Subversify got its start when a few writers met in seemingly coincidental circumstances. So it should be no surprise to us that the internet Norns should continue to lead to our doorstep more talented artists and writers. Such was the case when a love of avant-garde circus/punk musician Sxip Shirey brought Clara Engel to my proverbial door. It was kismet. Her music is lovely, refreshing and defies definition as so much of the music I listen to nowadays does. It’s full of the round fullness of folk mixed with snapshots of modern life that is easily relatable to many. She reminds me both in her music and her answers to interview questions of a bard of olde, here to truly tell a story.
This 28 year old who hails from Canada describes herself as mostly self taught, musically. She has been playing with music and writing her own songs since childhood. She also draws although she does not describe herself as an artist her albums bear her artwork. Her voice is a strong and definite one. She has been touring mostly eastern Canada but also some of the American northeast. Please do follow her at one or more of her links as support for independent artists is what allows them to bring their art to us face to face.
Grainne: Your profile states you live in Montreal. Are you a native of Quebec and if not where are your roots?
Clara: No, I was born in Toronto. I moved to Montreal last summer. Both of my parents are from Quebec though, so I’ve spent a lot of time here. In terms of roots, I am half English Irish Scottish and half Russian Polish Jewish.
Grainne: When/how old were you when you started playing music? Did you come to it on your own or were you a child who was exposed to music via family/school/lessons?
Clara: When I was eleven or twelve, I picked up a guitar. It was a Framus classical guitar that my father had owned since before I was born, I think. One day I just picked it up, and I really took to it. I started writing songs when I was thirteen. I did have some music lessons, but I’m mostly self-taught. I sang a lot when I was really young. But music in school was awful. I had a mean music teacher who used to conduct singing tests in front of the class. He scared me so much that my voice literally got stuck in my throat when he would call on me to sing. It’s a vivid memory – I would stand there shaking, making this strangulated attempt to sing, for thirty seconds or so (it felt like five minutes) and then be told to sit down. It happened repeatedly, and I failed singing right through grade school. My single great memory of music in a school context is of this one Orff music class we had in first grade. A woman came to our school, with a giant basket of percussion instruments. I can still remember singing a song she taught us about a river, and banging on drums and shakers. I was buzzing with joy. It was such an inclusive, unselfconscious and physical approach to making music. I didn’t experience the joy of making music in a group again until I was in my 20s and I started playing with a band.
Grainne: When did you settle on an instrument or have you?
Clara: I mainly write on the guitar. At some point, I’d like to try writing a whole album without allowing myself to use the guitar… maybe an album for drums, voice and bells. But I am very at home with the guitar. I enjoy how physical and percussive it is, and being able to re-tune it.
Grainne: You describe most of your work as unfinished, sketches of a moment. Do you do this on purpose? Did you begin to recognize others filling in your unfinished work with their own stories? If so how do you feel about this?
Clara: I said that in 2009 I think. I don’t agree with myself now. My aesthetic happens to strike many people as stark. So I was trying to defend my work by saying: it may seem unfinished, but it’s meant to be that way. Now I don’t explain or defend the form of my songs, I just write and play them. I don’t work with musicians who are compelled to fill in every space. It’s a very abstract notion, to finish something. When your life is finished it means you’re dead. Maybe I just want my work to stay living, mutable. I love space, and silence is so important in music. I like it when people find their own meaning in my songs, and it’s thrilling when someone covers one of my songs and makes it their own. That’s happened a few times now, and it really pleased me. In terms of the openness of my work, I’d say that resisting a singular meaning or stance is a perfectly valid stance. I want my songs to remain open to new interpretations, not to be bound to a singular story, and they’re definitely not diary entries.
Grainne: Are you of the opinion that once you are finished and walk away from a project it belongs to the world? Or do you maintain ownership over your unfinished vocal imaginings?
Clara: I don’t understand the concept of ownership as it applies to music. Songwriting is a contribution to a huge canon; folk music is a giant river of song. In that context, the idea of plagiarism is irrelevant because it is understood that songs come from other songs, that there is no original song or idea. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to be paid or credited for my work, I do. I just don’t find the concept of originality to be very convincing.
Grainne: Who have been your musical influences?
Clara: There have been so many… two that spring to mind right now are Sephardic Jewish music, which I came to through Yasmin Levy, and Armenian music, which I came to through a collection of Armenian lullabies. I love Vic Chesnutt, Dirty Three, Laurie Anderson, and Jacques Brel. Really early blues: Robert Johnson, Son House, Geeshie Wiley. I love what I’ve heard of medieval music. I’m drawn to songs that go for the jugular. I am simple and brutal when it comes to the music I love. I hardly even like to talk about it. I get inarticulate. Explaining, understanding, pinning them down is like butterfly collecting – highly stylized murder. Now I think about it, music and butterflies are kind of alike… fleeting and unattainable, not to be held. This was even truer before music could be recorded – then you’d really have to treasure live music. You might never hear that song again. It makes me think of William Blake: “he who binds to himself a joy does the winged life destroy…” The more I try to explain why I love something, the farther I feel from its living, changing being.
Grainne: You also draw; do you consider yourself a multi-media artist?
Clara: Not really. I guess I consider myself an artist in a broad sense of the word. I feel useful when I am making things. I’ve designed most of my own album-art. I like to draw, it calms my nerves, but I don’t consider myself a visual artist, at least not at this point in my life. Mostly I avoid having to describe my work. Recently someone called it “singing poetry” and I think that is quite a good description.
Grainne: I love Bandcamp and the whole idea of subverting the music industry by bringing the music directly to the fans and forming a closer fan/musician relationship. How did you find your way to Bandcamp? What has been your experience there? Pluses and minuses?
Clara: One of my best friends, Alex Olsen – a musician/composer and also the co-mixer of my album Secret Beasts, recommended that site to me. Overall it’s been really great, and empowering. What I don’t like about it… it used to be free, and now they take 15% of sales. So I no longer get the full amount. That is pretty standard, but disappointing nonetheless.
Grainne: Here’s an interesting question for me…If you had the opportunity to sign with a big record label and leave the Bandcamp type of scene would you? Why or why not?
Clara: I’m not an expert, but from what I gather, most big record labels are floundering. So, I really don’t know. It depends on the label. If it was a label associated with artists whom I respected, I would do it. I’d prefer not to ‘leave’ the other scene; I’d rather combine the two. The most frustrating thing about being independent, or in being as independent as I am, is that I can’t afford to tour or record at this point. Hopefully this will change soon. I’m currently working with a couple of independent labels, Vox Humana, and Tapemancy – they are releasing some of my work on vinyl and tape, respectively. I just have so many new songs that I need to record. I’m exploding with songs.
Grainne: How do you reach your audience? Have you been touring and if so where? Do you use the internet to connect with people using places like Facebook, Myspace, etc. and to what effect? Do you blog your musical/artistic experiences, if so, how is that received?
Clara: I’ve reached the audience that I have mainly through the internet. I’ve actually made some amazing connections online. The artist Yuki Komura, who painted the portrait of me that appears on the actual physical CD of my album Secret Beasts, found me on Myspace. He’s an incredible painter, and it was such a random stroke of luck that our paths crossed. I’ve also met musicians who I’ve worked with and played shows with via the internet. The internet is an essential tool for independent artists. In terms of touring, I mainly play in Montreal right now, and do mini-tours in the USA. NYC, and Massachusetts mainly. I’m planning to tour more in Canada, and hoping it will work out that I can play in Europe soon too. As for the blogging question, I used to be into blogging and then went off it. I’m going to start again soon; I’m going to start a wordpress site.
Grainne: Do you have plans for touring in the future?
Clara: I’m releasing something on vinyl in the UK, and am really hoping that will translate into a tour there. I would love to play in the UK, in France, and in Ireland. I also will be playing in NYC, and probably Boston and Philadelphia, in May.
Grainne: What kinds of gigs do you like to do? Up-front and personal ones with lots of audience interaction, or gigs where you maybe have less interaction but more musicians involved for support?
Clara: My dream show at this point in time would be in a church, probably solo, or with the drummer and horn player I work with when I’m in Toronto, Paul Kolinski and Nicolas Buligan. I sometimes talk to the audience, and sometimes it feels best to just play and let the silence breathe between songs. I’m getting more and more comfortable with silence.
Grainne: How old are you?-I ask this because I like to get a sense of what generational influences you have and are working with.
Clara: I’m twenty eight, but that says very little about my influences. I saw less than ten films in theaters when I was a kid, and hardly watched any television. When I was nine or ten I was really into Gilbert and Sullivan. I really loved The Mikado. I find that funny considering the music I make now.
Grainne: What is on your nightstand at this moment?
Clara: Mad in Pursuit by Violette Leduc.
Grainne: What is the best thing you have read in the last year?
Clara: Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing by Helene Cixous. Also, All About Love by bell hooks, and A Book of Luminous Things, the poetry anthology compiled by Czeslaw Milosz.
Grainne: Who currently gets the most play on your iPod? (Or similar device)
Clara: Right now I’m listening to The Original Carter Family. Before that I was listening to this band called Opal Onyx, from NYC. Also in heavy rotation are John Grant, Sxip Shirey, Armen Ra, The Irrepressibles, and Larkin Grimm.
Grainne: What do you most want people to know about you?
You can listen to and purchase Clara Engel’s music at Bandcamp @ http://claraengel.bandcamp.com
You can help support her new album @ http://www.kapipal.com/dc4a9de39ce64980a90a675bc4f8b0b7
For Artwork by Yuki Komura: http://yukikomura.com/menu.html