When I want a sprawling, consuming book about love and loss, I turn to Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. The compact hybrid book of literature, memoir, and poetry at only 99 pages in length lingers long after the cover is turned over, resting on the table, feigning some sense of finality. The truth is Nelson’s Bluets is never final, or ever feels final, like the relationship she writes of in it. “What’s past is past. One could leave it as it is, too. On the other hand, it must be admitted that there are aftereffects, impressions that linger long after the external cause has been removed, or has removed itself,” she writes. In other words: love fucks you up and we spend an immeasurable amount of time trying to figure out why.
Nelson’s book is what Toronto R&B singer Charlotte Day Wilson and I gush over during our interview. It feels serendipitous, almost, when someone else, seemingly out of the blue, brings up the one piece of art you have the strongest feelings for. This is the purest form of artistic intimacy, I believe; sharing what is meant to be shared, intensely and joyously. Wilson’s own work is a lot like that; a whisper, word-of-mouth obsession, spoken of amongst those closest to you, about the songs of hers that pierce your heart.
Wilson is readying the release of her second EP, Stone Woman, out this week. She released her smooth, sultry debut EP CDW back in 2016 to writers buzzing that’d she would be the next big thing out of Toronto. For many Torontonians, that anyone could be a widespread success is, for some reason, a success for all of us. Last year, on that EP alone, she sold out two shows at the modestly sized Mod Club. In April, on the strength of these two EPs, one that hasn’t even been heard yet by an audience, she’s sold out one night at the much larger Danforth Music Hall with another well on its way. Wilson is in a prime position to take off.
Yet, she is still relatively new to audiences despite her (deserved) current hometown successes. A refresher: She has been featured on Daniel Caesar’s Freudian on the track “Transform,” an experience she says she values, not only creatively but with Caesar as her friend and musical peer. Her song “Work” appeared on the Netflix show Grace & Frankie and in Apple commercials. Zane Lowe geeks out over her, too.
On one of the truest Canadian February days, ice-cold and unkind, we retreat into a warm room of her management’s office, tucked away from the buzzing Queen Street West. When I ask her why she decided to release another EP, rather than a full-length debut album, she doesn’t mince her words: “These were the songs that I liked that fit together in an EP. I don’t necessarily feel the pressure to put out a full-length album yet. I’m taking my time with things.” She continues, almost slyly: “It’s also kind of about building the anticipation.” Her EPs remind me of Bluets in that way: length doesn’t necessarily determine importance and acclaim. Bluets’ relative shortness, compared to canonical texts of similar subjects reaching past 400 or 500 pages, still has the same impact. Wilson’s two EPs of six songs each are as impactful, if not more, than what any debut could do.
Wilson, at 25-years-old, is a self-taught producer, multi-instrumentalist, and chief architect of her career. She has a management team but no label, no strict system to adhere to, except the one that she creates. But she hustled along the way: she had a band called the Wayo; lived in Halifax for a few years before returning back home to Toronto; interned at Arts & Crafts, at one point, connecting with people there who could connect her to others, creating a constellation of opportunity for herself based on her hard work alone. At one point, she said she learned the basics of production via YouTube tutorials. “I definitely learned the, like, ‘how do you crossfade the volume from this to this,’” she says, laughing. “But, in terms of creative production techniques, I’ve been learning a lot more from the people I’ve been working with. I’ve been watching people work.”
“That’s a huge way for me to learn,” she continues. “Sitting behind someone and we work on a song together, just very actively being there, and making sure I ask questions when I don’t know what’s going on or whatever. I’ve learned a lot in the last little while that way.” It’s a rarity in this industry, for some reason, to have a woman so invested in production and wanting to produce her own work. Wilson shies away from any sort of grand statement about her role in the music industry, preferring not to be on a soapbox of sorts. Of course, she believes the industry should be more inclusive of women (as well as any folks who don’t identify as cis-males) in front of and behind the scenes but her approach is more action based. “I think that just by doing what I do, I’m speaking for myself and how I feel being a woman in the industry. I’m not going to be passive… and let someone else produce my songs or have my project at the end of the day. I’d rather lead by example.”
CDW was largely a solo effort with Wilson often secluding herself to work on the project. On Stone Woman, she leaned into a collaborative headspace, working with members of BadBadNotGood, for example. (Alex Sowinski sent the instrumentals for “Stone Woman” that Wilson would be inspired by and write to.) “It was just kind of a mixture of me starting on my own, producing, building things up, bringing them to other people and spaces to help me elaborate them or the opposite,” she says. Wilson likes to write the songs, including of the parts in it, and play them, then, she says with a laugh, give them to the experts of the instrument to enhance them.
Wilson’s work is timeless, something she has said in prior interviews. Her R&B sound often feels new. R&B has gone through evolutions since the 80s and 90s (exemplary artists include Sade and Aaliyah) and well into the later 2000s with an electro, alt-R&B surge (with artists like Kelela, Syd, and Frank Ocean.) There is the jazz revival with Toronto’s own BadBadNotGood, too, that Wilson is influenced by. Even Daniel Caesar’s kind of gospel-infused soul feels new to us when it is, in fact, steeped in something much older. Where jazz and soul once felt like a stodgy realm for old (often white) people, it has been reclaimed by the youth and the communities it was birthed from.
For Wilson, whatever perception of newness we have about her sound, she believes, comes from the lyrical content that fits nicely with the form. “I don’t think a lot of women are singing about their lesbian love to R&B,” she says. “I don’t know if I’ve heard that that much. And production [wise], there are interesting production things that I’m doing that are new even though some of the tools have been around forever.” She continues, saying, “I think it’s really compelling when the music itself sounds timeless but the lyrics and the content are—even if they are pretty basic—there is [an] undertone. If you know that I’m gay, you’re like, ‘this is a little more interesting’—there’s another layer of identity and sexuality that’s happening.”
Nelson wrote in Bluets, “I am not sure how to sever the love from the lover without occasioning some degree of carnage.” On Stone Woman, Wilson grapples with, as she says, vulnerability, love, and loss. Each song, beginning with the EP’s title track, builds upon an intensity of feelings and sounds, which you can immediately hear. It is darker, denser. “Stone Woman” is initially minimal with Wilson’s vocals ominous amongst soft strings and synths; repeating, steadily, “stone woman” over and over again, almost defeated. Whereas “Funeral,” the last song on the EP is bigger and sharp; crafted with a simple piano intro, leading toward an alto saxophone doing staccato, and looming bass. It is devastating when Wilson sings, “welcome to our funeral, it’s nice that you came.”
Stone Woman is an exercise in toiling in hurt and trying to express it thoughtfully. Much of Wilson’s songwriting has grown on this EP. She looks visibly embarrassed when saying she regrets some of the songs she’s written before. (She says, “I [think] ‘that could have been a lot more meaningful if there was actually more meaning behind it.’”) Her lyrics and thoughts, based on lived experiences, simmer as though they’ve been on the counter in a slow cooker for hours on end, tenderizing. This is one of the more remarkable facets of her work: it’s tender and doesn’t take that for granted; unwilling to sacrifice the beautiful and hard parts of relationships, connectivity, and loss that occur.
At the end of Bluets, Nelson writes: “I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any of the these words; I would rather have had you by side than all of the blue in the world.” It’s a harrowing form of goodbye because it’s still deeply entrenched in loving; in kindness in spite of the fracture or heartache two people can cause each other. Stone Woman, in its sonic complexities and lyrical admissions, feels like that too. And if Wilson can communicate that in simply six songs, who knows what she’ll give us with a full-length record someday.
Sarah MacDonald believes in organized chaos and spiting her foes. Follow her on Twitter.