The words “light” and “dark” come up a lot in conversation with Kerry Courtney.
And, if you’ve listened to the St. Petersburg-based singer-songwriter’s music, they’re themes you can clearly pick up on.
It’s been a while since the world has heard from Courtney. In 2016, he stunned judges Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. on Season 15 of American Idol. He made it to Hollywood but didn’t get too far in the show. Still, it was enough, he said. Courtney performed a hauntingly soulful version of Death Cab for Cutie’s Black Sun that spawned its own covers and even drew attention from the band’s singer, Ben Gibbard.
The show’s judges were at a loss for words. Combined with unique vocal stylings and performing in an almost trancelike state, Connick said he felt like he had just watched an interesting piece of art. Lopez thought he was scary and beautiful, an unintentionally apt description of Courtney’s sound.
“I don’t know how America will respond to it, because it does get a little bit dark and a little scary at times,” she said on the show. “But the sound of your voice was very beautiful.”
Ready or not, Courtney is back, America. He released his first official single since appearing on the show, Wes Anderson, last fall and has another, Sweetheart, rolling out on Valentine’s Day. His debut solo album, Mother Moon, will come out later this year.
“This record is going to take me to the next level. I feel it,” he said. “In all my years, I’ve never felt such a such a strong pull where it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s coming.’ Something big is coming.”
Courtney, and his fans, have been waiting long enough. His American Idol appearance brought him worldwide attention. But it’s been nearly four years. Scouts and managers he met at the time told him he needed to capitalize on the exposure to launch a career a la other famous contestants who didn’t win, like Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert, Chris Daughtry and more. Still, he has managed to hold onto much of his fan base, still communicating with people who found him through social media after he was on the show.
His acoustic-driven style mixes chamber pop with indie-folk vibes and evokes a visceral honesty that doesn’t communicate sadness or angst, but deals with the duality of living and the struggle to find peace in the darkness and the light and hope through struggle. That, he said, is part of how people who’ve found him identify and connect with his sound and keep coming back through the years.
Home in St. Pete, Courtney, 29, has been a fixture of the local music scene for nearly 15 years — first, with his band, Goodnight Neverland, and now as a solo performer. He’s been plugging away, working on music and playing shows where he can whether it’s in the back of hip hangouts like the Bends or opening sold-out shows at Jannus Live for national acts.
“His talent and kindness shines through in his music,” said Kristin Stigaard, marketing director for local concert promoters No Clubs. “He is always willing to do a performance to help someone fill a spot, no matter what the opportunity, and, since working with him, I’ve seen him grow to be a highly requested musician, headlining or otherwise.”
Stigaard said she met Courtney when she booked his old band for a show at the now-defunct venue Local 662 and could feel something different about him.
“After seeing Kerry perform live for the first time I knew there was something special about him,” she said. “He’s honest and down to earth, so I’ve never felt like I was being used for my connections as a promoter.”
Now, No Clubs and partners Daddy Kool Records are helping Courtney promote and release his new album. He’s also got a spot at the Gasparilla Music Festival next month and tours with major acts in the works.
The years between his American Idol appearance and now have been filled with work, growth and struggles with physical and mental health that set back releasing music but allowed for artistic growth, Courtney said. It’s also given him freedom to perform as a solo act in control of the music and where and when he plays. The Goodnight Neverland days are behind him, but he’s still friends with his former bandmates, brothers Jeremy and Jordan Tellone, who even perform on the new album.
Thematically, his songs have begun to move away from the loss of his mother to cancer at a young age, which shaped much of his early development, to the new sorrows and losses he’s faced as an adult, like a throat surgery that affected his voice and major surgery from second- and third-degree burns to his legs after spilling a pot of boiling water while recovering from the throat surgery.
He has also quit drinking as he continues to battle with anxiety and isolating depression that he said sometimes make him feel like he doesn’t “belong on this planet.” It all comes through in the music.
“I’ve experienced greater sorrows since (his mother’s) passing that have inspired the bits of darkness and light you might hear in this record,” he said. “I’ve grown a lot over the years in wisdom through experience since the last songs I’ve created, both as a light-bearer and a dark entity.
"Life is unfair, unpredictable, always moving, and it’s beautiful for it.”
Courtney’s music is available on Spotify, Apple Music and streaming platforms everywhere.