by Alexandra Hall
When people think about Colorado, they usually think of three things. Weed, mountains, and altitude. I’m proposing a fourth defining characteristic: Sturtz.
Although a small acoustic band from Boulder might not be as big a splash in the water as say, the Rocky Mountains, the group’s talent should make any Colorado native glow with pride. Sturtz is your new favorite band that you’ve never heard of.
Composed of Andrew Sturtz (vocals, guitar), Jim Herlihy (banjo), Courtlyn Carpenter (cello), and Will Kuepper (bass), the Boulder-based group formally established itself with their first record, You’ve Done This Before, which was released on August 15th. You’ve Done This Before is a collection of twelve songs beautifully wound together to build an album that displays Sturtz’s magic.
The debut is stunning. But let’s take it back.
The first time I saw Sturtz perform, it was accidental. I was at a Sofar Sounds show to see another artist, and I just ended up sticking around after his set in the rich Denver couple’s backyard. Wine moms and well-off Denver liberals alike composed the majority of the audience. Without the single sheet of copy paper advertising the Sofar Sounds show, you’d probably be alarmed at the number of people sneaking into a stranger’s backyard. Picnic blankets, portable coolers, and linen shirts were scattered on the lawn around the makeshift stage. If you’ve been to enough crusty concert venues in which you’ve felt your safety and sanity jeopardized by seven-dollar bottles of water and men who mosh to soft indie rock, the calmness of this scene is probably just as bizarre to you as it was to me.
Let me tell you, the wine moms knew what was up.
Sturtz was the last artist of the evening. The quartet mounted the stage that was completely naked to all audience members. There were no curtains or a backstage other than an enclosed porch about thirty feet away from the lawn. As the sun began to set behind the group, the October coolness fell like a blanket over the audience. And just when I began to feel uncomfortably cold, the group began. Instead of getting chills from Sturtz’s immediate grip on their listeners, I was overwhelmed by a sense of warmth. I felt my jaw release a bit and looked at my best friend next to me to make sure I hadn’t accidentally taken a drug that made even nails on a chalkboard sound like a symphony. But alas, everyone seemed to be under the same spell as I was.
I’ve been under this spell ever since that night. Most anyone I’ve shown the group too has had a similar experience, especially those diehard fans of Gregory Alan Isakov and the Lumineers, two other Colorado staples. Sturtz has a similar, acoustic-based style with a heavy emphasis on lyricism and a warm sonic experience.
Cellist Courtyln Carpenter commented on what gives Sturtz such a memorable sound, “I think our poetry really comes from our melodies. Andrew writes the lyrics, but we often have an idea of the melodies before.”
The combination of melody and lyrics is nothing groundbreaking, but Sturtz reaches beyond the low-hanging fruit of catchy but vapid rhymes. Having written songs his whole life and played solo at various open mics across the country, Andrew Sturtz found his songwriting a home within this quartet. The group’s chemistry is so alive and connected that it’s almost as if they’re all individual strings on the same instrument. Andrew Sturtz describes his songwriting process as a snapshot style of writing.
“I try to look at someone else’s journey from a neutral, outside perspective.” Sturtz said. “Whether it’s a friend or a friend of a friend, I attempt to capture that story differently.”
“Carnival,” is a perfect example of this snapshot style. It details a story about a friend of a friend’s experience with a Halloween party gone awry. Sturtz made his friend write parts of this story down on a napkin before he parted and wrote the song. A melancholic tale of an alcohol-induced betrayal and the feelings it leaves with those involved leaves listeners resonating with the song even after it’s over. Sturtz can tell a story in all honesty while not stripping any of its beauty away. In a time where the present feels far from beautiful, Sturtz’s work is grounding.
Will Kuepper, the bassist of the quartet commented on what it meant to shift from a classical musician to a more contemporary player, “I had to learn how to focus on connecting rather than perfecting the music, which is what I had done for so many years.”
Sturtz doesn’t strive for perfection and in fact, falls entirely short of it. Their sound focuses on the confusion, the complications, and the candid aspects of adult life. No character or storyline features a perfect person who seems to have everything sorted out. It is in this lostness and imperfection that Sturtz’s true power for creation flourishes in the form of authenticity.
In 2020, Sturtz was featured on NPR’s All Things for their performance of “Southern Night,” a somber tune about the desire to feel complete. The lyrics explore a general apathy for life that seems to come every so often. Emphasis is put on getting through the day and feeling distraught about past decisions. Sturtz expertly winds each of their moving parts into a lovely narrative that commiserates with the listener in the verses and consoles them with the choruses. The song opens with, “Let time slip away/ With my petty job and the love I let fade,” and you know you’re in for a good cry.
“The new album is still sad in tone, but it’s reflective,” Sturtz said. “There’s a song for everybody on it, so hopefully it is a sample of what we’re about.”
Although the majority of the album is similar to the themes and tone of “Southern Night,” You’ve Done This Before features a few more light-hearted and upbeat tunes like “Eleanor,” a song with rich harmonies and a tempo that’ll have both feet tapping. “Quarter Life Crisis,” is another upbeat tune and is a staple of the group’s live performances.
Back in June of this year, I was able to see Sturtz again at the Denver Botanical Gardens. Carpenter and Sturtz were the only two there from the quartet, but I was yet again blessed with the sight of watching strangers fall in love with the group and what they had to offer. I found myself watching audience members and trying to relive what it was like to hear Sturtz for the first time. As beautiful as You’ve Done This Before is, I envy those who have yet to hear these songs before. Sturtz is an invitation to sincerity and all things beautiful and imperfect. Consider this a more forceful invitation, maybe a passive-aggressive text to remember to RSVP to this event. It’s one you won’t want to miss.
Until next time,