To call singer-songwriter Amelia Curran prolific qualifies as an understatement. Her new album, Watershed, released March 10, 2017, is the eighth full-length release in a recording career that dates back to her 2000 debut album, Barricade.
“I write a lot of songs,” she explains in our interview at the Toronto office of her label, Six Shooter Records. “I had almost 100 songs written since the last album. I picked through them, then ditched all of them. I felt I needed something fresh, so I spent five days at a friend’s house in Nova Scotia last May. I wrote morning, noon and night, and eight of the songs on Watershed came from that. I thought of naming the album Five Days In May, but the title was taken.”
To Curran, all those unused songs still had a purpose. “You can practice writing like you do anything else” she says. “The practice is like training for the Olympics, which is those five days.” She acknowledges that “every time I write a song I think it’s going to be a hit, but I’m a folksinger, so I don’t have hits. That’s fine,” she laughs.
She may not rack up commercial hits, but the eloquent songs she writes have earned the St. John’s, NL-based artist serious peer and critical respect. In 2010, Curran won a JUNO Award in the category of Roots and Traditional Album of the Year: Solo for Hunter Hunter. She’s won several East Coast Music Awards, including Songwriter of the Year in 2016, and also won first prize (in the Folk category) of the prestigious 15th Annual USA Songwriting Competition.
Watershed was recorded in Toronto last year, with Chris Stringer (Timber Timbre, The Wooden Sky, Jill Barber) co-producing with Curran. In the past, she’s worked with such noted producers as John Critchley and Michael Phillip Wojewoda, and she explains that she keeps switching to keep it fresh. Curran did bring over the same musicians that played on her last album, 2014’s They Promised You Mercy: guitarist Dean Drouillard, drummer Joshua Van Tassel, and bassist Devon Henderson.
“I’ve never had the same band before, and I can hear the camaraderie there,” she says. “They’ve worked so much with Chris Stringer that when we got together in a room, we knew exactly what we were going to get out of it. We were familiar with each other’s sound and habits – and grumpiness! They’re amazing players and they feel like family… It was definitely a team effort, and I wanted that so badly.”
Curran is looking forward to bringing the band for some of her touring. “They’re a great support system for me, as often I’m on the road by myself, and that can get very difficult,” she says. “What can be very unhealthy living turns into a positive experience.”
“It’s a completely different culture of songwriting in Nashville, writing towards a goal. For me writing has always been so exploratory, so I struggle with that.”
In April, Curran participates in the Writes of Spring Ontario tour, alongside fellow songsmiths Tim Baker (of Hey Rosetta!), Donovan Woods, and Hawksley Workman, and there are many more tour dates (click on “tour”) after that. Stripping down the recorded versions of her new songs is a challenge Curran terms “tricky, but really fun. You come up with completely different vibes of the song. For instance, ‘No More Quiet’ has big ‘70s horns, electric guitar, and Shakura S’Aida wailing at the end, but I’ll make it really soft now.”
Curran is continually challenging herself to extend her range as a songwriter, as shown by recent visits to the SOCAN House in Nashville. “I was there last November, and in the February before that,” she says. “I consider myself to be dipping my toe into that [Nashville] world. It’s a completely different culture of writing there, writing towards a goal. For me writing has always been so exploratory, so I struggle with that.
“The jury is still out on the relationship between me and Nashville, but what a great world it is there. Every other person you see is a songwriter, and that’s a fantastic thing.
To coincide with the release of Watershed, Curran is publishing Relics & Tunes (via Breakwater Books) on March 17th. She explains that “this is a songbook, with all the lyrics and the guitar chords from my five Six Shooter albums. I see it as a humble offering – ‘if you’d like to take these songs and give them further life, here you go.’” The book will also include an original essay by Curran.
Outside her deep commitment to the craft of writing, Curran has, in recent years, devoted plenty of energy to her newer role as an advocate for mental health. She founded the St. John’s-based organization It’s Mental, designed to provide education, service and support for those battling mental illness.
She explains that “our role as an advocacy group is to rally people. We have to say we’re tired of waiting for bureaucracy and legislation. Our role is to try to inspire and empower people, to show we can be there for our communities and to remember that our communities are there for us.”
Curran has been courageously candid about her personal battle with mental illness. “People with whom I have worked directly have always been aware of my own issues,” she says. “I’ve never kept that a secret, but my first and largest surprise was how much it meant to people when I actually said it in a very public platform. I completely underestimated how important that was.
“One of my life’s goals is to see attitudes to mental illness change in my lifetime. I want to move the pendulum as much as I can and help change that system.”