Return to Life
You might have to invest a minute or two in house icon Ultra Natés fourth CD, Stranger Than Fiction (Strictly Rhythm), before realizing how potent it is, how it transcends genre without completely abandoning it. With tracks filled with memorable choruses or radio-friendly hooks, its an album as suited for the dance floor as it is for late-night, top-down cruising. The attitude-laden new single Get It Up (built on a bass line lifted from the Jacksons Blame It on the Boogie) features a vampish Ultra demanding that modern-day lovers dump their mercenary tactics. When she taunts, Get it up, its not just sex shes talking about; shes daring you to feel. Breakfast for Two, with its rousing chorus, hard-thumping beats and unleashed libido, is a sexy call to the dance floor that keeps doubling up the energy level. And Pretender, with Lenny Kravitz adding support, is vintage Chic: layered vocals, jittery guitar licks, melancholy lyrics, and such precise attention to instrumental detail that youd swear Nile Rogers and the late Bernard Edwards were at work.
Like Donna Summers classic Once Upon a Time album, Stranger is a musical odyssey about the pitfalls and fleeting joys of love and lust. Yet where Summers effort had an unqualified happy ending, Ultras is more blue, more soul-weary, though no less romantic. From the title track/prologue (penned with Nona Hendryx) that serves as a cautionary tale, to the lushly produced and arranged Dear John, to the 4hero-remixed Twisted, Stranger is a plea to return to love, return to life.
Just back from a promotional tour of Japan, Naté recently spoke to the Weekly about her music, her heroes and the untapped talents of Lenny Kravitz.
L.A. WEEKLY: Where did the inspiration for the albums concept come from?
ULTRA NATé: Im a big Anne Rice fan, and I thought it was interesting how shed do stories in series so theres a continuation from book to book of the lives of characters. It made sense to do that with an album, to have these individual songs that are stories in their own right but fit together to make a complete idea.
The album is evocative of both Chic and Giorgio Moroder, especially Moroders work with Donna Summer. Stranger is very contemporary in sound, but its references clearly reach back to classic disco and 70s R&B.
Yeah, a lot of that was done consciously, but it also happened on a subconscious level. We tried to construct a base to work from, then let things happen organically as far as the sound of each song. We let the concept grow however it wanted, in whatever direction each song needed, instead of saying, We have three love-gone-wrong songs, now we need to have two things-are-going-right songs. It wasnt that contrived.
Months ago, when I heard the first single, Desire, it was fine, but it didnt blow me away. In the context of the album, though, it comes off much stronger.
Yes! It makes sense in the context of the album. Well, I originally wanted to release Get It Up as the first single, but the label because of the anthemic sound of Desire decided to go with that. Being one of the few dance-music artists who can make albums, Im continually fighting with people who want whatever track seems to be the hit single to be the first song on the album, and then a remixed version of that same song tacked at the end of the album. Its hard to have your vision understood or respected.
How do you feel about the title of dance-music artist? A lot of artists loathe it.
Its a bit of a Catch-22. Im known for my up-tempo tunes, but anybody whos listened to my albums has a better perspective on what I do. But I dont have a problem with the title. It gives me freedom to experiment with different styles under the dance umbrella. The downside to being labeled a dance-music artist is, to some people it means youre not a credible or creative artist. Youre something thats packaged and of the moment.
Given the fact that youre a songwriter telling stories and crafting specific moods and narratives, have there been times you thought a remix has violated the intentions of the song?
Most remixers have come to the table with an understanding of the specifics of my projects, respecting the fact that Im a songwriter. Theyll often have to completely reconstruct a record when theres not a real song there theyre trying to make something out of something that doesnt exist. When youre giving them more than enough to work with, they usually do a pretty good job of keeping the song intact, but doing what they need to for specific dance floors.
How were you able to write with [former LaBelle member] Nona Hendryx?
Nona was [Natés manager] Bill Colemans idea. There were songs that Id written but wasnt quite happy with. Hed shop them to other writers and have them take a listen. He sent some stuff to Nona she liked a couple of songs and did additional writing on them. That was probably the scariest out of all the collaborations, because Nona Hendryx is legendary. And shes still absolutely gorgeous, still working and doing her thing. Those are the kinds of people I idolize, because theyre great examples that you can find longevity in the business and make music that you want to make. She was very cool, very chill.
When you just said that Hendryx is legendary, it made me think of your gay fans and how theres an incredible gay almost drag-queen sensibility in some of your work. 10,000 Screaming Faggots is clearly your nod to your queer fan base, and the title track to One Womans Insanity is like a drag queen on crack.
A lot of people Ive worked with over the years are from the gay community, so they had a big influence on my sensibilities. I love that theyre not afraid to be themselves, or to be someone other than themselves and still be all right about it. Thats really what being creative is all about, being yourself to the nth degree, or being something thats completely not yourself if that makes any sense.
It makes perfect sense. How about Lenny?
Lenny Kravitz! Well, that union was also because of Bill. He and Lenny have been friends for a million years, along with Lennys cousin Jerry DeVeaux. Theyre all from the same area and grew up together. Jerry who was executive producer on Angie Stones solo project and I wrote Desire and Pretender, then both he and Bill asked Lenny if hed do some guitar work on the album. He agreed because he really liked Pretender and wed met and developed a really cool rapport. We did the track in L.A., and by the time I got there from New York, hed finished all his guitar work, and he started coming up with all these additional harmonies, extra arrangements. So we were just like, You know what, Lenny? Why dont you just come in here and do em yourself? And he did. He sang on the track as well. A lot of people are surprised, because hes so known for his rock stuff how could he have such a cool dance sensibility? To me, theyre not so far removed from one another.
This is such an adult record, the way you deal with sex and romance, love and lust the differences between and definitions of both.
Yes, and you cant know all those things if youre only 12. And I hope we can prove that its not only teenyboppers who are buying records. Thats been a bit of a challenge. When I turned this record in [to the label], everyone was saying, Oh, kids arent gonna get it, its way over their heads. But I can only do what I do. I can only write based on who I am, what Ive done, and what my experiences and perspectives are. You cant ask me to write songs from a 9-year-olds perspective. There are still people out there who understand and appreciate music that has more meat to it than just, you know, Hit me baby one more time.
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