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A Splendid Talk with... Clara Engel | First Contact

Artist: Clara Engel

Location: Toronto, ON, Canada

Peanut Gallery: Sound


Greetings Clara! How have you been as of late?

Hello! Lately I have been madly trying to gather support via crowdfunding, (which I had previously vowed I would never do!), to release my new album Where a City Once Drowned: The Bethlehem Tapes Vol. II on pressed cd, with packaging that features one of my ink drawings. A lot of my albums have been digital-only releases, and I really wanted to make something tangible this time, so here goes:

I have only recently discovered you in the the latter half of 2018, through your EP album A Shore Far From Any Prison. Are you essentially a solo singer-songwriter? What kind of music do you purvey?

Yes -- writing songs has always been a solitary process for me. So much of life involves compromise, but in music I feel a sense of freedom that I don't feel in any other sphere of life, at least not to the same degree. I do sometimes really enjoy bringing other musicians in after the song has been written, but the core of it for me is the words, melody, and guitar part (or occasionally keys, on the occasions where I've written a guitar-less song). Someone called my music "minimalist holy blues from another galaxy," and I like that description. Words are fundamental to my music, and there is a musicality to words that is really important to me. The guitar part also works in sympathy with the voice, it's a subtle ecosystem. I feel like over time I get better at making all the elements relate to one another in a symbiotic way.

How did you grow your love and pursuit of music? How did you come to use the guitar and voice to such an strong ethereal presence?

It kind of just took over my life when I was 13 years old -- that was when it occurred to me that I could try writing a song. I wrote a lot of poems as a kid, and my father had a few guitars lying around the house... I picked one up (a Framus classical guitar with ancient strings) and it soon became central to my life. The two albums I listened to most when I was starting to write my own songs were Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged In New York and Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol III. Both of those albums led me to explore early folk and blues artists, like Leadbelly, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams, Bessie Smith. One of the most touching and memorable presents my parents ever gave me was the Harry Smith Folk Anthology, when I was probably about 16 or 17. I still have all of those cds.

I find the folk music tradition, where voices are allowed to be idiosyncratic and where it’s more about telling a story of some sort, or putting across a feeling, than about technical perfection -- that appeals to me a lot more than the classical tradition that I was exposed to in school. My way of singing is something that I came to through years of listening and experimenting with my voice, and it's definitely changed and developed over time. In terms of an ethereal quality, it’s not a conscious aesthetic choice or anything like that -- I think there’s something both earthy and ethereal about a lot of the music I love.

Have you always wanted to be a fully dedicated musician?

From when I was thirteen I knew that’s what I wanted, and before that I was a high-strung anxious kid, daunted by my own distorted notion of what ‘adult life’ had in store for me. Then music kind of swept me up and carried me into adulthood. Music helped me to avoid some of the dulling conventional expectations the world imposes on young people. I didn’t have a lot of friends in high school, but I really started to develop as a songwriter then. To be honest though, it didn’t feel like a choice. I don't think I could stop writing songs if I tried, it's part of the fabric of my being.

Your lyrics are quite haunting and beautiful! What inspires your words?

Thank you. And that's a big question, I probably can't adequately answer it... Everything I take in, things that I can't express in any other part of my life, books, movies, things I forget and then remember again way later, overheard conversations. Everything seeps in. I read a lot -- lately I’ve been reading novels by Antal Szerb, Nell Zink, and Barbara Pym. I also believe that my unconscious mind plays a big role in my lyric writing. It's a big amorphous stew.

You have been releasing music since the mid-2000, with over 25 collections of songs over on your Bandcamp. How have you been able to put out so many over the years?

I write a lot of songs, and I find ways to record them and get them out there. Some are captured in more hi-fi quality than others, depending on my circumstances at the time. I'm not a perfectionist, so I tend to find ways of making things work. Also, I've prioritized making music and art over owning a lot of material things or having a secure career outside of music.

You are also a visual artist, with your pictures being featured as album covers for your music. How did this talent develop? Does your visual art add a new dimension to your music?

It seems that a lot of musicians also do art, and vice-versa. I've noticed that among other musicians/artists I meet. They complement each other really well, and yes I think the visual art does add another dimension to the music. I’m glad I have both modes of expression... I really love taking in new music while I'm drawing... drawing puts me in a very focused and receptive state. I have thought about making an illustrated book of some of my lyrics at some point.

How is it being an artist in Toronto? It must have both its benefits and its adversities?

Toronto is a ridiculously expensive city. A lot of people in the arts are moving to places like Hamilton, Guelph, Montreal. I live here largely because my partner and I have ties to the city, but I would love to tour more and just do the occasional show in Toronto. I have not found it to be a particularly warm or welcoming place for what I do, for the most part, but there are things I really love about the city: the library system, the community centres, High Park -- those are probably my favourite things about Toronto.

How did you come to join Splendid Industries? What are your hopes with joining this new community?

I reach out to a lot of blogs and music sites, it's part of how I stay afloat and feel connected to the world a bit as an independent artist. I tend to connect disproportionately with people who live far away -- for example a lot of the labels I've worked with are not in Canada. So it's really nice when I manage to connect with people who are local, and Splendid Industries were refreshingly friendly when I made contact. I don’t know what my hopes are… but it’s nice to be doing this interview!

What can we expect from you in 2019?

If enough people pre-order it, my new album Where a City Once Drowned: the Bethlehem Tapes Vol. II will be out on cd in May! That is my main news for 2019 right now.


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