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Clara Engel interview: “I tend to connect with other people who are also outliers”

We talk to Toronto artist on the back of their sensational new album.

Having popped up on our radar late in 2020, in essence we created Sun 13 in a bid to discover artists like Clara Engel.

The Toronto artist is an outsider in every sense. An artist unbound in their quest for creative freedom, Engel has spent the last two decades releasing a swathe of fine records, led by Hatching Under the Stars (2020), and older underground gems, Secret Beasts (2009) and Tender (2008).

Engel‘s latest offering, A New Skin, feels like a different proposition altogether and yet another shining example of why people should always have an open mind for new music.

Recorded in lockdown with Engel predominately using a cigarette box guitar as a backdrop to their alluring dreamscapes, the results are exceptional.

Listening to A New Skin is like engaging in a dream state. Engel‘s lyrics, obscure, yet absorbing (“I had a vision of angels riding emus to an ice hotel at the edge of the world”Little Alien Lost). There are a plethora of references like this, also lending themselves to open spaces, which further enlightens the times we live in (look no further than the gorgeous The Garden Is Sleeping).

While the outdoors have been a place to seek refugee and escape the noise during the current pandemic, A New Skin poses as a lovely companion with one’s daily encounters with nature.

Undeniably intimate and rich in texture, had A New Skin been released earlier in 2020, it would have been included in our Top 50 Albums of 2020 (it was featured in the first part our Albums We Missed in 2020 feature and without giving the plot away, it’s the finest album out of a solid bunch).

We were fortunate enough to catch up with Engel last week to talk about A New Skin among other things.

13 Albums We Missed in 2020 – Part 1

Sun 13: While the album was made in lockdown I’d go as far to say that it’s your finest album yet. As a listener you feel really close to the music. Was this the intention?

Clara Engel: “Thank you. I guess I literally was very close to the music while making it… in a small room with just a few microphones, a recording interface, my voice, and my instruments. There was no one mediating the recording or sharing the experience with me. It’s an extremely solitary album, and in that way feels very much of this time.

“I don’t know about intentions – artistically speaking, my intentions are often mysterious to me. My conscious intention was to capture renditions of these songs that I could live with or even enjoy, and I was learning a lot about recording as I went.”

S13: Lyrically, it sounds like a lot of these themes were born out of a dream-state. What would you say to that?

CE: “I guess that could be said about a lot of poetry or any expression that veers away from being prosaic or literal. I read poetry before I ever wrote music, and in the olden days poetry used to be sung – why not bring that back, is my feeling. All that said, I am a bit of a dreamer, I often feel like my brain is on its own oddball wavelength.”

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S13: You implemented vastly different methods on A New Skin from your previous records. Was this down to being the environment of lockdown dictating what you could and couldn’t gain access to?

CE: “Lockdown was a very big part of it. In the past my preference has always been to make recordings as live-off-the-floor as possible. I don’t like to lose the performance quality. If I sing a phrase over and over again to get it perfect, it kind of dies… at least that’s how I feel. It feels almost like there is a current of life that runs through my songs when I sing them live, that gets fractured and weakened in places if I try and cobble takes and phrases together to simulate a whole. Not that I never do that to a small degree, but I try hard to avoid it!

“When I was working on this album, whenever I got trapped in a perfectionistic spiral my solution was to scrap the song and find a way to record it from scratch in a more off-the-cuff way. Imperfections, textures, and feeling are more compelling to me than technical prowess or perfection.”

Clara Engel (photo credit: Ilyse Krivel)

S13: These songs certainly lend themselves to open spaces, as well. There are a lot of references to animals and the like. I’m not sure what it’s been like in Canada during the lockdown but here in the U.K. there seems to be a new appreciation for open spaces. Is it much the same there?

CE: “Yeah, I live near a big park, and before the pandemic hit, when I would go for hikes I often had it largely to myself. Now people have really discovered it and it’s often crawling with humans. It’s nice to see in a way, and so far they aren’t littering…but I also miss my quiet walks (laughs).

“I’ve been doing nature walks for a long time, but they feel very therapeutic and necessary during the lockdown. Also as I get older I find nature more interesting, I think I used to be pretty oblivious, human centric, and non-observant of nature. We’re often encouraged to dislocate ourselves from the natural world, but we’re a part of it. A wayward and tragic part in many ways, it often seems, but still part of it.”

S13: It’s so hard to pinpoint key songs on A New Skin as they all feel so seamless, but The Garden Is Sleeping jumps out at me the most at the moment. What was the inspiration behind that song?

CE: “The seed for that song was planted last winter (or maybe late fall… It was definitely before the pandemic was on everyone’s radar here) when my partner and I were out walking and saw all these dormant city garden plots with signs over them that read ‘shhh…the garden is sleeping.’ The phrase just stuck with me, and over time all of the verses developed. That one feels very of this time, even though I wrote it before. There’s this fear and sadness, but also a calm deliberation… holding on tenuously to the feeling that things will bloom in some way again.

“I think I’m drawn to uncertainty and open-endedness. I find both nihilism and relentless positivity kind of lacking in substance and texture. I think my desire to dwell in-between comes through in that song.”

Clara Engel - A New Skin

S13: I’d say Gossamer Knives feels like the song that has a different intensity in comparison with the other songs. It provides a nice bridge for the latter half of the album, would you agree with that?

CE: “Yes, part of what you’re hearing is that is the first song on the album where you hear me playing my electric guitar, rather than my cigar box guitar, as the main accompaniment. The electric guitar has a lot more deep ‘oomph’ and low midrange frequencies, and that comes through on that song. I was also singing out more. Gossamer Knives was a bit of an outlier and at one point I considered leaving it off the album. Then I decided to keep it, because I enjoy a bit of inconsistency, it spices things up.”

S13: You’ve collaborated with a vast array of artists throughout the years. From Aiden Baker to Amenra who both lean towards the more aggressive forms of artistic expression. How refreshing is it to make an album like this one that’s so contrasting to those styles?

CE: “Actually – that is a common mistake, so no worries – I never worked with Amenra.

S13: (Laughs) Sorry about that…!

CE: “Armen Ra, an incredible theremin player, plays on one of my albums. There’s a documentary on him called When My Sorrow Died that I highly recommend watching!

“I met Aidan Baker a long time ago when we both worked at the same bookstore for one day in Toronto. We got talking about music, and ended up working together on several occasions afterwards. All of these were good experiences, but not really formative in terms of the music I make myself.

“I think my music has gotten quieter but also more subtle and focused as I’ve developed – and that has been more of an internal and independent process. There are also environmental factors at play, for example I live at fairly close quarters with other people and I’m not going to scream or play as loud as possible. But at the same time I just don’t find abrasive sounds are compelling to me at this point in time… so even if I were freer to make a bigger noise, it would probably sound forced.”

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S13: I read your Instagram post the other day about streaming, Bandcamp, and people embracing smallness the way we’re encouraged to embrace excess, which is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Do you think we as an outsider music community should be doing more to kick against these trends of streaming, metrics and so forth?

CE: “I’ve just gotten so fed up and demoralised from working for exposure/occasional pennies and being expected to perform some sort of happy and grateful dance about it on top of that. If I’m going to be broke and lead this weird outsider life, I would like to do it somewhat on my own terms at least!

“People now expect to have endless streams of music in their lives, like aural wallpaper that blooms around them at the push of a button. I like the idea of music being more intentional, something you engage actively with rather than ‘consume’. In an ideal world music would be free, sure, but so would instruments, housing, food, medicine. Artists live in this (very not ideal at all) world, too, though.

“On a positive note, I am so glad Bandcamp exists, it’s been a lifeline for me during the pandemic. Patreon has also been a big help. Honestly, I do wish more independent artists, or any artists really, would take a firmer stance regarding these issues – I mean, we are the ‘content’ (I hate that term) and these giant corporations need us. At the same time though, I don’t fault artists for participating, we are in terrible conundrum, and I only know my own experience and perspective. I realised I was losing almost nothing (fractions of pennies plus the possibility that maybe a handful of people would discover my work via streaming) by disengaging with the streaming services – and even gained a sense of artistic control of my own work.

“People have told me I need to be ‘flexible’ about this stuff – I was signed up to digital distribution for years – at least a decade — I was very flexible! The realisation I came to is that there is a big difference between flexibility with healthy limitations and boundaries, and a willingness to let your work be devalued and exploited.”

Clara Engel (photo credit: Ilyse Krivel)

S13: From the outside, the Toronto music scene has always struck me as being extremely diverse. As a participant how would you describe the city’s musical heritage?

CE: “Interestingly, most people who listen to and buy my music are not from Toronto, and that has been true for a long time now. I’ve never really felt part of a particular scene here… so I feel ill-equipped to answer that. A lot of fascinating and varied music happens here, I’ve seen some great shows, I’ve just never felt myself to be a part of it. I am more and more accepting of the reality that I am scene-less – and I tend to connect with other people who are also outliers, in a variety of geographic locations.”

S13: Are you working on anything else at the moment?

CE: “I just finished working on a collaborative instrumental project with my friend Brad Deschamps of Polar Seas Recordings. It feels like a soundtrack for a film that doesn’t exist, starring an amorphous being called Ghost Bird. Brad and I are also making a benefit compilation for a small animal rescue in Toronto. I’m also participating in my first online gig via a show series in Boston called Org, that is run by Mali Sastri of Jaggery. It will feature my debut “live” performance on cigar box guitar. That will air sometime in February. Oh and CDs of A New Skin will soon my available on my Bandcamp page – I’m hand-assembling the packages right now. After that, I’ll just be working on my next chapter of songs and trying to stay sane in this weird and difficult time.”

A New Skin is out now – purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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