The Advocate Presents: Craig Cardiff – by Bethany Schultz

Photos courtesy of Paul Smith at Photohouse Studios. More are available at

On November 3rd, Craig Cardiff celebrated the release of his 18th album, Floods & Fires, at the Station Coffee House and Gallery in Brantford. The intimate venue was packed, with people literally turning away at the door because they could not fit into the place. The audience cheered, laughed, sang along, and even slow-danced. Craig kept the audience engaged and entertained from the first song, right to the very last.

After the show, I had the unique opportunity to interview Craig about his new album, his career as a musician, as well as some of his experiences playing in Brantford.

Q: Could you tell me about some of your experiences playing in Brantford?

A: Well, I’ve only had a few, a handful. The first one was playing a show that had been set up, and I didn’t know it until the last minute, at a hotel. They kept selling tickets, and so they ended up taking it out in their backyard. The fellow was here tonight, he was wonderful. He was like, “That was my first and last show. It was too stressful to organize. It was so much work.” He didn’t say it in a bad way. He was juggling a number of things, and it’s personal. It’s not like you can have a poor night and not take it personally. Anyway, it was just nice to see him here. He’s like, “Man I would love to do another show with you, but that was my first and last. I retired after that one.”

Q: Can you tell me about your song “Dance Me Outside”, and how it relates to Brantford?

A: Oh, just my mom growing up. She talked about growing up in Brantford as a teenager. She went to Pauline Johnson, and she’s just talking about what it was like to grow up in reference to this First Nations woman who was outside of town. She was trying to hitchhike, to catch a ride back in, and couldn’t. She ended up passing from exposure. The worst part is that it’s all over. It’s Winnipeg, it’s lots of communities. Each community has a story like that, it’s difficult. So there was that story that existed,  and then there was the Bruce McDonald film “Dance Me Outside”. I hadn’t seen the film, but it just had this idea that even in hard things, still having dignity, still standing up tall, even to a very bitter, sad end. That was the idea.

Q:  What should fans expect from this new album?

A: Some of the songs I’ve been playing for quite awhile. Two years of recording, but some of those songs I’ve had for years. Now looking back on it, it feels like the album is about choosing to be happy. If anyone had said that to me a few years ago, I would’ve punched them. It’s just silly, it sounds like a really nonsensical thing to say, but I think that’s what it’s about. You know, just to choose joy.  Not a joy that’s purchased, but just to be joyful. I feel like every song is trying to hold up a little bit of the dark, or the blind spots that everybody has, just to say, “That’s fine”. That’s what I feel the album’s about. It’s my little graceland.

Q: Do you find yourself moving in a new direction with this album?

A: I think from a production standpoint, absolutely. Ben Leggett, as a producer, pushed the heck out of me. When I was done with the vocal he was like, “Nope, let’s do five more,” and I was in the booth, trying not to cry, and I’m like, “Ben, are you sure, I think we really got it,” and he’s like, “No, you can do better.” But the end result is great, and I’m just grateful I worked with Ben on that. He literally lived with Rowan and I for a year. He had a bunch of other projects he’s worked on and off, some artists actually came and recorded. Katie Glover, Holly Cunningham, and Chris Curry all made albums at the house while I was away on tour. I think that Ben is just the sort of producer that says, “Nothing is impossible.” We had no budget, so we went to the high school and said, “Do you have any horn players?” and the music teacher, Frank Pecora was like, “Yeah, I play horn,” so most the horns are him on the album. At the eleventh hour, we’re actually about to put away the album to get mixed, and this fellow Mike… again, thank God for teachers because they’re all teachers who, a lot of them, grew into players… and Mike Yates, he’s like, “I’m a cellist, and I have a studio.”  I’m waiting for the request for a Western Union transfer, and it’s like lost in Ireland or something, but no, he was just very excited to help music get made. I had this idea for an organ part and Ben was like, “Unless we can get a real organ… I’m not using a plug-in.” It was those sorts of conversations where I’d bite my lip and be like, “Okay, Mr. High and Mighty, blah, blah, blah,” but he was right. He was always right. So I put it out there the one day, and within four hours we had three different churches, and three different organist who were like, “I’m free this afternoon,” and so I was like, “Okay Ben, there you go buddy. Pack it up.” So he went and recorded. He sent me a picture and it looked like a close-up shot of fabric and I’m like, “God, you take terrible pictures, what’s that of?” and he goes, “You’re an idiot, that’s the wall of pipes, coming out of the organ,” and I’m like, “What’s the scale of that?” and he’s like, “That’s probably twenty feet across.” So there’s a lot of remote recording. There were a bunch of people in Montreal. It was that attitude, and us being able to string out the project, that gave us the perspective so that we could change parts of it right within the period of recording, but also just like… great results, greater results. We didn’t know all the answers going into it, we just pretended to.

Q: Floods & Fires was released November 1st. Where and how can fans get a hold of it? At what cost?

A: You can get it everywhere. You can get it directly from Craig, or you can get it from iTunes, which is great, except that Apple gets 40% of it. If iPods cost a bit less, I’d feel better about sharing, but I think they do okay, I think they’ve got it down. So, you can buy it directly from, also at shows, does distribution in the US so if you request the physical album they can get that, and you can buy the physical album from the website.

Q: Who are your role models in the music world?

A: Loreena McKennitt, Ani DiFranco, and Stompin’ Tom.

Q: Who would you want to do a tour with?

A: Nobody! I’m just so difficult to get along with. I’d be terrible to tour with.

Q: Who would you want to do a duet with?

A: I love singing along with Robyn Dell’Unto, who’s a friend, and Rose Cousins. They’re great. Like, they’re funny, and they’re funny in different ways. Robyn came on a bunch of tours with me. She’s just got a great sense of harmony, and she’s a great song-writer. She’s young, she’s like 24 or 25, but just a really good lyricist… but some of her stage-manner just scares the crap out of me. We’re in Alberta and she’s making fun of cowboy hats, just leading up to Stampede and I’m like, “Shut up..” I wouldn’t be in trouble; I’d just have to leave her there so they can come clean up her body… Anyway, just funny. They’re both funny. Rose does this great… she’s from PEI, she can turn up the accent and just start the… the warble. It’s fun for different reasons.

Q: If you had to listen to one artist for the rest of your life, who would it be?

A: A good cellist doing the Bach cello suite. It’s funny, I bought a bunch of different versions and there’s some pretty bad cello playing out there. Not that I’m like, a great cellist or anything, I can barely play the guitar, but when you hear a really good person doing it, it’s like when they’re playing a really good instrumental and you’re like, “Whoa, that’s awesome.”

Q: Would you rather play in small venues or larger venues? Why?

A: I think what I do works really well. My sphere of control, what I talk about, and what I do works well when people are sitting together in a small place. I play bigger shows, they’ve done great, but I also feel like you can’t be personal. Like teasing Ryan isn’t fun with a thousand people in the room. They’re like, “Who the F is Ryan, who cares?” I feel like the Hutterites have the right idea, after about two hundred, people stop connecting.

Q: What are some unforgettable tour memories?

A: There’s loads of them, lots of them. Robyn Dell’Unto quitting smoking in Alberta, half-way through our tour together and walking around Cosco… we bought her the pack of the patches and I remember when I quit smoking, some years ago, that’s how I did it. I was telling her, “The way I did it was, I was working at the University of Waterloo at the time, and if I’d feel a craving, I’d take as many Nicorettes as I could,” and she’s like, “But the package says…” and I’m like, “The package says a lot of things Robyn.” What the package says and what I did were different things. I wouldn’t recommend you do it that way… I was basically playing chubby-bunny with Nicorettes. It was the old ‘parent catches you smoking so makes you smoke the pack all at once’, so that’s what it was for me. Anyway, Robin did so well, she quit smoking, and she was bearable to be around… in a car… which I was surprised at. That was a good memory. There was a woman at a show whose friend had practiced bringing her there. She had a muscle disorder where the muscles just leave, the ability to control them. So, when I met her, her arms were crossed, but I knew her story. Like, the way her face was, was so bright and happy, and her hands were crossed because she wanted them to be in a place, instead of just hanging. I was just so grateful that I’d been told the story, and it was such a distinct thing, and people around her might presume her to be unhappy, and it was so distinct from how her face was. So it kind of made me feel lucky to know the story, and felt sad for what she was going through and also the idea of ‘as much as we think we know things, or we have something, we don’t know anything’. We don’t know the people around us. This really happens with them. So, just to drop those intentions and just be a bit gentler, kinder. There was one, that somebody pissed on the double bass case, in Acadia. A heckler snuck back-stage, thought she was peeing on my guitar case, but no she wasn’t. And Scott Pickup, who was the presenter, was like, “Hey, who dropped water back here?” and was like putting his hand in it. You have to take the sour with the sweet. Carson’s bass case, he’s still a bit bitter about that. Paul Crestman was in Yellowknife… that’s right, Paul Crestman.

Q: What is your favorite thing to see in the audience while you are on stage?

A: People kissing, or dancing, or just leaning into each other.

Q: What distracts you while you’re on stage?

A: When a room hasn’t been… like, we all made an agreement to come there and become a group tonight, and all of you created a space for that to happen. When there’s situations where people are like, “we’ll just go set up,” and there’s a party upstairs and they’re drunk, and we can hear them… I just get frustrated because it feels unfair to the people. $10 is a lot of money, $15, $20 is a lot of money. So if you come… like, you wouldn’t go to a movie and let people talk through the whole thing, so I’m always grateful for these times. I just try to remember these times when those times are happening.

Q: Do you plan to make music for as long as you can?

A: Yeah, it was Robertson Davies, he’d write, but before… he held several other jobs before he became a novelist. He used a quote, in response to the grants for artists, “If it’s within you, it doesn’t matter if you’re an accountant, or a florist, or a social worker, or a lawyer, or a plumber by day… you’re still a writer, so you can do that. Just make time for it, do it everywhere you can.” I believe that. Jeff McMannis was my algebra teacher in school and I remember him, it just always sticks with me, he’s like, “I would dig the best ditches. I would be the best ditch-digger there is, if that’s what I needed to do to keep my passion. I am lucky that I am a teacher, that I enjoy math and teaching. Just finding that passion with whatever you’re doing and making it work.”

Q: Is there anything you would do differently in your career?

A: No, I’m really lucky, and I’m happy.

 Craig is currently touring across Canada, with countless upcoming shows over the next several months.  Brantford, and the Station Coffee House and Gallery will enjoy another live performance, when Craig returns for another show on March 21, 2012. Stay tuned for more details!


Want to hear Craig?  Click here for The Brant Advocate Podcast – Episode 1_ Craig Cardiff 1.  You can also download the podcast on PodOmatic or subscribe via iTunes.  This podcast has an exclusive interview and a live track from the Nov 3rd show in Brantford.

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