Shortlist shortcut to Charlotte Day Wilson's Alpha

'Mountains' is the sonic anchor that Wilson built the rest of the album around.

'Mountains' is the sonic anchor that Wilson built the rest of the album around

Toronto singer Charlotte Day Wilson's debut album, Alpha, is nominated for the 2022 Polaris Music Prize short list. (Othello Grey; graphic by CBC Music)

To help music fans get to know the 10 Polaris Music Prize-nominated albums, CBC Music presents the Shortlist Shortcut series. Every week, we will ask a nominated artist for a recommended track off their shortlisted record. Perhaps it's a song that best represents the themes on the album, or maybe it's the most important, difficult or rewarding song they wrote. The question was left to the artist to interpret, but the hope is that the selected track will give us a pathway into their work. 

In the ninth instalment of this series, we spoke with Toronto singer-songwriter and producer Charlotte Day Wilson, who has been on the Polaris Prize long list twice before. Alpha marks her first time on the short list.

Charlotte Day Wilson possesses a voice that cuts through everything, holding you frozen in its thrall. The Toronto singer's alto is on immense display throughout her 2021 debut album Alpha and on the album's centrepiece, "Mountains," she whips up layered harmonies to harrowing effect. There is no choice but to listen deeply and attentively as she grieves a tenuous relationship on the brink of collapse, and to empathize with her ardent desire to hold on to it. 

"Songwriting is always kind of this weird, mysterious thing where you write a verse and four months later, you listen back to it, and you're like, 'Wait, I didn't even realize that that was how I was feeling,'" Wilson said in a Zoom interview with CBC Music. "Mountains" encapsulates the relationship she was in at the time and it wasn't until months after writing it that she realized that it captured "something that I was really battling with that I hadn't been confronting in my conscious life."

Feelings of anguish and impending loss spill out of the chorus, as Wilson sings: "You hear me calling/ Won't you come find me?/ Please don't forsake me/ All of a sudden/ My heart is breaking/ I feel it coming." 

Wilson's pleading vocals are accompanied by plucking guitar strings, wailing brass instruments, resonant piano and the sound of falling rain. The production is pared back, save for a few moments of swelling tension. "Mountains" became the anchor for the rest of the album when Wilson realized that was the sonic world that she wanted to shape the rest of the project around. Writing it encouraged her to practice restraint within the production for all of Alpha.

"A lot of the time as a producer I have to battle with my own urge to overload songs with layers and layers of instruments and vocals," said Wilson. "That song felt like it was breathing without having too many elements, which felt like something I needed to home in on a little bit more for all the other songs." 

There's a gorgeous hymnal quality to "Mountains" and a lot of Wilson's music — she's partial to layered vocal harmonies that evoke gospel. She grew up hearing hymnal music because her grandfather was a minister. Although both her parents didn't agree on whether their children should be raised religiously, they found common ground in taking them to church to hear the music.

"I always had this association with religion and church as kind of an institution for music." 

Wilson has a number of collaborators across the album, including features from Syd, Daniel Caesar and BadBadNotGood. "Mountains" was one of the first songs that took her out of her insular writing zone. She tends to work alone, so writing with a group of eight other people (Varren Wade, Babyface, D'Mile, Brandon Banks, Kyla Moscovich, Teo Halm, Marcus Reddick and Mk.gee) in Los Angeles was new ground for her. 

Writing music lets Wilson tap into an openness that she says she struggles to convey in her daily life. Her songs create space for her to share what she usually keeps guarded. 

"I want so badly to be able to open up and connect with people better, but for some reason I just have my guard up," she said. "I think music is the area where, because for the most part I do it alone, but even when I do it with other people, I can shed the defense mechanisms and just be very, very real and raw and open."

Alpha is an album full of vulnerability. Beyond the sweeping agony of "Mountains," there's the intimate tenderness of "If I Could," a song she sees as a message to her younger queer self, the exposed anxiety of "Adam Complex," written about Wilson's insecurity around dating a woman who had previously dated men, and so much else in between. 

With "Mountains" as its heart, Alpha becomes a conduit for profound contemplation. As Wilson lets us into her inner world, it's an invitation to delve deep into our own.