Laura Cortese wants her shows to be a safe space for people to feel their feelings.
“When we listen to music, we accept a really wide range of emotion,” Cortese said. “Art is about breaking down those barriers.”
Her concerts with her band The Dance Cards are cathartic experiences.
“If I can get the person who looks the most reserved to cry by the end of the show, I will have done my job,” Cortese said.
She doesn’t want to make people sad. She just wants to give them that release.
“A space I’ve created has allowed a person to let their guard down,” Cortese said. “Instead of being a place where you have to keep it together, you can let it out.”
Although a songwriter pours their heart into their work, it is left incomplete. Only when a listener fills in the gaps with their own emotion is it finished.
“That allows a person to go into their own memory, bring their own experience to the table,” Cortese said.
Sun Valley Museum of Art (SVMoA) artist in residence Laura Cortese & The Dance Cards will perform at The Argyros in Ketchum on Thursday, Jan. 19, at 7:30 p.m.
Despite the folk trio’s arrangements, they allow themselves to improvise on stage.
“Every single night of the show is unique based on the energy we’re getting from the audience—the way they start to respond affects any given arrangement,” Cortese said.
Their elegant orchestrations exist at the crossroads of folk vulnerability and rockstar swagger, of hippy idealism and wry melancholy. “Treat You Better” bounces like a bumblebee pollinating from flower to flower. “Three Little Words” disorients and entices like waking up from a nap on an afternoon in late summertime. “Stockholm” glimmers like sunshine reflected through floating cotton.
It’s string music as you’ve never heard it before.
“The violin is so close to the human voice, which is everyone’s first instrument,” Cortese said. “It can be percussive, it can be lyrical, it can be lush, it can be orchestral, it can be folk, it can be played in jazz. Everyone sort of understands how piano or a guitar works, but there’s mystery in fiddle, and I liked that. There’s so many things that I can’t do on the fiddle. There’s always something that I can learn to do better, always pushing the envelope.”
Instead of a homogenized blend, the violin, cello and bass each have their own distinct textures. The same with their rich harmonies—each voice stands out with their own character and variations.
Chosen for the American Music Abroad Program, the group has traveled Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, India, Bangladesh, Ukraine, Estonia, Montenegro and Greece, representing the U.S. by sharing music and ideas.
“As a musician, there’s always someone that can do something you can’t do. But the thing that we are able to do without fail is connect with the people that show up that night and make a magical thing happen,” Cortese said. “When we start playing one particular tune, everybody starts to groove. When we play another tune, everybody takes a deep breath, closes their eyes and lets the emotion come in.”
Sometimes on tour, she feels like a hamster on a wheel—car to soundcheck to hotel to show to airport. Racing from place to place, she quickly runs out of material.
“When you’re doing that type of touring, it is very easy to forget how each group of people coming together is unique,” shes aid. “Just taking that slightly slower pace and really connecting makes me feel inspired.
“Every new story, every new person that you really connect with gives you something more to write about.”
Residencies like this one with SVMoA allow artists to slow down and take a breath, she said.
“When you actually spend a few days in a town, you see what makes that community thrive,” Cortese said. “What is unique about this place, the local pride in that place.”
During their tenure in the area, the band will work with Blaine County students.
“Educating others reminds you of that initial joy you had, why you got into the fiddle in the first place,” Cortese said. “The curiosity they have reminds you to remain curious. It’s a reality check.”
Cortese grew up going to Celtic music summer camps.
“Instead of just being about reading music or sitting in an orchestra and staring at a music stand it was about people connecting with other people,” Cortese said. “The level of ability on your instrument was not our primary importance. Everyone at any interest level was welcome to be there.”
They would swim and play soccer together while also being deeply immersed in music.
“Having a more full human experience with other people who were excited and passionate about music made me feel a lot more connected to the idea of a community and why I would bother to get better at music,” Cortese said. “I wanted to be a bigger part of this community, as opposed to just playing the piece better.”
Cortese would go on to co-found Miles of Music on a scenic island in New Hamspire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. Back in the day, Ketchum firefighter Tory Canfield attended the summer camp.
It “is nothing short of magic,” Canfield said. “You take a beautiful chunk of nature and add a group of fun, supremely talented and supportive people in a social environment that is inclusive, creative and collaborative; the result is an inspiring, restorative and incredibly fun time that enhances not only your ability to play music but also to envision your best life—a utopian community for a week that feeds your soul for the rest of the year.”
Miles of Music combines traditional repertoire with songwriting lessons.
“If someone has deep roots of knowledge, they can often feel rigid and not free to create something new. They want to honor the tradition,” Cortese said. “Then you also have some writers who are writing every feeling that they have. But they’re not connected to a tradition of storytelling. They don’t know hundreds of years of stories that have been retold and retold.”
When Cortese is writing alone, the best case scenario is that she just keeps saying “yes.” She closes her eyes and visualizes a memory.
“I don’t limit myself, I don’t start editing too soon,” Cortese said.
When writing with a collaborator, she finds it easy to be supportive.
“Just follow that train,” Cortese said. “There’s this regular infusion of energy.”
It’s imperative she stays inspired. In the past, she has found herself bored on tour performing her own material.
“I have gotten to the bottom of what I can get out of the songs, what I want to express,” Cortese said. “It didn’t have enough meaning for me as it once did, I’d moved on with my life. For me, it’s really about creating something new and then going out to share it at regular intervals.”
Recently, she was talking with a student about the idea of staying “hungry” in their work. For a long time, the myth of a “starving artist” perpetuated the toxic notion that creatives need to be unable to pay their bills in order to make great art.
“Actually, people can live a sustainable life and have comfort,” Cortese said. “That hunger has to be a curiosity to experience new things, to go down new roads, to try new forms, to write about a new subject.”
To stay “hungry,” she visits museums displaying modern art, or goes out into nature.
“Then, I pick up my fiddle and write a song. That usually inspires more than listening to albums,” Cortese said.
Once upon a time, she would get so immersed in editing the details of her own music she would critique other songs the same way.
“As I’ve gotten older, I realized that actually, the music I love the most has the most imperfection,” Cortese said.
Her sweet spot is the sound of a band going in the studio to record live before producers had the technology to fix everything.
“You can hear that it’s humans playing that music,” Cortese said. “That’s the stuff I love. I allow myself that same freedom of recapturing a moment of expression. It will be imperfect, but it will have electricity because of the way that it’s being made.” ￼