By Anupa Mistry
In the year since Tanika Charles released her ‘What? What! What?!’ EP, the Toronto-based R&B singer has been playing show after show around the city. But, as her performances get bigger, Charles maintains that it’s the small club shows that best match the vibe of her soulful, spirited music. “You can connect with the audience so much more when you can actually see them,” she tells Spinner. “It gets really hot and sweaty, and that’s the best.” And her set-up is only going to get sweatier: Charles’ is currently working on her next album, due in the fall, which will be recorded live in the studio. Spinner caught up with Charles to talk about performing at NXNE, her angry alter ego Ms. Chawlz and her “real problem” with Frank Ocean.
Tell me about this album that’s coming out.
Right now I’m in the studio all the time working on demos. It’ll be a live album, so everything’s going to be recorded with a band off the floor. This is a bit different than the EP, which I worked on with producers from around the city, so it’s exciting for me because it’s going to have that really pure, thick, heavy, sexy Motown feel to it.
Is a live album an extension of you performing live so much in the past year?
Yeah, it is. I just feel better on stage when the music’s big. There was a while where I’d have two backup singers, a DJ and maybe a live instrument, but that’s not the sound I’m trying to portray here. I really want to have a classic, soul feel to it. Going forward, the songs I perform are always going to be with a band.
Have you played NXNE before? What are you most looking forward to?
I opened up for Platinum Pied Pipers in 2007 at the Sound Academy — wow, that was a while back. It was really exciting! I’m looking forward to sharing the stage with Digable Planets and The Pharcyde. They’re classic and I’ve never seen either of them live.
What’s been the biggest lesson for you as you’ve gained more exposure?
I’m always learning. One thing that is absolutely imperative is practice. Singing, practicing with the band to tighten up sounds and implement new things … And to teach myself things like playing a guitar or the trombone — it adds newness to what can potentially happen.
So you’re gonna be onstage with a trombone at NXNE?
Uh, not yet! I played trombone in high-school and I loved it … I used to be able to read music and play the trombone, but when you really don’t work at it you lose it quickly. And it hurts me that I can’t understand it — I can only hear sounds; I’m not very good at reading them. But I’m kind of getting back into training myself to read and work at it. I also find I like when musicians play by ear — it seems they’re more willing to break out and do their own thing as opposed to knowing what they need to do next.
As you grow as a musician, how does your alter ego Ms. Chawlz change?
Right now, she’s dealing with some things but as the music gets bigger, she gets stronger and not necessarily so angry. She’s been through heartaches and breakups and now it’s time for some realness — like being broke and trying to get by! The music I’m working on these days is still in that realm of relationships but it’s mostly exploring what’s happened to Ms. Chawlz since then.
What excites you about music these days?
Okay so, I’m obsessed with someone: I’m obsessed with Frank Ocean. The reason why I think he’s so incredible is that the music doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before. I know it’s a mixtape and some of the production is recycled, but there are some beats in there where I’m like, “Wow, he’s really flipped the script.” And his songwriting is dope.
I listen to Frank Ocean, Foreign Exchange and Black Milk a lot … but Frank inspires me. And it’s a totally different genre of music, but the skill that he has is where it’s at. There’s something about him.
What’s your favorite Frank Ocean song?
Oh my gosh, really? I can’t decide, it changes. First it was ‘Songs for Women,’ then it was ‘Love Crimes’ and then it was ‘Novacane.’ … I have a real problem with Frank Ocean.