INTERVIEW:In less than a decade working on Irish radio, Canadian DJ Alison Curtis has become a respected voice in contemporary music and has just landed her own-name show I'm not interested in Amy Winehouse or Britney Spears, writes Catherine Cleary
RADIO DJ-LAND is another country. As listeners, we like our female voices to be cheerleaders for the man on the mic. We like serious journalism from Áine Lawlor or Mary Wilson. But when it comes to serious music, give us a bloke every time. Testosterone, it seems, offers finer musical taste and the authority to talk about the best unsigned bands.
This was the landscape into which Alison Curtis arrived when she first came to Ireland nearly a decade ago. Then the anthropology graduate, who had her own girl band in high school, fell into conversation with a fellow Canadian. He happened to be recruiting for a radio station called Phantom, which was then a pirate. "And he said, 'God, you talk a lot'." And that was that.
Along with another Canadian, Jenny Huston (now a presenter on 2FM), Curtis has cornered the market in Canadian women indie DJs. On Phantom, Curtis presented and produced a drivetime show. She was a senior researcher and producer for Ian Dempsey's drive-time show on Today FM and still fronts and produces that station's The Last Splash.
Two weeks ago, she joined Ann-Marie Kelly (aka AM Kelly, the Early Bird) as only the second woman to get her own-name show on Today FM. The Alison Curtis show is sandwiched between Tom Dunne and Donal Dineen on Monday to Thursday evenings. The Friday before the show went on air, the 33-year-old stepped down as the producer of Ian Dempsey's breakfast show. It was a big wrench.
"Because I'm not living in my home country the people you work with really do become like family. Mario [ Rosenstock] and Ian [ Dempsey] and I worked together for eight or nine years, so it's crazy. And it was a good show. It was a difficult decision to go off. Doing your own show, you're more exposed than being part of a team - and part of a team that's very successful." Along with a serious time adjustment (from a 5.30am start to mid-afternoon), she expects the odd hostile e-mail that goes with the territory.
"I'm not actually scared and it's probably from my own [ Sunday evening] show The Last Splash. I took it from 7,000 listeners up to 40,000 with very little, and this isn't a criticism, but very much on my own steam." The Last Splash, which will continue in its Sunday night slot (8-10pm), was playing music for the large population of avid "gig-goers".
"There is a huge group of people who aren't really being catered for at that time of night," she says. Her show will reflect her North-American outlook on things and girly outlook, "because that's who I am". Curtis loves programmes such as the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. "But at that time of the day, it will be about either addressing things that are the topic of the day in a different way or to actually not talk about what everyone else has talked about, which is what I'd like to go for. I'm not interested in Amy Winehouse or Britney Spears."
When she first started presenting, Curtis had a surprising reaction from women. "It's funny because the first few years I was here a lot of women said, 'Oh I could never do that', and I'd say, 'What do you mean you could never do that? It's just talking really. I'm not belittling what we do, but it was a confidence issue. That has changed a lot over the last few years."
The other surprise was the whiteness of Irish people. "When I first arrived, I made quite inappropriate jokes about it, going, 'I've never had only white friends before'. Growing up in Canada, you're growing up with a girl from Tokyo, a girl from Korea and a Jewish girl. So it's just different. That's the most immediate thing my sister notices."
She is fiercely close to her twin sister Karen, her only sibling. The longest the two have ever spent apart has been nine months. Karen has a "real job", she laughs, as a social worker in Canada. One of the reasons behind Karen's choice of profession may be because they were orphaned in their teens. Their father died when they were 14 and her mother when they were 19 and had just started college. "When people hear that, they say, 'Oh, it's even worse when you're so far away', but we have the most amazing extended family, aunts that you can have a beer with and sit down with and they don't judge you." Last year, she married her long-time boyfriend, Anton Hegarty, bass guitarist in Future Kings of Spain. They met at a gig in Whelans.
"Jenny [ Huston] showed me a picture of the guys and said, 'I think you'd like him', and I said, 'Oh I don't think so. He's kinda pretty'. And then I met him that night and said, 'Actually I do. I'll have a piece of that please'."
The newly-weds (and she has to remind herself to make the most of that phase because it's nearly a year since the wedding) live in Dublin's East Wall in a two-up-two-down they bought four years ago. Although the house is small, it has a large garden. The couple have two identical black cats, Scout and Jem (named after the characters in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird). Friends tell her not to talk so much about them in interviews, but she can't help herself. They are immensely dog-like cats, she adds.
What does she think of the Irish music scene? "In Toronto it always felt like the music was quite samey, whereas here it's really diverse. There are so many ways to get music out now, from being a little kernel in someone's head right to being able to put it into a record shop. People have the means to do that now. I could easily go on air and play two hours of Irish music if I wanted to, and have done in the past." And her current favourite Irish bands? "Fight Like Apes are really talented. They're kind of rocky and metallic and their front girl is extremely watchable, almost going into Debbie Harry territory. A Cork band, Hooray for Humans, are really cute, very poppy, almost Arcade Fire in the way they shout lyrics." After much thought, she opened her first show with Primal Scream's new retro single Can't Go Back. One of the hell-raising Scottish band members is, surprisingly, a keen gardener, she reveals. It's such eclectic nuggets that listeners can expect on her new show.
The Alison Curtis show is on Today FM Monday to Thursday 10pm to midnight