In March 2020, when the whole world ground to a halt, Charlotte Cardin had to show as much restraint as she’s capable of to avoid asking her team to re-open the sound files and do another round of fine-tuning on the songs for her first album.
“When the pandemic hit, I did everything I humanly could to avoid re-opening the album, which was by then going through mastering,” she admits with a laugh. Perfectionist much? Obviously. But is it a quality or a fault in this case? “I believe it’s a quality,” she says. “It’s important. The trick is to avoid being obsessive about it.”
With 117 million streams and counting, Charlotte Cardin is the most popular Québec artist who has yet to release a full-length album – you know, that dozen or so songs, sharing somewhat of a common theme, that we used to encode on vinyl, or a compact disc. In light of the phenomenal, and enviable, success of her two EPs, Big Boy (2016) and Main Girl (2017), why not stick with that strategy? In other words, what’s the use of a full album in the era of the playlist?
“Releasing my first album is a symbolic milestone that’s quite thrilling to me,” says Cardin. “I thought it was important to make a debut album, if only ’cause I felt like making one. I still listen to full albums,” the musician says, speaking from the heart, before moving on to more pragmatic considerations. “An album allows me access certain things that wouldn’t have been possible with EPs. The industry is evolving, sure, but we’re still just in the middle of a shift. People don’t consume music as they used to, but the media still expects albums. Take the example of France: before I announced I was coming out with an album, I was barely invited on TV anymore.”
The choice was obvious from a media standpoint, but it’s also very wise from a strictly musical point of view, as Phoenix allows us to really get to know the 25-year-old singer, all her facets, all her vulnerabilities, her anger, her hopes, her fears – whether she’s singing about the incommunicability of love (“Phoenix”), the feeling of lightness following the end of a lame relationship (“Passive Aggressive”), the fear of seeing a friend sink into darkness (“Sun Goes Down (Buddy)”) or her furious desire to free herself from the need to please, with which women are too often plagued (“Anyone Who Loves Me”).
“I’ve shared embarrassing things,” she writes in the “booklet” for the album (released by Cult Nation in Québec, Atlantic Records in the U.S., and Parlophone in France). How embarrassing, exactly? “I share super -personal and raw things, that I haven’t romanticized to make them more polished or relatable,” says Cardin. “I needed to touch some wounds that had been there for a long time, but that I didn’t dare to face. That’s when I was confronted with lots of little moments of shame and sadness that I never took the time to heal. Stuff I never thought I’d share… and ended up sharing!” she bursts out laughing, as if appalled by her own shamelessness. Then a brief moment of silence. She seems hesitant to go into this in more detail.
“The songs speak for themselves, but obviously, a song like “Good Girl” [about emotional dependency] doesn’t paint a pretty picture, even though I’m aware that a lot of people, a lot of women, will feel like that at some point in their life.”
For the singer-songwriter, it would have been inconceivable to write these heady songs without actually delving deep into the innermost recesses of her heart. If his album took so long to be released, it’s largely because learning to let go of all the masks takes some getting used to. “We live in a fast-paced society fraught with superficiality and I wanted to explore emotions that tear me apart,” says Cardin. “And when things go too fast, we don’t allow ourselves to fully feel them.” Feeling things to the fullest; there’s the non-negotiable condition she requires to write choruses that ring true.
Outside of any other consideration, whether she talks about casual sex (on “Sex to Me”), or she indulges in suave tongue-twister lines like “A fistful of kisses / For a list full of bitches” (on “XOXO”), Cardin definitely breaks with her girlish image on more than one occasion on Phoenix. This journalist hesitated to use the word “girlish,” and Cardin herself suggested “sweet.” “I love singing those lines!” she exclaims. “I derive a lot of pleasure from them because in my daily life, sadly, I guess, I swear a lot. I feel truer to myself when I express myself in my songs like I express myself in everyday life.”
Re-learning to Write
Born to an epidemiologist mother and a biotechnology patent agent father, who both love music, Cardin wrote her first song at the age of 13 or 14. “We were asked to write a poem in my English class and I took the project to the next level,” she says. This less than memorable attempt still cemented her modus operandi for the coming years: write as soon as the inspiration is there. This approach, however, is less than ideal when you’re expected to write a debut album in a reasonable amount of time.
“Having to write a whole album in a limited period of time, disciplining myself, being rigorous, serious – I’d never done any of that before,” she says. “I had to re-learn how to write music.” She threw out the first 10 months’ worth of drafts in the creative process that led to Phoenix (“Nothing I wrote gave me the butterflies [in my stomach]”) before turning to co-writing, with her manager Jason Brandon, who produced or co-produced most of the album with Marc-André Gilbert.
“The main reason it took so long is because I underestimated the time I would need,” says Cardin. “I thought I could write much faster than I actually can. I had to face my own limitations. I was writing while I managed expectations. What do people want to hear? And that wasn’t the right approach.”
Like one of her favourite bands, Radiohead (whom she quotes on “Romeo”), Cardin had to ignore expectations, put her own apprehensions in the closet, and “free herself” from the weight she had placed on her shoulders. (On the day of our interview, the expression “free myself” punctuated her sentences like a mantra.) This long gestation allowed her to explore the possibilities of her voice, which has never been as close to that of a soul singer as it is on “Anyone Who Loves Me,” and its chorus, which morphs into an unequivocal warning: “We’re not your fancy dolls / You better set us free / Or else we’ll fuck you up”.
“Because I toured so much, my voice developed a resilience that it didn’t have before,” she explains. “I realized I was able to go above and beyond with my vocal performance. I like singing in a relaxed, laid-back kind of way, but I also like to belt one out from time to time. The fact that “Anyone Who Loves Me” had more vocal and emotional involvement goes hand-in-hand with the theme of the song, which is directed at anyone who tries to tell women what they should do, or what they should be.”
In the end, Phoenix is the story of a woman who had to learn to be herself again, but also, like any work through which an artist truly reveals herself, it’s an invitation to empathy, a hand on the shoulder. “It’s hard to get in touch with our repressed feelings, but that’s what makes it possible for us to understand ourselves and others better,” says Cardin. “It’s by facing our own feelings that we manage to have compassion for others, and be true to ourselves.”