Charlotte Cornfield, Sister Ray

Thu. Nov 2, 2023 at 8:00pm EDT
19 and Over
19 and Over
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It’s been less than two years since Highs in the Minuses became Charlotte Cornfield’s break-out—a magnetic mission-statement for the Toronto songwriter described by Rolling Stone as “Canada’s best-kept secret.” Cornfield emerged from pandemic seclusion with new fans, raised expectations, and her first major US tour. She could have kept touring forever; she could have fled to the woods with a four-track. She could have done anything. What she did was jump into an old Subaru, driving seven hours south to the Hudson Valley. The car didn’t have any A/C; she had only recently earned her license; and she had never met the producer she was driving down to meet. But when Cornfield arrived in Hurley, NY, at the red-steepled church that is now Dreamland Recording Studios, she was ready for whatever came next. “There was this letting go of some of the strongheaded-ness that I think I used to have,” she says, “and an embracing of the open-endedness of life.”

Cornfield had come to Hurley to work with producer Josh Kaufman, thrilled by his sublime recordings with Cassandra Jenkins, Anais Mitchell and his own band, Bonny Light Horseman. The album they’d now make together, Could Have Done Anything, is a testament to Cornfield’s uncommon life and all its possibilities, an acknowledgment that the best musicians can turn fleeting moments into timeless songs. Over nine magnetic tracks, the singer-songwriter begins yet another chapter: gazing in the rear-view to understand where she’s been; squinting through the sunset to see what’s ahead. Calmer than I was, she sings in the album’s final moments. Stronger than I was / older than I was / less angry than I was…—and finally—happier than I was / happier than I was / happier than I was…

Whereas Cornfield’s preceding albums were made in familiar settings, with troupes of friends, her latest long-player reaches into the unknown. Kaufman and Cornfield (who went to school for jazz drums) played every instrument themselves, from ringing guitars to cozy piano, Hammond B3, pedal steel and synthesizers. Together with engineer D. James Goodwin (Kevin Morby, Whitney) and assistant engineer Gillian Pelkonen, the pair worked swiftly, impulsively, trying to shrink the gap between having an idea and putting it on tape. The resulting sound is at once elaborate and unrehearsed; there’s a sense that it’s coming together—and coming alive—at the very moment it’s being made.

“The hours flew by,” Cornfield says. “We lived inside of the songs there, for a few days.” You can hear it on a tune like “Cut and Dry,” where a radiant, easygoing groove forms the landscape of a song about seeing people as a whole, together with their mistakes. There’s a similar throughline to “In From The Rain,” where rambling 70s licks and Cornfield’s tambourine flutter trace the evolution of a friendship, from intimacy to disappointment to acceptance. On the latter, listen at the end of the first minute, after Cornfield sings a lyric about rainstorms and visitors: Suddenly you were there, goes the line—as a real-life thunderclap unfurls, like an angel’s drumroll. “All the mics picked it up,” she recalls. “So we left it in.”

“Gentle Like the Drugs” draws on imagery from a spring tour in the American west. “I was experiencing joy on the road in a way I really hadn’t before,” Cornfield says, and you can hear it in the patient pleasure of these chords, or the way she narrates her first impressions of Arizona: I watch the colours get real / the pink and the teal / I see a dust devil / I see an elevator. Like riding across the desert with your friends; like smoking a joint at the end of a long day; but the song’s alternating verses orient themselves towards another sensation, too: that feeling of being home, and happy, when your lover’s not around. Not because they’re gone, but because you know they will return.

Intimacy and absence go hand-in-hand on Could Have Done Anything: the theme repeats on the unfussy love-song “You and Me,” with its tale of tour and homecoming. You’re sunkissed in your Subaru / Picking me up at Terminal 3, she sings—and, later, two bikes on a pavement path / ice cream cones and epitaphs. Some love is as simple as this: liberating, easy, like piano and guitar in two-step. “I’ve been trying to write a song like this for a long time,” Cornfield says. “A catchy love-song, with cars. Where it feels like the narrator could go anywhere and do anything.”

That was the spirit of this record: connection, possibility, acceptance. “Don’t be afraid to take a left,” Kaufman would say, encouraging Cornfield to drop preconceptions, invent new rules. Even with the small things, like wandering around the tracking room with a pair of claves in your hands, or adding random, surround-sound echoes to “The Magnetic Fields”—a song about a potent and formative live concert experience. Throughout, Cornfield tried to channel the energy of her favorite classic records, from Tapestry to Blood On The Tracks to Car Wheels On A Gravel Road—albums where the listener is simply carried by the songs and the playing.

After six days, Cornfield went back to Canada, with a new album to mix and master. Another day-long drive; another homecoming; and one more thing, too, which would arise a little over nine months later: the singer’s first baby’s due April 2023. Anything can happen.

with Sister Ray

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The Great Hall 1087 Queen Street West
Toronto, ON M6J 1H3
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