Name: Charlotte Cornfield
Occupation: Singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist
Current release: Charlotte Cornfield's Highs in the Minuses is out November 29th 2021 via Polyvinyl/Double Double Whammy.
Dorothea Paas – Anything Can’t Happen (album)
Eden Robinson – Son of a Trickster (book)
If you enjoyed this interview with Charlotte Cornfield and would like to know more about her work, we recommend you visit her official homepage. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started writing songs when I was about 11.
I was listening to a lot of pop music and rock radio at the time and I would write new lyrics to the tune of songs that I liked. When I started learning guitar about a year later, I got really into the classic songwriter canon: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan. I learned to play some of those songs that I loved and from there I started writing my own melodies and progressions. As a kid who was both an aspiring writer and musician, I was fascinated and drawn in by the medium. It was the perfect union of those two things that I loved.
Since then it’s just been a lifelong pursuit and exploration. So many songwriters and musicians have influenced me along the way. I wouldn’t be able to fit them all into one paragraph.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I don’t think I consciously emulated anything in particular, but when I started writing songs I noticed that they would contain some elements of what I was listening to at the time.
Listening to music has always been a huge part of my process. There was never one artist who I thought, “Oh, I want to sound exactly like that person.” It was more of a, “Oh that’s kind of a Talking Headsy type hook,” or “The vibe is a little bit yo la tengo.” I just try to leave room for different influences to filter in while staying honest and true to my own words.
“Write what you know,” they say.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
This is a tough question. I feel like I’m me, and I just try to be as me as possible when I approach creativity.
Honesty and humour are big things in my life, so I feel like they inform the way I write.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I started doing this at a very young age and I feel like the first while was a process of trial and error in terms of seeing what was working and what wasn’t and especially what my strengths and weaknesses were and are.
I think developing confidence was an important thing for me, and now I find it easier to sit down and write without a ton of self doubt or background noise but it’s very much because I’ve spent 20 years getting to this place of free flow where there’s less second guessing. The inner critic is ever present, though.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I’m a minimalist when it comes to gear. I’ve tried to always have only what I need, but because I play a few different instruments that’s still been a decent amount of stuff: a couple of guitars, drum kit, bass, amps, keys. I like to find something that I love and then use it forever. I’ve had my acoustic guitar, a 1967 Gibson J-50, for 13 years now.
For the first 10 years of playing my own shows I was married to a certain setup, and I think in the last few years I’ve spent more time exploring electric guitar and some pedals and tone, but I keep it very simple. I didn’t record myself at all other than on voice memos until the pandemic. I’ve always been a little bit technologically avoidant. But in the last year or so I’ve been messing around doing demos in garageband and it’s been freeing and fun to flesh things out on my own a little bit.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Voice memos changed my songwriting process for sure, in that I could capture every little idea quickly. But otherwise, I’m pretty oldschool. Too oldschool at times.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
My songwriting process has always been pretty solitary, so the collaboration stuff really happens in the studio or in rehearsals or onstage. I love playing music with people I know well and am friends with, because it feels more electric when there’s an emotional connection. There are a lot of folks who I just love playing music with and that’s a really joyful experience.
I also love talking about songs with friends who are also musicians and writers. I can do it for hours on end, and it’s so helpful to get other people’s perspectives as well, and recommendations of things to check out, etc.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
It’s interesting, because the routine I have right now is still a pandemic one, where I mostly work from home and shows haven’t quite started back up again. In that way I might have a different answer to this question in a couple of months.
But these days, typically I wake up around 8:30 or 9 in the house I live in with my partner and our two cats, have a coffee, and do some administrative / logistical / email type tasks before going for a long walk. Then I try to set aside the afternoon for creative work, if it’s flowing. I could definitely be more regimented, (laughs), but I have a home studio where I work and I find just being in there and making the space for it often leads to these little bursts of productivity. Though sometimes it doesn’t.
I am looking forward to things being more open eventually because I find that input of going to shows and films and just being out and taking things in is a huge catalyst for creative energy.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
For me the song that I feel was a breakthrough point is "Silver Civic", which is on my 2019 record, “The Shape of Your Name.”
I think writing it was the first time I really remember turning off my brain and letting it just happen. There’s a certain amount of putting your ego aside that need to happen when writing a vulnerable song, and I am proud of this one, because it feels like a rare time when that actually happened. And as cheesy as it sounds I feel like the melody found me.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Undistracted is the ideal state of mind, but it’s hard to find that sometimes. I honestly just think blocking off fixed time for creating is the best way to make room for the muse to strike.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I think that even when music feels devastating and emotionally resonant in a painful way, it’s still healing. Because it’s very human. Music is healing in general, I think. And I think we all need it in our lives. Listening to music pulls me out of stagnant and unproductive emotional states.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I think it’s incredibly important to get feedback if you are unsure. And honestly, if you’re unsure just don’t do it. If you think it could be misinterpreted or hurtful, don’t do it at all. So much harm has been caused by people stealing and appropriating other people’s work. There’s a difference between influence and imitation.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I’m going to go with the smell and memory one, because it’s so real.
But it happens with music too. When I hear a song that I listened to a lot at a certain point in my life, it really transports me back and creates this flood of memory. I honestly don’t know how the senses work but I find stuff like this magical.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I do feel like putting stuff out into the world there’s this responsibility to listen and read and be aware of what is going on and speak up when there are injustices. I’m not a political writer but I want to be able to speak to the present, and some of these collective emotions that we are feeling. So I just try to listen and learn whenever I can.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Emotions that can’t be put into words.