'Folk-rock goddess' to play The Centrum on Sunday

Having The New Yorker label you a "folk-rock goddess" is a heavy burden to carry, but singer/songwriter Catie Curtis seems to take it in stride. The label is not unwarranted, because Curtis' passionate, empathetic music has been featured in numerous TV shows and her albums and incessant tours have built up a cult following for the Maine-born singer over the past 15 years.

But still, does she feel like a "goddess"?

"That is a bit much to take," she said in a recent phone interview from her Boston home. "But I love it. I'll take it over some of the other things that have been said about me."

Curtis is not the stereotypical guitar-toting singer who performs one melancholy song after another. Instead, she concentrates on emotional narratives on universal themes of love, yearning and the complexities of relationships.

On her most recent album, Dreaming in Romance Languages, she branches out a little, adding some darkly cathartic themes to her repertoire, as well as addressing social issues.

She covers the Morphine song "The Night," making the late Mark Sandman's brooding song her own. On "Saint Lucy," she likens one's inner search with the patron saint of blindness. Elsewhere, she addresses various social injustices with compassion and concern.

The music adds elements such as Hammond organ and an occasional mandolin, but the sound is closer to pop than it is to mainstream folk music.

It isn't your typical singer/songwriter fare, but then Curtis' career has been atypical from the start. A high school basketball star who attended Brown University on a scholarship, she honed her craft on the coffeehouse circuit both there and in Boston, where she moved after graduation.

She was a social worker for several years before completely focusing on her music. Her big break came in 1996, when EMI/Guardian signed her and released her debut album internationally. After a stint with Rykodisc, she's now with Vanguard Records.

Since then, her music has appeared on Dawson's Creek and Felicity and she appeared in the 1998 version of Lilith Fair, all the while keeping her music distinctively different from her contemporaries' and avoiding the pitfalls that come with being a pop music performer. Her fan base has been built from a grassroots approach and almost nonstop touring.

While her unique perspective on love and relationships sets her apart from other performers, Curtis said she's not always speaking from personal experience in her songs.

"I know more about love and relationships through the writing of songs than I do through talking about it," she said. "I would never be eloquent talking about love, but somehow, when I have a guitar in my hands and a song comes to me, I feel like I'm getting a little help from somewhere. I draw more wisdom than I actually have within me. If I were to try and write songs from my rational brain, I probably wouldn't be able to write at all."

She said, "I don't find that there's a lot of connection between my everyday activity and my songs. In fact, I think the older I get as an artist, the more my songs reflect an alternate reality. I don't think I'm writing for an audience; I don't think I'm just writing for me, either. I'm just writing to find a place for my imagination to stretch out. When I get to that point in a song where my imagination is stretching out, I feel there's an appeal to those images that is good for me and for the audience. They're not bound to anybody's daily activities or mundane thoughts or the restricted interior lives we sometimes limit ourselves to.

"I reach for that place in the imagination where there are images that have double meaning, that inspire the listener to stretch their imagination, too. That's what I'm writing to: that elevated place above what we experience every day."

That kind of emotionalism in her music has built a rabidly loyal fan base that knows all of her songs word for word. In concert, she tries to be able to accommodate audience requests. "It makes me feel good when I hear someone say that a certain song is 'their song.' I've also had fans ask me specifically not to play certain songs because it puts them in a sad mood. I guess you'd call that the anti-request."

She's also aware that the rest of the United States is not quite the same as her hometown. "I have a song about coming to play in Indiana at a festival there. I've had really good experiences in Bloomington. But I've read the editorials in the Indianapolis daily newspaper and I know the place is quite conservative. I think I'm not kidding myself about what it's like, but I also know that in every state in America, there's an alternative community that isn't represented in the mainstream politics. So, even among conservatives, there are people who care about the arts, who are liberal on social issues and so on. I try not to judge an entire state based on how they voted for president or how many truckers there are there. I've traveled so much, when a place has a reputation for being one way, when you meet the people at the show, it's like they're all from Boston."

Still, she knows that these are changing times. She said she gave an interview to an Oklahoma reporter shortly after last year's vote in which she said that, as a liberal, she was disappointed in John Kerry's loss. She said the reporter told her, "Don't worry, I won't put in that part about you being a liberal."

Curtis laughed. "I told him, it's OK, that I'm out as a liberal. I'm sure I have conservative fans who kind of put up with my political views, and that's OK, too."

And while her music touches on themes common to all people, being an openly gay artist in an increasingly homophobic society is in itself controversial. While she's glad to discuss the subject, she doesn't see it as the center of her being.

"I'm comfortable with being out, but I always like it when the subject is put in context and in the right proportion," she said. "It's as important as the fact I play basketball. Or the fact that I live in Boston, or the fact that I have two children. It's not what my music is entirely about, by any means. It's one piece of my identity."

Curtis and her partner recently adopted a seven-month-old infant, so she's cut back her touring to weekends in order to spend time with her family. Still, she's writing new material and readying a new album.

The show is part of promoter Mark Butterfield's Acoustic Cafe series and will be held in the Old Centrum Building on Central Avenue near 12th Street.

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