There is nothing more important to musical phenom Charlotte Day Wilson than her community. Being born and raised in Toronto, Wilson’s creativity is the fruit of the city’s layered and interconnected music scene. And as a queer singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer, she knows a thing or two about what it takes to get to this stage in her career, where her music can be her sole focus.
Like the journey of any epic hero arc, Wilson is back full circle in her hometown once again, but her own path has been anything but predictable. The result? Her soulful music has now been featured in an Apple commercial, her soundscapes paired with major art installations in the city, and her latest album, ALPHA, cracked Billboard’s top 10 R&B albums list last year, not to mention Complex Canada’s. Hell, she’s even performed on Ellen. But before quitting her day job, Wilson put in her time.
She did what she had to do to make ends meet–anything from church janitor to a dishwasher at a butcher shop, just so she can keep creating music. Despite her rise, the artist is still keeping it humble, and close to her Toronto roots. Here is why.
For the latest episode of Northern Clutch, powered by Now Playing Toronto, Complex Canada caught up with Charlotte Day Wilson in her Toronto home. Check it out, then read the interview with Wilson, edited for clarity, below.
I believe your aunt was a music teacher. Talk to me about growing up in a household like that and pursuing music through school.
I might have taken for granted how surrounded I was by music, and I kind of thought that everyone was. My dad was always playing piano and guitar around the house. My aunt on my mom’s side was a music teacher and so was my aunt on my dad’s side. So there was just music everywhere. My uncle also played saxophone, and so it was definitely always around and there was always music in the house. I think that definitely was a huge part of forming me as someone who was just going to be inevitably drenched in music.
I went to school in Halifax to University of King’s College and did a philosophy-literature program there and then I studied music; I studied saxophone in second and third year, and then I dropped out. Also, my parents put me in classical piano lessons for like my whole life—that was the one thing that they actually really did push me to do. I wasn’t allowed to quit until I left the house. I had a piano teacher who was highly sought after and all of my cousins and my brother and everyone auditioned for her, and she fired them because they weren’t good enough. I was the only one in the family that stuck it out and that she was kind of invested in. Because of that my parents were like “OK, maybe she has something. We’re going to push her to foster that.”
What were some of the challenges that you faced moving around, and what did that teach you, especially coming back to Toronto?
I don’t think I would have had the confidence to start my career in music in Toronto because I was intimidated by all the established artists here.I’m really grateful for the time that I spent in Halifax. it’s a small city, there’s not a ton going on any given night. So I had a band and we were performing like three times a week typically. It gave me the legs and the confidence to be a performer and people were super supportive of it there.
In Montreal, where I lived for a bit, that was where I formed my personal identity. There’s a really good queer party scene there. So that informed my personal life.
Coming back to Toronto, that’s where I started to learn how to produce and also started to just see the calibre of music that was coming out of here, and just being like, “I need to level up.” The stuff that I was doing beforehand was cute, but I needed to basically level up to where my peers were at.
I was lucky to be friends with people who I admired and whose music I admired. That helped me… Some healthy competition to get better at everything. Also, there was such a collaborative environment of people who were teaching me how to do everything, basically.
“It just felt like an important personal milestone to cement myself as a queer artist and not feel ashamed of maybe pigeonholing myself or something.”
What brought you back to Toronto? After you spent time in Halifax and Montreal, I guess you could have really travelled anywhere at that point. What brought you specifically back to Toronto?
I came back to Toronto because my family was here. Part of the reason I came back to Toronto [as well] is because I found out about a grant that [paid] for an internship at any record label in the country. So, I knew about [the label] Arts & Crafts. And growing up, Arts & Crafts was my favourite label and had all my favourite artists on it. I got that internship and that was in Toronto. And that established me amongst music industry people in the city.
Talk to us about the hustle and that struggle that an upcoming artist faces. What was that process like?
At the time, I didn’t really think much of it. I thought this was just what I had to do. When I dropped out of school, I had a pretty serious conversation with my mom, where she unexpectedly encouraged me to drop out. She was like, “I can tell you’re not enjoying it. You know, this might be a waste of money. What do you really want to do?” And I was like, “You know, I want to be in music. I don’t know whether it’s as a musician or in the industry or something, but I’m seeing that that’s what I’m really passionate about.” She was just like, “Well, if you’re going to do that, you have to do it a thousand percent.” My parents always just encouraged me and my brother to work as hard as we can. They were really hard working people themselves, so when we had that conversation, I was just like, OK, so I’ll do whatever it takes.
It was hard, but it was also enjoyable. I found peace in the moments—not to sound like I’m romanticizing tough work. I was a dishwasher at a butcher shop. That was the grossest thing I’ve ever done and had to take off my clothes before I got back into the house because they stink so bad. I was a janitor at the church at Trinity St. Paul’s in Toronto. I did a lot of service jobs, just like hostessing, serving, dishwashing.
And then the internship at Arts & Crafts. They eventually actually hired me because they liked me. So I did that for like four or five months, and then I was able to quit that job and be [focused on] doing music full time.
If I’m not mistaken, you landed a big commercial with Apple?
I’d never even dreamed of having an amount of money like that in my bank account. It was completely liberating. That opportunity gave me the ability to quit the job that I was working at and to secure housing for like a year. So I knew I had a year to be doing music full time. As long as I can sustain this, just doing music full time, I’m happy. That was a big arrival for me. It also just showed me how much money there is in the music industry. ‘Damn, this is what people are getting when they get their music in a commercial?’ Like, ‘OK, that’s nice.’
It’s so funny that a song that I wrote in my bedroom turned into something that established me as an artist. And in some ways, I can’t actually fully grasp it because I think that, in its essence, is what makes songwriting and being a musician so difficult because you can never really know when you’re going to capture those moments. And it’s humbling to think that like, just a really casual moment that I was having in my bedroom turned into something that I never could have imagined. And so I always leave space for those moments now. I’m just grateful that that song came out of me.
“All of this, in the past few years of my career, I’ve really realized that nothing to me matters more than my home, my community, my family and my friends.”
Talk to me about the significance of the title [of your debut album], ALPHA.
I think this album was just me being unapologetically gay for once. That’s not what the album is about, but I don’t think I was really actually confident enough to be super open about that, even though I’m sure a lot of people knew.
It just felt like an important personal milestone to cement myself as a queer artist and not feel ashamed of maybe pigeonholing myself or something. I think that’s what I was scared about before—[that I would be] pigeonholed as a gay artist, and I wanted to be seen, as a producer and songwriter and as the person that I am, and not just like a label.
But now, I feel really strong owning that identity. And the music that I make is shaped by the women in my life and the community that fosters the lifestyle that I’m able to live in a really healthy and happy way.
There was an artist you introduced me to: Alex Dobkin, who put out the album Lavender Jane Loves Women. It was revolutionary because in 1975, she was married with a kid, and she came out, right? Do you hope that ALPHA might do the same thing? Or that it touches people in the same way?
I don’t think about how it’s going to touch people or affect them. It’s just my own self-expression, but definitely it warms my heart a lot when people reach out or when I’ve heard that it’s affected people in any kind of positive way. That’s more than I could have ever imagined or hoped for.
The more comfortable lesbians doing their thing in the world, the better. I don’t think that at this point it’s not revolutionary–it’s just a slice of someone’s life.
I don’t really think about what people should take from it. The only thing I’m trying to do is be honest in the music and make the things that move me and that make me feel warm and fuzzy inside or moody or whatever the mood is that I’m in. Whatever people take from it, they take from it. I’m lucky that people enjoy it, basically.
Can you tell me about some of the instruments that you play and what your process is when you’re making an album or making music?
My main instrument is piano and keys. I obviously like playing piano and then all of the synths that I have are a big part of my producing process and also my songwriting process. Sometimes I start a song just on the guitar or the piano and then write the song out like that. More times than not, I’m working with production and then the songwriting kind of happens in tandem with that.
Guitar—I’m self-taught, so I’m not very good at it, but I know how to fumble my way into sounds that I like. I play saxophone. I studied that in university, but I dropped out because I didn’t like practicing. I’m pretty OK at saxophone, but definitely not as good as I would like to be. Base–again, self-taught and I can fumble my way through. And when I say fumble my way through, I don’t mean that I’m bad at it. I just use my ear versus like theory or anything, and I use my production ear versus my musicality proficiency ear. I can also play a bit of drums.
I wanted to take a moment to ask you about Virgil [Abloh]. I know you had a chance to work with him. I know you were part of an afterparty and I think you and Drake hosted it. Can you talk to me about [the fashion giant’s] legacy, what his impact is moving forward and just what your experience was with him?
I don’t know how Virgil was able to impact the amount of people that he did, and I think that’s the thing that I take from it. The experiences I had with him were so positive and so encouraging. All he did was just hype me up. What I really take from it is that he did that with so many people and that’s so inspiring.
I know that the ripple effect of his positivity on all of the creatives that he had an influence on and all of the people who are going to follow suit in that mentality and that care are going to affect so many other people. Even within my own community, I could feel that when he passed he was a father figure to so many people in this industry and in the arts. Basically, I feel very grateful to have been able to work with him.
I know it’s been difficult trying to get a tour going during cold weather. Talk to me about some of those challenges.
Touring is a challenge anyway. It’s been about finding the roads we feel good about and then making sure that we’re in a window of time where there isn’t like a variant or a surge in cases and so it’s definitely really precarious. I feel good about it. I feel like we’ve found a window that is going to work for at least the American part of the tour and then now figuring out what that next little window is going to be for the Canadian leg, but it’s definitely going to be sometime this summer.
I know the plan and the goal is to have your final tour date in Toronto. Talk to me about this homecoming final tour date and just what it means to hear your first debut album tour back home in Toronto?
It means everything. All of this, in the past few years of my career, I’ve really realized that nothing to me matters more than my home, my community, my family and my friends. Like the music industry, the music business, the music itself, even none of it compares to the level of support and fulfillment that I get from my community and from my people. And so to be able to marry those two things and have my people there to support me on my last show of my tour is going to be just crazy. The plan is to end the tour in Toronto so that I can perform for all of my people.