You might have to invest a minute or two in house icon Ultra Naté’s 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, it’s 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,” it’s not just sex she’s talking about; she’s 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 you’d swear Nile Rogers and the late Bernard Edwards were at work.
Like Donna Summer’s classic Once Upon a Time album, Stranger is a musical odyssey about the pitfalls and fleeting joys of love and lust. Yet where Summer’s effort had an unqualified happy ending, Ultra’s 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 album’s concept come from?
ULTRA NATé: I’m a big Anne Rice fan, and I thought it was interesting how she’d do stories in series so there’s 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 Moroder’s 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 wasn’t that contrived.
Months ago, when I heard the first single, “Desire,” it was fine, but it didn’t 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, I’m 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. It’s 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.
It’s a bit of a Catch-22. I’m known for my up-tempo tunes, but anybody who’s listened to my albums has a better perspective on what I do. But I don’t 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 you’re not a credible or creative artist. You’re something that’s packaged and of the moment.
Given the fact that you’re 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 I’m a songwriter. They’ll often have to completely reconstruct a record when there’s not a real song there — they’re trying to make something out of something that doesn’t exist. When you’re 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 [Naté’s manager] Bill Coleman’s idea. There were songs that I’d written but wasn’t quite happy with. He’d 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 she’s still absolutely gorgeous, still working and doing her thing. Those are the kinds of people I idolize, because they’re 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 there’s 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 Woman’s Insanity is like a drag queen on crack.
A lot of people I’ve worked with over the years are from the gay community, so they had a big influence on my sensibilities. I love that they’re not afraid to be themselves, or to be someone other than themselves and still be all right about it. That’s really what being creative is all about, being yourself to the nth degree, or being something that’s 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 Lenny’s cousin Jerry DeVeaux. They’re all from the same area and grew up together. Jerry — who was executive producer on Angie Stone’s solo project — and I wrote “Desire” and “Pretender,” then both he and Bill asked Lenny if he’d do some guitar work on the album. He agreed because he really liked “Pretender” and we’d met and developed a really cool rapport. We did the track in L.A., and by the time I got there from New York, he’d 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 don’t 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 he’s so known for his rock stuff — how could he have such a cool dance sensibility? To me, they’re 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 can’t know all those things if you’re only 12. And I hope we can prove that it’s not only teenyboppers who are buying records. That’s been a bit of a challenge. When I turned this record in [to the label], everyone was saying, “Oh, kids aren’t gonna get it, it’s way over their heads.” But I can only do what I do. I can only write based on who I am, what I’ve done, and what my experiences and perspectives are. You can’t ask me to write songs from a 9-year-old’s 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.”