Independent, Ottawa-based singer-songwriter Craig Cardiff has spent the past 15 years building a grassroots following in Canada that recently has started to pay real dividends, from Top 10-worthy SoundScan sales to a Juno nomination. On his latest release, a double album, Love Is Louder (Than All This Noise) Parts 1 & 2, Cardiff takes the next logical step forward, recording with a full band for the first time — with glorious results — while rendering most of those same songs in the achingly spare acoustic style for which he's best known.
Had you wanted to do a half-acoustic/half-electric double album for some time?
No. It came from working with Ben [Leggett], who produced the last album Floods & Fires. He pulled in Andre Wahl, who had mixed a bunch of my other stuff. Basically, they really pushed the idea of, "You're not allowed to make another record like the ones you've made." It felt like there were different arrangement paths for all the songs we went through and they were all interesting. The compromise, or the idea was to not pigeonhole a song but to give it two faces. It's almost like covering yourself in a way. Some of the cover songs I get most excited about are the ones I don't know are covers. Like, I don't recognize the original. Ben and Andre really pushed me. They said, "We'll bring a band in and track everything live off the floor." It was completely out of my comfort zone. There were moments when it was amazing. I haven't had the experience of playing in bands, so I had a glimpse of what only five people playing together and locked in could make happen.
It is a great band. I'm a fan of James Robertson, he's such a incredible guitar player.
And such a gentleman. In the recording process, politely putting in ideas without ego. All of them, he and Sly Juhas and Paul Mathew and Mike Evin, they just rounded it out.
Were these two completely different sessions?
Was there a significant time span in between?
Ben and I did pre-production with some of the guys for maybe two-and-a-half months, just tracking stuff. Then we did the full band sessions at Chalet Studios over four days, before we took a break for a week and half, while Ben and Andre did mixes. Then we headed to The Schoolhouse in Ravenscliffe, outside of Huntsville, to do the acoustic sessions and final vocals for the band stuff. It was crazy. I don't know the entire story of the place, but Andre had worked with Hawksley Workman there and it had either been Hawksley's house or a studio he'd set up. It's the most acoustically perfect room. The first day Andre and I started working, we looked at each other and said there's got to be something wrong. Maybe we've been working on these songs so long that we've lost all perspective because it just sounded so good. You'd think that's the opposite of what you'd get from a one-room schoolhouse. But anyways, there was a slaughterhouse two miles away, and after these sessions that were super intense and amazing sounding, we'd be sitting outside the schoolhouse having a coffee and we'd hear cows moaning. And at night you'd hear wolves. It was a very curious, magical place to finish the album.
Along with the juxtaposition of sounds on the album, there's the idea of "the head versus the heart" that comes up frequently in the lyrics. Did a lot of the songs spring from that idea?
A lot of them connect with that. Looking back on all the songs I feel they all started with getting this note from an audience member. I've been passing around books just to have people write down little true things, and this one person had written about having a terrible year and about taking her own life and wanting to take her own life in the past. Just hard stuff. It was one of those things where, because it's anonymous, you have no idea who or what, or even if it's true, but at the end of the night I wrote a note back to them and just posted it online. A bunch of other people responded to it and I feel like that idea carried over — as hard as it is to stay one more day, just don't make any big decisions tonight. Wait until tomorrow morning. That kept coming up, the same thing as head versus heart, being so inside of our head that it's all thinking and no feeling.
What about a song like "John Wilson"? Was that a story you came up with?
No, there's a fellow named John Wilson who had organized this really sweet surprise concert for this woman that he wanted me to play. I was at a point then where I was trying to intentionally craft a cynical love song, but the universe said, nope, you're not allowed. Here's what you're supposed to write about, this really sweet couple. Then other parts got woven in, like this buddy of mine who hitchhikes everywhere. He's often said, try to avoid getting dropped off between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay; it's just a tough place to get picked up. And anytime I've done long bus trips, there's always this sad prison dude hanging out at the back by the bathroom. Everybody's carrying all of these stories on the bus.
You've certainly gotten to know the entire country, and a lot of its people, well for over the past 15 years. You've gone over and above what most artists do to build an audience. Was there a point when you realized it was actually working for you?
I'm happy doing it and I feel grateful that I can pay bills and support stuff doing it. I think that was the point you're asking about, it was when I realized I was doing more stuff that I liked than I didn't like. People are still coming out to shows, and when that stops, I'll find something else to do and still play, but there's not a big plan. I'm just trying to focus on writing things that I find interesting and collaborate with people who are challenging and not comfortable with just saying yes to things. It was funny to be intimidated while making this album; to come into the sessions and think, these guys are amazing players, I'd better remember my capo position. If there's anything I want to get better at, it's to push myself musically by creating those situations with other artists.
I remember being shocked one week seeing Floods & Fires in the SoundScan Top 10.
Yeah, I was shocked too. It was probably barely holding on to the lower rungs, but I was happy to be on the list.
What do you think makes people so devoted to you?
I feel like there's a lot of space for them in the show and in the process, whether it's booking the shows or funding the albums. My experience has been that this model works. I can come to Alberta, knowing only a handful of people, and we can somehow agree to work together. People want to reach out. It was an interesting experience doing that ten years ago because there just weren't venues that were interested. It was like you were waiting for permission from them to come play. I was going to the wrong places. I remember getting a neutral or even derisive view of it from other artists, like, that's not real touring. But if there's 50 people, or whatever, who are open to organizing something, you should go play there. Just because it's not at venue X in Toronto or venue Y in Calgary, who cares? It's about where the people are. That's something I struggle with, because you catch yourself saying should I be doing something differently? People often still say, you should be touring this way, but that just doesn't work for me.
Your approach has seemed to be ahead of the curve in terms of how folk music has come back into prominence over the last few years. Have there been any offers presented to you to do bigger things, and if so, how do you handle that?
I have friends and acquaintances who work at labels now, and they're really cool people. But I'm making art and running a small business that's working. I don't know if it needs to be anything bigger. All of my problems are really good ones right now, and I feel like there's all these songs I have to write. Recording is actually a little frustrating because the songs often seem so old, but that's the reason we have producers, to not sneak in newbie songs and finish what's been committed to.