Exclusive RoundLetters Q&A: Charlotte Cornfield

Catch the Charlotte Cornfield Band play tonight at the Cameron House at 9:30 for $7. Opening will be Bent by Elephants. (Read an interview and review of Bent by Elephants.)

My oh my, Charlotte Cornfield’s Collage Light EP is one of the best recorded pieces of work that I’ve heard in a while. So you’d understand my dismay to find out that it’s been around since 2009, thus a) you, I and everyone else who is only just catching on need a bit of a smack and b) this means it can’t be on my Top 2010 list. But, ah, let’s just think of the positives today.

Cornfield, the 21-year-old singer-songwriter based in Montreal, has made a wonderful EP about failed romance and independence. The seven songs are a perfect balance of dark and light, slow and fast, solo and collaborative. She’s got a bit of that descriptive Canadian rock twang, I think of Sam Roberts at points, and her voice is not like anyone else’s. (It makes me proud to know that Canada produces such amazing female voices.) Cornfield has a full backing band on this album, and she also brings them on tour. Together they are the Charlotte Cornfield Band. Cornfield also plays drums in one of my favourite bands, Bent by Elephants, in which you can see her move with the percussion, letting her lankiness benefit and roll out of her in the beats, a very catching sight. Besides that, she drums in the all female jazz quartet, Takk, which will play in Toronto next week, July 22, at the Trane Studio. It’s safe to say that this lady is impressive.

Collage Light, her second EP, details a romance or two very openly. The descriptions are poetic with just a hint of mystery and a lot of heartbreak. Though exposing her vulnerability, her confidence shines through in the way she performs. Her voice is completely aligned with her guitar, so much so that she considers them one instrument. She can push her voice into high and low places, or lengthen or quicken syllables however she pleases. Her songs are in simple structures, but it’s more so what she’s saying (she really has established herself as great lyricist) and how the band produces the surrounding sound.

Read on to find out how she manages everything, what’s coming up (perhaps a duo team with friend Leif Vollebekk), her upcoming album, and so much more.

Here is the exclusive RoundLetters interview with Charlotte Cornfield.

So you’re in a ton of bands and projects right now. How on earth do you manage all of it?

It’s been pretty crazy. I love having a ton of things on the go and having a ton of things to do makes me feel like super alive and jazzed. So I think the way I’ve been able to manage it up to now is taking the reins a bit in on the organizational sides of each project so I can format my schedule around them so I’ve been like booking a few shows, well I book all my shows and I’ve been helping with the booking for Bent by Elephants so that it works. We’ve been doing shows together and the same thing with this all-girl jazz band that I’m in that’s also playing relatively often. It’s been good in terms of I haven’t had any major conflicts yet. I’m super into time structuring and management so I get into the organizing by the hour kind of thing.

That’s a pretty clean track record.

Yeah, I think we’ll see how long it lasts.

Not even practices overlapping?

Yeah, I guess the hardest thing is to get everybody together. Especially like a band, my band has five people and BBE has six, and finding times when everyone can do it isn’t difficult because there’s also some band overlap. In this scene pocket here in Montreal, everybody shares band members, so we’re pretty open with each other about our schedules and we’re able to work it all out.

So you moved to Montreal from Toronto. What was it like immersing yourself into the scene, was it easy getting into it quickly?

Well it was at the beginning, when I moved to Montreal I was 17 and I really didn’t know what was going on. I lived in a sketchy neighborhood, not at all on the main drag, so I kind of had to just go out and explore things on my own. So I think through a process of trial and error, I found the spots that I wanted to check out in terms of music. I started meeting a few people, and I think it was just that exposure was gradual and the more people I met the more I became clear about what kind of stuff I liked and who I wanted to be involved with. Then I started writing really intensely that year because I was just mesmerized by the intensity of being in the city on my own at that time and the crazy stuff that was happening to me. My first show was in February of my first year of university so in 2007, and just from there, this spiral happened and at that show I met a bunch of people and they asked me to play other stuff and it was just like, I started to pick up momentum and meet a bunch of more people and then the following year, I just decided to play as much as I could so I played any show whether it was the shittiest show ever. My motto was that I would do anything and so I played like three times a week, going absolutely crazy, and then that was right after I recorded my first record. Then it’s just been a kind of gradual going through different bands, playing much better shows, getting press and now being able to select the best shows.

So you really pushed yourself independently into the scene.

Yeah. Montreal has been very good for that, it’s been a very open place. I found it was really easy to meet a bunch of people.

What’s the scene like there?

It’s a really creative place. People want to be able to do their thing and are really supportive of everybody else who is doing that, and because it is financially possible to live in this city and make art at the same time, that’s kind of what the culture revolves around. There’s less of a huge amount of pressure to make money and succeed and create a product that is marketable and more like okay let’s do our own thing. There are some stuff happening here, some really cool new projects that I’m really excited about, like friends’ bands, and I think the scene here is also more contained, especially the Anglo scene, and there are only a few venues that are like the places where set genres play, so you always know where to go to check something out and in the end it’s pretty small, just super vibrant.

You’ve done a lot of work with Leif Vollebekk, right?

Yep, I have.

Cool, what have you guys done together?

Well, he and I are just really good friends. We’ve toured together and played together a bunch. We’ve just done a lot of shows together, he was playing bass in my band for a little bit. He sang on my last record, he sang a little bit and we are kind of trying to start a duo project, but we have such erratic schedules that it’s been hard. He was in Europe for a while and just got back and now he’s heading to California. So yeah, I think it will just be kind of a relaxed thing that we’ll do when we’re in the same city. But yeah, we get together a lot and share songs.

I can tell that your singing styles are kind of similar.

Yeah!

I had listened to your album and then I saw him play and I was like huh! If you did a duo thing, would you be doing drums or guitar?

Yeah, I’ve been playing drums and singing and playing guitar or piano.

Is there an instrument that you like playing more right now?

I think that I can honestly say that I love doing both things equally, like drumming offers me a kind of freedom of movement and improvisation that I totally love. I love being able to play different kinds of music and take that to its fullest but also… I’ve been playing guitar for almost 10 years now, but I never took lessons, I’m self taught. I’ve taught myself based on what I want to do with my singing, so I think of the guitar and voice as one instrument right now, and so, doing that is like a totally different feeling, like being able to sing my own songs and play my own music in front of people is this crazy intense experience that I love in a different way so I think it’s been really great right now to be able to just do both really seriously, like that’s what feels good.

It’s kind of like you do the front woman thing and then the back woman thing.

Yeah I guess you can say that! It gives me perspective too on when I’m leading my band, what it’s like to not be the leader, so I think it’s really helped me just like be able to kind of shape shift into different roles in ensemble situations.

What’s it like coming back to Toronto to play, is it weird?

Yeah, it’s always strange because I guess I have mixed feelings about Toronto. I guess the same way anybody does about their hometown. I left when I was a teenager with angsty about the way the scene was and stuff like that. I still have a lot of friends there but I always feel like when I play there there’s pressure to have a super-hyped show. I find that people go out less because they are going to see something that they love, and I’m totally generalizing here, but I feel like people tend to get super hyped up about something, like they go to where the hyped up event is and then whether it’s good or bad, that’s where everybody is kind of thing, where people here tend to gravitate towards what they know is going to be the fun show. I guess I have high expectations when it comes to playing in Toronto because it’s my hometown and I feel really strongly about it. So I get a little stressed out about putting on a great show there kind of thing but there are so many people there who I love and there are great venues.

It’s like, look guys I’m popular, I’m back, look at how famous I am! I can totally understand that. Do you think it’s going to be really stressful on Thursday?

I think it’s just going to be a lot of fun on Thursday because I get to play with Bent by Elephants too and I love the Cameron, I think it’s a great venue and it’s a pretty chill vibe there, so yeah I think we’re all just really stoked, for sure.

Let’s talk a bit about Collage Light. Tell me about the making of it and what it means.

Yeah sure well the title comes from a lyric in the first song “The Pages.” I guess I chose that because I’ve always felt really scattered in one way in a sense that I’m always running around doing a bunch of different things but at the same time, I feel like they all have to do with loving playing music and doing my thing and I just really believe that it’s all part of this cool path. So in a kind of cheesy way, Collage Light is kind of symbolic of there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and I don’t even know how to articulate this properly but yeah, it’s how I feel about what I’m doing.

And that came out last year?

It came out last May.

So it’s been a while. Were you re-releasing it?

Well, I’m running more as of now, whatever that means. I guess there’s a certain quota of how many copies you run or how many copies you sell that makes it officially released or not so I guess … these days, everything is strange. But yeah I’m just trying to push it more because I think I was like right after I released it last year, I went on a two month North American tour and that was cool but I’d like to pick it up more and I’m going into the studio in August to do a full-length, so this is kind of what I have until that record comes out. Collage Light I recorded last March in Montreal with my old band and it was a really intense recording experience, it’s an EP and super emotional six songs. It’s a really heart on the sleeve record.

I think it’s a good introduction to have, like, ‘Here’s all of me for you, right now.’

Yeah. That’s always been kind of how I’ve operated. I don’t really hold back when it comes to lyrical material or anything like that and I think that works.

So the new album, what can you tell me?

Well, I’m just super stoked to do it. I’m now in organizational stages of pre-production and where and how I’m going to do it, but I have all the songs ready and I have dates booked in Ottawa in August and some stuff in Toronto and yeah I basically want this to be a really, really awesome thing. I feel like I have a bunch of songs that I’m super excited about and my current band is really exciting and I have a double bass player, trumpet and a guy who plays percussion and sings and a drummer so there’s a lot of percussive stuff happening. There’s going to be a lot of my friends featured on the record and I think it’s going to be a lot, there’s going to be some more up-beat and fast, more rock and roll stuff than Collage Light mixed in with some guitar voice.

Does it have a name yet?

No.

Any general themes?

I guess my theme pretty much most of what I have to do has something to do with romance and there have been some intense experiences of late that have really inspired a lot of these songs and there’s some spark and magic in the tunes so it’s pretty exciting. I guess a lot of my previous stuff has to do with growing up, people coming and going, the city and love, this is a continuation of place and interaction with people but I’d say even on a higher level with almost a deeper understanding and more of a statement I think the songs take more of a vision on the matter than just observational. I guess there’s more attitude.

Are you in any label talks right now?

Not in a concrete way, no. I am talking to a few different people and I just finished school a couple months ago and I refrained from getting too involved on the industry side of things before I was done school because I was afraid of getting sidetracked and so now that I’ve had time to think… I’m just trying to talk to a bunch of people and get advice because I think it’s easy to jump into something and these days a label doesn’t necessarily mean too much so I’m looking at different things and looking at what would be the best opportunity. I think basically I just want to keep the momentum and keep playing in front of a lot of people and then I have faith that the right opportunity will come.

Does that mean the new record is still up in the air on whether it would be an indie or label release?

I would say it’s still up in the air, but it’s likely that it’s going to be a label release.

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