The fact that vocalist and songwriter Nuela Charles is so passionate about avoiding labels and being pigeonholed makes a lot of sense. By the time she was a teenager, she had already lived on half of the world’s continents, so a diverse sonic palate and sense of artistry was sure to follow.
The fiercely independent artist has always been a melting pot of influences, but one decade after her debut, her latest project – appropriately self-titled – is bringing it all together on her own terms for the first time. With uplifting and self-empowered messages imploring listeners to follow her lead and step into their confidence, Charles says she’s finally discovering her musical identity.
Charles was born Manuela Wüthrich in Kenya, darting around to Switzerland and The Bahamas before settling down in her Alberta home – but her musical origins stem from her time on the islands in her teens. While her musical family blasted Whitney Houston and fellow R&B divas around the house, Charles was watching women like Avril Lavigne and Michelle Branch shred their guitars on TRL and getting lost in the swirling strings of Bond themes – “Writing’s on the Wall” and “You Know My Name” are her all-time favourites.
It all coalesced into a uniquely soulful brand of alt-pop, with unexpected twists of modern-day 80s dance trends, as well as her beloved orchestral and pop-rock influences. That sound has landed Charles three straight Juno nominations in the Adult Contemporary field, but she’s feeling a little disillusioned with awards lately.
“I really had to consciously stop submitting to R&B categories, because I wasn’t!” she says. “Even ‘R&B’ is so boxed in, because there’s so many different styles. As I was growing in my career, I was like, ‘I don’t fit in any of this. I’m a pop act.’ I might not look like a pop act, in terms of what people might expect. But because I had some name recognition, I would always win these awards, and it felt so fake. When I focused on submitting to pop, for the first couple years, I didn’t get anything.”
Charles’ hometown of Edmonton is often celebrated for having one of the nation’s most eclectic music scenes, and she has previously expressed her appreciation for the city’s tight-knit community of musicians supporting each other across genre lines. When she first touched down in the city, her parents gave her a two-year ultimatum to pursue music professionally, and she believes she might not have flourished in another environment.
“Probably because it’s winter for half the year and there’s nothing else to do,” she laughs. “But I attribute a lot of my success to the community and Alberta Music supporting me. The scenes have developed, and it looks even better than 10 years ago when I started.”
Like many recent works, the album’s bubbly and positive sound and lyrical direction were a partial response to the pandemic, but Charles’ intention to stand up for self-love has been a long time coming. The bones of the album originated from what she calls a “mandatory vacation” after an abrupt halt to a tireless work schedule that began with the cancellation of the 2020 Juno Awards, which Charles was scheduled to present at. The lyrical affirmations that she needed in the wake of that first shocking week in March were just added on top of a career-long fight to be taken seriously in industry spaces.
“I felt like I was in this cycle of writing songs, recording them, playing shows, and I didn’t feel like I loved it anymore. It too the pandemic to smack me down and be like, ‘What do you want?’” she says. “I had to get over my own insecurities and what other people may have said to remember why I started. So, a lot of the songs were me telling myself, ‘You’ve got this, you’re beautiful, don’t listen to the haters,’ all those cheesy things – but making it in a way that’s not, you know, uber-cringe.”
Charles accomplished her goal by tapping into some genuinely infectious and inspirational energy, making her Canada’s answer to Lizzo’s going-out anthems. Her dynamic, genre-hopping instrumentals, soulful vocals and lyrics that dive past the surface level and sound like they come from a person who’s really been through it should keep even the most cynical of listeners on their toes. She describes the album as a journey from doubt to clarity, as her confidence grows with each track.
“By the end of it, you’ve emerged as this new being, this awakened person, feeling like you now fully understand who you are and what you want out of this life,” she says. “It’s kind of like at the end of the movie where the person has this major realization, and then they walk off into the sunset.”
Just like her avoidance of genre labels, Charles also plays with defying expectations in other ways on the album. Whether it’s in the still male-dominated music industry or dealing with outside societal pressures, Charles also confidently asserts herself as a woman in her thirties following her heart and not going with the flow. It’s another reason why she felt she had to approach this project with the mindset of creating for herself, instead of trying to please others. As she says in one spoken interlude, “When did everyone else’s opinion start to mean more than ours?”
“At my age, it’s like ‘You should have a family, three and a half kids, a four-bedroom house, and a dog,” she says. “What if I just want to have a career where I get to travel around the world, play songs, and connect with people on a different level? The norms are changing, but it’s still something that’s lingering, especially with your family. So, it’s about not letting that get to me and standing up for my own wants and needs. Nothing’s stronger than a woman – we can do anything we want! A family? Great! A kick-ass career? Awesome! Both? Amazing!”
It’s always surprising – yet slightly understandable – when you see an interview from a big star who isn’t very aware about the musical landscape, explaining that listening to music outside of their own nonstop musical pursuits in the studio feels like a chore. Nuela Charles is not one of those people. And just as tunes from acts like Linkin Park or Alanis Morrissette are a daily requirement to elevate her spirits, she’s hoping her latest project can be the motivational force her listeners might need.
“As much as I make music to hopefully be the soundtrack for someone else, I need my own soundtrack!” she says. “I’ve even gotten really snobby with the audio quality. I cannot imagine life without music, oh my God.”