Carmen Elle's Complicated Relationship with Compliments

In our column My Favorite Things, women tell us about their features that receive the most compliments. In this installment, DIANA frontwoman Carmen Elle talks about her music.

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Sep 25 2015, 7:00pm

Image by Courtney Vokey

Carmen Elle has been a mainstay of the Toronto music scene since the mid-2000s. The front woman of electronic pop dream DIANA and garage rock band Army Girls, 26 year-old Elle has also recorded, toured and played with Doldrums, AUSTRA, Moon King, Donlands and Mortimer, and a number of other Canadian darlings. It's not surprising that the thing she gets the most compliments on is her musical ability, but I was surprised to learn she feels conflicted about the praise she receives for the talent that earns her her living. We talked about performer's anxiety, how to enjoy praise, and playing "good for a girl."

BROADLY: How do you feel about your music?
Carmen Elle: Playing music just feels natural to me. I learned to play when I was nine and for about ten years I practiced and played constantly. That being said, it has always been a love/hate relationship. I had a lot of anxiety around performing live that hampered my enjoyment and made me doubt whether or not it was something I should continue doing. Looking back at old diaries I constantly write about quitting. As the years have gone by my relationship to music has gotten more and more twisted. I think it will always inspire some polarized emotions in me. There's deep love there, for sure. But I also face the most challenges in music—anxiety, insecurity, sexism. But I love collaborating and playing, so part of me feels like music is all the more precious and I enjoy it that much more knowing that it was so hard for me to get to the place I am now with it.

What kinds of compliments do you get about it? How often and from whom?
I get complimented fairly often from strangers, peers, friends, and family. These comments can be anything from a kid after a show saying, "You play pretty good for a girl" to sincere and thoughtful comments from music lovers. Either way I have always noticed people taking notice of me for being a female guitar player, as though it's more noteworthy than being a male guitar player somehow.

"Pretty good for a girl" is such a non-compliment. How do you respond to that, especially when you can see someone really means it as a nice thing?
I've had a wide range of reactions to that comment depending on my age and maturity level. Sometimes, I rolled my eyes and walked away. Sometimes I smiled and nodded. Sometimes I lightly ribbed, or passive aggressively challenged the comment. A lot of the time I would just say, "what do you mean, 'for a girl?'" which often embarrassed them and prompted them to backpedal. I've never felt like I'm "pretty good for a girl." When I was a child my dream was to be good enough at guitar that everyone who heard me would acknowledge I'm good even if they didn't really like my music. I worked hard to be good and the men that I choose to play with treat me like an equal in every way, so those slighting compliments never cut too deep. That being said, I know plenty of female musicians who have had to fight way harder than me to make it in such a male-dominated industry.

How does hearing these compliments make you feel, about yourself and about this thing in particular?
Compliments land differently on depending on the day. If I'm feeling insecure and vulnerable, a few well-timed words bolster my confidence and egg me on. If I feel like I haven't done a good job it's hard to accept compliments. Almost always compliments make me feel quietly pleased... it's like a silent glow I'm scared to show people. Like I'm ashamed of being proud.

Where do you think that comes from?
I think that it may have actually originated in elementary school. When you're in grade school you also get an education in socializing. You're taught to share, not to be a sore loser, to be gracious. They teach you not to boast or gloat. If someone pays you a compliment you soon learn that saying something self-deprecating or deflecting the compliment is better received than giving yourself big ups or clearly showing that you feel proud of something you own or do.

I remember relying heavily on humor and self-deprecation in school until one day I have the distinct memory of realizing I didn't know how to take a compliment at all! It was so strange. I thought about it for years. I guess I still do.

Are you comfortable with compliments in general?
I've always intellectually understood that compliments exist for both the giver and the receiver. The compliment is given because whoever is offering the compliment wants to make the receiver feel good. Wants to tell them they did something well, or have something nice, or whatever. So the duty of the receiver is to accept the compliment...it's like a social contract. That being said, receiving compliments has always been hard for me. I tend to act bashful or blow it off by being self-effacing. It may be that I've never been comfortable with praise because I'm a girl who grew up in a male-dominated community and lived through adolescence increasingly aware of the ocean that separates genders. Or maybe I just get down on myself.

Do you think the compliments you've received about your music changed your relationship to it, or how you play?
It's hard to say. I think if I hadn't gotten compliments on it as a child I maybe wouldn't have continued as a young adult. For a long time it was the thing that defined me, that people knew me for. Nowadays I'm grateful and humbled when people say they like my music, but I can never relish the compliment, which has always bothered me.

What do you think would help you appreciate compliments, or enjoy them more?
I think that the ability to enjoy compliments has to come from within. I hope that one day my inner landscape or self-esteem or whatever is self-assured enough to shift focus outward. People like me who are insecure are constantly looking in, questioning and doubting ourselves. My hope is that once you feel really truly good in your skin, you will have boundless extra energy to hear and listen to all the nice things other people have to say about you. You'll be able to be generous and listen to compliments and accept them and say, "Thank You" the way it was always supposed to be before we all got it twisted.