From Mary Gauthier: "Catie Curtis is an artist whose songs unarm me, move me to put down my defenses and just be with them. She lures me in through her kindness and respect for all beings. I have been listening to her music for years, she is an inspiration to me. She knows the power of gentleness, and the vulnerability in her voice has always undone me. Made me want to be a better person. She's teamed up with the enourmously gifted Kristen Hall this time, and this record is one for the ages. Give a listen, then another. You'll feel it too..."
Plenty of performers succumb to the temptation to cruise on autopilot two decades into their careers. That’s the safe and simple way to go, after all. But Catie Curtis, dubbed a “folk-rock goddess” by the New Yorker and treated as one by her loyal fans, is one veteran artist who’s resolutely refused to coast along in comfort. Curtis prefers to make music that’s dynamically engaged with life. Her 13th album, Flying Dream, is a work of both continuity and courage, capturing the way she’s embraced a season of heady change with the emotional intelligence that has been her songwriting signature.
While Curtis has most often composed solo—only occasionally co-writing with such respected peers as Beth Nielson Chapman, Mary Gauthier, Fred Wilhelm and Mark Erelli (a song she co-penned with the latter won Grand Prize in the 2006 International Songwriting Competition)—this time around she took a chance on a start-to-finish collaboration with Sugarland co-founder and modern folk songwriting heavyweight Kristen Hall.
Gauthier introduced the two talents, and from there, says Curtis, a Maine native, “We discovered that we were very compatible in writing together. After we had a couple songs under our belts, I wanted to keep going.”
“We both care about what we're saying and the message we convey,” adds Hall. “When you're alone out there on a stage, it requires you stand behind your words, quite literally.”
Curtis placed her trust in Hall’s instincts as a producer, and with some of the finest players Boston has to offer—drummer Jim Gwin (of the Boston Pops Orchestra), Jamie Edwards (keyboardist for Aimee Mann), bassist Richard Gates and multi-instrumentalist Duke Levine, who’ve logged sessions with the likes of Suzanne Vega and Mary Chapin Carpenter—they crafted a lustrous long player with subtle jazz, electronic and AM pop shadings. Hall calls it her “happiest in-studio experience; a very relaxed and creative atmosphere with super-talented people.”
It sounds like Curtis to be sure—with her tunefulness and casual elegance intact—but it also sounds unlike anything else in her catalog. So it’s only fitting that she’s releasing it through a different label than anything else in her catalog—her own, newly formed, thoroughly independent Catie Curtis Records.
The songs on Flying Dream are sure to connect with her audience and continue the conversation she’s been carrying on with them for nearly two decades: two that she wrote alone, six that she and Hall wrote together, one that Hall had in her back pocket and an unexpected, trip-hop-leaning cover of a Burt Bacharach classic (an adventurous idea of Hall’s). Curtis came to those co-writing sessions with a desire to articulate “some really universal experiences.” “What’s eerie,” she says, “is how much the songs ended up being true to my life.”
She’s always drawn emotionally honest art from her circumstances, sharing reflections on searching for love and finding it, on joining two lives together and—once Massachusetts extended the legal right—on marrying, on becoming adoptive parents and a myriad other experiences, and the autobiographical threads have enriched her work and endeared her to listeners. Because Curtis and her wife Liz Marshall are now separated after 17 years together, and their daughters are becoming more independent as they inch toward adolescence, and life just plain doesn’t look or feel the same as it once did, there were complex new corners of the human heart that begged to be explored in this song cycle.
Says Hall, “There’s a lot of bittersweet in it, which is my favorite flavor by a mile.”
There’s a lot else in it too, every bit of it delivered in Curtis’s fetching, feathery timbre. Like songs illustrating the powerfully pleasing and painful pull that love can exert on a yielding heart (“Four Walls,” “Maybe Tomorrow,” Bacharach’s “This Girl’s In Love With You” and the breathtaking “When You Find Love”). And songs that get at the soul-sick sensation of knowing a relationship can’t be counted on (“If I’m Right,” a song laced with artful wordplay, and “Orion,” which traces out a story of sibling betrayal from Greek mythology). It’s no accident that the album is bookended by songs that deal with choosing to not withdraw from life, but rather savor the simple, sensual and sacred surprises it brings (opening track “Flying Dream,” which has its origins in a trip to Guatemala to visit their adoptive daughters’ birth families, “Live Laugh Love,” an irrepressibly upbeat number that arrives midway through, and closing tune “The Voyager”).
“Sometimes things change in ways that you don’t expect,” Curtis reflects. “It can be really challenging and painful. But I think part of what’s in this record is this feeling of being authentic, going with the ride, going with the dream, and living passionately. I really tend to be resilient and want to look at things in a way where I’m trying to find the meaning in it, find what’s gonna work out about it. That may sound corny, but to me, that’s survival.”
It’s never only Curtis’s own stories that she’s telling—clear, accessible, (take out navel gazing-averse) communicator that she is—except when it comes to a song titled “The Queen” (as in, Latifah). Curtis has received several invitations to perform at the White House, which is certainly no culturally insignificant gig. On one occasion she was to share the bill with Latifah at an inaugural ball, but the iconic hip-hop artist failed to show.
“As a folksinger, everything’s about self-deprecation and humility,” says Curtis with a chuckle. “That night I felt this fun sense of, ‘I’ve earned this place, taking the queen’s place for the inaugural ball.’ I think part of it’s just being comfortable taking up space. Finally, after twenty years I feel like I deserve to be here.”
However, as a former social worker, and a confessional folk-pop poet who absorbed the lessons of the politically agitating ‘60s folk revival, the acutely reflective ‘70s singer-songwriter movement and the solidarity of self-expression that was Lilith Fair in the ‘90s (which she played, by the way), Curtis is all about shared triumphs, shared stories and shared causes. She produces concerts in support of Voices United for Separation of Church and State, she got ordained by the Universal Life Church so that she could officiate at her fans’ same-sex weddings and she writes and sings about joyful and jarring sensations alike from a posture of empathy.
“My goal is not just to reflect my own personal life, but to reflect back to people what happens in life, in their lives, in our world. she says. “And people go through this stuff.” As we all know, “sh#t happens.”
Wise words from a truly intrepid songwriter.