When she debuted in 2012 with her album Aware, alt-pop indie artist Nuela Charles did most of it herself: she wrote it, recorded it, released it. Six years later, a Songwriters Association of Canada ProWorks song camp in Edmonton was the moment it all changed for the Kenya-born singer… Well, at least during the second day. She purposefully skipped the first.

“I actually called in sick the first day, because I was terrified,” says Charles, a three-time JUNO Award nominee and the recent co-winner of the SOCAN Foundation’s 2022 Her Music Award. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to contribute to anything. I’ve never done this before. What if my idea sucks?’

“Then, the second day I went in, I was partnered up with Rob Wells, and we wrote the song ‘Melt.’ It was the best song I’d ever written to that point; vocally, it was my best performance ever. It just opened my eyes to the world of co-writing, and I haven’t looked back since.

“That totally changed my trajectory, in terms of who I am as a songwriter. I just love sitting in a room and trying to create something from nothing, with people who’ve probably never met before, in most cases. It just allows me to soak it all in.

“Now,  I have this mindset of just going in, no ego, not really expecting anything, and just being open and willing to receive and share. And not being afraid of sharing stupid ideas, because no idea is stupid – it just either works or doesn’t work. It’s definitely been a huge part of my development as a writer.”

Now she’s ready to enter a new chapter, as indicated by her recent single “Awakening,” and the next one, “Worthy” – and the Her Award certainly brings new confidence with which to move forward.

“For me, after doing it for so long, I kind of feel like I’m still at the beginning of my career, in a way,” says Charles. “It feels good to be recognized and know that what you’re doing is resonating with people. Since I’m an independent, doing it all alone, basically, it’s just such a boost. You get that outside validation of, ‘Hey, you’re actually doing well.’”

That validation has been extremely important to Charles during this time of introspection, documented in part by “The Awakening.” “I’m in a period of digging into… who am I as a person. I feel like I kind of lost myself the last 10 years trying to do Nuela Charles. Like, ‘Who am I without the music?’

“So I started going through more affirmations, and really giving myself the space to breathe, grow, and just sit, without trying to actively do something to further my career. ‘Awakening’ was just this thing that came in – and I was kind of looking at myself and how I started as a musician. I was very eager, I wanted to conquer everything, but fast-forward 10 years, and I wasn’t excited about anything

“I felt like I kind of sat back and dimmed myself for the benefit of others. And at some point it became, ‘No, you’re worth it: stand up and stand in your light!’ ‘The Awakening’ was initially very down-tempo and chill, more of an Afrobeat vibe, until my L.A. producer [Matt Parad] said, ‘Let’s push the envelope and not settle for the first demo you came up with.’ When he created the chorus, I thought, ‘This sounds like an awakening’: She’s trying to be a flower/who found her super power/ this is an awakening.

These days, Charles starts writing by jotting down ideas before passing them through Parad, who she also met through a songwriting camp.

“For most of the newer stuff, I start it myself in my little home studio, where I’ll have either a lyrical idea, a melody, or a sample,” Charles explains. “‘Worthy’ is one I started on the piano, and I really wanted to capture the feeling of not being loved, or not being worthy, but realizing  you’ve got to believe that you’re worthy –  that’s the gist of it.

“I produced it in Logic, and was able to capture all the parts, arrangements, and then pass it to my producer, who fleshed it all out, and built it back towards the song it’s going to be. Matt’s really great, because he didn’t touch the lyrics. He said, ‘These are your stories to tell… if you need help, I’m here.’ Which was awesome, because he gave me the freedom to sit there and think, ‘What do I want to say that’s going to resonate?’”

Currently dividing her time between Edmonton and Toronto, Charles is readying her self-titled album for a September release.

“It’s 10 songs, and I’m really excited,” she says. “All the lyrics are mine, I’m really proud of what they are and what I’m saying, and it’s probably the most personal, yet universal, record that I’ve made to date. I feel like I’ve finally arrived.”

That synch-ing feeling

Nuela Charles has successfully placed her songs with a number of TV shows –  Jane The Virgin and Tiny Pretty Things among them – and says writers should explore similar placement opportunities if they can.

“It’s super-important; that makes up 75% of my income,” Charles explains. “It’s been synch placements, and it’s fun because, for the most part, [for] a lot of my songs, I’ll always write with, like, either a storyline or a visual in my head,  where I think it would be cool as a soundtrack to a theme that doesn’t exist. But it’s also where music supervisors and directors have taken songs and placed them in their own narrative and had fun with them, which is really cool.

“It opens up a whole new world of people discovering your music,  because a lot of my online streaming and sales have been from [other] countries, and from people who’ve heard my songs through TV shows, that I would never been able to reach if it wasn’t for those placements. So, it’s huge.”