My DC: A Conversation with Sara Curtin
Photography by Mark Hoelscher
When we approached multi-instrumentalist and D.C. native Sara Curtin, there was little doubt in her mind that the interview would take place at 14th Street venue Black Cat. For Curtin, the Black Cat has served as a focal point for growth, both as a musician and an individual, in addition to being the location of her upcoming album release show for her latest studio effort, Or So It Seemed. I met with Sara this past Tuesday to discuss the album’s core themes of growth and change, and how it fits into her positive worldview of community and spirituality.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How has your tour been thus far?
Sara Curtin: [The] tour has been great, I’ve kind of broken it up a little bit; we did Baltimore, Richmond, New York and then over to Ann Arbor without the band–I missed them. And D.C. is right smack in the middle, which is great for this Thursday’s show. So it’s been really awesome–we are really pumped to keep playing these songs, and it’s been really fun to play the new record. We arranged a lot of these songs together as a band, which is what really makes this record stick out to me–the fluidity and consistency is audible and tangible. I’m just really happy how this all came together.
Can you break down how Or So It Seemed was recorded in the context of your band, the Sara Curtin Five? Specifically, do you write all of the instrumental parts or are you more hands off? How do you mediate between your own creativity and the group’s collaborative creativity?
SC: Well, I write the songs from start to finish, with the rhythm guitar part and the lyrics. Usually the structure doesn’t change much, we’ll add some time at the beginning or the end and tweak the fine details together, but the structure is generally there when I bring it to the band. And I would say with about half of these songs we arranged in rehearsal, together, and that’s how they grew. For example, Olivia [Mancini] plays a shredding solo on “When Was the Last Time,” and she wrote that for the recording, but had been playing something like that for over a year when we were workshopping together. Other parts are like that as well.
The other half of the songs I wrote and recorded on my own, then I brought the recordings to the band and gave them that. “What Do I Know” is a good example of that on this record, the feminist anthem. When I brought that song to the band, we played it live and worked out the arrangement in the studio. Then in the studio, Olivia, who had written the intro guitar part, brought this riff of my dreams to me, and I just said, “well, that was perfect.”
They are talented folks. Maureen [Andary] and I worked a bit closer on the harmonies, because that’s our favorite thing to do. I usually will write harmonies before, not because I don’t trust Maureen, she’s brilliant, but because it’s so fun I can’t help myself. It all comes together somehow.
So you grew up in D.C., and you indicated that you’ve been to Black Cat a number of times as both a performer and a patron. Can you pinpoint any specific shows you’ve seen here as particularly memorable or influential to your own work as an artist?
SC: I saw Deer Tick here on The Black Dirt Sessions tour – that was amazing, it was incredible. The Sweater Set played a show upstairs, so that was a shift in perspective, seeing and playing shows. As a folk band, we just didn’t think that we would be welcome in big spaces like that, so that was thrilling for us–I think we played for the first time here in 2011. And that was really formative, you know, your first time playing a big, iconic D.C. stage in your hometown.
Can you talk more about that first time you performed here?
We were asked to open for Drop Electric at their album release. It was just so kind of them, because we are extremely different genres–it made a huge difference in the way I saw how shows could be built, and it made me connect with and respect the audience in a different way. Throwing all this different music at the audience, and them going along for the ride was wonderful.
Getting to play Black Cat and 9:30 Club… for a D.C. kid, there’s nothing better.
External to your musical career, you’ve stated that Black Cat has personal significance to you as well.
SC: Well, when I moved back from New York, I joined online dating and emailed back and forth with this nice guy for a while when I was on tour. And when I came back we had our first date right over there, at the bar. We had tickets to see David Bazan and S Carey, who collaborate with Bon Iver.
We talked through most of the set and almost missed it all, but then we went upstairs for the end of S Carey’s set. And then years later, I ended up getting engaged here. He brought me back to the same place where we met. So this place is a really special professional and personal place. A lot of places in D.C. are separate or feel separate–childhood is a nook, music is a nook, and dating is a nook. But this feels more like home.
Or So It Seemed is your newest record, released earlier this month. In terms of instrumentality, Seemed is a departure from the more acoustic, traditional folk textures of your last record, Michigan Lilium. What motivated this shift in sound?
SC: That’s just what happens with songwriting I think. I think with playing out with the band more, I truly love getting to make loud noise, to turn it up a bit. And I think that influenced the type of music I was prone to writing in the last two years making this record. Whereas Michigan Lilium took four years to write and release, I was still getting used to using acoustic guitar as a texture or even a lead instrument. Making this record and knowing how the band plays, and how the band plays together, I knew that the Telecaster would be my lead instrument. Even in recordings, I knew I wanted the Tele to be up front and really present, because that’s what I want to play the whole night.
Oh So It Seemed focuses primarily on themes of change and getting older, and it’s a very introspective record. Could you speak more to the experiences the informed the writing?
SC: Nothing dramatic, tragic or huge. I think it’s just the micro changes in our day to day that help us see things differently. For me, this record deals with shift in perspective more than reminiscing, it’s really taking a look at what I thought to be true, and what I expected to be true and kind of stripping that down and finding the truth, or so it seems right now. The truth now. And in five years, I’ll look back and think “oh that’s cute, she thought that.”
“Song for Thanksgiving” is one of my favorites from Seemed, because it’s very reminiscent of ’70s folk artists like The Band and Joni Mitchell. Do you draw more from older or newer traditions within folk?
SC: For folk, the influences that end up in my writing are from older stuff, as I learn more and even cover more. The last couple years, I’ve done some covers of and performed a couple Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young songs and Joni, in a different way. I’ve always sung and listened to Joni, but performing it is different. That seeps in, you know? It seeps into the way you write. Especially the vocal harmonies–the song right before “Song for Thanksgiving,” called “Call You Home,” was heavily influenced by CSNY–the three part harmony, all the way through, it was very ’70s for me. It just sounds warm.
I ask about The Band specifically because you recently released a video of you performing an acoustic version of “The Weight” in Michigan as a part of the “Michigan Pajama Sessions.” It’s a fun video, but it begs the question–why pajamas?
SC: Why pajamas? Because I had not gotten dressed yet.
SC: We were rehearsing for the show that night on the beautiful deck we were standing on, and I just had not gotten dressed yet. We had planned to make a video, it just happened while we were rehearsing, and it was like, “let’s promote the show!” And I’m like, you guys, I’m not even wearing pants. So that was unintentional–but it was still fun to do.
Could you speak more to what inspired the writing of “Song for Thanksgiving” in particular? It touches on themes of community and a secular spirituality so I’m inclined to think there’s a specific story behind it.
SC: I have a lot of gratitude in our universe as a whole, so there’s a secular spirituality. I believe in God, so there’s a religious spirituality for me as well.
I was specifically babysitting my cousin’s kids for a week–two boys, putting them to bed, getting them dressed, bringing them to school, doing homework. So the verse at the end, “we must teach our children how to open our homes,” that was inspired by my week with children, and the influence that you have; like even just teaching them little, tiny things, they’re sponges and they remember you, and they remember what you say. It’s not meaningless.
I wrote this song also right when there was a desperate need to open our home for Syrian refugees… and so that is where that comes from too. The first verse is a reminder that, even in hard times, I have it so good, and I am so thankful for what I have. The things we take for granted every day.
Another song on the album, “Where I’m From,” touches on leaving a D.C. that’s “not like where [you’re] from,” and describes its residents as aliens. Do you feel the D.C. you live in is different from the one you grew up in?
SC: I think this song isn’t necessarily about the past or present, for me.
I was going on a weekend getaway and I wrote this song right before I left. Sometimes, in D.C., we can be very intense. Leaving D.C., you start to recognize the intensity within yourself, when the first thing you ask somebody is “oh, what do you do?” or “oh you live in Detroit, what do you do there?” Take a breath, take a step back. You don’t have to be that intense, it’s not a competition, and our self worth isn’t measured by what we do. That’s pretty much what that was about, and needing to be really type-A and focused all the time, and needing to be concerned about branding and the marketing.
You have your first West Coast tour starting next week, with shows in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle. How will the rest of the tour differ from Thursday’s performance, as a part what you dubbed the “Me and My Tele Tour?”
SC: Yeah, that’ll be solo. So that’s always different–I hear the songs with the full band behind me, but the audience does not. I have to work the songs a little differently. The shows I do by myself become a little bit more like this interview, where I share more about the process, or maybe the silly thing that my cat did that inspired me to write a guitar line in that way or something. But something with the band, the energy, I want to keep going, keep playing, and doing as much as we can.
So do you have a preference between playing alone and playing with a band?
SC: I mean, they’re just so different. I feel very different at the end of the show. With a solo show, I feel like I’ve shared something very, very personal, I feel like the audience walks away knowing me very well, maybe too well [laughs]. And there’s a real human connection with that… with the band it’s just this different, completely energizing sensation, to play and just go for it.
I love them both, and they both make me really nervous and scared.
You have an album release show later this week right here at the Black Cat, playing with your band, the Sara Curtin Five, as well as The North Country and PNMA. What can we expect at this live performance?
SC: It’s hard to know what to expect. With the two acts before us, we’re able to showcase music that is genre bending, very experimental in their field and what they do–I think people are going to be surprised to find the different types of music a single band can play. I’m really looking forward to that, so I want the whole night to reflect that kind of freedom within music. We’re independent artists–we don’t just have to perform radio hits, what we’re doing fuels us and drives us. And I think that’s really exciting.
For our set in particular, I think people who have not seen us yet are hopefully pleasantly surprised–a lot of people don’t expect what we’re bringing, with a female lead guitar player, myself, and third guitar player who’s also a woman, fronting the band.
Hopefully that’s exciting for people. We’ve never been more excited to play.
Sara Curtin headlines Black Cat on October 26 with The North Country and PNMA. Doors 7:30 p.m./Tickets $15