Tre. Charles | Artsplosure | Downtown Raleigh | Saturday, May 31, 11 a.m.
I like Tre. Charles’s music all the time, but there’s a special way it hits early in the morning. When emails, songs, and pitches are swarming around me with stressful speed, new Tre. is about the only thing that will drown it all out for a few minutes, laying me back in my chair to breathe.
Drawing on an itinerant 32-year life’s worth of influences—emotional ’90s rock and ’00s hip-hop, neo-soul and alternative R&B, choral music and canons—the Durham resident, whose given name is Trey Charles Horton, has arrived at a style I think of as ambient soul. His songs come in clouds of trappings: skating drum machines and hovering plug-in strings, stretched and shifted vocal harmonies, and long-tailed reverbs and delays that hum like cathedrals.
This labyrinth of sound, blurred at the edges yet sharply etched in the middle, is where we find his just-woke-up voice and glinting guitar, his fingers tweezing jazzy splinters from thick barre chords.
The overall effect is calming, but in a transfixing, time-halting way, like dancing candlelight.
“I used to get so annoyed when people would tell me, ‘Your music is so relaxing,’” he says. “I guess that’s just the natural way I play. I love the big, lush reverb sound. I love the space, the scope, all that room to feel the song.”
He’s a big guy, with a deep, inquisitive voice and soft, open features. He has a background in modeling; you could easily picture him wearing a big quilted coat and small smile in an Urban Outfitters ad. We spoke over several convivial meetings at Durham spots like Queeny’s and Corpse Reviver.
“I used to love singing in big parking garages and churches because I loved how big my voice could be,” he goes on, “and there were so many people telling me, ‘You shouldn’t do this; you’re not that good at it; you should probably stick to something else.’ They wanted to put me in a box, and I let them for a long time.”
One wall of that box was being a Black man plastered with stereotypes of aggression that were at odds with his inner wells of feelings.
“Now I’m like, naw, this is who I am currently,” he says. “It might not be who I am tomorrow, but it’s who I am now.”
Currently. is the four-song EP that Tre. Charles has been working on and releasing bits of since 2019, when a near-death experience got him started on his music career, making videos and playing more than 300 brewery, venue, and festival gigs. His music’s invitation to slow down is made plain in soft, measured, taut laments about life in the too-fast lane like “Lately.” and “Stressin.”
The EP is a concise gem, never doing any more or less than needed musically. But it does raise a question: Can you pursue vulnerability and mindfulness in an industry that runs on hardness and hustle?
Tre. Charles lived in Syracuse, New York, until age 10, when his family started moving around a lot for his father’s work as a civil engineer. In North Carolina, home was mainly the Concord area. He sang baritone in his high school chorus, a role he didn’t like. He could sing low, so it’s what he was assigned. Now he sings in a hushed, expressive tenor that fits just inside the pocket of his quietly booming arrangements.
“Moving around a lot, music was one of the things I could have as a constant,” he says. “And I was always picking up new music in different areas I would go to.”
He got into skate and surf stuff in Florida and California, ’90s R&B like Boyz II Men and Jodeci and contemporary tastemakers like Frank Ocean and Sampha, the golden age of DatPiff and Dipset mixtapes, all kinds of things.
But when he started college at UNC Pembroke, he says, “I played some cowboy chords, and that was it. C, G—I couldn’t play an A because I didn’t know how to get the three fingers right there.”
He was then pursuing modeling and acting. He got a county tourism commercial here, a community college billboard there. The exposure was good, but the money wasn’t, so he packed his belongings in his Jeep Grand Cherokee and headed for LA to give it a bigger try. The living situation he’d arranged turned out badly, so he stayed for just a few months, playing his guitar on a rooftop, journaling, and feeling the need to change course.
Afterward, he landed in Richmond, Virginia, working at a country club and testing the edges of the music scene. But he had studied restaurant work in college, and he was getting more and more sucked into that world, moving to Charlotte for a job in 2016.
“I still wanted to be in the music scene, but I didn’t have the confidence to get in there,” he says. “In high school, people knew me as someone who sang, not as a singer, so that’s where the imposter syndrome came in.” He started making videos, mostly covers, but he felt aimless for the next few years, until January 2019, when everything changed.
It happened in the wee hours of the morning. One moment, Tre. Charles was driving to Florida for a restaurant ownership training program. He had his guitar and a Mac with him, but he still felt like he was just running on tracks.
Then he saw a flash of bright light. The next thing he knew, he was very cold and didn’t know why. His car’s horn was blaring, and his turn signal was ticking. “And I just heard the air,” he remembers, “the night air, because the windows were smashed open.”
He was pinned in the car, with badly injured knees that made doctors fear he’d never walk again, though you’d never guess it from his easy saunter now.
He had been working at 5:00 a.m. most days, exercising too much, and not resting enough. Half-asleep, he’d turned the wrong way onto a one-way ramp—the symbolism would seem contrived had it not really happened—and ran head-on into another car. (The other driver sustained a broken bone.)
“I was just happy to stop going for a while,” he says of the long recovery to follow, “because I was going and not knowing where, not having a compass. When I was in the wreckage, I was like, ‘This could be over so quickly. I don’t want to keep pursuing something I don’t love, living for the idea of safety or happiness or success.’ So it was kind of a divine intervention, like, stop.”
“Stressin.” came first and has built up respectable numbers for an emerging artist, with its beautiful feel of gentle rolling and blossoming. “I had a lot of life experience and creativity pent in,” he says. “The mentality I had was that I was going to be more vulnerable because I wasn’t necessarily a person to share my emotions. But I always connected to songs that were super sad and had a lot of pain.”
He set about really learning guitar, studying YouTube videos until the chords matched what he felt. “The minimal sound is more relatable to me personally” than the Auto-Tuned one that some industry folks have urged upon him, he says. (For the record, it’s a terrible idea.)
“You can dress it up and make it seem prettier, but it’s supposed to be this raw emotion. I like taking one simple shape and letting each part shine and move around and be intricate. Instead of just a G, it’s a dance of G. It’s like a mantra, and you can hear different things in it.”
As his guitar skills developed with enviable speed, he started taking any gig he could get as long as it paid something, though he’s starting to break into better rooms, having opened a show at the Cat’s Cradle Back Room in April. Last year, he did his first independent tour, which took him through New York and Toronto. Then he put performing mostly on pause to toil on his EP, trying to make the transition from an artist who catches your ear to one you’ve gone to see.
As for making the concert grind align with the message, well, if being a working musician isn’t always therapeutic, finally being heard is.
It’s all a promising work in progress, anyway, as expressed by the period that appears at the end of all of Tre. Charles’s titles—his interpretation of stopping to mind the details. One notices that it takes on another subtext in the middle of his name, of a person suddenly starting over, freed and unfinished at the end.
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