How a bad experience with an edible changed the course of Charlie Houston's life
The Toronto musician's upcoming debut EP was inspired by a short stint living in New York
"Honestly, I haven't been the same since that happened."
Charlie Houston is referring to an incident while she was attending New York University where she "annihilated her brain" by taking an edible. It may sound dramatic, but the Toronto pop-R&B artist now sees this as an inflection point in her music career, a moment that changed everything. "I probably wouldn't be talking to you right now," she tells me over Zoom, noting that had she not gone through that traumatic experience, she likely wouldn't be here promoting her debut EP, much of which is inspired by her short stint in New York.
Houston is 19 years old and still attending post-secondary school, though she has since switched from NYU's acclaimed music program to Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., for economics. (She notes that she plans to change her degree to politics soon "because I hate math.") But while she may have left an education in music behind, her sights are more set than ever on a career as a musician. "I sort of feel like the black sheep sometimes," she jokes, since her three older siblings have all pursued much more academic paths.
When Houston was eight, she was gifted a guitar by her father, whose taste in '70s classic rock influenced a lot of what she was listening to and learning to play. But she quickly outgrew that and took a brief break from playing because, as she explains it, "I don't want to play your old-person music." Instead, she was keen on learning the music of Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift and songs she would hear on the Family Channel. By the time she reached high school, she expanded her tastes to include electronic, R&B and rap, becoming obsessed with the music of Kaytranada, Anderson Paak, Mac Miller and Flume. (A five-week program at the Berklee College of Music introduced her to music production, and learning how to create music on her laptop, without needing to use her acoustic guitar, "blew my mind," she says.)
When Houston applied to NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, she didn't expect to get in. In fact, it was the only music program and school outside of Canada that she applied to. "I'm super interested in the business side of the music industry," she says, explaining why she was interested in attending that specific university. When she got accepted, her initial reaction was shock. "What do I do?" she asked. Her parents encouraged her to go. "I didn't know what to expect."
What Houston discovered was that being thrown into a massive metropolis was much more intense and overwhelming than she had anticipated. She was making friends and was generally excited at first, but in her third week at NYU, she ate a weed cookie. "I wanted to be cool with all these music kids," she recalls. Houston had always been aware of her anxiety — "Mental health problems are more common now with social media and everything," she rationalizes — but this edible unlocked a "monster of anxiety" that she had no clue was inside of her. Suddenly, after that, "all the things I was excited about, I was like, 'Oh my God, I can't do any of this.' I was scared that I would get hit by a taxi when I left my building."
That rush of anxiety, compounded by the lack of a support system nearby, made Houston start to doubt her choice to move to New York. She began seeing a therapist and taking medication, but according to Houston, it wasn't helping much. "Some days I would feel OK, and then all of a sudden I would not be OK," she says.
Almost a month after that incident, she began talking to her parents about potentially returning home. One evening, while working on a school assignment in a studio alone, she broke down in tears. "I called my mom and was just like, 'I really don't think I'm going to be able to help myself here,'" she remembers. "I need to be home and I need to be around people that I feel safe and comfortable with, at least for this time." Her parents agreed that her mental health was more important than staying in school.
When she returned to Toronto, the songs came pouring out. The edible moment inspired "19," a track about "being a young adult in today's times and how it's crazy and scary, and how no one talks about it." (Her bio includes a mission statement that reads: "I just want my songs to be super authentic and address shit that all young people deal with.")
Elsewhere on her EP, I Hate Spring (out April 30), Houston opens up about a toxic romance that developed while she was in New York. On lead single "Calls," she sings about compulsive drunk dialling. "Can't help saying how I guess I miss you/ hoping you call, hoping you call me back," she sings over an acoustic guitar floating atop a Frank Ocean-inspired R&B soundscape. "Things" was her second single, about the same relationship and the pressures to conform to a partner's expectations or ideals. "I hate smoking 'cause it burns my lungs," she admits on the track, "I tried 'cause you liked it, I tried 'cause you liked it."
Another important part of this post-NYU puzzle is producer Chris Yonge, who helms all five tracks on I Hate Spring, grounding Houston's words in a downtempo pop space. "We immediately started working on a song the day that I met him," Houston says, of their instant connection. "From a friendship standpoint, we have very similar personalities. I feel like you need to have that if you're creating with someone because the whole point of it is understanding each other and understanding what the other person is trying to say."
I Hate Spring — a real opinion Houston holds — is an intriguing starting point for a new artist on the scene; it provides an honest teenage perspective of the trials and tribulations of navigating mental health, relationships, drinking and life in general. Being in your teens can be a messy time in one's life and Houston isn't afraid to dive in and explore. "It's a very self-discovery-type vibe," she says.
Sometimes, discoveries only reveal themselves through bad experiences, and now that two years have passed since Houston had that weed cookie, she actually sees that event as a blessing. "I'm glad it happened," she asserts. "Prior to that, I was super anxious. I would overthink what people thought about me and I wanted to please everyone. And I still do, but I also don't really care now?
"I ended up being OK, and that just made me feel like you should do whatever you want in life, talk to whoever you want and present yourself in whatever way because one day your brain might explode, and then you can't do any of those things."