Amy Millan (Stars) and Charlotte Cornfield Have Deep Toronto Roots

The collaborators talk the ethics of writing songs about people, their musical beginnings, and more.

Amy Millan is a Montreal-based singer, songwriter, and guitarist who performs in the indie rock bands Stars and Broken Social Scene; Charlotte Cornfield is a Toronto-based singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. Charlotte is touring with Stars in December, and Amy features on Charlotte’s latest album Highs in the Minuses — out tomorrow via Polyvinyl and Double Double Whammy — so to celebrate, the two sat down to catch up.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Amy Millan: Charlotte Cornfield — best last name. Is that real?

Charlotte Cornfield: It’s real. It used to be Kornfeld. My dad’s Jewish and his dad changed it to Cornfield at some point, I don’t know exactly when. 

Amy: Yeah, my name is Amy Millan, and I’m pretty sure that it was at some point McMillan, then my Irish grandfather got in a lot of trouble when he was living in Montreal. Killed a man in a bar brawl. 

Charlotte: Really?

Amy: He really did. 

Charlotte: Oh, my god!

Amy: So I think he said, “Listen, we’re just going to be Millans from now on, we’re cutting the Mc!”

Charlotte: That’s an incredible story. So does that mean you have Montreal roots going way back?

Amy: I have Montreal roots going way back. So, my father’s mother is from Scotland; my father’s father is from Ireland, and they moved to Verdun [, Quebec]. But my father died when I was four and a half — it’s interesting, because I wonder sometimes if all the sad songs that I’m writing about boys potentially could just be actually, like, some daddy syndrome going on, maybe. Anyway, St. Vincent stole that title, so I can’t take it now.

So he died, and then my grandmother died,  and his sisters, [so] I can’t get any information. So if anybody’s reading this who’s a Millan and wants to fill me in on what’s up with the family, I’d love to know, because it’s a big mystery to me. 

But I know that they lived in Montreal. I know that my grandmother used to ski the mountain every Sunday. I’ve lived in Montreal for 20 years, and ever since I moved there, I’ve been like, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do the mountain like my grandmother did, and never did until the pandemic. I got some skis — actually, Martha Wainwright gave me her mother’s skis, which is so wonderful because they sold out immediately because of the pandemic. And I started skiing up the mountain and I felt bonded to my Scottish grandmother that did the same.

Charlotte: That’s so cool.

Amy: And what about your family? Are you from Toronto?

Charlotte: Yes, my mom is many generations of Toronto, I grew up here. But my dad was born in Israel, grew up in Montreal, and his Montreal roots go way back. Actually, during the pandemic, I googled my great-grandmother’s name, because she was a famous Israeli cookbook writer. I found out that when she was in her early 20s, she lived on Hutchinson, right up the street from where I lived in my early 20s.

Amy: That’s so interesting. So we have a lot of similarities, because my family on my mother’s side is also many generations Toronto. My family moved here in 1792 on my maternal side. So, there’s deep hoser happening between the two of us, with some spice from the other places. 

Charlotte: Yeah! And you grew up in Toronto?

Amy: I grew up in Cabbagetown. Where did you grow up?

Charlotte: Ossington and Davenport.

Amy: Right, West End. I mean, it was a really weird place to grow up pretty much downtown. I had friends from the East End, the West End, the North, South, and then I ended up at Etobicoke School of the Arts. That’s where my life began, I met Emily Haines [of Metric, Broken Social Scene] on the first day of school. We started writing songs together, it was great. So that was kind of where the songwriting began. When did you write your first song?

Charlotte: In grade 6. I had this grade 6 teacher who wanted us all to be entrepreneurs, and so we had this Tuesday sandwich thing where we would make sandwiches and sell them for two dollars. [Laughs.] I would write the music — I would take melodies from songs that I liked and write words to them that had to do with the sandwiches that we were making.

Amy: I think that’s kind of amazing, because it’s sort of what you do now. Your songwriting, I find, is so, “This is what I’m doing right now,” and or very distinctly about a certain thing. You’re not cryptic. You’re like, “Andrew, what’s up, dude? Stop waking up crying.” It’s like, this is going to be a song about this world. And that was how you started out — “This is going to be a world of sandwiches.” I love that. That’s so great.

Charlotte: I liked having a topic to write about and having existing melodies to work with, and I just found the medium really fun because my mom’s a writer, so I was always raised around words. She’s also an editor, so anything that I handed in at school, she would first go through with a red pen. So I was raised with that kind of constant self-editing and thinking about, how could I make this better?

Amy: That sounds like torture. [Laughs.]

Charlotte: It was, but now I feel grateful for it. I definitely had some fights with my parents there. I appreciate that they were both very critical, but my dad is a trained classical musician — he played in symphonies for a long time, then when I was growing up, he was a producer at CBC Radio. So [he has a] slightly rigid idea of how music should be. And then having a mom who was a writer, it’s no surprise that I ended up writing songs, but it also took me a long time to get over that thing of sending them something and being like, “I need them to love it.”

Amy: It’s still a challenge. I remember when I did Honey from the Tombs, my first record solo record. 

Charlotte: Which I love. 

Amy: Thank you. I had been — this is a topic I really want to get into, which is needing to write songs or wanting to write songs. A lot of the songs on the album were needing to write, because, you know, between teenager and early 20s, there’s so much tumultuous feelings and you go through the relationships, and just in order to kind of get rid of heartbreak, I’d have to put it into a song. 

But they’d been around for a while, so there had been different iterations of how they sounded. And then they landed with Ian Blurton, who produced it so beautifully — all to tape, such an old school guy. I finally got it delivered, mastered already, and my mom was so excited. She was like, “I can’t wait to hear it!” She lies down on the couch and she’s like, “I’m just going to zone right in and I’m going to close my eyes. OK, ready, press play!” And I press play and “Losin’ You” kicks in, and the first thing she says is, “I really liked it when the song was slower.” [Laughs.] But it’s just like, she’s allowed to feel that way, you know? It doesn’t have to affect me in such a mountainous way. But it’s funny how parents are our first influencers.

Charlotte: Yeah, it’s a vulnerable relationship, but an important one. And especially having parents who are supportive—

Amy: Yeah, exactly! It’s not everybody who, you say you want to be an artist and they’re going to stand behind you and be excited about that. She was for sure the one driving me to the gigs — she used to drive Stars across the border. One time we got into major, major debt by taking a studio, because we thought we were gonna be super rich and famous, and it didn’t happen as quickly as we wanted, and then we had to break a lease and she fully helped fund that. Super supportive. Very important in order to make it. It’s the lucky thing. 

Charlotte: Yeah, totally. And was she a teacher? 

Amy: She’s a social worker. She works with emotionally disturbed youth, which kind of fit with the band that I joined, which were a bunch of emotionally disturbed youth.

Charlotte: [Laughs.] So you went to ESA and collided with all these amazing creative people, and started writing songs then?

Amy: Yeah. I mean, I was sort of writing songs before — [Sings] “The road travels forever to eternity.” Not that good. And then I met Emily, who is incredible. We met on the first day of school, both lost looking for music class, which I think is really quite ironic. And then we walked into the classroom and everyone was seated and kind of turned to the door, and we were both kind of bonded by this new fear. So we started writing songs together. She’s always written songs, like, since she was three years old, and I learned a lot of the craft of it from her influence. We had a band for a brief moment before we kind of split off to go to university. 

And then she actually was living with Chris Seligman [of Stars] in this loft. Then she met Jimmy [James Shaw], and they started Metric. And then Stars was starting in the same loft building, and Emily was singing on the record. She was actually singing with them, kind of on the side to help them out, but her focus was Metric. I had a band called Sixteen Tons, and then that band broke up. I had seen Evan Cranley [of Stars] around town — we played a couple of festivals together, and then he knew that my band broke up, so he suggested me to come into the band as the female voice, because Torquil [Cambell] always wanted to have a female presence in the band. 

Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene, I also went to the school with, but he didn’t like me. He was young, way young, like I met him at camp, actually — he was 14 years old and he wasn’t down with the Amy Millan vibes then. Then we kind of hooked back up in friendship in university. He was friends with Emily, and then he was like, “Oh, maybe she’s OK.” And that’s how I ended up singing with those guys. 

Have you ever been in a band or will you just always like solo venturing?

Charlotte: Yes, I have. When I started playing music, I had various really bad high school bands. 

Amy: Gimme some names, c’mon.

Charlotte: Snafu.

Amy: Great name.

Charlotte: Discount Junction.

Amy: Discount Junction! Come on. [Laughs.]

Charlotte: We were named after a dollar store on St. Clair West.

Amy: That’s a very Toronto sounding band name. There’s a lot of junctions in Toronto, it feels like.

Charlotte: [Laughs.] Yeah, for sure. And then my grade 12 band, which I actually felt good about, was Charlotte Cornfield and Whatnot. So, kind of a silly name, but it was me and my dear friend Adrian, who was kind of like what you were just describing with Emily. We met on the first day of grade 9 at band class. We were both playing percussion, and she had skate shoes. I was like, “Oh, you have skate shoes? I have skate shoes.” So we became instant friends and played music together through high school. And then we had these two younger guys playing in our band, which we found was a lot easier than having people our age in the band, because there was a clear hierarchy between us and them. It’s like, “OK, you guys work for us. You get to be cool and be in a band with grade 12s if you comply by our rules.”

Amy: That’s so great.

Charlotte: Then I moved to Montreal to go to Concordia in 2006.

Amy: That’s what I did, too! That’s so weird. We have so much in common.

Charlotte: Did you study music at Concordia?

Amy: So my mom really wanted me out of the house and I was like, “I don’t know if I want to go to school. I think I just wanna to join a band with Emily.” And she was like, “No, you’re off.” So I took political science in my first year. At Etobicoke, I was in theater and I had had an agent and acting was sort of my thing. [So then I changed to] theatre performance at Concordia. It’s amazing — doing that and having music to fall back on is a great career move. [Laughs.]

I wanted to get out of Montreal, so I came back to Toronto and had written all these sad songs because I lived by myself and just was so lonely. It was not a good time, which is great for good songs. So that’s when “Skinny Boy” was written and “Losin’ You.” 

Charlotte: That record, I really love all of those songs. I feel like they’ve been with me for a long time. 

Amy: Oh, that’s so nice!

Charlotte: You wrote them and didn’t record them until later on?

Amy: I mean, I wasn’t even planning — it’s like the wanting and needing, right? I just was writing songs because I had to get these boys off my chest, and it was the best way to put my feelings away. And so many times I’ve made the joke on stage where I’m like, “The guy totally didn’t deserve the song. Like, I’m sorry.” But then I circle it back therapy style like, a lot of it is about losing my dad so young and that feeling of loss and kind of working through those emotions, not even really knowing that that’s what I’m doing. So I just was like, OK, I have to do this. I don’t think I’m going to be able to write any more songs if I don’t get rid of these and put them on a thing and send them out into the world. Is that how you feel? 

Charlotte: Yeah, definitely. It’s a very therapeutic thing for me. I feel like I’ve lately been more in a phase where I can write without attaching a lot of baggage to it, but in the past, it’s been a thing where I needed to, like, get this stuff out of my system, and that was the way that I did it, for sure.

Amy: Are you ever worried about what you’re saying about people in your songs? Because you’re so candid and honest. Even a song like “Andrew” — does Andrew know it’s about Andrew, and is he like, “That’s funny,” or “that’s hurtful”?

Charlotte: Yeah, it’s definitely something that I’ve thought about from the beginning of writing songs like that. In the case of Andrew, I actually changed the person’s name.

Amy: OK, see, I’m getting down to the bottom of some stuff here.

Charlotte: In the song that you sang on my record [“21”], I changed a name in that one as well. I change it when I use people’s actual names, unless it’s a friend that I’m just singing glowingly about because I miss them. I don’t want to alienate anyone or make anyone uncomfortable, which I’m sure I have done at various points. “Silver Civic” was about a very specific time in my life, and I’m no longer in touch with that person, but if they’ve heard the song, then for sure they know it’s about them.

Amy: But did they have a silver Civic? 

Charlotte: Yeah. 

Amy: Oh, that’s so great.

Charlotte: I feel like I do try to be conscious of not alienating people, but also being honest to my story.

Amy: That’s what I admire so much about your writing, because I feel like with me, I just kind of cloak it a little bit. I don’t say anybody’s name, I make things up. I’m not showing a bit of myself. And that’s what I’m so drawn to in your songs, is that you’re actually so vulnerable and that you tell so much truth in those moments. I’m like, I can’t believe she’s so honest!

Charlotte: I did have a particular experience when I was a teenager that kind of led me to realize that putting myself out there and being honest and vulnerable songwriting-wise was a powerful thing. I was 16 and I had just done this leadership program in B.C. I totally fell in love with someone — or what I thought was love at the time — and came back and wrote this song. And then I was at a party at a friend’s house, and we were all drinking a bunch of wine on this trampoline, and someone was like, “Charlotte, play a song.” And I played this song that was really my first love song that I’ve written, and everyone was just crying. And I was like, Oh, my god, like a bunch of teenagers are crying, this is so intense.

Amy: Did you record that song ever?

Charlotte: I did record it. I’ve never put it out. I would like to

Amy: Do it on a Bandcamp Friday or something!

Charlotte: Yeah, that’s a good idea. That song and playing it on the trampoline really did kind of alter the course of my life, because I had been in high school — I was trying to write about political stuff, but I didn’t really know what I was talking about. I was listening to a lot of stuff that wasn’t, like, classic rock, and stuff that wasn’t really like vulnerable. But then I started getting into Joni Mitchell and Neil Young and stuff like that, so that’s kind of where that song came from. But since then, it’s always been a thing that I’ve done and enjoy doing. But I am now trying to not write about the same things over and over.

Amy: Well, you’re not. That’s also an interesting thing about your music — like your latest singles, I’m like, Oh, she’s in a happy relationship! Which I’m gathering you are. 

Charlotte: [Laughs.] Yeah.

Amy: It’s so sweet. It’s, again, a love song, but it’s not a heartbreaking love song. There was so much bad news accompanied with this good thing that’s happening to you in your life, that’s so confusing. You’re not like, “There’s been a pandemic!” But it’s like, she’s falling in love in this weird time. I love it so much. 

Charlotte: Thank you. 

Amy: Have you had songs written about you?

Charlotte: Yes, I think so. Nothing that’s commercially out, but yeah, I’ve heard a couple of songs that have been written about me. Which I think has helped put into perspective what it means to have a song written about you. What about you? You must—

Amy: I mean, yeah, there was a couple. I think Kevin intimated that there was a line that was written that seemed kind of mean. I was like, “I don’t know if I wanted to know that.” I’m not even going to say it, because it’s too embarrassing, but I was like, “That’s about me?” But I don’t think Kevin’s written enough songs about me. He wrote the song “Cranley’s Gonna Make It,” he talks about people a lot in his songs, and I personally think I deserve a whole song about how awesome I am. But, we’ll see. There’s time still. 

Speaking of Kevin, “Skinny Boy” is about Kevin Drew.

Charlotte: That’s what I thought. I read This Book is Broken, maybe it was in there. At some point I went really deep on the Social Scene, Stars constellation and read a bunch of stuff.

Amy: It’s interesting, because I find most songs that are going to get written about you, it’s either you’ve broken the person’s heart and they’re mad at you — it doesn’t come from a place other than you’re, like, totally in love. “My Favourite Book,” I wrote that song about falling in love with Evan, and it’s very true to how I feel about him. And he does shift his eyes and I love it and he’s still my favorite book. You know when you’re deep in that beginning of — I mean, I could write another song about him right now in five seconds about how much I love him and how great it is to be around him. But then there’s like the other side of it — it kind of comes from discourse, so it’s not going to necessarily be that nice of a song. 

Which it’s funny, because “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead,” Torquil wrote the lyrics. The band writes all the music together — Evan and Chris are primarily the nebulous beginnings, they write the music and then either Torquil or I will come in and write the lyrics. And sometimes Torquil’s like, “I really want you to sing this,” like “Calendar Girl.” He wrote the lyrics for that song, I did not. “Your Ex-lover Is Dead” is one of those iconic songs that he was like, “And then you come in and you sing this part.” I still sing that whole verse to my first love. Every night when I’m singing it, he’s in my mind, in this gross get-out-of-my — like, I shaved my head after breaking up with him, I couldn’t even wash him out, because your first love is so intense. 

It’s funny how I get the chance to sing other people’s lyrics, that I’m looking at people in the audience and I know I’m connecting with them, but I actually didn’t even write it, so I can connect to it in a different way. 

Have you covered any songs?

Charlotte: I’ve covered some songs. Maybe not in that experience where I’ve sung them a lot every night.

Amy: Have you recorded any cover songs?

Charlotte: Yeah, “Fruits of My Labor” by Lucinda Williams. It is kind of freeing to sing other people’s lyrics.

Amy: I prefer it. I feel like the vulnerability that it takes to access the places that you’re writing the music from, it’s so much more challenging. I just feel like there’s so much less pressure to have to connect to your own feelings.

Charlotte: Yeah, I feel that way, I guess because I play drums with people too sometimes and have done that in the context of other bands. It’s just a totally different experience.

Amy: I think that’s why I went to theater school. I got to be somebody else. Like, I don’t have to hang out with myself — I don’t really love that part. And that’s why I loved joining Stars, because I was like, Well, I want to do some writing like, I don’t want to be completely out of the game. But I’ll have this partner that we can write songs for each other and with each other and about each other.

(Photo Credit: right, Angela Lewis)

Charlotte Cornfield is a Toronto-based singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. Her latest album, Highs in the Minuses, is out October 29, 2021 via Polyvinyl and Double Double Whammy.

(Photo Credit: Angela Lewis)