Take a close listen to songs like “Fever” and “Crumbling Down” on Nuela Charles’ latest album, and you can be forgiven for thinking she’s singing about an ex.
“You broke me down, just to watch me fall / The hands that held me now tear me apart,” she sings on “Crumbling Down,” one of seven songs that appear on The Grand Hustle, which came out in November of 2016.
Actually, Charles is singing about her frustration with the music industry.
“It’s all about the ups and downs I’ve experienced as an independent artist,” she says from her Edmonton home, “but I wanted to express that in a way everyone can relate to. I call it a comeback story; there’s the rise and the fall of the heroine, and then she wins in the end. I imagined what that would look like if we wrote songs around it.
“My whole life has been spent working on my music and getting it out there,” she says. “That was my entire focus, so my question was, how do I take that and present it in a way that listeners can understand it?”
By cleverly making analogies to relationships that went South, it turns out. And delivering the songs in a voice that inspired one CBC journalist to call her “the future Queen of Canadian soul.” Among her many achievements, Charles received the inaugural $8,000 Edmonton Music Prize for the city’s best album in 2013; earned a spot as a Top 12 finalist in The Peak Performance Project in Alberta; had her songs picked up by CBC Radio 2, played in regular rotation on L.A.’s tastemaker radio station KCRW, and placed in various TV shows on VH1, The Family Channel, W Network, CityTV, MTV and Showtime.
She isn’t a soul shouter or growler by any means. Rather, she possesses the vocal swagger of an Amy Winehouse, and sings with the same kind of conviction.
“For me, it all starts with a great song and the ability to deliver that story in a unique way. I try to do that, and it’s been working, I guess,” she says modestly. “I feel that if you have a great song and you can’t convey that when you sing it, it’ll fall flat. It’s not about who can sing it better, technically. For me, it’s, ‘Do you believe the person singing it?’
“Take the song ‘I Will Always Love You.’ When Whitney Houston sang it, I believed her. She served that song; she took someone else’s [Dolly Parton’s] song and delivered. That’s what I try to do every day.”
Charles, who co-wrote all the songs on The Grand Hustle, said she learned about “serving the song” – and fell in love with the process of collaborating with other writers – at song camps she’s attended over the last few years. Those included the 2016 Breakout West SOCAN Song House, and others organized by Songwriters Association of Canada (S.A.C.) and Alberta Music.
“I tend to write the first verse, chorus and bridge, and I’ll have no idea what the second verse is.”
“It was about writing the best song we could, and whose voice best suited the song,” she says. “The biggest lesson I learned is to not be afraid of trying things you might not do as an artist. I can’t go in thinking I’m going to write for me. It’s about where that song could live, whether it’s with another artist, or on a TV show. You can’t limit yourself. You have to be open to the experience, as well as to people’s suggestions – because if you don’t, the session gets awkward.”
Charles actually prefers to write with someone else.
“I tend to write the first verse, chorus and bridge, and I’ll have no idea what the second verse is. And then I’ll leave the song and never return to it,” she laughs. “When you’re co-writing, you can bounce ideas off someone, and that helps you to rein in the story and make it cohesive. It’s just a lot more fun than sitting at home and writing.”
Charles described the process of writing for The Grand Hustle as “super easy. My producer and I went to Toronto for two weeks and had different writers come in,” she says. “I had a story that I wanted to tell, so I talked to them beforehand about what I wanted to explore, and told them to feel free to come with something, or not to come with anything.”
For the entire album, the A&R was facilitated by Cymba Music’s Libby Elming and Vincent Degiorgio, and The Grand Hustle features co-writes with eight-time JUNO Award Nominee Lisa DalBello, Jasmine Denham (“Together We Are One”), Dahmnait Doyle, and Cymba’s Aileen de la Cruz. The Grand Hustle was co-written and produced in its entirety by Cymba’s Ari Rhodes.
Having her producer “create the music” at the same time as she’s writing with someone “really helps with the flow of the song, and where we take it lyrically,” Charles explains. “Sometimes we start writing on an acoustic guitar, or on the piano. ‘Fever,’ for example, came together on the last day. My producer started fooling around with a beat on the computer, the repetition inspired images of running, and I wrote the lyrics to the song.”
If one thing becomes evident in a conversation with Charles, it’s that she’s holds songs in high esteem. So much so that she can’t really work to a formula for a hit song. “That’s not for me,” she says. “I’d love a number one song, don’t get me wrong; but it’ll have to be on my terms.”