INTERVIEW: Courtney Lavender Introduces Xs & ARROWs

Interview by Jessica Klausing

Xs & ARROWs (from left: Courtney Lavender, Pam Bluestein, and Susan Peterson). Photo by Zoran Orlic.

Xs & ARROWs (from left: Courtney Lavender, Pam Bluestein, and Susan Peterson). Photo by Zoran Orlic.

 Xs & ARROWs are about to take over the Los Angeles music scene. You may remember the band, formerly known as EXIT, joining U2 on stage in 2001 and again in 2005 at the Staples Center for a legendary performance of “Out of Control.” The trio consists of Courtney Lavender (lead vocals, guitar, and piano), Susan Peterson (bass), and Pam Bluestein (drums).

Xs & ARROWs offer a unique acoustic rock soundscape that seems to marry the California desert to the spirit of Ireland.Their debut EP, From Here will be available in October 2017. The new single, “Questions,” featuring Irish musician Glen Hansard, is currently available to stream on Soundcloud.

Courtney Lavender took time ahead of the release to chat about her band’s music roots, joining Bono on stage, and working with The Frames’ Glen Hansard.

How is Xs & ARROWs different from the previous project, EXIT?

Courtney: In a way Xs & ARROWS is a continuation of EXIT, in that the band is still made up of myself, Susan, and Pam, but in another way, it's a slight deviation. We had a few singers over the years who contributed to the writing process and fronted the band, but now that it’s just the three of us, the seeds of the songs mainly come from me, and I'm singing. This has naturally progressed - perhaps to suit my voice - into a quieter, more acoustic vibe. 

What inspired the band's Irish rock roots?

Courtney: Susan was into U2 from an early age, and got me into them shortly after we met, right at the start of 1997. I made a U2 mixtape for Pam and passed it to her in history class. She loved it and immediately started drum lessons. I posted on a U2 message board looking for singers, and we met our first singer, Nikki. The four of us shared a passion for U2's music, and learned to play together by playing their songs. This became our foundation, our reference point, as we later branched out and began writing music.

In 2002-2003 I started meeting people in Dublin who exposed me to other Irish artists, including The Frames and Bell X1. I would share this music with the others and I think it influenced all of us, but probably me most intensely. I absolutely fell in love with The Frames [Glen Hansard's band]. 

What is your songwriting process?

Courtney: Most often I will present an idea to the others, and we will flesh it out as a group. Sometimes we will still jam something out spontaneously that I will later write over, which is how we used to operate in the past. Other times Pam will contribute melody and lyric ideas that I will build upon. There then is a lot of teeth-gnashing and hair-ripping, a lot of working and re-working -- you know, the usual artistic process! 

Do you come across any challenges as a multi-instrumentalist in the group?

Courtney: It’s a technical hindrance when gigging, since not all venues will have pianos, and switching instruments between songs can potentially interrupt the flow of a set. Sometimes I miss just playing guitar and not worrying about singing! 

Tell me about the time Bono pulled you up on stage?

Courtney: When U2 played at the Staples Center in LA in November 2005, Susan made a sign that said THE GIRLS PLAY ROCK N ROLL, hoping we'd get pulled on stage as a band. Bono had brought another group on stage that tour, and since I'd been on stage in 2001 to play guitar, and Pam and I had been on stage a few months previous to help Bono hold a giant banner, she saw it as her chance to join in on the fun. It worked!

Bono is great with faces and remembered me as a guitarist, which may have helped (and is amazing in itself). They turned their instruments over to us, and we played a song from their first record called “Out of Control.” Within a few seconds of the opening riff, Edge jumped up to grab a guitar, and Bono was joining in with our then-singer, Trevi. It was an insanely magical moment that I'll remember forever.

What was it like working with Glen Hansard? Tell me about his involvement on your new single, "Questions."

Courtney: I've known Glen for years, and he is an innately generous soul. He happened to be in LA just after I'd put down the final vocal for that song. I'd been thinking from the start it would need some harmonies, and it occurred to me, rather cheekily, to simply ask him. I could hear his voice perfectly on the track; it just seemed to fit. He said yes without even hearing the song, and built it up fuller than I ever imagined it could sound, purely on the spot. It was surprising and impressive to watch him work, and such an absolute joy. 

What inspired you to become a musician?

Courtney: I have a distinct memory of watching my mom play The Beatles' “Blackbird” on guitar around age 8 or 9 and yearning to be able to do it myself. My dad played the drums and would have some friends over occasionally to jam, and this also would excite me. Music, for me, felt like a life force even as a small child, so it was the obvious way to turn. The Beatles were the catalyst. The first thing I properly learned to play on guitar, age 13, was “Blackbird.”

Tell me about the new EP?

Courtney: We're very excited to be putting out these songs. It's been a long time coming. A couple of the
tunes I've had around for years while the band went through different formations, and it's finally
time for them to show their face. We feel that as a trio we've been distilled down to our creative
essence. As someone who prefers the sidelines to the limelight, it's a leap for me to be releasing
such personal material that I never intended to be heard. But I think that rawness is what most
people - including me - look for in any art form. All we can do, as creative beings, as humans, is
show ourselves honestly and hope we are received.