These days, it’s OK to be honest about mental health, and writing songs is like therapy. And when these words and melodies reach listeners, they can lessen their struggles. Or – at the very least – let them know they’re not alone. Serena Ryder’s JUNO Award-winning The Art of Falling Apart, inspired by this keynote on wellness, is one example.

When it comes to wellness, young people, aged 15 to 24, are more likely to experience mental health issues than any other age group. Charlie Houston, 22, backs up these stats. The songwriter isn’t always OK – and she’s OK with that. Since the 2021 release of her debut EP (I Hate Spring) Houston has – like Ryder – addressed in her art what it feels like to fall apart.

“Mental illness these days is more commonplace,” she says. “Every young adult right now is struggling with something.”

On Oct. 7, 2022, the songwriter’s new batch of songs arrived: Bad Posture. Produced by Houston’s friend and frequent collaborator, Toronto hip-hop artist Chris Yonge, the title refers to the way the artist’s posture shifts whenever she’s sad, nervous, or anxious. We catch up with the Gen Z pop star via Zoom, on a mid-week afternoon, to chat about wellness, big questions, and the new EP.

Wearing a baggy sweatshirt, Houston is settled into a hotel room in Sacramento, California, enjoying some down time. She’s just arrived in town after playing a show the previous evening in Boise, Idaho. Like she has since late July, she’ll join ODESZA onstage later that night to sing “Wide Awake,” the Spotify viral single that she collaborated on with the American electronic duo. Not a bad gig – performing just one song a night, and getting to watch and learn from a Grammy-nominated artist.

Just like she learns from ODESZA, Houston is also constantly learning new ways to control and take care of her mental health. “It definitely has gotten better,” she admits, talking about her current anxiety levels compared to a few years ago. “Before, I didn’t really understand what was happening. I’ve gotten better at recognizing those feelings now, and doing things to not make me feel that way.”

Houston’s anxiety stems mostly from metaphysical questions that swim around constantly in her brain, like “What’s the meaning of life?” and “Why do we exist?” No wonder, outside of her music career, she’s currently completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON.

“I find those questions difficult to grapple with,” she says, revealing that Peter Singer, who’s written extensively on animal welfare in modern society, is one of her favorite philosophers. “I feel different mentally every day. Some days are good; some are bad. I just go along with it… capitalize on it when I’m feeling good, and wait for it to pass when I’m feeling bad.”

Heady stuff to occupy a 20-something’s mindspace. Houston hasn’t delved too deep into incorporating her academic learning into her songs… yet. She’s considered it, but finding a way to explain complex theories in song has proved a challenge. “Maybe one day I’ll find the right words,” she says.

Were these deep thoughts always part of Houston’s make-up? “I always thought about these metaphysical questions, but I had a terrible experience with a weed edible when I was 19, and it heightened all of those anxieties,” she explains. “Since then, those feelings have never really gone away… That experience was a huge shift.”

Houston’s latest single, “What Do We Do Now?,” which speaks to the sadness brought on when two close friends grow apart over time, hints at a musical shift.

“Sonically, it’s a sound that I’ve never released before, but really like,” she says. “A lot of my other music has electronic components, and is more poppy, but this song has more of an indie-rock vibe. I’m really happy with how it turned out.”

Charlie Houston plays her first hometown headline show at The Drake Underground on Oct. 27, 2022, before joining six-time 2022 JUNO Award winner Charlotte Cardin to open a string of Canadian dates in November of 2022.

If you’re writing songs in 2022, vulnerability is arguably the coin of the realm.

From Donovan Woods to Carly Rae Jepsen, TOBi to Shawn Mendes, Julian Taylor to grandson, JP Saxe to Savannah Ré, speaking authentic emotional truth is the currency on which careers are based, and (not coincidentally) the thing that resonates most deeply with audiences. This has been the case historically with some genres – from confessional singer-songwriters of the early ‘70s to emo bands of the mid-‘90s. But with the rise of TikTok as the main vehicle for music discovery, vulnerability has mainstreamed, and its currency has grown exponentially in value – as the likes of Tate McRae, Charlie Houston, and renforshort share their strongest feelings, and reach their largest audiences.

Jessie Reyez – whose new album Yessie was released on Sept. 23, 2022 – serves as a kind of Godmother (or midwife, or architect, or Patron Saint) of the new vulnerability. Reyez started out with her raw, painful breakup song “Figures” in August of 2016, about a month before TikTok was launched. She followed that with an equally personal, intense tale of threatened sexual exploitation in “Gatekeeper,” and she hasn’t stopped telling true, heartfelt, powerful stories of her life ever since.

Her meteoric rise – parallel to that of the sharing app – testifies to how much, and how relatively quickly, Reyez’s openness has reverberated with a worldwide audience. She won the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame Slaight Music Emerging Songwriter Award in 2017, and the SOCAN Breakout Songwriter Award in 2019.  Her 2020 debut album Before Love Came to Kill Us charted Top Five on Billboard’s R&B Album Chart, and has amassed more than 1.2 billion(!) cumulative global streams. She’s received high praise from The New York Times, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, and Variety, and has performed on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Late Night With Seth Meyers, and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. In 2022, she played Coachella, and opened the Billie Eilish world tour. She’s been nominated for a Grammy Award, won four JUNO Awards and a Billboard Impact Award, and made a cameo in Beyonce’s Black is King visual album. It’s not an idle brag that the name of her Twitter account is Doing great things bitch.

The profile blurb of that account is, “I like to sing about shit I don’t like to talk about.” This remains true, even after her well-documented campaign of reading self-help books, undergoing therapy, and working toward self-healing that took place over the course of the pandemic. One wonders if it ever feels strange for her to be singing – to multiple millions of listeners – things that are so deeply personal that she wouldn’t even say them to another person (except perhaps a therapist).

Now it does,” she says. “Now, maybe because I’m more present. But it feels weird when we talk about it, when I’m doing this [being interviewed], ‘cause this isn’t natural for me. Singing is, performing is, so I don’t really question it. But this is funny, ‘cause it feels very analytical.”

Reyez has said more than once that it can be painful to continue performing her often gut-wrenching material; she’s even likened it to picking at a scab. Is it less so, now that she’s found some emotional equilibrium? “It’s still a scab,” she says. “But the difference is that I don’t stay in the space as long. So, if I’m in the studio and it’s coming out, then I’m in that space; but when I leave, I’m able to come back to the present faster.”

In another new direction for Reyez, there are some yearning love songs on Yessie“Forever,” “Only One,” and “Hittin” – that suggest she might just be ready for a lifelong partner. After a huge “did-you-really-ask-me-that?” laugh, she says, “I don’t know if I’m ready, but I’m definitely more open than I was before… I didn’t know how to love without it being all-encompassing, like a tidal wave, breaking the doors of my heart. Ugh, that sounds so cheesy! But I didn’t know how to do that. And I also didn’t know how to recover, ‘cause heartbreak would fuckin’ knock me down. But now I just feel like I’m stronger… ‘cause if it doesn’t work, I know I’ll be OK anyway.”

In fact, the main idea of Yessie is that pursuing true love is a high-risk/high-reward proposition. Reyez has always made music about being vulnerable, but being willing to take the risk for a permanent love –  one that might not work out – makes it even more so. Still, she’s comfortable with it now.

“I was scared of love for so long, and I didn’t even realize it,” she says. “I didn’t realize how much I was letting my past trauma project into my reality… When I met someone that was kind, and honest, and present, and willing to wait, and all these things, I still couldn’t open… that was the indication of, like, they’re not the problem; the problem is me now. Which made it a harder pill to swallow.”

The one constant for Reyez, from the beginning, is that she always speaks her truth. And her dedication to the art of songwriting, and its purity – which allows her to share that truth – verges on the spiritual. In January of 2022, she posted on Twitter (though she’s since deleted it):

My favorite part
Like my FAV part of everything in the sphere of the music industry
Is not touring
Nor parties
Nor checks
Nor videos
Nor awards
None of that comes close
To just creating a song
And letting it be
And setting it free in the room
In that moment soul sees itself

She still feels that way. “It’s crazy. It’s alchemy,” says Reyez. “It’s so basic, too, because you could say that it’s just a song… But you walked into a room, and there was nothing there, and then all of a sudden you made something. From a space you can’t even see; from a source you can’t even touch… I think that’s fuckin’ lit.

“When the song’s out, you’re talking about DSPs, and politics, and artwork, and videos, and directors, and features, the list is endless. But there [in the writing room] – and I think that’s what I love most about it, too – it’s present. You have to be present… I love that.”

With the 2021 release of Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies: The Willie Dunn Anthology, more listeners are getting hip to the late First Nations singer-songwriter’s music. Dunn, who was of mixed Mi’kmaq and Scottish/Irish heritage, passed away in 2013 at the age of 71, after a decades-long career as a musician, poet, activist, politician, and filmmaker. (Not to mention serving in the Canadian Armed Forces.) His 10-minute film The Ballad of Crowfoot, released in 1968, is arguably Canada’s first music video. With such a pioneering achievement, and a prolific career, why isn’t Dunn more well-known?

That his music isn’t broadly recognized has been a profound loss to Canada’s musical culture. But make no mistake: Dunn’s oeuvre continues to highly influence Indigenous and non-Indigenous musicians alike. Thankfully, for those who’ve yet to experience the breadth of Dunn’s artistic output, there’s an impressive body of work to explore. But how can we rectify the exclusion of the legendary Willie Dunn – who deserves to be recognized as an icon on par with any of Canada’s greatest folk singer-songwriters? Is reconciliation the answer?

Anishinaabe musician Raven Kanatakta, one-half of folk-rock duo Digging Roots, says that “reconciliation is borne out of the idea that the oppressor is supposed to make amends.” Even for Canadians who believe it was their ancestors and not themselves who were the oppressors, there is something to learn. “A lot of it is about how you deal with privilege,” Kanatakta says. “Most Canadians don’t know that there are more children being taken away today than at the height of the residential school system.” He says Dunn “wanted people to understand the history of Canada – the true history, not the kind of false colonial history they teach in schools, but the history that is actually real.”

These difficult truths were relayed in Dunn’s songs, and performed with kindness, and his compassion for all audiences. “Willie shared his music because he wanted the humanity in people to understand,” Kanatakta says. “He didn’t want to scold people, or reprimand people in any kind of way. He just wanted to sing the truth, and tell the truth, and let people with their own minds decide how they felt about those things.” Kanatakta says that another reason for Dunn’s compassion is that he tried to understand the mind of racists – as evidenced in his lyrics for “I Pity the Country.”

I pity the country
I pity the state
And the mind of a man
Who thrives on hate

To try to understand one’s oppressor is no easy task, and it’s for this and other reasons that Lucie Idlout, a folk-rock singer-songwriter from Iqaluit, admires Dunn –  whose music, she says, “speaks to people,” and whose example inspired her to believe she could also make music.

“He was a mentor for so many of us,” says Idlout. “The same way that Black people had soul music and they learned their way; we learned our way through Willie.” Idlout eventually became friends with Dunn. “He had such a gentleness about him, a kindness, and a love that he was willing to share with anyone, and he did that through his music too,” she says. She recalls his “wicked sense of humor” and laughs while remembering a live performance: “Once he was explaining how a particular song was written, and he demonstrated onstage how a bear moves.” Regarding his deep lyrics, she says, “As much as it could hurt, the music itself and the way he plays guitar is very playful.” This sentiment is shared by Kanatakta, who likens Dunn’s inimitable playing of the guitar – which Dunn regarded as his drum – to the sound of a train.

Unlike Kanatakta and Idlout, renowned singer-songwriter William Prince of Peguis First Nation never knew Dunn personally. Asked what word comes to mind when thinking of Dunn, Prince says “unsung,” before adding, “When you think of the definition of an unknown folk hero, I think of his music.” Prince admires Dunn for many reasons, including his perseverance, despite facing considerable obstacles as a First Nations songwriter. “To be successful,” Prince says, “it’s almost like you have to work twice as hard for the same, or less, recognition.” Reflecting on Dunn’s achievements, Prince says, “Knowing that he was out there gives me courage, gives me hope, and kind of allows me to carry the message forward.”

Prince wishes he had met Dunn, even if only once. “My closest knowledge of him is by proxy to my friend Raven Kanatakta,” says Prince. “If Raven was so affected by Willie, given the musician Raven is, Willie must have been an incredible person – because he rubbed off on Raven in a beautiful way.” One of the profound ways that Dunn influenced Kanatakta was by teaching him that music can be a powerful tool to deal with heavy issues. “When you’re playing music,” Kanatakta says, “you can’t have your ego involved, because it’s a roadblock. You have to be really open. Willie taught me that.” Kanatakta says it’s this openness that can facilitate personal transformation.

The opportunity for transformation is also available for the non-Indigenous, if Dunn’s music is listened to with open hearts and open minds, with egos cast aside. While it may be difficult, Dunn’s music can help listeners develop compassion (and not just empathy) by better understanding the brutal treatment of First Nations people. Only in facing the ugly truth of Canada’s history, and the systemic inequities which continue to exist, can privilege be recognized, and actions taken towards reconciliation. While it’s too late to make Dunn’s dream come true in his lifetime, Canadians can work together now for the sake of his legacy, the betterment of our musical culture, and by extension, Canada. Dunn, ever prescient, laid it all out in “Son of The Sun”:

I had a dream of my own accord
We laid to rest the gun and the sword
Buried the hatchet, buried the stake
Bowed to each other, peace to make