Half an hour in an Amsterdam cafÃ© and Catie Curtis is, at the age of 34, considering the possibility of a premature death. "It's important to feel you have a choice," the American musician says cheerfully.
She's talking about the days when, in her own words, she'd "drag around" the concert circuit, wondering what it was that she really wanted. "I used to get on a plane to go on tour and think, if we crash, this is something I'm going to regret because I don't need to perform for those people. Then I went through a pivotal time in which I realised that performing was an essential part of my life. Doing gigs is a two-way communication and it's a privilege. So if that crash happens, I've done what I want to do... I like to use flying as a way to re-evaluate my life. It gives you a certain perspective, everything thrown up in the air. Doesn't everyone think this way on planes?"
Maybe, but that said, there would be plenty of upset if Curtis were to drop out of the sky, accompanied by a shrapnel of tail-fins and complementary peanuts. Curtis is not well known in the UK, although high-profile dates supporting Mary Chapin Carpenter here last autumn had the effect of galvanising the older performer's audience and producing a stampede at the concession stand. While Curtis's sophisticated urban folk has been compared - a process that produces only a most cursory contextualising - with Beth Orton or Cowboy Junkies, this doesn't really do the ascendant star justice.
Three albums, (most recently, A Crash Course in Roses) testify to her ability to create songs with an internal cogency and momentum of their own. Curtis's subjects range from perfectly observed love songs (from Crash, "Magnolia Street" captures the awkward poignancy of the moment of falling) to "Radical", a who-cares? response to her being gay - chorus line: "I'm not being radical when I kiss you." Made in 1996 at the height of the lipstick lesbian vogue, the accompanying video, a series of kissing couples - gay, straight, interracial - interspersed with standard performance footage, so worried Curtis's original US label that they refused even to countenance its release. Rykodisc, altogether less uptight, have included it on the enhanced Truth From Lies CD. Her songs reverberate, as all good writing should, long after they've actually finished.
In Britain for a handful of dates with former Morphine Orchestra mandolinist Jimmy Ryan (full band dates should follow at a later stage), Curtis herself appears as a fresh-faced no-age woman who is clear about her direction. Originally from a small town in Maine and now based in Boston, she originally trained in social work at Brown University, conducting a parallel career singing at open-mike events and later, honing her skills around the US folk club circuit (like Ani Di Franco, another go-it-alone gal who's made good, Curtis spent nearly three years in the mid-Nineties living in her car following the gigs).
Early efforts - two albums released on her own Mongoose label ("You won't find them, and I wouldn't want you to," she warns) - taught the fledgling writer some basic truths. "When I look back on those records, I feel they were a little precious," she says. "Y'know, I had an extended adolescence until at least 24, 25. I was very introspective and concerned with my own emotional experience of things. In a way, I still am, but over time you just get a little bored of yourself, and hopefully begin to grasp stories that are big enough for everyone. One simple truth can affect many lives."
That her songs are consciously designed as multi-layered entities is one of Curtis's strengths. It has certainly allowed her to pursue that unique kind of parallel career - playing both the alternative clubs and mainstream venues - that the US circuit allows. While making no concessions about who - or what - she is ("Everyone knows someone who's gay. Let's get real here"), the expectations of a gay audience that they may have found a more vocal advocate than kd lang have nevertheless proved frustrating.
"I don't enjoy that part of it, but I think there are trade-offs," she believes. "Being an out musician gives me another layer of meaning to my work and when I'm away from home and my partner, I somehow feel this is a good thing. I'm not one of those performers who are just out at women's festivals. On the other hand, I've felt really beat up by the 'gay community' in the past: I once had a review by Chastity Bono [daughter of Sonny and Cher and high-profile US lesbian] saying, don't you just hate it when you have to like someone's music because they're gay... There are times when you wish you could just throw it all off, but you know that for a straight audience it's a huge part of how they view you. I can't control that, but I have to remember that, in my own personal world view, being a lesbian is not a huge part of who I am." Which is, one can only hope, as it should be.
'A Crash Course in Roses' is released by Rykodisc. Curtis plays HMV, Oxford Street, London W1 (020-7439 2112), today at 5.30pm; Borderline, London W1 (020-7287 1441), tomorrow; Mojo Bar at NCPM, Sheffield, (0114-249 8885), Sunday
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