How one of the biggest selling pop singers of the 90s became a happier jazz artist with the perfect work-life balance
Curtis Stigers was one of the biggest stars of high power, big production — and let’s not forget big hair — balladry of the 1990s. An artist that you remember for soft focus MTV videos, great voice and sax solos and then, having remembered, perhaps wonder he’s doing now. Why isn’t he still up there in chartsville, cranking out the hits? Simply because he’d far rather sing and play the music he loves, and spend as much time as possible in the place he loves with the people he loves. He’s that rare beast — the musician who has the work/life balance thing all worked out.
Take this interview. Curtis is in the States when we call him to talk about his upcoming British tour. He apologises if the sound of traffic gets in the way (in fact it’s fine) but he’s wandering around downtown Boise, Idaho, waiting for his dancer daughter to finish some physiotherapy. His mother was from Boise but moved to Southern California, where he was born. After a divorce she moved back with the kids and from the age of nine Boise was home. A relocation to New York in 1987 when Curtis was 21 lasted sixteen years and when he became a father he moved back to Idaho. “It made more sense to raise a child here,” he explains, “and when I realized I hadn’t been to the Village Vanguard or the Blue Note to hear jazz in three years because I had a daughter, there was no reason for me to be in New York any more.”
He could live anywhere, surely? “I could, and if I was sensible I’d probably live in London as I work so much more on that side of the Atlantic, but Boise really is a place that draws people back. I have so many friends that have gone out into the ‘real world’ and made a career for themselves, but so many of them find their way back here. It’s a lovely place, quiet, yet there’s enough going on. On top of that my mother — Grandma — is here, and in the winter I ski every day and in the warmer months I mountain- and road-bike. It’s a hell of a good life. You can’t do all of those things in New York City. There are other things you can do in New York City, but I guess I got those things out of my system.”
We digress, talking about Idaho’s great downhill and cross country skiing, and then that recurring theme comes to the fore. “I’m lucky,” Curtis reflects, “I lead a very charmed life. I get to live this quiet life and do all these things, then I fly to London and Paris and Berlin, and eat exotic food, and sing for people. I get to see the world — and get paid for it... it doesn’t seem fair.”
Curtis limits his time on the road to around 80 gigs a year nowadays, “A lot of people are on that tour bus for 50 weeks a year. That’s not my life. I have always had a two week rule, if I was ever away for more than that I would make sure my wife and daughter would come out to where I was. Now I’m divorced it’s a little bit harder so my trips are a little bit shorter. Ruby’s thirteen, too young to hop on and plane a fly to Europe on her own and of course my ex doesn’t travel over to see me any more,” he laughs.
He’s not, he says, a slave to his career. In fact he says something unusual in a music biz star: “It makes more sense to make less money and have a life. I know so many people in the record business — and sometimes I feel guilty about not being like them — who are in the studio, on the road, working 95 percent of their life. They’re very successful but they never see their kids. I just think you’ve got one shot at that, and I have a wonderful daughter who I love to be with. I get enough money to pay the mortgage and the bills, and one day put her through college.”
There’s another part to this work/life balance for Curtis. He could play larger arenas, doing the kind of music he was known for in the 1990s, but in his forthcoming UK tour (see dates below) he’s chosen more intimate theaters. He made a choice, he says, to “stop trying to chase the kids. I realized I wasn’t going to outsell Justin Timberlake! There was a point where the pop world wasn’t waiting on pins and needles for my latest album, and I wasn’t enjoying trying to have radio hits. In that world you release an album and if you don’t have a hit single within two weeks, that album is deemed a failure. In the world where I live as an artist, I put out an album and I tour behind it, playing those songs for a year or a year and a half, I find new ways to play them and explore the music. After a year and a half I’ve made some money and I’ve shared that music with a lot of people and that, to me, feels more like success than worrying if a certain radio programer has played my record. I’ve found a way to be the kind of musician I always dreamed I would be when I was young, playing music for people rather than someone who goes into the studio for six months and hopes someone will play it on the radio. It suits me as a person, and also, frankly, as a musician — the music I play is for smaller rooms, it’s not necessarily for arenas and stadiums.”
That music has evolved over the years. As a teenager Curtis played in jazz, rock and blues groups, but there was no career path planned out. “Now I have a lot of strong ideas about music, but I never planned where I would be in two years. That’s antithetical to who I am as a person. I like the improvisational nature of both the music that I play and my work. The job that I have allows me to turn on a dime — even within a gig I’ll be playing acoustic guitar and singing some of my older pop or soul songs, then the next minute I’ll play a jazz standard and be swinging and scat singing. I’m able to play rock, soul, blues and jazz, even on the same record. I’ll take a Richard Thompson or Bob Dylan or Neil Finn [Crowded House] song and somehow turn it into something of a jazz tune. When I was a kid I listened to everything. I loved the Sex Pistols and The Clash but I was also a big fan of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. It didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t try to learn to play different kinds of music. I figured if I was a fan of them, I should at least try to get a passing understanding of how they work. I played drums in a punk rock covers band — I wasn’t the best drummer in the world but I might have been the loudest — and I played jazz and classical at school. A famous and influential jazz pianist called Gene Harris, who retired to Boise, had a jam session every Tuesday night so I learned to play jazz at the knee of one of the greats. I did a lot of things as a kid and I hung on to that. When I made my first pop record, the one with all the hits back in the 90s, I assumed the record company would want me to continue to make jazz records as well. I found, to my annoyance, that they really wanted me to just do one thing, over and over. I wanted to grow, so I had to dismantle that pop career.”
Ironically the massive success of those albums on Arista helped gave Curtis a financial cushion and put him in a position to move away from that kind of music, as did his appearance on the soundtrack album to blockbuster movie The Bodyguard — at least up to point.
“It did for a little while. If I had written the song on The Bodyguard it would have been a lot different.” Nick Lowe [who wrote (What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding, the song Curtis sang on the soundtrack] has referred to Curtis’ cover of his song as his pension plan, the biggest commercial success of his brilliant career. “We’re friends now, thanks to that record. All you have to do to become friends with one of your heroes is make them a couple of million dollars,” Curtis laughs. “I’ve gotten to play with him, and I promoted a Nick Lowe-Ron Sexsmith concert here in Boise a few years back — I got to share him with my home town. There’s a guy called Peter Holsapple who was, among other things, the unofficial fifth member of REM. He's very well known in the music world. I was backstage at a gig that he was on and he said, you’re Curtis Stigers, the guy who did the Nick Lowe song, thanks for doing that for Nick, and he walked up and gave me a big hug! That made every bit of it worth while. It was quite a ride — I was on Arista and they asked me to do a song for this soundtrack, it was a Whitney Houston thing so I thought it would get some attention but you never expect it to sell over 40 million copies. People still talk about it because it was one of the biggest selling albums of all time. But really it was a Whitney Houston record — my track on it had nothing to do with its success, especially because if you watch the film you can almost hear me singing for a few seconds. Whitney’s songs on it were everywhere, they were pop smashes, God love her.
“Seriously, I did make very good money. When you think, oh, I’m a pop star now and this is going to go on for ever, you tend to spend it quicker than if you think, this is my one break, I’d better put this in the bank. I didn’t buy a Lear Jet... I bought a house, and one for my mom, and a car. We did have some very nice dinner parties, and a portion of it went on nice Pinot Noir and Cabernet, but that ‘cushion’ is long gone.”
Soundtracks have featured in Curtis’ recent recording history too, not least for Dawson’s Creek and Sons of Anarchy. He co-wrote the latter’s theme song and his gutsy version of the blues standard John the Revelator on the Series 1 finale really is a revelation.
“The Sons of Anarchy thing came about because a very good old friend and collaborator of mine, Bob Thiele Jr., is the music supervisor on the show. Five years ago he asked if I’d like to write the lyrics to his theme tune for a new TV show. I asked what it was about, and he said a bunch of murderous, gunrunning bloodthirsty bikers. I said, no wonder you called me! I spent a couple of days kicking around a lyric, the executive producer added a few lines to make it fit what he was going for, I recorded the vocals in a local studio here in Idaho and next thing you know it’s on TV. A year later I get a call from Bob telling me to get my tuxedo pressed because we’ve been nominated for an Emmy award. It’s been a fun ride, it came about strictly by accident, and I’ve recorded several other songs for the show including John the Revelator, which is most like the Son House version. It’s a nice chance for me to tickle the blues and rock side of what I do.”
“I get emails from people who don’t think I can be the same guy who does jazz standards and versions of Elvis Costello tunes — my versatility and my interest in so many different things has been my blessing and my curse. It can be a bit confusing, especially to the press, and to record companies and publicists. They’re used to putting artists in a box, and I’ve always got one foot kicking my way out of the box.”
Whatever style Curtis chooses to work, he has two major strengths — an identifiable, strong voice and also an identifiable, strong look. “That took me a long while to figure out,” he admits. “For a while I tried to compartmentalise everything but I’ve decided it’s worth the risk of confusing people to do all the things that I want to do. Luckily my voice is distinctive and I have a buzz-saw voice that cuts through.”
Fans of a certain age will also remember the distinctive long-hair look of his first albums. ”That one photo session has haunted me for years!,“ he groans. “I remember the day I decided to grow my hair out. I’d been in New York City for about a year and I went to see the restored version of Lawrence of Arabia — when Peter O’Toole takes off his head-scarves his hair — although short by rock & roll standards — was longer, and I thought, I want to be Peter O’Toole! I happened to have long hair when I signed to my record label. They took that cover photo for my first album and the yellowish lights made my hair look golden. People still say to me, you’re not blonde any more — I say, what the hell are you talking about, I was never blonde! I only had long hair from 1989 to about 1993. I didn’t realize what an impact it would have on my career. The minute I finished touring that first album I chopped it off — it’s a helluva lot of work looking after all that hair. Coming off stage, being all sweaty, I’d spend the first half hour blow drying my hair. And that’s the end of the hair story!”
Nowadays Curtis spends a surprising 90 percent of his stage life in Europe, just 10 percent in the States. Not only is his profile here higher, but with his two-week rule he can cover the whole of the UK in a fortnight, while he wouldn’t scratch the surface of the US in that time. When, as he says, he “checked out of the big pop world” and started driving himself on tours with just his guitar and sax rather than being “hermetically sealed in the back of a tour bus”, he started to see the countryside and towns and fell in love with the UK all over again. On tour he plans travel days on where he can get the best pub lunches — “there’s a lot of good food in England that needs to be eaten — I eat better in the UK than anywhere in the world, including France.”
Are audiences different here? “I think they’re different everywhere you go.” he says. “In Boise they’re boisterous, in Glasgow they’re insane, in London they’re a little bit more careful. It’s a bit of a stereotype but I think the further south you go in Britain, the more reserved audiences are.” You can see Curtis somewhere close to you soon (see below). Go see him, make some noise, and make him feel at home.
Curtis Stigers’ UK tour dates
May 8th, Guildford, G Live; 9th Bury St. Edmonds Apex; 10th Eastleigh, Concorde Club; 11th Shrewsbury, Theatre Severn; 12th Stevenage, Gordon Craig Theatre; 13th Swansea, Grand Theatre; 14 Liverpool Philharmonic Hall; 15th Leamington Spa, Royal Spa Centre; 16th Milton Keynes, Wavendon The Stables; 18th Aberdeen, Music Hall; 19th Gateshead, The Sage; 20th Tunbridge Wells, Assembly Hall Theatre; June 17th to 21st London, Ronnie Scott’s, Residency.