Songwriter Catie Curtis finds strength in grass-roots approach

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Special to the Journal-World

Folk-rock songwriter Catie Curtis is well known for the bond she shares with her audience. This is evidenced by her latest release, "Acoustic Valentine," which features fan-requested songs re-recorded in an acoustic setting.

In today's media-fueled music industry, not all successful musicians are going to be on the cover of Rolling Stone. They are not going to release a song that will be a fixture on Top-40 radio and audiences won't see them on TRL.

Though this is one way for performers to become visible, some are happy NOT to be part of the machine.

Catie Curtis is one of these musicians.

The singer/songwriter has developed a strong fan following without ever relying on mainstream devices.

"I think that the difference between being part of the New York/Los Angeles machinery and my career is that this is about the connection with your fans," Curtis says. "You put out records, you put out your mailing list and you tell people when you are performing. It really depends on word of mouth."

The word has spread, and the Boston-based troubadour is enjoying a successful career, even being dubbed by the New Yorker magazine as a "folk-rock goddess." Although she has toured nationally with the Lilith Fair and had songs featured on the television shows "Dawson's Creek" and "Felicity," don't expect Curtis to pop up in pop culture.

"It is never going to look like that bubble-gum pop rise to fame," she says. "I have been doing THIS for 15 years and it is impossible to rewrite history. This is the career I am having. I am grateful for that."

Trash to treasure

Growing up in the small town of Saco, Maine, Curtis began her fascination for music at an early age.

"When I was very young, I used to listen to the stereo sitting right next to the speakers and wish I could just crawl inside it," Curtis says.

While rummaging through items at a local garage sale, the then 15-year-old Curtis stumbled upon a used six-string that piqued her interest.

Past Event

Catie Curtis

  • Friday, November 21, 2003, 7:30 p.m.
  • Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St., Lawrence
  • All ages / $20

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"I asked the woman how much the guitar was, and the woman -- who I barely knew -- looked at me very seriously and said, 'if you learn to play it Catie, you can have it,'" she recalls. "I took it and within months I was out playing at the local restaurants."

The teenager honed her talent in Saco until leaving to attend college at Brown University in Providence, R.I. Although she studied history at the Ivy League institute, she continued to indulge her passion in music.

"They had a good little underground coffeehouse where people were always playing music and I was really encouraged by that," she says.

The Providence music scene encouraged her to continue writing and performing. After leaving the school, Curtis moved to Boston where she continued to play the coffeehouse/bar scene. Eventually, a loyal following enabled her to get air time on local radio stations. Curtis then decided that music was more than a hobby and attempted to embark on the career path of a professional musician.

"I realized that there was no point in trying to do something other than music and I would just give it a reasonable amount of time," she says. "I recently passed the 10-year mark of being a fully self-supported musician and I can't imagine turning back."

An acoustic uprising

In 1996, the musician signed with EMI Guardian Records and released her self-titled studio debut with the production help of Roy Bittan, keyboardist of Bruce Springsteen's E-Street Band. She recorded self-written songs from her growing repertoire. Inspired by many different sources, Curtis' music became a collection of emotional narratives on topics ranging from domestic violence to corporate greed to love. She speaks from the heart on gay issues, which has earned her a substantial lesbian following.

"Just life in general inspires me," she says. "Sometimes I am inspired by hearing other music that almost, but doesn't quite, say what I want to say. Well-written books, good conversation, intensity in relationships, problems in the world; all of it inspires me.

Curtis' soulful songwriting can be found on her current release, "Acoustic Valentine."

"It is sort of a best-of album," she says. "It is fan-requested songs recorded acoustically after having been recorded in a band format."

Besides touring to promote the album, Curtis has also has lent her talents to an independent documentary.

"(Filmmaker) Rob Millis wanted to make a film about the grass-roots singer/songwriter scene," she says. "Then I guess he decided just to focus on me as a way of telling a story of what it is like to be someone who lives this way -- who makes a living touring around but who isn't part of the major music-industry machine."

(A trailer for the film can be viewed at www.symphonyofchaos.com.)

And when that tour brings Curtis to Lawrence for her first headlining gig, she has one particular goal for her fans.

"I hope they come to the gig and run into friends and they are in an amazing mood," she says. "I hope they dig every single song, sing along, and at the end they are flying high."

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