Sara Curtin Composes Visionary Statement on ‘Michigan Lilium’ (INTERVIEW)

“Comparisons are everywhere. I never feel pressured by them. People’s relationship to music is so personal and when someone compares me to an artist, what they’re really doing is comparing me to their experience of that artist,” says musician/songwriter Sara Curtin about being compared to both Sharon Van Etten.

But the comparison to Van Etten along with St. Vincent are fair game after listening to the Washington D.C. native’s second solo album Michigan Lilium (out July 24th). Curtin has upped the ante on her compositions that are drenched in art rock, hazy vocals and all around genre spanning experiments. While many might know Curtin as one half of the DC-based folk-pop duo The Sweater Set, she expands the palette on what a visionary singer-songwriter can mold – particularly on the dreampop track “Sweet Dreams”and the D’Angelo inspired “Summer.”

Michigan Lilium was produced and recorded by Sara Curtin (vocals, guitar, percussion and synth) in her Washington D.C. apartment. Rounding out the album is Ian Chang (Son Lux, Body Language) on bass and Spencer Zahn (Twin Shadows, Empress Of) on drums, their parts recorded by Jeff Berner at Galuminum Foil Productions in Brooklyn who also mixed the album. Just prior to Michigan Lilium’s release, we had a chance to talk with Curtin about her approach to making memorable music as a solo artist.

Michigan Lilium was produced and recorded by yourself in your Washington D.C. apartment. Was that done out of financial necessity or does your apartment provide a solace and creative environment that most wouldn’t come to fathom as a recording environment.

Michigan Lilium didn’t become an intentional album until much later in the recording process. It began as demo recordings within which I was experimenting with sounds and arrangements to try and find the full body of the songs. I think the last song on the album “The Easy Way” was actually the first one I started tracking. Recording at home definitely saves money when you explore arrangements like I do. Not many artists have the luxury of renting out entire studios for a months at a time to “try stuff out”. In the past, when I’ve gone into the studio to record, I am prepared with exact parts to perform from memory – already tried and tested. This felt much more organic. I could spend hours laying down vocal lines, messing up, listening back. I ended up recording all the vocals and instruments you hear on the album except for the live bass and drums which were done at GaluminumFoil in Brooklyn. (Ian Chang on drums, Spencer Zahn on bass, Jeffrey Berner engineering.) Since I record in my home (and I’ve moved twice since beginning this project – so that’s three homes), there is a certain level of comfort in recording this way. It’s not like I always turn off the lights and surround myself with candles to create an environment… but, sometimes!

Did you consider outside producers and would you ever self-produce your own work again? How do you fairly judge your own work as producer and get the end result both the listeners would want and that matches your creative objectives?

I love producing my own work and arranging for other people.This time around I didn’t consider starting out with an outside producer because, like I said, I wasn’t sure that what I was making would be an album. The gelling together and culling of songs came much later. As a more DIY, stripped-down, at-home engineer I was also interested in seeing where my experimentation would take me; I was interested in finding new voice from my previous albums. As far as judging my own work, I am very critical of the technical things like pitch and rhythm as well as expressiveness, particularly in vocal delivery. I wasn’t the only one contributing to this album, though. Ian and Spencer worked out incredibly thoughtful parts for their instruments and working with Jeff Berner at GaluminumFoil in Brooklyn was a dream. He tracked bass and drums and then mixed the album. He has such great instincts and I found that they always aligned with my own. The first thing that comes to mind is the beautiful panning of vocals that he added in the bridge of “Someday” which I fell in love with immediately. Those little touches throughout the album really create a sense that the music is embracing you. You are weaving in and out together. The listener isn’t merely passively receiving it.

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Can you describe the set up for your recording in your apartment and what do you credit its rich sound too- particularly on “Summer?”

Unfortunately, my set-up is not very “sexy,” it’s pretty basic. I have an Audio Technica condenser mic that I like to use for most instruments, a tiny vintage mic that I use for intimate vocals (like on “V D A Y” and “Summer”). I used a small 2-channel interface and ProTools to record the whole album. Most of the equipment I used was actually handed down to me by my brother Jeff Curtin, a great sound engineer and musician (drummer in Small Black). He was the one who generously taught me to use ProTools and planted the seed of fascination (and slight obsession) with experimenting in the studio to find the arrangement of a song. It’s probably the most fun I have with music. The “rich” sound you’re referring to in “Summer” is the result of recording my exact live guitar sound. I’m playing a Fender Telecaster with some tremolo and a real digital swampy reverb through a Fender Blues Jr. tube amp. On my 2010 album “Fly Her And Keep Her” we tried to recreate the dreamy guitar sound in the studio with plug-ins and I kept asking for more and more reverb. Over the years, I’ve really fallen in love with this specific guitar sound and knew that the best way to represent it would be to record it live with all the effects included as opposed to trying to recreate it in mixing.

I found the sequencing of the album to be really effective and each song kind of lends itself into the next effortlessly. Were you going for something with the song order or creating an overall mood album?

First of all, thank you so much. Sequencing is really hard! Once I knew what songs I wanted to have on the album, sequencing was at the forefront of my mind. Some of the songs being more folky and some more R&B influenced, I knew I wanted to order them in a way that would bridge the genres. Sometimes I relied on instrumentation to plant the seed of recognition in the listener’s ear. For example, the high pitched synth line in “Sweet Dreams” is the same bell sound in “V D A Y”. Other times I used vocal arrangement to recall a feeling from a previous song, specifically choosing to sing the octave below the melody in both “Summer” and “V D A Y” to connect them even though they are songs apart on the album. Maybe this is giving away too much of the mystique, but I also like to think that each song on the album has a partner and I tried to connect them through instrumentation, effects, and vocal arrangement. In maybe a less obvious connection “Someday” and “The Easy Way” are sister songs to me in the way their structure is inverted. “Someday” has very upbeat verses and a roomy, choral bridge, while “The Easy Way” has the percussive choral vocals from the beginning, more sparse verses, and then a real poppy Beatles-inspired bridge.

If you listen back to Michigan Lilium what do you find as your personal high points? Is there anything you would carry over to your next album in terms of making a definitive stamp on your sound that you’d like to always be there? A certain reverb or certain vocal quality?

When I listen back, the elements that excite me most are the things I discovered kind of by accident. I’m really into the elongated reverb in the background vox in “Sweet Dreams” and hope to find a new fun way to use it next. In “Old House” I accidentally looped a digital drum track out of sync and it ended up creating an interesting counter rhythm against the 3/4 waltz of the bridge. That kind of stuff is the most fun and the goal is to just keep trying new things because, hey, the mistakes might be great! Lyrics are also very important to me and I always want to work to write better, clearer, more visually provocative phrases.

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Musically is there anything that you weren’t able to do with The Sweater Set that might have constricted you but now are able to achieve as a solo artist?

I wouldn’t say that I felt constricted in either project. The Sweater Set allows for a completely different process because there are two of us writing and arranging (plus the instrumentation is acoustic). There’s also nothing like singing in perfect harmony with someone and Maureen Andary and I grew up singing in church choir together so we have decades of practice. It’s still incredible to me when we sing live and are able to weave in and around each other without talking about it first. I’m lucky to have her singing with me in the band for my hometown “Michigan Lilium” release show in D.C.!

You recently drew a comparison to Sharon Van Etten – what has your relationship been with comparisons and as an artist do you feel they add pressure to sound like who people say you sound like or is it all a complement?

Comparisons are everywhere. I never feel pressured by them. People’s relationship to music is so personal and when someone compares me to an artist, what they’re really doing is comparing me to their experience of that artist – maybe a similar way our songs make them feel, or a particular sound they resonate with. When someone opens up and shares their interpretation of my music, it’s always a compliment. Unless of course they say, “You remind me of so-and-so. Man, I really hate them.” Luckily that hasn’t happened yet.

How would you describe the city of Washington DC as a music city with a scene? What venues in DC do you most enjoy playing and what ones do you most enjoy seeing music at?

Washington, D.C. is full of incredible musicians! It’s always been a music city but unfortunately there’s another big industry that seems to hog a lot of the attention. I’ve been really fortunate to have been introduced to a lot of diverse artists through the Strathmore Artist-In-Residence program, playing in the folk scene with The Sweater Set, and now hearing and meeting more of the great rock bands. I’m so inspired by the music coming out of D.C. right now and am thrilled to see some of these artists garnering well-deserved national attention. As far as venues are concerned, I consider myself one of the luckiest ladies in the biz because after a lifetime of drooling and anticipation, I’ve been able to play at the 9:30 Club three times in the last year! Best venue in the world. D.C. also has a thriving house concert scene right now and those are some of the most fun and intimate venues around.

What other music communities do you most enjoy visiting and playing?

I lived in Brooklyn for four years so I always love getting to go back and hear what my friends are working on or listening to these days. Whenever I get to play a show in New York it also always feels a bit like a homecoming, which is very heartwarming.

Are there any other bands or artists you feel a particular kinship with and could see yourself going out on tour with?

Oh, I feel a strong kinship with many artists, they’ve just never heard of me! Jenny Lewis & Ryan Adams would be a dream (plus we both love cats, so I know we’d get along). A few years ago I was on a bill with Lucius and think that theirs would be an amazing crew to join on tour. Incredible energy, beautiful voices, and clearly strong friendship & respect flowing within. That’s so important in a touring band.

What performance or artist have you seen/heard in the past year that has most inspired you?

It’s so hard to pick just one. So I won’t! Here are the top few that stick out from the past year:
Seen: SUSTO,tUnE-yArDs, Wanted Man
Heard: The North Country There Is Nothing To Fear, D’Angelo Black Messiah

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