Sandcastles only live for a day / Then crumble on the shore, paints Emily Curtis. Her new song “Sandcastles,” premiering today (May 20), sculpts the futility of life and dream-chasing with delicacy and beauty. Out of Charleston, South Carolina, the singer-songwriter reflects back on her childhood and the innocent curiosity of building sandcastles, only to have them swallowed by high-tides the very next day. It hit her as sort of funny.
“I remember taking a long walk down Isle of Palms beach and admiring the houses that lined the waterfront streets. New ones were being built, as well, and I caught myself being envious and thinking how wonderful life would be if I could afford one,” Curtis tells American Songwriter. “Then, I thought about the fact that many people don’t live in those houses as primary residences and then thinking, ‘Man, I wonder if people even truly get to enjoy those places, or are many of them too busy building their empires?’”
Those “grown-up sandcastles,” as she calls them, work much the same as sand ones ─ monuments to life’s unavoidable impermanence. Fools think they’re wise, she sings with a solemnity. They say, ‘Build it high to the sky till you’ve made it’ / You’ll still want more.
Initially, Curtis toyed with producing the song herself as it “didn’t need much in the way of production and instrumentation and thought it might be a good way to take the leap into releasing something self-produced,” she recalls. But she texted producer Micah Nichols (touring guitarist for NEEDTOBREATHE) and asked if he’d be up to mix the track. “He came back asking to produce the song because it had grabbed him, as well, so we worked it out, and I’m so glad he produced it.”
Over the last couple of years, Curtis has frequently worked with Nichols on various projects. In many ways, he “has become a big brother to me. He says he heard me while he and his wife were getting dinner one night on a random break from touring, while I was playing down the street at a local bar,” she offers. “He had been looking for local talent to work with during the times off the road, so he reached out─and the rest is history.”
“I love hearing his perspective on life on the road with NEEDTOBREATHE and Johnnyswim. I’ve learned so much from him about production and songwriting,” continues Curtis, “and we share similar values which has made it easy for me to open up in songwriting, as well as production with him. I’m incredibly grateful he keeps putting up with quirkiness in the studio.”
In writing “Sandcastles,” Curtis was confronted with her own life, particularly as a young musician working her way up the proverbial ladder, so to speak. “It’s actually really funny right now, as the song jabs me every time I start to get caught up in promotion and worrying about trying to get people to pre-save the song,” she admits, “and if I’ll go broke trying to make the next song, looking at data stats of streams, likes, shares─and forgetting that the numbers represent real people. It’s helped keep my heart in check for sure, as I take a deep breath and let go of what I can’t control and find the joy again. It asks me the question: are you doing this to make a name for yourself or to touch lives and bring out the best in people?”
In pre-pandemic days, Curtis frequented a local nursing home and would spend time singing to residents in memory care. She watched her aunt, who passed away from dementia in 2019, “fade into a shadow of herself,” she remembers. “[That] was something you don’t walk away from without it changing your perspective on life. As many times as I would visit, most of the residents forgot who I was by the end of the visit and many didn’t know what year it was. The pictures outside their rooms on the walls of the halls showed each of them and their achievements and career accolades and their glory days.”
“Some had been surgeons, politicians, leaders in their fields, now sitting there asking where their little boy or little girl was because they were too confused to realize their babies were grown,” she adds. Such an experience turned the gears in her brain, and Curtis began questioning what a life is worth if you’re always “stressing and frantically climbing for my name temporarily in lights. The curtain closes eventually, and the crowds go home, so who are you then?”
Curtis’ grandfather also passed away earlier this year, and sitting by his bedside, she sang to him for hours on end. “Singing ‘The Tide’s Coming In’ while someone is lying there dying was incredibly intense and emotional. I will never forget it,” she says.
With her growing social media following (over 20,000 on Instagram alone), Curtis struggles with remaining in the moment and constantly chasing what’s next. “It’s a mind game. I have to make sure I’m looking up from the screen and using grounding techniques to be in the moment and not in a tech coma,” she says. “Social media is a wonderful tool, but it’s too easy to fall into the trap of being used by social media rather than using it.”
As such, Curtis seeks honesty in her posts, inviting her followers to see her life in every shade and not only the bright spots. “I try to be consistent in posting authentic, raw content that is often uncomfortable. I’ve shared personal battles with depression, sexual assault, and alcohol. It’s been amazing to hear from strangers that are feeling understood and seen by some of those posts. I want to build trust with my audience, so I also try to keep it from becoming a highlight-only reel. Lots of makeup free, untouched videos, because I know it gets old scrolling through a feed of perfectly put-together people when you feel like a hot mess.”
Listen to “Sandcastles” below.