Craig Cardiff is a busy man. This year has seen the Waterloo-born, Juno-nominated singer-songwriter criss-crossing the country, the U.S. border, and the Atlantic. Craig played a set at Bluesfest on July 13th inside a packed Barney Danson Theatre, with a set that featured heartfelt tunes, storytelling, and his signature improv. The show at Bluesfest actually meant he could spend some time at home, which for him is now in Arnprior, just outside of Ottawa.
“I just feel lucky for the neighbours I have. You can live in a lot of places, but to have neighbours who, you know, you feel connected to them, they look out for each other. There’s also a lot of benefits. So many people dump on the small town experience. As long as you time your commute in, you’re ok. You’re not sitting in traffic too often.”
When Cardiff was growing up in Waterloo, it was a schoolteacher who inspired him to take up the guitar and try his hand at songwriting.
“He would give guitar lessons to students as a group thing. And I remember he also ran a coffeehouses, for everybody who wasn’t good at football, who loved books and music but didn’t have your ‘tribe’ yet, that was kind of the tribe, these monthly coffeehouse things. And I just remember watching people who I knew as students, and whatever clothes or masks they were putting on were gone, all of a sudden they were singing and larger than life. I thought “I want to be there, I want to be a part of that.” I wanted to write songs, and write everything I could in a way that didn’t sound exactly like the music I was listening to, and then listening to it two weeks after, being like ‘aw man, this sounds exactly like a Bob Dylan song.’”
So what music was it that Craig listened to that he didn’t want his own necessarily to sound like?
“My second job ever was to clean up at a club called The Twist, and all the guys who were on the cleanup crew were in bands. I became like a little brother to them (I was 13). They were all in their twenties, and they were in bands, doing things musically. They’d be like “oh you have to listen to this,” and they’d come with cassettes that they’d made. So I remember it was this mix of Bowie and Elvis Costello, and bands that I knew nothing about (because it was pre-Internet). It was people who loved live music, and loved writers. Not in a purely lyrical sense, but in an experiential sense. Like, I think David Bowie wrote in a way that might not have made sense on the written page, but the way that the music and the words knitted together, it took you to a different place.”
One aspect of Cardiff’s shows that sets makes his shows apart from others is the level of direct interaction with the audience. Like a comedian picking on those seated in the front row, if you see Craig at an intimate venue, there’s a good chance you’ll be pulled onstage to participate in whatever way he sees fit. One thing he enjoys doing is picking out a couple and writing a completely original song for them on the spot, often to their mild embarrassment.
“The improvisation of it is exciting. There’s a lot of people who have been coming to [my] shows for 12 years. I feel like that alone is to be honoured. Part of interacting with the crowd comes from that. It also comes from reading all the books that go around and reading all the things that everybody thinks but nobody says. Everybody’s thinking of doing the same thing. The dynamic of couples is also easy to quickly get into without putting your foot in it too much. Like, I’ve done some things where, I’m just glad they worked out. In terms of riffing with someone I’m just like “gosh, what if I had misjudged???” They wouldn’t have found this funny. That’s why I think couples work for that”.
This interaction with the crowd has led to some surprising moments, including one at a show at Lakehead University, where Craig pulled someone onstage who had a shirt that literally lit up, and then proceeded to do a standing flip.
“That was the biggest surprise so far. For anyone coming to a show, you have to beat that. If there’s one takeaway from this article, beat a standing flip.”
Something you’ll notice when looking at Craig’s tour schedule is that he plays a lot of private house shows, but he explains that “private” doesn’t necessarily mean “private,” and he really welcomes them. In fact, after reading this, you can contact him and book your own private Craig Cardiff house show.
“To be honest, most of the house shows are actually public. We sell tickets for them. We often note them as “you have to email us for tickets,” because some of the hosts, they’ve never done it before, and they’re like “uhh, I don’t want strangers in my house.” But, it’s a pretty long-shot that some creepy, terrible person is going to use a folk house concert as a way to, I don’t know, break into homes, you know? Like, it could happen, but it’s an unlikely, lowww percentage. The point though is that everybody loves music, and especially after you start having kids and a family, the excuses to not go out and connect with it increase. Like, if you love music, what will your outlet be when you’re 50, for live music? It’s one thing to consume recordings, but it’s another thing to be in it. Whether it’s a mellow thing or a high-energy thing, there’s a drug in that, for the audience and for the artist. So where are you going to connect with that? I feel like the house concerts are a way for people to… Like, you don’t need a venue, you don’t need to wait for permission for somebody to book the band that you’ve always wanted to see. It’s you saying “oh, well, it’s not a lot of money, and I have friends who really like music too.”
Craig also has a dog that he brings on tour with him, and makes frequent appearances at the venues he performs in. While a bit of a burden, Cardiff explains that having a dog around actually helps when he visits schools to lead songwriting workshops.
“I bring him often, his name is Bear (writer’s note: he’s crazy cute). It’s two things. One, when I go to do songwriting things at schools, he’s the best icebreaker when kids are like “this guy’s stupid.” I’m like “release the dog.” Even just kids who are shy, the shyest kids all want to see an animal. He’s just really chill. He’s also older, so I feel like it’s like your great-nana, asking you to take her out for errands, and you just feel terrible if you don’t, even though you hate it. Whenever I go away, I’ll put all my gear beside the entrance to the garage, and in the morning I’ll come and he’ll be laying down on top of it. So he has to come.”
Craig states he’s very happy with where he’s at with his career, and why not? He’s getting paid to do what he loves. He makes that very clear when I asked what he would be doing if his career wasn’t in the music industry.
“Oh, I don’t know. I’d still be doing music. That’s the thing that anybody who plays or makes stuff, the reason that we get taken on these playing-for-exposure opportunities and such is because we’re going to be playing anyways. We love it. It’s important in building your career to do it, but everybody knows the truth of the matter is you’re going to keep making. I met a fellow the other night at a house concert in the 1000 Islands, and he was hesitant at first to talk about it, but he said he’s finally putting out his first CD. He’s in his mid-fifties, and I’m like “awesome! Why not?” You can think of all the industry reasons of what won’t work, but I’m like, he’s got good spirit, his songs are good, who are we? I like that idea of people not viewing as a closed chapter, and the idea that you can create. Creating opens you up, so you’re not just someone in your mid-fifties, sixties or forties, or whatever. It’s not closed to you. I get excited about that.”
Craig Cardiff will be back playing a few shows in the Ottawa area in August:
Saturday, August 6 @8pm – Riverside Park, Pembroke, ON
Monday, August 15 @9am – Easter Seals Camp Merrywood (camp show), Perth, ON
Saturday, August 27 @9pm – Cheshire Cat Pub, Carp, ON
To hear more of this interview of Craig Cardiff, listen to the July 26 episode of Apt13 Live on CHUO 89.1fm at 6pm.