The economy might be failing, but singer-songwriter Catie Curtis wants you to try to look at the silver lining.
For her ninth studio album, Sweet Life, this out lesbian folksinger headed to Nashville to create a big, warm sound to accompany the new album's positive vibe. But that isn't all this award-winning musician has been up to. Last month, on the day Sweet Life was released, Curtis awarded several low-income children their very own guitars as part of her Aspire to Inspire initiative.
Windy City Times spoke with Curtis about paying it forward and looking at the sweet parts of life and more before she heads to town for an Oct. 4 performance at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Learn more about Catie Curtis' Aspire to Inspire Endowment at www.hopeequity.org/catiecurtis.cfm.
To learn more about Catie Curtis and Sweet Life, which was released last month, see www.catiecurtis.com or www.myspace.com/catiecurtis.
Windy City Times: Let's start with Aspire to Inspire. When your album came out last month, you gave away 15 guitars to low-income kids. Could you tell me more about this effort and what inspired you to start it?
Catie Curtis: Absolutely. I often tell the story of when I was 15 years old, a woman in my town gave me a guitar. I was really passionate about music, but I didn't have the resources to buy a guitar. This woman was having a yard sale. She saw that I really wanted it. My eyes were wide and I was trying to figure out how to get it. She said, 'If you promise me you'll learn how to play it, I'll give it to you.' So, when I tell people that story, because people are often asking how I started playing guitar, I always feel like I want to thank this woman, but she has disappeared and I have no idea how to track her down. I started thinking that the best way to thank her would be to pay it forward. First, I wanted to give away a guitar. But then I started talking to folks about it, and I talked to several fans who were interested in supporting a whole initiative, where I could give away lots of guitars and make it sustainable.
WCT: That's very cool.
CC: It's really neat because in the first year, we gave away 15 guitars through the ASCAP Foundation, in partnership with the Fresh Air Fund, which are camps out of New York City. Kids can take guitar lessons at these camps. The ASCAP Foundation was able to identify specific students who were really into playing and who had an interest. When we awarded these kids the guitars on Sept. 9, which was the CD release of Sweet Life, they didn't know what hit them. They were so excited. Basically, I was trying to praise them for showing their interest and passion in music, even though they didn't know how they were going to pursue it.
That's the way of the artist's dream. You have to show that you want to want to express yourself and that you care about it. From that love of the art, sometimes you are able to create. Sometimes the path opens for you. That's what I really wanted them to get. They got those guitars. The rest of the money I put in an endowment online at Hopeequity.org . That is an sustainable and accountable online endowment that was started by the Heifer Foundation. That's a really neat way for people to give, because the interest from that endowment is going to the ASCAP Foundation and the Fresh Air kids every year now forever.
WCT: That's wonderful. That way, you can keep it going.
CC: It's really neat. It got started basically because I wanted to express gratitude. Other people have had positive experiences with people supporting them, and this is a way for anyone who wants to get involved. It's very positive. There is no overhead. It's just out there to support kids who are into music.
WCT: You've been touring for years now. You have nine albums. Do you ever wonder if things would have turned out a little differently if you hadn't of received that guitar?
CC: Absolutely. I really don't know if I would have become a songwriter. I look at all the pieces of my life—a performer, a songwriter and a guitar player—and I think being a songwriter has been the most life-changing, because it has been through writing songs that I've learned how to really connect to people and to reflect people's lives in a way that music can best do. I never learned how to write a song until I had a guitar. It really changed my life by having that instrument.
WCT: What are your hopes for these kids—that they all become songwriters? What do you think will happen as a result of this?
CC: The main thing for me is that I want them to feel like its worth pursuing whatever they care about, and that they feel a sense of optimism and hopefulness about the possibility of good things coming from making an effort. We are rewarding their interest in music. Even if they don't end up being a musician, they learn that lesson that it's far better to be interested, involved and to try something, rather than sit back and be critical. If you can do that, you have accomplished something. These kids haven't been rewarded for a lot of things. A lot of them have been in difficult financial and familial situations, so I want them to have a positive experience through trying their best.
WCT: Also, hopefully they will grow up and also pay it forward when they can.
CC: Yeah, absolutely! Maybe some of them will have their lives changed by the actual instrument, and they will become musicians. That would be really cool. I'm going to try to keep in touch with some of them.
WCT: That's great. Let's talk a little bit about Sweet Life, which is a really positive album that looks at the silver lining in life. The last time our publication spoke with you was when you released Long Night Moon. You had just gotten married and had a new addition to your family. Has your life really impacted your music, because I hear that positive vibe throughout the whole album?
CC: In some ways, it's a convoluted path. I think that the last few years, the way that things are going in the world and our country, and to some extent to deal with that while raising kids. With all that in mind, I've gained an interest in writing songs that help me rise above all of that. I think it's a difficult time. There is more darkness than two years ago. For me, I think we lose sight of all the incredibly beautiful moments in life and are constantly ruminating on the negativity. In my records, I write what I need to hear. I really needed to refocus myself on the really positive things in my life. With 'What You Can't Believe,' that song is really about that it's easy to think life is meaningless with the way things are right now, but maybe some small things you've done makes the world better. We are encouraged to be fearful and running, and to hide in a hole somewhere, but we really need to realize that life is short and we need to be really present. I've been sort of battling this stuff out myself on a personal level and then in the song, encourage myself and others to live less fearfully.
WCT: It's been a long, eight years. Your album also has a really full sound this time around. What made you go in that direction?
CC: I think the fact that I recorded it in Nashville. It gave myself a chance to get in a room with some deeply talented musicians who will just play. Their love of music and their incredible talent came through so strongly. In a way, I think Nashville is a less inhibited town than Boston, in sense that you have musicians that are veterans playing with everybody from Bonnie Raitt to Emmylou Harris. All the musicians on the record have played with these great musicians on albums and tours. I feel like they came to my record with a real sense of playfulness and precariousness. I gave them all a really long leash to do that. I felt that these songs needed that kind of open and warm vibe, as opposed to being quiet and thoughtful. I don't mean less thoughtful, but maybe less cerebral.
WCT: You also cover one of my favorite Death Cab For Cutie Songs, 'Soul Meets Body.' Why did you choose that song?
CC: Yay! For one thing, I think a lot of my fans don't listen to Death Cab. For another thing, I think this theme of being present in the moment, which kind of wraps around this record, really works as an idea in 'Soul Meets Body.' You know, being very present in your body and trying to live in a way that is very authentic.
WCT: One of the things I was wondering, because you are an artist who has never strayed from saying how you feel about social issues or politics, what do you think about the election right now?
CC: I'll be really honest. I am a strong Obama supporter, and I think there are so many issues right now that really need to be tackled in a really smart and progressive way. I'm just crossing my fingers, honestly, that Obama and Biden win. I have to be honest about that, because I think that is really critical for the country right now. All I can do is hope. I mention them whenever I can, for whatever good that will do.
WCT: On your last album, you touched on the fact that marriage was being used as a wedge issue, but this time around, it doesn't seem to be an issue.
CC: That's actually progress, isn't it? It's become less of an issue, and we've become less of a scapegoat. However, I think right now it's become immigrants, and that's not good, either. But for some reason, it's not the hot button issue of this election. It may be that things like the economy and the war are just beating the path so loud right now, that there is no way you can avoid the real issues.
WCT: So, you'll be coming to Chicago on Oct. 4. For people who haven't seen you live before, what should they expect from a show?
CC: Well, I guess the thing that might surprise a lot of people about a show with a singer-songwriter is in general, and with me, there's a lot of humor in my show, as well as storytelling. It's not as serious as you might think by listening to the record. There is a lot of serious content in the songs, but we are going to have a lot of fun. I'm going to have a harmony singer from the album who lives in Chicago. Her name is Ingrid Graudins. She'll be performing with me at the show.