Charlotte Cardin emerges from the shadows …
Posted up in her Paris apartment, Charlotte Cardin has just been surprised with a bouquet of flowers when she picks up my phone call. Hailing from Montreal, she’s across the pond doing press for her debut album, Phoenix, out April 23. It’s a dance she’s familiar with—interviews, photoshoots, filming live sessions, the works.
Cardin started blowing up in 2016 with her sexy, smoky and totally addictive jazzy R&B sound, gaining fans all over the world with her debut EP Big Boy, followed by her Main Girl EP in 2017.
She opened for Melbourne, Australia’s Nick Murphy— a.k.a. electronica sensation Chet Faker—on tour, sold out headlining shows in Europe and North America, and serenaded festivalgoers at Bonnaroo and Osheaga. All the boxes for a star on the rise were checked.
And then, silence. Nothing beyond a smattering of quietly released singles.
“I just felt super irrelevant in a lot of ways, like I sucked as an artist,” Cardin admits. “I had released maybe like 12 songs and they were the story of my whole entire life. And then I was confronted with the fact that I had to write an album in six months—I just wasn’t ready.”
Paralyzed by writer’s block and stifled by what she thought people wanted from her, Cardin was playing it safe. After modelling from age 15 to 20, pleasing casting directors and operating upon notions of what others wanted was deeply engrained.
“Modelling is really difficult, because you’re never judged for your intelligence and your skill and your kindness and your good personality. It’s just about your looks and it really fucked me up.
“When you’re at a casting and you’re half-naked in front of people and they think you’re fat and ugly, there’s part of you that just wants to disappear. “It’s a very intense representation of what every single woman has to go through—we all experience something like that.”
Rather than writing songs from the heart, she externalized the process: does this sound cool? Is this too edgy? What will people think of the lyrics?
At 18, Cardin was a finalist on La Voix, the Quebecois edition of TV singing competition The Voice. It was an experience she credits as immensely positive and one that helped launch her career. But, certain aspects of it deepened the trench between who she truly is and what she was projecting.
“One of the downsides of shows like that is they’re able to brand you the way they want. You don’t really have a say.”
There’s a 2013 YouTube clip from La Voix in which she’s performing a cutesy song written for her, wearing a flouncy green skater skirt in front of a sugary-sweet background of confetti and butterflies. Nothing about the performance screams her name.
Known more for her effortless, je ne sais quoi, cool-girl style, Cardin is more likely to be caught sitting cross-legged on the floor in Reeboks and a sweatshirt while strumming her electric guitar.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always been very torn between how I wanted people to see me versus how I wanted to behave deep down.”
Freeing herself from this Freudian tension took scrapping an entire album and throwing caution not just to the wind, but out the top-storey window.
“I’ve been listening to my instincts and I think that’s why the album is really raw. I feel vulnerable expressing certain things in this album—it’s not sugar-coated.”
Collaborating with Cult Nation producer Jason Brando was a crucial turning point. After struggling with writing what she describes as “boring songs,” Cardin tapped into the potential of co-penning when the two teamed up in 2019. The result? Creative electricity. It vibrates throughout the album but is especially evident in Meaningless, a pulsating single that’s ripe for rage dancing.
“You realize the most personal things, the exact words, can also be super personal for someone else,” Cardin shares, sounding increasingly passionate.
“I just hope that when people listen to my music it makes them feel something. Everything is going so fucking fast now with social media, and nothing is really in-depth anymore. Writing music is a way for me to keep in touch with intense emotions.”
Her 13-track debut does not disappoint. The emotional liberation is auditory and cleansing, her seismic voice emanating guttural cries as she torches toxic lovers, bad habits and the shame of people-pleasing to the ground.
When the more low-key tracks slink in, her voice furls seductively around trappy hi-hats, oozing sadgirl swagger. Cardin dances through it all with the coquettish nonchalance of her doppelgänger, Jane Birkin, and the braggadocio of A$AP Rocky. She’s certainly a woman who contains multitudes.
Self-indulgent exes gave her plenty of material for the album.
These days, Cardin is in love, in Paris, in the spring. Her boyfriend, a Montreal actor and musician, is the monsieur that surprised her with flowers before our interview.
To finally get her flowers as an artist, however, Cardin acknowledges she had to shed the toxic tendencies she’d developed.
“Whenever there’s growth, there’s always sacrifice.”
Now, rather than feeling objectified in model castings, she’s got a seat at the table as a house ambassador for revered French label Chanel, alongside Lily-Rose Depp, Kristen Stewart and Blackpink’s Jennie Kim.
“Fashion is a beautiful industry on a lot of levels,” Cardin clarifies. “Now that I’m an artist and have photoshoots, being able to have control over what I want to wear, what I want to look like—those things can be so empowering. They make you feel good.”
No longer concerned with adhering to marketable notions of who she should be as a female musician, Cardin is free to try on different moods throughout the album.
“My whole reflection and process with this album comes with growing up a woman and dealing with the fact that society has wanted me to be a certain way for so long, and me trying to figure out who I want to be through all of that.”
And figure it out she has. Frilly green skirts and inhibitions ablaze, Cardin has risen from the ashes in true phoenix form.