Charlotte Cornfield. Credit: Angela Lewis.

Instrumental: Charlotte Cornfield’s 1967 Gibson J-50 Is Just Like an Old Friend

Charlotte Cornfield has only ever had a couple of acoustic guitars, and one of them—her mom’s nylon-string Matsuoka from the ‘80s—isn’t even hers. She’d been hammering on the drums for a while when she started playing six-string in her middle school guitar class, learning Neil Young songs like “Helpless” and “Heart of Gold” using tabs. This forced the drums, quickly, to the wayside. “I really connected to the guitar and especially learning songs I really liked,” Cornfield says over the phone from her place in Toronto. “And it just opened up this whole universe of me starting to write songs on guitar.” The family Matsuoka became her songwriting weapon of choice in her early teens and served her for years until it got lost with her luggage on a trip to France. 

“It eventually made it back to me, but a couple of weeks later, and it never was the same after that,” Cornfield says. “It didn’t hold its tuning anymore. So I just was like, ‘Okay, you know, I want to pursue this as a career. I need a good, reliable instrument.’ I had been avoidant of steel string guitars, because of the super folky sound. I don’t know if it was my vibe. But my friend Steve had a J-50 he had got in Edmonton and I was really enjoying playing it. We were playing music together. And I was just like, ‘This guitar has such a big sound. And it’s really full and doesn’t feel like a chimy acoustic but more like a kind of full-body tone.” So I scraped together some money—I was working at a kayak rental place—just saved up some money and started perusing Craigslist for an old Gibson. I found this one via a guy who was a musician, I forget his name, but he was living in St. Henri in Montreal. And I went down to check it out and just immediately fell in love with it. I bought it on the spot and it’s been with me ever since.”

She’s had it for the past 13 years and used it constantly as her number one writing tool, and reckons the first song she ever wrote on it was “North of Superior.” “It’s the material object I have the most sentimental relationship with, for sure,” Cornfield says. You can hear it chime in part of the way through “Headlines,” one of the singles from her upcoming album Highs In The Minuses, which comes out on October 29. Like all of her records, Highs In The Minuses is dense with poignant songwriting that illuminates everyday situations, stretching out time with understated melodies by distilling the feelings you get from skateboarding, debilitating anxiety, or meeting a kindred spirit. If such a gift comes even just slightly from using the creative tool one chooses, listeners will be lucky if she can hold on to the guitar for another 13 years.

“It’s like an old friend at this point,” Cornfield says. “And it’s never failed me.”

How was it to go from your mom’s nylon string guitar to the Gibson?

I definitely loved playing it right away. And because I had played my friend’s I had a bit of an idea about what the vibe was going to be, but I needed to work up calluses and get used to it. I had a pickup put in and I think my first few shows with it, I was trying to navigate, trying to get a good sound on stage. It always sounded great acoustically, but I ended up buying a particular preamp that, with the pickup, made it sound good. It was a bit of a process. But right away, I was like, ‘This is my instrument.’ And at the time, I was just like, ‘This is the most expensive thing I’ve ever had. So I want to take good care of it.’

Charlotte Cornfield and her Gibson. Credit: Nelson Silva.

How did the transition change your writing style?

I think I was able to dig in more. With my nylon string, you just can’t get the same amount of oomph from it. I had been doing more fingerpicking stuff, and I kind of just stopped doing that and started exploring the dynamics of the instrument and how it could get really intimate and quiet, but also be a little bit more robust. I think the dynamic range of it was something that really appealed to me. And it was just a really cool canvas to write with because it felt like there were more options for what I could do. 

Did it also change the way you wrote in the sense of, ‘Oh, now I have a professional-grade tool’?

Definitely. I was like, ‘Okay, this is a pro instrument.’ It did kind of change my approach just in general, which might be weird to say, but I was like, ‘Okay, I have this pro instrument that I want to take care of. And music is what I’m doing. I want to approach it with some degree of professionalism.’ I think I just kind of levelled up, personally levelled up a little bit after that and felt less like somebody who was just exploring different things, and more like I was investing in this thing—having it, being able to work with it was a commitment of sorts to the craft. I was like, ‘Okay, yeah, I’m a songwriter. I do have a nice guitar. That’s what I’m doing,’ kind of thing. 

It’s pretty old—do you know anything about its history?

I know that the bridge was replaced at some point, which apparently was a good move on that era of J-50s because the original bridge wasn’t the greatest. I went to this luthier who was the acoustic guitar guy in Montreal. And he opened my case and was like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve worked on this guitar before.’ He said it used to belong to a Quebecois songwriter dude who was relatively well known. I can’t remember the name. But it definitely had a life in the Quebec folk world before I had it, which I thought was kind of cool.

Have you ever had any close calls with it, touring or travelling or whatever?

Yeah, I did. I’ve travelled all over with it, and I’ve put it under buses in the winter. I’ve done stuff that is a little bit precarious with it, and it’s always been, okay. Maybe like 10 years ago or more there was a festival at Bellwoods, basically people playing in the park during NXNE. And I played a set, put my guitar down, and another band started playing. And then I just looked around—I literally took my eyes off my guitar for two seconds—turned back and it was gone. I just totally panicked and asked the guy who was organizing the event to stop the show, and he was actually really not cool about it. He was like, ‘No, no, don’t; stop drawing attention to yourself.’ And I was like, ‘Dude, my guitar is gone.’ So I was just panicking walking around the park, trying to see if anyone was walking with it. And then it turns out this guy whose friend had been playing, his friend was leaving, so he walked away with him and was helping him take his gear away and thought the guitar was his. So he walked off with it. And then half an hour later came back. I did have a total meltdown moment there, being like, ‘Oh my god, is it gone forever?’ But that was the closest call and it’s never been severely injured or anything. It’s got some scratches, but I don’t really care about that. I’m amazed that I’ve been able to keep it together. 

Yeah, 13 years is a long time for a guitar when you’re gigging and travelling.

I think part of what instilled that care in me for the instrument was that my dad’s a cellist. He had one cello at a time—I think he sold and bought a new cello at one point in my life. But those instruments are even more precious and expensive and old. And I just watched how he cared for it and treated it with a huge amount of respect. So I kind of applied that thinking a little bit to my guitar, and I think that’s part of why I’ve kept it okay all these years. But I think instruments are there to be played. I know people with nice guitars, vintage guitars, who don’t take them out of the case or out of the house. It’s gonna sound better if it’s being played.

Is it kind of an easy touchstone for feeling at home wherever you are?

Definitely, yes. If I have my guitar with me, it means I can write and play and do a gig. It’s like a traveling piece of home.

There’s a lot of piano on Highs In The Minuses. When you’re writing, why would you reach for the Gibson instead of going to the keys?

I don’t have a lot of piano chops, so when I sit at the piano, it’s more kind of space and chords, and often I’ll go there for a more melancholy vibe. And if I want more room for rhythmic ideas and stuff like that to emerge. But the guitar is definitely my go-to for anything more uptempo, and if I’m skeleton-ing more of a rock song. Or even just like a more sort of Americana vibe. But I guess there’s no real rhyme or reason to it. I don’t wake up being like, ‘I’m gonna sit down at the piano.’ It just happens. Often I meander between both but I do get into waves. These past few months, I’ve been in a guitar wave. And for the kind of hooky chorus-y type of song, I just find the guitar really helpful because it’s easy to move around and try different things out and stuff like that.

At this point, how closely tied do you feel like the guitar is to the songs you write? How do you think that might change if it was suddenly gone? 

I think, without the guitar, I would be just devastated by its loss. But I think I would maybe just write more on electric for a while until I came upon another acoustic that I liked. But I don’t know if it would change my process that much. I may not have said that five years ago. I may just be at a point where it’s an asset, but isn’t essential. Which feels good. And maybe it would put me in a headspace of wanting to experiment with other instruments as writing tools. Which I try to do anyway, but keep coming back to guitar and piano.