The sweater girl
Meryn Cadell is not a comedian.
Saturday Night, December, 1993
Don’t call me a comedian,” Meryn Cadell warns. “I always correct people when ‘comedy’ gets said anywhere near me.” Two years ago, the Toronto performance artist released an album titled Angel Food for Thought. It consisted almost entirely of monologues — by turns conversational, confessional, caustic, and, yes, comedic. But they were monologues with a difference: no punch lines, no labored gags, but small tales full of telling details and insights sometimes delivered over music, mostly driven by the quirky rhythms of Cadell’s deadpan voice.
The first single, “The Sweater,” which recounts an episode involving adolescent desire, societal norms, and misunderstanding, all revolving around an item of knitwear, made the playlists of American top-forty stations and, finally, just as it was fading after a long run in the States, on commercial Canadian outlets.
Depending on your point of view, “The Sweater” was either the unlikeliest hit in the history of recorded music or a pop smart-bomb aimed straight at radio’s core demographic: “Girls... I know you will understand this and feel the intrinsic, incredible emotion,” Cadell begins the thread of her narrative about a girl who captures her favorite boy’s sweater, a sweater exuding “that slightly goat-like smell which all teenage boys possess.” When the boy turns out to be indifferent, the girl learns a hard lesson in humiliation, a lesson reinforced by the story’s I-should-have-known-all-along denouement: “The label in that sweater said one-hundred-percent acrylic.” All this telescoped into pop-music time, propelled by a chunky organ riff and drum groove that sound as though they were salvaged from a generic go-go session time warp.
Cadell passed her own sweater years in Waterloo, Ontario, wanting to be an actress. She spent a year studying dance in Waterloo and a year studying film at York University before enrolling in the Ontario College of Art, learning holography and performance art for academic credit. At the same time, she was appearing on stage around the corner from OCA at the Beverley Tavern, reading her monologues at weekly catch-all evenings called Elvis Mondays. “For the first year I was at OCA I kept what I was doing at school and what I was doing in the bars totally separate. I was so clued out. I can’t believe I did that for a whole year,” she explains in her loud-and-clear voice.
This fall, Meryn Cadell stared down the barrel of her sophomore album. Bombazine was put together mostly with people she first got to know at OCA, but she’s added some musical collaborators, including k.d. lang’s co-composer Ben Mink. The title may sound like something you might find on a dessert cart, but bombazine is actually black fabric worn as a symbol of mourning. And that’s the way this record works: it sounds confectionary — and parts are — but there’s also material for mourning. The individual tracks — no sweaters this time, but gay marriages and shoplifters — are more fully developed and more recognizable as pop songs. The monologues are still there as interludes, studded throughout the album: the titles are listed, but the words don’t turn up on the lyric sheet. You have to listen.
Between her deadpan delivery and her surprisingly versatile singing voice, Meryn Cadell’s proved that there’s more to her than just girl talk. “My first record company tried to pretend they discovered I could sing,” the sweater girl says, falling into character: “‘She was only speaking until we found her.’”