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With everyone from marginally talented sitcom actresses to scores of hairy-legged Indigo Girls wannabes trumpeting their alternative sexual proclivities to boost their careers, you might expect songstress Catie Curtis to be shouting about her lesbianism from the rooftops. But you'd be wrong.
"I just think that it doesn't feel personally to be a very big part of my identity to be gay," explains the thirty-something performer. "To me, I sometimes think that even the label 'gay' applies better to a specific relationship than to a person because, you know, a lot of people have been in either kind of relationship. So it seems really limiting to me to have that label on myself as a person and an artist. And I think that because of all the homophobia out there, once you have that label on you, people tend to think that's all you ever think about or sing about. Because of that, they either don't like you or that's all they want you to sing about."
Fortunately, this Maine native has a large enough bag of musical tricks to satisfy a wide range of listeners. Her most recent release, Truth From Lies (available on the Guardian imprint) has received gushing reviews in numerous national publications, including The New Yorker, which declared her to be a "folk-rock goddess." Such an assessment, though hyperbolic, is easy to understand. While Curtis's often aching vocals and mostly acoustic instrumentation aren't likely to appeal to your average Korn or Tool aficionado, the deft lyrical touch she displays on Truth numbers like "Silhouette" and "The Wolf" has earned her a loyal following among music lovers of various ages and genders.
Of course, there are exceptions--and at least one of them is rather surprising. According to Curtis, the most negative review she's received was penned by Chastity Bono, who for reasons that apparently have as much to do with her famous surname as with her journalistic skills has become something of a spokesperson for the lesbian community. "It was horrible," Curtis says of the piece, which ran in a Los Angeles rag whose title she can no longer recall. "Basically, this person's attitude was, 'I don't really like folk music anyway, but I especially don't like this.'" Curtis admits that she was initially devastated by the writeup, but these days she views the incident more philosophically: "It's pretty funny. I never thought that my life and Chastity Bono's life would intersect in that way. And now," she adds jokingly, "she's my nemesis." On a more serious note, Curtis suggests that Bono's brickbats might have had less to do with the scribe's musical opinions than with professional jealousy: "Apparently, she's a musician. And right before the article appeared, I know she was dropped from Geffen Records."
Curtis can relate to being without a recording contract. Despite mainly positive notices, she was without a deal a couple of years back, and an appearance at Austin's South By Southwest music festival did not immediately change her status. Worse, she lost her glasses at the confab. But in the long run, things worked out for the best. "I got offered a gig at the Bottom Line in New York opening for John Hartford about a week later," Curtis recalls. "And it was for the same amount of money that my new glasses were going to cost, so I took it." After her set, Curtis was descended upon by a horde of suit-and-tie-wearing representatives from Guardian, a then-new division of Angel/EMI. Six weeks later, she joined the company's fold.
Should the Guardian gravy train suddenly grind to a halt, however, Curtis has plenty of other interests to keep her busy. A former social worker, she spends much of her downtime as a volunteer at the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, an Ashford, Connecticut, program started by Paul Newman on behalf of seriously ill children. "I used to think it was hard being on the road," she says, "until I saw the way the people who are there all summer work, because it's an overnight camp."
Nonetheless, Curtis admits that touring has its negative sides, too: "I get a little freaked out in L.A.--like when I was making the record and for a while staying in a really nice hotel. I just couldn't stand the pretentiousness, you know? I mean, half of me was feeling bad that I couldn't look like those people, and the other half of me was feeling bad that I had to be with them." She faces an entirely different set of problems when in the South, where, she says, "I often get mistaken for a fourteen-year-old boy, just because I might be wearing a sweatshirt and sneakers or something. And I walk into the ladies' room and scare somebody who thinks I'm in the wrong place."
Then again, Curtis's gifts are such that she can fit in just about anywhere. She brims with pride when telling about being chosen by a local choral director to back up the band Foreigner at an arena show during her college days. Being one of twenty singers who provided backing vocals for the hit "I Want to Know What Love Is" was, she allows, "kind of a dream come true for me, because I actually listened to Foreigner when I was in high school." And apparently, she's still a fan. When asked to identify her favorite Foreigner composition, Curtis replies without hesitation, "'Waiting for a Girl Like You.'"
Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, with Nanci Griffith, Tom Paxton, the Nields, David Wilcox, Catie Curtis, Eddie From Ohio, Vance Gilbert, the Burns Sisters and Maggie Simpson. Friday, August 23, Lyons. Call 1-800-624-2422 for show times, location, ticket prices and camping information.