Recently, I was given a second go at Brandi Carlile… Wait. Let me rephrase that. I was offered a second opportunity to interview her regarding her latest album, Bear Creek. The first go-around was a short piece for NoiseTrade back in early June. It was a rushed set of questions culled before ever hearing the record. Now that I’ve not only heard the record, but also read more interviews with Brandi than I care to admit, I decided to take a different tack with my second course.
I love Patty Larkin. She’s one of those artists that never disappoints me. Not one for the glitz and glamor, Patty is an artist’s artist, a writer’s writer, pushing her craft with each project without sacrificing quality in the name of experimentation. Her latest release, Watch the Sky, is all her. She wrote, played and recorded the whole darn thing herself. And it just so happens to be one of her best works to date.
I saw you play solo at McCabe’s in the mid-’90s and I remember thinking that the mark of a great artist is when the songs and performance stands up fully in a setting like that. That’s huge in this world full of mediocrity. What’s your secret?
It’s all in the song for me. I like great production as much as anyone, but unless it’s trance or dance I want the lyrics to come first. The thing about playing solo in a small place in front of 125 people is that the smoke and mirrors fall away. (There’s only so much rock posturing you can do on an 8 x 15-foot stage.) What is left to you as a performer is the intimacy and the chance to reveal the heart of the song. I’m happy that you enjoyed the show.
Turning that gaze to your recordings, how is it you manage to keep innovating in your production approach – keeping things interesting without losing the Patty Larkin core – like you’ve done on Watch the Sky and Perishable Fruit?
I think of Watch The Sky and Perishable Fruit as bookends for the last 10 years of my studio recording. Both albums defined and limited the production possibilities (only stringed instruments in Fruit and only me on Sky.) I think that those constraints made me/us think outside the box and, again, the song comes through in the final mix. In the final analysis, the closer I can get to the feeling/mood/scene when I’m writing and/or recording, the closer I am to the truth of the original.
You also manage to avoid writing the same song over and over again. As a writer myself, I can say that’s no small feat. What are some of your inspirations and influences?
That is a very complimentary compliment. Sometimes I think it might be good if I wrote the same song again and again. Listeners might have an easier time digesting me. But, it’s not how I think. I write because of what I hear, and I’m not talking about hearing voices. I’m talking about music that speaks to me at a particular time, something that I hear and I say, “hey, I’d love to do that. I’d love to get to that same place in my own way.” It has become very cyclical for me. I finish a recording, then comes the release tour, then I rest/sit around/go outside, then I begin to be drawn back into listening, and I find myself inspired by what I hear. That’s when I know I’ll begin to write soon. So, the last album it was Bjork and Beck, Laurie Anderson, "world music," trance music, loops and samples that intrigued me. I’m thinking now that I want to get back to songs that are simple in form, but ones whose roots run deep. I heard something from Jakob Dylan’s latest solo album on our community radio station this morning that made me stop and cry. Now that’s a good song.
You’ve seen the music business shape-shift over the course of your career and actually written a few songs about it. You’ve even been on a couple of different labels. What’s your outlook on the industry’s present and future?
I’ve always said that a record contract is a cross between a grant and a bad mortgage, but right now it’s just looking like a bad mortgage. I have always seen the music business as separate from the music itself, but these days that dichotomy has deepened. It will never be what it was, but I think it is a positive morphing. For me, things began to shift in the late ’90s when commercial radio went corporate, owned by companies with execs who had no knowledge of music. The same could be said for record companies, including Windham Hill/High Street, that were bought out, merged, submerged, white breaded and flipped for profit. Good news? We’ve got the goods. Not only do songwriters have the product, we now have the technology to put the product out there at less expense. The question is, where is "out there?" And there’s the rub. I think that the Internet is the future, that the information (music) will be out there for free and that artists will have to come up with alternative ways of marketing their music in order to make money at it, including live performances and tours, film and TV, commercials, special packaging. It’s actually a very interesting time to be making music.
How have you had to adapt what you do to continue moving forward with the times?
This follows up on the last question in a way. I have a home studio, and my last four studio recordings have come out of that space. I mix in New York or Boston, as I don’t have the bells and whistles here, and it lets me hand the material over to new and talented ears. Part of the reason for doing Watch The Sky on my own, playing everything and recording and editing most of it, was that I wanted to deepen my studio skills. Getting a handle on recording technology, no matter what the level, is a very useful tool for all of us. Now I see it as an extension of the writing experience.
I suppose that the other new development for me musically is the use of loops and samples not only in my recorded music, but in my live performances. I’ve been looping sounds in the studio for 11 years, but only in the last three have I performed live with the technology. Playing to loops live is ever popular these days, and I think my best bet is to not overdo it, but to keep it as organic as possible. Still and all, the challenge excites me, and I think that the soundscapes and textures you can create live on stage outweigh the risks.
Next phase? I did a virtual performance at Michael Nesmith’s Video Ranch when I was out in California in the Spring. I played in front of a green screen to a studio audience of eight very attentive, enthusiastic people, but the main show was live online, where audience members could log on, choose an avatar, dance, send me messages during the performance. I saw all of them on a huge screen in front of me. The performance was also going live on KPIG radio. I’m not ready for a setup like that in my kitchen, but there’s something to it. I think Michael is at the cutting edge of where we’re headed in the music business financially and technically. Now, if only I could find a wig and some bright lipstick.
Catie Curtis is an artist I’ve kept my eye (and ears) on for maybe 15 years now as she has been tossed from one label to the next. I took an early interest because she was out before it was the cool thing to be, never shying away from the truth in her life or her work. As a live performer, her charm and wit are center stage. (I actually thinks that’s where she shines brightest, although I do enjoy her CDs, too.) Her new release, Sweet Life, reflects this particular moment in time in which she/we are living in all of its struggles and beauties. I’ll let her tell you more.
I saw you play in Northampton in late 2006 and, I have to say, I got worried — you had fallen prey to the whole sappy mom thing. All of your stories were about your kids. They have definitely crept into your songwriting, as well, but luckily with sweetness rather than sap. Tell me about the lens you see through now, the kid-colored glasses, as it were.
It’s funny, when you mention being gay to a straight audience once during a show, it’s all they hear. Apparently the same thing can happen when mentioning kids — all people see up there is a lesbian mom. It’s true, my partner and I adopted two girls who are now 4 and 6, and they are the quirky little people I love, who are wild and passionate and who teach me so much on a daily basis. If I’ve gone in for a new lens, it’s about a desire to be less fearful in the face of the crazy stuff going on in the world, you know, to be more resilient when life seems to be out of control. The tunes on Sweet Life are about asking how can we remain hopeful and powerful when so much looks so bleak in our world — politics, the environment, the future. It’s really about trying to make change. We can’t just sit on the sidelines, being soccer moms — we have to get in there and make something real with our passions, our communities and all the things we love.
You’re adding that onto a perspective that was already more complicated than most, being an artist who writes openly about your gayness. How does it feel to reflect the progress of society in your life and work?
It’s that double identity of being at once cutting-edge (out lesbian, boldly crossing the frontier into the historical first of gay marriage and legalized adoption) and also being an artist, being able to tell my story through my music. In “The Princess and the Mermaid,” my partner Liz and I are driving in our car, looking at our sleeping kids in the rear view, and despite all the stress and chaos of the day, we realize that if we hang together as a family we’ll be okay. In that intimate moment, I don’t feel like a soldier in a culture war, but I know the story I am telling also reflects how much life has changed for gay people in the last few years, and I am really grateful for that progress. I hope my music can keep pushing things along, pushing toward real equality in all our lives.
And, in contrast, you’ve said that you might not be writing positive portraits if the world was actually happy, happy, joy, joy right now. So you’re adding the levity to a grave situation for us?
I write what I need to hear. We’re inundated by bad news on the war, the economy and the environment. What else can you add to that negative spiral? On Sweet Life, I’m working with metaphors that hopefully spark the imagination about what is possible: Taking risks (jumping off a bridge in “Are You Ready to Fly”), believing growth is possible (the song about the desert and the Joshua Tree called “Everything Waiting to Grow”). And the song “Happy,” which is really about allowing yourself moments of levity in the face of lots of loss — not like be happy all the time — but give in to happy when it comes to you.
How is the creative marriage with Nashville going for you? Having bounced around more than most artists I know, do you think you’ve finally found a home?
Sweet Life is the first CD that I recorded in Nashville, and I loved working there. I got to record with George Marinelli on guitar (who tours with Bonnie Raitt), Alison Prestwood on bass (She’s played with Shawn Colvin and Rodney Crowell.)… every single musician who came into that studio was fabulous and inspired. The way they played on the song “Lovely,” which is a honky tonk meets Cole Porter tune, really blew me away. As far as Nashville being a permanent creative home, I’m a Gemini, so I love change. You never know what I’ll do next.
You just gave 10 guitars away to some kids. I may very well owe my life to my first music teacher, so that was a cool thing you did. Tell me about the whole thing.
When I was 15, a woman in my hometown gave me a guitar, and it changed my life. Recently, I told some friends I wished I could do the same thing for a kid, and it occurred to me that maybe I could. I started asking around and I found some amazing support, people who have made contributions to fund Aspire to Inspire which currently is a partnership with the ASCAP Foundation. The first giveaway was on the night of my CD release, 9/9/08 — we had a reception at the Fresh Air Fund in New York City where I got to award 15 guitars to kids who had shown passion and promise in music. Now I also have the Aspire to Inspire online endowment at HopeEquity.org, which is a branch of the Heiffer Foundation. There is a link from my website www.CatieCurtis.com for more info.
You going to be on tour soon?
Yes, I’m at the beginning of the Sweet Life tour. Tour dates are at www.CatieCurtis.com, and on MySpace and Facebook, as well. I’d love to see you out there on the road!
Singer-songwriter Adrianne recently released her sixth solo record and a new band project. Like Mieka Pauley, she has the DIY thing down pat, even self-producing and self-engineering the latest work. With a penchant for stories of the heart, Adrianne has been winning crowds over with her almost non-stop touring. Whether as part of a musical gaggle or totally on her own, Adrianne is a force to be reckoned with.
Congrats on the new record. I like what I’ve heard so far. Your last outing was all covers, right? How do those project approaches differ for you — originals versus covers?
Well mainly it’s less frightening releasing a covers’ record. The reason I did it was because I wanted to start producing my own stuff, but I was too petrified to jump into a full original record. So, I did that one first, that way if it sucked, my songs didn’t suffer, someone else’s did.
A very clever strategy! Do you feel like you accomplished your goal without actually sucking or suffering?
Absolutely. I even went a step further and engineered the new record myself, too. That wasn’t easy, but you know you have to challenge yourself in life.
Definitely. It sounds good, so I think you stepped up to it nicely. Besides that, what’s different about Burn Me Up, compared to your other works? You collaborated with Girlyman on it, right?
Yeah, Nate and I wrote a couple of songs together for the record — two of my faves actually! And Doris and Ty sing and play on it. They are dear friends of mine. We’ve known each other for a million years.
So it was a natural progression from the friendship and touring together?
Yeah and they moved to Atlanta where i also live, so we’re finally neighbors! They are brilliant musicians. One of my favorite bands ever.
Right on. Are you digging Atlanta, hanging out with Emily Saliers and all?
I actually met her, yes. And I never get star struck, but lord I could barely speak. Anyway, this record is different in so many ways.
Tell me more.
Well first of all, it’s the truest to who I am as a songwriter and musician and singer. I used a lot of instruments that you normally wouldn’t hear doing the things they are doing. Hard to explain.
I love cool, unexpected instrumentation.
Basically, there are country elements that are used in a non-country way and combined with more ambient, electric guitar stuff. Sort of a salute to living in Atlanta.
The cheese grits are seeping in, are they?
Yep! Except I still hate grits. There’s some banjitar, ukelele, buzuki, mandolin and then mixed in there a lot of programming and synth stuff. It was an interesting task trying to get all these elements to work together.
Nice. I’ll have to listen more closely and try to find them. Which song is the kitchen sink in?
Ha! No kitchen sink, also no spoons, unfortunately!
Despite this one being all your own, you seem to enjoy the collaborative thing — did that start with the North La Brea All-Star Conquistadors tour last year?
It did, but since then I started this new band that I’m really excited about called the Rescues.
Tell me about the Rescues. I listened a little.
It’s going really well! We write all our songs together and just put out a record. We’ve been getting a bunch of song placements and our manager is kicking ass.
Sweet. So, considering you have two current releases, what’s on tap for the rest of the year?
Touring, touring and more touring.
So you’re taking it easy and just coasting through? Is that what I hear you saying?
Yeah, right. I was just on the Olivia Cruise. They asked me to come play. And I was on a resort in Cancun for a week. It was incredible. Topless lesbos everywhere.
Living the good life!