Corey Gulkin: The WL Interview

Purveyor of: Experimentation, vocal power, furious guitar solos, authenticity

File next to: Thom Yorke, Angel Olsen, Eliza Niemi, Dorothea Paas 

Playing: Tara Kannangara + Corey Gulkin (double album release) + Essie Watts: Wavelength, April 12, 2024 @ Monarch Tavern (12 Clinton St.) 

More info here

GAMIQ nominated artist Corey Gulkin revels in the peculiar and makes it feel like home. Emerging from the world of folk music, Gulkin drew attention early in their career as the 2013 laureate of the John Lennon Songwriting Grand Prize. With Gulkin’s tenacity and vulnerability at the forefront, their new album Half Moon (2023, Anything Bagel) revels in this new territory, leaping into the world of art-rock.

Wavelength chatted with Corey about Half Moon, the Banff Centre residency, and their artistic identity. 

Editor’s note*: This interview has been edited for clarity.

WL: Your journey from folk music to art-rock seems like quite an evolution. How has your musical pedigree and experimentation shaped your artistic identity over the years?

Corey: I started out many years ago in the folk world – it is in many ways where my heart goes most naturally, growing up fingerpicking acoustic guitar, or crying my eyes out to Iron & Wine. But I always had many influences in the pop and rock worlds (honestly my teenage years also included some combo of Weezer and Alanis Morissette). Once I began engaging more in the music industry in my 20s, I found myself trying to squeeze into a folk box to make myself more marketable, but I never really fit. I was always enticed by non-traditional elements, whether crooked time signatures, or unconventional song structure, and was excited to build more sonic layers. I really just wanted to play, and letting go of that genre label was one of the best things I did for myself and my writing. Most recently this has meant putting my banjo aside and trying out synths, electric guitars and fun pedals.

My approach to arrangements has always been collaborative, and sharing music is one of my favourite forms of intimacy. I have been so lucky over the years to work with many extraordinary artists who have influenced me in all kinds of ways – whether that’s my OG drummer Matthew Daher, who introduced me to the worlds of ambient music and jazz, to my music wife/harpist Leah Dolgoy, who taught me so much about the Carter Family, traditional tunes and country music or to my collaborator/producer Sam Gleason who gave me an inside look into the arrangements behind one of my favourite Toronto bands, Omhouse.

WL: You’ve described your new album, “Half Moon,” as exploring themes of letting go of control and channeling queer heartbreak, love, and rage. Can you share more about the creative process behind this album and how these themes manifest in your music?

Corey: I think the lyric that is most representative of the album is “to all the creatures within who rescue us”, from the song “Thirty-One.” It’s a nod to a toast made by one of my favourite occasional Star Trek characters, Lwaxana Troi. She gets a lot of hate in the fandom, but I love how dramatic and direct she is – she’s kind of this sci-fi drag queen who takes no shit.

I would say, in contrast, that I am a recovering people pleaser. There was something that really hit me about this idea of listening to the uglier, darker parts of myself and letting them shine. Many of these songs are written from the perspective of one of these creatures, whether that’s competitiveness, or limerence, or depression. I loved pushing the music of these songs to their limits, with support from producer Sam Gleason, whether with aggressive synths, distorted guitars or recording vocals in a tunnel. I really wanted to create these surprise moments of catharsis, kind of mirroring the feeling of something coming up and just letting it out.

WL: Can you tell us about your experience at the Banff Centre residency and how it impacted your artistic growth and the creation of Half Moon?

Corey: My voice changed completely over two weeks at the Banff Centre. I had been wanting to develop more power in my voice for a long time. I would wake up every morning and sing “Beautiful Mother” by Dirty Projectors for 30 minutes, just trying to emulate each section of the song, from the soft, sweet verses to the raw hocketed “ahhs” of the chorus. One day everything just clicked in my body – I ended up tapping into this vocal vibrato that I had never accessed before. This ended up being the basis for how I sang the record, and gave me so much more confidence in my abilities as a vocalist.

I was also really grateful to have the opportunity to collaborate with many talented artists while I was there, who showed me new guitar and voice techniques and contributed arrangements to some of the songs as I was writing them, including Sam Cope, Monique Claire, Brendan Canning, Emily Kaplan and Joe Fallon.

WL: Half Moon is praised for its confrontational, restless, and spirited nature. How do you maintain authenticity and vulnerability while exploring such intense emotions in your music?

Corey: I don’t think I realized until recently that the songs on Half Moon was my own take on Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy. It’s painfully obvious now that I have a therapist who specializes in IFS [laughs]. I really like the idea of looking at all the parts of yourself, and trying to understand how they interact with one another. These songs represent so many sides of myself, and yes, I do let some of them go to the extreme. It’s the feeling of what happens when one part takes over and starts driving the proverbial bus. So, a lot of these narratives are imbalanced, yet very authentic to my experience in particular moments. It’s a kind of self-reassurance that it’s okay and normal and a very human experience to feel these things, and there are safe ways to process them.

WL: Any upcoming Corey Gulkin news that you can share (other than your album release)? 

Corey: I’m traveling to Estonia in early April to perform at Tallinn Music Week! This will be my very first European performance and I am very excited to explore and meet new people. If you know anyone in Estonia, we are performing on April 2 in Viljandi at Mulks and on April 4 in Tallinn at the Club of Different Rooms.

Don’t miss Corey Gulkin on April 12th at the Monarch Tavern as part of the monthly Wavelength Music Series. Get tickets here!

– Interview by Tara Hejazi