Charlotte Day Wilson Strives for Perfection

Charlotte Day Wilson is far from being the new kid on the block.

Genre: R&B
If you like: Syd, Daniel Caesar, River Tiber
Recent music: ALPHA (Deluxe)

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The soulful R&B singer may have just released her first album, Alpha, last year, but the rich, intimate record served far more as a reaffirmation of her talent and power than it did as an introductory lesson. With a slew of singles, critically acclaimed EPs and tracks with legends like Daniel Caesar and Kaytranada under her belt, Wilson’s influence was never in question — at least, not to an outsider looking in.

Despite her objective musical chops, it becomes clear to me over the course of our conversation that Wilson is an exacting artist who holds herself to a sky-high standard of perfection.

“I would say that the people that work for me really allow me to lead the ship,” she says with a laugh after I ask if she’d had to fight her way to total creative autonomy.

“To be honest, sometimes it’s to my own detriment. It takes me longer to do things because I kind of have to have my hand in every part of the process. It’s just the way that I’ve come to be comfortable working and making sure that my art reflects exactly the vision that I have in the first place. Luckily, I’m not on a label or anything, so I don’t really have people breathing down my neck, telling me how I should do things or who to work with or what timeline I need to be on. I am definitely pretty self-directed with all of that.”

Wilson approaches obsessiveness in her art — every millisecond of her work is optimized, perfected and sculpted into pure musical perfection. No bar is incomplete; no moment of catharsis is wasted. Like many auteurs before her, she wrote her latest album in true wilderness isolation, at a family cottage with no reception. That methodical, interior rumination is palpable, but it never comes at the expense of emotion either: Wilson’s head and her heart are in perfect harmony.

Last year’s Alpha was a sultry, immersive, queer R&B record fine-tuned by Wilson’s perfectionist production instincts and propelled by her inimitably soulful voice — and explicitly dedicated in ethos to the beauty and chaos of sapphic experiences. In person, Wilson is a chiselled blonde with clean features and a small, slight frame; she looks like a cross between an athlete and a Scandinavian mythical creature. Her aesthetic adds a kind of juxtaposition to her voice that makes it all the more otherworldly. Unless you’ve heard her sing firsthand, it can be hard to explain — her voice flows out of her like molasses, full and unavoidable, rich and warm. It fills the room and sweeps you up in the tide with it. It leaves you incredulous at the fact that that kind of sound can even come from one person at all.

For the first time in almost two years, audiences have started hearing that knockout voice in person again. Wilson just finished the U.S. leg of her tour, and she’s about to take her set across Canada, hitting Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto, Calgary, Montreal and more. For a social media skeptic whose interactions with fans and listeners have been relegated to online spaces for the past two years, it’s an immeasurably welcome change — Wilson says her first experiences playing for audiences across the U.S. were “amazing.”

“I obviously can see numbers online, and on Spotify and whatever, of people listening to the music. So when I put the album out, I was pleased enough with the interaction I was getting with people online, but it didn’t feel quite the same as how it should when you put out music, which is about going into spaces and seeing people connect with the music in real life. Playing the shows reminded me — or it kind of opened my eyes, I guess, to just how many people actually were connecting with the music. Seeing it on the road was really really special. It … it meant a lot to me,” she says, her voice catching on the last sentence.

“I’m not super into social media,” she explains. “So I’m not the type of person that’s going to engage with people every day, all day, in order to feel like I’m doing my job or whatever. I need that real connection. I don’t know how people have time to prioritize being active online every day.

“I sometimes have these weird feelings where I see other artists who have hundreds of thousands of followers, and I’m like, ‘Why don’t I have that many followers?’ Then I’m like, ‘Well, first of all, because I don’t really post that much.’ I’m just not that girl. But also, I realize that just because someone has a lot of followers on social media doesn’t mean that they necessarily have that many actual listeners, you know? That’s the thing that surprised me a little bit going out on tour, seeing that with the people who aren’t engaging with me online, it’s not that they don’t exist. They’re just people in real spaces who buy tickets to shows and want to experience it in real life.”

That’s not the only way Wilson can tell she’s on the right path, though — with artists like John Mayer and James Blake sampling Wilson’s music in recent years, she’s assembled a very high-profile fan club. “All I want in my career is to achieve my own definitions of success. And one of them is just to be respected by the people that I respect — it makes me feel amazing. I kind of need those moments to keep pushing and to keep feeling like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.

And they aren’t the only music icons who have shown Wilson love. She’s a product of the Toronto music ecosystem, through and through — some would even say it’s in her blood, considering that her cousin is Oliver El-Khatib (Drake’s manager and co-founder of OVO). When Drake sampled her track Mountains on his latest album, Certified Lover Boy, it cemented her as Toronto royalty in her own right. “It just felt like a really big box check that I had always wanted to do you know? It’s every Torontonian’s dream.”

The video for one of Alpha’s highlights, If I Could, is a love letter to Toronto’s queer community. “There were definitely a lot of people in the video that I handpicked from my own community — some of my best friends, some drag queens in the city, some great dancers.” Throughout the process of filming and editing music videos, Wilson expanded her skillset to inject even more of her singular creative spirit into her work

“I was probably like a nightmare client to work with, as someone who just went back with a million notes on every edit and every revision,” she laughs again, discussing the video editing process. She actually taught herself how to use video editing software over the course of the pandemic so she could perfect her music videos on her own terms.

“It was really fun for me to learn how to edit, especially because it was all to my own music. I had my own artistic ideas about how to grow the music with the video at the same time. Then, if I was feeling like there was a low in the music, I would go back, bring up the music project again and kind of edit the music a bit to cater to the video. It was nice, kind of like working in tandem, it’s really cool.”

And this attention to detail makes sense — when you’re putting out your most intimately personal work yet, you want to make sure every part of it is perfect.

“I think it’s interesting,” Wilson muses. “The more music I’ve made, it’s like, the deeper I want to dig, I guess, with my vulnerability. I still feel like I have a ways to go in terms of being totally honest with the things that I want to say and the things I want to express and just get off my chest, I guess, but this was a good step in that direction.”

Even when discussing an album as universally beloved as Alpha, it’s interesting that Wilson stays critical of herself. She reminds me of a boxer, in a way — dancing on her toes, always moving, pushing herself harder with every step.

“It took me a long time to make Alpha, so there were at least two or three years of experiences that the album was built around. The album is more a snapshot of my life during that time than me having a mission statement or a thesis you know? Whatever happened during that time was what I wanted and needed to write about. And I think, for the most part, the songs speak for themselves in terms of the emotions that I was experiencing.”

As Wilson’s cred grows, though, the pressure she feels to prove herself has begun to lessen. “The nice part about now having put out my first full-length album and having two EPs under my belt is that I can be a little bit less precious with the music that I put out,” she says.

“I think that before, I really wanted to make sure that the things that I put out were really concise and true to who I wanted to establish myself as, as an artist. I think now, the nice thing is that I can be a little bit looser with the things that I want to put out and also stray away a little bit — whether it’s like, ‘Oh, I want to do like an album that’s all piano and voice,’ or maybe it’s that I want to work with an orchestra or something. Now I have the freedom to branch off a little bit and go through with it.”

Next: Upcoming shows: Vancouver (Thurs., June 9), Calgary (Sun., June 12), Toronto (Sat., June 18)