Pulling for a Cure

Singer-songwriter Catie Curtis, Grey Eye Glances and Ana Egge will perform at ParkinSong April 13, a benefit concert for the Parkinson Alliance of Princeton.

By: Daniel Shearer
   The philosopher in Boston-based singer-songwriter Catie Curtis talks about how God doesn’t exist to prevent worldly pain and suffering. The fun-loving, ebullient side of her expounds on the "Kiss That Counted," pouring down like "summer rain, incoming ocean, oncoming train."
   In a knock-down, drag-out fight, the fun-loving side would probably win, but that wouldn’t stop her from producing ridiculously catchy tunes with lyrical substance. Lately, Ms. Curtis spends a fair amount of time touring with songstress Dar Williams. Her career gained momentum in 1998, playing to the Lilith Fair crowd, then took a steady pace on stateside and European tours opening for Mary Chapin Carpenter.
   TimeOFF caught up with Ms. Curtis in San Francisco for a phone interview a few hours before a concert to raise money for treatment of breast cancer in under-insured women. She’ll swing by Council Rock High School in Newtown, Pa., April 13 for another charity benefit, ParkinSong, sponsored by the Parkinson Alliance of Princeton. Like last year’s ParkinSong concert, which enabled the alliance to fund a research grant, all of the proceeds from ParkinSong II will go directly to ongoing Parkinson Disease research.
   "I feel like playing music is so much fun, and it’s somewhat self-indulgent because I just love doing it," says Ms. Curtis, who started out as a drummer and later learned to play guitar. She broke into the folk scene as a student at Brown University, playing in coffeehouses.
   "I never have to grow up when I’m playing music," she says, "and then to be able to raise money for a good cause kind of abates the nagging guilt about how I’m actually not doing anything important in the world. I find it adds a little bit of meaning to what I do."
   Hosted by WMMR DJ Pierre Robert, ParkinSong also will feature Philadelphia folk-rockers Grey Eye Glances, a band that made its major-label debut in 1997 with Eventide (Mercury), and country influenced folksinger Ana Egge, a Canadian who moved to Austin, Texas, in 1995 to launch a music career. In 1998, Ms. Egge embarked on a 25-date tour with folksinger Shawn Colvin, performed at Lilith Fair in 1999 and has opened for Richard Thompson, Joan Armatrading and John Prine.
   "I’m really excited about the benefit," Ms. Curtis says, "because it’s something we’ve had on the books for a long time and I can see the promoters are really committed to raising funds for Parkinson’s Disease research."
   Ms. Curtis, who like most folkies often performs solo gigs, will be joined on stage in Newtown by mandolinist Jimmy Ryan, drummer Billy Conway and bassist Jared Nickerson. After that, she’s off to Europe for another tour.
   Listeners may notice a similarity between Ms. Curtis and pop-sensation Sarah McLachlan, both of whom use straight-tone vocals flavored with occasional breathiness.
   "Yeah, she stole that from me. Can you believe it?" says Ms. Curtis, laughing. "There are times when I listen to her music and I think, ‘Oh, she sounds like my sister.’"
   That similarity may even have been one of the factors that led to Ms. Curtis’ performances at Lilith Fair, a national tour during the late ’90s that celebrated women in music. Perhaps they caught wind of Ms. Curtis after hearing her single "Soulfully" on episodes of Dawson’s Creek and Chicago Hope.
   Ms. Curtis sees her latest album, My Shirt Looks Good on You (Rykodisc) as her "most band-oriented record" to date. The group spent time in Upstate New York, working in a wooden church converted into a studio. Ms. Curtis solicited the aid of Grammy Award-winning producer Trina Shoemaker, who had previously worked with Emmylou Harris and Sheryl Crow.
   "We cut the record live," she says, "meaning everybody playing together at one time, over a 10-day period in the studio. Now that is really different from my self-titled record that I made in L.A., with famous studio musicians on EMI."
   That project, released on EMI/Guardian in 1997 shortly before the label’s demise, featured legendary session bassist Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon).
   "The ‘Catie Curtis’ record was way more elaborate and expensive," she says. "Every day, a different musician would come in and play to all the tracks. It was so complicated because everybody played on different takes. This time, we have a record that was written as a band, the arrangements created as a band. I think it sounds the tightest, maybe the most musical."
   With the exception of a previously unreleased song written by Morphine frontman Mark Sandman, who died in 1999 following a heart attack on stage in Rome, Ms. Curtis penned all of the songs on My Shirt Looks Good on You, including three songs written while touring with Dar Williams in 2000.
   "(Dar Williams) has this audience that gets this material of hers, which is very dense," Ms. Curtis says. "Her songs have a lot of meaning, and you have to be listening, so I felt inspired to write something that was a little more challenging."
   Ms. Curtis produced the allegorical, acoustic-guitar-flavored ballad, "The Big Reprise," written about an accidental church burning in her hometown, Saco, Maine. The narrative describes stained glass exploding, "Molten pieces of broken Jesus at my feet," and questions "What kind of God would let this go?" The song seems to have found new meaning for audiences in recent months.
   "People have been asking for it lately," she says, "and I think it is sounding really different to me now. When I wrote it, to me, the song was about one’s expectations of the power of God. Now, it’s really also about what happens in the name of God. It wasn’t as political when I wrote it, because the event that inspired it was an accident. Now, there are some very deliberately evil things going on, and a lot of confusion around it. I think the song seems to speak to some of that confusion.
   "Ultimately, the original message of the song, which I think is that God doesn’t exist to prevent us from experiencing worldly pain and suffering — that’s still sort of true. I think that message stands."
   The great hope, of course, is that some meaning will emerge from tragedies endured in life. All is not bleak, however. Toward the end of the song, Ms. Curtis sheds a little light: "maybe everything lets everything die/ to make us all more alive." Now there’s an interesting thought. Simple words. Big philosophy.
ParkinSong takes place at Council Rock High School, Swamp Road, Newtown, Pa., April 13, 7:30 p.m. Advance tickets cost $20, $25 at the door; reserved seating $45. For information, call (800) 579-8440. Catie Curtis on the Web: www.catiecurtis.com