“Have you ever been to a show where you feel an invisible wall between you and the performer? Catie Curtis pulls the walls down.”
Mary Chapin Carpenter
“Catie makes audiences feel like they’re part of the show. She doesn’t perform at you, she performs for you. Our audiences just adore her.”
Matt Smith, Manager, Club Passim, Cambridge, MA.
Catie Curtis has become something more than a songwriting star. Her career spans 14 albums, songs featured on TV shows Dawson’s Creek, Chicago Hope, and Felicity; and movies like Finding Graceland and A Slipping Down Life. For over 20 years, she’s been a perennially popular headliner, appearing at performing arts centers, concert halls, folk clubs, music festivals, Lilith Fair, Carnegie Hall, and the White House.
Mary Chapin Carpenter says, “Every time a new Catie Curtis record comes out, it’s an event for me. She’s one of those special songwriters with a knack for finding the details we all recognize. That may seem unadorned, but it’s actually very spiritual. And that’s her gift.”
What do you call a career like that? It seems premature for statue-monikers like legend and icon, and institution is too cold a word for such a warm-hearted songwriter, known for her uncompromising but kind-eyed lyrics. The Boston Globe said, “Any fool can write a love-gone-wrong song; it takes a genius to write a love-gone-right song. No urban songwriter does that better than Catie Curtis.” Rolling Stone wrote, “With her deceptively gentle voice, she can turn on a dime and thrill the listener with unforeseen power and emotion. Intricate acoustic picking sometimes recalling Joan Armatrading…but Curtis is very much an original.”
A career others see as a marvel of consistency, Curtis sees as a hopscotch of serendipity, small-town roots, and the search for honest stories. She grew up in Saco, Maine, never knowing how to express the music she felt inside her. She saw musicals at the Ogunquit Playhouse, played trombone and drums in the school band. But perhaps the kindness that infuses her music had its origins in the gift that made her a songwriter. At 15, she was at a yard sale, staring hungrily at a guitar she could not afford. The woman who owned it asked if she’d promise to learn to play it, then gave it to her.
“I was looking for a way to express myself and the trombone wasn’t doing it,” Curtis says. “I started listening to songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne. When I was at Brown University, I saw Suzanne Vega and thought, ‘This is it; this is what I want to do.’ It was her whole less-is-more presentation. Her storytelling was captivating, both in the songs and in between. I’d always felt overwhelmed by hard rock and heavy metal; all this noise and I didn’t feel anything. With Suzanne, it was like, wow, there’s so little going on and I feel filled up.”
Curtis seeks the everyday details that let you see your own life in her songs: headlights crossing a bedroom wall; love’s loss felt in morning coffee alone; and the falling-in-love moment of “The Kiss That Counted.” That eye for detail also drives her humor, describing an epic winter with “snowbanks higher than the Berlin Wall,” and the sad realization that “My dog’s too short to go outside.”
So many people have told Curtis that her songs are like companions, soundtracks for their lives. In her ‘90s gay-rights classic, “Radical,” she sang, “I’m not being radical when I kiss you/ And I don’t love you to make a point.” The intimacy with which she expressed her lesbian identity helped others through their own difficult journey to openness. “To me, a song is like a conversation with a friend,” she says. “Like when you’re sharing stories with friends, there’s always a lot of ‘Yeah, yeah, me, too.’ There’s a kind of voice you use when you talk to someone you’re comfortable with. That’s the voice I look for in my songs.”
In the mid-90s, Catie was a budding newcomer in a Boston folk scene that was producing stars like Dar Williams and Tracy Chapman. In 1995, she lost her glasses and, needing money for new ones, took a gig at New York’s Bottom Line. She was discovered and signed by EMI/Guardian Records, joining Joan Baez, Jimmy Webb, and the Nields.
Perhaps too quickly, she skyrocketed to major-label star. “They reminded me that, first and foremost, I was a product,” she says. “My A&R guy actually told me, ‘You need to learn to be more of a diva,’ because I was dressing casually and going out to talk to fans after shows. They were trying to build me into something larger than life. It wasn’t a perfect fit that way.”
But it did launch her career. She moved on to successful tenures at Rykodisc, Vanguard and Compass. What sustains her long career, however, is the concert stage.
“I find Catie incredibly comfortable and at ease,” says Kim Rice Wilson, President of Columbus, Ohio’s Six String Concerts, which has presented Curtis at performing arts centers for over 20 years. “She becomes part of the evening, not just somebody on stage delivering something. And she’s fresh and new every time we present her.”
Club Passim’s Smith says, “She doesn’t bother following trends; she’s true to herself but continues to push the boundary of what she does. And she always brings the audience along for the ride.”
Mary Chapin Carpenter says, “Catie takes something that’s very difficult, that takes enormous skill and natural gifts, and makes it look easy. I know it takes years and years to feel that comfortable on a stage, to know yourself and how to bring people in like she can. You feel like you’re being transported, that you know her, and that’s she’s given you something of herself.”