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Interview With Charlotte Cornfield

Montreal folksinger Charlotte Cornfield is crazy busy and totally vulnerable—but she wouldn't have it any other way. She plays Maisonneuve's Issue 36 launch party on July 8.

CHARLOTTE CORNFIELD - Harbord & Grace from Mitch Fillion on Vimeo.

As soon as you see Charlotte Cornfield play, you know it: she’s the real thing. Whether she’s fronting her own band, drumming for Bent By Elephants, or playing with any of her other numerous side projects, Cornfield’s got something luminous about her. And though she’s the subject of much well-deserved acclaim, you get the sense that she lets it roll off her back, content to focus on honest music-making. Ahead of playing at Maisonneuve’s “The Music We Hate” summer issue launch party, Cornfield spoke with us about Montreal, being honest and—of course—the music she’s not too crazy about.

Amelia Schonbek: You're originally from Toronto, but I think everybody sees you as very much part of the Montreal music scene. Do you look back at your music and see it slowly beginning to change as you worked your way deeper into Montreal?

Charlotte Cornfield: My move to Montreal marked a major life transition—I left home, left Toronto, decided to pursue music intensely, and hurled myself into an entirely new community. I was seventeen when I got here, and though I've performed all my life, I hadn't really done much solo stuff before. This city blew my mind, and at the beginning the songs that I wrote here were strongly influenced by the magic of night streets and new experiences and all the crazy shit that tripped me out. Gradually, as the city became my home, my songs began to reflect the life experience that I was having here—loves and losses, loneliness and growing up. The more I played, the more confident I became in my voice and sound, and through exposure to a wider audience, and a ton of encouragement from like-minded musicians and friends, I was able to develop my style and really become comfortable with it.

I think of Montreal as my musical hometown. It's where I have the biggest network of people and the strongest audience. I sometimes feel like this town has lifted me into the palm of its hand—it's been such an incredibly positive and supportive place to play since day one.

Toronto is a lot more stressful when it comes to making art, because there's a constant pressure to succeed and earn money. I think if I had stayed there I would have been jaded by the bullshit of it. Montreal made it possible for me to really do my thing and make it work. I love it here.

AS: From an outside perspective it seems like you've got so much momentum these days. You're so prolific, playing a lot and with a ton of different people. Does it feel crazy? How do you stay creative in the midst of it all?

CC: It definitely does feel crazy, but that's how I like it. I've always thrived on a busy schedule, and I'm perpetually working on a variety of things at once. For the past four years I've been working on my degree and juggling musical projects and now that I'm finished school my life has filled up with several more bands and I'm still running around like a chicken with my head cut off. A lot of people ask me what my main focus is, and though in a sense my heart is probably closest to my own music, drumming is equally important to me, and I will always be doing both as intensely as possible. Right now I am playing with my band, playing solo, drumming for Bent By Elephants and my jazz quartet Takk, and playing a lot of gigs on the side. I love being able to jump from instrument to instrument and genre to genre, so this is really the ideal situation.

It is sometimes difficult to make time for writing and creation, because those are not things that you can insert into your daytimer—they have to come naturally. I've always found that inspiration strikes out of the blue, and if it's there, the colours whirl and magic happens (as new-agey as that sounds).

AS: You really wear your heart on your sleeve in a lot of your songs—not in a way that's overly sentimental, but in a way that's really honest. That's pretty rare, I think. Is it a struggle to keep doing that when you're writing music?

CC: I always wear my heart on my sleeve. I'd say it's more of a struggle to hold back a bit. It's so natural for me to give it all in a song that sometimes I forget the vulnerability of it. Sometimes I feel like I'm playing with fire, but it's thrilling to be dangling on the edge. I love Joni Mitchell, I love Martha Wainwright, I love Bob [Dylan]—you know? These people give it.
I think artists and bands these days have a tendency to get so wrapped up in coolness that they shy away from expressing any real emotion. It's total bullshit. There's so much you can do with the combination of words and music. You can be super-subtle and still say something. For me, songwriting is the perfect place to channel intense emotion and real humanity and let it flood to the forefront.

AS: So tell us about the music you hate. What is it, and why? Or, to think about it from the opposite point of view, what do you particularly value in music? What are the ingredients that make it good?

CC: I think I would rather look at it from the opposite point of view. I don't hate music—I love music. What do I value in it? Well, that's a huge question that I can't even begin to verbalize. Music is one of those magical things that can't be explained in words, no matter how hard people try to do it.

To me it's all about heart and feeling. If it has those two things, then it's working, then it can be great.

These days anybody can pick up a bunch of electronic stuff and make a record in their basement and call it music. Some of the DIY stuff out there is amazing, but so much of it is lacking feeling, groove, and musicality. There's so much hype-based, novelty-based Pitchfork-type stuff that is not going to stand the test of time because there's no heart in it. There's no awesome. Really, there's just a major lack of awesome.

Charlotte Cornfield plays Maisonneuve's "The Music We Hate" issue launch party on July 8 at le Cagibi (5490 St. Laurent) in Montreal, along with Pat Jordache and Carl Spidla. $5 cover includes a copy of Maisonneuve Issue 36 (Summer 2010). Check out the launch party on Facebook.

Related on

—The Music We Hate: Online Supplement
—The Cool Jew
—Hear Tune-Yards Roar

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