Charlotte Cornfield and I are sitting at a picnic table, in a quiet park at the end of a busy street in Toronto in the waning days of the fall. Over coffee and out of earshot of midday dog walkers, we’re discussing her new album, Highs in the Minuses. Cornfield is affable and disarmingly laid-back, both over coffee in the sun-soaked corner of a park and in her approach to crafting the 11 songs on the record. “I just tried to capture the essence of the tunes without adding too much or fixating too much on sounds.”
Highs In The Minuses is Cornfield’s fourth album overall and first for U.S.-based Polyvinyl Records (in a co-release with Double Double Whammy) and like so many records released in the tail end of 2021, the process started at the onset of the pandemic.
In March 2020, Cornfield was invited to a songwriting residency at the Banff Center for Arts and Creativity. When the pandemic started to roar, the residency closed early, sending her back home. But Cornfield had already found herself inspired in the time spent tucked away in the mountains of Alberta. “I was kind of in a flow of writing and so even after everything got canceled, I just kept doing that,” she says.
With the isolating nature of the pandemic, Cornfield found herself less tethered to a sense of control over the writing process because she wasn’t seeing people.
“I felt less self-conscious about what I was writing. I was just reflecting on my life at various times and different experiences,” she says, placing her hand gently on her forehead to shield her eyes from the sun.
The songs on Highs in the Minuses live exuberantly in the space created by feeling less precious about the structure. Songs like “Pac-Man” put Cornfield’s exemplary storytelling to the front, channeling Jason Molina and Big Thief in equal measure. “Headlines” playfully sings to the feeling of isolation we all shared in over the worst days of the pandemic with lyrics like “never seen this city so dead and so morose/it’s a crisis but we haven’t got the words or the gall to describe it when everybody’s heard.”
While her previous album was recorded by herself, building songs layer by layer over multiple sessions on her own, she wanted more of a live, communal feel this time. Cornfield brought in a team of collaborators, including bassist Alexandra Levy (Ada Lea) and Liam O’Neill (Suuns) on drums, to flesh things out. The songs on Highs in the Minuses came together swiftly over a five-day period, where the incoming players added new depth to those songs. “It was kind of like watching the songs come alive in real time,” Cornfield says, as she takes the final sips of her coffee.
Having written and demoed the songs in isolation, the opportunity to bring them to the studio and work on them collaboratively in the room with others gave the tracks new life. With that new life came a raucous spirit, with Cornfield allowing herself to be scrappier and more energetic in her playing.
“It feels kind of explosive and unpredictable and spontaneous, and that’s what I love about playing music,” she says, of making the record in Montreal with Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire, Leonard Cohen), making full use of the small window she could open to record an album in the midst of a global pandemic.
Cornfield’s strength has always been writing profoundly emotional songs rooted in her own experiences and making them feel like your own. ”There’s an effort to write more of a narrative than deeply personal stuff,” Cornfield says, leaning back on the picnic bench. “I’d rather tell stories that hopefully are universally relatable.”
When she shared early listens of the record with friends, one noted that the bass on “Pac-Man” feels almost sludge metal in tone. “I would have never thought five years ago that I’d record a track that sounds like that,” she says of the way the songs took shape with her collaborators. “Obviously it’s not hugely different from things that I’ve done, but to me, it felt like I sort of freed myself up to be less shiny.”
And while it’s less shiny, it’s no less polished. Charlotte Cornfield is a songwriter like few others, so able to deftly create in her songs an emotional resonance that when plugged in, hits us all right where we can share in her memories. “The best part, for me, is when people will say oh my god, that’s me,” Cornfield says. “It’s what I love about taking the things I made in my room and sharing them with people.”