Photography by Ashley Champagne. Styling by Cassy Meier. Hair and makeup by Nicola Gavins
Manuela Wuthrich sits at a Starbucks in the High Street shopping area, sipping a green tea and nibbling a muffin. Today, she is just Manuela, a 29-year-old Edmontonian who loves clothes, hanging out with her two brothers and sister, and watching Game of Thrones.
On stage, she transforms into Nuela Charles, sultry alternative soul songstress with three albums, winner of the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta emerging artist award, wearer of sequined tops and worldwide traveller. But, for now, dressed in skinny jeans, flats and a silk polka-dot blouse, she’s relaxed and her pastel blue shellac nails flash by repeatedly, as she gestures to emphasize her points. Born in Kenya to a Kenyan mother and Swiss father, Wuthrich and her family moved around a lot. She’s lived everywhere from Switzerland to the Bahamas to Canada, but is content to keep Edmonton as her home base, at least for now.
Last year, you won the Edmonton Music Prize …
Yeah, it came with $8,000. There were three of us that ended up being the finalists. It was amazing. For me, moving to Edmonton in 2009 was really when I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to move back to be near by family and really give it a go.’ And it was once I was back here, and got involved with Alberta Music, which is the association here in Edmonton – they really helped give me the foundation, especially on the business side, of what it takes to release an album and what you need to be doing on a constant basis. Receiving the music prize, it was just a great affirmation that what I’ve been doing has paid off.
How did you get into singing?
My parents had a lot of music in the house. I started singing in choirs. When I was a teenager, I started writing. My dad had a guitar in the house, so I learned how to play on his guitar. I started writing songs. Once I got into high school, and then college, it was more evident that that was what I wanted to do.
So you never took vocal training then?
I took one semester of lessons. It was horrible (laughs).
What didn’t you like about it?
For me, I’ve never been very – what’s the right word? Methodical? You know, when there are steps to something and this is how you do this. For me, it’s all about experiencing things and trying things, and if this technique doesn’t work for me, I’m going to try something else. And for them to be like, ‘this is how you do it properly’ I’m like, ‘OK, I’ll take pieces here and there’ but for me it was just …
You don’t follow a formula.
No, I don’t follow a formula. At school, it was all classically trained, more jazz-trio type of stuff. And the base of that is great. You can take away stuff from that. But for what I do, it’s sort of more freestyling. The live show, vocally, it’s never the same. The melody is always the same. But I add different things. One night, I’ll have so much energy from the audience – that contributes to how I perform; it’s feeding off of what they give me. So it’s always different.
How has your music changed throughout the years?
It’s changed a lot. When I started, it was more acoustic-based, more relaxed. Over the last year or so, I’ve wanted to step it up a bit and develop more. Back in the day, record labels would take new artists and spend time developing them. There would be a period where they would take [the artists] and help them discover what their sound is and what they need to be doing – but I don’t have that. So, for me, it was trying to develop myself and figuring out what sound is my sound.
I think I went through the acoustic phase and now I’m more in the full-on band – not really a rock show but it has rock elements while still maintaining that mainstream-pop, Adele-type of vibe. Going forward for the next record, I think it will build even more on that – and a more electronic element, without being an electronic band. Having moments within different songs.
Do you have a date in mind for recording that album?
It will be at the end of this year. So, I’m looking to release it next year, 2015.
How did moving around and living in different cultures influence your music?
Stylistically, I’ve been able to take pieces from different countries. I think it’s more so just the experiences themselves that have contributed to the content – the lyrics and the stories within the songs – and not so much the actual type of music. The Caribbean is all reggae and soca and some of my songs are kind of infused with elements of it.
Has travelling a lot influenced the way you dress?
Yeah, I think I’ve become more aware of what’s out there. I find myself to be a European living in Canada. You go to Switzerland and everyone is just … and it’s not that they are over-the-top, high-end fashion but you won’t see them in sweatpants, not even at the grocery store …
They’re put together.
Yeah, they’re put together and [fashion] is important to them. For me, I like playing with clothes. I’m more the rock ‘n’ roll, skinny jeans, really casual.
Do you dress differently when you’re performing?
Oh, yeah. I like sequins. I like a lot of vintage stuff, especially when I go to Vancouver. I always make a point to stop at the vintage stores there. They always have the best sequined tops. For me, at this point, I don’t have the luxury of having a lighting team with me every time I play, so I like having sequins because the light at the venues will reflect off my clothes.
Do you perform in flats or heels?
Heels. Most of the time, it is heels, but the boots [with the thick heels] . I tried one time to wear thinner heels but I can’t do that. I’ll fall.
I have a great pair of Aldo boots that I love. They are leather with a wood-block heel. They don’t make them anymore. Those ones lasted me awhile. I got a pair of shoes from Switzerland – I don’t even know what the brand is anymore – with a gold, sparkly heel and I just love them. I love gold and sparkles.
Has your style of dressing evolved as your music career has grown?
Oh my God. In college, I was into hard-rock music, so it was all the emo kids – skinny jeans, band t-shirts and the side-swept bangs that were big in the day. Oh yeah, I rocked that [look] . For me, when I started [singing] , it was during the Avril Lavigne phase. Lavigne, Fefe Dobson, Michelle Branch – the ‘girl with guitar’ phase. They all kind of looked the same. So I had no one to look up to. But once I went in a more soul-jazz direction – and grew up, really – it allowed me to figure out who I was and how I wanted to represent myself with my clothes, what I wanted to wear. It’s been a process. Still kind of working on it. Sometimes, I have no idea. But it’s fun.
Do you feel pressure to dress a certain way, being an artist in the spotlight?
Not really pressure, I think it’s just being more conscious of – especially if I’m going to music events, knowing that I have to be on. I have to be Nuela Charles today; I can’t just be Manuela. It’s funny because my little brother, if I have an event or something and then I go and hang out with him in Sherwood Park, he’s like ‘Are you Nuela today?’ because he can tell. I’ll have my hair [done] , and makeup and nice clothes. It’s definitely just knowing when to be the artist and when to be the normal person. There is that line and there are the two different realities of being an artist.
Not being on a label, you’ve probably managed to avoid the whole ‘Oh, you have to be super sexy’ thing.
Oh, yeah. And I think even if I was on a label I would never be able to do the super sexy. What I don’t understand is, the way some female singers present themselves. It’s like they’re wearing bathing suits on stage, which I don’t get. It’s more the pop acts; they’re wearing the one-piece leotards. I understand if you’re dancing – Beyonce, she can do whatever she wants because she is dancing hardcore and singing and you can’t really do that in jeans or pants. You need that [type of clothing] for movement. But I could never do that. I’m more into the rock ‘n’ roll culture of it where you see rock ‘n’ roll bands, especially female-fronted ones – they’re still super cool without being overtly sexual in what they wear. I’m in that lane.
Do you spend a lot of time on skincare?
I have to. My face is terrible. I have very oily skin. So I had to learn to wash my face in the morning and in the evening, get it all off, all the makeup and stuff. I’m still learning, trying to figure out different things. I feel like the weather here affects everything. What works in the winter will not work in the summer. I’ve spent lots of money on different products trying to figure out what works.
You’re turning 30 next year. Any big goals you want to accomplish before then?
It’s weird. When I was younger, I was imagining at this time being married and having a house and having a kid, maybe. But, as an artist, your priorities shift and they change. I have friends, a lot of them have regular jobs; they’re married and have, like, five kids already. Looking back now; me, where I am now, I don’t think I’d be able to have kids. I could never live that life right now.
Places to hang out My living room (on off nights)and The Common
Restaurant Tres Carnales
Drink Green tea
Designer Anything vintage
Shoes Jeffrey Campbell
Hair products Moroccan Oil
Makeup line MAC Cosmetics
Skincare Clinique and Lancme
Vacation spot Switzerland
Movie Fast & Furious series (guilty pleasure)
Actor/actress Paul Walker (RIP)
Book The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Nail polish Shellac polish
Artist to collaborate with Erykah Badu or Questlove
Album to listen to on repeat AM by Arctic Monkeys
Accessory The 42-20 Chrono Nixon watch in gold