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A Dirty Dozen with MAUREEN ANDARY and SARA CURTIN from THE SWEATER SET – April 2020


According to a recent press release: “Award-winning Washington, DC-based duo The Sweater Set (Maureen Andary and Sara Curtin) is set to release its new album, Fly On The Wall, on May 8, 2020 on Local Woman Records. Performed live in front of an audience at Tonal Park in Takoma Park, Maryland in early 2018, the album, featuring the pair’s blend of indie folk merged with hints of Americana, was recorded and mixed by Don Godwin and mastered by Charlie Pilzer at Tonal Park.” We get Maureen and Sara to discuss new music, influences, and much more…

Photo Credit: Plume Photography (Amanda Reynolds)

1. Tell us a little about your latest release.  What might a fan or listener not grab the first or second time they listen through?  Are there any hidden nuggets you put in the material or that only diehard fans might find?

Sara: This album was recorded live in front of a very quiet audience in a beautiful recording studio. We spent months rehearsing and arranging specific vocal and instrumental parts so that the finished product would sound organic, but not necessarily like a typical “live album.” We probably spend the most time working on our vocal phrasing so that when we are singing in unison it sounds like one voice, and when we are singing in harmony it’s not always obvious who is singing which part. Maureen and I have very different vocal characteristics, but one of the most fun and unique things about when we sing together is that we can even fool ourselves! Sometimes when I’m listening to the songs, I can’t always tell which part is mine. It would be fun for me to know if and when we confuse the listeners, too.

Maureen: I love the song “Being Alone,” the most on the album.  It’s so musical theatre. It’s so Sondheim. I’m not sure if people can tell who is who in the song. We sing together and then break apart. It’s just so fun. And there’s ONE tiny classical guitar riff that is THREE notes that happens twice.  I’m not sure people will catch that the first time!

2. What got you into music, and can you tell us about the moment you realized you wanted to be a musician?

Sara: I grew up with music all around me. My mom is a phenomenal piano player and guitarist and a music director, so I don’t remember a time when live music wasn’t wafting through my house. Some of my fondest memories are of sitting on the piano bench next to her while she played through musical scores and we sang them together. I am pretty sure my brother, Jeff, and I learned to read notes at the same time as letters. He is now a professional drummer and recording engineer, so music is still the main topic of conversation in the family. While I can’t remember a time when I wanted to be anything other than a musician (in some form or another), I do have a very vivid memory of sitting down in front of the TV while my dad played Queen’s performance at Live Aid on VHS. My dad is the professional music lover, rock historian, and vinyl collector of the family. Even as a kid, I knew there was something electric about Freddie Mercury’s performance, but it was more than that. I didn’t just admire him. I saw the crowd – all those arms clapping along to “Radio Ga Ga” – and it just filled me up. It sounds clichéd, because that moment is so iconic, but I think it shaped my dream of playing original music for a living.

Maureen: I loved Disney and musical theatre growing up. I wanted to be Ariel in The Little Mermaid, obviously. I sang “Part of Your World” in the talent show in fourth grade. I was crushed when I didn’t win. I ran away crying, and this boy Christopher chased after me and yelled, “Maureen, Maureen! You were great!” I’ll never forget that. Thanks Chris. Kids are so sweet. Kids always think they’re going to win something, and I just love that. It is sad that everyone can’t win. But I love everyone for trying. Even though I didn’t win, after that I knew I wanted to be in all the musicals I could be in. I began doing musical theater in school AND in summer camps! In middle school, I was cast as Gaston in Beauty and the Beast, and I felt so self-conscious.  I was 12 years old and kept thinking, “Oh my god, am I mannish??? Do people think I look like a man??” But then, when push came to shove, I totally CRUSHED it and embodied that beacon of toxic masculinity. And I absolutely LOVED it. I’d take on any role if it meant I could be on stage singing.

3. Building on that, is there a specific song, album, performer, or live show that guided your musical taste?

Sara: I have always listened to a lot of different kinds of music: folk, pop, rock, hip hop, Broadway… I have always been drawn to the careful precision of pop performances (like Michael Jackson) and the organic magic of an a cappella voice in a big hall. When I was touring colleges as a high school senior, my dad took me to see Joan Baez at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. She sang “Amazing Grace” a cappella to close the show and invited the whole audience to join in. There was harmony swirling around, and I was enchanted. I’m not saying that’s the reason I decided to go to the University of Michigan, but it didn’t hurt! Maureen and I have one original a cappella song called “Keep Me Baby On My Toes” that we love to open shows with – especially in front of brand new audiences – because there’s something so incredibly powerful and intimate about the unaccompanied human voice. And we sing the entire thing in harmony so it really showcases our musical relationship.

4. Who would be your main five musical influences?

Maureen: I think for both of us, it would be The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Merritt, Radiohead, and Stephen Sondheim.

5. If you could call in any one collaborator to do a song with, who would it be, and why?

Sara: Elvis Presley. If Maureen and Elvis and I got together to record a song in three-part harmony, it would just be out of this world.

Maureen: Paul McCartney! He is just an expert collaborator, and I think he gets a kick out of challenging/interesting musical ideas. I love his unique songwriting structures, pre-choruses, and bridges. Gotta love him! I can imagine him getting super behind some of Sara’s weirder ideas and getting excited and making it happen!

Sara: You’re so right, Maureen. Sir Paul would be totally into making some weird stuff happen.

6. How would you describe your music to someone who’d never listened to you before? What is the one comparison a reviewer or fan has made that made you cringe or you disagreed with?

Sara: It’s not that I disagree with most of the comparisons, it’s that I haven’t heard the music of the artists we get compared to most often. I usually just smile and nod and then don’t look them up after the show. Maybe I am subconsciously protecting myself from accidentally copying someone’s sound.

Maureen: The Indigo Girls. It bothers me when people compare us to them. I think people look at us: two women with stringed instruments singing harmony and say, “These two things are the same!” It’s like when someone meets a gay person and says, “Oh i have a gay friend! You should meet them!” It’s well meaning but it’s a superficial connection. It makes me cringe. I think they’re very good, and I know they’re super popular. But I think our songwriting is a lot more theatrical. And, although, arguably Fly On The Wall is the most Indigo Girls-esque album we have (two guitars, basic live harmonies, spare production), all of our other albums and performances involve accordion, banjo, ukulele, glockenspiel, flute, jazz electric guitar, and acoustic guitar. And the arrangements are really surprising. So when people would compare us to the Indigo Girls after a concert where we played seven different instruments and weird Stephen Sondheim-esque harmonies and songs that made people laugh, I’d be like “Really?” To me, the only similarity is that we are a female duo. Soooo, are people just hung up on the fact that we’re women or are they actually paying attention to the music? Sorry to our buddies who have compared us to them. I don’t want to make you feel bad – and as a woman in music, I’m overly sensitive. And every nice person who’s said that is a super fan of the Indigo Girls so it’s really a compliment. But you asked, so there’s the bitter truth.

7. When your band is hanging out together, who cooks, who gets the drinks in, and who is first to crack out the acoustic guitars for a singalong?

Sara: With two sets of twins under 2 years old, we don’t get the opportunity to hang and crack out acoustic guitars as much as the old days, but Maureen is still the Snacks Queen. She takes her rehearsal snack spread seriously, and I happily indulge.

Maureen: I’m a firm believer in snacks anytime anyone comes over, especially if it’s Sara.  I actually roll it out extra for Sara because Sara is an EXCELLENT cook and has made me many delicious meals over the years.  I am not a big-time cook, but I am a snack zealot. They’re so important! They bring so much pleasure! They make everyone more happy and comfortable. I’ve never had anyone NOT eat snacks at my house. They might say, “I’m okay… I’m not hungry,” but they end up with a cookie at some point during the visit. In regards to cracking out the acoustic guitar – I wish we played music more casually.  We’ve always been super focused on whatever rehearsing we need to do for whatever show is coming up. It’s fun once we start, but we don’t take as much time for play as I wish we did. I miss playing a brand new song for Sara in person, the way we did in our twenties. There’s a thrill about it. But we just occasionally send a demo now – and now that we have kids, those demos get further and further apart. Can you type a sad emoji here with a single tear?

8. When was the last time you were starstruck and who was it?

Maureen: I freaking LOVE Merrill Garbus from tUnE-yArDs.  I went and saw her tour w h o k i l l in 2011, and I was just blown away by what she did with the ukulele.  She actually made it BAD-ASS, and her deep dark voice is so powerful. She’s beyond what I could even comprehend what a woman in music could be.  I was super starstruck. I bought her t-shirt, and I got her to sign it. That’s pretty starstruck, I’d say! But that was nearly 10 years ago. I’ve been starstruck since then. Not to sound like a total Washingtonian, but more recently I’m completely starstruck by Elizabeth Warren. I just think she’s incredible. She’s so powerful and capable, and she has so many friends. She’s a model ally, and she is ridiculously effective. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she is hugely responsible for, was a wonder. She gives me hope. She makes ME feel powerful. She makes me proud to be a woman. I want to be like her. Nancy Pelosi is pretty inspiring, too. We’re lucky to have them in Congress. Basically anyone who blows gender stereotypes and commonplace roles for women is my STAR.  And that’s what Merrill Garbus and Elizabeth Warren have in common.

Sara: The last time my jaw dropped was when my husband and I went to see Holly Williams at 9:30 Club. She was the OPENING ACT, and she had everyone in the palm of her hand. The whole place was silent.

9. What is the best part of being a musician? If you could no longer be a musician for whatever reason, what would be your dream job?

Sara: I think I would love being a chef, but I could never stomach the hours. Much respect to those diehards.

Maureen: The best part is singing harmonies with Sara. We sing in church together, and we do cover gigs sometimes, and it’s just magic fun. It’s the easiest, most gratifying part of it. Some other highlights are: I feel so SEEN and connected when it’s clear an audience is connecting with one of my original songs. It’s very cathartic; it feels like we’re together in this life. Also, teaching guitar and ukulele, I love arranging songs for beginners so that they can step into great songs and enjoy them. That makes me happy! If I could no longer be a musician, I would either be a policy director on the Hill, OR I would be a social worker. I got a dual degree in English Literature/Creative Writing and Politics at NYU. After 9/11 happened, my first week of school in NYC, I got the bug for geo-political affairs. Like, what happened there? It is a super complex world I had no clue about, so I took politics classes. I used to work for a PAC right out of college. I often volunteer in presidential elections, donate to causes I care about, and read up on issues.  Politics is more of a citizen-duty and hobby for me, now. You can’t do it all. There are times I get wistful about the political sphere and question why I’m not fighting the good fight full time. And, really, I feel guilty that I’m not a social worker. In fact, I was the beneficiary of social work. I was adopted and placed with my wonderful, loving family by social workers at Catholic Charities. The most important people in our country are those on the ground, actually showing up for marginalized people. Maybe I’ll actually grow a pair and do that one day. I feel like I owe it to society. Sorry my answer is so long, but I need to share that I sell real estate in addition to working in music.  People need help navigating the biggest financial decision of their lives and an investment in their future. And It’s one of those careers you can shape and make your own, like music. I mostly work with friends who trust and love me – like Sara. I sold her and Brenden their wonderful house! It’s been a good decision overall, especially now with baby twins. My husband can stay home with them because I make money at real estate and music simultaneously.

10. What is one question you have always wanted an interviewer to ask – and what is the answer? Conversely, what question are you tired of answering?

Sara: I always cringe when interviewers ask me how I learned how to use recording equipment. This album is an outlier because we recorded it all live one night in a studio with an engineer, but usually I do a fair amount of our tracking in my home studio. Production is very fun and creatively satisfying for me, plus it really helps keep costs down. The question makes me cringe because I’ve never seen a male musician asked the same thing.

Maureen: I wish people would ask me about my personal history. Like growing up and stuff. I love hearing about peoples’ upbringings! I think it’s fascinating. It’s story time! You kinda did that here, though, so thanks!

11. Looking back over your career, is there a single moment or situation you feel was a misstep or you would like to have a “do over,” even if it didn’t change your current situation?

Sara: I don’t tend to look at past experiences in that way. Sure, there are things we wish had been more fruitful. For example, there are tours that we wish had gone differently and relationships we wish we could have fostered more, but everything that we’ve been through has led us to where we are today and making the music we’re making it today. When we started out in our early twenties, everything we did was trial and error. It was the beginning of digital music, streaming, and there really wasn’t a single template for how to succeed. I’m proud of us for the choices we’ve made along the way and proud of the music we’ve cranked out.

Maureen: I agree with Sara overall. But I do wish we had hired a publicist for some of the albums we produced in our twenties. Those are great albums, and we were fully available for touring opportunities and all kinds of things. We even got a great review in the Washington Post without the help of a publicist. Sometimes I wonder what kind of coverage we could have gotten if we had hired some support! We got pretty far on our own though!

12. If you could magically go back in time and be a part of the recording sessions for any one record in history, which would you choose – and what does that record mean to you?

Maureen: I would be the PA for the production of Tori Amos’ 1994 album, Boys for Pele.  I would want to be there to quietly support Tori on her journey by bringing her fresh tea and nourishment. I wouldn’t want to be ON that album because it’s a sacred work of pure genius, and I can’t add anything to what she and her future husband, engineer Mark Hawley, created.  I’m a huge fan of Tori Amos. Boys for Pele was the beginning of her stepping into the producer role and owning her own music. It was the beginning of the end of her questioning her sound and holding back in any way. It was also the beginning of her amazing marriage. After making that unbelievable record, a year later, she married the engineer and built her own studio in Cornwall, England where they’ve produced every one of her records since 1997. She is a true queen and a light to all artists, especially women, who are still fighting to be truly heard in the entertainment world. I would want to be a fly in the wall (pun intended) for those recording sessions and witness the artistic growth – her struggle to blossom personally, spiritually, and artistically. It would be an honor!





Category: Interviews

About the Author ()

ToddStar - that's me... just a rocking accountant who had dreams of being a rock star. I get to do the next best thing to rocking the globe - I get to take pictures of the lucky ones that do. I love to shoot all genres of music and different types of performers. If it is related to music, I love to photograph it. I get to shoot and hang with not only some of my friends and idols, but some of the coolest people around today.

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