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Interview: Curtis Stigers talks new album Gentleman, his approach to covering songs and feeling creative during lockdown

The prominent Jazz star opens up about his new record.

Curtis Stigers
Credit: Ronnie Smith

Curtis Stigers was born and raised in Boise, Idaho and he rose to fame in 1991 with his hit singles I Wonder Why and You’re All That Matters to me.

After releasing three albums that combined pop, rock and soul, Curtis revisited his original passion for 2001 album Baby Plays Around, the first of many Jazz albums he’s released in the last 19 years. Recently Curtis released new album Gentleman digitally and it’s getting a physical release in the UK on Friday 1st May 2020.

I caught up with Curtis to talk about the concept behind the record, find out about his process for discovering songs, and to discuss how he’s coping in lockdown…

Your new album Gentleman is out digitally at the moment and it’s being released physically on 1st May in the UK. What’s the concept behind this record?

It’s lived a few lives actually. I spent a lot more time making this record than I have in the past 18 or 19 years. I usually make records very quickly, just go into the studio and and record and mix them. That’s kind of how you do more of the jazz approach to recording. When I started making this record, the first thing that I wrote with my friend David Poe was the title track Gentleman and it all during the #MeToo movement that exploded in our faces. It had obviously had been there all along. Then of course Donald Trump, a very non-gentlemanly person running our country. We decided to look at what it is to be a gentleman or at least to attempt to be a gentleman and to be a good man in this day and age. We eventually wrote this song that when it was done, we realised it would have been a great Bond theme (laughs) but no luck for us. It didn’t end up in a in a Bond movie. That was the initial look for the record, trying to figure out what it is to be a gentleman.

Then I started finding and writing songs that were also about abandonment; about being left behind. I’m newly married, I’ve been married for just a year now and very much in love and everything’s fine on that front, but I realised I was subconsciously writing and curating songs that were at least slightly related to the fact that my daughter was going off to college. I guess I was having to figure out who I was going to be. What gentlemen I was going to be and what man I was going to be after the person who had meant the most to me for, and taken up most of my life and attention for the last 19 years. That that came into it. It is certainly a look at what it is to be a gentleman in the more general sense out in the world. I have had to figure out who I am again after 20 years of being a dad. I’m certainly still a father but she’s an adult now and she has her own life. The record is a lot about me trying to figure out who I am, who I’m going to be for the rest of my life, or at least for the next period of my life now that my daughter’s is off to college and and not around.

The record is a mixture of original tracks and covers. What’s your discovery process when it comes to finding songs you want to cover for a record?

It happens days, weeks, months, years in advance. I keep a list of songs. I’ll hear a song on the radio or I’ll hear a song on a record when I’m just listening for pleasure and I’ll think ‘oh, wow, that one got me. I wonder could I do that?’ It’s really a matter of me just being a fan of great songwriters and I suppose for the last 20 years, because I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years now, I’ve always listened to music with part of my brain thinking, ‘could I do that? Could I sing that song?’ I love great songs. I used to think I needed to write every song on my record, early in my pop career. I was fiercely advocating for my own songs on my record and now I love the idea of taking someone else’s song and making it my own.

Curtis Stigers

Credit: Ronnie Smith

Covering someone else’s song is always hard, especially when people are so familiar with the original version. How do you approach putting your spin on a song so that it fits in nicely with the theme and sound of your record?

It’s something I take a lot of joy and a lot of pride. I really like the idea of taking someone else’s song and pulling it apart and putting it back together, more in a jazz way and more in a me way and in a way that suits the way I sing. I’ve done it with my own songs as well. I’ve done it with I Wonder Why, You’re All That Matters To Me and Never Saw a Miracle, some of the songs that people know me for; certainly I Wonder Why and You’re All That Matters To Me in Britain. I’ve had to figure out a way to perform those songs live with a jazz quartet, which is how I tour and to make those fit where I’m going now artistically. That gave me some practice just figuring out my own things and then thinking, ‘OK, well what if I take a Nick Lowe or an Elvis Costello song and do the same thing. Pull it apart and put it back together’.

They have to be a certain kind of song. There are records that I have loved and great singles that I’ve loved, that when you really pull it apart and look at it, it wouldn’t suit being sung in the way that I do it because it’s got one chord and it was more about the groove or it was more about the vibe of the record. You really know if a song can live up to that sort of scrutiny if it is tortured by my terrible guitar playing, sitting down on my acoustic guitar and singing a song (laughs). That tends to be one of the first steps, just taking something down to its simplest form and seeing if it still moves and if it’s still got the greatness that that it had when it was a record by somebody else.

What would you say has been the most challenging part of putting this record together, apart from releasing it in a pandemic of course?

(laughs) I guess finding what the theme was. It’s always the hardest thing for me, putting the songs in the correct order on the record, the sequence, and finding what the heart of the record really is. This took a good period of time. We started the record about a year and a half ago and then once we’d done the initial recording session my co-producer and piano player, his mother passed away so that added two months of not working on it. Right after that as we started to think we’d get back together to work, my mother had a kidney transplant and so that took me out of the game for a couple of months as I helped to get her settled. It was just a matter of getting the damn thing done and actually finding the time being a full-time touring artist and just a human being, being a dad and a son and a boyfriend now husband. Just finding the time to get it finished was a big part of it.

Did you have any reservations at all about the album now give what’s going on?

I suppose if the release date had been planned for two months later, I would have said maybe we should wait. This record needed to come out now. It was time for it. It was helpful for me to add the bonus track. There’s a bonus track on the digital version of the record that kind of ties it into today. I discovered a song or I was sent a song by my co-producer and a friend of his, they wrote one of the other songs on the record, called Shut Ins at the at the beginning of February before any quarantining was happening here at all. We really didn’t have a sense that we were going to fall into that like everyone else. Of course, none of us knew it.

They sent me this song and it’s beautiful. It’s basically a love song, a let’s stay home we don’t need to go out there and be in the midst of everybody. Let’s just stay home and we’ll be shut ins. ‘I’d rather be a shut in with you’. A month later I realised not only do I love this song and want to record it someday, I need to record it now because the song’s day is now. That sort of tied it in and made me think, ‘it’s time let’s just do this’. I can’t tour it right now. I can’t get in front of people aside from doing some live things on the Internet but I must say there are a lot of captive people. There are a lot of people out there needing some entertainment, needing some music and needing this so I’m unhappy to try to sell it in a different way this time. Hopefully things will get a little bit more normal and I’ll be able to go out and sing music for people again like I’m supposed to.

I applaud you for releasing it now. You’re absolutely right that people do need entertainment and this album is kind of perfect for right now. It’s such a classy body of work and quite relaxing in parts too…

Thank you. That’s nice of you to say. It feels right for it and and I get Tweets and Facebook postings every now and then from people who say, ‘oh, yeah, that song is really suitable to this time’. The first song on the record is a Nick Lowe song and it’s called Lately I’ve Let Things Slide. I just love Nick Lowe’s writing. It didn’t occur to me but if you listen to it, it’s perfect for this time. Basically he wakes up by himself, with a hangover, lying on his bed and his house is a mess and his life is a mess, and the the end of each chorus is ‘lately I’ve let things slide’. Who doesn’t feel that in a way? Those of us who are spending most of our time in sweatpants and with our hair uncombed because it doesn’t matter, right? It’s funny how there are different songs on this record that are taking on new meanings because of this pandemic. Music is a funny thing. Once you write a song it belongs to somebody else and once you record a record, it belongs to the people that listen to it and it takes on their stories, as well as the original stories that were there.

Curtis Stigers

Credit: Ronnie Smith

As you know, music literally soundtracks so many people’s lives so for some, this could be a record that gets them through this period…

…which could be good or could be bad (laughs). ‘I can’t listen to that record again, it reminds me of being cooped up in my in my flat for four months’. Funny!

I think that people will be able to sit back and think, ‘this is the album that got me through this period. This is the record that reassured me and made me feel better’…

That’s very kind, thank you. I would be pleased and lucky for that to be the case. It does feel good to have something to give to people right now in this horrible painful time. It does feel good to be able to be engaged with people about my music right now, and I am very engaged. I’m on the Internet and I’m on Twitter, mostly (laughs). 50% of the time screaming and yelling and being angry and profane and political, and then the other 50% talking about the music that I like and talking about my records. It’s nice to get feedback from people so directly.

I’ve noticed you’re very engaged on Twitter. You’ve shared some of our article so thank you for that…

You bet! Thanks for giving me the ink the ink as they say. There’s a lot to compete with out there so I’m really grateful for anybody paying attention.

Well c’mon now Curtis, you are a bit of a legend…

I have noticed that by just surviving and continuing to make music, that happens, As I move well into my 50s, I get good reviews now from the same publications that used to slag me off for being a lightweight pop singer with long hair. If you last long enough and if you don’t die or go off to do another job, somehow you can turn into some sort of an elder statesman.

Not being able to tour music be incredibly frustrating. Are you finding this lockdown is allowing you to be creative?

I am actually. I have found it quite inspiring. Not only have I finished some songs that I hadn’t gotten around to because I was always so busy. I’ve been writing songs but I’ve been using some of what is coming at me on the Internet from Twitter, from Facebook and from Instagram. One in particular, which is silly, but it has really felt like I’ve been able to tap into a creative side of myself. Matt Lucas, the great comedian, actor and writer, he recorded his absurd Big Potato Song from Shooting Stars and I’ve done a couple of versions of that. I know that sounds silly but it’s really been fun to tap into the more humorous side of who I am and what I do. I’m actually collaborating with people via the internet. That’s something I’ve never done before, at least certainly not in a visual audio kind of format. I’ve certainly written songs with people via email but… The Baked Potato thing has been a lot of fun.

Its good that it’s inspired you because I imagine this could be a very frustrating time for a lot of artists too…

Yeah, it could be. It just so happens that I’m usually so busy that the creative stuff gets put to the side as I’m on a plane flying to London or flying to Berlin or whatever. It’s a lot harder to keep up with that stuff when I’m also out on the road playing concerts for people, which is frankly what I prefer to do. I love playing live. I have a lot of time on my hands and luckily, I’m not just sitting around watching TV. I have watched some good TV but I’m also still creating (laughs).

Curtis Stigers’ new album Gentleman is available digitally now and will be released on CD on Friday 1st May 2020. You can pre-order the CD and vinyl now. Watch the video for Gentleman below:

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