It’s been almost exactly three years since Charlotte Day Wilson first spoke with VMP as our July 2018 Rising artist. When we spoke to her again on the phone, a week before her debut, ALPHA, will be out in the world, she noted that it felt like coming full circle.
The album’s title could be seen as a choice rooted in ego, but “alpha” can also mean a beginning. With her first full-length album, Wilson certainly is at the start of something new.
Right before our call, she’d been rehearsing a live show, reveling in being able to perform music again, and to engage with ALPHA in a new way as her band learns the music she’s made. With a tendency to take things apart and put them back together again until they suit her, orchestrating a live show seems to be just the kind of audio puzzle she enjoys.
ALPHA sustains the qualities that made Wilson an artist-to-watch from the beginning — her soulful voice and ear for layered, emotionally calibrated production — while bringing new warmth, depth and affecting honesty. There’s a throughline of growth on the album, which oscillates between love and longing, sometimes in the same breath. Wilson says she’s her own worst critic, and has trouble getting out of her head — something she tries to overcome by relying on physical intuition. We spoke about that intuition, her production process and how friends make the best collaborators.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
VMP: I read in Billboard that you said the delay in releasing ALPHA was actually kind of a blessing in disguise, since it gave you a little bit more time to work on it. During that time, were you mostly changing the production, or were you making bigger changes and re-recording things?
Charlotte Day Wilson: It was mainly changing the production. I just kind of had time to dissect things a little bit — and I did this thing a lot on the album, where I would kind of strip everything down to the vocals and maybe one other element, and then just see what the core of the song really was — and then kind of re-approach the production, basically remixing the song. And some of those changes I ended up keeping, and some of them I didn't, and I kind of just went back to original versions, but that was something that I did a lot during the pandemic. Another thing I did was just figuring out what I wanted the throughline to be, production-wise, so, whether it's an acoustic guitar tone that I really like that I wanted to sprinkle throughout the album, or the pitched-down vocals that I did quite a bit — just finding ways of kind of making it feel cohesive, production-wise.
I saw you're credited as an editor for [the album’s visuals] as well; is that a new skill, or something you're interested in doing going forward?
I taught myself during the pandemic; I had a little bit of extra time [laughs]. I like learning those kinds of things — because I'm into editing audio, obviously, so it kind of felt like something I wanted to try and get my hands dirty with — and I'm really glad that I did because I ended up finding this way of editing video and music in tandem. So, if I felt like the video needed to have a climax at a certain moment, and then become really small again, I would go into the song and also edit the song, and be like, “OK, well, let's create that climax sonically, as well as visually.”
Can you talk a little bit about including [Mustafa’s] poem [on the video version of “If I Could”]?
He's a really close friend of mine, and we were actually just hanging out at my house and I showed him the video and I was like, “Yo, you should do some poetry if you want,” or something. And he wrote that poem on the spot and recorded it in my basement, like, within 20 minutes of me saying, “You should do something,” he was like, “Yes.” He had watched the video, and he knew pretty in-depth what the album was about and what certain themes were kind of tied into it, [and] he's got an amazing ability to just encapsulate ideas and create the poetry through that.
“Keep Moving” does seem kind of similar to the growth mindset of that poem, and to me, it seemed to be about establishing boundaries and prioritizing yourself in moving forward. Could you talk a little bit about what that one means for you?
It's just kind of about resilience and being able to hold two truths at the same time. While you might want something, it might not be the best thing for you. But also, I tend to be a cerebral person, and I'll sit and think about things forever and, for me, it was kind of just a reminder to get out of my head and make sure I continue to actually live in the real world and not only in my head, and just, yeah, keep moving.
I know you've said that ALPHA is very personal to you, maybe a little bit more personal than some of your previous releases. Could you talk about the tension, if there was one, with a project that is so personal, and including more collaborators here than in your previous work?
I think that the beautiful thing about collaborating, and including other people in the process, is that it doesn't take away at all from how personal something can be. In fact, I feel like the beautiful thing about it is that a good collaboration just adds a different dimension to the story that you were already telling. And a good collaboration will kind of make you, or me, Charlotte, as the artist, go back and listen to it and think about all the ways in which that person was able to say something that I also felt, but wasn't actually able to say — so it kind of brings up more truths.
I know you do so much writing, performing and producing on your own, and you have a home space where you make music, so, was it difficult to let others in on that or was that also relatively intuitive?
I worked quite closely with my friend Jack Rochon, who also plays in my band and who's just a really close friend, and it was really natural to work with him on a lot of the production, because he's an amazing listener, and he's an amazing instrumentalist, and producer, and engineer. We have a pretty beautifully seamless workflow together, so that was pretty easy.
With other producers that I worked with, or just instrumentalists, a lot of times I would work out of other people's studios, and then get people to record a whole slew of ideas, a whole bunch of sounds or whatever, and then I come back to my house, with my space, where I'm comfortable. And I open the project up and I kind of edit and tinker, in a direction that is maybe more personal, more tailored to what I had in mind. Being able to play with other people's sounds in my own space after the fact is kind of where I really thrive.
I wanted to ask you about how you decided to include [the interlude from Daniel Caesar], and the recording process for that one, too?
I mean, Daniel is just such an incredible songwriter. I had sent him something with an instrumental underneath for him to sing on top of and he did, and then, it was one of those things where, I brought all of his vocals into the project file and then I muted the instrumental — like I was saying that I would do a lot with this album, where I isolate vocals — and then when I heard his verse just on its own with nothing underneath it, I was like, “This is just so powerful and would be a perfect moment in between ‘Mountains’ and ‘Changes.’” And I mean, his lyrics are very beautiful, and they're personal to him, and I feel like they also speak to me, so I just felt like it fit perfectly on the record.
Another one of my favorites from the album is “Take Care of You” with Syd. And I know, when you spoke with VMP a couple years ago, you spoke about the rarity of being a woman singing about loving women in R&B, and so, I just wanted to ask you what it was like working with Syd on that song, one of the few other visible queer women in R&B?
Yeah, that's so funny that that's kind of full circle for this interview, because I'm really glad that I was able to kind of change that feeling that I had before. It was a really easy fit with Syd. When I wrote that song, I knew right away that I wanted to reach out to her and see if she would do a verse, because she was just the perfect fit for it. She heard it, and within the same day, she was like, “Yeah, absolutely, I want to sing on this,” sent back her verse and it was perfect. Like, I just remember smiling so hard listening to her verse singing on top of my song.
You've talked about how one way that you know songs are done is from getting goosebumps — and I will say, I get a lot of goosebumps from listening to your work, and I think part of that is the way that you approach harmony and the way you factor in moments of silence and times when instrumentation drops out a little bit. Do you still rely a lot on that physical intuition?
That's definitely my guiding light, having a physical response, and I feel like — I've probably said this in the past — but I am really harsh on myself. So, I know, as my harshest critic, that if I am giving myself goosebumps, then it's probably good [laughs]. Because I can be so hard on myself, and by the time I'm listening to it and I'm able to just connect with it on a visceral, physiological level, I'm like, “OK, well, it's doing something.” So, time to let it go.
I have to ask about James Blake, because I read that you're a fan and were really excited that he interpolated “Falling Apart,” and that was exciting for me to see as fans of you both. Can you talk about what it was like hearing that for the first time?
It was crazy. I had actually met him not too long before that happened and meeting him in the first place and spending some time with him — and it was Mustafa who introduced us — that was already a pretty special experience for me, because he's a huge, huge influence of mine. And then, when I heard the song, I mean, we just got an email that said, like, “Song for clearance,” or whatever, and I was like, “What?” I had opened it up and listened to it, and yeah, my jaw just dropped. I couldn't believe that my favorite vocalist was singing my lyrics and melodies. It was pretty crazy.
I can definitely hear the James Blake influence in some of your production choices, and especially on this album in some of the more unconventional or more remixed sounding vocals, like in “Take Care of You” or “Changes,” especially. Is that the type of production you're most interested in right now, or are you going in other directions?
I think at the time, obviously, I was really interested in vocal manipulation. Right now, I'm kind of all over the place with what I'm interested in production-wise. But I think I had shied away from vocal manipulation in the past for some reason. I was more of a purist with how I thought vocals should be treated and that they should be honest and raw, and never use any sort of heavy processing. And then I kind of realized that was a bit of an archaic and non-inventive and, just, a weird constraint to put on myself for no reason. And the more I started getting into vocal manipulation — my voice is probably my strongest tool, so, might as well kind of exploit it as an asset, in every way possible.
I saw that you said what's next for you is producing for other people; is there an artist or two who are the dream that you would want to produce for?
I feel like there are some great producers who can do cross-genre production, but I'd like to kind of get my hands dirty in a bunch of different worlds of music. And, right now, I think my favorite singer-songwriter is Adrianne Lenker. She would be amazing to produce for.
Zooming out to your album as a whole, there's a lot of songs here that deal with love but also with longing and the sadness that goes along with that. Could you talk a little bit — as broad or as specific as you’d like — about the inspiration behind the album for you?
I wouldn't say that there's any one specific inspiration, but it is kind of just a snapshot of my life over the last few years and the relationships that have come in and out of my life, whether romantic or unrequited or, you know, all different kinds, even friendships. So, all I can really do is tell the story of my life, and I wouldn't say there's an overarching concept or intention that I had with it, it's just more that these are my experiences.
Theda Berry is a Brooklyn-based writer and the former Editor of VMP. If she had to be a different kind of berry, she’d pick strawberry.