The self-doubting behind her, Tanika Charles finds a more positive groove on The Union Sessions

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      Confidence is a strange thing, a constant for a rare lucky few on the planet, endlessly ebbing and flowing for the rest of us.

      There’s a good case to be made that Tanika Charles is on up-cycle when she’s reached in Toronto. While she doesn’t sound it, the Canadian soul singer offers that she’s feeling a little on the rough side, this having everything to do with getting home in the early hours after a successful main stage appearance at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

      “It was packed—it was packed at all the venues and shows that I attended,” Charles tells the Straight. “People want music, and they want to be outside. That’s a beautiful thing—I had to address it at the show, thanking everyone for taking the time to come out.”

      As busy as her schedule is with live shows—the festival season has her playing dates from coast to coast this summer—Charles is also in a fertile period on the songwriting side of things. The singer is currently so productive as a songwriter that she’s amassing enough material for not one but two records, one of them well on its way to being finished.

      Where that becomes doubly impressive is that Charles will fully admit that, a couple of years back during the height of COVID, getting excited about anything became pretty much impossible.

      “I wasn’t even practising or singing around the house—there was nothing coming out,” she says. “And I was reconsidering my career because I didn’t think that I could get out there and sing again.”

      There have been plenty of positives for Charles since she released her first record, the retro-tinted soul/R&B triumph What! What? What!? back in 2010. Those have included finding her music used in shows like Less Than Kind and Rookie Blue, and Polaris nods for both 2016’s Soul Run and 2019’s The Gumption. But at the same time, the singer acknowledges that there are times where she finds herself drifting to the dark side.

      “I’m actually insanely insecure,” Charles says candidly. “Even if I have a geat show, I’m definitely the first person to go ‘Oh my gosh, that was terrible!’ I know it’s confidence, and I’m not sure why I lack it.”

      She continues with: “I’m going to say this now, even through this might not be true a month or a year from now. I think I need to recognize all of the wins and be happy about them, instead of ‘why can’t I do that, and why can’t I do this, why haven’t I done that?’ I have to recognize that I’ve done a lot of really cool things.”

      Sometimes, when the road gets rough, the best way to move forward is to take a serious look back at what you’ve accomplished. Charles has proven herself an artist who’s always evolving over the course of her career, with What! What? What!? sounding like someone with a major love for the early years of Stax, and The Gumption serving up R&B at its smoothest and silkiest.

      For her latest release, The Union Sessions, the singer decided to go into the studio with a crack backing band and re-record songs that have become staples of her live set over the years. Part of that process included doing something about the reality that, as at home as she is singing onstage, Charles has never felt completely comfortable standing in front of a mic in the recording booth.

      The Union Sessions offered a chance for a reset. “I went into the studio telling myself, ‘This is my voice, and this is what I’m going to sound like,’” she says. “‘This is who I am, and I hope that you like it. And if you don’t, sorry.’ It was a matter of getting comfortable with my voice. Occasionally I had to play a part to make it through, but I guess that’s just part of the process.”

      The triumphant thing about The Union Sessions is the way that Charles doesn’t so much reimagine the songs that have made her a Canadian R&B/soul powerhouse as much as come at them in a different way vocally. So where “Think of You” sounded like old-school soul night at David Lynch’s Slow Club on What! What? What!?, here it smoulders with emotion-drenched smoky regret.

      “Parkdale” swaps out the retro strings of the original from a vibe that suggests two cigarettes burning in an ashtray in the early hours of the morning. And where the original “Silly Happy Wild” transported us to a roadhouse where Christmas lights hang from the ceiling and all the drinks are doubles, The Union Sessions version is marked by gauzy ghost-country guitar.

      The record is ultimately the sound of an artist who’s realized, a decade into her career, that she has room to move in whatever direction she chooses. Charles doesn’t disagree, noting that she’s not only feeling pretty confident most days, but inspired and excited to be making music.

      “I want to be able to sing so people can truly feel what I’m feeling,” she offers. “The songs that I’m working on now are very personal—the album they’ll be on is almost done, really. They expose a lot about me, and it’s going to be hard to talk about that because there are people in the songs who won’t necessarily want to be known. But I’ve avoided things for so long, and I wanted to talk about some of the experiences I’ve had.

      “The record is about real talk. It’s a vulnerable album where I’m not going to hold back. And hopefully that will resonate.”

      Tanika Charles plays the Mission Folk Festival on July 22.