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August 2018 - Rachel Curtis

Lansing Singer Refuses to Sit 'Idol' Against Adversity

Story by LCC Radio Reporter Sarah Spohn

Rachel Curtis22 year old Rachel Curtis began singing in the crib, making up gibberish songs her mom still has on tape to this day. Last February, the Lansing singer-songwriter beat out 45,000 contestants and made it to Hollywood after auditioning for “American Idol.” Lessons learned from that experience carry with the multi-instrumentalist today.

Influenced by Etta James, Loretta Lynn, Florence and the Machine, Alabama Shakes, and Vance Joy, Curtis was active in choir, musicals and talent shows throughout high school. After graduation, she formed a duo with local Lansing musician Alex Mendenall, aptly named Rachel & Alex.  “During that time, while I was in the duo songwriting, it just became a lot more obvious that that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Curtis said. “Rather than just keep it in my room or sing in front of my family, I knew I wanted to somehow get it out there.”

She began learning to play the guitar, mandolin, piano, cajon and foot tambourine. In a short amount of time, she was playing original material in front of audiences in bars, coffee shops and venues across the state. She credits learning how to play multiple instruments at once from her former duo member Alex. Curtis also performs with a band (Danny Lindstrom, Tyler Terell, Josh Maul, Chris Muffett, Ben Nelson) which gives a whole new feel to her performance. The addition of bandmates also brought her original music to life. Though Curtis often sings, plays guitar and foot tambourine at the same time, her ideas also included a larger sound she simply couldn’t play by herself. “It’s nice to be able to collaborate with people, instead of just being alone up on stage or in a bar,” Curtis said. “I’ve sang my whole life, but I definitely have a lot to learn with playing guitar and learning more instruments. To be able to play with such talented musicians, it really helps bring more creative stuff to the table.”

Though she’s been quiet about it on social media, a recent health diagnosis also called for the addition of helpful band members to this formerly one-woman band. “Another struggle I do have with that, is that I have a health condition, and it affects my joints,” Curtis said. “It’s a collagen disorder called EDS. So the reason why it’s so important for me to have a band is because I can’t play guitar for a long time or certain chords are really hard for my hands. It’s nice support to have other people help me with the instruments.”

EDS is short for Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes, and is considered an invisible illness, because many of its symptoms aren’t evident to the naked eye. “I look fine and dandy, but I do have struggles,” Curtis said. “A lot of people ask on social media, and I haven’t really put it out there, but that’s why I do wear these braces on my fingers.”

Rachel CurtisWith the diagnosis has come an even more fiery passion to follow the singer-songwriters’ dreams. Last June, her mom sent in a tape of her singing to “American Idol.” She had auditioned once before, waiting in line at 15. This time, the producers called her, and she auditioned via Skype a few times, singing in front of the Executive Producers. "The whole process was surreal. You never think that out of all those people, that you’re going to make it far,” Curtis said. “There’s just so many talented people out there.”

She made it through, and was sent to Nashville, Tennessee at the Country Music Hall of Fame to audition in front of Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan. “I wasn’t allowed to tell a single soul what was happening, except my family. While I was at that audition, my family stayed there. I probably had like 10 members, because I have a huge family – my aunts, uncles, cousins, and they even brought signs. They probably had like 10 hours of taping of me, so it’s funny I only got like four seconds,” Curtis laughed.

When the next day of taping came, however, disaster struck. “I had to wake up at 2 a.m. I got there in LA, all day taping and interview and 10 p.m. rolls around, and I hadn’t eaten dinner.” She headed to a nearby sandwich shop, and “then my food poisoning kicked in. I had been up 48 hours, and I was supposed to sing that following day. I was sick that whole day.” The TV cameras filmed the entire thing, with suspense hanging in the rafters, to see if Rachel could pull off the audition, after being up and sick for 48 hours.  “It was very hectic, I learned a lot. It’s probably the craziest, most valuable experience I’ve had in my life to be that sick, and to have to perform. After watching the show for years, and that being a dream in the back of my mind, having that happen was crazy,” she said.

Rachel CurtisAfter singing Vance Joy’s “Fire in the Flood,” Rachel’s American Idol journey ended there.. “At that point, I was just so drained that it was really hard to give a full performance,” Curtis said. “I wasn’t extremely happy with my performance, but being on the Dolby Theatre Stage was amazing.”

The crash-course in the music and entertainment business ultimately proved invaluable for the Lansing native, and she’s grateful for what it led to. “I was thinking – what are the chances, it must be meant to be, because, what are the odds that I would get food poisoning at one of the most important times in my music career?” Curtis said. The biggest lesson Curtis learned from her high-pressure, cameras rolling experience was that being vulnerable and uncomfortable isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A month later, she got engaged to her fiancée, and this past summer, the surprises kept on coming. She was selected to perform with her band at Frederick Meijer Gardens, and also got to open up for Gladys Knight, all within a month.

Her new EP, “Senses” was finally released, after having to hold it during the “American Idol” contract, and Curtis is happy to share her original music with the world. The release, recorded in Minneapolis, is a personal story of poetry; a reflection of life, love, highs and lows.. “Senses kind of reflects life – you see, you feel, you hear, you touch things,” Curtis said. “Through your own senses, that’s how you experience life.”

For now, Curtis is happy to be a part of the Michigan music scene, having recently sang vocals for a rap song by local artist ikeyy Austin. There’s also plans to release a full-length record in the future. In between playing plenty of outdoor shows and festivals, Curtis is excited to take time to look back on her crazy ride.

“I’m really looking forward to taking the fall and the winter as a new season to write, and kind of reflect. Things have been so busy with American Idol, Gladys Knight, and getting engaged. I feel like a lot has happened this year, but that calls for more music to write, as well.”

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