Sara Curtin’s music is pretty darn dreamy. Her voice creates a tapestry of delicate sound. Half of Washington D.C.’s The Sweater Set, Curtin’s solo effort takes that precious quality and gives it a little edge.
“Or So It Seemed,” the title track off her new EP, is darker than her usual fare. Curtin said she channeled her “inner Jack White” while writing the track, which explores “the mind’s tug-of-war as it comes to grips with understanding perceived memory vs. reality.” “Oh what a waste of time, to hold on to what used to be mine,” Sara sings, reflecting on her own artist’s journey. It’s a song for a subway ride turned hour-long reflection; a song for creative people who doubt the road that got them to where they are.
We sat down with Sara at talked about her writing process, the D.C. music scene, and her past life as a fishmonger.
AF: Tell us a little bit about growing up in D.C. Did you live in the suburbs or the city?
SC: I grew up in the city, not too far from where I live now. I left D.C. to go to college (University of Michigan in Ann Arbor) and then lived in Brooklyn for four years. I’ve been back in DC for about six years now.
AF: What is the vibe of D.C.? Does it have that NYC swagger or is it more laid back?
SC: D.C. definitely has it’s own vibe. It’s a smaller city, so it is a bit slower paced, but there’s a lot going on here. The music and art scene is really exploding. There’s a lot of political energy here, too.
AF: Your mother is a musician, as is your brother. Are you three in simpatico when it comes to music? Or do your tastes differ?
SC: We do have different taste, but my brother and I overlap and we share a lot of musical sensibility, too. We both do production work and often discuss arrangement choices. He made a cameo on this new album, actually! He played theremin on the last song “Run If You’re Ready”. My mom was my first teacher. She taught me how to sing in harmony and how to play the guitar.
AF: Many people may know you as a half of the duo The Sweater Set. How would you define the differences between The Sweater Set and your solo efforts?
SC: For me, making solo albums apart from The Sweater Set is about exploring the possibilities of different sounds. The Sweater Set has been predominantly acoustic and this solo project is driven predominantly by electric guitar. I also arranged these songs with the full band including bass (Ryan Walker), drums (Brendan Polmer), and lead guitar (Olivia Mancini). Maureen Andary, who is my partner in The Sweater Set, is also singing on this album!
Like I mentioned before, I also do production work, so one of the most exciting parts of making recordings for me is always sitting down at my computer, with my voice and instruments and exploring different arrangements. That’s a very personal process and I love taking the time to develop the songs in this way.
AF: Tell us about “Or So It Seemed.” It’s the title track off your new album, and has a very different feel to it than a lot of your earlier work. The opening notes have an aggressiveness to them that I really enjoyed.
SC: Thank you so much! That makes me so happy. “Or So It Seemed” was a hard song for me to write. It began as a tender, pretty song on acoustic guitar with this delicate fingerpicking pattern in 4/4 time. The words were the same and when I was finished writing it, it just felt like something was wrong. The darkness of the lyrics was not coming across. The music was boring and it almost felt dishonest. That’s when I sat down with my electric guitar. I turned my amp up really loud and thought to myself, “What would Jack White do?” I think he’s great and I wanted to make something that felt raw. That’s when I started playing the new guitar riff – almost like a bass line. The time signature is all wacky – my band and I have disagreements on how we count it, actually – and it’s a little bit unpredictable. It felt perfect for the lyrics. Thematically, the song is about reality vs. perception; what percentage of our remembered experiences actually happened the way we remember them? The repetitive and slightly jarring rhythm of the new guitar riff stuck with me as a good representation of what it’s like to feel like you think you know what’s going on one minute, and then be a bit disoriented the next when reality suddenly presents itself in a new light.
AF: Do you normally start with the lyrics? Are you someone who begins a song with a concept, or a line?
SC: Usually, when I sit down to write, the music and lyrics come out together. Then I continue to edit, but normally the skeleton of the song stays the same. This one was different and it took me a little bit longer to land the plane. I’m glad that I threw the first draft away, though.
AF: You launched your own record label, Local Woman Records. You’ve said you wanted to share your experience and “help other artists lighten their load so that a little more of their day can be dedicated to creating and playing.” How is the venture going so far?
SC: I feel really great about LWR’s first release – “Hi From Pillows” by Kaeley Pruitt-Hamm! We were able to work really closely with this release and combine efforts in a way that I’ve never done before. I look forward to working with other artists in the near future! This business is so much about building relationships and surrounding yourself with good people, so I hope I can continue to be that support for others.
AF: You’ve spoken a bit about how supportive the D.C. music scene is. Who are some local D.C. musicians that we should keep an ear out for?
SC: Oh man, there are so many active bands and artists right now! Just this past weekend Black Alley won the first annual Battle of the Bands hosted at Paisley Park in Minnesota. Good friends of mine The North Country are also about to release a new album this fall and I’m really excited for that.
AF: I read that you were once a fishmonger in Brooklyn. Can you give us some details on that?
SC: So, I was a fishmonger in Brooklyn for three years and it was my favorite job. I worked for Blue Moon Fish which is a husband and wife run operation. I worked for them at their market in Grand Army Plaza on Saturday mornings. They actually just released an incredible cook book with beautiful photos and stories!
There’s a line in “Or So It Seemed” that was inspired by my time as a fishmonger: “Made a million dollars, or so it seemed. Serving lines, wiping counters. Make ends meet.” At that time in my early twenties I was living in New York, working the farmer’s market and at a pizza restaurant (both are near to my heart). I felt rich and full. It was wonderful and it was a struggle.
AF: Sounds very Just Kids like to me.
SC: Loved that book! I was living in NY when it came out and I devoured it.
AF: I once bought that book full price and harassed my best friend into meeting me in Union Square to give her that book. Because she was struggling with being an artist and I knew she needed it. One of those “artist to artist, you need this” moments.
SC: I probably would have stood on the corner shouting passages from that book.
AF: You have a few other music projects currently in the works. Can you give us the down low?
SC: Right now I’m performing with this solo project (we go by Sara Curtin Five when we play out), The Sweater Set, and I play with Justin Jones (guitar and vocals in his band), as well as sing with The Cowards Choir which is a folk seven-piece with lots of harmonies and a string section. My lead guitarist Olivia Mancini also has her own badass band and I occasionally jump in with them, as well. Like I said, D.C. has a lot going on! There are local shows pretty much every night of the week here!
AF: Other than shouting Patti Smith’s poetry, what advice would you give a young fishmonger looking to make music?
SC: Did you see the new St. Vincent promo videos?? She says the advice she would give to young musicians is “Go into the film industry.” I’d still like to encourage people to make music, of course. It’s been ten years since I graduated from college and started really performing and recording original music. This will be my third solo album (with four others by The Sweater Set). I guess the advice I could give is just to be patient. Finding your sound and getting to know yourself takes time, it takes mistakes, and I’m still figuring it out. Sorry if that sounds trite. I often need the reminder to be patient.
Sara’s new album Or So It Seemed will be released October 6, 2017 on her own Local Woman Records. Want to see Sara live? Check out her tour dates below!
Sept 29 – RICHMOND, VA. Hardywood Brewery
w/ Anousheh & Sammi Lanzetta. 6:30 pm.
Sept 30 – BALTIMORE, MD. Holy Underground
w/ Heroine. 8:00 pm. $5-$10 donation.
2021 Maryland Ave. Baltimore, MD.
Oct 6 – BROOKLYN, NY. C’mon Everybody
w/ Adios Ghost & Ruby Rae. 8pm. $10
Oct 21 – ANN ARBOR, MI. Canterbury House
Solo Show w/ Zach Lupetin (of the Dustbowl Revival)
Oct 26 – WASHINGTON, DC. Black Cat
w/ PNMA & more tba. Tix on sale NOW.
Nov 6 – LOS ANGELES, CA. Hotel Cafe
Monday Monday showcase. Solo Set.
Ashley Prillaman is a writer living in Los Angeles, California. When she's not living that #FestivalLife, you can find her walking her dogs, listening to This American Life, or chowing down on street tacos. Follow @AshleyPrillaman on Twitter & check out her interview series #LetsTellAStory on her blog www.ashleyprillaman.com.