Charlotte Day Wilson on retreating to a rural cottage to craft her most personal project yet
In the latest episode of The FADER Interview podcast, Jordan Darville speaks with Charlotte Day Wilson about the long road to her debut album Alpha.
Charlotte Day Wilson on retreating to a rural cottage to craft her most personal project yet

The FADER Interview is a brand new podcast series in which the world’s most exciting musicians talk with the staff of The FADER about their latest projects. We’ll hear from emerging pop artists on the verge of mainstream breakthroughs, underground rappers pushing boundaries, and icons from across the world who laid the foundations for today’s thriving scenes. Listen to this week’s episode of the podcast below, read a full transcript of this week’s episode after the jump, and subscribe to The FADER Interview wherever you listen to podcasts.

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In her hometown of Toronto, a place with no shortage of game-changing R&B talents, Charlotte Day Wilson has been a singular creative force. A singer-songwriter who records and produces her own work with a tenacious yet flexible vision. Day Wilson's solo career exploded in 2016 behind her moody debut EP CDW, and it's center piece single, "Work," a plaintiff gospel-hinged ballad that became an unofficial anthem of the women's match. The Stone Woman EP followed in 2018. And so Day Wilson take stock of herself, her relationships, and her place in the world with both range and unimpeachable, traditional soul vocals. Wilson's debut album Alpha released last week is her most varied statement to date. Like Stone Woman, Alpha was inspired by a breakup, but the project reveals more about Day Wilson, as both a person and a songwriter, than ever before. Featuring collaborations with Daniel Caesar, BADBADNOTGOOD, and Syd of The Internet. Alpha is not so much an announcement of a prodigious new talent, as it is a confirmation of one.

Days after Alpha's release, The FADERs Jordan Darville spoke with Day Wilson about learning new skills, navigating the music industry on her own terms, and two very key, very different influences.

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The FADER: Charlotte Day Wilson, thank you for joining us for this week's episode of The FADER interview.

Charlotte Day Wilson: Thank you for having me.

I caught your Instagram stories, I think it was last week, I saw that you were in LA. Was it nice to finally get out of Toronto?

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Yeah, so nice. We wanted to do some album celebration things that we just couldn't do in Toronto because of social distancing restrictions. So it was just nice to get out there and actually be able to go out for dinners and little parties and stuff like that.

And what was it like celebrating this very intimate and personal album with people you care about around you after nearly two years of lockdown?

A little bit surreal, but also at the same time, it's nice because obviously the music is intimate and personal, but also my team is quite intimate and personal too, and it's nice to be able to just be with them and celebrate the release. And we've all been working so hard on it, so it was nice to be with them and then sharing it with a broader network of people was a relief. You never really know how it's going to go or whether people are going to like it. So being able to watch people react to the music in-person and in real time was really nice.

When you started to write the album, why was it the right time to begin your debut full length project?

I think having put out two EPs that I felt like really strong and connected to, it just felt like the right next step to try and tackle the full length album. It's kind of a rite of passage and one that I was excited to finally actually take on the challenge of.

Yeah. I love that phrase, rite of passage, in this era it's almost like a forgotten rite of passage really, for a lot of artists that perhaps think it's an outmoded form of releasing a work. But you of course, still find yourself resonating with that mode of creating music and giving it to the world.

Yeah. I mean, I think it's an important way to establish your artistry and to be able to tell a bit of a longer and more comprehensive story than just singles and EPs. And while I also love singles and EPs, I love putting them out and I also love listening to them. I love the playlist era, I'm into it, I'm not against it, but I'm also, just as an artist with something to say, it feels important to be able to deliver that with one full body of work.

And especially after the fact, now that that's out, I've been wanting for a long time to be a little bit more loose with releasing music that might be a little bit more experimental or a little bit more trying different things and being less precious about how much music I put out. Because I think I really wanted to establish the core of what people should know about me and know about my sound and know about me as a producer and a singer and a songwriter. But now I'm ready to also just get into a loose era of just letting things go without holding onto them for so long.

That's so funny because I actually have that word loose written down in my notes here, when it came to the sound of the album, it sounded like you had just a bit more loose, playfulness in terms of how you were approaching your influences and creating the music, which I found really special.

Totally. I think a big part of that was I do take it really seriously and I think in the past I've done the thing where I edit lyrics a lot. And with this project, I basically was like, I'm not going to edit lyrics, I'm going to write the lyrics in the moment when they're written and leave them as they are. And that was an important thing for me. But then also production-wise, I was ready to not feel like things had to follow formulas, letting things feel more of an honest intimate moment as it is for me, because it's like, in my moment, my creation, my creative space is in my house and I wanted it to feel like people could hear that a little bit, that it's like, I'm not recording these things in big, expensive studio. All of this is being done in my own safe, creative space and to make it sound otherwise would be untrue.

So talk to me about the actual writing and recording of it. You mentioned your parents' place, and I know when we last spoke about Stone Woman, that was a very important spot for creating that EP. Is there some kind of magic or perhaps just a sense of safety that comes with creating music in your parents' living space?

Yeah. Stone Woman was all done in their basement and then even though I didn't live there, I just I chose that as my space, it was mainly because they would be gone from work in the daytime. And I knew that I could go over there and have an empty space to work out of when I still was living with roommates and stuff like that. And with this one, I did a lot of the work at my cottage, which is a cottage, has been in my family for 60 years, so it's old and falling apart and there's no service and it is somewhere that I'm truly, it truly connects me to my roots and my past and my childhood. And not only my childhood, but all my whole families, everyone's childhoods, like my mom's childhood, my cousins childhoods. And there's something really familiar and safe about that space.

But then the main draw that I have towards creating there is that no service, no connection to Wi-Fi or texting or anything like that. So I'm not connected to social media, but then also just being able to make as much noise as I want, just being able to blast the music and also to scream, sing and to be able to make as many weird noises as I want, because I think creating a city, I think a lot of people find this, I live in Toronto and in a dense area, it's like, I'm always a little bit aware of the fact that someone can always hear me. And there's just something really special about going somewhere where you know no one can hear you at all, you're completely alone.

How much of the album would you say was tinkered with in the city compared to the work that was done in the cottage?

Most of the creative work, like the writing was done at the cottage and then all the tinkering is done in my basement studio at my house in Toronto. Mainly just because the room sounds better down here and I've treated it in a way, and I know the way that it sounds, and I have all of my gear here, whereas, I only have a few essential items that I bring up to the cottage when I'm working there. But yeah, my studio in my basement here has just, my workflow is quick here. So from the perspective of trying to polish things or explore different production ideas, I can hear things just way better in this space. So, yeah.

And was the album completed before the pandemic?

The majority of it was completed and the songs themselves were pretty much all written maybe except for a few verses of things or something like that, but most of it was written. And then over the course of the pandemic, I allowed myself to open all of the songs back up and add some more. I just had more time with it and I'm so grateful that I had more time with it because just little things like maybe I had the song already, and the production was actually enough and maybe it was finished to some standards, but maybe there wasn't the right transition into the next song, or maybe there wasn't a finishing thought lyrically that I hadn't thought about without having some time and perspective to think about what was the song really about and what was the album about. And then maybe there was certain things that I could tag onto the end of the song that would help summarize the overall thoughts and feelings, I guess, both lyrically and production-wise.

So are there any songs on the album that the writing process really sticks out to you?

I mean, they all do for me, they're all so personal and are all cemented in a place in time for me and what was going on in my life. So they're categorized in my mind through what was happening in my life and I actually am super grateful to have something like that that can serve as chapters, clear markings of where I was at and what was going on. I'm trying to think if there was one in particular, I mean, "Changes" is one that, I think I made 15 different versions of that song and I also probably made 15 different versions of, "I Can Only Whisper." Those definitely stick out.

So I wanted to talk a little bit about the music video for "If I Could," which I just thought was just a very wonderful and impressionistic interpretation of the song. Talk to me about how those visuals came to life and your role in their production.

Yeah. So I worked with a director, Kevin Funk, I had actually four songs that I wanted to do music videos for, and I wanted to do a short film and we ended up shooting four videos worth of videos and someone else was editing the stuff. We had spent a long time talking about what the album meant to me and what some of the themes were that I wanted to explore visually and what the representation was that I wanted to see and tying together these deeply personal aspects, but also making sure that I see my community or just people that I think would be visually important to see. And when we started getting into filming everything, there was a bit of an approach of shoot everything and then figure it out later, which is like, for me I'm new to being part of the directing of video and I actually don't think I'll ever do it again that way, just because it was so much footage to deal with after the fact.

And anyways, so we had these four videos and someone else had edited them and I was going back and forth with the editor, in depth for weeks. And at a certain point, I was just like, I actually just feel bad for this editor because I'm probably a nightmare to work with because I'm so particular about where I want certain things to go. And I just got to a point where I was like, I do think that if I could actually have this project file and learn how to edit and edit it myself, I will get the result that I'm looking for. And yeah, I taught myself over the course of the pandemic, just how to edit video and through the process of learning, how to edit the video, I realized that I could edit video and audio in tandem in this really amazing and super interesting way that really tickled my fancy.

And I got really into it where I was like, okay, well, as the video started to take shape where I would see editor is starting to go, I would just also bring the music in the same direction. And I think a lot of the time that is obviously what people do when they're scoring a visual, but usually you'll have to send it to someone and explain yourself and explain what you need and show them. And for me, it was just easy because I would just literally switch between the softwares and go back and forth and be like, okay, here and then export the new audio file in and bring it back in. And so that was like a pretty interdisciplinary and fun way of intersecting the two mediums for me. And again, grateful for the time during the pandemic to be able to pick up a new skill like that and not have necessarily big pressures of deadlines. I was allowed to take my time with that. So it was nice.

Before you had started teaching yourself how to edit, did you have a vision of what you wanted the end music video to look like or was that something that came after?

After scrubbing through all of the footage and seeing, we had hours and hours and hours of footage, after going through all of it, I was able to see which parts I thought were the most important and the most visually stunning. That combined with my own, the meanings that I had, certain things that I wanted to say about my own personal journey, I guess. After I had looked through all of the footage, I was like, okay, I think I know where this needs to go, but definitely a lot of it exposed itself during the process as well.

And how did that process compare to your songwriting process?

Yeah, definitely very similar. When I'm writing songs, I'll usually have an idea of how I want to start the song or I know what instrument I want to start it on and I know there might be one or two lyrics that are milling around in my brain that I think would be a good starting point. And it's usually based on what other art I'm consuming at the time that I'm like, I want to touch on that thing that I thought was really cool or that idea or that one note that I heard in the grocery store that sounded like this weird scene, that it wasn't actually, but now I want to recreate the sound that I thought was something else. I'll have some intention, but yeah, for the most part, I just let the songs reveal themselves to me.

And it might sound unglamorous, but it's like a big part of it is singing in gibberish and then seeing what the words are trying to be. And then once I hear some words that sound interesting, that will spark a story in my mind, or that will spark, like okay, here's the ripple effect of that one word that I think sounds phonetically good. And I'll go from there. Sometimes the gibberish phonetic thing is such an amazing tool to write lyrics that are more geared towards like, yeah, the songs or the shapes of a word or the shapes of the vowels that you are gravitating towards that sound good on the music that you're singing with. And sometimes a cool story will evolve, it can also definitely go the other way where you're like, this doesn't make any sense, this is still gibberish, even though there's words attached to it.

Something that I really liked about your lyrics on this album, certain lyrics had a mythic quality to them almost. I think it's, "Adam Complex." It almost sounds like you're channeling some sort of ancient myth in these adjectives that you choose.

Yeah. I think I used a lot of biblical and religious imagery to serve almost like institutional references that everyone will get and that I will be subsequently trying to subvert. So when it comes to "Adam Complex," the working title for that song was Inferiority Complex. And it's about me having this inferiority complex, dating bisexual women or pansexual women and worrying that I might be left for a man or that I might be like, whatever. So Adam was just the reference that made the most sense. And I thought that was a way to be a little bit derivative without spelling things out, completely on the nose. Because inferiority complex just didn't sound very good and seemed a little too on the nose.

Something that struck me in that song too, were the lines in the outro when you sing, "But while I'm here, I lay in stone, still wrapped in fear." And of course, stone, the word stone brought me back to Stone Woman. And how, when we spoke three years ago, you said that you wrote that EP in part to work through what you called your stoic tendencies. And so for the last lines on this project to call back to that made me wonder if making this project revealed anything new about what you called your stoic tendencies or anything like this?

Yeah, I think, obviously, yeah, you've got the reference and that is what I wanted to call on. And for me, I do feel like this album, I aired a lot more of my own longing and desperation in a way that I would never have before, it's way more vulnerable. And even that song "Adam Complex," it was almost ironic, I think for me to have written that lyric at the end of the song, because that song ultimately is the most vulnerable song I've ever written and something that still it's hard for me to even say now, but that's what the song is about. Because it's like, that's a huge deep insecurity and something that I have to work through in therapy. And it's something that a lot of lesbians and queer people deal with, but it's an ugly emotion and not one that I'm proud of and not one that I feel any strength in.

So to be that vulnerable and then at the end of the song, be like, this is the reality, this is how my mind works, but at the end of the day, I'm still trying my hardest to not show anyone that. There's a dissonance there, but I think one that, it exists in me, so it's real.

Totally. Yeah. I mean, speaking of irony, like the first song, in the first song on the album, you're prostrating yourself in front of somebody, begging them to take you in. And of course, the album itself is called Alpha, which is this very loaded word today. And especially in certain corners of the internet, it's meant to be a complete endorsement of a certain type of strength. So I thought that you titling the album this, especially with the music and the lyrics that go into it was pretty interesting.

Yeah. There's definitely some irony there. And I had this internal joke with myself before it came out where I was like, I can't wait for people to think that I'm talking about myself and that I'm referring to myself as an alpha because I'm not, but I think it's going to be funny because it's like I'm trolling people. Maybe if they haven't listened to the music or they don't understand the level of intimacy and vulnerability that there is on the record, they might think like, oh, what does she think she's like? So I'm like, I don't know. I think it's funny a little bit, but at the same time, it just is kind of a character that I do also play into. And that, whether I'm singing about this alter ego that I try to have in order to feel strong, or whether I'm talking about an alpha who was someone that I was with or someone that I'm singing about, it's up to the listener's discretion what they take from it. But yeah, I think it's funny that some people might think that I am alpha because it's not.

So talk to me a little bit about the actual writing process of your song with Syd, "Take Care Of You."

Yeah, I had written the guitar part and some of the melodies and the chorus while I was up at my cottage, just alone, just goofing around. And I came back to the city and was working out of a shared studio for a couple months at the time. And there was a friend of mine, Merna Bishouty, and she was there and I showed her and I said, do you think there's anything here, and she's a great songwriter and producer herself. And she was like, 'oh yeah, absolutely, what do you want this song to be about?' And I was like, well, it's definitely an R&B song. And I love the straight up R&B and I would love to just make just a lesbian R&B song.

She was like, yeah, let's go. And we just, as a joke, wrote the most overtly lesbian song, once again, using religious imagery to just make fun of the institutions that were trying to just poke fun at basically. And it was all a joke. I never intended on putting this song out until I showed my managers and they were like, wait, this is fire, you should actually put this out. And then when they convinced me that it was worthy of seeing the light of day, I knew I wanted Syd on the song. She was the perfect fit and then got connected with her through a friend. And she sent back a verse immediately, she was super into it. So yeah, it was just like a really fun song to make, because there was a lot of laughs and it came together with ease.

Are you a person who, when they create, they have certain benchmarks that they set for themselves? Because you take on so many different roles in the creation of your music, I think it's fair to say, almost all of the roles. So I would imagine that it must be intimidating to have any sort of benchmarks to be like, okay, I need to get this in order to do this so I can feel like I've done this. Do you know what I mean?

Yeah. I mean, again, I think it does come back to the physiological responses and at the end of the day, music is just a feeling and I trust my intuition and I trust my ear and I trust my taste enough to know when something is good versus when something is bad, because I also write a lot of really bad music. And I don't know necessarily what my internal compass is saying when it's saying, don't do it, don't put this out. But there is just something that guides me and I'm grateful to have something that feels like it tells me the truth.

You've spoken before about your aversion to certain aspects of the music industry, of course, Alpha is released under your own record label, Stone Woman Music. I'm wondering what brought you to that decision and if your views on working within the music industry have changed at all since releasing Stone Woman.

Since that time, for me, just my team shifted and I had been given some advice to stay independent early on in my career. And I held on to that and it felt empowering. And I'm really glad that I did that and that I own all the music that I did and that I obviously still own the music that I make. But I've definitely seen the kind of financial return, that decision I made early on in my career, I've seen that return now, which is just like I still have my steady income from songs, like Work that it still gets synced all the time. And I'm just grateful that I own that music. And I think seeing the result of that ownership years down the line and that passive income that I have because of that, it definitely has taught me that it's a smart business move.

Obviously, there are other ways to find investment and find capital to promote and market an album once it's done, but for me, because I do so much of it, I don't really need the support in the creation of an album, that's something that I can handle on my own. And when it came to this album, I knew that I had certain goals and certain things that I am a dreamer to some extent, there are certain things that I'm ambitious about that I want to achieve. And when I express that to myself and I'm honest about those kinds of things with myself, the reality of okay, well, how do I get there? It becomes pretty daunting. And at the time, right after I put out Stone Woman, I was working with a manager who I told him what my goals were. And that was like either you sign a major label deal to be able to achieve those goals, or you adjust your expectations or what your ambitions really are.

I didn't like that answer. And I was lucky enough to have certain people in my orbit, in my community, in my world I had seen do the kinds of things that I wanted to do in an independent way. And when I fired that manager, and then I was looking for new management and the ones that I wanted to work with, they reached out to me. And so I felt just really lucky that the people who I saw, who did it independently, that I felt confident could do those things and that they would be able to help me achieve my goals and those benchmarks, they came into my life at the perfect time. And now I'm just like, yeah, there's parts of the industry that are really icky and that I definitely stay away from. And I think a huge part of that is just being able to rely and trust the team, your internal team, like your management, lawyer, whatever it is, publicist, agent, that core team, creative direction, that core team has to be people that you really trust.

So just to close things out, we talked a little bit about growth, creating the best work that we can, and always striving for that. Who are some of your dream collaborators that you think might help you achieve that goal?

I don't know if these are dream collaborators that would help me achieve goals, but the ones that just popped into my head immediately are the ones that I'm going to say and they're very random. But I would love to work with Adrianne Lenker, I think she's the most amazing songwriter of our generation. Drake, huge part of my experience as a Toronto creative is, I feel like anyone who doesn't admit that they're influenced by Drake is actually just lying to themselves. And I'm not afraid to say I love Drake. And he's a huge inspiration of mine, would love to work with him. And James Blake, who is someone who already sampled some of my music, I would love to write music with him.

All right. Well, Drake and Adrianne Lenker, if you're listening, get in touch.

Exactly.

Charlotte Day Wilson, thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you very much for having me.

Charlotte Day Wilson on retreating to a rural cottage to craft her most personal project yet