Two years ago, Toronto’s Tanika Charles charmed her way into our record collections with her debut album Soul Run—a winning blend of retro-fitted soul sounds, strident lyrics and quality vocals. Tours in her native land and Europe have made the intervening time fly by, filled as they were with new experiences and potential material for future endeavors.
And those endeavors have now manifest, as her second album The Gumption arrives with an intriguing title and, on the surface at least, the same winning concoction that marked her debut as a record to love and the artist herself as one to watch.
What distinguishes the follow-up from its precursor is its notably broader palette of sounds and textures, coupled with Charles’ growth in songwriting that only adds to her burgeoning reputation. The same sleek, modern production permeates throughout but there are times when rougher textures enter the fray and steal away the attention. Charles’ voice is also developing into an adaptable, pliant tool—sassy and strong one moment, quivering and broken the next.
The core stylistic tone is one not dissimilar to the revered Daptone record label and “Tell Me Something” kicks things off in exactly that way. A slowed down, slinky affair with muted horns and Charles’ fine vocals, the song wouldn’t feel out of place on a Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings album. There’s even a fine bit of vocal ad-libbing to cement the link to its musical influences and predecessors. Its successor “Going Home” is an irrepressible bouncing joy filled with subtly beautiful touches. The shimmering organ, the dreamy backing vocals, pounding backbeat and Charles’ perfect delivery all beg for attention.
“Love Overdue” and “Remember to Remember” are cut from the same Daptone-inspired cloth, with the former adding a swirling Wurlitzer organ to proceedings. But “Cool Scorpio” is a different beast entirely and stands out accordingly. A slight fuzz in the guitar line creates a different dynamic and the melody is a mournful gem. Charles’ voice, meanwhile, takes turns we haven’t heard before, becoming detached and brittle. It’s a beauty.
“Cadillac Moon” is another turn onto the road less travelled. There’s a throbbing bass line and another slightly rougher sound to the guitar that contrasts perfectly with the almost inaudibly sparse piano, and it serves the short but sweet tune beautifully. A four-to-the-floor stomper with scuzzy guitar stamps a Northern Soul vibe on “Upside Down,” but the compulsion to dance masks the lyrical call to arms in the battle for equality and against racism: “Time’s up for the man who can’t respect our babies / you’d better accept the changes, we’re on our way / time’s up on the way that they intimidate us / we’re on our way.”
The familiar driving backbeat reappears on “First And Last” alongside another earworm guitar line and “Look At Us Now” shimmers gorgeously until swooning backing vocals and a guitar with the slightest hint of psychedelia battle with Charles’ impassioned and ebullient vocals. Album closer “Always Restless” initially sounds like a close cousin to the “Purple Rain” intro, before it actually mutates into a sparse and spare showcase for Charles’ voice.
Charles’ debut marked her out as an artist for the future, but The Gumption marks her out as one for the here and now, positioning her for the broader recognition she deserves, courtesy of breaking free from the blueprints that form the basis of her artistry.
Notable Tracks: "Cadillac Moon" | “Cool Scorpio” | "Going Home" | “Upside Down”
As an accompaniment to the review above, Ms. Charles graciously took the time to speak with me further about the album, and the highlights of our conversation appear here.
Patrick Corcoran: So how have the two years been since you released Soul Run? How has life treated you?
Tanika Charles: Life is good! Really good. Very busy! Can’t believe two years have flown by already!
PC: How do you feel you’ve changed in the past few years and how does it manifest itself in your writing these days? What is different this time around?
TC: Well, the main theme is growth. I feel the music reflects that and same with the songwriting. It’s a little more mature. Not feeling guilty about being upfront when addressing situations that aren’t comfortable for me. Perhaps a bit selfish even if it’s for my overall well-being. Not stepping on toes but certainly not letting anyone step on mine.
PC: Did touring take you to new places you’d never visited before? How did that impact you and your songwriting?
TC: Tour life has been an exhilarating and eye-opening experience. I’ve fallen in love with the UK, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France which we frequent often. New cities, meeting new people, learning different languages and everyday interactions, this is what inspired me and the content of The Gumption.
PC: Amidst all of the touring, how do you find time for a life? Does touring affect your ability to write new songs, cutting you off as it does from your “usual” life?
TC: Touring, for myself, allows minimal time to write an album. The entire recording process happened during the short bursts of available time home in Toronto. My “usual” life consists of sleeping, eating proper meals and more sleep. Touring is taxing on the body!
PC: Your work both on Soul Run and The Gumption is, at times, unerringly positive. How do you maintain this attitude despite all that the world has to throw at us?
TC: Full disclosure, I’ve had a lot of traumatic situations in my life. Writing is therapeutic, meditation is a necessity. I laugh to keep from crying! Might as well express my shituations in a positive way!
PC: The organic, classic soul sound still permeates your new album. Do you ever feel any pressure to adopt more electronic sounds? If so, how do you resist them? Why does the classic sound resonate so much with you?
TC: What I’ve tried to achieve on both albums is marrying classic soul with modern production styles. The Gumption is more guitar driven and perhaps the only electronic sound would be the guitar on a couple of tracks. I like to perform with traditional instruments beside me as well. So I think my music tends to match that preference.
PC: I’m interested in the album’s title—The Gumption. I hadn’t heard that word for years, as it’s quite old-fashioned. What does “gumption” mean to you and to whom does it refer? Is it a statement of personal quality?
TC: In the song “Tell Me Something,” it’s a rhetorical question to an apprehensive lover. It’s an assuredness I’ve gained since becoming a full-time artist. It takes a lot of nerve to be an artist, putting self-doubt aside and getting on that stage.
PC: I’d like to talk about “Cool Scorpio.” It’s a beauty of a song and it finds you singing in a slightly different register—at times delicate and detached at the same time. What was it about that song that brought out a different vocal performance?
TC: Thank you! I’m not really a fan of recording and singing in the studio. I find it difficult to emote in a booth, with nobody around, in seclusion. Honestly, I was in a mood that day. The setting in the studio was right, the music really connected with me and that’s how I wanted to express myself on that song.
PC: You are such a versatile singer—who are your vocal role models and heroes?
TC: Thanks! I LOVE Patti LaBelle. She is vocally so powerful and her range?! Spectacular! Love Jill Scott’s voice and the beautiful way she describes falling in love, being in love, being needy in love, love. Prince, Anthony Hamilton, and H.E.R. as of late. This is such a hard question to answer because I’m influenced by so many artists.
PC: And finally, the question we ask everyone we interview. Given that Albumism is a site devoted to our readers & writers’ love of the album art form, what are your FIVE favorite albums of all time?
TC: EEEE! Of all time? That’s hard…some of my favorites? Much easier. Jodeci’s Diary of a Mad Band, Jill Scott’s Who is Jill Scott? Words and Sounds Vol. 1, Radiohead’s OK Computer, Björk’s Post, and Bilal’s First Born Second.