- Carola Kolbeck
A Taste of Charles - In Conversation with the UK's Hottest New Talent
© Photography by Charles
From working multiple jobs to fund his music, to modelling for Armani and featuring on billboards across London - Charles defies all and shatters the glass ceiling.
When I meet Charles, he’s beaming with excitement for something special that’s to come. “I can’t tell you yet”, he says nearly apologetically. However, there is lots to be ecstatic about already. His new single Taste of You only dropped last week but is already racking up thousands of streams. As a promo, he had newspapers printed, called ‘The Charles Times’, which were distributed all over London. What’s more, he’ll be on tour later this month, supporting The KTNA.
Charles is not a newbie on the horizon of UK talent. The 27-year-old released his first single Red Green Gold in 2017, followed by more singles and EP On Trend, Hungry & Broke in 2020. However, music has always been his life. Obsessed with music from an early age, fuelled by his parents’ love for it, you can watch a young Charles dance and perform in the background video to his 2021 single Lately.
“I’d put on an absolute show”, he smiles, “my top rolled up into a crop top, singing my heart out, so yeah, this is how it started.” The connection he formed with music was so strong, that, as he remembers, cried to certain songs without knowing why.
From his colourful and luscious music videos, to glamorous outfits and outrageously gorgeous voice - it’s clear from the start that Charles likes to do things in style. INJECTION spoke to Charles about his music, life in the music industry trenches and a performance for the iconic BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge.
At the beginning of this year, you released your single Dirty Little Secret. It’s a beautiful and thought-provoking song. What inspired it?
I wrote that song a good five years ago now. I wrote it because, at the time, my boyfriend, who is now my fiancé, had landed a dream role. He was offered this big acting role and we were so excited, but then the production company said to him: ‘We know that you’re gay and your character is straight, so we would advise that you keep quiet about your relationship.’ They wanted us to take down everything on Instagram and online. I thought: 'You know what, we work too fucking hard to get opportunities like that', and so I said: ‘Let’s just do it, I don't want to get in the way of this.’ Obviously, on reflection it's like: what the fuck were we doing?! But at the time it felt like the right thing to do. He was in that show for like a year and a half before I turned around one day and just said: ‘I can't do this anymore. You love me and I love you and our younger selves would be super disappointed that we’re having to pretend that we don’t exist!’ He agreed and made the choice to come out and say that we were together. Pretty soon after that, he wasn’t working at the show anymore, but that’s another conversation. So yeah, it was a really hard and sad time. I felt like I was his dirty little secret. I actually haven’t been able to say that before in an interview. The song’s a polite kind of “Fuck You!” to these corporate companies, these large production companies. They want to have all our talent, they want all of us, you know, but they don't want everything, the real us. They all say they’re for inclusivity but as soon as it may affect their viewings, they then suddenly have something to say about it.
You’re well-known and recognised for genre-blending, which is showcased in each of your songs. How has your music evolved over the years?
I think when anyone starts out in music, you try to find your feet, to find where you belong. At the start of my career, when I was trying to find where I belonged, I always ended back at the same spot - I never really fitted into any of the boxes that were presented to me. I could relate to so many different genres and I think, as a person, I’m not just one-sided; there are so many different edges to me and parts of my personality. I just felt like my music needed to portray that. As I started to delve further into music, I played around with the idea of not sticking to one genre and that’s when for me the light switch happened. And I was like: ‘Ah, this is me!’.
When I listen back to myself, I can relate to how I was feeling at the time, pending on how the music is in the production.
People like to draw comparisons with other artists and musicians. Your voice is the epitome of uniqueness - I’ve never heard anyone similar. What reactions do you get from new fans?
Over the years I’ve noticed it more and more, especially if it’s in front of a new crowd. I think the first initial thing is shock. A lot of people have said to me after a show: ‘When you got up there, that was not what I was expecting to come out of your mouth at all!’ And I quite enjoy the juxtaposition of that. When I'm onstage, people probably have already made an assumption of what I might sound like, and then it’s completely the opposite of what they first thought. I like that, I think that’s what draws people in.
Your first EP On Trend, Hungry and Broke was released in 2020, during lockdown. What was lockdown like for you, as an artist about to release an album?
Initially, it was daunting, but at the same time, it presented an amazing opportunity for me to sit and home in on the smaller details of what I wanted the album to sound like. I don’t want to say that I didn’t struggle, because I had some low moments, but I’m also quite grateful for lockdown because it allowed me to catch my breath. Before that, everything was so intense and everything was so rushed. But when we locked down I actually had time to sit and think about this EP for the whole day seven days a week. When I finally put it out, I didn’t know what to expect because of lockdown, and that almost took the pressure off. I couldn’t be happier actually, it turned out exactly as I wanted it to.
You performed Olivia Rodrigo’s song Driver’s Licence in the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge. Did you choose that song and why?
This was also in lockdown so the whole thing had to be shot at home, I never actually got to go to the actual Live Lounge. It’s been shot straight from my living room! The BBC Radio 1 Team sent through a massive track list of the popular songs at the time. To be honest, I’m not really one for covers and don’t really do them that much. One, because I just never find anything that really fits my voice, and two, I don't like to be compared. But I chose Driver’s Licence because, when I looked at the track list, I thought this was the one that people would least expect me to choose. And the original’s so different, and the way Olivia Rodrigo sings it is so different. The lyrics and song are quite young, like, teenage years, and I wanted to sing that song from my perspective. When I first performed it I wasn’t sure about it and then I played it to my friends and they told me: ‘Yeah, you need to send that one!’ And I love the song now.
You’re also a model and have worked with luxury fashion giants such as Gucci and Armani. You recently attended the London Fashion Week and worked in collaboration with Gant and Wrangler as a stylist. Tell us some more about the importance of fashion in your life.
Obviously, I’ve got my voice, but fashion for me is another avenue to express who I am when my voice isn’t enough. Fashion’s such a huge part of my life, and I get it, for many people it isn’t, but for me, it’s helped me so much with my identity – and mentally! If I’m ever feeling a bit down and I haven’t dressed myself up in a while, I just go and get dressed and feel amazing. I absolutely love it. I always source my clothes from second-hand or charity shops. That suit I’m wearing now, that was eight quid, for the top and the bottom - it’s insane!
Also, my worst nightmare is to walk in somewhere and someone else is wearing what I wear - that’s always been a huge fear of mine. So, I know that if I get clothes from a charity or vintage shop, hopefully, it’s going to be the only piece of that item.
Does this mean you create and style all your outfits?
Yes, always. I’ve done one shoot recently, where I used a stylist for the first time because what I wanted was so niche. I was really struggling to source the items I wanted, so we used a stylist who was able to get what we needed.
© Photography by Charles
Your new single Taste of You has been out since 26th October, and you’ve showcased it in London at the Courtyard Theatre. Can you give us a bit of a teaser of what we can expect from Taste of You?
Taste of You is almost a bit of a new era to me. It's still very genre-less but it’s got a bit of a disco-y feel to it. It’s upbeat and the track is about living your life. I wrote it when I felt a bit unsure about my future; you know, how we all get a bit in our own heads sometimes about what we do. This track was written to just embrace life and to go for it. You've only got one chance and this is your time to grab it. It’s very playful; you wanna dance to it for sure! I've created a little dance move that we're shooting this week to go on TikTok so that people can do a little two-step dance!
We’ll be practising those dance moves until we see you live in concert!
How do you navigate your way in a relentless music industry and how do you stay authentic to yourself?
It’s so intense. I was very naive going into it, thinking: ‘Ah, I’ll be fine, I don’t have to worry, I’ve got my head screwed on!’ But no matter how tightly your head is screwed on, people are always going to find a way to beat at it. I'm grateful that I've got a really strong team around me that I trust a lot, and it’s not a big team. The only way that I can navigate it is that I will never run into my work relationships with people. I always have to sit with it and consider whether I’ll bring them into the team. One, because I'm a control freak about my art anyway and two, I need to know that you're gonna be one of my people. The best way to navigate it is to trust my gut feel.
It’s a hard game, and a dangerous one. It’s so important for artists to share their experiences in the music industry. At least then, if you’re about to get into a contract with someone, you could reach out and speak to other artists and hear the truth from them. Having those open conversations with other artists is vital because, at the moment, it very much feels like it’s the industry against the artist.
Do you feel artists are being exploited for their talent?
Not everyone in the music industry is like it. I had some interactions with some people in the industry that are absolutely amazing! And those are the people that are changing the face of it. The only issue is that there is a lot of damage that’s been done already, so it’s not going to be an overnight thing where suddenly everyone gets woke.
As soon as there’s a pound sign in front of it, people go crazy! They see it as business. And I think that’s the issue with it. They’ve lost the artistry completely in the corporate world. It’s art at the end of the day, you know? Before you start crunching numbers, it’s about art! And we’ve almost lost that. We’re not a business venture, we’re not investments.
What supports you in being truly yourself in a society and world that on the surface celebrates diversity but is still, to the core, prejudiced?
I would say, my friends. I’ve got such a strong network of mates; they’ve known me since I was 15 when I first moved down to London. And I think they’re the ones that keep me going when stuff like that happens. Maybe we’re not there yet but I see so many people around me that celebrate who you are. When I hear how my niece and her friends talk about race and gender these days, they’re miles ahead of where we were at their age. And that makes me so happy because I see these young kids having these conversations, and they’re so open-minded and that’s what makes me quite hopeful for the future.
You’ve talked very candidly about your feelings about having to “sub” your artistic career with other work. How do you deal with those conflicting feelings?
It’s hard. I think accepting it, accepting that’s my reality, is all you can do. You can only fight it for so long and I fought it for so long and had to work multiple jobs to be able to afford the art that I do. I was very embarrassed about anyone ever finding out that that’s what my situation was. I think the first time I ever accepted it was when I said to myself: ‘Charles, this is it, this is your life, you cannot change it, you’re working your ass off to be able to deliver the art that you want to give out and that is what it is!’ And since the day I did that, I felt like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I used to be so embarrassed. I almost felt like I hadn’t made it. It was as if my art was a hobby rather than my profession.
We spend the majority of our time trying to convince other people to see what we already know about ourselves. But these are the first steps of taking ownership of being able to call yourself what you really are. And that gives you your power back.
What message would you give to young, aspiring artists?
Without a doubt just: Don’t give up! Perseverance is key. When I first started out doing music I thought that the hardest thing would be writing the songs or having to give all your time to the art. Whereas actually, the hardest thing is waking up every day and telling yourself that you are that bad bitch and you can do it! So that is what I would focus on: that you are enough and keep going at it. Just believe in yourself. The possibilities are endless when you start believing in yourself.
If you could duet with anyone in music history, who’d you choose?
That is a juicy question! I think it would have to be Prince. Prince would be my go-to because he’s a musical genius anyway, so I feel like the stuff we’d make together would be insane. Also, he’s a showman and so am I, so I feel like we’d just put on the maddest show together. It would definitely be iconic!
© Photography by Charles
Determination and perseverance ooze out of Charles’ aura and there is a captivating charm in his smile and magic in his voice. The entertainment industry has tried to silence his true self and is continuing to make the road to recognition for talent like him difficult. But it’s only for so long that someone like Charles can be side-lined. He is already on billboards in London and is touring the UK with the equally fabulous The KTNA. No doubt Charles will be in the papers all over the UK soon – without having to print them himself. The man is no one’s dirty little secret, but a talent so strong and breath-taking that it’ll leave you always wanting more.
Follow Charles on Instagram, TikTok , Spotify, Apple Music
Purchase on: Music | Charles (bandcamp.com)
Book tickets to his upcoming tour in November - Manchester/ Leeds/ London/ Birmingham: The KTNA Full Tour Schedule 2022 & 2023, Tour Dates & Concerts – Songkick