Her latest record, Hello, Stranger, a fantastic collection of covers and revisited songs has been on store shelves for nearly a month and she’ll be out on the road for the rest of the year supporting the album.
A few weeks ago, singer-songwriter Catie Curtis took some time to speak with us about her music, writing process and her favorite baseball hat.
Q: How did you choose the covers on this record?
A: A couple of them are songs that I have been performing live. ‘Walking on a Wire’ I’d performed really since college, on and off, I’d pull it out, it’s a really great tune. And ‘Be 16 With Me’ is a very funny song to perform live and it breaks up my more serious pieces. So those two were sort of no-brainers because I’ve been wanting to record them for a long time.
There are a couple others that Garry West suggested, the producer, he knew about the Nina Simone song, ‘I Wish I Knew How.’ That one just seemed really appropriate from the minute I watched Barack Obama during his inauguration, I was there in DC performing and I just felt really inspired to bring back a song that was from the era of the civil rights movement.
‘No Evil’ I performed a lot right after 9/11 because it’s seemed really relevant to the post-9/11 movement, ‘I don’t want to know about you, I only want to know about love.’ To me it was sort of a companion to the ‘I Wish I Knew How’ because [they] have the same message, transpiring above politics and being able to trust and love people despite how much evil there is in the world.
And the Carter Family song was a song I always thought was really charming and I honesty thought it was a real stretch for me to try and cover it and it was really the idea of doing a duet with Mary that inspired us to even try recording that because Mary Gauthier has more of an alt-country credibility and I felt like I could stretch in that direction if I had Mary on my side. We had a really fun time recording that together with her, her vocals fit perfectly with that and I had to sort of learn from her how to sound a little more down-home than I normally do.
Q: What about picking some of your older songs?
A: They’re all songs that I perform a lot and generally when I play, I’m playing with a string band of some kind. I often play with other acoustic guitarists or mandolin players or fiddlers so it was really a natural thing to go into the studio and record that way. Now that I’m playing these songs live with the new record out, it’s as though I put this band together just for the ‘Hello Stranger’ CD but the truth is I’ve been playing acoustic venues with acoustic accompaniment for most of my career.
Q: Can you talk about the decision to make a record of mostly covers and older material?
A: It was like, I wanted to try out doing this kind of string-band approach on these songs that I always wanted to record this way and seeing how well suited it is. I’d never recorded this way and I felt like doing with these cover songs and these songs that I’d always played live this way was a good way to try out these arrangements and to see how they were received. I’m in the process now of figuring out if it sounds good to people. I really like this record and I don’t really know whether my audience is into it or not.
Q: How much of your songwriting comes from personal experience versus the outside world?
A: I’d say about 70% of my stuff comes from personal experience, people that I know really well or my own self. I guess I draw a little less than a third of my material from something I read in the news or something going on in our culture.
Q: Is there a specific process to your writing?
A: I definitely have to keep a really steady set of studio hours on consecutive days in order to write a song. Either I’ll set up a co-writing session with someone or i’ll say, ‘I have to stay in my studio and write for four hours.’ Otherwise, the songs don’t get written, there’s a work piece to it that requires discipline.
Q: When did you decide that you could be a professional musician? Did you ever consider another career path?
A: I always wanted to be a professional musician and I had this theory that as long as doors kept opening for me I would continue on and I still haven’t had the door shut, really, I just keep moving forward at my own pace. I’ve never had to think of an alternative.
Q: Where were you when you heard yourself on the radio for the first time?
A: I think I was in my kitchen in my first apartment in Cambridge, in the the early ’90s on Boston folk radio, WUMD.
Q: If you were making a mix tape, what would be on it?
A: Some Weepies, Emmylou Harris, Bonnie Raitt… probably some Feist, some Paul Simon and maybe a little Nanci Griffith.
Q: Besides your instruments, what are the things that you must have while on the road?
A: I always bring a pillow, photos of my kids, and a baseball hat for my bad hair days.
Do you have a favorite hat?
Yeah, it’s my Red Sox hat.
Q: If you could sit down for an hour and chat with any other musician, alive or dead, who would it be?
A: Joni Mitchell, I think.
Q: Is there anything else people should know about you or the new disc?
A: I still believe that live music is a different experience than recorded and the cool thing with this Hello, Stranger is that it captures some of the energy of a live performance because we were asking these players, who are mostly all Grammy award winning instrumentalists, we were asking them to improvise live in the studio and there’s a lot of playfulness between the musicians, they are playing off each other. that’s what I love about live music and I always want people to remember to go hear live music.
And also when they listen to the Hello, Stranger record, listen for the interplay, the live improvisational interplay. To me that’s the most exciting part of the musical listening experience, I’m not that into perfectly crafted studio recordings that sound like they’ve been edited over and over.
Catie will be on tour for the rest of the year, check tour dates and get more info at CatieCurtis.com.
Photos: Tony Baker