Culture

Meet the Welsh musical polymath who has racked up 50 million streams online 

25 Apr 2021 9 minutes Read
Skip Curtis

David Owens

Skip Curtis is something of a musical polymath – and a successful one at that.

While he may not be a household name, with his group XY&O he’s racked up more than 50 million streams online and earned a reasonable income to keep his musical flame burning brightly.

He’s also a prodigious songwriter, producer and all-round purveyor of quality pop music, who also imparts his wisdom as a lecturer in songwriting at the University of South Wales.

Skip will be hoping for similar success to that of his band with his first solo album, ‘Culture Violet’, released on his own Pet Shop label.

While XY&O look to electronica for their widescreen inspiration, the talented songwriter’s debut long player, now available to stream on all platforms, collects together a collection of classically crafted, timeless songs that were made to be blasted out of a radio on a hot summer’s day.

Here the prodigious musician discusses his album, his songwriting craft, achieving incredible streaming figures and how his music ended up on best selling video game The Sims.

Tell us about your debut album ‘Culture Violet’ – what can we expect?

This album is really about 10 years delayed. Ninety percent of the songs are about things that happened to me as a teenager, and sometimes younger. I called it Culture Violet as a play on ultra-violet light. The light that shows things up that we otherwise wouldn’t have seen. The songs on this album show things up about me and my past that people otherwise wouldn’t have seen or known. That’s if anyone cares of course!

I wanted to make the sound of the album different to my other projects (like XY&O). Part of that was because I wanted to prove to myself that I could write songs with just my guitar and produce them organically. I started writing songs at 13 just with my electric guitar in my room, but moved away from that as I tumbled down the commercial pop songwriting route, so I wanted to go back to how I began. But also, I am a huge fan of singer-songwriters as well as rock and indie music and some of my biggest influences are artists in those genres, so the sound of the album is definitely very natural and representative to a lot of what I listen to.

What are your hopes for the album?

Honestly, I just love writing songs and recording them. That’s what it comes down to. If I’m doing that for my songs or for someone else’s, it doesn’t really matter to me. As long as that’s what’s happening I don’t really think too much about anything else.

The writing and recording of this album was for me. Something I wanted and needed to do. The release of the album is for anyone else who wants to listen to it. If they enjoy it, that’s great! But if not, no worries!

I’m not a cutting edge artist and this album doesn’t break any sonic boundaries or anything. I guess I’m more of a ‘classic’ songwriter, in terms of structures and arrangements, especially on this album. Everybody wants some validation though, since I started writing songs I’ve always said that if other musicians, songwriters or fans of music give me the nod of approval then that’s enough.

I want my second album to go to number one though…

Culture Violet artwork

How difficult is it putting out an album during a pandemic?

Releasing it is not difficult, but promoting it is very difficult. I actually delayed this album by pretty much a year. I was planning to release it about this time last year but then the pandemic hit and I didn’t feel comfortable releasing it during the first lockdown. I didn’t feel like I wanted to ‘me, me, me’ during that horrible time. To be honest, I still feel a bit uneasy about it now.

Since I started working on solo material, the whole focus was on live shows. I wanted the recordings to be very live and the whole promotional campaign was supposed to be around the live side of things. Again, it was a deliberate approach to move in the other direction to my band XY&O which has always been very streaming and digitally focused. I managed to get in some early live shows and sessions before the pandemic stopped everything, then whole approach had to change.

What’s the plan for your Pet Shop label?

I set up my own label Pet Shop Records last year too during the pandemic as a way to continue DIY releasing my music but also to sign other artists. The DIY approach has always been my approach. Not because I’m a control freak or anti-record label or anything, it was more just out of necessity. When we first started XY&O, nobody offered to sign us initially, not that we really tried to get signed, so I set up our own label and we just self-released our music and were lucky enough to get some success there. It’s pretty much the same approach with my solo stuff.

I’m writing and producing for some really great new artists that I’m excited about too outside of the artists I work with through Pet Shop.

How have you spent the last year during the coronavirus outbreak?

On Zoom. The first lockdown was strangely very productive for me. I managed to write a lot of solo material and finished up around about 25-30 songs. I was also able to finish some XY&O releases that we’d be sitting on and release a few of those. I also got married In September last year, we managed to get that in just before the tighter lockdowns came back in so we were lucky to get a few family members along before it all ramped up again.

Has it been a hugely creative time for you being in lockdown?

Initially yes, the first lockdown was really creative. Maybe it was the uncertainty of everything but I sort of just retreated into a head space. It’s that thing of control I guess. Trying to focus your energy on things you can control, which for me is writing songs and playing music. Although if you’ve ever seen me play live, there are times when I’m definitely not in control of my guitar playing…

The second and third lockdowns were a lot less so. It sort of feels like we’ve been in a lock down since about October and the winter lockdowns were a lot harder, more draining and a lot less creative for me.

Are you hoping to achieve the same kind of reach with your own solo work as you have with XY&O?

That would be great, of course. But I doubt it will have the same reach. XY&O is probably more widely accessible and certainly more streaming friendly. But, as I mentioned, I really wanted my solo stuff to be different to XY&O, both in terms of genre, but also in the way it was presented.

My solo tracks were written much more with live performances in mind. Both as completely solo and with my live band, so I guess it would attract a different sort of listener in that way anyway. That’s not to say we didn’t make an effort with the XY&O live show. We’ve played some incredible gigs, Glastonbury being one of them and we spent a lot of time really developing our live set. But because of the nature of electro-pop music, it’s always quite a controlled set up on stage with audio and lights programming etc.

‘Different vibes’

My solo shows are the opposite. There’s very little control. I play songs in different ways, different keys, different arrangements, different vibes. My band members are all ten times the musician I am because they have to be able to cope with my last minute decisions to change songs.

What’s the current Spotify tally for the XY&Os tracks and are the plays still offering you a sizable source of income?

I think we’re at about 50 million streams between Spotify and Apple music, which is crazy. I listen to songs I adore by artists I admire and see that some of the XY&O tracks have more streams and that blows my mind at times. It feels wrong. And yes, XY&O still gives us all an income which we feel really grateful for. Between our streams and some advertising placements we’ve been really lucky to actually be able to earn money from music, which is a blessing.

You’ve also had a track featured in The Sims video game – how did that come about?

Haha, yeah. The Sims! We had an email from an advertising agent saying that EA Games were keen on using our track ‘Haunt Me’ in the trailer for a new Sims game. The new game was a supernatural themed version and I guess the lyrical content of ‘Haunt Me’ suited the brief. It’s been so great having that placement as we’ve subsequently found out that The Sims has a VERY devoted fanbase so we’ve had a load of new listeners come through to us from there. The music industry is dwarfed by the gaming industry.

And there’s an XY&O album coming this summer?

There is! It’s almost finished. We’re working on around 15 or so tracks, a few have already been released but I wanted to make sure there was plenty of new material on it. We are such a strange band. We released our first single in 2015 and in the six years since, we haven’t really released that much. Even though we’ve been a band for six years, we pretty much took two of those years off to work on individual projects (and finish Uni in the case of our guitarist), and then one of those years has been a pandemic too. So it’s actually going to be our debut album. Everything about XY&O has been weird since day one so I guess it’s sort of fitting.

Find out more about Skip Curtis and XY&O here

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