How Charlotte Cardin became more herself — by leaning on others

The Juno-nominated Montreal songwriter looked inward to ask what she needed for her debut full-length album, and the answer was co-writing.

The Montreal songwriter asked what she needed for her debut full-length album, and the answer was co-writing

Charlotte Cardin released her debut full-length album, Phoenix, on April 23. (Norman Wong)

"What do I need to talk about to liberate myself from certain burdens?"

That's the question Charlotte Cardin found herself asking, after a few months feeling stuck writing solo for her full-length album debut. It's not something she'd really asked in the past; instead, her questions centred on the outside world, and what she thought it wanted from her. But with the aptly titled Phoenix, out April 23, the Montreal singer-songwriter is genuinely re-introducing herself, releasing 13 songs that stretch genres and dig deep into what's been percolating under Cardin's surface.

It's fair to say that Cardin herself doesn't need much of an introduction. The singer started modelling at 15, and was a finalist on the first season of Quebec's singing competition La Voix in 2013. Her solo debut EP, Big Boy, dropped in 2016 via Cult Nation, garnering more than 10 million streams each on singles "Dirty Dirty" and "Like it Doesn't Hurt," with labelmate Nate Husser. Cardin's powerhouse voice poured out over pop and R&B tracks, reeling in a fanbase that counts both anglophones and francophones (in Canada and abroad). Her Main Girl EP followed a year later, propelling non-stop touring and sold-out shows — and making her the first artist in the history of the SOCAN Songwriting Prize to be nominated in both the English and French categories at once. That 2017 EP also nabbed her two 2018 Juno nominations: for songwriter of the year (for "Main Girl," "Paradise in Motion" and "The Kids") and breakthrough artist of the year.

In 2019, Cardin hit pause and settled in for what she thought would be a few months of writing to produce her debut full-length album. But it wasn't working.

"I had always written my songs kind of in a lonely type of way, just isolating myself and really just writing on my own," said Cardin in a recent interview. "And I was very specific and protective, almost, of my songs, like they were my little kind of personal things. And I started writing the album that way, which was how I had always written until now. And I felt like I wasn't going anywhere."

So she asked herself: "Which process do I need to go through to really have a part of liberation through this album?" The answer was to co-write for the first time. She enlisted longtime producer, collaborator, friend and Cult Nation founder Jason Brando as part of her small team — "It was just super natural to write together," said Cardin, "and we're like, 'Why did we never do this before?' — and settled in for a year of self-imposed album isolation.

A year later, Phoenix was ready to go, but the pandemic had arrived. Not wanting to release her album into the unknown space of March 2020, Cardin held onto it, going back into a different kind of seclusion for another year. In September 2020, she released the lead single, "Passive Aggressive," which kicked off a late song-of-summer vibe with a kiss-off message delivered on soft synths and a sneaky bassline. Next came the addictive "Daddy," then "Meaningless,"  a song that sounds like a bonus track from London band the xx. It was the perfect buildup to an album that was more than ready to be released.

We caught up with Cardin just before her album release to talk process, this rebirth, and her relationship with Phoenix after more than a year together pre-release.

When did you start writing for Phoenix

The first song that's on there that was written is "Good Girl," and "Good Girl" was written three years ago. And the song that we wrote last was I think either "Sex to Me" or "Sun Goes Down." And [they were] written about a year ago, like right before we sent it to mastering, we finished those two songs and I kind of added them to the album.

Can you tell me about your decision to go from writing solo to co-writing? 

It was such a revelation for me because, [before it was] kind of like a lifestyle that was very lonely and sad sometimes and where I felt isolated, [and] this became like a super fun process where I was with my friends. It was a very conversational process. It made things so much more fun because you never really run out of inspiration when you're writing with someone and you can just go back and forth and have tons of ideas. And so that was really cool for me. 

And the one thing I was afraid of was that my songs wouldn't be as personal [if] someone else kind of went in and wrote them with me, and something that I realized [was] that these songs that are on the album are the most personal songs I've ever written, even though I've written them with other people. And I think that because when you want to express something that's really either hard to explain or just very specific, it's really nice to be able to have a conversation about those things and kind of have people help you find the exact perfect way of expressing it.

We've all been in some version of lockdown for the last year, but it sounds like you did a self-imposed version of that, a year before this all happened. 

That is exactly what happened. And it's been so weird because in the last few years, like even before the pandemic hit, my lifestyle had been so different.… I had done touring everywhere, and [was] always on the road, never home with my band, like in tons of different weird situations. And now I was like, for a year and a half, in the studio, kind of locked up, working with my small crew, being super isolated. That was already a big lifestyle change. And when the pandemic hit, I was like, OK, one more time, another change of lifestyle, but kind of in the same isolated, crazy kind of way. And so needless to say, I really miss touring and performing live, because even before the pandemic hit, I hadn't really toured that much for like a full year. So I really miss it. It's been two years of barely playing any concerts. And it's been really hard because that's what I love the most. 

And how does Phoenix differ from your other projects? 

I think we allowed ourselves to go and really have fun with production and different music genres, like I really didn't want to limit myself to one particular style. I listen to very eclectic, different kinds of music. So I wanted to have fun with that and have fun with my own inspirations and with all the types of music that I listen to. And so I think that's what is different. But we did really want to keep the main focus on the vocal melodies and lyrics. And we really wanted vocals to be the one thing that tied all the songs together, even though they really have different genres because all the songs are a little bit different. I see the album more as 13 different little stories rather than one big chapter of my life.... And so we wanted that to all make sense, even though we had fun with all kinds of different styles. And so we decided to keep it as simple as possible and just keep the focus on the vocals and lyrics. And I think it ties the whole thing together. 

I wrote this album thinking of what I wanted to talk about and what I wanted to give rather than, you know, doing what I had done for a long time, which was trying to anticipate what people were expecting from me and and thinking, OK, what do I want to give to the world? It was more like, what do I need to talk about to liberate myself from certain burdens? And which process do I need to go through to really have a part of liberation through this album? And I think that's also one of the main differences from the other stuff that I released so far. 

It sounds like a rebirth. It feels like there's also a lot of anger and catharsis that you've unleashed on the album. Tell me about the emotions that came up for you during the project.

It's a lot of anger and sadness and shame and all those emotions that are hard to express sometimes and my way of processing those emotions are to write music and to go back to those wounds that might have been sitting there for a long time and really confront them through my music. I think I needed to do that. In the last two years, I had a lot on my mind and on my conscience, and I wanted to go deep inside of myself. That's also part of the reason why it took so long to make the album: I started by resisting that impulse and being like no, I can't talk about this, this is too personal, or this is too raw. This is a little too edgy or this or that. And I realize that the only way that this process could be liberating in any way was if I completely set that aside and really went with what I needed to talk about.... It made me feel like I grew throughout that process and evolved in different ways. And so it's been liberating on a lot of levels.

What were the things that were coming up for you early on that you thought were too personal at first?

Well, I think a lot of different things, a lot of the songs are extremely personal. The most personal song on the album is called "Sun Goes Down," and it's about a friend of mine who's been dealing with really intense stuff. And he's been struggling with depression and addiction and all these hard things … to me, that's been hard, I guess, just like in my normal life, to talk about super personal things isn't something I would naturally do as much as I would through my music. There are tons of examples of that on the album where I just decided to, I guess, talk about things that maybe I wouldn't talk about in a different context than music. But also, even all the things that are a little bit more sassy, like the song "Sex to Me" is definitely one of the sassier ones I've ever written. I started writing it as a joke and ended up really fully being like, no, let's completely just go with it and go all the way with that song. And we had a lot of fun writing it, but even that sassy subject — I guess, that maybe I wouldn't have addressed otherwise than through music. 

And what about "Passive Aggressive"?

It's probably one of the most pop songs of the album and there's like a big '80s influence. And there is something really freeing about it, because it's about looking back to a relationship that you've had and realizing, like, what was I doing with this person? I am doing great, I am fabulous. And this person is just so miserable and passive-aggressive and is all those things that I didn't notice that they were when we were together, and like, oh my God, you're such a loser. This is me just being free and happy. And I think it's just nice sometimes to remind ourselves that, you know, we're doing great … so I guess it's one of those sassier songs about one of my exes who is kind of a case. It's about realizing how happy you are and how much happier you are without this person who was just a negative vibe in your life. 

And "Anyone who Loves Me"?

Yeah, "Anyone who Loves Me" is a song about how difficult it is to be a woman in our society these days and how it's been for a long time. And from my perspective, it's about being a woman that's in the public eye on some kind of level. But I think it's about being a woman in general and how that comes with a lot of injustice, a lot of expectations from other people, a lot of pressure, a lot of judgment. And it's about not wanting to accept that anymore. That's a subject that's been obviously very close to me for a long time. And I really wanted to write a song about that, but I didn't really know how to address that through a song for a long time. And so "Anyone who Loves Me" is definitely one of the closest to my heart on the album, because it really matters to me. I mean, I've said that I was a feminist for a really long time and I just on the daily witnessed and experienced injustices for being a woman. I really wanted to address that through a song.

And is there a small choir on that?

So the choir is my own voice, that we've layered for days and days of just doing vocal production. So the choir is just me. 

You've had the album done for such a long time, and pushed the release due to COVID. Was it hard to resist going in and adjusting things here and there? It's hard not to keep editing until you have a real deadline in front of you. 

Absolutely, and that's a dangerous thing because, like, we had already been so picky and specific on a lot of things and the album took so long to finally finish that I didn't allow myself to go back into those things once we had the full album. It's just because I feel like that could be an infinite loop, like it's good to be specific and to work really hard on something. But once it's done, I think it can get a little bit obsessive. And we were very tempted, like we talked about it a few times, like, "Oh, should we change this song or add this?" And we're like, "You know what? Let's just have this album live, as is." And I continued writing songs in the meantime. So, you know, I kept myself busy during the year doing something else, something other than, you know, fixing the songs that were already done.

But it took a really long time to make the album in the first place. So the pandemic was kind of the cherry on top of everything, it was like an extra year of waiting. But I decided to not really listen to the album this year and not go back into it and reopen like that…. And I just let it be, as is. I haven't really listened to it that much, so it still feels pretty fresh, which is good. And I'm still really excited about the album, even though it's been a long process. 


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