One of the coolest things about doing what I do is discovering new music that really moves me. It’s weird because sometimes I find new music and sometimes I do believe that the powers that be in the universe help music find me. I will admit that I had never heard of Sara Curtin a month ago, but all of that changed very quickly with one listen to the song “Summer” which seemed to consume me. After that, the music lover in me began a quest to find out more about this very talented singer/songwriter.
She’s part of the duo The Sweater Set with Maureen Andary, but she’s about to release her second solo album entitled Michigan Lilium which is an eclectic mix of tracks, refreshing in its multi layered musical depth that makes each one a treat in its own right. Curtin’s vocal delivery is a major source of appeal on this album, especially in a sea of auto-tune and style over substance. She pulls back at times and proves that, even with a powerful voice, that less can sometimes be more. I sat down with her recently and had a great talk about the new album, her influences and so much more.
Who is Sara Curtin?
Sara Curtin: Well, I’m from Washington, DC and I grew up here. I lived in Brooklyn when I went to school in Ann Harbor Michigan. I’m a student of music and voice, mostly choral and classical voice, my whole life. Then, it seemed to find a path in me and I started writing music 10 to 15 years ago. I guess the way that you described leaving your magazine and taking a leap of faith to start your own magazine is sort of how I feel about this new record. Like you said, you never know unless you try and I had not focused on my solo work in my name in about five years. I got to a point where I thought if I don’t put it out, then I’ll never know. So, I’ve got to try, I need to know what it will sound like and what will come out of it. Who is Sarah Curtin is such a crazy question (laughs); I’m still trying to find that out.
It’s a work in progress.
Oh definitely, it’s always a work in progress. I feel like this record especially is that and my kind of experimentation and finding the new voice and blending of genres. I’m influenced by some many different kinds of genre. It comes in writing but sometimes it’s hard to translate as a single piece. That was one of the challenges of this record is that I wanted to be true to my influences and the product, but I wanted to make it something that could be palatable as a single piece.
Since it’s been about five years since your last solo project, have you been focusing more on The Sweater Set over that course of time?
Yes, between 2010 and 2014, my main performance focus was The Sweater Set. We were touring the US and Ireland, England, Scotland and we put out three records during that time, but then I started to focus on this batch of songs. After our record came out in 2013, I hunkered down and really focused on these songs to see what would come out.
I’m always curious when a band member goes solo for an album or two. What is it that drew you towards doing another solo album?
You know, I think it’s just different; there’s nothing malicious about it. When I announced that I was doing this record, people kept asking like they wanted to find the dirt. They wanted to know what happened and if we were still friends. She and I are so close and she’s been very supportive; she’s known since we became a band that I had been making music on my own as well, so it’s not like it came out of nowhere. It’s a different experience when I did this on my own as well. With the band, it was a true duo like Lennon/McCartney, both songwriters bringing complete songs to the table. We play completely different instruments in the group as it’s a more of acoustic/folk group, so it’s always going to be different when there’s another whole voice with 50% say; that’s not to say that I wanted 100% say in the band. I think that some of it comes about from my interest in recording and engineering and my experimentation in producing and stuff like that. When I am by myself, I just lock myself into this space for hours and then experiment until the arrangement reveals itself to me. I really get into it just starts happening and I can lose myself in a whole day with it. That’s kind of where these arrangements came from; it wasn’t an intentional ‘oh, I need to hide these from my band.’ They came out in a demo when I was recording and experimenting and then they became fleshed out in an expression that really didn’t fit the style of The Sweater Set.
See, now that’s what I like to hear from an artist when they record a solo album. I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve heard an artist’s solo album and it sounds exactly like the band that he’s already recording with.
That was important to me that it sound different from the project that I was focusing on for so long.
The music nerd in me wants to ask about the album title and it there’s a story there?
Oh yes, thank you for asking; I wrote this song after watching the episode of Anthony Bourdain “Parts Unknown” about Detroit. His guide in the episode brought him to see some of the abandoned houses in Detroit and noted the blooming gardens out front. Even though the houses were abandoned, the flowers would come back every year. Particularly striking to me was the tall, vibrant orange Michigan Lily. Tony’s guide told him that people call these “Ghost Gardens” because they bloom year after year despite not being tended to. That phrase stuck with me and I started writing a song. It turned out to be a song about dormancy, death, trying to live a true life, and the struggles that come with that. The album title also comes from this song, that flower that has the drive to grow back after a year of neglect; Lilium Michiganense. Here’s a nerdy guitar joke for you, too. The line “Strong footing where I stand, A solid cedar axe in my hand” came about because I wrote the song on my cedar top Fender acoustic guitar. Cedar guitar… Cedar Axe… I laughed.
There were actually two tracks on this album that really intrigued me, even to the point of having them stuck on repeat for close to a dozen listens. You just gave us the in-sight that I was seeking on one of those songs, “Garden of Ghosts.” The other track was “Old House”; what can you tell us about that song?
Well, if an album with eight songs can have “deep tracks”, then I feel like you chose mine. “Garden of Ghosts” and “Old House” are dear to me. “Old House” was written while living in the basement of a very creaky old house. I truly don’t think there were any extra layers between the floor upstairs and my ceiling. The song content comes from a moment of fear questioning whether I was on the right path. It follows a sort of plea for comfort from the age and wisdom of the house. The final verse also reveals my tendency to “stress-clean”. My room of choice has always been the kitchen; so many surfaces & crevices. My friend and roommate at the time told me that the kitchen is considered “the heart” of the home, so when I was writing “Old House” I used the metaphor of scrubbing the kitchen as a way of settling my own heart. The process of producing this song was really fun for me. I experimented with a brand new synthesizer on this and loved the way the digitally produced sounds complimented the more natural elements of the guitar (recalling the wood creaking or “quake” in the song). I liked it so much that I even gave it a solo in the instrumental section! The bridge is a dramatic shift in both the content and the form. The lyrics change in that “The House” becomes the 1st person narrator singing a lullaby. To reflect that in the music, I wanted to create a new dreamy atmosphere lighter than that of the verses for which I am the 1st person voice. (added delay, higher harmony,
finger-picked guitar, hand percussion)
If I read correctly, your family is quite musically inclined and it sounds like you were surrounded by music most of your life?
Yes, my brother and I are both musicians and my mom, who is our biggest influence, is a professional musician and a choir/music director as well as a piano and guitar player and arranger. She writes parts for all kinds of instruments, so there was always music around. My brother’s a drummer and recording engineer and he taught me all that I know about recording which was very lucky for me.
I’m glad that you mentioned that because I wanted to ask you about producing. I read in your bio that you produced this new album and I was curious if it was your first time producing and was it at all intimidating? What was that aspect of putting this album together like?
I love producing and arranging music by experimenting in the studio. Luckily since I do most of the recording myself, I’m able to take as much time as I like and not feel constricted by a budget. The arranging and layering of parts to weave in and out is the most fun I have while writing music so that’s not intimidating. I would spend a whole day singing harmonies and trying different things to try and get the feeling just right. The only time I get frustrated is when there’s a technical roadblock with the equipment. Lucky for me my brother (Jeff Curtin of Small Black & Pitchfork.tv) is an excellent audio engineer and just a phone call away. I also have many buddies here in DC to help troubleshoot so I don’t lose too much momentum. It takes a village.
With all of this music surrounding you in your life growing up, was their ever a point when you considered something other than music to go into?
I did theatre and thought for a while that I would be in theater education and then music just took over. Right now, in addition to music, I am teaching yoga, which is something new that I wouldn’t have expected for myself.
I love to pick the brain of musicians when it comes to this question and I know it’s not always an easy one. What were a few of the albums that helped inspire you and mold you into the artist you are today?
Oh, so tough! I was a well of music growing up and I listened to so much and a lot of popular music, so I cannot divorce myself from the 90s and Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. Then, when I started thinking about songwriting and lyrics, as hard as it is to choose just one, I would go with Living in Clip which was a live album that she did. She was a big cornerstone when I was listening to how people could write lyrics and sing and speak and recall rhymes; she’s just incredible and such a creative guitar player too. I was actually a huge Sublime fan growing up and 40oz. to Freedom was my favorite. There are so many albums that I could add to this list such as Blue by Joni Mitchell, which probably isn’t much of a surprise and I also love The Miseducation of Lauren Hill. I listened to a lot of the early Beatles and my dad pushed them on us and I was lucky to have him; he was a rock historian. I really gravitated to the early Beatles like on Help and Meet the Beatles, the more poppy kind of fun stuff. I actually sense some of that in music. We actually refer to the bridge in the last song on the album “The Easy Way” as the Beatles bridge. If you go back and listen to that, there’s a one major to minor change on there.
With such diverse tastes in music, what’s something in your collection that might surprise even your most die-hard fan?
I don’t know, but probably that guilty pleasure stuff. I’m listening to a lot of local stuff right now and I’m getting really excited and pumped about the music that’s coming out of DC. Even as a DC musician, I think some people might be surprised that we listen to each other and we genuinely like and support each other and it’s not this competitive atmosphere. I don’t know; is that surprising?
I’ve actually talked to artists from all over the US and in some parts, the local scene does not work together and it is very competitive and somewhat fierce to some extent.
I’m actually looking through my iPod now and when I look through it, nothing surprises me.
Well, of course not.
I know, right. I think it all makes perfect sense (laughs). I should have mentioned Ryan Adams before; he’s like the Holy Grail of songwriting. He’s so emotional and his records are so raw and bare. I think he’s such a prolific songwriter, yet his stuff is so varied. He’ll have this country album and then a rock album and then a solo piano record like 29 which is my favorite and it’s so sad. I’d sit and cry and let it all out in the space of that album. It’s also inspiring to see an artist play with his own genre like that and be so true to his own voice and what he wants to do.
Sara, this has definitely been a treat and I thank you for not only taking the time to talk to me today, but also thank you for being you. It’s great to come across something with diversity and freshness on so many levels in music today.
Thank you Johnny; I really appreciate that a lot and best of luck on your new leap of faith as well. I appreciate you wanting to talk to me and thank you so much for the support.
The new album Michigan Lilium will be out on July 24 and we really do encourage our listeners to expand their musical horizons and pick this one up.
Photo of Sara Curtin courtesy of Amanda Reynolds