Carolyn Flaherty, the New York-based singer-songwriter who records simply as Carol, released her debut EP, Softest Destroyer, in 2019. It was aptly titled, as Carol displayed an ability to wring haunting beauty out of the intense loneliness surrounding fractured relationships. As she honed in her songwriting on 2021’s Soiled EP, a gentle kind of warmth seeped through the same darkness: “In this chapter of confusion/ Dismantle the memory/ Synchronize the cyclic pattern/ To soil is to comfort me,” she sang. Naturally, these cycles never cease, and Carol continues to weave a delicate dance on her debut album, More Than a Goodbye. Though she spent a lot of time alone while writing the songs, she recorded them during a two-week period in the summer of 2020 while living on a farm in upstate New York with her bandmates at the time, who she hadn’t seen since they played their last show together before the pandemic. Carol is still making gorgeous, quietly stirring music about life’s contradictory patterns, but elements of joy, comfort, and sweetness now flourish on deeper ground. “You cry but don’t know why/ Walk the memory slow,” she sings on opener ‘Other Room’, pursuing the question as it unfolds.
We caught up with Carol for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her journey as a songwriter, the making of her debut album, beginnings and endings, and more.
What comes to mind when you think about your upbringing and the role music had early on in your life?
I definitely can start with my tape machine. This artist and friend posted the other day about this tape of Raffi, the children’s artist, and I literally would listen to so much Raffi growing up. Music was always a comfort and kind of an addiction for me. I would wake up and flip the tape all night to just re-listen to it over and over and over, and I did that for years with like the same three tapes. I didn’t have much formal musical training growing up. I took guitar lessons at one point in this little back room in this ancient guitar store that was the only one in the town, but it was also kind of far away from where I lived so we had to travel to get there. That was pretty much it. I just had a lot of time in my room, and I wrote and journaled a lot. I always was interested in writing songs and needed a tool to do that, so I learned how to play guitar when I was 10 years old, but probably didn’t know how to play well enough to write a song until I was like 13.
I definitely spent a lot of time outside as well. I think in general, that’s where I find my jumping-off points for creativity. That was where I had the time to be the most creative when I was little, even if it wasn’t in music, something else that would be with a group of people – my siblings, my neighbors, my cousins, my family, friends. Building something, whether it was a fort or writing a play and performing it or whittling sticks into arrows – [laughs] kind of violent – but just always having the urge to be making something and doing it with other people. I think that’s where my upbringing is the most reminiscent in my music.
How do you feel like you’ve grown as a songwriter, from your EPs to More Than a Goodbye?
I think that now I’m more direct. This album is representative of the warmth and the love that I was in – I was very in love while I was writing this album, and not even just in love with a person or a group of people, which I was, but falling in love with the slowness of life and the stillness of life that grounds me the most in this world. Going back to that was making me fall in love with everything in my day, at all times. Just being able to see beauty in a capacity that I hadn’t witnessed in a while. That’s really challenging to get back to at times, but I was able to, like, put my hands into the water and kind of sift through what I needed from that time. And I’m older now, so I have different feelings I’m working through, like anger and forgiveness. I think I have much more of a sense of humor than when I was younger, and I oscillate between being really silly and really serious.
More Than a Goodbye feels to me like it’s as much about endings as it is about beginnings, and learning to trust what they might bring. That’s obviously a difficult process, but there’s also an element of play in the way you describe it – a kind of hide and seek, as you sing in ‘Cartwheel’.
Reflecting on the way that the album was made, I was so focused and obsessed with play at that time. I just felt like we couldn’t play music unless we could play together, like in a silly way. We’d be in this barn playing – this is kind of how it all started – I would be like, “OK, spin around!” and we’d do like a million spins, and then we’d pick up our instruments and just play and record whatever came out. And of course, sometimes it’d sound crazy, but just the feeling of being able to have that release with such a silly, playful element to these songs that are pretty serious and talking about lots of different serious topics, I think that was really important. I don’t think we could have made it without having that element of play. And that was running through my life a lot. I was spending a lot of time around kids, I was nannying at the time. I was just alone all day during the pandemic with these children and then I would go home and be in my childhood bedroom, and I think that definitely does something to you – in good and bad ways, as far as the regression that came from that. [laughs] But also learning that things are not that serious, and that playfulness is essential. And it’s central to playing music.
Another thing about beginnings and endings is that they’re not always clear, especially during the time in which the album was made.
That’s such a big part of it, because the people that I was making this album – I played with them, but a lot of the songs ended up being about them in some way, because they were the only people that I was seeing through the whole time in person, with the exception of my family and one close friend from home. I was very far away from them – two of them were living in Brooklyn and one of them was living a little outside of Hudson, New York – and I would drive to them to play. But when we would say goodbye, I would just break down, because I always felt like maybe I won’t see them again. When we did say goodbye in March of 2020, I had no idea what that meant. We played a show in Massachusetts, I happened to be home because we’re staying at my parents’ house through the night before that show. I was planning to go on a little tour, go to SXSW, all these fun, exciting beginnings. I had my little suitcase when I said goodbye to them, I was like, “I don’t think I’m going to go back with you guys.” And I didn’t. That was it – things were just completely different.
At this moment in 2023, of course we do not want to look back on it and reflect on it. I don’t most of the time. I think moving on from that is a really important thing to do, but I think there is an element of abandonment and just shock that a lot of people felt in that time with saying goodbye. Like, “When will I see you again? Where will you move next? Will we ever play a show again?” Just these questions that were too vast for me to answer. I just kind of checked out in a lot of ways. But most people did, because you couldn’t control anything. There’s lots of beginnings and endings, and a lot of people felt like they didn’t know how they could start again. I felt like I was completely resetting and just falling in love with these very real, basic experiences that I wasn’t as tapped into.
Throughout the album, there’s a desire to reach some form of shared understanding, which coincided with the way the songs ended up being about the people you made them with, in some way. Does music offer a pathway to that understanding for you, or is there more to it?
I feel like there’s always room for greater understanding. This is something that someone that I was working with said to me when I was feeling obsessive, a little bit, about trying to understand them, but I think understanding sometimes can almost be this possessive term. Sometimes it doesn’t leave room for growth or understanding the multifaceted parts of a person. It just felt like, in life, cycles were never-ending. I definitely felt sadness in a relationship that I was going through and ended, and different deaths – little deaths, actual deaths – that were going through in my life at that time. But it was comforting to see that the things that I felt the most in touch with were also going through these deaths, and I actually had time to see that more than ever. Life is just so beautiful when you’re in love and you’re also okay with things ending. And not in a passive way, in an active way where you’re really like, “This is gonna end, and it’s okay because this is just the way it goes.”
To be quite honest with you, I was so overwhelmed after that [release] show last night. I had all of my stuff, I had my amp and my two guitars and my box of merchandise. All of they stuff that you have at your show as you go, and this is your routine, this is what you do as a musician. And I just literally couldn’t carry it all at the end of the night. It was so heavy. I was trying to figure out how to get home, and I turned the corner and my friend was there, and was like, “I’m going to help you get this all home.” And [they] were not in my life when all this stuff is going on, but to be able to constantly have these relationships that you cycle through and go through, where people are just so good – it’s just crazy. It makes you emotional that there are different people in your life at different times, for reasons maybe you feel guilty or shame, or maybe actual deaths – actual things that you just simply cannot control. But to know that it always just cycles back, and it always, pretty much always, gets better… It constantly amazes me how resilient people are, and people get that from what we’re derived from, which is everything around us. Our environment is so resilient, for how many shameful things we do to where we live all the time – the resilience is incredible. I’m so thankful I can’t even believe it.
On the final track, ‘Clear As This’, a sudden sense of clarity is balanced out by the realization of how old these truths and feelings are, and how slow you might be to embrace them; you describe yourself as a “slow bleeder” and an “old crier.” With the release of the record, do you feel like some of those old feelings and truths are still coming to you?
Yeah, totally. That line about being an old crier, it was a warning a little bit to someone that I was in love with. But it’s not about the other person necessarily, what you’re crying about or bleeding about or whatever is going on. I think that’s important to state, because at the end of the day, you’re really just with you. That takes a lifetime for people to figure out and feel comfortable with. But you can love someone – you can have unconditional love from family, from friends, from lovers, anyone can show you that – but at the end of the day, you kind of are with you. And the things that you’re upset about or going through, it’s coming from a really deep, deep place for every person. There’s such a thing in our culture and in songwriting where it’s like, “You did this to me. You’re causing me this feeling.” Which is true, we all go through that. But I think the way that you handle and go through it is so unique to each person. You show up scarred, you just can’t help it. You show up in love already bearing those wounds, and it doesn’t have to do with another person, necessarily. That’s a really important thing that I think about a lot, because I think that’s the only way to continue love, is to know that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.