An interview with out singer/songwriter Catie Curtis.
By Gregg Shapiro
A couple of years have passed since lesbian singer/songwriter Catie Curtis released her solid and radiant Long Night Moon disc. Not one to let too much time pass, Curtis has returned with the vibrant and engaging Sweet Life (Compass). From the self-reflective and festive title track to the soaring nostalgia of “Are You Ready to Fly” to the soothing “For Now” and the celebration of motherhood that is “The Princess and the Mermaid,” Curtis has once again delivered an outstanding recording that is bound to bring sweet smiles and thoughtful moment to listeners. I spoke with Catie shortly before the release of the disc.
Gregg Shapiro: Your new album Sweet Life opens with the bittersweet title tune, which has an unmistakable trace of wit. Is it important for you to include humor in your work?
Catie Curtis: Yeah! I feel like work that’s entirely self-reflective with no humor would get pretty grating after a while. As we all know [laughs], we’ve all been there.
The theme of the album is seeing “the beauty that is there alongside the trouble,” with the song “Happy” being a perfect example. Have you always had an optimistic streak or did you find it necessary to get one with the current state of things?
[Laughs] I think I’ve always had it. And in some ways it put me out of line with most artists in, say, the ’90s where it was a little uncool [laughs] to be optimistic. Now, perhaps people have reached the saturation point with cynicism. Maybe some people have. So maybe what I’m doing is going to be incredibly hip now [laughs].
I think so! Especially with “The Princess and the Mermaid,” which is a wonderful song about parenthood. How would you say that being a parent has changed you?
You have to become more patient. Once you see a person that way, you learn to apply that tool, that craft of seeing things with more patience and compassion beyond just your kids. When I’m irritated with people or with the state of things in the world, I find it more useful, nowadays, to apply the tools I’ve learned as a parent to try to understand why things are the way they are and to have a little patience about things.
You and your family still live in Massachusetts. Did you and Liz get married there?
You bet [laughs]! Yeah, it’s great. We were able to make sure that we are all legally connected and protected.
On the album Sweet Life, you go in a different musical direction on the song “Lovely.” What was the inspiration for that?
The first inspiration was seeing Susan Werner. She did a record of original jazz tunes [I Can’t Be New], and I did a co-bill with her. I was impressed by it and I thought I would try it, because I grew up singing songs that sounded like that with my family. I thought, “I have this in me. I should be able to do one of these.” Most of my material is now about family and long-term relationships, and it was fun to step outside of that and do a song about early flirtation and intrigue. Take on a persona that was different from me.
Over the years, you have included cover tunes on your discs, most notably the two Mark Sandman songs you recorded. On Sweet Life you do a breathtaking cover of Death Cab For Cutie’s “Soul Meets Body.” Why did you choose that song?
I was on tour and tired of my own songs one night in Florida [laughs], and I love the Death Cab record “Plans.” I went through it thinking, “I wonder if there’s anything on here.” And I had this feeling like my audience probably doesn’t know this stuff, and that’s really why I covered it. Thinking most people who would buy a Catie Curtis record, or many people who would buy one, may not own a Death Cab record. So, I thought, here’s a great song that a lot of people probably wouldn’t hear if I didn’t put it on this record. Another thing that was really cool was that none of the players on the record knew that it was a Death Cab song. They thought it was my song, and they were just playing it along. I thought that was neat, because none of them had heard the original arrangement.
Are you aware anybody who has covered one of your songs?
Trisha Yearwood covered one for a while. She performed it, but didn’t record it. Some country acts have, but nothing on a major label. People send me stuff all the time. If you go to YouTube, you can see a lot of people doing covers of my songs there. It’s always interesting. Sometimes I do listen and go, “Oh, that’s a cool approach.”
You have also collaborated with some amazing people over the years, including Mary Gauthier, Beth Nielsen Chapman, and Mark Erelli. On Sweet Life you co-wrote a couple of songs with Fred Wilhelm. What do you like about the collaborative process?
This guy Fred [Wilhelm] is a writer based in Nashville. He has a lot of get-up-and-go. I’ve been writing for a long time. I will spend a month on one song. This guy is in the practice of writing a song a day. So when we get together, I call him “the believer,” because he fully believes that we are going to write a song from start to finish in one day. And then what ends up happening is that we get a solid idea and we get it started, and then I take that song and work on it for two or three more weeks by myself. Still, that’s better progress than I often make on my own. He is also willing to take on a tough subject. Like the song we wrote together, “What You Can’t Believe.” I found that was a very tough topic to write about. I kept saying, “This is too complicated. We’re going to confuse ourselves, let’s skip it.” He’s funny and he’s like, “If anyone has the tools to do this, Catie, we do!” He just kept pushing me to believe that it was possible to write a song about a complex subject, like faith and depression.
I’m glad that you mentioned Nashville. Did making Sweet Life there have anything to do with it being your second disc for Nashville-based Compass Records?
Yeah. The producer [Garry West] is the president of Compass Records, and the studio is Compass Records Studio. For me, it was the chance to go forward and make a record that is cut live with a really great band. I think that there is something that happens in New England where we tend to get really cerebral about our records and very conscious about thinking about what’s going to make this record different. What Garry kept saying is that each of these songs has its own identity and we don’t have to over-think it. We can just let these tremendous musicians play on it and take it from there. That really worked for me with this one. There’s this kind of lack of attachment. I think the record sounds relaxed and loose and natural and warm and friendly—these things that are hard to pull off if you’re carefully crafting a record with one other person, bringing in one person at a time to studiously come up with parts. It was loose and fun and light to make. That felt different.
Have you played any of these songs on Sweet Life live before you recorded them, or are they being heard live for the first time on this tour?
Some of them I’ve been holding back. I’m looking forward to being able to play a lot of them in one show. I had been trying to play only a few each show. But I don’t that thing where you hold back all your material. Frankly, that’s how I learn what songs are going to make the record. I know that’s not how they do it in the larger, radio-oriented mainstream industry, but that’s how I do it. I road-test everything.