The Corner Laughers Sing Upbeat Pop About Science, Nerdery, and Motherhood

The “Matilda Effect” is the name given to the systematic oppression of women’s work in science. First named by science historian Margaret Rossiter, the Matilda Effect most often takes the form of men receiving credit for female scientists’ work. It’s also the name of a new album out this summer from California-based pop group The Corner Laughers. As an album, Matilda Effect is as informative as it is sunny and fun.

The Corner Laughers consist of lead singer and songwriter Karla Kane, guitarist KC Bowman, bassist Khoi Huynh, and drummer Charlie Crabtree. Matilda Effect is self-released and produced by the band and Allen Clapp of The Orange Peels—the liner notes also credit a cat friend, Wazu, for purring.

Kane’s conversational vocal tone and her storytelling chops are reminiscent of The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle. Musically, though, their bright harmonies make them sound a lot more like Belle & Sebastian with a little more jangle and a little more twang. That’s an influence they’re aware of. According to Kane, the song “Sophie on the Streets of Stockholm”—one of the album’s highlights—has a decidedly silly origin somewhat tied to the Scottish indie pop band: During a trip to Stockholm, Kane was pregnant with her daughter and discovered a Sophie La Girafe, which she describes as “the omnipresent and surprisingly pricey rubber French squeaky toy.” “I found one abandoned in the street,” she says. “I did look around and squeak it to make sure there wasn’t a heartbroken child nearby missing it, then decided to keep it.” When they returned home and reminisced about finding Sophie on the streets of Stockholm, Kane joked that it sounded like a Belle and Sebastian title. “Quickest I ever wrote a song, probably,” says Kane. 

This story is emblematic of their music, of the ways they embrace a bit of silliness within their direct lyricism. The song “Queen of the Meadow,” Kane said, is the album’s best example of the band’s tendency to blend “the personal and the historical, the mundane and the magical, the domestic and the cosmic.” The song is about parenthood but it’s also about Henrietta Levitt, the astronomer who didn’t receive credit for her work, and it’s the album’s most explicit tie to the Matilda Effect (which Kane says she learned about from the pages of Bitch). The inspiration for the song, Kane says, came from an apprehensive moment with her newborn daughter: “[I was] sitting in my backyard, terrified, trying to get used to nursing her, sleep deprivation and everything, and listening to a public-radio science program on Henrietta Leavitt.” With this context, the song’s lyric, “And I’ve never been so surprised / of the by the whole new world we’ve devised” is even more touching, and all-in-all, it’s the catchiest song on the album.

According to the band’s press release, the song, “The Girl, America”—written by Anton Barbeau, who regularly collaborates with the band—is partially about “an incident of perceived sexism from a radio DJ.” After Kane was referred to as “the girl” by a radio DJ, though her bandmates (in The Corner Laughers and in another project, Agony Aunts) were referenced by name. “Like my only identity was that of ‘the girl,’” she says. “It kind of stung.” Though the song doesn’t directly reference this incident, it does have a sarcastic bite to its phrasing and tone. “If I’m not real, then who’s been dreaming me?” the song asks.

Kane recently had a daughter, Octavia, with her bandmate Huynh, and she says motherhood has given her a new perspective on songwriting. “Octavia A” is a lively, uplifting expression of her hopes for her daughter: ”I hope she never hates her hair / I hope her feet are often bare… I hope she always wants to read / I hope she has all that she needs.” The song is simple and light while still evoking the immense possibility the world holds for her new daughter.

“Having a child makes everything suddenly take on greater importance,” Kane said. “You want to be a better person and you want the world to be a better place. I’ve always been a feminist but having a daughter only reinforces it.” Kane said giving her daughter her own last name—instead of the father’s—was also important to her as a feminist. Kane’s daughter has become a songwriting inspiration for her. But she doesn’t want that to give anyone the wrong idea; the band won’t be losing its charming, nerdy core and focusing solely on parenthood. “I’ll still write about cats, ancient civilizations, tea, Lewis Carroll, pagan holidays, TV shows and all that good stuff, too, though. Don’t worry.”

by Jess Kibler
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Jess Kibler is a Portland-based writer, editor, and sad-song collector.

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