VMP Rising is our series where we partner with up-and-coming artists to press their music to vinyl and highlight artists we think are going to be the Next Big Thing. Today we’re featuring CDW and Stone Woman, the debut and sophomore releases from the soulful Toronto musician Charlotte Day Wilson.
Throughout the genre’s existence, R&B and soul have been synonymous with passion. Perhaps more than any other genre, it’s music that’s born out of sensuality — pure, raw, present feeling in the greatest depth possible. Charlotte Day Wilson’s second and most recent 2018 EP Stone Woman, however, was born out of the absence of any feeling at all.
“I think I was searching for meaning, and I wasn't really sure what I was talking about a lot of the time,” she told me, taking a break from working on her new music in her hometown of Toronto to chat with me on the phone. “I was hoping that my creative process would help me feel something.”
Her debut, 2016’s CDW, while not as restrained, not as icy, still manages to land in a more subdued, laidback territory of R&B. Instead of meeting the listeners' need for fiery, bodily passion, it eases, sighs, lollygags — think the energy of a tired, bittersweet slowdance. Maybe a bit more subtle, but not any less intense. Perhaps this relatively unexplored realm of R&B is what’s made Charlotte Day Wilson a hot item in the past few years for higher profile collaborators like BADBADNOTGOOD and Daniel Caesar.
Whether on her own projects or in a collaborative setting, the buttery-voiced songstress is attuned to nuance, an instinct sure to keep her name on our tongues for the foreseeable future.
VMP: You’ve never had any formal vocal training. Do you remember what music or kind of artists you used to teach yourself to sing?
Charlotte Day Wilson: Yeah, there's so many. I think honestly I would say, like, Feist and Lauryn Hill are two good examples. I was also like really obsessed with, like, Amy Winehouse and Joni Mitchell and James Blake.
And were you pretty young when you started teaching yourself?
Yeah, I never really sang like confidently though until honestly a few years ago. It was pretty recent that I started actually singing because I always knew that I had a good ear and that I could carry a tune, but I was too shy to sing in front of anyone. So I would sit at the piano and kind of hum along, but very quietly. And then, it was really when I kind of picked up the guitar that I found that I could sing more on top of that. And then I was finally able to translate it with the rest of my writing process.
That's actually super surprising that you kind of had those nerves about singing. Do you like still get that when you perform?
I still definitely get nervous, yeah. I think it would be weird if I didn't get nervous. I think there's power in nerves, I think if you don't get nervous it kind of means there's... something is maybe wrong. Like you don't care or something. And I think it helps me get amped up and a bit of adrenaline, but I think there's also a level like, you kind of like started arching and your nervousness levels are just like getting really high and maybe 10-15 minutes before a show or performance, and then I think like five minutes before I kind of start to reach a level of, 'I can't possibly keep getting more and more nervous or else this is gonna go horribly.' And you just kind of like talk yourself down, and then by the time I actually step onstage I feel very comfortable.
A lot has happened for you in the last couple years as an artist. Which, in the grand scheme of things, is a pretty short amount of time. How has that felt?
There's a lot of feelings... Obviously I'm very happy and grateful for the fact that people like to listen to my music. But you know, every change comes with its new set of challenges, so it's just adjusting to the next chapter, and I'm kind of pretty hard on myself, so I always feel as though there's more that's to be done. So it's like, I never really feel like satisfied or like, 'Cool, like I've made it!' or something, you know?
Between your two EPs, there's a lot of tangible growth, I guess you could call it? What do you attribute that growth to?
I think the first EP that I put out, I didn't really expect anyone to even hear it, and people did hear it and it did change my life in a way where it kind of like [said,] ‘OK maybe like I can actually do music as a career.’ And so it was like really motivating, and I just readjusted my life and my goals and everything and just had to kind of do a little bit of soul searching in terms of figuring out how I wanted to be an artist in the music industry. Because there's so many different ways of going about it and I've had to just kind of like, take my time and focus and figure out what exactly I want from this life, you know?
In between you debut and Stone Woman, you've kind of had a lot of like higher profile features or collaborations. Did you feel the pressure of having more eyes on you when you put out Stone Woman?
Yeah, definitely. It was a very, very different experience. The pressure was nerve-wracking, and I also kind of decided along the way to not make something that necessarily everyone would like. Like the title track is a very like stripped-down and kind of convoluted song, and I think it was, to me I was just like, 'You know what, I can't give into the pressures of what at artist at my stage is expected to do, and the kind of music that they're expected to put out as a second release or do something a little bit more like mainstream or something. It was a tough decision in terms of which songs to put on the EP but it was way harder to let go actually. Because I felt like... you know, the first time you put a record out there's only things to gain, you have literally nothing to lose. No one knows about you, no one cares. If people hear it, great, if they don't, it's really no big deal. Second time is like, you hopefully have things to gain but also a lot to lose.
So having collabed with like a lot of incredible artists, is there anyone you're dying to collab with?
You interned at a label, Arts & Crafts. I just think it's interesting that you worked for a bit in the music industry, but you're obviously an independent artist. Did working in the industry deter you from wanting to sign anywhere?
Yes, definitely [laughs]. I think just as like a developing artist, like if you are very new to the music industry, or you're putting your first records out, there's so many ways you can get dragged around as an artist. And, for me, I would say still I'm at a place where I think I have more growing to do on my own before I can fully feel... really I mean, with labels and stuff, it just comes down to contracts. And if the terms look bad, I'm not gonna do it.
So it's not necessarily that you'd never sign, but you'd just want it to be on your own terms?
It just needs to be good terms. I think that a lot of the ways the music industry is structured, like is kind of archaic. And like, you know I think record labels are having a hard time adjusting with the times, where like independent artists can do it ourselves, like we can. You know, there are limitations and like at a certain point you know depending on what you want your career to look like, you're gonna need some more significant investment. I just think that there are other ways of getting those kinds of things.
I saw you play with Syd in Chicago this past October. It did feel like a kind of special night in a way, just because, I've always loved R&B and soul and stuff like that but I kind of realized you don't really get a lot of queer girls making that type of music in the mainstream through history. Just like seeing you two, I kind of realized like growing up, it's like hard to remember sort of like seeing queer women singing about love like that, I guess? Does it feel special to be a part of that?
Yeah, definitely, like I think it's amazing, I think it's like a very important figure in music right now. And yeah, I think it's kind of funny because I had those same realizations, too. I'm like, oh, you don't really hear like love stories in music where like the pronouns sung by like a woman is about another woman, you know? It's just like, we don't hear that very often, and I would say like sometimes I feel the burden of people being like, 'Oh, you are the voice of the queer community!' Like I think that's a little too hefty of a title to give me, but then sometimes I realize, yeah I guess like it is kind of unique what I'm doing. Like, there aren't that many people doing it. Although I think that, you know, times are changing really quickly and for the better in terms of like, the world accepting gay people. I think it's really cool, like Steve Lacy, like that music video that The Internet put out recently. And Tyler, The Creator just put out a song where he references Call Me By Your Name, I dunno. I think it's definitely making its way into the pop culture.
You told Fader, “Because of my experiences as a queer woman, I've had to protect myself a little bit, and that's given me a bit of an armor that I bring into the world.” As a performer, and even a songwriter — those are two really vulnerable things — is it ever hard to sort of shed that armor when you're writing or performing?
It's weird because, well, when I'm writing, generally I'm alone in my safe space, in my house or wherever I am, and it's really easy for me to be to be honest with myself and to say what I'm feeling or whatever. And then when I'm performing, it's definitely... it can be kind of shocking sometimes when you look out and sometimes you know your own lyrics can get a little bit, redundant and kind of start to sound like gibberish. So like when you're performing it's like you're just singing the lyrics but then when those moments hit and you tap back into the moment that you wrote that song or whatever, and you realize that all these people are here looking at you, then you're having a moment onstage in front of everyone where you're like, 'Oh my god, I am going through it right now,' like, that's a... it's a really intense moment. And yeah, I would say that... but I mean, I just think that I'm so lucky to be able to go onstage and be myself in a space that I've created where people want to be there to see me because they like my music and they like my story. And, it's a safe space, you know? Like I don't have to have my armor up at my own shows because people know I'm gay, people know, they know my music, they know my story and they want to be there and they're connecting with it and they're probably relating my experience in some way to their own. And so, we're kind of sharing all of that together, and that is just so powerful and those are the moments where I'm like, 'No, I'm not gonna keep my armor up here, this is the exact perfect time to let it down.'
You're vocal about being your own producer and writer, and a lot of ways your own label. Why is it important to you to run your own show?
'Cause who else is gonna do it? You know the way that my team works is that it's a very collaborative and my team takes direction from me, there's no one being like, 'This is what's gonna happen, this is what the next phase of your career is gonna look like,' you know. People look to me for direction and whether that's good or bad, that’s how my career has been working. So you just kind of have to step up and take responsibility and take action and be like, 'Okay, well, who's gonna make the music?' No one's gonna make the music, I'm gonna make the music. Yeah, I have lots of people who would want to be my producer or collaborate with me, or like send me their instrumentals, or like engineer my vocals, or whatever, but the reality is, will it get done in the way that I want it to? If I have the ability to do it, I don't really need someone else coming in and doing it for me. But, having said that, I've learned how to do everything through YouTube or whatever, or like fooling around on my own, but also hugely through working with other people. I do collaborate with other people when it comes to making music, and like, I think the process of collaboration is really, really important, and I would never claim to not collaborate. I've learned so much working with other people; I think that the point of collaboration should not be to get a product. I think it should be to learn and to connect with someone else creatively. I don't think it should be like, 'Let's collab so we can get a hit.' For me it's more, ‘I wanna collab with that producer because I love their sound and I wanna see what their workflow is and how they work.’
You're working on a full-length right now, right?
I'm working on, um, music, yes [laughs]. I probably stated I'm working on an album but I also… I love EPs, I really love EPs. And I feel like the music industry is structured in a way where it's like, you do an EP and a couple singles and then comes your debut full-length album. And I don't really know if that is the way that everyone has to do it. I'll probably do a full-length, yeah. But like, I'm just working on music right now to find the best songs.
Can you tell us anything about the new music you're making?
I would say, in contrast to Stone Woman, I think with Stone Woman I was very emotionally numb and closed off... this time I'm way more — I have much more clarity, so with my lyrics I think I've been able to just communicate more clearly. And I'm writing less phonetically, I would say.
I used to write very phonetically, and now I know I have a message that I wanna say, and if it sounds good, if the shapes of words sound good phonetically, that's great. If they don't, if they sound a bit ugly, a least I'm still saying something that's meaningful.
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.