Go it alone
Once scared, singer-songwriter Shannon Curtis is now wowed by the crowd
Sacramento, CA 95816
At a Wednesday-night open-mic a few years back, Shannon Curtis sat behind a keyboard at Old Ironsides. Her rock band Paradigm, which in three years released two albums and opened for John Mayer, had just dissolved. The former lead singer was now a solo artist. And terrified.
“I felt this pressure that I had to fill this whole sound space myself,” she says. “That was really freaky.”
Looking back now at that open-mic night, and the months of solo performances that followed, Curtis says they were liberating. The choice to go it alone was defining, a point when she rediscovered not only her musical roots but also a newfound intimacy with audiences.
Curtis grew up in Stockton playing piano and listening to church music. She remembers twirling around on green shag carpet while her dad played ’40s standards on piano. She started Paradigm after college, deciding to forego medical school—even though she’d earned a pre-med biology degree at the University of San Francisco.
Soon after, she married and moved to Sacramento to be with her husband; most of her bandmates also lived here. Paradigm rehearsed out of a home studio, then moved into a space on Del Paso Boulevard across from Lil Joe’s diner.
In a little more than three years, the band self-released two albums, received national college-radio play and opened for acts like Maroon 5 and Dave Matthews Band while touring the country. Labels increasingly paid more attention to Paradigm, who was at a crossroads. But then bandmates decided to call it quits; Curtis calls the breakup a “confluence of events.”
“A couple of guys were having kids,” she remembers, “so they didn’t want to be away from home as often, which is completely understandable.” She was divorced at this time, but also was writing new, different kinds of songs, exploring a piano-based sound, which she says felt like a homecoming. A return to how she started out her musical career. Back to the green shag carpet.
The new sound worked.
Later, she remarried to an audio engineer and moved to Los Angeles for a change of scenery. Quickly, the L.A. Times was calling her “a beautiful piano player who sounds like the love child of Fiona Apple and Norah Jones.”
Today, Curtis still lives in Southern California but remains fond of Sacramento, its people and music scene. When visiting, she goes to open-mic nights, as a fan, and even plays shows booked by promoter Jerry Perry. “When I think of Jerry Perry, I think of the words ‘true believer,’” she says. “His heart and soul [are] dedicated to promoting good music in Sacramento. The biggest way he’s helped me is just being a friend and encouraging me to do what I do.”
According to Curtis, Sacramento has a “soul” that Los Angeles lacks. She prefers playing here and in other towns that aren’t so commercialized musically, and says the L.A. environment can “suck the oxygen out of a living, breathing music scene.”
Her first full-length album was released this past March, titled simply I Play the Piano and Sing Love Songs, and she repeats this same phrase when asked to describe herself as a musician. Her voice is equal parts Diana Krall and Shirley Manson. And her next release, an as-yet-untitled full-length, will come out early next year.
But life on the road—playing her MTV The Hills hit or opening for big-name acts—isn’t her favorite part of being a musician. It’s connecting with her fans.
“It’s this satisfying sensation that I get,” she says. “I’m on the stage [and] there’s a special thing happening with me and the audience where I can tell they’re connecting with what I’m doing, and I am in turn connecting with what they’re feeling. It’s that synergistic moment of ‘wow.’”
She’s no longer terrified. She loves it.