INTERVIEW: Ultra Nate ‘Grime, Silk & Thunder’ (2007)
With the release of her fifth album Grime, Silk & Thunder, club veteran Ultra Nate presents a mature sound respectful of her roots while pushing forward with new sounds. Ultra is not your ordinary dance diva – she writes, produces and even DJs with her Baltimore-based Sugar crew. Already spawning two club smashes “Love’s the Only Drug” and “Automatic,” Grime Silk & Thunder will be one of the soundtracks of Summer 2007.
DJ Ron Slomowicz: I love the new album Grime, Silk & Thunder, what was on your mind when you started working on it?
Ultra Nate: Pandemonium. It was pretty tumultuous at that point, as I had just left Strictly Rhythm after having a really great success with them. Strictly had signed the label over to Warner Brothers and I knew that was going to be an absolute disaster, so I saw the writing in the sky and asked to be released from the label. I decided at that moment to go out on a limb once again and start my own label using my own money, so that at whatever point I put out my next record I would have ownership of my masters unlike before. It was a really big moment of decision and taking on more responsibility on the business side of things and trying to balance that with being creative. So that was pretty much where I was when I started making this record and that is the reason for the title being Grime, Silk & Thunder. It’s really about those various elements in your life that are always happening when you’re going through rough spots, when things are coasting along and groovy or when everything is just like hardcore. It’s just madness, that’s what it’s all about.
RS: Or “One woman’s insanity?” I thought Grime, Silk & Thunder was describing you and your voice.
Ultra Nate: A lot of people seem to think that, but that’s not where it initially came from- all of those things encompasses me as an
RS: Let’s start with the song you chose to cover. How did you choose to redo the Pointer Sisters’ song “Automatic?”
Ultra Nate: That was the last song on the album to come in and it really happened quite spontaneously. I was just riding around in my car with my satellite radio on, and I listen to The Big 80s very often. The song came on and I thought the song was so fly that it really deserves another moment in the sun. I felt like it was a song that I could put my perspective on and it would still compliment the original. I didn’t want to dilute it or to make it into some cheesy pop kind of obvious attempt at a cover to try and get a hit record. I don’t think there’s any artistry in that. I think when you choose a song to cover it really needs to be something that makes it for you as
RS: With “Scandal” and “It’s Over Now,” those are your two earlier records, what was the thought to bring them back?
Ultra Nate: This album is so pivotal in my career because of the circumstances that it was born out of and being a in a very different place, I wanted to have a couple of my old tracks on the record because it’s kind of a full circle. It’s a kind of moment where I’ve been doing this for a number of years and this is the fifth record that I’ve put out. There’s a big evolution happening in the music industry itself on the business level and on the creative level – we’re in a period of massive change and I think sometimes looking back to the past of where you come from helps you to adjust, evolve and move forward with where things are going in the future.
Those two particular songs are really favorites of a lot of my fans and I’ve got all these eMail where people tell me that “Scandal” and “It’s Over Now” were their songs. They deserve another moment in the sun. Its also for people who never heard those records because they found out about me because of the success of tracks like “Free” or “If You Could Read My Mind” and they never got to hear like the soulful underground stuff that I started with.
RS: Well, with that underground sort of edge and all things new and looking to the future, you’ve always had an ear to work with up and coming producers. How do you find the producers that you work with?
Ultra Nate: My manager Bill Coleman is really instrumental with having his hand in the pot of different places of who’s doing what, feeding out songs to different producers and making new opportunities with new people. I think it’s really important when you’ve been doing it for so long because it takes you out of your comfort zone and it forces another level of perspective of your creativity to come to the fore.
RS: Working with the producers, what is your songwriting style? Do you usually write to a track or do you send vocals over?
Ultra Nate: I pretty much work both ways. I can chill by myself for a while and brainstorm on some ideas and do what I call a free-thinking writing session where I’m not worried about structure or specific content – I just write from a constant stream of thought and then go back later and pull bits and pieces from that and then create structure out of it. Or I may have a track that someone gives me and write something from it that’s inspired by what the track is doing.
RS: Give me an example of a song on the album that you wrote to someone else’s track.
Ultra Nate: With “Love’s the Only Drug,” the producer and I talked about a direction the song that I wanted to come up with and then he went and created a song out of the ideas that I gave him and he gave me the track. I wrote what I was inspired to write from the track that he came up with, which was “Love is the Only Drug.”
RS: When I first got that song I swore it was a Grace Jones cover.
Ultra Nate: Thank you. That’s a great compliment, I’m a big Grace Jones fan.
RS: Were you sort of playing a character or channeling her when you wrote that song?
Ultra Nate: I probably was. You kind of lean towards your icons when you work on things. It’s a creative thing but your own particular influences filter through regardless. But yes, I’d look to people like Grace, Chaka Khan, Donna Summer, Barbra Streisand, or for that matter Bobby Womack, Marvin Gaye, or whoever I’m kind of feeling the song demands, I go there.
RS: Another aspect of Grace Jones which you definitely have in you is the whole idea of being beautiful and presenting yourself in a creative way. With your videos, like the “Love’s the Only Drug,” the first one with the pool scene – were you part of making that video or what was your role in that process?
Ultra Nate: That particular concept was more from the director, Eric Johnson. He had been a long-time friend of mine who shot me for both my photography for album covers and video stuff. He did a previous video of mine from the Stranger than Fiction album called “Get it Up,” which was really good too. So he came up with the concept based on Grey Gardens and that was totally his baby. That’s just a matter of trusting that particular individual, because that’s not something that I do every time.
RS: That makes a lot more sense now because there is that same sort of 70s porn vibe with the motorcycle in “Get It Up.”
Ultra Nate: Yes, exactly, that’s his aesthetic.
RS: Whose aesthetic is the, erm, autoerotic video for “Automatic?”
Ultra Nate: That’s from Karl Giant and he has done some of the artwork, actually, for the album cover, and his vibe and aesthetic is much different from Eric’s. I try to work with people whose aesthetic I trust and who come up with really creative and really interesting things. I don’t want the standard kind of very middle of the road and regular things. The videos are different in feel but they make sense with the particular tracks that they are done to.
RS: Is that you in the “doll costume?”
Ultra Nate: Yes, it is.
RS: That must have been comfortable.
Ultra Nate: That was my favorite one actually, I love the doll costume.
RS: That’s a good lead-in; I don’t know if you read this, but when I interviewed Lady Bunny she said that you’re the best-dressed diva out there.
Ultra Nate: I did. Someone actually called me when she put that out there.
RS: Do you spend a lot of time working on your looks and your fashion?
Ultra Nate: I do and I don’t. I do care and I do pay attention to what’s happening in fashion but I’m not such a fashion freak where I can’t go out the house if it’s not altogether. By the same token I’m very like ‘whatever, this is me, this is just my vibe and as long as my hair’s pumped and my makeup is done, whatever.’ There’s definitely times where it calls to do the fashion thing and it’s not so much the point of trying to be this major fashion leader because I don’t work that hard at all, but I think it’s a matter of being comfortable in your skin and comfortable in your clothes, even if you’re just wearing jeans and tennis shoes and a wife beater…
RS: Those eyelashes that you wore at the Tommy Boy party, they were amazing.
Ultra Nate: I got a lot of comments about those lashes, they really wigged people out. I think people were really bugging at the fact that I’m a DJ and had those lashes on.
RS: I also gave you the honorary Barbara Tucker “Hardest Working Diva” award for the Winter Music Conference, because you were just everywhere, girl.
Ultra Nate: I really was.