FACE TiME POLiCE
iNTERViEWS CURTiS STiGERS
DREAM A LiTTLE DREAM
CURTiS STiGERS TALKS TO ROCKWIRED
ABOUT HiS LATEST CD LOST iN DREAMS
HiS LOVE OF iNTERPRETATiON
AND MAKiNG FOLKS TEAR UP
DECEMBER 7, 2009
iNTERViEWED BY BRiAN LUSH
Saxophonist and vocalist CURTIS STIGERS is twenty years and ten albums deep into a music career filled with twists and turns. Back when he released his self-titled debut album on ARISTA, it was easy to write off STIGERS as the next BOLTON-in-waiting despite the guyís rich, soulful delivery and immense musicality. It was no time at all before STIGERS grew disillusioned with ARISTAís need to mold him into your momís favorite singer. STIGERS left the label and approached music on his own terms. The guyís knack for taking modern day pop songs and giving them the jazz treatment was first realized through his interpretation of NICK LOWEís (WHATíS SO FUNNY ĎBOUT) PEACE, LOVE AND UNDERSTANDING which was featured on THE BODYGUARD SOUNDTRACK back in 1992. During his tenure with the CONCORD JAZZ LABEL, STIGERS has continued with his interpretation of the works of modern singer-songwriters while shining a light on his own original material and on his latest album ĎLOST IN DREAMSí the mixture of the two is truly a revelation. ĎLOST IN DREAMSí opens with STIGERS exuding a soulful, RAY CHARLES-like howl on ANNIE LENNOXís ĎCOLDí and takes the slow-burner to church! His interpretation of JOHN LENNONís ĎJEALOUS GUYí is just as stirring and haunting as BRYAN FERRYís interpretation but STIGERSí understated wail gives the song a new intensity. The original material - punctuated by STIGERSí Ďfalling in love and losing in loveí lyrical approach Ė goes hand in hand with his hat-tipping to other writers but manages to get a little humorous with the quasi-tango of ĎYOUíVE GOT THE FEVERí. Back in í91, it was hard to imagine that the long-haired kid with a buttery voice wouldíve eschewed pop sensibility for some creative risk taking, but the risks have paid off. ď[I never] expected to be so successful making jazz records.Ē says STIGERS ďIím able to make a living and play as big a concert as I ever did in Europe as a jazz singer. Itís not an easy job being a jazz singer. The money isnít nearly as big as being a pop singer but Iíve been able to make a really nice living. The whole thing has been a surprise. I was surprised to get a record deal and go from being a pizza eating, barely surviving, ride the subway to work musician to being on the TONIGHT SHOW and playing DODGERíS STADIUM and SHEA STADIUM. Every day is a new experience and I keep pinching myself to see if Iím really dreaming that I get to make a living playing music.Ē
ROCKWIRED spoke with CURTIS STIGERS over the phone. Here is how it went.
How do you feel about ĎLOST IN DREAMSí now that itís out there for people to hear?
I love it! Iím really pleased with it. Itís a great document of where I am now. Itís not going to be where I am in six months and itís not where I was six months ago. I love the variety of songs. Over the last several years I have been experimenting with taking modern songs/ non-standards and kind of giving them the jazz treatment and I think this album was the most successful so far of those experiments.
The only other record that I have of yours is your debut CD so Iím missing a large piece of the story here.
There is a lot of water under the bridge between í91 and í09 for me for sure. I made my first record for CONCORD JAZZ in 2000 and that featured a couple of modern songs and a lot of standards and jazz tunes. I had an ELVIS COSTELLO tune and a RANDY NEWMAN song on that first record in 2000 and over the past nine years, Iíve made six records for CONCORD. They are jazz records, but they are jazz records with a lot of modern songs. Iíve done songs by THE KINKS, THE BEATLES and JOHN LENNON, MERLE HAGGARD, WILLIE NELSON and STEVE EARLE. I love modern pop music and singer songwriters but Iím a jazz singer so Iíve been doing this thing that you hear on this new record for the last decade. That old nineties pop star thing was short-lived.
The song that stands out for me the most is your interpretation of COLD by ANNIE LENNOX. Love that song! What drew you to it?
Itís an amazing song. ANNIE is known as a great singer but sheís a brilliant songwriter I think. That song to me is about every love that Iíve had in my life and I think everyone reaches a point in a relationship where you canít make it work no matter how great the love is there. There is this disconnect and this lack of communication. In the last line of the bridge of that song she says ĎThe more I want you the less I get / Ainít that just the way things are?í Iím going through that in my life too right now. Iíve been married a long time and sometimes, it takes a hell of a lot of work to do the easiest damned thing which is being in love with somebody. That song hits me and it always has. When DIVA came out in the early nineties I just couldnít believe it. I had always loved ANNIE LENNOXís voice but I didnít realize what a deep soulful songwriter she was. Every song on that album kills me and this song has kind of haunted me for a long time. I keep a list of songs that I might want to cover at some point and this was on the list for a long time but I finally found a n arrangement that would work and the song seems to work for me as a human being right now.
Talk about who all you worked with in putting this CD together.
The band is luckily my touring band Ė the same band that Iíve been touring with live for the past seven years. The core of the trio that I work with is the drummer KEITH HALL. We all met in New York several years ago but I live back in Idaho now while HALL lives in Kalamazoo and the pianist MATTHEW FRIES lives in New York City. CLIFF SCHMITT is the bass player and he is fairly new to the band. That is my core trio. We tour together and play roughly one hundred dates a year. The trumpet player is also the co-producer of the record and helped me to create a lot of the arrangements of the songs on the record. I would send him mp3ís of songs and say Ďwhat if we did this?í and a few days later, he would send me a mock up version of the arrangement and I would send it back and say Ďwhat if we did this, and this, and this?í He ended up becoming not just the arranger but the co-producer. His name is JOHN ĎSCRAPPERí SNEIDER. Iíve taken on this crusade to make him a one-name star like DIZZY or MADONNA or CHER. I want to call him SCRAPPER but his real name is JOHN SNEIDER and he is a genius jazz trumpet player with a tremendous sense of pop music and modern music. The nice thing about these guys is that they are not jazz snobs. If I took a different set of musicians into the studio and said ĎHey, weíre going to do MY FUNNY VALENTINE and WEE SMALL HOURS OF THE MORNING and weíre going to do an ANNIE LENNOX tune and a JOHN LENNON tune and a RON SEXSMITH tuneí a lot of jazz people would scratch their heads and go Ďwho the hell are those people? Thatís not jazzí. The great thing about these guys is that they are young enough to love pop music. They grew up with pop music and rock music and everything else and are open to combining things and taking risks and blurring the line between styles.
Youíre living in Idaho now?
Yes. I grew up in Idaho. I moved to New York in 1987 and my wife and our daughter and I moved back to Idaho in 2003.
What brought that on? Was it September 11th?
Having a child was the main thing. Trying to raise a kid in New York City was hard. Family was the main factor and September 11th certainly had something to do with it. We started to seriously think about moving to Idaho in 2001. After September 11th, New York had lost a lot of its charm there Ė especially after having a child. Having a kid really changes your life and what your priorities are.
Talk about how music began for you?
I was always a fan of the radio and I loved records. I was the kid who was always calling the local AM station and requesting songs. I loved music. I grew up driving around with my mom in the car and singing along to the radio. Luckily my mom was into rock n roll and pop music. I had a chance to become a fan first. I was the kid that left school and went straight to the record store. I didnít necessarily buy a lot of records because I didnít have much money but I would just thumb through the stacks. It was like a dreamland. I started playing music in school. My cousin had a clarinet so I played clarinet in the band and eventually I was in the choir and things like that. I came up through music education in public school. At the same time, I was playing drums in bands after school and in high school was playing drums in bands in rock, punk and new wave bands. I was playing classical and jazz in school and playing rock n roll after school. By the time High school ended that was all I did. I had five music classes at school and one academic course and then play in bars at night. It became who I was. Itís always been my whole life whether as a crazy rabid fan of ELTON JOHN and ELLA FITZGERALD to being a fulltime musician.
In terms of composing original material, what is you process? How does that happen for you?
Iím more of a lyricist than I am the music guy although I do help shape the tunes because Iím a musician. There are two great songs that I wrote with a great jazz pianist/organist named LARRY GOLDING. There is a song called FEELíS RIGHT and other is called THE DREAMS OF YESTERDAY. With those two it was a matter of LARRY sending me and mp3 of a melody and saying Ďcheck this out! Could you write a lyric to this?í THE DREAMS OF YESTERDAY took me years to find the right words to match such a beautiful melody. For FEELíS RIGHT, he sent me an mp3 about a week before I flew out to New York to make the record. It was a last minute idea and I sat down and wrote a lyric to it that day. Sometimes the songs happen really fast and sometimes it takes nine years. Usually someone sends me a melody and I say letís cut this part out , shorten this and add this and then I write a lyric to it. Sometime what someone sends me is perfect and I can write a lyric that fits what they have sent me. I do also occasionally write songs where Iím sitting down and playing the guitar but they tend to be pretty simple and they end up sounding like MERLE HAGGARD songs rather than ELLA FITZGERALD songs.
And of the original compositions on this album, which ones resonate for you the most and why?
There are four of them. Iím proud of all of them really but Iíve got to say that THE DREAMS OF YESTERDAY is such a gorgeous song and such a gorgeous melody. YOUíVE GOT THE FEVER Ė I really like that song. I love singing it and itís got such a great story. Itís about a fellow thatís lusting after a woman that he probably shouldnít be lusting after. I like the humor of it. Itís one of the few sort of fictional songs that Iíve written. I tend to write songs about things that are going on in my life. A good percentage of the ideas for most my songs are very close to home a personal. YOUíVE GOT THE FEVER is like I wrote a little short story or a short movie script. Iíve created a couple of characters and Iím sort of proud of that. I read a lot and I love great novels and good short stories and I love the idea of being able to create something out of the blue like that. Obviously there are real emotions in it. We all find ourselves tempted by this or that in our lives. Itís an honest song and it was great to add a little humor to my songs. I had a friend of mine years ago say Ďyouíre a really funny guy when we hang out! How come your records arenít funny?í At the time it stung but he was right. I tend to be pretty heavy and pretty dark a lot of the time.
I never thought about you being so serious minded but you kind of are.
I spend a lot of time cracking jokes. If you see me live, about a quarter of the show is me telling stories and telling jokes. That is sort of who I am. I like to entertain and Like to bull shit when Iím onstage just like I would if I was out having a beer with you. I try to get some of that in along with some of the tragic heartbreak and darkness that come through. I love a sad song. There are a lot of dark songs on this record and I tend to gravitate toward that kind of stuff because I can get a lot of emotion an drama out of them.
can see you being a bit of a joker. I remember you on THE TONIGHT SHOW years ago when you were sitting next to SIGOURNEY WEAVER. You had long hair then.
Oh yeah. I remember sitting next to SIGOURNEY WEAVER very well. Itís a good memory.
In speaking of intense songs, you do a great job with JEALOUS GUY.
I love singing that song. I hadnít ever sung it. I actually knew the DONNY HATHAWAY version of it better than I knew the JOHN LENNON version. There have been a million covers of it over the years. The DONNIE HATHAWAY version was live. He sang this amazingly gut-wrenching soul version of it. The first time I sang it was with THE LIVERPOOL PHILHARMONIC. I did it with a couple of other singers. It was an evening of JOHN LENNONís songs two summers ago and it just worked. The audience just went nuts for it. It hits close to home for me lyrically as well. I just started playing it around the house on my guitar when I got home and Iíd start performing it for a charity event here and there and people kept responding to it and I love singing it. We went into the studio and the way I play it on guitar I kind of soul-folk or something. I made the band play I with me that way once but these were jazz guys and they werenít quite sure what to do with it. So I suggested that we do it again but the second time around, I wanted them to pretend they were HERBIE HANCOCK and TONY WILLIAMS and RON CARTER in 1966 Ė an amazing, cutting-edge, high energy modern jazz trio and I would do what I was doing on top of it. We made this hybrid where Iím singing it like a soul pop song and theyíre playing balls-to-the-walls jazz and I really love the way it turned out. JOHN LENNON always wrote songs that seemed so simple and when you pick them apart, you find that itís such a complex and unusual song.
From the time you released your debut up until now, what has been the biggest surprise for you?
There have been a lot of surprises. I never know where Iím going to go musically and that has always been a surprise. That is what I love about being a musician. That is what keeps me moving. I never expected to a make a middle of the road pop record for my first record and I never expected to run into problems with my record company because I wanted to do other things and I never expected to run away from the pop world and start making jazz records. I also never expected to be so successful making jazz records. Iím able to make a living and play as big a concert as I ever did in Europe as a jazz singer. Itís not an easy job being a jazz singer. The money isnít nearly as big as being a pop singer but Iíve been able to make a really nice living. The whole thing has been a surprise. I was surprised to get a record deal and go from being a pizza eating, barely surviving, ride the subway to work musician to being on the TONIGHT SHOW and playing DODGERíS STADIUM and SHEA STADIUM. Every day is a new experience and I keep pinching myself to see if Iím really dreaming that I get to make a living playing music.
What would you like someone to come away with after theyíve heard this album?
Going back to what I was saying about being drawn to dark songs Ė maybe a lump in their throat. A record to me is just a concert. Itís not something that I work on for years and years. We donít overdub very much. Itís a document of that day. I sort of look at an album as someone coming to a show and hearing all of these songs. I like people to be moved. I like them to have had a change in their chemistry. I like the idea that after someone listens to my record that theyíve been crying a little bit Ė that theyíve gone through an emotional experience and came out on the other side with something. Maybe itís a little bit more life. A little bit more soul. Thatís what I get when I go to a great concert. When I come out of it, Iím exhilarated and inspired or Iím sad or I am heartbroken. Itís the same as seeing a great movie. Hopefully that is the case. I hope people can just get moved by it.