Su Charles pulls you in with her voice, charm, and deep personal experiences. After an ill-fated stint on the latest season of American Idol, Charles was inspired and more determined than ever to make her dream of singing come true. Shortening her name to SuCh, the the endearing, Haitian-American songbird recently released her debut album, Stretch Marks, a record drenched in gospel, jazz, and R&B influences that marks the most poignant time of growth in her life. We caught up with SuCh to talk about turning tragedy to triumph.
Westword: You've been singing for your whole life essentially, right?
SuCh (Su Charles): Yes. I grew up in the church, so I've been singing since I can remember. My dad's a pastor, so I really started singing in church and then choirs at school. I think my first solo was at seven, and I started directing choirs at sixteen and seventeen. The turning point for me was when I was accepted into Grammy High School Jazz Ensembles.
It was a ten day all expenses paid trip to Los Angeles, and I got to perform with current jazz artists; we went to the Grammy's, the whole nine. It was unbelievable. We had intense rehearsals. We recorded a CD, everything. That was when I realized I wanted to be a musician. When I came back I told my parents I wanted to be a singer, and they were like, "Uh-uh." I never stopped singing, though. That's the most consistent thing I've done in my life.
So you went on to become a nurse instead.
I got my first degree in exercise science and then went on to Regis to become a nurse. My husband is a pianist, so all this time we kept on doing music. I graduated from nursing school, had my youth choir here and still never started thinking about doing it as a career full on. Then, the earthquake hit in Haiti, and things started shifting. I realized, "Life is short, and I'm Haitian American," so we went to Haiti, and I had this epiphany. We came back, and through our non-profit, I was performing at different benefits, and then I got pregnant. It made everything much deeper. It's my responsibility as a parent to say, "Shoot for your dreams," and I realized I've got to pursue my dreams even more.
What did that kind of watershed moment do for your writing and the work on the album?
Being able to be vulnerable while you're writing is really something that sticks with me. I think people connect to other people's experiences, and if I can translate my experience through my music, that's the most important thing to me. Being able to encapsulate someone else's feelings is what being a song writer is all about. That's why I love music. There's a song for every single emotion, circumstance, everything you're going through, that's why music is so great.
I've had to come to terms with who I am as an artist. I don't think I realized how much of a dream come true it really is until I was at my album release party and I got choked up right before going on. How long have I not believed in myself? How long had I thought my contributions wasn't enough? It's just a crazy growing and learning experience.
How would you describe the style of music you encompass the most? It's so easy to just say neo-soul.
For me, I take it back to the voice. For me, it's more soul. It's not because there aren't different genres on my album, it's just that I have a very soulful voice and because of that it crosses all genres of music. You can hear gospel, jazz and R&B on the album. It's hard to put someone in a box.
Who are some of your favorite singers?
I have so many favorites. I love Whitney Houston. Love Aretha, especially growing up. I really love Jill Scott. Those are the artists I admire. I want my music to build a fan base and to have a really big following. I want to perform as much as possible. I realized that's when people really connect to me, is on the stage. I want to go on tour, spread the music far and wide.
I know it's hard to choose but what is your favorite song from Stretch Marks?
Oh wow, it's so hard to choose. [laughs] I have three: "Mesmerized," it's one of those "that's my jam" songs. If I forget I'm singing it, I can really jam to it. It's all about a crush. Then there's "More." It talks about wanting more in life, joy from within, instead of wanting to acquire more things. It encapsulates everything the album means to me. Then of course is "Stetch Marks." The first time I performed it live was at my release party. It's an extremely wordy song, so it's a song that needs to be broken down. The first verse talks about when the earthquake hit and how I turned to a church that I was going to at the time and they just acted not of God. What that meant to me.
I went to nursing school, and I did an accelerated program at Regis, and I failed my boards for the first time. I'd never failed anything before in my life. The second half of that verse is talking about me deciding to follow my dreams. That's why I'm so empowered by American idol. I was afraid if I heard a "no," I would give it up. After hearing the "no," of course, I was sad and devastated. I cried, all of that. But then I realized this was one of those moments when music wouldn't let me go. Being able to overcome that difficulty and the birth of my son is what propelled me to go forward and feel empowered. That's what Stretch Marks is all about.
SuCh is slated to sing the national anthem before the Rockies game at Coors Field on Wednesday, July 13.
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