Here’s a clip of Toronto-born, Montreal-based singer-songwriter and musical road warrior Charlotte Cornfield singing a new track off of an off-stage EP to be featured on her current 45-date solo tour this summer. It’s “Construction On The Street”, a collection of vignettes held together by the common theme of disconnection, artfully compressed in three minutes and change of rock/folk/pop catchiness. The track, and the tour EP off of which it comes is a spearhead for an upcoming full-length record Two Horses, due later in the year.
Charlotte Cornfield has been hitting the road since she was a teen, first as a student of jazz drumming, of all things, at Concordia University in Montreal. Then, it was in a succession of bands that cross the musical spectrum. DIY tours on Greyhound buses on her own ensued. Needless to say, she hasn’t slowed down.
She has since, in a relatively short time, become a darling of the festival circuit. Cornfield has appeared at Hillside Festival, Mariposa Folk Festival, The Montreal Jazz Festival, Ottawa Folk Festival, Pop Montreal, and others.
In addition to being a hearty touring musician, she shines as a songwriter, hearkening back to a misty, golden yesteryear when all of the songs on the radio meant something. What’s left is a burgeoning body of work over 2 EPs that reflects a distinctive, Billie-Holiday-meets-Joni-Mitchell croon, with a touch at songwriting that suggests the muses of Brett Dennen and Ron Sexsmith, plus some unique spark to boot.
I spoke to Charlotte via email about being at home on the road, jazz, drumming, being a support player, and in making one’s way as a solo artist in the 21st Century.
The Delete Bin: “Construction In the Street” really feels to me like a collection of short stories all crammed, delightfully, into one song. What inspired it?
Charlotte Cornfield: I wrote that song at a time when I was feeling very scattered both emotionally and geographically. It’s basically a smattering of summer imagery from the streets of Montreal, Toronto, and St. John’s, Newfoundland, tied together with the push and pull of a complicated affair. It starts off as a collage, and then, like a puzzle, thedifferent images come together into one picture (or in this case one hooky chorus).
DB: This song seems to have a lot of dramatic tension, suggesting a longer story underneath the lines. But, there are images here that offer their own rewards, like looking at a collection of photographs. What’s your approach to lyric writing with respect to telling a story, and setting up stand-alone images too in a song like this?
CC: Lately my approach to songwriting has been to collect strong images and weave them together to see where they lead. Its rare that I ever try to tell a story front to back. That style of writing doesn’t excite me. I like the spaces between the words, the underlying feelings, the stuff underneath that’s fighting its way up but is never quite said, only implied.
With “Construction on the Street”, I really surprised myself. I never went into it thinking I wanted to say “I know that you’re filthy,” but it just happened naturally and it’s a perfect tension and release point. I think for me, writing a song is about creating a vibe or emotional state and really digging into that, as opposed to focusing on a particular topic or theme.
DB: You’ve spent a great deal of time traveling, starting off from Toronto to Montreal, on tours with various bands, and on your own across the country. Travelling has always been a part of a musician’s life. But, what was it that pushed you out of your door initially?
CC: I’ve always pushed myself out the door. I’m the antsiest person I know and if I sit still for too long, I wilt. Initially I was playing mostly in Toronto and Montreal but I quickly began to network with other musicians across the country and from there it was a giant web of new connections and new opportunities.
My first tour was out east to the Maritimes with my friends Steve Tchir and Ben Spencer, four years ago. I met people on that tour who are now some of my best friends. I love the spontaneity of touring, and the nonstop excitement and newness of it all. I always miss home, but I find that the road is often a natural place for me. I get into the rhythm of it. In the end, though, it’s always the people who make it worthwhile – friends, bandmates, family, loves.
DB: The words “jazz” and “drumming” aren’t immediately evoked when I hear this tune. But, that is where you started as a music student. How do these influences affect the way you approach crafting a melody?
CC: Jazz is an interesting word for me. I love a lot of jazz music. I studied jazz, I play jazz, but it’s a wide genre that encompasses a lot of stuff. There are certainly elements of jazz that transfer into all music I do – harmony stuff, chord experimentation, groove. Melody-wise, I am free of education. I hear only what pops into my head, and that can come from anywhere.
Drumming, on the other hand, is universal. I love the drums. I play drums when I’m playing guitar or piano, or just singing – they’re always in my head. Rhythm and feel come across strongly in all of my songs, and I think “Construction…” is a good example. There’s a syncopated groove underneath the verses and then it kind of explodes into a straight-up chorus line and then back. You can do so much cool stuff with rhythm.
DB: You’re clearly a dedicated solo performer, but you’ve also played various roles in various bands too (the Bent Elephant, Takk). How does this multi-disciplinary approach affect your identity as a developing artist?
CC: I love playing music and I love playing different styles and instruments. Variety and versatility are assets to any musician. I’ve had the privilege of playing with a lot of great bands in many different genres and I can safely say that everything I’ve done has contributed to the progression and development of the music that I write and play, and of course to my development as a musician.
Being a drummer is great for touring, too. Often I double up with bands on tour and play drums with them, or play on my friends’ records. My own music is clearly a priority for me, but so is playing with other acts. Music is music, after all.
“There are certainly elements of jazz that transfer into all music I do – harmony stuff, chord experimentation, groove. Melody-wise, I am free of education. I hear only what pops into my head, and that can come from anywhere.”
DB: The whole ‘confessional’ singer-songwriter genre is attached to a specific era in the minds of a lot of listeners, and I can hear it echoed in your music, too. How do you manage to short circuit your audience’s expectations that they might have around this, doing what you’re doing as an artist in the 21st century?
CC: People like good songs. This is what I stick with in my approach to writing. I am most inspired when I am in a state of emotional array, and thats when I can create uninhibitedly.
These days irony is hip, and muffled lyrics are hip, and “weirdness” is hip. Being in Montreal, I see the hype machine at work all the time. I’m tired of it – it’s flash-in-the-pan stuff. Joni MItchell may be “confessional,” but did anyone ever stop listening to her? I relate to her 30-year-old songs more strongly than anything that’s happening today, because the truth is timeless. I’m an autobiographical songwriter, but I try to use my own experience to channel universal themes.
I’m not going to hide under style constraints or fashionable musical elements. Humanity, flaws, raw emotion – those things move me.
DB: You’re working on your first full-length record, Two Horses. What have been some of the most important take-aways from the experience in putting the record together?
CC: This was the longest I’ve ever spent recording. I moved back to Toronto for 4 months to work with producer/ drummer Ryan Granville Martin on the record because I wanted it to be great.
It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I think the biggest thing I learned from the whole experience was that I really thrive in a collaborative atmosphere. I’ve known Ryan since I was 13, and he knows my musical aesthetic so well that we were able to just bounce ideas off of each other come up with consistently great stuff. I also recruited some of my favourite musicians and friends to play and add their brilliance to the album, and the result is really special. I’m super stoked about Two Horses.
Charlotte Cornfield is on tour right at this very moment. For more music and news, don’t forget to check out these sites:
Charlotte Cornfield on Twitter
Charlotte Cornfield on Facebook
Charlotte Cornfield MySpace page
Also, be sure to bookmark the Charlotte Cornfield official site, soon to be launched at the time of this writing.
2 thoughts on “Interview With Charlotte Cornfield”
Hi Rob, Still working my way back through your site and found Charlotte. What a great surprise! I saw her a few years ago at a small club in Ottawa and was immediately smitten. “Gawky songs” I call them with all great respect – delightfully off-kilter and putting me in mind a bit of Kim Barlow’s songs. Subsequently, she always seemed to be opening for other performers who, tho’ unquestionably talented, always seemed a bit of a letdown after Charlotte.
Those first two EPs I picked up at that first show got a lot of rotation over the next year or two and I look in on her site every month or two looking for nearby gigs. Nothing recent, sad to say.
PS: Another must see when she’s in the vicinity is Sarah MacDougall – what a delight she is!