‘I barely even know that song!” Charlotte Cornfield replies half-defensively when asked if the title of her new album, Future Snowbird, refers to the 1969 classic Anne Murray made famous. “I started getting sick in the winter a few years ago. I had some really hard winters. I was toying with the idea of getting out. ‘Future snowbird’ – some day I’m going to be a snowbird.”
The fantasy of better weather makes a nice daydream, but Cornfield, who lives in Toronto, decided to endure the cold. She spent the winter of 2015 recording her second full-length album, and the winter of 2016 holding down a weekly residency at the Cameron House and touring.
At 27, Toronto-born Cornfield, who holds a degree in jazz drumming, has been establishing herself in Canadian music for a decade. In 2010, the Montreal Mirror awarded her the title of “the next it-girl of folk rock,” an accolade that simultaneously undermines her staying power and affirms a sense of coolness not always associated with the modern-day folk world.
Indeed, Cornfield comes off as cool, forthcoming and self-assured (as the music director at Bloordale concert venue Burdock, she would have to be). But much like her contemporaries, Angel Olsen and Courtney Barnett, her lyrics reveal a woman who’s been tried a few too many times.
“You turned out to be a letdown,” she sings bluntly on Big Volcano, Small Town, with the kind of definitive closure one pines for in the thick of disintegrating romance. On the same song: “You think that you’re such a Rasta, but you don’t know Mount Zion from Mount Shasta.”
Globe and Mail columnist Sean Michaels recently called her song writing “ravenous” and it is; Cornfield’s songs are lullabies for the scorned.
“Sometimes they give me closure,” says Cornfield of her lyrics. “But it’s never vengeful. It’s all in good jest. If I feel something I’ll just say it or do it, I won’t gloss around anything or protect people … but I don’t have any hard feelings. At some point, I realized that it was more powerful if I just said what was on my mind.”
This is not to say that Cornfield is humourless. On the contrary, she has found a way to make suffering funny and survivable. “My bank card’s in Portland, my heart’s in the sewer,” go the lyrics to a song she wrote, heartbroken on a Greyhound, having just realized she lost her debit card.
For the recording of Future Snowbird, Cornfield reached out to Canadian musician and producer Don Kerr (of the Rheostatics), who had been recommended to her by mutual friends and acquaintances, including Ron Sexsmith, whom she met at a birthday party. (Her band is made up of Sam Gleason, Damon Hankoff, Kathryn Palumbo and Sam Rosenberg.)
“His approach was exactly what I wanted,” she says. “Pretty live off the floor.” Future Snowbird was recorded in the winter, during one of the sick periods that made Cornfield yearn to fly away in the first place. At the time, she was awaiting treatment for an extremely uncomfortable bout with psoriasis that rendered her quality of life majorly compromised. “I couldn’t get through the day without crying several times,” she says.
On Mercury, Cornfield sings, presumably, about that sickness: “My sick skin looked like the surface of the moon” and “In the hospital I was curled up like a squirrel.”
“We all got sick in the studio,” she says. “We were all so haggard. You can feel that in the takes. I like it.”
Cornfield’s work has gotten duskier since the release of her debut EP, 2008’s It’s Like That Here, and her first album, 2011’s Two Horses. Plucky, optimistic upswings have been replaced by a wiser, shrewd resignation to gloom and grief.
On Future Snowbird, Cornfield lets it brood. “There was an urgency to my music before,” she says. “I was so stressed out. Everything that happened felt like it would be the last thing, like it was my only opportunity to do something. I’m much more settled now.”
The songs on Future Snowbird were written between 2011 and 2014, the bulk of them while she lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., often playing at Rockwood Music Hall on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
“New York is all over it,” Cornfield says of her album. “In a way [living there] lightened up my writing. I used to toy over my delivery and be so meticulous. Now I just let things out. In New York, you have to just let experiences wash over you and not dwell so much.”
After Future Snowbird was finished, Cornfield completed the Independent Music Residency program at the Banff Centre, where she was mentored by Broken Social Scene members Brendan Canning and Charles Spearin (they were later joined by Kevin Drew).
“They were so supportive,” she says. “They really inspired me. They were so confident in what I was doing. Their enthusiasm and their warmth, and their dedication, I was very moved by it. They lit me on fire.”
The album cover itself, a candid close-up of Cornfield’s scowling face in the back seat, shot by her brother on a family road trip, is the perfect way to package a record that implores us to suffer well. The most righteous thing a person can do is reclaim what makes them miserable. Cornfield may not have fled the winter but, with Future Snowbird, she defeated it.