Charlotte Cornfield still remembers the first time her music made someone cry. The Canadian singer-songwriter was sitting in a backyard trampoline with her high school friends when she was encouraged to sing a song she’d recently written. Cornfield obliged, treating her friends to a song about a boy she’d met over the summer she was sure she’d fallen in love with. It was called “Young and Tall.”
“It was a real turning point for me,” Cornfield, 33, says, thinking back on the moment. “I just felt like everyone was with me in the emotional experience. That was the first time I ever experienced anything like that. Before that, I hadn’t quite figured out what my writing voice was.”
Cornfield’s adolescent artistic coming of age is one of several potent memories she unearths on Highs in the Minuses, the devastating record she released last fall. Written in part during the early days of the pandemic lockdown, Cornfield, stuck at home with little more than her own wandering mind, began dwelling on childhood remembrances and young adult recollections: an early-twenties stint in South Brooklyn, a carefree afternoon of skateboarding, falling in love with music as a teenager. The trampoline moment found its way into “Blame Myself” (“Sang my heart away/My friends supported me/I still think about them every day”).
“I was at home feeling grounded, peaceful, and reflective,” Cornfield says of that time period. “I enjoyed writing about things that happened in moments where I was really going through intense shit, but more looking back on those moments, and less right in the midst of it.”
Comprising that series of swirling memories, Highs in the Minuses (she explains the title as a “Canadian weather joke”), is the most accomplished and affecting collection of Cornfield’s career. The record also marks her debut on a U.S. label, the latest milestone for a singer-songwriter who, despite her accomplished Canadian co-signs — longlisted for the prestigious Polaris Music Prize, friends and peers with luminaries like Broken Social Scene and Stars — is still on the verge of breaking through as an artist in the States.
Cornfield is a sharp-eyed songwriter, who, like her contemporary Courtney Barnett, is particularly adept at both reinforcing and undercutting the emotional core of her narratives with quotidian detail and slacker silliness: “Music is my bread and butter,” she sings on “Blame Myself,” an otherwise profound tune about absolving oneself of their childhood missteps. “Not much bread and not much butter.”
Collaborator and fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Leif Vollebekk can still remember being brought to tears the first time he heard Cornfield’s 2019 breakthrough “Silver Civic.” “I mean, ‘When every silver Civic was your car,’” he says, referencing the song’s chorus. “She sees her love everywhere, like some beautiful curse.”
Cornfield’s never done more soul-searching than she did for Highs In the Minuses — a record, she realizes now, that’s essentially an album-length meditation on the hope that we can learn from our past while remaining fearful that oftentimes, the exact opposite is true.
“This type of thing used to throw me, but now I’m older,” Cornfield sings with early-album optimism on the catchy crunch-rock single “Headlines.” But by the end of the record, on the piano-pop “Modern Medicine,” Cornfield identifies the anxiety underpinning this entire record full of memories in the song’s chorus: “I’m afraid of history repeating.”
“Yeah,” the singer-songwriter admits with a shrug during our interview, “That’s the thesis of the album.”
Cornfield began identifying the thesis statements of her favorite albums at a young age. Growing up in Toronto, Cornfield describes herself as a “real CBC kid”: Her father worked at the Canadian public radio station as a jazz and classical music radio producer, while her mother worked as an editor at a parenting magazine called Today’s Parent.
By the time she was 11 years old, Cornfield was writing silly songs for herself (she still remembers the first one she wrote: “Life Goes Up and Down Like a Yo-Yo”). As a kid, she devoured typical pre-teen turn-of-the-century pop: Weird Al’s Bad Hair Day, Will Smith’s Big Willie Style, the Backstreet Boys’ self-titled record. But by the time she was a teenager she was devouring records by the Velvet Underground and Laurie Anderson.
After assorted stints in Montreal and New York, Cornfield returned to Toronto in her twenties and worked for four years as the booker at a small venue called the Burdock Music Hall, which became the center of Cornfield’s music and artistic world for a long stretch. “It just became a community space for people to try shit out,” she says.
By 2019, Cornfield had already released two critically-acclaimed records, but she decided it was time to pursue music full time. She quit her day job and released 2019’s The Shape of Your Name, a breakthrough for Cornfield in Canada followed by her 2020 EP In Your Corner.
That recent burst of creativity is starting to pay off. At a recent headlining show in Brooklyn in November, Cornfield debuted her songs from Highs in the Minuses to an enraptured crowd, who danced along to the sludge-bass of “Partner in Crime” and stood silent as she played haunting ballads like “21” by herself.
“This is the most fun I’ve had in two years,” Cornfield told the crowd at one point. After the show, she tweeted that she “had to hold back the tears on stage” in Brooklyn.
It was as if Cornfield were still playing songs for her friends on an ever-expanding backyard trampoline. Only this time, she was the one who got choked up.