Charlotte Cornfield on How Elliott Smith, Skateboarding, Montreal, and More Inspired Her New Album ‘Highs in the Minuses’


When the world went into lockdown in March 2020, Charlotte Cornfield was in the middle of an artist residency founded by Howard Bilerman at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada. It had almost been a year since she had issued her remarkable third album The Shape of Your Name, which was longlisted for the Polaris Music Prize, and as she hinted when we caught up with her over email around the release of her 4-track In My Corner EP that month, she was just starting to write material for her next full-length project. Though she had to cancel her tour when the pandemic hit, the Toronto-based musician was able to use this unexpected stretch of time to focus on writing, calling it “the most focused writing period I’ve ever had.” Cornfield, whose songwriting stands out for its evocative and autobiographical qualities, naturally reflects on the sense of anxiety that pervaded those months on her brand new album, Highs in the Minuses – out today via Polyvinyl/Double Double Whammy – but she mostly uses this space to delve into past experiences that have shaped her with newfound clarity, most strikingly on songs like ‘Blame Myself’ and ‘21’.

After working on the demos with her collaborator and guitarist Sam Gleason, she contacted Bilerman and was able to book some time to record the album at his studio in Montreal. Intent on channeling the energy of a live performance, she recruited bassist Alexandra Levy (Ada Lea) and drummer Liam O’Neill (Suuns) and tracked the whole record in just five days – a contrast to her last album, which she wrote alone and recorded incrementally over the span of several years. Highs in the Minuses works not only because of the raw immediacy of the production, but because of how starkly it foregrounds Cornfield’s skill as a songwriter capable of both gut-punching vulnerability (‘Drunk for You’) and surprising playfulness (‘Pac-Man’). “You’re not capable of telling lies, you tell me/ Everything I wanna know,” she sings on ‘Black Tatoo’. Honesty has always been one of Cornfield’s greatest assets – here, you get the sense she tells us only what we need to know, but holds nothing back.

We caught up with Charlotte Cornfield to talk about some of the inspirations behind her new album Highs in the Minuses, including an Elliot Smith song, the TV show I May Destroy You, and Montreal itself.


Elliott Smith’s ‘Everything Reminds Me of Her’

This was deep in the winter of the pandemic – I guess spring here, but it still felt like winter – I was listening to a lot of moody songs, and I hadn’t heard that song before. I was just struck by his phrasing on it, what he did with rhyming and not rhyming and how it felt very conversational, and the words just kind of flowed out of him, but it also felt really emotionally intense. And I just couldn’t stop listening to the song. I think because I was writing around that time, I was writing thinking about that song, and that’s sort of where my song ‘Pac-Man’ came out of. The way that Elliott Smith played guitar was very unique and I can’t even scratch the surface of what he does, but I was really drawn to his chord choices, and whether it was conscious or not, I think I was thinking about that when I wrote ‘Pac-Man’. And trying to be really loose with words, not be too precious about words, and not necessarily try to rhyme but just kind of let them domino out of me.

At first, I was like, well, maybe this could be a sort of Elliott Smith-style acoustic recording, and so on my first demo, I doubled acoustic guitar, I doubled my vocals, but then I was like, no, this song needs to be a big rock song with the band. So I went there with it, but that’s one song that I can say led to the creation of ‘Pac-Man’.

One thing I found interesting is that there’s obviously a lot of vulnerability and honesty in Elliott Smith’s music in general, but this song is also kind of about being honest, which is something that also comes through on your record.

Yeah, for sure. It’s interesting that you pointed out the lyrics to ‘Everything Reminds Me of Her’, because it even has that line, “Why should I lie?” And I just so appreciate that, because it’s kind of bold to say that. And I think I am really into, not necessarily telling the truth, but being honest to my experience and trying to capture the feelings as accurately as possible. So a song like that, when I hear it, this is exactly what I want to do. But at the same time, you can have fun with it and not be so intense and heavy and verbose, but also kind of clouded in a dream state or whatever. Honesty – I just find it’s a very powerful tool, and it has been for my songwriting over the years something that I keep turning to.

There’s even a line on this album about embracing your “honest representation of self.”

That’s from the song ‘Blame Myself’, and that song is a reflection of who I was in high school and trying to have empathy for being young and making mistakes and figuring things out. That was a really pivotal time for me: the first time I played a song for people that was a love song, and the reaction I got. That was just interesting to look back on, and the line is like, “I’m happy as I embrace my honest representation of self,” so I’m kind of looking back at myself and being like, who I am now is very true to who I was then.

Pavement’s ‘Cut Your Hair’

I definitely noticed that reference in the lyrics for ‘Out of the Country’ [“Heat burning holes into the asphalt/ The construction guys made me laugh my ass off/ I’d say, ‘Hey come on, focus on the pavement’/ And then I’d walk home just wondering where the day went/ And who was gonna cut my hair”], which I thought was very funny.

That one is actually, in addition to being Pavement reference, I have a song on my first record Two Horses called ‘Construction on the Street’. There’s one line in that song where I’m listening to Pavement and wondering where the day went, so I’m like double referencing. I was just having fun with words, honestly, but I think Pavement was a big influence on this record, for sure. This record feels like there’s some moments that are a lot scrappier and more uptempo than my last record, which is a very sort of melancholy, downtempo record. And this one I was just like, I don’t want to hold back, I want to tap into that teenage thing, so ‘Blame Myself’ and ‘Out of the Country’ in particular are these more scrappy songs that are very Pavement-influenced. And I do really love Steven Malkmus’ wordplay and wit, and the way that he captures really intense emotions but through this dry lens. And of course, the songs are super catchy.

An old Musicmaster guitar she borrowed from her friend Leif

My friend Leif Vollebekk, who’s a really great songwriter from Montreal, he lent me his guitar. And I don’t know what year it’s from, but it’s a Gibson Musicmaster, and it looks like an SG but it was before the SG existed, so it was something like an early ’60s guitar that he bought in Australia while he was on tour. And before I went into the studio, I was stressing about what guitars I was going to use, because I knew I wanted to play electric for most of the record, but I felt like I wasn’t confident about the sound I was getting from the guitars that I had. And he was like, “You should just take my Musicmaster.” It’s the most gorgeous guitar and it’s got this really specific, old tone to it, and I think it brought so much life to the record. The studio that we recorded at, Hotel2Tango, is full of vintage gear, so they were just beautiful, the amps and drums and everything that we were playing through. And having this guitar, it felt like this awesome instrument to be able to express myself on, and I’m really grateful to Leif for lending it to me because it’s really everywhere on the record. It’s on most of the record, except for the piano tunes.

Yo La Tengo’s ‘Sugarcube’

I know your In My Corner EP included a cover of a different Yo La Tengo song, but tell me why you chose this one.

I love Yo La Tengo, and I was listening to them a lot while I was writing the tunes for this record. I love the simplicity of the recordings, how the choices that they make are really minimal but also bold at the same time. When we were recording ‘Blame Myself’, we were trying to figure out the drum groove, and Liam, who played drums on the record, gave us ‘Sugarcube’ as a reference. He was like, “What if we did this shaker thing?” And then we all listened to ‘Sugarcube’ and we’re like, “Yes, that’s the vibe.” And even though ‘Blame Myself’ sounds much different than ‘Sugarcube’, that was a really important reference for us.

The Roches’ ‘No Trespassing’

This song I had never heard before, and I don’t even think it’s on Spotify. I had heard of the Roches, for sure. But I have some friends in Toronto who are a supergroup of Toronto musicians – Tamara [Lindeman] from the Weather Station, the folks from the band Bernice who are a great band, Luka Kuplowsky who is really great songwriter – and they do this thing called the Holy Oak Family Singers, where they get together and they cover a record or certain songs that they love for a live performance. And I’ve done a couple of things with them – we did a Joni Mitchell night and a Mary Margaret O’Hara night – but ‘No Trespassing’ specifically, the first time I ever heard it, was Tamara from Weather Station and Robin and Felicity from Bernice singing it together, and it blew my mind. I was like, “What is this song?” And then I found two YouTube videos, one where they played the song live, one where it’s the recording. I like how weird the harmonies are, and how heart-wrenching the song is. Just the line, “The sign says no trespassing unless it’s you,” it’s simple, but it’s just so effective, and I think that embodied what I was going for with this record. I wanted it to be simple but powerful.

Joan Armatrading’s ‘Woncha Come on Home’

It’s a simple sentiment, but there’s so much emotion packed into her voice, and I really am drawn to that. Also, it’s very unconventional phrasing and lengths of phrases, and I like how, similar to ‘Everything Reminds Me of Her’, the song kind of meanders instead of having [these distinct parts] – it’s a loose form, but she takes a lot of liberties with it, which I love.

Did it inspire the songs on Highs in the Minuses in any specific way?

I think it probably indirectly inspired ‘Drunk for You’. Because there’s no particular chorus or bridge or whatever, but I sort of used that song as a reference to push out my rigidity around how things are supposed to be and let myself convey what I wanted to say. And then I realized it’s done, it doesn’t have to be more than what it is already. It doesn’t need any kind of formula.

When was that moment that you realized it was ready?

That was the one song that was written before all the other songs on the record. I wrote it and then I put it away for two years, because I was just too in the moment when I was writing and I needed some space from it. And then when I revisited it, in my head it wasn’t done yet, but then when I played it for a couple of people, it felt done. Two years after it was written, I realized it was done.

What kind of reaction did it get?

I remember the first night I performed it, there was some really intense reactions. It was just at a songwriting night with some friends, and I was like, maybe this song is going to resonate with people, but I think I just needed to personally take some time with it before I was ready to play it.

The TV show I May Destroy You

 I’m curious how this relates to the final track, ‘Destroy Me’.

That line was kind of like a response to that, like, “Will it destroy me?” And that was something that happened, I guess subconsciously, but I did watch that show when it came out, which was peak pandemic. I just thought it was so brilliantly written, the story was so compelling and the characters are so compelling, and it was unlike anything I’d seen on TV. And that just pushed me songwriting-wise to not hold anything back and just let it come out.

Can you give me an example of moments on the record where you feel like you really pushed yourself in that way?

Yeah, I mean, definitely some moments in ‘Drunk for You’, which obviously I had written but wasn’t sure about sharing. Same with the song ‘21’, there’s a couple of uncomfortable moments in that song, where it’s like, is this something that I want people to hear? But then watching a show like I May Destroy You, that’s what’s powerful: those messy little pieces, because we all experience them in different ways.

Montreal

I don’t live in Montreal, I live in Toronto, but Montreal is a really important place in my life. I moved there when I was 17 to go to school and stayed till I was 23, but I had really important formative experiences there. Getting into playing music live, touring, being in bands – that all happened in Montreal, including important relationships in my life. So going and doing the record in Montreal felt right, especially because it’s such a reflective record. It’s a place where I feel very comfortable that’s really familiar, that’s very much a second home. And it’s definitely in the record, like in ‘Destroy Me’ I mention Montreal, the song ‘21’ happened living in Montreal, a little bit of ‘Pac-Man’, too. For me, I think the city as a muse is really an inspiring place, it’s aesthetically beautiful but it’s a little shabby in a really endearing way. A lot of my dear friends live there, so I think it was just on my mind making this record.

I was wondering if you had any conversations about Montreal with Ada Lea, who plays bass on the record, because that’s also a big focus on her latest album.

Yeah, Allie and I have known each other for about 10 years, and we have this different experience. She grew up in Montreal and I grew up in Toronto, and we met while we were both living in Montreal, but we lived in New York at the same time, and we were actually briefly roommates there.

The Brooklyn summer that you mention in ‘Out of the Country’?

Yeah, exactly, but I lived in Brooklyn for two years, and she was there pretty much that whole time because she was studying there. And definitely, over the course of our friendship, we’ve had lots of conversations about Montreal. There’s always the pull of like, should I live there, should I leave? Montreal’s got this weird allure where it’s so cheap to live there – people would argue that that’s changing, but it’s much cheaper than Toronto. And there’s a really great community there, so I think it holds people, but then some people get into these loops, and I think Allie on her record, which is so good, sings about some of these loops: of being at the same parties on the same corner of the same street. It’s almost like Groundhog Day, the same experience over and over, and I think she captured that really well on her record.

Her skateboard

This one obviously ties into ‘Skateboarding by the Lake’, but is there more to how it inspired the album?

Yeah, I think it ties into a couple of things on the record. Because the streets were so dead at the beginning of the pandemic, and I hadn’t skateboarded in like 20 years – I knew my brother had a board that he wasn’t using, so I borrowed it. And being able to just glide around the empty streets on the skateboarders is such a freeing experience. I felt like I was tapping into my younger self a little bit, which definitely informs the sentiment of ‘Blame Myself’ and ‘Skateboarding by the Lake’. So it was like a weird homage to my childhood, but also this really a freeing thing, to be able to pick up a skateboard in my 30s and be like, I can just do it. It didn’t have any of the baggage of skateboarding when you’re a teenager and you’re trying to figure out your identity and stuff. It represents pure fun and childhood play.

What drew you to skateboarding as a teenager?

I was always into the kind of edgier sports, I guess, and skateboarding, I like that it’s almost like an art form, it’s almost like dancing. It’s so culturally connected to so many different things – like, Polyvinyl, the label that I’m with now in the US, that label came out of skateboard culture. It was something that gave me a lot of joy as a teen.

Neil Young’s Zuma

I think it’s mentioned in the press bio that you were inspired by the working methods of Neil Young, but I’m curious why you picked this record in particular.

I just love the sound of that record, because it feels like a live band record in the way that I was going for, but it has so much dynamics, from ‘Don’t Cry No Tears’ to ‘Through My Sails’, which is this beautiful downtempo song. It has that sort of simple quality where it’s bare-bones, he’s just delivering the songs and the emotion of the songs without adding any bells and whistles. I think it’s the Neil record that I revisit the most these days, and it captured the essence of what I was feeling at the time, which is this immediacy, this rawness. I like production where you’re not thinking about the production, you’re just thinking about the song, and I think that was what I was trying to do with this record.

Because this live element is so crucial to your album, I was wondering if you could talk about what you feel like what the rest of the band brought to the recordings.

Liam, who plays drums on the record, he has such gravitas and presence as a drummer. Before I even knew him I would go see him play in Montreal with different bands, and he brings so much oomph and weight to what he does. There’s just an energy that he brings that I really wanted on this record and that he totally brought in the studio. He’s such a wonderful musician to work with, in that that he’ll tune things, change the timbers of things, switch up the snare drum, overdub a cymbal. He brings so much nuance to what he does, but at the same time has this really incredible presence. And he’s just a really fun person to be around as well.

And Allie, because we’re such close friends, I had been sending her the demos basically from right when I started writing the songs. And it was really great to have her in the studio, as a friend and confidant, and feel really comfortable in this trio that was happening. And she’s also an amazing and talented bass player, she studied jazz bass in New York. The dynamics that she has on this record, from the emotionally intense tunes like ‘Black Tattoo’ and ‘21’, to ‘Pac-Man’, where she just turned up a crunch gain pedal and it basically sounds like sludge metal bass. I just love it, and she doesn’t hold back.

Working with those who was amazing, and then I brought in my friend Sam who I’ve done the demos with. I brought him from Toronto for a day, and he just added some really subtle beautiful little things, like the guitar swells in ‘Drunk for You’ and some pads and stuff like that. We did very minimal overdubs, but the stuff we did do, I feel like it adds a lot of nice little touches.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

Charlotte Cornfield’s Highs in the Minuses is out now via Polyvinyl/Double Double Whammy.





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