Tanika Charles is Canada’s New Soul Queen

Tanika Charles is Canada’s New Soul Queen

By Matt Bauer


Over the past decade Tanika Charles has emerged as one of Canada’s most dynamic and authentic soul artists. A consummate performer who weaves confessional storytelling into an innate personal connection with her audiences, Charles has headlined stages worldwide while amassing a rich catalogue of songs that have evolved throughout her career, which is especially true of her earliest works, constructed over instrumental tracks more reminiscent of looped hip-hop beats. Recorded in a single afternoon at Toronto’s Union Sound, The Union Sessions sees Charles revisiting tour-tested versions of some of her earlier songs into a studio-setting representing a substantial snapshot of her evolution.

“I've been performing a bunch of songs from older albums for quite some time, and they started to change from the original to this new kind of sound,” she tells us. “And I just thought maybe we should try actually recording them, the way that they’ve been played as of late. I wanted to recreate the songs with some of my favorite musicians in Toronto. And we got it all recorded in a day. But I don't know if I expected it to turn out as amazing as it did [especially] sonically and everybody was into it. We wanted to recreate the songs that have been performed over and over and they've taken on a whole new life. We’d been sitting on it for a while [so the idea was] ‘Let's just try to record it and see what happens.’”

Growing up in Edmonton, Charles was born into a deeply musical family and she says that she’s been in love with music since her early childhood.  “I'd have to say, my dad is my biggest influence,” she explains. “He worked out of town and when he would come in on the weekends, his routine was my mom would make an amazing dinner. Then after dinner, he'd have a rum and coke and we would listen to jazz. We would listen to Spyro Gyra, George Benson and Bob James. He would insist that the kids sit around and listen to the instrumentation, listen to the movement, listen to the vocalists, and just really take in the sound of music.”

Charles’ first love was R&B, giving props to Jill Scott, Chante Moore, Jodeci, D’Angelo, Prince, Lauryn Hill, Stevie Wonder and Blackstreet before her brother introduced her to hip-hop. “I guess I was also exposed to a little bit more music, like Bjork and Radiohead; I'm influenced by everything really. Did I think I was going to be a singer? Absolutely not.”

Yet that’s exactly what happened.

“I think I should start when I was living on a farm in Edmonton,” she explains. “And I was watching a TV show called The Diary of and Bedouin Soundclash was on. I'm making dinner and I'm not paying attention to dinner because this TV show has me completely mesmerized at this band for some reason and how these guys are great. I would love to play with them. I don't know how the heck I'm going to do it. I'm living on a farm, what the heck's going on in my life? And there was an opportunity to audition for backing vocals and go on tour with them. I left the farm I flew out to Toronto and I got the job. So, I think that's when I really started to take it seriously.”

An opportunity to open for Bedouin frontman Jay Malinowski marked Charles’ solo spotlight debut. Moving to Toronto’s Parkdale neighborhood in the late 2000’s, Charles has sung back-up for Johnny Reid, Serena Ryder, Emmanuel Jal and Zaki Ibrahim among many others, releasing her debut EP What!What?What?! in 2010 to good critical notices. Her debut full-length Soul Run (its title alluding to Charles’ escape from an unfulfilling relationship and stealing her soon-to be ex’s vehicle en route to Toronto) followed in 2016. Released internationally on the esteemed Milan-based Record Kicks label, it more than fulfilled the promise of its predecessor—named to the longlist for the 2016 Polaris Music Prize and nominated for the 2017 Juno Award for R&B/Soul Recording of the Year.

2019’s The Gumption was anything but a sophomore slump, again longlisted in that year’s Polaris Music Prize and nominated for the 2020 Juno Awards R&B/Soul Recording of the Year.

While the pandemic shut the world down—and forced the cancellation of a planned world tour— she emerged in 2022 with Papillon de Nuit: The Night Butterfly. Expanding her retrofitted soul palette with more modern sonic accoutrements epitomized by the sleek slice of boogie “Different Morning” and the ethereal texture of “Rent Free,” it was an impressive progression both vocally and musically with some of Charles’ most impressive songwriting to date.

The assembled talent for The Union Sessions is a dream team of some of the best musicians Canada has to offer. Accompanying Tanika on vocals are frequent collaborators D/SHON Henderson and emerging solo artist Tafari Anthony. Jemuel “J3M” Roberts, another solo performer of note, joined on piano, EP and synths. Members of Toronto mainstay band re.verse formed the core band with Damian Matthew on bass, Robb Cappelletto on guitar and Austin Gembora on drums while engineer Alex Gamble recorded and mixed the entire project with the aim of producing evocative Dolby Atmos mixes.

“We rehearsed and we practiced but we went in and nailed it from the jump,” says Charles of the recording. “I mean, even with “Parkdale” [an ode to Tanika’s first Toronto neighborhood which originally appeared on her debut EP] I called my friend i.james.jones who was the emcee that was on the original. It was a last-minute phone call. I'm like, ‘Hey, man, we're recording this song again. Can you come in? I don't know where you are in the city or in this world, but please?’ because I hadn't spoken to him for years. He came in one take, rocked the mic, and walked out kind of thing. It was really a fantastic experience and when you have musicians that just know what you're looking for, it’s easy. It makes the process so beautiful.”

Indeed, with Charles’ dynamic vocals and fresh arrangements and instrumentation, the five tracks that comprise The Union Sessions reflect her vocal and musical growth over the last decade. At a relatively brief 29 minutes, what could have been a throwaway or holding action is a rich musical statement.

‘“Think of You” was the very first song that I'd written on my EP way back in 2010 and I love the original, but I thought it could just use a little bit of a change,” she says. “I found that when performing that song as close to the original as possible, it just wasn't hitting the way that I needed to hear it. So, we just completely changed how we're going to perform it. “Parkdale” is another song that is so hip-hop heavy. There are some samples on that, and I wanted to again, recreate it so it slapped a little bit more—I wanted it to be a head nod without samples. I just wanted people when they heard this track to feel like they could jump on that song and start rapping if [they wanted] to. “Silly Happy Wild” is a funny one. I’d just had been performing it so much and I just wanted it to sound different and it was stressing me out. “So, we were like, ‘Why don't we try doing a little like a kind of a reggae feel to it?’ and it seems to be working incredibly well and I'm enjoying singing it again. “Can I Be Yours,” again was another song that's created like sample based hip-hop, kind of and old school Motown feel, and I wanted to hear it with backing vocals.”

Expounding on her growth as an artist and how it’s represented on The Union Sessions Charles remains humble. “I can honestly say that I'm still and forever will grow as an artist,” she says. “I think I'm a little bit more comfortable in my skin and I'm feeling a little bit more confident in my vocals. It's definitely something that I've struggled with just feeling competent. And you know, it's really interesting when you're creating music and you're feeling like ‘Okay, I feel good about this project’ and then I put it out and then I can only hear mistakes. That's the only thing that I focus on, and I just need to believe in my capabilities. I'm always struggling with that. So, I love The Union Sessions because it just allowed me to breathe a little bit more on the songs. I love a good ballad like ‘Can I Be Yours’ and ‘Think of You’ and I think I've grown a little bit in confidence. I can't say I'm 100 percent because I mean, if you were to see me after a show, I would ask you 1000 times, ‘Was it okay?’ but there are moments where I'm like ‘Tanika you know what?  You've got this’ and that would be, I think the biggest kind of learning growth for me. And also, just realizing that I've done a lot in this industry, so instead of focusing on what I haven't achieved I need to respect and acknowledge all the good stuff that has happened thus far.”

She goes on to say that she’s learned to stop comparing herself to others. “The imposter syndrome is like, it's ridiculous,” she says. “I do often suffer from that. But I'm learning to kind of just accept where I'm at, learning to cheer on other artists in the city, because it's not a competition. [It sometimes seems] that we're pitted against each other—10 of the best artists that you need to hear in Toronto now.  It's nice to acknowledge that there are other artists in the city, but it sometimes doesn't feel good when you've got this new project out and it isn't recognized. There's a lane for everyone and there's enough room for all of us to thrive.”

Charles acknowledges that while mainstream Canadian Black music has been widely embraced and that pop music is almost a different beast altogether for a number of reasons, she thinks that the next hill to climb is for developing and mid-career Black artists to be able to play the same far corners of Canada that guitar-wielding white acts can. “We need to give audiences credit that their playlists are more diverse than their local live bookings and work to correct that,” she explains. 

As a live performer Charles is candid about her past loves and life lessons (not all of which were positive) making her soulful reflections and observations that much more endearing and engaging while performing some of the best band-driven soul music in Canada. A recent performance in Fonthill, ON in front of a cross-generational audience was hip-shaking and joyful proof that Tanika Charles has found her lane and is indeed thriving as one of Canada’s finest yet unsung soul divas. Along with two upcoming albums on the horizon, Charles continues her soul run.

“We’ve certainly had tremendous successes in the contemporary R&B space,” she says. “But I think traditional band driven R&B is waiting for its breakout. Maybe it’s more of a marathon than a sprint. I keep trying to bring the genre to different parts of Canada showing that this sound can tour and be received well by audiences around the country. I’m creating original music in this genre and not trying to retread or cover material that’s been done. Trying to forge my own path rather than walking a path that someone expects of me.”

Matt Bauer is a freelance writer based in Niagara Fall, ON,

He can be reached at mattbauer1975@gmail.com

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