When “Unfortunate Love” came out last fall, ears perked up all over the country. Nuela Charles’s throwback duet with Darren Frank, from her second album, Aware, had a lighter Amy Winehouse vibe – Winehouse’s soulful torture replaced with sensual angst. It also proved that the critical success her first album, A Different Kind of Fire, received − nominated for a 2011 Western Canadian Music Award for Urban Recording of the Year − was not a fluke. Chaka V.
ADKOF boasted infectious jazzy summertime songs reminiscent of Sara Bareilles’s Little Voice. Its breezy sound floating over Charles’s guitar was relaxed and sweet (and more folksy rock than “urban”). However, two years later, her second album Aware, showcased a woman taking full control over her voice as an artist. Rather than resorting to salacious lyrics and a sexified new look to announce this evolution, Charles’s voice took on a forcefulness and confidence, and her lyrics darkened. Aware was bold and dynamic.
CBC Music Producer Andrea Warner was now baffled. In a review of Charles’s second release she wrote, “I had no idea that Edmonton was secretly harbouring the future queen of Canadian soul. In some ways, I feel like her home turf just doesn’t understand what they have in their midst. In Toronto or Montreal, Charles would already be a star.”
It is an interesting statement. In these heady days of DIY music -Youtube, Bandcamp, Kickstarter, social media – how much is “making it” still dependant on where you’re making your music?
I ask Charles this, curious about whether she feels that Edmonton is the place to reach that broader audience? Is she tempted to ditch Edmonton and move to Toronto, Montreal or even L.A.? Or is making soul music in Alberta actually allowing her to standout and therefore gain a larger audience?
“I don’t know, I’ve thought about it before,” admits Charles, speaking from her home. “I’ve spoken to Universal A&R people and I asked them, ‘Do I have to move to major centers?’ And their answer was ‘No. If you’re making waves in your region, it’s going to spread eventually and people are going to know about it.’ For me right now I don’t think that I have to move and I really don’t want to. Mainly because of my band. They all live here and they’re firmly rooted. I’m content being here as well. We’ll see what happens.”
Being in one place is a fairly new experience for Charles. Growing up, the Canadian, Swiss and Kenyan singer-songwriter enjoyed an international upbringing, living in 4 countries on 3 continents. Her father worked in management and the family frequently found themselves in foreign places. While an unconventional childhood for some, Charles looks back on it as not particularly out of the ordinary.
“It was pretty normal,” she says. “It was normal for us because that’s kind of what we were used to. My dad has a technical background so a lot of it was just about different career opportunities for him.”
From a cattle ranch to a chicken farm that “Supplied the entire country [the Bahamas] with their chickens,” her father’s career in management afforded the family opportunities to explore the world but, as with life, eventually all things change.
“A lot of management positions have given him the freedom to work wherever he wants, so it was good for us because we could just tag along. But now I think we’re just in a place where we want to settle. It was great to live in all those different places but it also meant having to start over. And that was difficult, it wasn’t fun anymore.”
Amidst the transitions, music was a consistent thread among the family. “My dad always had a guitar in the house. He was more on the technical side of music in terms of like live sound and sound recording. My brother would play the drums and my sister would sing. But it was all like self-taught, we never had training or anything.”
Raised on country music −“I like the old Garth Brooks kind of country” − and rock ‘n’ roll, it is two vocal greats that helped foster her love of singing. “Vocally it’s always been Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston,” she shares. “Those are the two I always listened to when I was growing up. I would sing along and try to do exactly what they did in the song.”
But it wasn’t until her late teens that Charles realized that there could be something more to music than pure enjoyment and school choirs.
“When we lived in the Bahamas we were home-schooled, and it was during my grade 11 year that I really just decided that this [music] was what I wanted to do. I ended up teaching myself how to play the guitar and sing, which each on their own is okay but when you put them together at first, it’s really hard,” recalls Charles with a laugh. “That was kind of the point where it was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do this.’ My schooling kind of took a back seat a bit that year.”
Within metaphorical seconds of getting a feel for the guitar, Charles took on the task of songwriting. “I learned like two chords and started writing songs,” says Charles, who counts Alanis Morissette as an early songwriting influence. “Not saying that any of them were really any good but that’s when it started.”
Eventually her skill for both the guitar and songwriting blossomed and the singer-songwriter was born.
Charles’s diverse influences began to forge themselves into something distinctively hers, and there was no looking back. Her family wholeheartedly − with reservation ─ supported their daughter’s plan to pursue a music career.
“They absolutely encouraged me but I think they were kind of weary of it. They were definitely like, ‘Set goals [for music] and if you don’t accomplish these goals in a certain amount of time then maybe it’s time to rethink what you want to do.’ But everything’s been kind of slowly taking off so I think they’re just happy to see it taking off,” she says with a chuckle that sounds both excited and relieved. “Which is always good.”
When I ask Charles if she had mapped out a “plan B” career if the music thing didn’t take off she replies, “No, not really,” as if contemplating the entire concept for the first time. Luckily for Charles she hasn’t needed one.
Mixing jazzy pop vocals and rock with introspective assertive lyrics, Aware distinguishes Charles from the pack. “Take it or Leave it,” “Good in Me,” and “The Good Ones,” pairs her youthful voice with unvarnished wisdom about rolling with the punches and learning from it all. This “Look em dead in the eye” feel contrast dramatically against the haunting quietness of songs like “Throwdown,” “Final Round” and “The Sound,” revealing interesting dichotomies within the seemingly even-keeled artist.
Charles relishes the creative process and the opportunity to up the ante from one album to the next.
“I think this one, the new one [Aware] was a bit more thought out. With the first one [A Different Kind of Fire], I had written songs that I really liked and I thought they were good enough to record. When we initially started recording, it was just one or two songs and then when I decided to really go for it, I was like, ‘Okay, let’s finish it off and record six more so then it would be an eight song album.’ But it wasn’t planned, it just kind of happened. But with Aware, I really wanted to, I guess, elevate it. I don’t know if elevate is the right word, but as an independent [artist] I don’t have a label helping me with artist development, so it was kind of like, well, what have I learned in these last 2 years? How do I want to put myself out there now, to show that I have developed as an artist? As well as create a standard for myself. You try to compete with the Adele’s and Katy Perry’s by putting out professional challenging material. So the biggest shift was looking at things more from the business side of things.”
This expanded focus has made her admittedly fixated on the details. “I’m not ADHD but OCD when it comes to it,” she explains, discussing the song writing to recording process. “I had my binder. I had my songs laid out in the order that they were going to appear on the album. I had the title. I had everything worked out and I went in and gave them the binder and was like, ‘Here, this is my album. Let’s get started,’ she chuckles.
Success and recognition seems eminent for Charles. She was recently featured as one of CBC’s “New Faces” in Alberta. With growing achievement and attention comes that old indie versus major label question again. Charles has no definite idea about which one will most benefit her at the moment but one indie artist serves as a particular inspiration for her to continue on her current indie route, at least for now.
“Macklemore [the Seattle rapper behind “Thrift Shop”] is independent. He’s been approached by countless labels and each one was offering him deals that weren’t really beneficial for him and his team so he was like, ‘Whatever. Forget you. I’m going to do it myself.’ And now he’s like all over the radio. He’s got millions of people watching his YouTube videos and all on his own, with his team,” she explains, admiration raising her soft voice. “So it’s kind of reassuring to see that it can happen on an independent level and still reach the masses. He’s very much about doing it yourself but still doing it to a high standard. What he puts out there is comparable to what’s out there.”
In the meantime Charles remains laser focused on her music and growing as an artist. And while she’s happily settled in Edmonton for the moment, the lingering influence of her childhood has found its way into touring wanderlust. “I really enjoy touring and just being in that environment. After the last musical tour we were on, everyone was excited to be home but I was like I want to tour again! I was sad to be back. I wanted to keep going.”
Her love for the road is fitting. On stage Charles is vibrant, strumming away on her guitar, at times mixing Caribbean flared vocals and rock while taking the disparate energy of a room to a unified level of enthusiasm. “I prefer singing in live environments. It’s fun for me,” she says. “And I feel like I never sing the same thing twice.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chaka V. is a writer, journalist and the creator of The Winehouse Mag.