Redemption Songs: C’est Clair Finds Her Voice on Second Chance (cover story)
DESERT Magazine, February 2020
In the annals of American creatives, holding onto a day job as an artist is more common than we might think. The composer Phillip Glass drove New York City cabs well into his 30’s. The novelist Toni Morrison worked as a literary editor by day while writing her first novels at night. Visual artist Barbara Kruger excelled as a professional graphic designer and an art critic.
Here in the high desert, singer-songwriter and restaurateur Claire Wadsworth juggles some of the same time management challenges as the greats before her. In addition to working in her day job as a co-founder of the acclaimed Flamingo Heights restaurant La Copine, Wadsworth performs original music under the name C’est Claire. A Berklee-trained pianist with the creative drive to match her dizzying skills, Wadsworth just released her second record, the appropriately titled Second Chance.
“It’s not easy [doing both],” she said. “I need to recharge for the work week. But when I feel bogged down, my wife Nikki would tell me to go play a song or book studio time. This record took a year to make.”
Teaming up with producer Charlie Stavish and recording at his Yucca Mesa studio Clock Tower Recorder, Wadsworth would squeeze in some days and nights while working long hours at La Copine. Slowly, the record began to take shape. Luckily for Wadsworth, who worked with Stavish on her first full-length LP, 2018’s First Lessons, the process of recording was supported by a seasoned team, which included local legends Dave Catching and Chris Goss. In addition, Ben Alleman on synths, Aaron Ficca on drums and Lucas Rinz on bass all round out the band.
For Wadworth, it’s all about balance; finding the sweet spot between giving your all to a thriving business, while carving out the space for a creative life.
“I have to respect both areas of my work,” she said. “La Copine and my music, although my music sort-of feels like my new job at the moment! I have to balance the two. Making records independently is very expensive and without La Copine, I wouldn’t be able to do this”.
La Copine is also Wadsworth’s storytelling laboratory. Like many in the restaurant business, Wadsworth is a keen observer of human interaction. On the surface, she’s checking reservations and greeting customers, but, behind the eyes, she’s a collector of anything she can use in her songs.
“The restaurant is my biggest influence,” she said. “It’s my social experiment. I get to see how people behave. In one day, so many different scenarios unfold. Extreme highs and lows. I have to remind myself sometimes that I’m just collecting stories and material for music.”
Citing her musical influences like friends on a first-name basis (Carol! Elton! Tori! Alanis!), Second Chance sounds like a record that only needs the passage of time to make it a classic. Sounding both new and timeless, while rooted in traditional, piano-driven tunes, the singing and piano playing are complemented by a soaring string quartet, 80’s synths and trippy electric guitars. Wadsworth’s vocals float above it all, drenched in Laurel Canyon reverb and multi-tracked harmonies. The record casts a spell upon the listener; 51 minutes of desert magic.
To get that combination of fresh and classic in the studio, producer Stavish approached the recording with an organic touch.
“I always set out to make records that feel natural,” he said. “There are no tricks. Just talented musicians doing their thing. A lot of what you hear on the record was cut live. There’s an interplay between the musicians that you can really only get that way. [And] I love working with Claire. She’s so talented and really open to ideas.”
As the daughter of a former Exxon employee, Wadsworth’s family moved all over the world. This rootless childhood forms some of Wadsworth’s themes, with songs like “All the Way Home”, “Move On” and “Bringing it All Back” exploring ideas of identity, movement and finding your place as being, what she describes, “a child of the universe”.
She started her music career in Philadelphia and eventually made it to Los Angeles, where she worked as a music teacher and in a recording studio. In her spare time, she was trying to write “hit songs”.
“During that time, I felt like maybe I would just be better behind the scenes,” she said. “I felt very introspective about my music. Wondering if anyone would ever like my songs. I thought no one was interested in my music because it actually required sitting down and listening. Industry people love hits. So, I’d go home and try to write a hit, but every songwriter knows that not every song is going to be a hit.”
Although Wadsworth doesn’t worry about writing hit songs that much anymore, she still feels that she has something to prove on this album. Growing up in a musical family, Wadsworth struggled at times to prove herself in the eyes of her father (a prolific songwriter himself), who would regularly tell her that she was “just a piano-player, just a background singer”. But Second Chance is proof alone that the days of doubting herself, or letting anyone else doubt her, are long over.
“I want redemption,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I feel free. Free to create without judgement. Something happened to me when I started making music in the desert. I finally got my groove back! I want to be known to the world as a musician as much as I am a restaurant owner.”