Courtney Collins has talent to burn, no doubt about that, but she also has had some strokes of luck in her creative life. When the La Crosse native moved to Madison, for example, she picked an apartment situated above Aaron Yonda, who with Matt Sloan launched a wildly successful web-based comedy video series, “Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager.”
“Chad Vader” made its debut in May 2006, and Collins, who is engaged to Yonda, was part of the the Blame Society Films team from the start working on “Chad Vader,” which revolved around the title character, Star Wars villain Darth Vader’s brother, who works at a grocery store, wearing the same get-up as his brother. Her job was “producer.”
“It’s kind of a fancy, all-encompassing name for making it all happen,” Collins explained. “When things go wrong, I’d usually have to be the person to deal with.”
One of her first tasks as producer was to track down a trained dog that could run around the grocery store, and she has had a mind-boggling array of tasks to do ever since — first with “Chad Vader” and since then as coordinator and moderator with a couple other ongoing Blame Society productions, “Beer and Board Games” and “Rated RPG,” with the RPG standing for role-playing games.
But before she ever got into video production, Collins turned to music as her chief creative outlet, and singing and songwriting is an ongoing passion. Soon after graduating from Viterbo University (majoring in sociology and business administration) she went to see a Twin Cities band called Detroit at the Popcorn Tavern and struck up a friendship with Detroit guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker.
That was a major stroke of luck, as Ylvisaker has been involved in recording all six of the albums Collins has recorded — with her bands Arena Venus and Voltress and two solo albums, including her latest solo album, “Hinterlands,” released earlier this year.
Madison's Courtney Collins, a La Crosse Central High School graduate, is out with her second…
Ylvisaker, who plays guitar in Andrew Bird’s touring band, has a recording studio in the Twin Cities, is well connected in the music community and, Collins added, “he can play just about anything.”
For the 10-song “Hinterlands,” which was two years in the making, Collins wanted a shimmering, atmospheric sound that evoked winter, a season she loves.
“I told Jeremy, ‘I want it to sound like it was recorded at night in the snow in the middle of a Swedish archipelago,’” she said.
In Arena Venus, Collins was shooting for a power pop sound inspired by Cheap Trick, Blondie, the Pixies and the Pretenders, but her solo work — especially on “Hinterlands” — is more stately and contemplative, her singing carrying the kind of emotional weight and purity one hears in Karen Carpenter’s vocals.
On “Hinterlands,” Ylvisaker plays guitar, bass, pedal steel, synthesizer, some percussion and helps Collins sculpt a sound that evokes “shimmering glacial beauty,” as the review in The Big Takeover describes it. Another Andrew Bird sideman, drummer Martin Dosh, also plays on the album.
On top of Ylvisaker’s stellar work in the studio, the album was mastered by Grammy-winner Huntley Miller, who has worked on Bon Iver records.
With Arena Venus, Collins and her band would travel around the Midwest performing, but these days she considers herself more of a “recording artist.” She does miss the live performance part of making music, but there are elements of being a performing artist that weren’t so great.
“I don’t miss all the travel, driving to Chicago on a weeknight to play in front of people who don’t know you,” she said.
Fitting in concert tours would be tough, considering the busy schedules of her musical recording collaborators, which in addition to Ylvisaker have included his bandmates in Alpha Consumer, J.T. Bates (who has worked with Blind Boys of Alabama) and Michael Lewis (Bon Iver and Arcade Fire).
And Collins would have a hard time fitting a concert tour in her schedule, too. On top of her video production work, she also does voice acting, including everything from public service announcements, comedy videos, corporate projects and commercials.
“Aaron likes to get me to do goblin voices,” Collins said with a laugh. “Of course, you always need a goblin voice.”
Even without doing live shows to promote the new album, Collins has been getting rave reviews for “Hinterlands,” which she dedicated to her parents, Mike and Judy Collins. Her mother, who is a big fan of the “Beer and Board Games” series even if it is a bit bawdy, gets a big kick out of “Hinterlands.”
“I often hear it in the background when I call my mom,” Collins said.