Andrew Darley talks to Clara Engel about the meaning behind her music, her feelings of transcendence whilst making it and how she feels labels put on artists are redundant.
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Clara Engel is a singer-songwriter from Canada. Praised by poets and critics alike, her music focuses heavily on lyrics, metaphors and creating stories with them. With eight albums already released independently, the singer ensures she prides her work’s quality over its quantity. It is difficult to describe Engel’s musical style; its stripped down aesthetic adopts alternative rock, folk and acoustic elements with several instruments including guitar, cello, piano and drums. Her albums to date capture her raw talent, poetic language and compositions that are laden with equal measures of passion and restraint. Her latest EP release The Lovebird’s Throat features some of her most imaginative and dramatic imagery yet. On ‘Lovebirds’ she deftly sings “Lovebirds mauled your hand when you reached into their cage” is one prime example of how the artist is able to capture an emotional depth in her words, as she deals with issue of heartbreak and the loss of love. Clara Engel is hard at work making her new record, Ashes And Tangerines, which is expected later this year. Although she fully recorded the album during Christmas 2012, the singer is currently labouring over its mixing process so it sounds exactly as she envisioned it. Clara took time to speak Polari about the meaning behind her music, her feelings of transcendence whilst making it and how she feels labels put on artists are redundant.
First and foremost, can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you got you into making music?
I write and sing songs. I started doing this when I was thirteen. From the outside, it would have seemed unlikely that I would become serious about music but I started playing guitar and really took to it. In eighth grade, I would come home after school and work on songs every day. I had a teacher at that time, who remains the best teacher I have ever had, and he got me reading Simone De Beauvoir and Camus, and just really pushed me intellectually, a little beyond what I could be expected to grasp at that age. Looking back, I can’t separate discovering songwriting from the experience of being thrown into the deep end with those novels. I think it all contributed to me becoming an artist, and to the nature of what I do and where I draw my material from. I kind of just sprouted into something unexpected, like in the ugly duckling story by Hans Christian Andersen. I don’t come from a particularly musical background.
In your own words, how would you describe your music?
I generally avoid describing it. I am immersed when I’m singing, so to step back and observe myself feels forced, and maybe even impossible. I have no religious background or spiritual practice, but if I ever come close to understanding what transcendence feels like, making music and singing would be what produces that feeling for me. It feels, from the inside of the experience, like I am going beyond what I have words for.
Photograph by Ilyse Krivel
You are currently putting the finishing touches to a new album Ashes And Tangerines, due out the end of this year. Can you tell me about the music and what the title refers to?
There is a song on the album called ‘Tangerines’, and another song called ‘Raven’, in which I sing: “I don’t sing for love/for the boys and girls/I sing for the wretches of this world/and when this world goes up in fire/I’ll be an ash spewed into the light.” When I was trying to think of names for the album, I had just started reading a book by Orhan Pamuk called Snow, and there was a poem in the novel called ‘Ashes and Tangerines’ which jumped out at me as really fitting. I still haven’t finished the novel, it was really sad and dark and I couldn’t get through it at the time, I need to come back to it at some point though, it’s wonderfully written. I also just like the visual imagery and the contrast of that title: something dry and dead beside something glowing with life.
The album was mostly recorded live with Nicolas Buligan on horn, Paul Kolinski on drums, Zoe Guigueno on bass, and myself on guitar and voice. It’s taken so long to finish the post-recording/mixing/mastering part, that I have released another EP and recorded a film soundtrack (We Are Not Here directed by Aaron Mirkin) in the meantime. Ashes and Tangerines was recorded a few days after Christmas, two years ago. I would probably never choose to record at that time of year again. It’s the worst time of year but it yielded something beautiful, if painfully extracted, though. I’m excited to finally release it!
You mentioned that you went through many “ordeals and adventures” which are reflected in the music. Are there any in particular that inspired the record?
What I’m listening to and reading informs my music a whole lot, but the emotional landscape of my life also does. In the past few years, not in this order, I moved cities, and then had to move back, moved houses more times than I can count, was robbed, was accidentally poisoned quite seriously, had various difficult interpersonal things happen (that I couldn’t do justice to by paraphrasing) and I also met my partner. A lot has been shaken up and changed in my internal landscape. Both really good and really fucked up things have happened.
With a significant back-catalogue to date, reflecting back can you see a change in your own way or style of writing? Would you say you have become more confident in your writing?
I feel like I am always dissatisfied, or a more peppy way of expressing it would be: I’m always exploring. Confidence isn’t a fixed attribute, in my opinion. It waxes and wanes. I have bursts of it sometimes, but it’s when I’m not thinking about being confident and I’m more focused on what I’m doing, more open and experimental, that’s when I’m happiest – when I’m not worrying about where I am between the insecurity/confidence poles. As a singer I definitely feel different than when I started. I use my voice in more of a variety of ways now.
Can you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Yes, it was called ‘Wrought In Stone’ and I had a lot of play between the words “rot and wrought.” The words that I can remember right now were “Harpist sits/plays endlessly/does not even seem to see/the blood dripping ceaselessly/from her fingers/a barbershop quartet sings/but they forget the words…” I’m kind of proud of, or at least sympathetic towards, my early stabs at songwriting even though they make me cringe in another part of myself.
Has songwriting become easier or more difficult over the years in terms finding and exploring new subjects and approaches?
It’s never easy, it’s always mysterious. It feels like I have to be playful and not ambush ideas, or decide what they are/what form they’re going to take too early in the process. I don’t ever tell people I’m going to write about such-and-such a topic/event/person, and then produce a song. I have pretty much always known that talking too much about my work before I do it will kill it.
Going by your Facebook posts, touring and performing live is something you really embrace?
I love singing live, it’s a basic part of being alive for me; just like food, love, sex, conversation. It’s also a powerful drug. I feel free, or at least no longer incapacitated by whatever may be troubling me, and just focused inside the experience.
You have played a lot of queer orientated shows in the past. Is the notion of ‘queer artist’ something you identify with?
I identify mostly with ‘artist’ with no prefix. However, I far prefer ‘queer artist’ to ‘female artist.’ I am queer, but my gender and the genders of the people I’ve dated doesn’t affect my art nearly as much as what I’ve read and listened to, for example. Gender identity and sexuality is a curious way to categorize art if you really think about it. I mean, I am also a vegetarian, non-drinking artist who can’t ride a bicycle. These factors shape my life in significant ways also!
I recently interviewed fellow Canadian artist Ryan MacGrath and he felt he has missed some opportunities because of who he is and noticed judgment within the music business and audiences. Have you ever had similar experiences or feelings?
For sure, the music business is full of bigotry and sexism. My biggest limitation has been that my music has been rejected for being “too pop” by experimental folks, and “too experimental” by mainstream standards. Also, being labeled a ‘female artist’ has felt constrictive to me, far more so than ‘queer artist’, which feels more open-ended and comes with way less baggage and expectations. Maybe what I find irritating is the pressure to foreground my identity when I’d rather foreground my work. My music itself is a bit marginal by nature. I tend to write long songs, a lot of them are slow, and I put a lot of emphasis on the lyrics. I’m into ambiguity, liminality, grey areas, and that is probably one of the things that firewalls me against mainstream popularity.
You are also a visual artist and have created your own album and EP artwork. Do you find there is different kind of expression in art compared to music?
Yes – I love drawing. It feels really different than music… I find it calming, and less visceral and connected with my body and my breathing than singing is, which I guess is obvious. I’m much less experienced as a visual artist though.
If you had one wish, who would you like to collaborate on music with?
That’s a hard question! It would be different if you asked me tomorrow… but maybe Brian Eno. Or Emir Kusturica.
Is it frustrating when you put so much into a piece of music or a record and it doesn’t gain the recognition you feel it may deserve?
I can get really frustrated sometimes. But rage and frustration take a lot out of me, and then I feel depleted. I have been trying to avoid the thought patterns that take me down that route. It’s not so much a hunger for recognition but interruptions in the flow of work due to a lack of money and resources are really hard. It would be amazing to be able to tour and record more consistently. I love singing live, and to a bit of a lesser degree, I love recording. Who knows, it might give me a terrible crisis if my work suddenly got a lot more attention. Also, there are a lot of people in a similar situation to mine. Now is a particularly weird and difficult time to be a creative musician.
Is there anyone’s career you particularly admire and would like to reach similar achievements?
I don’t know. The people I admire have singularity in common, and their careers have unique arcs. I admire a lot of people, it’s not limited to the realm of music. For example, I really admire Mark Vonnegut, and he is a doctor who has written a couple of novels. I admire Paul Celan, Essex Hempill, Diamanda Galas, Helene Cixous, Tove Jansson, Robert Johnson, Justin Vivian Bond, Harry Parch, there are many others. I really can’t find a thread that ties these people together, though. Their work has moved me, or changed my way of singing or writing or thinking in some way.
My final question regards how your music and imagery contain a sense of drama whilst dealing with intense emotions. How do you feel after making or writing something that addresses a difficult or upsetting time for you personally?
I feel good afterwards, generally. If I’m writing, I am absorbed. When I’m going through a very bad time, like if I’m sick (in the body, head or spirit) I don’t write. Writing happens after. There are some songs that remind me of difficult moments in my life, but over time they come to transcend the particulars, and start meaning things for other people, which makes them more rich and less about me. I’m interested in my work being part of a bigger body of work, like how folk music is all so interconnected and every song is part of a bigger story, that’s kind of how I see what I do.
Ashes And Tangerines is due out later this year. Click here to preorder your copy now. Or Click here to listen to her previous albums at her Bandcamp page.