A new CD and new novel have friends Curtis Stigers and Tony Doerr back in the international spotlight

doland@idahostatesman.comMay 31, 2014 

  • Stigers on stage

    Enjoy “An Evening with Curtis Stigers” at the Albertsons Boise Open, 7 p.m. July 18, Hillcrest Country Club, 4610 W. Hillcrest Drive, Boise. Tickets are $30 and $20 for chair and lawn seating, respectively, and go on sale June 2 at Albertsons BoiseOpen.com. Gates open at 5 p.m.

    Stigers’ McCall Jazz Festival is Aug.8-9 and benefits the Shepherd’s Home foster care center. Tickets for the Aug. 9 concert are $25 and $35. Tickets for the Aug. 8 Pre-Jazz Affair on the Patio at Rupert’s, featuring Cinder Wines and Snake River Farms, are $75. All tickets go on sale in June at CurtisStigers.com.

    Catch Stigers on Michael Feinstein’s “Song Travels,” slated to air Aug. 12. To listen, go to NPR.org.

If you sit down with Curtis Stigers and Tony Doerr, get ready for a ride. The Curtis and Tony Show is filled with nonstop riffs and banter. They tease, joke and laugh, talk about everything from their last mountain bike ride to the meaning of art in their lives.

Through all the bravado and cracking wise, what seeps through is the genuine affection and respect they feel for one another.

It’s clear they share a bond not only of friendship, but of artistry.

They met in 2003 and found they had an instant chemistry. They go skiing or mountain biking, get their families together and just hang out from time to time.

“For me, it’s just nice to know that there’s someone else who is taking the same kind of risk with their lives as I am — and they’re still here in Boise,” Doerr says. “We’re trying to put Boise on the map. Here’s an internationally recognized person who is making things, and people want them, and he lives here. That’s the most important part for me.”

Stigers, who makes his home in Boise’s North End, enjoys a career as an international jazz and recording artist — his second career after a flirtation with pop stardom in the 1990s. He regularly tours in the United Kingdom and Europe, where he earns copious awards and critical praise. He performs with symphony orchestras — most recently with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and pops conductor Jeff Tyzik, and with Robert Franz and the Boise Philharmonic at a sold-out concert in April. He also picks up other gigs, such as co-writing and performing the Emmy-nominated theme to “Sons of Anarchy,” and recording the occasional commercial jingle.

Doerr lives in the Boise Highlands with his wife, Shauna, and their twin boys, Henry and Owen, who are 10. With five successful books, mostly written in his Downtown Boise office, Doerr has found enormous international literary success — both in awards, such as the 2010 Story Prize, and renowned fellowships, including The Rome Prize. He travels the world on book tours and to explore and write about exotic locations for Conde Nast Traveler.

They’re not exact matches: Stigers loves NOT camping and is a monster on a mountain bike. He loves Cinder wine — particularly Laissez Faire — and the Cubano shots at The Record Exchange coffee bar, which is his favorite record store in the world.

Doerr drinks tea, not coffee, and can keep up on the trails but doesn’t like to wear “sissy” Spandex gear. Stigers collects cycling jerseys. Doerr hangs out at his family’s cabin in McCall, camps, hikes in the Foothills and explores nature with his kids. He eats sandwiches and barbecue chips from Zeppole and partakes of the growing Idaho brewing scene.

They both share a deep love for Boise and feel lucky they can do what they love and live here. Stigers grew up on the Bench, while Doerr moved here in 2003 with his wife, Shauna, who grew up here.

They shared a stage together in 2010 when Stigers performed at the book launch for Doerr’s “The Memory Wall” story collection. Later, when Doerr won the coveted (London) Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award for “The Memory Wall,” Stigers happened to be in London.

“It was so much fun to be able to brag about him and tell people he lives down the street from me in Boise,” Stigers says. “Knowing him makes me cooler. It’s not just that he’s my buddy, but he’s Tony Doerr for God’s sake — well, Anthony Doerr.”

Doerr laughs.

That notoriety is getting more intense now that Doerr’s second novel, “All the Light We Cannot See,” is out and receiving the best reviews of his career so far.

“What I’ve heard about this book is that now that this book is out, Tony will no longer take our calls,” Stigers says.

Stigers’ new CD, “Hooray for Love,” also is getting raves and propelling him on another international tour.

THE WRITER

Telling a story is one thing, but how do you tell it in a completely unique way? That question runs like a silent movie in the back of Doerr’s insatiable, inquisitive brain.

“That’s my attempt,” Doerr says. “To resist the cliches at every level — at the sentence level and at the narrative level.”

That drive leads to similes such as “leafless trees stand atop slag heaps like skeleton hands shoved up from the underworld.” Doerr creates images that allow the reader to experience the words and the world they create in completely new ways — fresh and devoid of the obvious. “I think that’s the goal of art, not just to re-create but to reinvent,” Doerr says.

“All the Light We Cannot See” is a book that was 10 years in the making. He started work on it in 2004. He had just completed his first novel, “About Grace,” saw the birth of his twin sons and won the Rome Prize.

Like many of Doerr’s works, it involves an exploration of science — a fascination he’s held for many years. In “About Grace,” it was climatology; in “The Memory Wall,” it was archeology, and in “All the Light,” it is the magic and power of radio.

“Because we’re habitualized to it, we’ve stopped seeing the grandeur of this breathtaking act. The magic of it has bled away,” Doerr says. “I wanted to write something that would make us feel the strangeness of it — the sorcery of hearing the voice of a stranger or distant friend in our heads.”

The title “All the Light We Cannot See” refers literally to the electromagnetic spectra that are not visible to the human eye — including ultraviolet, X-rays, microwaves and radio waves. He started working on the idea of a young blind girl reading a story over the radio to a boy, who is trapped in darkness.

“She is his salvation,” Doerr says.

That story worked its way into becomeing this novel that braids together the stories of Marie, the young blind French girl, and Werner, the young German soldier, whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

“It was the most arduous thing I’ve made,” Doerr says. “The structure is so complicated. It’s about this boy and this girl, it goes back and forth in time, and there are 187 chapters — but they’re short.

“I just didn’t want to lead the reader away from either one of the narratives for too long. And it was a great space for me to work in. I could work on a chapter for a two- to three-hour stint, before I had to go pick up the kids or something.”

He spent hundreds of hours researching every detail — what would be in a refrigerator in 1938 France? Would a blind girl go to school? He read dozens of books written at the time.

He kept track of his dual storylines with color-coded cards.

“I would lay them out on the floor of my office,” he says. “I felt like I was writing two novels at once.”

Doerr is seeking to bring something new to the literary genre. That’s very difficult, considering all the brilliant literature there already is in the canon about World War II, he says.

“Supposedly, if you dropped all the books written about World War II on Germany, it would cover it about two feet deep. There are so many pitfalls out there, especially now, I have the French Resistance and a German soldier. Can I get people to invest with as much empathy in the German kid as I can with the French girl?

“To ask people to understand the other side of the story. He makes a lot of morally complicated decisions, and hopefully you’re not ever judging him for that. He’s an orphan and he comes from this really hard situation. For me that’s what feels new,” he says.

So far the book looks to be not just a success but a critical triumph — those are two very difficult elements to balance, but Doerr seems to do it with regularity.

The book is part of Powell’s Subscription Club, so Doerr spent a day in Portland signing 2,000 books for the legendary Northwest-based bookseller.

Nationwide, pre-sales were brisk, with Costco buying 10,000 copies.

“It’s gotten more excitement than anything I’ve written before. The publisher is really behind it. Who knows? You try to protect yourself against getting your hopes up — I don’t know if my stuff will play well at Costco,” Doerr says.

“Shut up,” Stigers says. “They ain’t selling my CDs at Costco.”

Doerr laughs: “I was like, why did I have to be so ambitious and create so many problems for myself? Why couldn’t I just cover a tune, instead of writing one?”

Stigers: “Yeah, I’m telling you dude, it’s so much easier. If you could just cover someone else’s book ... they’d be like, this is just like ‘The Great Gatsby.’ In fact, it is ‘The Great Gatsby,’ but you typed it on a different machine in a different font.”

“That would be awesome,” Doerr says.

THE CROONER

Stigers has just three words to say these days — “Hooray for Love,” the title of his buoyant new CD.

It’s a joyous celebration of love and romance fueled by his relationship with longtime friend and event producer Jodi Peterson. The two met in 2006 working on Stigers’ fundraiser to help KBSU DJ Victor Pacania, who at the time was dying of pancreatic cancer. Pacania hosted the “Private Idaho” radio show on Saturdays for 26 years.

Peterson and Stigers worked so well together they started Stigers’ annual fundraiser “The Xtreme Holiday Xtravaganza,” now going into its ninth year, that has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to help Boise’s homeless.

The album is a cheery — almost giddy — reflection of that tingle-to-your-toes love Stigers is feeling today — not only for his lady love but for the music, he says.

It’s a dramatic shift from his last CD, “Let’s Go Out Tonight,” an emotionally wrenching selection of covers that reflected the pain he felt in the year after his divorce.

“Getting divorced is terrible,” Stigers says. “I was in such a dark place. That was the record I needed to make then. With this record, I was coming out of that darkness and realizing there was life on the other side. There was a light beyond that heartbreak.”

And actually covering a song isn’t so easy, Stigers says. The way he breaks a standard down is similar to how Doerr breaks down language. Like a cliche, a song can disappear when you’ve heard it so many times that it loses its meaning.

When he tackles a standard, Stigers starts by singing it a cappella, as slowly as possible, to emphasize individual words and to try to get to new meaning — as an actor might break down classical text in a Shakespearean play.

“You can sing these songs a dozen different ways with a dozen different meanings,” Stigers says. “That’s what a lot of singers forget. The direction you take with each line can change the meaning of the song.”

On this CD, Stigers sings “The Way You Look Tonight,” a standard made famous by Frank Sinatra.

“That’s terrifying. I’ve stayed away from that song for 25 years because of that,” Stigers says. “But I feel I’ve grown into it. I’m almost 50, and I think it’s OK for me to sing some songs that have been played a few times. If you can find a way to say it so someone says, ‘Oh, so that’s what that means. I’d never listened to that line that way.’”

Among the classics on “Hooray” — “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “That’s All” and “If I Were a Bell” — Stigers also wrote a few new songs. And it’s been a while.

“When I was going through all that pain, I couldn’t write that record,” he says. “I’m very seldom able to tap into what I’m going through at the time. I’m not good at self-analysis as it’s happening. I have to look back and get perspective, so I have a feeling my dark record is still coming.”

If the covers in “Let’s Go Out” created a catharsis, then the originals in “Hooray” explore the idea of healing.

“I had it spinning around in my head for two months before I sat down and decided that it was a song,” he says. “I came up with all these lines but I never wrote it down — which is awful, but because I did it so often, certain ones stuck. I went into the studio without it completed. We finished it two hours before we were going to record — which is one of my great geniuses and weaknesses. I’m the king of last minute.”

With the success of “Let’s Go Out Tonight” and now “Hooray For Love,” Stigers is being asked to tour more regularly. But he tries to keep the trips no longer than two or three weeks so he’s not spending too much time away from his daughter, Ruby.

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