Naté's Return to Record Store Shelves is Stranger Than Fiction
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Most dance-music divas encounter obstacles when they decide to stretch beyond the clubs. But at this point, Baltimore's Ultra Naté doesn't really need to consider those sorts of rules anymore. Over the course of a decade-long career, she's seen failure and success, and now she possesses the stature to work with such artists as Lenny Kravitz, Nona Hendryx, and N'Dea Davenport on her latest album, Stranger Than Fiction (Strictly Rhythm). Naté realized that after the runaway worldwide success of her 1997 single "Free" and the subsequent album, 1998's Situation: Critical, things needed to be a bit different.
"I definitely wanted this album to have a more optimistic tone to it," Naté says. "I wanted it to feel more intimate, I think, more vibrant in the color of the overall tone of the album. I wanted it to have a warmer and fresher perspective than Situation: Critical."
Naté started writing her new album shortly after the release of Situation: Critical and began assembling producers gradually. The process took her all over the country, from New York to New Orleans and Los Angeles, forcing her to adjust to a multitude of recording situations. "We worked in very small, beat-up little studios, and we worked in huge, grand studios," she recalls. "Some [producers] only had a small space of time to just get the work done. [With] other people, we had the luxury of days at a time. It really keeps you from getting stuck in one method of operation, I guess. You're in a creative head."
During this time, she also joined forces with fellow divas Amber and Jocelyn Enriquez to produce a cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" for the ill-fated golden-days-of-disco drama 54. (Those who could stand to sit through the entire film were rewarded with an appearance by Ultra Naté herself at the movie's end.) Stints on MTV's Sisqo's Shakedown and the syndicated Cindy Margolis Show kept Naté busy during the down period after the album was finished. Signed as she was to the now-defunct A&M in the United Kingdom (where she enjoys her largest following) Naté had to wait for the music industry to reorganize itself in the wake of the Polygram merger.
Naté also won herself five avowed new fans in the Backstreet Boys, for whom she's opened shows. The admiration is mutual, though she is a bit disgruntled with how the music biz has become driven by teen pop. "The industry has gotten to be like a factory chain-belt--throw it out to the masses, make your money off of it, and on to the next thing. So you're still constantly fighting against that," Naté says. "It used to be you were only as good as your last hit. Today, it seems to be you're only as good as your current hit. It's constantly like you're having to prove yourself over and over again, which is really unfair for people who are really trying to do quality music and are artists in their own right.
"[The Backstreet Boys are] doing a style of music that is easily digested by the masses. No disrespect for them, because I like the style of pop that they do," she says. "But I do a very different kind of music that's a little bit more adult-based and definitely more from the dance perspective. In this country, I still think dance music is suffering from the backlash of disco, and it's still considered a second-class citizen."
Naté's artistry lies largely in her songwriting. Stranger Than Fiction tracks such as "Dear John" and the two-step garage homage "Gone Like Yesterday" hearken back to early disco with their attention to lyrical themes and classic verse-chorus-verse structures. Since the success of "Free," Naté understands that her fans expect a lot from the words she sings: "I think music is definitely a medium for counseling. When I'm writing a song, I do to some degree think, How is this going to translate to the listener? Over the years, a lot of people have told me that my songs have helped them through some particular period or situation, or just that I understood what they were feeling."
Naté exhales with relief, knowing that for now, her job is done. "Making an album is a lot like birthing a child," she says. "I don't have any children yet, but it seems to be of that magnitude. You put so much energy into every part of the making of this body of work, which you now have in your hands. No matter what happens to the album in terms of sales, it's already become a personal accomplishment just to have made it."