Courtney Yasmineh’s musical career has been anything but typical. After taking a decade-long break from music, Yasmineh eased back into music in the late 2000s and has already written and recorded four albums, the latest of which she’ll celebrate tonight with a release show at Bunker’s. And though she still manages to fly under the radar here in Minneapolis, the hard-touring artist has made seven treks abroad to tour Europe in the past three years alone.
Sitting for an interview at the historical Brewhouse Recording Studio where she tracked her new album, Wake Me Up When It’s Over, Yasmineh speaks quietly and rapidly, leaning toward me as if she’s letting me in her secrets. Her voice has a rough edge to it but it softens as she reflects back on life spent in, around, and away from music; somehow, as she speaks, she manages to come across as both vulnerable and tough.
“I love this story,” she says, her eyes lighting up as she spins another yarn. “And all of these years, I haven’t told it because I felt more ashamed about it. But then people started saying ‘This is your story. It would help people understand.’”
Yasmineh’s remembering back to how she first arrived in Minnesota from Chicago, where she was born and raised. As a teenager, she says she only knew two things about our fair state to the north: that her older brother had recently moved here to attend Carleton College in Northfield, and that her late Swedish grandfather owned a cabin up north of the Iron Range.
“So,” she begins. “My father got in trouble; he was a stockbroker kind of guy. I was 16 at the time, and I already was a musician; I sang in the church choir, I wrote songs, I had a guitar, I played the flute, I played the piccolo, I did all kinds of stuff. And with my parents, everything got really bad—it fell apart, completely—and I stole my dad’s Jaguar and I drove 13 hours to northern Minnesota to my grandpa’s cabin up in the Boundary Waters. I drove up there and the place was deserted, but I knew some people up there that had known my grandpa, so I went up there and was like, ‘I’m going to live up here and play in the bars.’
“I was really into Bob Dylan, and I knew he was from there, and I got these recordings of Bob Dylan on these little cassettes and I played them on this dictation machine that was my grandpa’s in the cabin, and I learned all of Bob Dylan’s songs,” she continues. “I went to the high school there in Tower, Minnesota, and I told them I had just moved up there with my family and we were living on Lake Vermilion. I was going to be a senior, and so I just signed up. The school bus for the Indian reservation didn’t come all the way down to my cabin, so they said I could just walk a mile to get to the bus—it was literally like a ‘walk a mile in the snow’ story.”
As the deep winter chill set in, though, things got harder for Yasmineh. The pipes in her grandfather’s cabin froze and soon she found herself without running water, with only a small wood-burning stove to keep her warm.
“In the middle of the winter, two things happened,” she says. “One thing is that, one morning I was waiting for the bus, and the bus driver came down the spooky little freezing cold road, and you’d get on the bus and have to pull ice chunks out of your eyes because it’s 40 below. And at this point I’d cut off all my hair because I didn’t have any water, and I was wearing this red long underwear that I’d been wearing now for months under my down coat and my down vest and my jeans and my boots. I get on the bus and the bus driver’s like, ‘Courtney, I want to talk to you.’ And I’m like, ‘What can I do for you?’ And he’s like, ‘My wife had a baby last night.’ And I’m like ‘Good for you.’ I just wanted to go sit down. And he says, ‘I wanted to tell you this: I’ve been driving down here every morning, and I always say you’re not going to be here; there’s no way she’ll be here, it’s too cold. And I’ve been telling my wife about you. And we had a baby, and it’s a girl, and we named her Courtney.’ And he said, ‘I felt inspired by what you’re doing.’”
Yasmineh pauses, her voice breaking. She shakes her head in disbelief, and then goes on.
“And then the principal of the school called me in the office, and I went in there and the principal said, ‘You should go to college.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, just forget about it.’ I was just like, I don’t even need to do that; I don’t care. And he was like, ‘Well, you have good transcripts from Chicago, and I know your parents aren’t out there. I know you’re there by yourself.’ And I was like, ‘Ok, whatever.’ And he was like, ‘I’ve seen you sneak in and take a shower in the gym.’ And I was like, ‘Ok, whatever.’ And he was like, ‘I know this man who’s from up here who’s the head of the English department at Macalester college, so you’ll go to St. Paul, and you’ll go interview with this guy, and I think he can get you a scholarship.’”
Though Yasmineh was hesitant, she eventually agreed to accept a Greyhound bus ticket from the principal and made the journey down to St. Paul to check out Macalester. At this point in the story, she starts laughing. “I still had the red long underwear on, and the down vest, and the down coat, and my hair all chopped off myself,” she remembers. “And I go in, and I meet the guy who’s the head of the English department, and he’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve heard a lot about you, tell me about yourself,’ and I put my feet up on his desk. I remember that to this day. I was just acting like I was a badass, like yeah, I just keep the wood stove going, it’s no big deal. And he said, ‘Don’t worry dear, everything’s going to be all right.’
“And I remember that he said that to me and I got super shook up, because I was trying to act like it was no big deal, and he had decided that it was, that it was really sad. And I didn’t want it to be like that. And then he put his arm around me and he was like, ‘We’re going to walk down to the financial aid office together, and everything’s going to be all right.’ And I couldn’t handle it. No one had ever talked to me like that. No one was nice to me like that. So we went to the financial aid office, and the ladies were the exact same way, and they gave me the full scholarship.”
Now in her 40s, Yasmineh looks back on that period of her life with a bittersweet sense of nostalgia. The time she spent living up on the Iron Range offered her some of her first opportunities to play in bands and test out her songwriting chops, but in the years that followed she went down a more conventional path, graduating from Macalester with a creative writing degree and getting married a short while later. Reflecting back on her life after college, she laughs that she “spent many, many years just trying to be a practical, regular person. And it didn’t really work. I just got weirder and weirder!”
Yasmineh found her way back to music in 2004, when she released the acoustic folk album Early Days. Since then, she’s worked worked closely with Rob Genadek at the Brewhouse Recording Studio to transition away from her singer-songwriter origins and claim the role as the frontperson of a rock ‘n’ roll band. Wake Me Up When It’s Over is easily her most upbeat, rocking record yet, and her steely voice is buoyed by smoldering guitar riffs, funky electro beats, and a full horn section.
“It was really bumming me out that I was making alt-country records,” Yasmineh says. “I like that stuff too—I mean, Bob Dylan is my one and only hero. And I love Nancy Griffith, I love Emmylou Harris. And I totally model my career after Nancy Griffith touring Europe. But the stuff I like to listen to, like Lorde, and modern pop—I just wanted it to be more fun. This is all about having fun.”
And now, having fun seems to be what Yasmineh’s career is all about. She brings her band overseas a few times a year to tour Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.K., and thinks that her album-release show at Bunker’s tonight will be one of her most exciting hometown shows yet.
“I used to say that it would be crazy to do it at all, at my age,” she says. “But now I say that we’ve come so far that it would be crazy to stop.”
The Courtney Yasmineh Band will play an album-release show at Bunker’s tonight, Friday, October 18, with support from Lolo’s Ghost, the Changeups, and Tim Houlihan.