Queen of the House
Ultra Naté's Dance Music Fills Clubs The World Over--Everywhere Except Where She Calls Home
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"If you read my itinerary, I'm everywhere from Detroit and Chicago to Wisconsin to Hong Kong to France--where I have two gigs, one in Marseilles and one in Corsica, this weekend--and then I go to Sweden and then I go to the U.K. and then I come back [to Baltimore]," Ultra Naté says. "I just got two offers from Brazil. I'm going to Russia in a few weeks--I go to Russia quite often."
Then she pauses, bemusedly forced to wait out the automated announcer's voice that's blaring over the loudspeakers. Her train has just pulled into Wilmington, Del., on its way to New York, where she's been shuttling back and forth from one Penn Station to another while doing press for her brand-new album, Grime, Silk, and Thunder (Silver Label/Tommy Boy), before boarding a plane for another string of DJ gigs and live performances. "Now if you were trying to figure out when to get off the train and fell asleep, they probably wouldn't say anything and you'd miss your stop," she laughs.
The second half of the decade is keeping Naté, still Baltimore house music's most in-demand export, far too busy to be caught napping. For instance, two years ago this full-time performer became a mother, and she says she's fortunate to have "a really good support system. We're all ready to be in the trenches--my family, my husband's family. Everybody realizes the necessity of building a really strong support system around my son and the necessity of me being able to be on the road to work and to handle my business. It was a calculated maneuver."
Grime, Silk, and Thunder, the focus of all the promotional hustle and bustle keeping her away from her Baltimore home base, is Naté's first album since 2001's Stranger Than Fiction, though she's released a string of singles in the interim, all of which have placed in the Top 40 of Billboard's dance charts. (The new album's first single, "Automatic," actually took the top spot.) Despite the constant out-of-town travel, her Friday night Sugar sessions at Club 1722, whether helmed by herself or her associates, still bring out the deep house faithful to boogie after-hours among the black and mirrored walls. And 2007 is also the 10th anniversary of "Free," the Mood II Swing-produced smash whose club-flattening bass line and almost platonically ecstatic house vocal hook can still be heard booming from Baltimore to Bangladesh alongside records that slipped into shops just last week.
"It's always crazy when you really feel the impact you've had on a genre," Naté says of what's still her most well-known song, but is quick to note that her résumé runs into the pages. "When I perform an extensive concert--and people really grasp how many records I've had out that they know and love from 1989 to date--it's really amazing to have had that kind of impact on a genre."
Born in Havre de Grace as Ultra Naté Wyche and now 38, Naté has been making house records almost as long as the genre has existed. "It's always been a part of the fabric of where I came from, how my career has evolved, and how I've evolved as a songwriter and a singer," she says. "It's not something that I would separate myself from." Then there's another pause to wait out that distorted announcer's voice informing passengers of the next stop. Trains, planes, and automobiles are where, for better or worse, Ultra Naté spends a good deal of her time these days--as well as onstage and behind the DJ booth--living in a country where house is now a subgenre at best and forced to travel to far-flung locations where disco never died and house and techno fans can still fill stadiums.
"Obviously I would love for the masses [in America] to know, understand, and love the music the way [house fans and artists] do," she says. "But that's not going to happen unless the big boys get involved and change or add formats to radio programming, where people can hear the music outside of a club situation. That's the biggest problem--you're not hearing it on the radio anymore. Baltimore used to have a really great support system on the radio--many, many, many years ago. You have to have media attention. You have to have a profile in order for people to even know it exists or care about it."
While she's quick to note that Baltimore's small but loyal house community is still central, Naté has always constructed her solo albums as more than just a string of club singles stapled together in the upper left-hand corner. "I've had the fortunate situation to be able to write songs that go beyond just the house realm," she says, and as you may have already guessed from the title of Grime, Silk, and Thunder, the album shifts stylistic angles repeatedly over the course of its 14 songs. The classic Giorgio Moroder-style electro-disco arpeggios of "Love's the Only Drug" could be pulsing on the soundtrack to a mid-'80s sci-fi flick full of android clubbers in mirrored shades swaying in neon-streaked after-hours clubs. "Slow Grind" winds its waist to broken electronic beats hissing through a dubby skank with a classic '80s ragga bass line rumbling underneath. And the downtempo "Feel Love" is as silky as the wall hangings of the lounges in which it will undoubtedly be played. And then, of course, there are the show-stopping, floor-filling house thumpers like "Automatic" and "Getaway," designed to let Naté belt out lines like "Desperate/ Searching for a thrill/ Living/ Just to pay my bills" with the brassy "thank God it's club night" glee for which she's best known.
If Naté's breadth is no surprise at this point, the inspiration for the title of Grime, Silk, and Thunder may still tickle longtime fans. "I actually got [the title] from a journalist who wrote about Nirvana's album Nevermind in Rolling Stone magazine a few years ago," she says. "And it resonated with me because it really described the vibe I was going for in terms of mixing very different styles together."
Helping her achieve that mix of street grit, boudoir soul, and dance-floor heavy weather this time out are a variety of co-producers and co-writers, including Andre Levin of Brazilian-flavored fusioneers Yerba Buena and fellow divas like Dajae, the Chicago native who lent her gold-plated pipes to genre classics like Cajmere's 1992 endlessly uplifting "Brighter Days." And then there's Naté's collaboration with old friend and original Basement Boy Thommy Davis on "Falling," a wistful, midtempo song hymning the pull of family life and dedicated to her son. "It's actually my favorite song on the album," she unsurprisingly beams.
And given her newfound domestic situation, does she ever think about slowing down and taking some time for herself? "No, not really," she laughingly replies. "Obviously, there are times where if I can be home and relaxing with my family, then I'm going to take that option. But being in the club and DJing and performing and being in the studio, they're all part of what being in the music business is about."
After almost 20 years of professional clubbing, Naté sounds as refreshed by her lifestyle as ever. "I didn't set out to be a singer or songwriter or any of that," she says. "I'm very much the accidental artist. So when I started doing it, it was for fun, and I had no idea that it would evolve to this degree. When I actually saw people responding to my [first] record [1989's "It's Over Now"]--by the time I saw it, they already knew and loved the record. So they were singing it word for word and you could feel the energy of the club completely go through the roof when it came on. It was really amazing. And that never changes. That will never change."