Attending a Catie Curtis performance is like hanging out in a cozy living room with a whole lot of friendly people. Curtis has a way of creating an intimate atmosphere where spontaneity is queen. Her sweet and serious songs are punctuated by light-hearted stories - bizarre signs spotted along the highway, chance encounters with strangers - and throughout, she nourishes a feeling of being in the moment. At her most recent performance in Indy, she was handed a cell phone from the audience so she could give comfort to someone distressed that they couldn't make it to the show.
Curtis has a handful of the best love songs I know, including "100 Miles" and possibly her best-known tune, "Troubled Mind," but she's also a social justice artist in the best folk tradition with songs like "Passing Through." Her newest album Hello Stranger
was named one of the top ten folk albums of 2009 by the Boston Globe
That album was bit of a departure for her, using strictly string band instruments. The tunes are mostly remakes of her earlier work, with an all-star line up of musicians like Stuart Duncan, Alison Brown and Mary Gauthier.
Curtis says that she normally tours and traffics in the folk and bluegrass scene, "yet every time I make a record, out come the B-3s, the full drum kit, the electric guitars. I was just curious what it would feel like to put out a really roots-y record that has a folk, old time feel to it."
Experimenting in the studio for Hello Stranger
was definitely a learning experience. "None of the stuff we did fast, felt right," she says. "I am a slow-to-mid-tempo girl. It loses its soul when it gets super fast."
This slow-to-mid-tempo girl visits Indianapolis almost each year, courtesy of Mark Butterfield's marvelous Acoustic Café, the longest-running folk series in the city, an event I look forward to like I look forward to the Lotus Music World Festival, the Cottage Home Block Party or to the first cries of the barn owls in my back yard.
Curtis is open about being a lesbian, about her life partner, Liz, about their two adopted daughters, Lucy, 7, and Celia, 5. When she spoke to me last week from her home in Newton, Mass., we began our conversation with my question about her daughters, and if there's any recent adventures-in-parenting to tell.
Curtis: I just took my seven year old skiing for the first time. I was thinking she was going to be nervous but she was bobbing down the hill ten times faster than me. I don't know if you've ever been skiing with kids, but they are fearless. They just point their skis down and go.
NUVO: You strike me as a fearless person, in your stage presence, of course, but also in your writing - your ability to grapple with complex subjects. You grew up with a secret about being gay. Was fear a part of your childhood?
CURTIS: I come from a loving family. I probably could have been afraid... once I started thinking I was going to be a gay person. Yet the messages I got were really all about love and acceptance. I somehow internalized that piece a lot more than any of the little rules I was breaking. I grew up with this sense that we were just right as we were and the truth was beautiful. That's my foundation; I can thank my parents for that.
NUVO: You played the Human Right's Campaign official Obama inaugural ball. What's your take on how Obama has handled things?
CURTIS: I'm still a huge Obama supporter. I feel inspired by him every time he speaks. I'm looking to see more change to go along with the hope.
NUVO: What's your perspective on how we're dealing with climate change?
CURTIS: We're really behind. I try to take an every person's point of view. Change on the level of personal consumption is very difficult - one of my new songs is about how you know what you could do to be more responsible for using less, but it's very difficult to make yourself do it. So then you feel guilty.
Nobody wants to sacrifice. Unfortunately, for some people it's going to take more evidence of imminent disaster before legislation comes along and that point we don't know if it's going to be possible to change. It's pretty daunting.
NUVO: You're a parent of single-digit aged children; what goes through your mind regarding their lives?
CURTIS: I'm wondering at what point they should know about how things really are. I want to walk this balance as a parent between raising socially responsible kids and raising light-hearted happy kids. Because I don't want them to take the weight of the world's problems on their own shoulders, and at the same time I want them to be part of a generation that takes these problems seriously.
NUVO: The same dichotomy we were talking about at the beginning.
CURTIS: Yes. We're all trying to keep our hearts alive and shine and have a quality life at the same time that we're trying to solve problems and be responsible.
NUVO: Your song, "Passing Through," is one my favorites, rooted in the folk tradition of ordinary people to rise up. Years before the Obama campaign you had this line in that song: "But I refuse to let my hope become the latest casualty" ...
CURTIS: He stole our line (laughs) just kidding. He really tapped into the zeitgeist. I lot of people were feeling that way. I also have to credit my co-writer Mark Erelli who came up with that line.
NUVO: You ask in the song: "How much can one voice do with just a song?" How much CAN one voice do?
CURTIS: It's a bit of a rhetorical question in the song. I feel like it's answered by the end of the song... anybody has the power to bring more voices into the circle. And then as you begin to sing the chorus together, all it takes is one voice to start something, to start the singing.
Every person needs to believe what they have to say is important. In saying what they believe they encourage other people to do the same. There's strength in numbers, power in the spirit in creating music and singing together.
NUVO: 'Strength in numbers' connects back to Obama. We all thought there was going to be this big change.
CURTIS: I don't have an absolute faith in the possibility of change just like I don't have absolute faith in really any of my religious beliefs. I'm a Unitarian, I tend to have a big, open, questioning philosophy. You have to come to a point that - regardless how things are going to turn out - even without the absolute faith are going to change for the better, it's worth pouring your own resources, your own energy into trying to change things for the better - whether you see evidence it's working or not.
What are your alternatives? The only alternative I see is not trying which kills your own spirit.
Catie Curtis will be trying out some new songs on her current tour. She expects to have an album of new work out in about a year.