Clara Engel is a singer/songwriter who has worked with esteemed artists, such as Aidan Baker, Armen Ra, Thor Harris, and Siavash Amini. Her music has been hard to put in a particular bracket, and descriptions as ‘minimalist holy blues’ and the stylistic portmanteau of ‘experimental folk’.
The songwriting of Clara Engel
Now, singer/songwriter is not a genre, but I’m going for that angle as I listen to this album by the Canadian artist, who resides in the wonderful city of Toronto. Many artists, who explore solitary musicianship fall into formulaic expressions of the floral dress girl with an acoustic guitar or the lumberjack shirt, bearded boy. But what makes an artist in this expressionist endeavor stand out to me is individualism. It’s not singing a song about emotions you’ve never felt all clear and precise as possible, it’s about the emotional charge of the notes and words.
Hatching Under The Stars
My first comparison when I listen to Clara Engel is, therefore, an unlikely one. The song ‘To Keep the Ghosts at Bay’, makes me think of Will Oldham, or Bonnie Prince Billy (or whatever moniker you are familiar with). Though I’d like to mention the lazy, sun-drenched guitars, it’s the voice that does it. It’s not perfect. But it’s the sound of weariness, at the end of the long night, ‘trying to keep the ghosts at bay’. It makes the song tangible, the theme real and convincing.
But there is also the element of poetry to the art of songwriters, particularly when one invokes larger themes and stories. ‘Oiseau Rebelle’ is a reference to Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ and the song ‘Preserved in Ice for Mark Chagall’ to me seems a reference to his pastoral works (an interpretation of some visual aspects I would presume). But I can hardly start unpacking that with any clear idea as there are themes that evoke new worlds for me. It’s how a song opens a thousand doors for those willing to traverse it.
There is a darkness in the work of Engel too, which no song shows as well as ‘Baby Alligators’. It appears cute and endearing, but soon paints a skyline not dissimilar to the apocalyptic visions in the music of Godspeed! You Black Emperor (Canadian is purely coincidental here). If you need a bridge that explains why Engel worked with Amenra, it’s here too, in the forlorn worldview, and the way words paint pictures and ideas more than tell you something directly. Both ‘Any Creature’ and ‘Old Feathered Devil’ are examples of this.
‘Time is a putty
in your grizzled claw’
What I enjoy about the music of Clara Engel, are it’s sudden shifts and turns. A song like ‘7 Minutes Past Sunrise’ may seem a bit like a Katie Melua song at first until you notice the crumbling world it describes, the grieving notes for a world that is disappearing. Let alone the title, that to me screams Iron Maiden, but hey… There’s a sense of escapism in here too, particularly in a song like ‘Little Blue Fox’, which talks about following the fox to a hidden valley. It’s one of the most straight forward songs on the album.
By the time we arrive at the final song, which is ‘The Indifference of Fire’, the sky has grown a little darker. There is an escape in the music, there is a better place in a world that is generally falling apart and seems uncaring. There is beauty in between the shards, growth between the ruins, and hope. And Clara Engel sings it’s songs.