Catie Curtis has been writing her own music since 1989, but her new album, Flying Dream, is the first she’s put out on her own in 10 years. After a decade of working with labels, the New England folk star raised funds for her new record with help from diehard fans, of which she has many. A prolific songwriter and seasoned traveling troubadour, Catie has made a name for herself in both the music and queer communities as an important voice for supporting independence and equality.
On Catie’s thirteenth album, she worked with Kristen Hall, an original member of the country band Sugarland, who also happens to be gay. Kristen produced Flying Dream, and co-wrote six of the songs. The end result is a cohesive 10-track tapestry of emotional folk with hints of country, pop and blues.
We spoke with Catie about recording Flying Dream, releasing the album on her own, and her recent separation from her wife.
AfterEllen.com: You have a song about Queen Latifah on the new album, and in doing my research, it looks like this was based on a true situation. Can you tell me a little bit about the impetus of “The Queen?”
Catie Curtis: Absolutely. I agreed to participate at one of the inaugural balls for Barack Obama and Queen Latifah was scheduled to go on before me and when she supposed to go on, she hadn’t arrived. So they switched it up and I went first. As I was finishing my set, the producer came along with the sign that said “Keep playing!” So I just had to make up the keys to songs. I started doing old songs of mine then I started doing cover songs. The band I hired was so good. It was a big gig for me so I had to have the right players. They were hanging through every song song and we just had just the best time and the audience loved it. So afterwards I thought, “OK, when the queen doesn’t show”: You’ve got a first line there. You’ve gotta write a song. For me, it also resonates with giving, as you get older in whatever you do, you get more commanding about it and take up the space when it’s given to you and I think that’s true for a lot of people and serves a positive side to being a veteran musician out there.
AE: So was it exciting in the moment more so than nerve-racking because you hadn’t planned to play that long?
CC: It was exciting. I felt a lot of trust in the band and the inaugural balls are parties so it’s not like this rapt audience. As long as we had a good groove going and I thought of something to sing we were fine! It was actually a real high.
AE: I bet it’s a different kind of inspiration from most other songs you would write.
CC: I know. It doesn’t really go along with the other songs on the album in some ways because it’s not that sensitive. But on the other hand, it does in the way that I feel like it’s part of my evolution to be more, to feel a little more deserving of the career that I have. You start to realize you’re one of the last ones standing from the early Lilith Fair days. I feel really proud to be still able to make a living as a musician and to be invited to play the inaugural ball.
AE: Definitely. This is also your first album not on a label for a long time. You funded most of it through a fan campaign — can you tell me how that was different from your past experience in working with labels?
CC: The main bonuses for me in doing it on my own is that I’m not paying an exorbitant amount per CD so I get to share the music more freely with people, give a copy to every friend. When you’re on a record label, you’re paying eight bucks a copy for your CD! And then the other thing is that while I do have a significant debt in a way because there was an investor I need to pay back, it’s an expensive record. I do have to pay some significant debt back, I love that I can pitch the record to TV and I don’t have to get permission to have a song used in something and that kind of helps make it more possible to get songs used. Also there are so many nonprofits out there that want to use my songs and I can just say yes to them and I don’t have to get my label and their lawyer to look at it and stuff like that.
AE: Is that something you’re actively trying to do, lend your songs out there in different ways that you haven’t before?
CC: It’s something I sense is going to happen with this record. Right now I’m just so focused on getting it out there for the fans, but it’s definitely the life of this record. And Kristen Hall who produced and sings on it wants that to happen for this record too. She co-wrote a bunch of the songs and knows a lot of folks who are music supervisors, so that kind of thing. As it always is, there’s so much more freedom when you have it on your own label and also another responsibility to put it out there because you have to hire people to do publicity and whatnot. But essentially since there’s so little value to physical distribution and less and less of a playing field out there for radio airplay, those are kind of two big things for me, the need for a label has diminished quite a lot.
AE: I’m familiar with Kristen Hall through her work with Sugarland. How did you meet her and come to work with her on this album?
CC: I always wanted to know why she quit Sugarland! And I was sitting at my hairdressers and she said, “There was this girl in here who said she knew you.” And I said “Who was it?” She said, “Well she’s in a band, Sugar…land?” And I asked her to look up her name so she looks up the name, and she comes back and says, “It was Kristen Hall. Do you want her number? I have it right here.” Of course it’s completely inappropriate that she showed me her number but this woman has no idea that Kristen Hall is famous. So she gave me her number and we wrote one song and said “Oh this is fun!” and then we kind of said “Let’s write another song!” and ended up writing six of the songs on the record together. I do one cover that’s her song, “Live Laugh Love” is actually a song she wrote with a different co-writer. Then she thought, “I gotta find you a good producer, because I’m really invested in this music. I wrote these songs.” Her and I were throwing names to each other of producers I should work with and then she said “Well maybe I’ll just produce four songs,” because she doesn’t like to sign up for too much at one time. And once we had the band all lined up she said, “What the hell, let’s just do all the songs. I’ll do them all!” Then she said, “I want to arrange the vocal harmonies. Oh what the hell, I’ll sing ‘em all!” It was kind of like this thing of her realizing she was the right person to do all that and me saying “OK!” happily going along. I’ve always been a fan of her solo work and amazed by her success with Sugarland. I think she just has such a great ear for delicious sounds and really compelling lyrics so I’m just really happy that I had the opportunity to make a record with her.
AE: There are some definite country elements to the album, whether it’s her influence—
CC: What country? Oh maybe like “Four Walls” and “If I’m Right.”
AE: Yeah and the song that was on CMT! And the country genre isn’t very LGBT-friendly so I’m wondering what your experience is in that realm. Have you had any interest in expanding in that area?
CC: That was “Maybe Tomorrow.” The only connection I have with Nashville is I’ve had some country artists express interest in some of my songs in the past, to take them in a country direction. But there’s nothing about the songs on this record that is current country. It’s more like old Gram Parsons. I think that “If I’m Right” reminds me of an old Gram Parsons song with Emmylou Harris and the other stuff is more acoustic-guitar mandolin, it may be more toward pop. I would say there’s kind of an acoustic center to everything but it has a pop splash of production, except for “This Girl’s In Love With You” which is a whole different thing because it’s a Burt Bacharach song and completely with an electronic production. This one guy, Jamie Edwards, who plays with Aimee Mann and all kinds of great people, he produced that whole track. Between him and Kristen Hall, they worked it out.
AE: So do you have any interest in the country world?
CC: No. To me that’s like a far-fetched idea. I don’t think there’s any part of me that is—what’s the word—marketable or would even want to be in a country world. Basically the conservative tendencies and I also feel like you get what you ask for; you get what you wish for. I think that was actually one of the problems for Kristen Hall. When she got Sugarland going, the problem with being in a really successful country act is the machinery. The country world is a big industrial machine and she was on the road like 340 days a year and the main thing as I see it as she left the band, now that I know her, was because she didn’t want to be a product that had to be out there selling herself all the time. She’s more like a folk singer—you know, you go out two or three weekends a month maybe and take the summers off. It’s just a really great lifestyle being independent. And maybe you wish you earned more or whatever, but I love being an independent artist and being able to control my own schedule, and being able to balance being on the road and just having time at home.
AE: Do you still live in the Boston area?
CC: I do, yes. Kristen lives in Nashville and L.A.
AE: In the bio for your album it mentions your separation from your wife. How much of the music was inspired by that?
CC: Well it was more unconsciously because we didn’t get separated until the fall and I was recording the record in June. When I look back on it now, I can see—you realize you were sort of bringing things to the surface artistically that I wasn’t consciously looking at yet. To me, some of the vocal performances related to what I was feeling going on, going on with my marriage but Flying Dream wasn’t explicitly written about that. That’s going to be more like the next record. [Laughs] It’s not like a big — I haven’t really talked about it and I haven’t put anything on Facebook or anything. It’s like how do you even tell people? It’s kind of—it’s very personal, but we’ve been public as a couple, like doing an It Gets Better video and things like that so I don’t quite know how to handle it.
AE: Yeah, it’s a weird thing! Like, “Do I issue a press release…?”
CC: Right, again, the difference between me being in an industrial pop world or commercial music world is I don’t have to worry about— there’s not money to be made in telling my story so luckily I’m not showing everything. It’s just for me and I kind of feel like it’s in my bio now. It’s there so I’m not hiding it but it’s also not like the focus of anything. It’s just part of what’s happening in my life.
AE: Earlier you were saying that you are one “the last ones standing” from Lilith Fair days. Why do you think that is? What makes you different from your peers you were coming up with?
CC: I think because the folk scene is so much more nurturing and such a sustainable scene to grow through. When I look at other people that I listen to who are even 10 years older than me, like Cheryl Wheeler or Patty Larkin, it’s like they are still doing it now and will still do it until they’re 75 or 80. People aren’t taxed by, once they get to a certain age, you’re still a folk singer. So I’m out there playing small in concerts in little theaters and with other people a lot. And when you’re an up and coming star, on the other hand, playing rock clubs and hoping for the next radio hit, if it doesn’t happen, you don’t have careers anymore. There’s no one there to support you and people move on. It’s less about what the music sounds like and more about a sort of grassroots connection or collection of venues across the country, and fans that Google “folk” and people who are willing to go hear some unplugged type of music. So I don’t feel like it’s not so much about me, but about the fact I’m surrounded by a very healthy music scene in New England, and I go to the Folk Alliance Conferences. It’s just a really healthy network of supportive.
AE: It’s probably so different from an experience you’d have living in LA or New York because it’s too big.
CC: Yeah, I think of Melissa Ferrick, you know? She’s got that sort of grassroots fanbase and someone like Jonatha Brooke kept afloat playing in the folk series and now she’s got this great new one-woman play, My Mother Has Four Noses and she’s doing a record with them, and a lot of shows. I think just getting outside of this mindset of, “All you want is a radio hit and to just ride that wave forever.” Nobody rides that wave forever.