Keep On Rockin', Baby
They say girls mature faster than boys. Shannon Curfman, however, is maturing faster than everyone. At fourteen, she's doing her schoolwork on the road while touring behind her major-label debut, Loud Guitars, Big Suspicions. Her turns in the spotlight haven't come in the school auditorium but on Late Night With David Letterman, The Tonight Show and Good Morning America. In many ways, Curfman's rock-and-roll fantasies have become reality: She's just finished a few weeks as the opening act for John Mellencamp and counts Sting, Santana, Sammy Hagar and Melissa Etheridge as friends and play-time partners.
"Being on stage and seeing people singing your lyrics and humming your tunes -- it's a big thrill," Curfman says from her tour-bus telephone, as cool in conversation as she is on disc. "And opening for Mellencamp, we played domes, and there was this continuous rumble, with the crowd clapping and the whole stage shaking while we were playing. It was amazing."
Curfman, a native of Fargo, North Dakota, is currently enjoying an equally amazing media buzz, the kind recently generated by the plethora of underaged bubblegummers now clogging America's consciousness -- and airwaves. And given the way that record companies have been raiding the junior highs for new talent, Curfman's age could be her best asset. It hasn't hurt Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson or Mandy Moore, teens who have turned youth and a budding sexuality into steamy Sound Scan tallies. But Curfman, who sports a sugar-cookie face of her own, has earned her sales numbers with the one thing those women seem to lack: musical talent. She's gained her status not with back flips and bare midriffs, but with old-before-her-years singing, songwriting and guitar riffs. And she makes it clear that these are the only tools she'll employ for success.
"Oh, gosh, no, that's not my thing at all," Curfman says when asked if she's considered adopting the come-on antics of her older teenaged associates. "Britney Spears isn't a peer of mine, because we do completely different kinds of music. Britney Spears is pop. What I do is rock." And she does so for a simple reason. "Britney Spears talks about Madonna being her big influence," Curfman says, "and that comes through in her music. Christina Aguilera talks about Mariah Carey being her influence, and you can hear that in her music. For me it was different: I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin."
Curfman also spent time listening to Hendrix, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Janis Joplin, Marvin Gaye and other rock and soul legends, and those influences appear throughout Loud Guitars. Her debut is a flash of perfect-for-FM stuff, smart but accessible rock that helped make Bonnie Raitt and Melissa Etheridge household names. The disc features funky, blue-eyed blues ("Few and Far Between," "If You Change Your Mind," "Love Me Like That"), up-from-the-Delta rockers ("No Riders," "Playing With Fire") and hard-candy ballads such as "I Don't Make Promises I Can't Break" and "Never Enough." Curfman handles most of the guitar solos on these songs herself.
Loud Guitars also packs a few higher-caliber numbers, the sort of blues-based anthems that freshened the airwaves in the '70s and early '80s. "True Friends" is full-on rock thunder, what could pass for a Black Crowes outtake with the band fronted by the apparent long-lost kid sister of the Robinson brothers. A fresh cover of the Band's "The Weight" is another arena fist-raiser that would make the Van Zant clan proud. The tune's slash-and-groan guitars are matched by Curfman's astoundingly assured badass vocal swagger. It smokes, even if Curfman is too young to legally do the same. What's just as impressive about these amplified blasts (and much of the album) is that despite her youth, Curfman echoes her musical heroes without ever aping them -- a trick many artists two and three times her age never master.
The fact that Curfman is no rock rookie explains some of this achievement. According to her mother, Mary Curfman (who is now touring with her daughter), Shannon was singing at age two. She sang in every school choir, suffered through dressing up for pageants just to get in the talent slots, and frequently raided her parents' record stash for rock numbers to croon. By the time she was ten, she was performing solo shows at festivals around Fargo. When she was just eleven, the Curfmans took their daughter to see blues-rock guitarist Jeff Healey and hung around after the show to meet him. Shannon treated the guitarist to her version of Robert Johnson's "Malted Milk," and Healey was so impressed that he invited her to perform with his band the next night. Curfman stole the show and was never the same. "It completely changed my perspective of what is possible," she says. "When you're eleven, your train of thought isn't to have a band and play gigs. This made me open to the idea that maybe I could actually have a band now instead of waiting until I'm eighteen. I just couldn't wait seven more years."
"The next day," her mother recalls, "Shannon told me, 'Mom, I don't want to do the acoustic thing anymore. I want a full band.'" She put a few together, doing festivals around a four-state area surrounding North Dakota. At twelve, the elder Curfman recalls, Shannon went for the club circuit after a local act gave up their longtime regular gig at a Fargo nightspot. "Shannon called the club owner," Mary recalls, "and asked him, 'What are you gonna do with that night?' He told her she could have it." Curfman later got in touch with another Fargo legend, blues whiz kid Jonny Lang, who aided her with sage advice and some guitar instruction. (Lang also appears on Curfman's new release.)
Curfman's own whiz-kid talents caught the attention of Jake Walesch, a manager in the Twin Cities area. "What initially impressed me," Walesch recalls, "was that she was very raw but had great vocal potential and was an amazingly good guitar player for a twelve-year-old. And she had a confidence about her, that star quality." Walesch signed on as her manager and immediately put Curfman in touch with some of the Twin Cities' best songsmiths. Kevin Bowe (a songwriter who has written for Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd) and longtime local hero Bruce McCabe helped her flesh out her own material and brought in ideas for collaboration. The three spent a summer honing songs before entering the studio to record Curfman's debut. In the meantime, her family relocated to Minneapolis. Tom Tucker, a Paisley Park/Prince veteran, was brought in to engineer and produce the record. "The big key," Walesch says, "was surrounding Shannon with really great people, musicians, engineers and producers. We went in with the full intention of producing a major-label-quality record that could compete." The effort paid off. Two weeks after shipping copies of Loud Guitars to his A&R contacts, Walesch was entertaining label offers. Six weeks after the recording's release, Curfman was inked to Arista.
But Walesch points out that it took a lot more than his connections to lift Curfman from her status as a rock-and-roll prodigy to the majors. "I have the relationships to put people in front of Shannon and have them give her a listen," he says. "But if she doesn't deliver, it doesn't work." At her final industry showcase before signing, Walesch notes, "Shannon performed before $30 million in executive talent, and she completely delivered. She does not get nervous."
Although Curfman can't explain her under-pressure cool, she credits her management and divinely supportive parents for much of her success. But she bristles at suggestions that her bottle-rocket rise was powered by the older talents whose names appear in her disc's liner notes. "I guess I can see how people would think that," Curfman says, "but that's completely ridiculous to me. I write my own music, and I put my name on it. I'm not going to lie about it. That wouldn't be right or truthful, and it's not something I believe in at all. If people really understood what I'm in this for and why I'm doing this, they wouldn't question my part in it."
As for her supernatural sense of musical self, Curfman attributes it to distilling her favorite tunes through her own filters. "When I first started, I would sit down with records and learn songs," she says. "But I wouldn't learn every song on, like, ten Stevie Ray Vaughan records. I would just learn the basic outline and not try to cop everything." Lyrically speaking, Curfman's tunes tread on the familiar adult ground of heartbreak, lost love and busted dreams. But, she says, the fact that she hasn't experienced these things firsthand doesn't mean she can't sing about them. "It's just a matter of putting yourself in the place of the person telling the song," she says. The kicking-my-man-outta-the-house theme of her album's closer, "Coming Home," came straight from her soul. "We were in a songwriting session one day," she recalls, "and I said to the guys, 'I want to write a song about how guys just suck, plain and simple. About guys that are complete dorks.' Oh, yeah, that was my idea."
And so is staying out on the road, says Curfman, who's not sure why her predecessors ever grumbled about life on the highway. "There's lots of stuff to do on the road," she enthuses. "It's fun going to different places and being in a different city every day. I can swim, shop, Rollerblade. I can do my own thing, play my music and make a living at what I love to do. I love everything about it. You just have to watch what kind of people you surround yourself with and make sure you're in a healthy environment," she adds. "We made sure the people here are serious about this and want to go as far as we can."
Curfman's added to her touring pleasure with a puppy she bought while gigging in Lubbock, Texas. ("I'm thinking I'll name her 'Austin,'" Curfman says, referring to another Lone Star town. "I just love that city.") Mary Curfman makes it clear that the financial payoff for her daughter's efforts all go to Shannon. "This is her thing; we don't have anything to do with that," she says. "She has her own business manager and an entertainment attorney. She's very interested in the business side of things. When you're a mom, you just want your kids to be happy. I think it's great that she's able to do what she loves doing. And I'm glad I can be here to support her."
Shannon says she hopes that someday questions about her age will stop and people will focus strictly on her music, something she's not willing to compromise. "I'm not after some number-one hit just so I won't have to ever work again," she says, "and even if I was completely loaded with cash, I would still be doing this. I'm always going to be doing this. I just want a career. I really try to ignore the age talk, because it's not something I think about. This is something I'm going to be doing whether I'm fourteen or forty."
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