Name: Clara Engel
Nationality: Canadian
Occupation: Composer, singer, songwriter, sound artist
Current release: Clara Engel's Their Invisible Hands is out directly via Clara's bandcamp store.
Recommendations: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane for music. I’m halfway through the book All We Want by Michael Harris, and would really recommend it.

If you enjoyed this interview with Clara Engel and would like to know more, visit Clara on Patreon, Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.

When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I’ve been making art and writing poems for as long as I can remember, but I was 13 when I wrote my first song for voice and guitar.

I had just heard Nirvana Unplugged and a couple of volumes of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits albums – those were the galvanising forces. They both led me to delve deeper into blues and folk music.

I have no idea what drives me to make art and write songs, it doesn’t feel like a choice, more of an innate orientation.

Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?

If I could put it into words I don’t think I’d be so compelled by music. It goes beyond words. Music is an integral aspect of what makes life meaningful for me, and has accompanied me as an intangible companionable presence through some dark times.

I don’t think I could separate my listening approach from my music-making approach, they’re not just intertwined, but more like aspects of the same whole.

How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?

I’m not sure I’ve ever had a tangible moment where I felt like I had found my voice or had broken through. I think both kind of happened mysteriously, in gradients, while I was busy singing, writing, and playing guitar. There was no Hollywood moment with strings and slow motion where I overcame an obstacle or things magically coalesced.

Most breakthroughs are incremental and invisible to the naked human mind’s eye.

Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.

I think something I struggle a lot with is how artists’ identities are packaged. I feel best when I’m lost in what I’m doing. I’d rather become one with the action I’m engaged in than be a performer, for example.

Constructing, telling and re-telling a series of shaping-stories about our selves (and about the people we know) can become like a barrier or a distorting film over our perception. When I think about fixed identities I think about how it would be wonderful to be able to shape shift – maybe that’s one of the things that drives me to make art, I get to feel formless and disembodied for little islands of time.

As a listener too, I’m quite omnivorous, but I do respond to people really singing or writing in their own voice. I guess honesty is the best word I can think of as a common thread.

Something that has come to feel alienating to me is the idea that liking certain music or certain bands signifies in-group status. I hope my taste remains permeable and open to new forms and new people.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?

There’s a lyric on my song "Murmuration": “No secrets, no blessings, no lies. All is breath and flight” and although that song was sparked by flight formations of bats and birds, it could also be about making music and art.

There is something very ordinary about making art, just like there is something ordinary about bats and birds murmurating, or a spring bubbling. Ordinariness doesn’t have to preclude a sense of wonder. In fact, I think of that as a false binary created by our compulsively sorting and story-telling minds. The ordinary can become extraordinary if you really tune in and pay attention.

I’m allergic to dogmatic approaches to art as well as to all forms of spiritual authority that I’ve encountered, and I think those two things are connected. In my mind there is no key, alchemy, or hidden message, no separation between the profound and the mundane, and I find that at once freeing and devastating.

My desire is to sing and write like a bird leaping into flight. Sometimes that’s much easier than others, and that’s life – some days there are high winds and other days the sky is clear.

How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?

In a very basic sense whatever our aspirations and intentions are, we only make music of our present moment because we can only exist right now. I’m able to appreciate music from both of the tradition / schools of thought that you mentioned, but don’t really separate them in my head.

And it gets even murkier than that, because it’s impossible to recreate the past or accurately predict the future, so in a way music becomes a space (or an imagined space) where time is elastic and bending in on itself.

Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?

My brain, voice, and a guitar that stays in tune have been indispensible to me, probably in that order.

I think finding ways to take care of my body and mind have become the most important, and I didn’t realize that when I was younger. Basic stability gives me the space and time to make work, and to maintain a reasonable consistent practice schedule. That has been the biggest struggle for me during the pandemic and all the upheaval it has caused.

Beyond that, I just need a guitar that stays in tune.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.

The pandemic has made me feel a bit undone, so the order of things varies.

A good day includes a morning coffee, sending some emails, a long walk in nature, and either playing music or drawing for a few hours.  

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?

I write a lot of my words in my head while I’m walking, then I write many drafts of them in notebooks. When I sit down with a guitar they start to come together. It’s more non-linear than I can describe - the music will pull the words in a different direction, and vice versa.

When I record a song I like to do it in one or two takes, I’ve found that perfectionism has a deadening effect on my performances. Pre-pandemic I used to record my songs with someone else engineering, and I could just focus on the music. The lockdowns forced me to learn to record myself, in an environment where I only have limited stretches of quiet time. It’s been a challenge, but I think I found my footing with Their Invisible Hands, so it is dearest to me of my pandemic era recordings.

I played the songs a lot to get really familiar and feel free with them, and then I would set up two or three microphones and seize moments of silence I could find and just record. I treated the songs as live performances – almost all the songs were recorded that way.

The instrumentals were all improvised, and I wanted to preserve that raw and impromptu feeling in them as well, so I gave up on background silence - you can hear various environmental sounds on them here and there. It felt good to embrace my circumstances a bit rather than fight them.

Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?

There are few people who I love playing music with live, most notably Paul Kolinski, who plays drums on many of my albums.

At this point though - due to the world circumstances and what it’s done to live music - I’m solo. I have done some really enjoyable remote collaborations on a number of my albums. Their Invisible Hands was entirely solo though. It felt right for this particular album.

How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?

Music has so many different roles. I have had people tell me my work has helped them through losses and difficult times in their lives, and that feels meaningful. On the other hand, I’m afraid music has become wallpaper / background noise too often in our current cultural moment. Not that I’m opposed to background music, and some music is created to fill that role, but I like silence and I need it to be able to hear music properly.

Music has been radically devalued as an art form due to streaming. It’s become cheap and ubiquitous and people expect to be able to have it for free. It gives me psychological whiplash to be fed the contradictory twin messages of: music is full of meaning + music should be free. I’ve had many dark moments trying to wrestle with that, and I have grown wary of talking about it online because of how defensive and combative people get. Being in the arts can make you feel like you are supposed to rise above the meat reality of needing some semblance of stability, support, and community.

I think the role of music in society is in some sort of fractured crisis right now, to be honest.

Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?

Art is how I cope with all of those things. I don’t think it has helped me understand or answer those questions so much as given me space to dwell in them and live with them.

There seems to be increasing interest in a functional, “rational” and scientific approach to music. How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?  

I think separating the rational and emotional is a purely operational and overly simplistic exercise, and I don’t like to do it.

I’m a big admirer of Oliver Sack’s work - his writing holds the rational and scientific along with the emotional and mysterious parts of what make us human. To be able to hold a contradiction or a paradox in your mind without trying to force it into a singular form to me is a great thing.

To quote Theodore Roethke: “We think by feeling. What is there to know?”

Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?

I think it is different, in that through music I can express things I find impossible to express in daily speech or interaction. But on the other hand I think this mystery and transcendent quality in art is mundane and quotidian in a sense, as in, it’s a deep need we share and find ways of building into our lives.

Maybe some intangible sustenance that we find in music and art goes hand in hand with our other needs (for coffee, for companionship, for various forms of spiritual and emotional nourishment)

Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?

You can put a flower under a microscope and it becomes completely unrecognizable but that doesn’t explain, distil, or destroy its beauty.  A flower can be a poetic symbol and at the same time be a brainless living thing that perpetuates its species by opening its reproductive organs to the wind, which sounds surreal and a bit grotesque. Explanations are always incomplete.

Also, two people can listen to the same piece of music and one can have a profound emotional response and the other can remain unmoved or even be irritated and bored by it - both are true responses. The more I think about these things the less I can claim to understand them.