by Matt Kalkhoff

Really good dance music will do more than just move your feet, it will also open your mind, feed your soul, and touch your heart. In a genre filled with artists who rely too often on formulaic processing and elevated bpms, Ultra Naté stands out as a true original who is dedicated to breaking down barriers, broadening minds, and creating soulful music with remarkable depth. After 12 years in the music business and three albums under her belt, Naté continues her spiritual journey of self-discovery and true happiness with the release of her latest album, Stranger Than Fiction, on the Strictly Rhythm label.

A Natural Star Is Born

Her story begins back in Baltimore, Maryland, the city Naté still calls home today. While attending college and preparing for a life in medicine, she would often venture out to local nightclubs to unwind and dance. During one of these outings, a chance meeting with the Basement Boys led to Naté performing vocals on their recording of “It’s Over Now.” The song was a major hit in the clubs, so the production duo urged Naté (whose mother had blessed her with the ultimate stage name at birth) to record a full-length album with them. A record deal with Warner Bros. Records’ U.K. division soon followed.

Blue Notes In The Basement was released in 1991 and spawned the international hits “Rejoicing,” “Deeper Love,” and “Scandal.” One Woman’s Insanity followed in 1993, delivering another string of club staples including “Show Me” and “Joy.” After Naté was transferred to Warner’s U.S. division, however, things started falling apart. “That was pretty much the beginning of the end,” she says with a sigh. “I was basically with a company that (1) had no loyalty to me as a project and (2) didn’t understand the type of music that I was doing. It didn’t really make for a productive environment for me as an artist, so when they eventually dropped me, I figured it was a good thing because it gave me a chance to regroup and figure out what I was doing and where I was going with my career.”

Free To Do What She Wants To Do

Naté’s release from the constricting corporate giant ended up being the best thing that could have happened to her. Even though she hadn’t had a stitch of formal musical training, she soon wrote and recorded the demo of a song that would dramatically change her life. The resulting record, ‘Free,’ “was a testament to everything that I had put into this career up until that point – the good, the bad and the ugly,” she declares. “It was an affirmation that I had done the right thing – that I was growing at a really good pace and in a really great way as an artist and writer, and it just felt good to have that kind of appreciation from around the world.”

“Free” went on to sell over a million copies worldwide and paved the way for Naté’s first venture with Strictly Rhythm, an album entitled Situation: Critical. The record was an artistic accomplishment and commercial success that launched several introspective hit records like “Found A Cure” and “New Kind of Medicine.”

Despite the often-despondent tone many of her lyrics suggest, Naté never ceases to surprise people with her cheerful disposition and positive attitude. “I’m not the diva of despair,” she insists with a hearty laugh. “I have a pretty generally happy outlook on life. I think I just have a very melancholy style about my writing and my singing, so people have translated that as being the diva of despair. It’s insane, isn’t it?”

Love Beyond All Thought And Reason

One woman’s insanity is another person’s inspiration. Naté admits to her share of heartache and difficult struggles over the years, but she believes these experiences have only enriched her life. They have also inspired her to write and record influential songs that communicate poignant messages about love, loss, and lessons learned, while invoking intense feelings from her devoted listeners. Stranger Than Fiction is a showcase of Naté’s tremendous talent, and it offers an intriguing, often autobiographical glimpse into her fascinating world. “The new album is like a romance novel,” she notes, “with each song representing a different chapter in my life.”

With her dues paid in full and many notable accomplishments under her belt, Naté was able to spread her wings as an artist on her latest project and work with a carefully chosen stable of the industry’s most talented songwriters and producers. Along with welcoming back D-Influence and Mood II Swing, Naté invited a host of musicians to collaborate on the new album, including Lenny Kravitz and two prominent female artists – good friend N’dea Davenport and the legendary Nona Hendryx. “It was really fun to just get in the mix with different people and see what the outcome would be,” Naté recalls. “That’s what makes it really exciting – that it doesn’t become predictable, it doesn’t become a formula. You have to constantly challenge yourself, and that’s the only way you can grow as an artist.”

Released in 2000, the album’s first single, “Desire,” quickly rose to the top of the Billboard Dance Chart. Almost a year later, the second single, “Get It Up (the Feeling),” is currently racing up the charts and finding its way onto the hottest DJs’ play lists. The song, like much of the album, effortlessly fuses different styles of music to create a uniquely funky sound. Although clearly danceable, the track is far more experimental than what usually passes for dance music in America. “I think the U.S. dance market gets a little confused when you start taking dance music into other areas and start making it more dynamic,” Naté speculates. “I think they have a problem trying to figure out what exactly it is – it’s not really R&B, but it’s not really dance – it starts falling in between places.”

Situation: Cross-Over

Tired of the constraints imposed on her music by what she believes is unnecessary labeling, Naté dreams of a day when “people are not so strict about what genre of music [each record] is in this country – they just recognize it and accept it as good music and leave it at that.” Really good, undefined music that is unburdened by confining categories and genre specifications is also more likely to cross-over into other arenas. This cross-pollination makes the artist more commercially viable while exposing his or her sound to a larger audience outside the core listener demographic. “Crossover to me just means more people are getting my music,” Naté explains. “It just means that people are broadening their musical tastes or finally getting wind of something new and realizing they like it. It just means that more people are feeling what I’m doing, and that can’t be a bad thing.”

One of the best ways for diverse artists like Naté to reach a wider audience is to create several different remixes of each song. Naté generally defers to her label on these matters, but she does appreciate the significance of remix packages in today’s demanding market even if she doesn’t always agree with the end result. “I think they overdo it a bit with way too many remixes,” she claims. “I realize how important they are as far as the diversity of the record goes – so that it can fit whatever format the DJ is playing at that time – but it’s also important that you pick people who are going to keep the record in tact to some degree, so that it makes sense where you’re concerned as an artist.”

Even more multifaceted than her music is Naté’s expanding fan base. She has always enjoyed more popularity overseas than in the States, and this has never been more apparent than during her recent tour of such exotic locales as Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Japan. Much of the month of June will be spent performing at gay pride events across the U.S., and she’ll be headlining the opening night party of Billboard’s Dance Music Summit in New York City on July 24th. “I’m always on tour,” she says. “I just think it’s important for me as a performer to always stay in touch with my audience – it’s a very large part of my success and staying power.”

Ain’t Looking For Nothing; Found A Lot

Boasting an immense wealth of talent, a genuinely positive outlook on life, and an extraordinary work ethic, Naté was clearly destined to achieve her remarkable success. “It’s funny,” she says, “but I’ve always looked at my career as something that was meant to happen. I say this because it was something I didn’t go out and seek. Doors opened for me and I entered them. How far I’m meant to go and how much success I should have remains to be seen. And I don’t judge success by how many records I’ve sold. In fact, I may not sell as many records as other artists, and I may not have as much money, but at the end of the day I’m happy doing what I’m doing. It all comes from within, which, if you think about it, is successful in itself.”

For more information on Ultra Naté, please visit her website at www.ultranate.com or www.strictly.com.

© 2001 Matt Kalkhoff
This article appeared on www.dancemusic.about.com in May 2001