Clara Engel / Photographer: Jen Hall
1. Who are your musical and non-musical influences?
Off the top of my head…Robert Johnson, Jacques Brel, Violette Leduc, Fatih Akin, Arvo Part, Dirty Three, Derek Jarman, Diamanda Galas, Captain Beefheart, R.D. Laing. It’s difficult for me to articulate the way I feel about my favorite songs, poems, films. I don’t think to myself “this is my favorite song…” It’s a more gripping overwhelming feeling, like I can feel a still-burning shard of the artist’s life force trapped in the work.
2. When we listen to a "Clara Engel" song, are we hearing a part of you? Or do you write from outside of yourself? Where does the inspiration come from?
I can’t get away from the fact that I’m a singer and my voice comes from inside me. Singing is maybe the most personal art form in that way. You can hear the artist’s breath in the work itself. No other art form is as elemental. Singing is made of breath, so is life.
There are shards of autobiography in my work. I write from inside and outside of myself, usually at the same time. My work is definitely not a literal diary. As I age, I go through more and more experiences for which I have no words. Adults lock into routines and speak mostly in clichés and jargon. I see that as a life-navigation mode, it has its function. But most adults are bad poets when they consciously decide to write poetry. I’m unhappy when I lock into a rigid thought pattern or way of being for too long. I’m reading this book ‘Miracles’ – an anthology of poetry by children. It’s amazing. It reminds me of how I am always trying to forget how I write songs, so that I can learn all over again every time.
Inspiration – honestly, I don’t know what that is. I don’t know if I’ve ever been inspired. Receptivity is the issue. When I am in a receptive state I can write, whether or not I’m inspired. I try to cultivate a receptive state, and then I make do with what’s there.
3. Your work is more than just music. For instance, the cover of "Jump of Flame" is reminiscent of Commedia Dell'Arte; your songs often have the feel of soliloquy/monologue; your lyrics are poetry, full of metaphors and poetic grandiosity, set to music. When you sit down to compose and create, are all of these facets of music something that you consciously bring into the process, or are these facets something that develops in the process?
I don’t really sit down to do it, (although I sometimes happen to be sitting down while I’m singing and writing), it’s just part of my basic way of being in the world. I sleep, eat, make music.
I’m either incapable of, or at a deep level unwilling to analyze, my process. It’s my safe space, my sanctuary, that’s how I feel about the place I go to in order to write. The poet Jeremy Reed would call it inner space. I listen to a lot of music and read a lot, and I exist in the world. I find real life itself to be terrifying, exciting, pleasurable, unbearable. Put all those practices and feelings together, add fresh air, brisk exercise, sufficient solitude, and commitment to a musical practice. That is how my songs are born. I water them and tend to them, like a garden. But trying to figure out how or why they come to be would be like talking to flowers and vegetables, and expecting them to answer me. I trust in my process, I enjoy it, and I respect its mystery.
Clara Engel / Photographer: Jen Hall
4. Many of the artists that cling to the label "indie" are actually part of very large record companies; however, you are truly an independent artist. So in terms of the "business" and creativity, how is this advantageous and disadvantageous?
I’m independent, yes. I am working with two small labels right now: Vox Humana (UK) and Tapemancy (Italy). Indie has almost become a genre though, and my music doesn’t sound like indie music. In terms of business, at the moment, I’m horribly broke and can’t afford to record.
Music scenes, and maybe all art ‘scenes’ are usually run by nepotism. If you don’t know the right people, and you aren’t good at mingling and social climbing, you become isolated. No one will hear you, no one will book you. It doesn’t matter how strong your material is. Artistically, I was very isolated in Toronto, where I’m from. Montreal has been a lot warmer and kinder to me.
The people who buy my music online mostly live in Europe and in the USA. I’ve experienced such kindness, support, and generosity from my online listeners - it’s amazing. But it’s a hard balance, and a huge job: marketing oneself and creating. I want to devote my time and energy to my work, not to promoting myself on Twitter. That just seems like a waste of my mental resources.
I do value my independence, artistically speaking - I would never ever want to be bound to a label that put limits on my creativity or withheld any of my output. I am my own boss. I will always be independent in that sense. I don’t have a desire to be rich, but I would love to be a self-sustaining indie artist, and I’m still in the process of figuring out how to do that.
5. Other than the upcoming live shows, what can we expect from Clara Engel?
My first ever vinyl release is coming out in the near future. A fledgling label Vox Humana is releasing it (link). I’m really excited to have something on vinyl, it’s also very pretty, a real little work of art. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it will translate into some shows in the UK. I really need to tour more - I just can’t afford to yet.
Also, I’m getting ready to record a new album. It will be recorded live in a church in Montreal. I am aiming to record it in April. I’m thinking of doing one-day solo, with electric guitar, voice, and banjitar, and one day with a small band, if I can afford it. I have several albums’ worth of unrecorded material, so I’m very eager to record. I want to do a live album in a stunning, resonant space, I don’t want to have to beef it up much in the studio afterwards. I love how Dirty Three albums sound, like they are just playing their souls out, completely live. I am first and foremost a live performer, I’m at my best live. I want as many of my future releases as possible to be live performances. I’ve created a page where people can help me out with this recording by pre-ordering the album (at this link).
That’s all I can think of at the moment. Thank you for the lovely interview.
Keep up with Clara Engel at her MySpace, Facebook, and Bandcamp (where you can preview and purchase her music).
You can also support Clara Engel by seeing her live; here are a few dates (check her MySpace page for more details):
5 February 2011, Saturday: Le Cagibi – Montreal, QC Canada
11 April 2011, Monday: Grumpy’s – Montreal, QC Canada
24 April 2011, Sunday: Casa del Popolo – Montreal, QC Canada
15 May 2011, Sunday: The Sidewalk Café – New York, NY USA