Meet Charlie, the Singer Bringing West Coast Cool to Puerto Rican R&B

Charlie. Photo by Hilife. Courtesy of the artist

Puerto Rican producer Overlord works with a network of artists who are ushering in the island’s new era of slick R&B and hip-hop; check his SoundCloud for a rough idea of its movers and shakers. Overlord has been instrumental in the career of vocalist Audri Nix, and rapper Álvaro Díaz and raucous trio Füete Billete have also spent their time in the studio with the beatmaker.

Fans of his tenebrous beats may find his latest collaboration to be a bit of a change. “Like That” is a chiming R&B earworm, a radio-ready back-and-forth between Puerto Rican rapper STZ and singer Charlie (aka Carla Cardona), whose lilting voice takes the spotlight. That Charlie steals the show is only correct, given that “Like That” is her official debut.

There’s no doubt that she’s representing a different kind of energy in Puerto Rico’s new generation of talent — for one, the singer delivers her part in English, with plans for more bilingual releases in the works. Charlie left Puerto Rico with her mom when she was in middle school, and has spent a good portion of her life growing up in Sanger, a small town outside of Fresno, California, and later on in San Jose. She has since moved back to the island, but the West Coast vibes rubbed off on her. “Artistically speaking the Bay Area was very fructífero, muy lleno,” Charlie says. “Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco, there’s so many artistic influences there.”

To celebrate the release of her first single, we caught up with the singer on her break from her day job hustle: barista training at an Old San Juan cafe. Charlie Skyped with us from the back seat of her car in a parking lot about future projects and the influence of Baby Bash and Frankie J on her sound — not to mention her thoughts on how Puerto Ricans are portrayed in mainstream culture.

What kinds of music did you grow up listening to?
My mother used to be a ballet dancer. She was really into jazz, salsa, merengue, very movable music. I started with that. When I moved to the States, my cousins in Dallas introduced me to R&B, hip-hop, Baby Bash, Beyoncé, Destiny’s Child, Frankie J — I don’t know if you remember “Obsession”? That was really a hit. [sings] Amor…no es amor…I was like, “I need to know more!” I started getting into that.

Charlie. Photo by Hilife. Courtesy of the artist
Read more

This is your first professionally recorded release. How did you link up with your producer Overlord?
I came to Puerto Rico last summer on vacation; I was an assistant teacher in San Jose at the time. I had recorded some stuff on my computer just for fun and I was talking to one of my friends. She was like, “I have this friend, he’s looking for something fresh, something new, something different, and I think that you’d like him.” I was like, “I guess! I have nothing to lose, right?” So I sent him the first song I ever worked on; it was called “From The Valley.” Overlord liked it and he called me up and was like, “Hey, I think we should do something.” It was instant, really.

How would you relate your work to the hype moment Puerto Rican hip-hop and R&B is going through with artists like Audri Nix and Álvaro Díaz? How do you fit in?
I love both of them — they both have very specific personalities, are very ambitious in what they do, from what Overlord tells me and what I’ve seen from them. What they’re doing as Puerto Rican artists is paving the way for a lot of us. Before them we weren’t really on the grid, not since Daddy Yankee and Don Omar. But I don’t really think I’m going to fit in with them, especially since most of my music is going to be in English.

Charlie. Photo by Hilife. Courtesy of the artist
Read more

Why do you think it’s important that people hear your voice as a Puerto Rican-Californian right now?
I’m trying to make sure that I give a voice to those individuals who really don’t feel like they belong to one group. Most people question my nationality because I’m not what you would expect of a Puerto Rican physically…There is a gray area that a lot of people don’t like approaching — I’m highly influenced by both Puerto Rico and California and I want to make sure that through my music, you see that. I think what I’m really trying to do is let people know that every side of being Puerto Rican is beautiful, even if it’s not what is conventionally seen.

Three albums you have on heavy rotation?
Kehlani’s new album is amazing, Sweet Sexy Savage. I absolutely admire her. I think she’s doing a lot of what a lot of artists are trying to do — I consider her a big road paver. She actually had a big part in inspiring me to believe in myself enough to become an artist. I’m really really enjoying CHE’s buries. What I like is that his tracks, you can tell it’s like Tribe hip-hop/R&B, very honest. I love honest artists, artists who can be like, “I’m just going to put the wall down and that’s okay.” And Solange’s A Seat At The Table, just because of how raw and unexpected that was. Nobody saw that coming. It’s one of those albums that makes you want to either laugh or cry or just scream with joy.

Stream a playlist highlighting Charlie’s influences below.