What, indeed, becomes of the broken hearted?
Taylor Swift is in love. A sun-splashed Lorde has gone full flowerchild. And Phoebe Bridgers is reportedly engaged – happily, one presumes. With that trio’s newfound collective joy, clearly there is an opening for a melodic sad sack who specializes in making music for lovelorn youth.
Enter Charlotte Cardin, the Montreal pop chanteuse with six Juno nominations in her back pocket and a heart on her sleeve. “I gotta tell you, all my best songs I wrote the week you left,” she sings on Sad Girl.
The song is from last year’s Phoenix, a gold-certified synth-pop statement of empowerment and relationship-based emotions. Cardin’s first full-length effort made its debut at No. 1 on the Canadian Albums Chart, was longlisted for the 2021 Polaris Music Prize, won the Félix Award for the year’s best Anglophone LP, and is up for top pop album and top album overall at this weekend’s Juno Awards in Toronto. The 27-year-old singer-songwriter is also in contention for the big kahuna prize, artist of the year.
It has been a whirlwind ascension for Cardin, who has broken some rules and made up other ones on her way to Juno-level celebrity. Just how did this former model, talent-show loser and one-time jingle singer break out of the often-insular Quebec market to break nationwide? And how did she do it on the strength of despondent music when she is, in fact, fabulously content?
“I think you can write sad songs when you are happy,” says Cardin, on the phone from her Montreal apartment. The singer’s long-time boyfriend is actor Aliocha Schneider, but she draws on past experiences and the challenges common in even the most successful of relationships. She says it’s part of her storytelling process.
“So,” she continues, “even if all the sad girls are getting engaged these days, I’m sure they’ll be able to give us the sad songs that we all need, and I’ll try to do that as well.”
Cardin’s six Juno nominations exceed the five of Justin Bieber and the Weeknd and bests the four nods belonging to Shawn Mendes. While those three Ontario-born superstars have the marketing power of the country’s biggest record company (Universal Music Canada) behind them, Cardin is signed to the obscure Montreal label Cult Nation.
The company was co-founded by Jason Brando in 2014. According to the mission statement posted on its website, Cult Nation is a “conduit for those who shape culture with sound.” When the label was first established, it was a conduit for one: Cardin.
“Jason created a label hoping I would sign to it,” Cardin says. “He had no other artists.”
At the time, she was a teenager. Brando was a music producer on the advertising side of the recording industry working with Cardin on a Christmas jingle. They hit it off. “It was a leap of faith for both of us,” Cardin says. “But Jason is DNA of the label, and I wanted to work with him.”
Today, Brando is Cardin’s close friend, producer and co-songwriter. While other Montreal-based labels wanted the bilingual Cardin to sing in French and build an audience within Quebec initially, Brando was less provincially minded.
“We’re proud Montrealers who want to export that talent,” he says. “The idea behind Cult Nation was to build an ecosystem around Charlotte that would be able to speak the international language and to build artists who had more of an international inclination.”
Cardin is signed to Atlantic Records outside Canada. She spent most of April touring Europe, where she filled Le Trianon in Paris, Botanique-Orangerie in Brussels and London’s Lafayette club – venues with capacities between 600 and 1,100. Two shows this week at Toronto’s 1,539-seat Elgin Theatre sold out. Tickets for a 13-show run at Montreal’s Mtelus are harder to come by than an invitation a pool party at Drake’s mansion.
On stage, Cardin dresses down, draped in baggy slacks and a T-shirt. Occasionally she plays a vintage Fender Mustang guitar of the Kurt Cobain kind. Her publicity photos, however, present her in more glamorous poses. On her website she wears the most elegant swimwear imaginable. Why the juxtaposition of upscale and down?
“It might be a reaction to my modelling years,” Cardin says about her indie-rock slacker attire on stage. “I hated modelling. I only did it when a I was a teenager, and it was definitely a means to an end. I just wanted to make money to buy instruments and to be free to do whatever I wanted.”
Cardin grew up in the affluent Montreal suburb of Mont Royal. She was a quarter-finalist in the first season of the singing competition La Voix in 2013, carried on the TVA network. A pair of EPs (2016′s Big Boy and 2017′s Main Girl) preceded Phoenix.
Most of the songs are co-written by Cardin, Brando and producer-songwriter Marc-André Gilbert. The album’s title track, a trippy ballad with highly processed vocals, is about a burnt-out relationship poised to rise from the ashes. The single Passive Aggressive has the swagger of Amy Winehouse’s gin-soaked ghost.
The empowering, piano-based Anyone Who Loves Me is lifted skyward by a sweeping chorus with Adele-level aspirations and arena-sized emoting. It is, according to Cardin, an in-concert highlight, with her audience singing along in unison. “We’re not your fancy dolls,” she sings. “You better set us free, or else …”
“We wrote it as an ode to female strength,” she says. “In the fashion and modelling world, and now in the music business, I’ve felt persecuted just for being a woman.”
What becomes of the broken-hearted, then? Some of the afflicted flock to a Cardin concert and shout the sadness out of their systems communally. “Performing a song like Anyone Who Loves Me live is liberating,” Cardin says. “And it’s not only women singing it with me – it’s anyone who is an ally to that reality.”
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