“I’m not the type of songwriter who writes songs every single day,” Charlotte Day Wilson tells Apple Music. “I actually do use music as a form of therapy—and I don’t necessarily need it when I’m feeling happy. If I’m feeling happy, then I’m out with my friends and actually living life—so I gravitate towards songwriting when I need it.” But while the Toronto singer/producer’s first full-length effort, ALPHA, reverberates with all the heartache and intense introspection that made her earlier EPs (2016’s CDW and 2018’s Stone Woman) so compelling, she’s using the album format to provide a more “all-encompassing” portrait of herself. That means not only expanding her style of nocturnal, slow-motion R&B to absorb cinematic soul grooves, group gospel sing-alongs, pitch-shifted harmonies, indie-disco jams, and even Neil Young nods, but also opening herself up lyrically in ways she never has before. As a songwriter, Wilson admits she “always comes back to love—it’s corny, but I do think love and relationships really are the meaning of life.” However, unlike her previous forays into the topic, the songs on ALPHA are clearly written through a queer lens, providing the sort of intimate snapshots of relationships between women that still feel all too rare even in a diversified 2020s pop landscape. “I got more comfortable in my ability to just really spell out who I’m singing about,” Wilson says. “I didn’t really feel like I needed to be mysterious anymore. Not that I’m trying to do anything revolutionary by being a woman singing about women—that’s a narrative that should be normalized. I just want to make the music that I want to hear.” Wilson explains how she did it with this track-by-track guide.
“I feel like the first few lyrics on this song set up the record in a way that felt just intriguing. There’s a lot of unrequited love and longing on this record, and I wanted to start with a feeling of almost desperation. Everything on this song is me—I just pitched down my voice for the harmonies.”
“I Can Only Whisper” (feat. BADBADNOTGOOD)
“I actually wrote this song partly in my sleep. I woke up and just had that line in my head—‘I can only whisper’—and then I wrote all of the lyrics in my head lying in bed. And then I came up with the melodies, and my brain was also pretty much composing the chords around all the melodies. It all just kind of made sense in this really insane way. I recorded the song a few different times with a few different approaches, and I wasn’t really liking how it was feeling. I knew I wanted it to feel like an old soul song, so eventually, I was just like, ‘OK, BADBAD just needs to play the drums and the bassline and get that kind of groove that they’re so good at.’ So, basically, the drums and bass are BADBAD and then all the other sounds are just me building around that."
“If I Could”
“[Toronto R&B singer] Merna Bishouty wrote the lyrics to this song. We met through a mutual friend and had a fun night out, and then we were like, ‘Oh, we should go to the studio together.’ And I don’t really tend to do that very often with other people’s music—I’ve never sung someone else’s song. But we really connected on a lot of different levels. She’s a queer woman, we were both going through similar things in our relationships at the time, and she played me a version of this song, and I was just completely blown away. Growing up, I didn’t have any gay people in my surroundings. My parents are super supportive and proud, and they have a Pride flag on their porch, but it was never like, ‘Oh, you could be gay and that would be OK!’ That was never a conversation we had. I didn’t have anyone to look to in that way. So, I was deeply closeted for my whole life, until I left for university. I think I had an idea of what Merna’s meaning was for the song, but for me, when I sing it, I very much feel like I’m singing it to a younger version of myself.”
“Before I started putting music out as Charlotte Day Wilson, I was writing a lot of folk music, and that was the main thing I was comfortable doing. And I think the reason why I haven’t done it quite as much is just because I had already done it in my own private life, and I wanted to grow and evolve. But when I sing these more folky acoustic songs, that feels like the most true version of how I started playing music and how I started writing songs. So, in some sense, I guess this song is a departure for me—or for the perception of how I write—but for me, it’s quite familiar. I was at my cottage with the person I was seeing at the time, and she was listening to Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’ a lot. And then, I had a morning where I was just alone in the woods, and I wrote this song on acoustic guitar.”
“I wrote this with a group of people in LA: Brandon Banks, Kyla Moscovich, Teo Halm, Daniel Caesar, Babyface, Mk.Gee—there’s so many people on this song, I don’t even know if I would be able to remember them all. The interesting thing about songwriting is that, sometimes, even after you’ve written a song, you don’t really know where it was coming from, or what it was about. With this one, a few of us wrote that chorus together, and then I went in and wrote the verse by myself. At the time, I don’t think I was fully conscious of the fact that the relationship I was in was not working for me. But I think, subconsciously, I knew. And that’s what ended up coming out in the music—the honesty that you can’t quite speak out loud to yourself.”
“Danny [Caesar] wrote this and sent it to me, and I just thought it was a beautiful ending to ‘Mountains.’ It takes us out of that song in a nice way and leads us to ‘Changes.’”
“I’m hesitant to talk about it sometimes, because it’s so personal, but this is about the journey of going from being an aspiring singer who works as a janitor at a church to someone that has a public career off of their art. That’s been an intense change for me. There’s always going to be ups and downs, and pros and cons to that kind of life adjustment.”
“Take Care of You” (feat. Syd)
“I wrote this at my cottage and, when I came back to Toronto, I played what I had for Merna, who cowrote ‘If I Could.’ I was like, ‘I want to write a no-nuance, lesbian R&B love song!’ We jokingly wrote the verses of this song—it was all supposed to be about converting religious imagery and making it gay. And I never thought I would put it out. But then I showed it to my managers and they were like, ‘No, this is actually really good!’ And I was like, ‘OK, well, maybe I should get another singer to feature on it.’ In my head, I always thought Syd would be the perfect one. And then I was with a friend in LA who works with her, and he sent it to her. She loved it and recorded her verse that same day and sent it back. Everything about this song was quite easy and fun. You can feel that in the record.”
“I was driving back from the cottage—everything on this record is about the cottage, for some reason!—with my partner at the time. It was right after Pride, and she thought it would be a cool music-video idea to film the Dykes on Bikes. Every Pride parade begins with these iconic, older lesbians on their bikes. And my partner was like, ‘Imagine documenting the Dykes on Bikes in a really cinematic and beautiful way. I don’t feel like anyone’s really done that.’ And I loved that idea. I was like, ‘That would be amazing...but I just don’t know what song I would do that to.’ So, then I wrote ‘Keep Moving’ with that video concept in mind.”
“Wish It Was Easy”
“I was working with this amazing producer in LA named Dylan Wiggins. We were at Raphael Saadiq’s studio, and there was a really beautiful sounding piano there. Dylan was playing around on some chords and wrote this really nice progression. And I was really, really going through stuff in my relationship, so everything just flowed out of me in 10 minutes. It was one of those songs that was very stream-of-consciousness.”
“This song is probably the most vulnerable song I’ve ever written. It’s cryptic because my brain is also cryptic and kind of nonsensical sometimes, so that’s probably reflected a little bit in the stream-of-consciousness approach of this song. It’s about a feeling of inferiority and a deep fear of being left by a woman for a man.”