Ultra Naté: one woman’s sanity

Singer, songwriter, DJ, icon, all round legend Ultra Naté

I wasn’t going to ask about Free. Of course I love the track, it’s literally changed people’s lives and made Ultra Naté a household name but that wasn’t how I wanted to spend our time together. Many words have been written about Free’s story already, and I was very conscious of burning yet more of her precious time asking the same questions she’d heard a thousand times before. Her music career spans more than three decades and whilst the song was undoubtedly a pivotal moment, I felt to reduce such body of work to just one moment would be to do her a massive disservice. No, I wanted to find out what made such a truly remarkable singer, DJ, business woman and icon for the LGBTQ community tick. The Ultra Naté story I would discover is one underpinned by a focus, belief and humility. 

Her first release, 1989’s It’s Over Now saw her make a chart impact in the UK right from the start. That had all begun by accident when she was finding her feet as a medical student after her college prep school, and happened upon the legendary Odell’s night club in Baltimore. Through the local underground dance scene she met The Basement Boys just at the moment they were looking for new vocalists. “They asked me to come in and audition for them because they knew I sang in a church a little bit but I wasn’t really a singer and that wasn’t my path; in the spirit of adventure as a teenager I was like OK sure, I’ll try it!” Her performance of Angela Winbush’s Angel was enough for her first collaboration to begin. The breakthrough came not in the studio though but in a domestic setting. “The first song that I wrote was It’s Over Now. We kind of wrote it at the kitchen on the counter, but it was only lyrics, there was no melody, there was no track and so that night the boys were like ‘We really need to have something to show for our session,’ so they grabbed a random DAT out of the closet, just a random track that I’d never heard and they were like ‘Can you see what you can come up with with this track?’” Her improvisation in the studio was inspired, and soon, things had got serious. “The next thing I knew I was at Warner Brothers with a record deal and on Top of the Pops in the UK!” 

All looked set. An international impact on the nascent dance scene, a record deal with one of the major labels and an effective collaboration. Plain sailing though it was not. “My [Warner Brothers] contract had shifted from the UK company to the US company and I was in deeper waters because now I was with a company who didn’t know or understand club music in the way that the UK and Europe did. It was a much tougher fight to meet the needs of what the US company wanted.” Where previously her formula was informed directly from her own connection with dance music culture, now the pressure was coming for a stream of commercial hits for the US radio market. She gave it her best shot. “We tried to meet that demand of making the sound more commercially viable whilst still maintaining our underground and club roots and being true to our house music community and I think we did that on One Woman’s Insanity as best we could but I don’t think we were in a situation where we were with a label who understood or knew who or how to market a hybrid like that.” Famously of eclectic tastes, did she ever think of switching genres? “Nope! [laughs] During the period of doing Bluenotes in the Basement whatever I was writing it was going on the album, and we were just coming up with these things but really I was just an observer of my own life at that moment because it was so surreal to be on a major record label for someone who had never sang before.” Frustrated at the divergence of Warner’s objectives and her own vision, she found herself without a label between 1994 and 1997.

For many artists that would have been that, and a tale of what might have been. Hearing Ultra describe her thought process at that time, though, is I think the key to understanding why she has achieved what she has for as long as she has. “By that time I felt like, well, I’ve spent the last six or seven years of my life one hundred percent in this and I’ve accomplished something really amazing that I’ve never foresaw why would I abandon it at this moment in my life? I was at that crossroads and I made the decision to go forward. And that’s when I started to write my next album.” What would have been a source of huge anxiety to a lesser artist actually became a point of control for her to stay true to her musical vision. “At that time I wasn’t signed to any labels and I didn’t want to be signed to any labels because it had to be the right label. After coming from a major like Warners, and having product managers and budgets and radio pluggers and the whole shebang that knows how to build a record and get it to the masses, you know, the machine was there. I needed to move into a situation where there was still a machine, but it knew how to work the underground to get it to a commercial level.” Enter Gladys Pizzaro and Strictly Rhythm, and the rest, as they say is history. “She came to me like ‘Just do one single, do one twelve inch with us,’ we were like OK let’s give it a shot. And so we signed for this one twelve inch, and we wrote Free.” Did she have any trouble keeping her feet on the ground? As it transpires, bonds forged and dues paid early on were the key. “People couldn’t really dictate to me what it should be, because I was creating the template, so having that moment to do it in a way where I was fully supported, I wasn’t under pressure to be anything but what I was gave me the foundations.”

As she talks, the level of authority and clarity with which she speaks is striking but in no way intimidating; the sense of purpose in her voice simply emphasises the depth of connection to her art. Furthermore, both Free and its follow up release, Found a Cure, demonstrate a gift for connecting lyrical sentiment to real feelings of hope. When I question where this inspiration springs from she further confirms the sense of a combination of focus and humility. “Whenever I’m doubting myself, and obviously I’m human I doubt everything, everything I write becomes public and it’s there to be nitpicked apart but I always go back to the saying of trust your art. I feel like God speaks to you through your talent. Everyone has a talent, whatever that is and there’s a state you go into where you flow.” As it transpired, Found a Cure was one of the most difficult songs to write because it came with the added pressure of coming after a global smash. Again, the label wanted a stonewall commercial follow-up but again Ultra Naté had her own view. “I felt like safe was not the move, so I needed to do something that pushed a little bit harder at the moment and so I came up with Found a Cure.” Found a Cure’s subsequent achievement of numbers one and six in the US Dance and UK pop charts respectively (against one and four for Free) of course speaks for itself and her decision-making prowess.

We’d spoken a lot about life as a recording artist but how does that compare to her recent endeavours the other side of the decks, as it were, as an international DJ? As it turns out, a love of crowd pleasing is something she and I have in common. “It’s all in the soup, you know, it’s all part of the thing! It’s part of my art thing and an expression of music and just in a different way. I love being behind the decks, I love to play things that I love to dance to.” It also transpires that being a global superstar doesn’t mean you don’t get all the same questions in your head when you turn up to play as the rest of us. “Sometimes it’s difficult when you get booked for gigs in different places, it’s like are they into harder stuff, are they into more tech, do they hate vocals here? You don’t know what you’re stepping into sometimes. As much as we try to enquire about me coming to DJ and make sure they are clear what I play…don’t try to book me and then ask me to play a completely different thing.” I can almost hear a legion of DJs around the world sighing “Amen to that!” But, she’s anything but self indulgent. “I think when you DJ, you get that opportunity once again to make that relationship with the crowd. I don’t like to play at the crowd, I like to play with the crowd. I like to play songs that speak to people.”

During the COVID crisis, she’s been speaking to people through a new medium on internet livestream, and when we spoke she’d just completed her first. Getting to that point was extremely difficult however. “When the pandemic first went down it was like every week somebody was passing that I knew, and I was really just frozen with grief for a while. I just didn’t have the energy to put into that, when it felt like the sky was falling in.” Embracing the medium however she dug deep, and paid tribute to the memory of some special friends. “I call them my Forever Angels, so when I’m stuck, I think about, well, Nashom he would say ‘Come on girl!’ Or Orlando or Gus they would say ‘Come on, girl you gotta do it!’ So I use them as my guides and strength to get over that hump to go forward to finally do that livestream.” As well as the livestreams as a DJ, of course her original artistic outlet still remains. “If the pandemic has done anything it’s slowed me down long enough for me to be at home to concentrate on my writing so I’ve done a ton of writing over the last couple of months so I can cherry pick what makes sense out of what I’ve written what makes sense for the next album that I want to put together.” 

Our time drawing to a close I thank her, and point out that as she’s an honourary Brit (everyone British I mentioned our meeting to, without fail, burst into song immediately) I hope to see her here one day soon. She laughs out loud. “Man! Come on with it!” I somehow manage to hang up with my fingers crossed, feeling both uplifted and delighted. 

And I didn’t ask about Free once either.

Martin Gale, July 2020

Published by Martin

Geek, DJ, runner, family man.