I love playing live, but I love playing in the studio, too. And I love writing. … I don’t explore in the studio. I don’t have home recording equipment, so I go in the studio when I’ve got the songs. I write the songs, a combination of getting sick of what I’ve already written and wanting something else to play live. … You start to get mad at yourself if you’re not doing something new and interesting. I think that’s what makes artists artists is we’re really easily bored.”

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Dayna Kurtz will play this year’s French Quarter Festival. She’s scheduled to play 2 p.m. Friday, April 7 on the New Orleans Magazine Cabaret Stage at Palm Court Jazz Cafe. Click here for more information.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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