Music

On Alpha, Charlotte Day Wilson uses alter egos to channel her 'truest voice as an artist'

The Toronto-based musician and producer just dropped her highly anticipated debut album.

The Toronto-based musician and producer just dropped her highly anticipated debut album

Charlotte Day Wilson's debut album Alpha features collaborations with BadBadNotGood, Daniel Caesar and Syd. (Othello Grey; graphic by CBC)

Charlotte Day Wilson is in "celebration mode." 

I'm speaking with the Toronto-based artist and producer on the day before the release of her debut album, Alpha, and while some artists might be filled with anxiety around this time, Wilson is ready to see her hard work pay off. "It's exciting," she tells me over a Zoom call from Los Angeles, where she hosted an advanced listening party earlier that week. "It was really nice to share it with people, finally."

Part of that eagerness to hear and see people's reactions comes from the fact that Alpha has been a long time in the making. Coming off of two buzz-making EPs — 2016's CDW and 2018's Stone Woman — songs for this new album began taking shape in 2018. By the time COVID-19 forced the world to hit pause in early 2020, Wilson had practically finished everything. Still, she has said throughout multiple interviews that this past year was actually a "blessing in disguise," giving her extra time and space to add finishing touches, to make songs even more cohesive, sonically.

Even though Alpha's 11 tracks flow with ease, the album is also incredibly varied, ranging from acoustic numbers to R&B and gospel moments, and even Wilson's own version of a dance track in the form of the gorgeously propulsive single, "Keep Moving." It's a full-blown display of Wilson's bag of tricks, both as a singer and producer, but the consistent star throughout is her voice: a velvety warm balm that goes down like a glass of smooth whiskey. 

"I'm lucky to have the tool of my own voice as an instrument," she explains. To Wilson, vocals offer up "a more interesting texture than, like, sounds that you can create with things that don't come from your physical body." It's also an opportunity to create characters by pitching her own voice down on certain tracks. This allows Wilson to have a dialogue in her songs, that is when she's not bringing in actual collaborators like BadBadNotGood, Daniel Caesar and Syd, who make up the guest list on Alpha. "It's kind of my counterpart-slash-alter ego," she notes, adding that the album title itself plays a similar part. 

An alpha, in queer terms, is a category of women that are often described as the "top of the lesbian food chain," an intimidatingly cool type whose confidence can be both magnetic and domineering, depending on one's type. Wilson, a queer woman, doesn't necessarily consider herself an alpha in real life, but enjoys the idea of stepping into that role in her music, where she feels most bold and courageous. "I just like that it kind of gives images of strength," she tells me, "it was just a word that I couldn't escape, it was just milling about in my mind for a while." 

This may make Alpha appear like a fictionalized playground for Wilson, but couched in all the artifice of alter egos is a very real and extremely intimate look at the personal journey Wilson has been on in the past few years. The album explores heartbreak, relationships and identity as she embarks on a "personal quest of trying to find your truest voice as an artist," she says. Sometimes that process requires self-reflection, other times it begs for a conversation. Either way, Wilson says music acts as "a medium for me to express myself [...] I'm most creatively satisfied when I know I've been the most honest with the music and with myself." 

A shining example, and album highlight, is "If I Could," a rare song that's not written by Wilson herself. Penned by Wilson's friend, Merna Bishouty, Wilson says she fell in love with the song immediately: "I kind of knew I had to put this song together and sing it." It's a track that admittedly still makes Wilson emotional when she hears it or performs it, a hymn that she sees as a message to her younger self, and "just wishing that I could kind of protect her through her journey as a young queer."

While a track like "Keep Moving" speaks to the resilience of LGBT people — initially inspired by the lesbian motorcycle club Dykes on Bikes, who appear in the music video — and the forward momentum it takes to move past traumas and hardships, "If I Could'' represents the other part of healing, a look back at your younger self to provide solace, forgiveness and love. "Oh-oh, I'd bathe you/ wash you of the sins that plague you," Wilson sings on the chorus, amplified by more voices behind her. "Rid you of the burdens and you'd be free once more." 

Throughout Alpha, Wilson utilizes religious phrases and imagery, not only to tap into the spirituality of the songwriting process ("I definitely consider music to be my spiritual practice"), but also to dive deeper into something that she's always had a complicated relationship with. Wilson's grandfather was a minister, and when she was growing up, her parents disagreed on how big of a role religion should play in the family.

"That was the one thing that they fought openly about in front of us," she says of her mom, who pushed for religious involvement while her dad opposed it. Wilson is not religious now, but says she's inspired by those who are and their unique perspectives on the world. And while she says, with a light chuckle, that she doesn't see her queerness as a rebellion against the church, that her family "had a bit of a journey with my coming out." Wilson asserts that her parents are supportive of her sexuality today, but her emotional reaction to seeing a pride flag on her parents' front porch this year suggests that this journey, like many of Wilson's other quests, is still ongoing. 

I feel really grateful that I have this other medium that gets me out of my shell and really lays it on the line for people to see.- Charlotte Day Wilson

I take a moment to pause and ask if Wilson, who has described herself as a shy person, feels weird balancing public and private vulnerabilities, to which she responded, "It's pretty weird, I'm not gonna lie." Her queerness, for instance, is a topic that she feels a sense of responsibility to both herself and her listeners to dig deeper into and unabashedly discuss in her music. She's cognizant of the need for a private life — where she says she can be more laid-back and goofy — but also knows that the purpose of her job is to "use music to connect with people in a way that I can't necessarily do socially a lot of the time."  

"At the end of the day, I want to connect with people," she continues. "I think that's actually the human condition, you know. Happiness comes through connection and just being able to see yourself in other people. And when I can't do that socially, I feel really grateful that I have this other medium that gets me out of my shell and really lays it on the line for people to see." 

Charlotte Day Wilson | Work | CBC Music Festival

Music

3 years ago
5:38
Charlotte Day Wilson performs 'Work' at the 2018 CBC Music Festival. 5:38

As Wilson continues to come into her own, she's keen on transferring what she's learned onto others, especially other women and non-binary creatives. As someone who didn't really have a role model entering the music industry, and finds herself surrounded by mostly male collaborators ("I can't really control the environment I came up in"), Wilson has had her fair share of frustrating experiences in the studio with male producers or engineers.

But she wants to ensure that the space she cultivates is one of comfort, safety and prioritizing emotional connections. Wilson is particularly passionate as she talks about this burgeoning chapter in her career, of both helping create more spaces for women and non-binary artists and producers to flourish (she hopes to eventually hold workshops in studios), as well as expanding her own portfolio beyond her own music, to include new genres, sounds and collaborators. 

The journey is far from over for Wilson — and Alpha is sure to launch her in many more exciting directions — but thankfully, for now, she is able to take a moment to truly take in everything she's done and celebrate, even if just briefly. 

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