By Moira E. McLaughlin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008
Catie Curtis is a bit surprising. She's all the things you might expect from a New England singer-songwriter: smart, thoughtful, soft-spoken. But, then, she's also something you wouldn't expect.
Catie Curtis, whose new CD, "Sweet Life," includes such upbeat songs as "Happy" and "Are You Ready to Fly?," is a little dark.
"I think we're all aware of the doom and gloom," Curtis says. "I think people are really anxious. There's no point in writing music that's reminding people of all the reasons to be anxious." And so she doesn't. Sure, she may be worried about the world, the country and the environment (especially since she just finished reading Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," a post-apocalyptic novel), but you won't hear much of that on "Sweet Life." "I felt like I was gonna miss all the good stuff getting too laden with all the bad stuff happening in the world, so I tried to pay attention to all the beautiful things happening in my life," she says.
Two of those beautiful things are daughters Lucy, 6, and Celia, 4, whom she and her partner of 12 years adopted when the girls were babies. When asked about the joys of being a parent, Curtis pauses for a second before responding. "You know, I'm having like a thousand thoughts going through my head all at once," she says with a laugh and then jokes that it's when they're fast asleep that she really finds joy in them. But then the hope and beauty Curtis presents on her album comes through, and she adds, "I've really enjoyed being a family with them and my partner and creating an environment where we can really be ourselves."
Curtis, 43, grew up in a small, "homogenous" community in Maine, where she says she felt "kind of mute" and "suffocated" as a gay teen. An artist neighbor at a yard sale noticed Curtis looking longingly at a guitar. " 'I'll give this to you if you promise to play it,' " she remembers the neighbor telling her. "That kind of changed my life right there."
She doesn't know what happened to that woman, but in a way, she pays homage to her through her new nonprofit group, "Aspire to Inspire," which provides guitars to economically disadvantaged youths. Since August, the organization has raised $8,000 and given 15 guitars to kids.
"It's been important because a lot of the motivation for me was to connect with people," Curtis says. "I believe a lot of the problems in the world are caused by people feeling disconnected and not part of a community and not caring about people they know. With music, you can't help but connect with people."
After graduating from Brown University in 1987 with a degree in American history, Curtis says, she knew she wanted to pursue music. She played at open-mike sessions and toured, but her big break came when she lost her eyeglasses. She took a gig at the Bottom Line in New York to pay for new ones. It just so happened that guys from the EMI record label were there. They liked asked to sign her right then and there.
The story sounds unbelievable now, but back then, Curtis says, many of her friends, such as Jonatha Brooke and Martin Sexton, were getting signed. The labels were looking for the singer-songwriter sound.
Even so, Curtis's career has not been one of sudden fame and fortune. Curtis likens it to being on a ferry, moving so slowly you hardly notice it's moving at all. "All this work and all this time, every so often I look up and I am amazed that I am moving," she says.
The ferry does keep moving, however, albeit subtly. Curtis's songs have been showcased on the television series "Grey's Anatomy" and "Dawson's Creek." Country music star Trisha Yearwood covered her song "Troubled Mind." And she had two albums, "Truth From Lies" and "Catie Curtis," on EMI, as well as five others on smaller labels.
And Curtis hopes for more.
"I always think that there could come a moment when a particular song of mine goes viral and somehow is known by a larger audience," she says. "I would like to have one song that nearly everyone knows. I'd like to get on an airplane and when someone says, 'What do you do?" be able to say, 'I wrote X, Y, Z.' "
On the song, "What You Can't Believe," Curtis writes: "I can't believe what you can't believe/ If everything is meaningless/ What do you call all this/ When the world is dark, I know it breaks your heart/ But maybe some small things you've done means the world to someone."
"I often write what I need to hear, and that's what others need to hear," Curtis says. Even though you might not be able to change the bad things going on around you, she continues, "hang on to these little teeny glimmers of hope. We'll look back and wonder how we got through these years."
Curtis does have a dark side. But she has a hopeful side, too.
Catie Curtis Appearing with Lori McKenna tonight at the Birchmere (3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria). Show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $25, available at 202-397-7328 or http://www.birchmere.com. The Download: For a sampling of Catie Curtis's music, check out: From "Sweet Life": · "Sweet Life" · "Happy" From "Long Night Moon": · "Hey California" From "Dreaming in Romance Languages": · "Saint Lucy" · "Deliver Me" · "Red Light" From "My Shirt Looks Good on You": · "Kiss That Counted"