Posted December 22, 2015 by Jeff in Tunes

Whatever the Weather: A Q+A with Catie Curtis

Catie Curtis
Catie Curtis

Folk singer-songwriter Catie Curtis has a career that stretches back some 20 years. Over that time, Curtis has released 13 albums, performed at the White House several times, played two Presidential Inaugural Balls, toured with Lilith Fair and taken the stage at Carnegie Hall. She’s won multiple Boston Music Awards and also claimed the Grand Prize in the 2006 International Songwriting Competition (out of 15,000 entries). The New Yorker once caller her a “folk-rock goddess.” She spoke to us via phone from her Massachusetts home.

January is a strange time of the year to tour. Talk about the decision to hit the road in the dead of winter.
Things slow down for me over the holidays, so I like to come out of the gate fast and get back in the swing of touring. I think people prefer to come out during the winter as opposed to the summer, especially in places where it gets cold in the winter. They like to come to a warm setting. I think it’s a great time.

Talk about growing up in Maine.
It was cold. I also lived in Ann Arbor in my twenties. I felt like the weather was similar to Maine weather. I always felt comfortable with that.

How’d you start playing music?
I don’t know what happened to me. I just grew up craving to get an instrument in my hands. I grew up with a broken-down Sears’ guitar with only four strings on it. Trying to make that thing work made me want to get an actual tunable guitar with six strings. I was given one from a woman who was working at a yard sale.

How long before you started writing your own songs?
It was hard at first. I hadn’t grown up with folk music. I had grown up with pop and Broadway musicals. I was a teenager. But I went to Brown and got exposed to Greg Brown and Nanci Griffith and more interesting stuff. There was space for people to play original work. I moved away from playing cover songs to writing. There was also a culture where writing your own songs was really supported and nurtured.

You self-released the cassette-only Dandelion in 1989. Did you have a sense then that cassettes would one day be hip?
Isn’t it so weird? My kids are 11 and 13 and they are like, “What is that?” It’s very strange.

Things have really come full circle.
It’s very strange. In the early ‘90s when I made my first self-produced records, the budgets were 15 or 20,000 dollars. You had to pay for analog recording studios and all that. When I was on major labels, they cost something like100,000 dollars. And then you come back to your own label and you can make a record for 15 or 20,000 dollars again because of the digital technology. Now, you’re paying for the musicians, which is great. You’re not paying for a big studio. That part really blows me away, that the budgets have come back to where they were in the early ‘90s. You can easily spend a $100,000 but it’s possible to make one for less.

Was the Boston folk scene particularly vibrant?
It’s tied into the history of political folk music like Pete Seeger and people like Bonnie Raitt who used to play at Club 47. A big part of it is non-traditional venues like Unitarian churches or a good community hall or a library which isn’t mainly for concerts. One of the things that Boston has going for it is its location in New England. You can drive 45 minutes and play a gig and you end up in Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Vermont. When I learned in Ann Arbor, everything every gig was four hours away.

When did you start writing the tunes for your most recent album, 2014’s Flying Dream?
That whole record was co-written with Kristen Hall. She started Sugarland. That’s what she’s known for. She quit that band after a few years. It was the last year of my marriage. I was married for 15 years. I wasn’t consciously aware of the fact that some of the songs were going to be alluding to that. It’s a common experience but I think I was feeling that we might both make a leap of faith, my ex and I, in making a decision. I also wrote it about meeting my daughter’s birth parents in Guatemala. That was a very surreal experience. I kept thinking, “Don’t let this be a dream.” I really wanted it to be true. As I look back over the material, a lot of it is being able to have a vision of where you need to be.

The songs sound uplifiting.
It’s definitely not a breakup record. It was all written while I was still married. To me, and maybe it doesn’t read this way to other people, but I see myself looking for ways to take risks and to be on my own. Even a song like “The Queen,” which was originally inspired by playing a show where Queen Latifah was supposed to receive an award but she didn’t show up so I took up a two-hour slot. I realized I could take up that space. You’re not the same person when you’ve been doing something for 20 years. I think it’s a record with some undercurrent of change that’s going to come and knowing more about yourself than you once did.

“Live Life Love” has such a great melody. Talk about that track.
That song was written by Kristen Hall. She’s not putting out records anymore so she let me take this song and record. I love that feel. There’s a banjo on it that reminds of “The Rainbow Connection.” It’s playful and light. The theme fits in because it’s about how we’re going to take this empty cup and fill it up. It’s just about looking for ways to thrive.

Have you started thinking about your next album yet?
I have. I have more than enough songs for a new record. They’re all over the map thematically. I’m on the verge of booking the studio time to record.

Upcoming 2016 Tour Dates

Jan 7

Jan 8

Jan 9

Jan 10

The Woodshed Lesson Studio – Oberlin OH

Columbus Performing Arts Center (Shedd Theater) – Columbus OH

Space – Evanston, IL

The Ark – Ann Arbor MI


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].