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home : arts & entertainment : arts & entertainment July 26, 2017

3/7/2017 1:31:00 PM
Americana alumni return to teach
Laura Curtis and Slater Smith are giving back to the program that helped launch their music careers. Photo by Ceili Cornelius
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Laura Curtis and Slater Smith are giving back to the program that helped launch their music careers. Photo by Ceili Cornelius
By Ceili Cornelius

The Americana Song Academy for Youth is a weekend where students learn from professional musicians and instructors about anything and everything to do with songwriting. The annual event, produced by Sisters Folk Festival with sponsorship support from Cris Converse and The Roundhouse Foundation, was held at The Belfry in Sisters last weekend.

Laura Curtis and Slater Smith both were a part of the early days of the Americana Project at Sisters High School. Curtis has recorded her own record and lived in Nashville, and is now living in Portland and working in the field of politics. Smith is a part of the well-known band The Weather Machine. They both studied politics at Willamette University, under the same advisor. They've been able to use their studies in their music.

They are both returning instructors this year, and they love coming back every year to give back to the students.

"It's cool to see how the camp changes every year, and to see students progress over the years," said Smith.

Smith and Curtis taught similar classes, both focusing on writing songs for causes. Smith's class focused on creating characters and then finding what within that character you relate to; he had students write out any character or thought and then tease out what resonated most with them. Curtis' class was more about the introspective aspect of songwriting and how to take things around you and put them into songs.

This is Curtis' seventh year coming back to song camp.

"I love giving the support to the students that I got so much of us as a student in this community," Curtis said.

For her as an artist, she appreciates coming back and relating to other artists and exploring creativity in all its forms. As a young person, Curtis felt everything very deeply, and was always around adults and learning from them. She believes that now, through teaching, she is able to validate students' experiences and songs as art and help them to find the value in truly listening.

"The tone is set at the beginning: Everyone cares, everyone is going to treat each other with compassion, respect and love," said Curtis. She feels like she comes back here and is with "her people."

Curtis is now exploring what she is going to next in her musical career. She is working in Portland as a lobbyist with the Oregon legislature. She has been playing house concerts in and around Portland as a solo act and plans to continue on with her work and songwriting.

Smith has come back over the years to attend as well as instruct at camp.

"It always feels like going home, to the best part of home," said Smith of coming back for camp.

It wasn't long ago that Smith was a student and he notices how much the academy has progressed and how different camp is every year.

Smith noted that, as a student he received support from the Americana Project and the community to play music, and he saw that he had "permission" to express himself. He wants youth here to have that same permission to explore and think about life differently.

"I, and all the instructors get just as much out camp as the students," Smith said.

He noted that it brings them back to center and refreshes them, just as much as the students. The instructors are all inspired by the students' work and the program.

"I try to help students learn how their own brain works and how to work outside the regular norms and try to figure out what those are in your own head, and how to rephrase things and to find language or tactics for creating art specific to that person," Slater said. "That comes from the place of the Americana Project giving me permission to do that work."

Smith now is living and working in Portland. He has been working with Oregon State Parks and the Oregon Coast Visitors Association on a concept album for the 50th anniversary of the Oregon Beach Bill, which made all the Oregon beaches public property. He's been living in state park cabins in residency for the past two months and has been writing about the coast and what it means to him.

"It's a really meaningful place for me, especially when it's storming," he said. "I love it, and I've been in my own space and trying to write about this environmental bill, and also about the special space."

The Weather Machine and Smith have been recording his songs and the album is expected to come out this fall.

The Weather Machine will be playing as part of the Mt. Bachelor Apres Ski Bash on Friday, March 17, alongside the Moon Mountain Ramblers.

The event is at Crow's Feet Commons, 875 NW Brooks St. in downtown Bend at 6 p.m. The music is free and open to all ages.

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