Dance icon Ultra Naté returns with Hero Worship
If you stepped on to a dance floor within the last two decades, especially at a gay club, Ultra Naté has probably provided the soundtrack for your fast-moving feet. Her music has been inescapable, from radio-friendly pop hits like “If You Could Read My Mind” to Pride anthem “Free.” Her last album, 2006’s dark and nasty (in the good way) Grime, Silk & Thunder, not only extended her streak of club world smashes, but spawned some of her best stuff: like “Love’s the Only Drug,” six minutes of glittering, hypnotic aural sex, and “Automatic,” a punchy, pulsing remake of the Pointer Sisters song.
Now she’s back with Hero Worship, a more ebullient and uplifting collection that culls from myriad genres. Rollicking opener “Radio” has a rock edge that nods to dubstep, referencing the global EDM scene to which Ultra Naté is inextricably linked: this year she even launched a summer vocalist residency at Club Ole Ibiza. “Unconditional” is unadulterated ‘90s-style house-pop, and “Waiting For You,” a collaboration with Destiny’s Child member Michelle Williams, is the album’s de rigueur diva duet. There’s the skittering 2-step of UK garage in “Nobody Has to Know,” a simmering mid-tempo come-on; the high-energy electro-hop of “Hey DJ,” a hands-in-the-air tornado; and the emotional almost-trance of “Save Me,” a strong dose of yearning optimism.
Though she’s now a Baltimore-based performer and DJ, many New England fans don’t know that Ultra Naté has Boston roots; she spent part of her early childhood here. So asked her to talk about her new album and some old memories of the city. Plus, her thoughts on another late, great, diva that once called the Hub home.
Tell us about growing up in Boston. I know you were young, but any big memories stick out?
I have very fond memories of Boston. It was just my Mom and I. We were two young mavericks in the big wide world having fun! I was born in Maryland but my mother decided to move to Boston when I was about four years old. I went to an elementary school that taught me how to speak Swahili, though I don’t remember a lick of it now, so don’t even ask. [Laughs.] I used to love riding the trains on the street; this was the first time I had seen that, so it was fascinating for a four year old. My mother and I had a lovely little apartment on Blue Hill Road. I remember that my mother and her crew of girlfriends where the first divas I experienced. I always thought they were so beautiful, with their eyelashes and wigs and amazing clothes. … We moved to Baltimore by the time I was eight years old. I was gutted to have to leave Boston, but my mom was re-marrying and having a baby. So it was off to Baltimore with my “funny accent,” which I was kindly made aware of when I first moved to Baltimore.
Boston’s the birthplace of another iconic dance diva: Donna Summer. Are you a fan? Ever have the chance to see her perform?
Of course I’m a Donna fan! I love all her music and she is definitely in the divas I worship: along with Grace, Chaka, Cher, Sade, and the list goes on. I never s aw her perform live but I did meet her once at baggage claim in New York City a year or so before she passed away. My road manager Lisa and I were arriving from an international flight and heading to the door when we passed her. She had on glasses and a baseball cap to be inconspicuous - but you’re Donna Summer! We did a double take and debated about saying hello. I didn’t want to bother her but Lisa insisted that we’d never again have the opportunity to say hello to Donna Summer! So we did quickly, not wanting to invade her space. We told her we loved her and looking back I’m so glad we did.
Have you ever covered one of her songs?
I haven’t, but I was inspired by Donna’s, “Love to Love You Baby” and Grace’s, “Slave To The Rhythm” when I wrote, “Love’s The Only Drug.”
What inspired the direction of Hero Worship?
Hero Worship is meant to be bright and shiny like heroes tend to be: a beacon of light in a difficult place. It was inspired by the massive upheaval in the music industry as well as the global economy. The recession we all just went through was catastrophic and like nothing we’ve ever seen. We’re still recovering but people are fighting their way back and Hero Worship is the backing track.
Dance music was huge in America during your ‘90s breakthrough, and it’s back in a big way here now. Why do you think it tends to come and go in America, when it’s always popular in the rest of the world?
America has always been a fickle territory, and because of its size you need huge financial support of the six-figure kind to build a profile in the states. The powers that be are not going to make that kind of investment unless it’s an artist with long-term potential. The rest of the world is a different animal with different attitudes about dance music. And they are smaller in size. For instance I’ve been huge in the UK, selling hundreds of thousands of records in that one territory, and France as well. However, both together don’t make up half the size of the U.S. The size and scope of the U.S. makes things a lot harder here.
Why do you think the gay community has been so loyal, and do you feel a special closeness to those fans?
The gay community has always been a big supporter of my music and I’m thankful for that. I think the LGBT community knows that I get them and appreciate them. Music is for everyone; I don’t particularly care who’s listening.
The album has some fabulous collaboration on it, like “Waiting on You” with Michelle Williams. Who are your dream collaborators?
Thank you! The collaboration with Michelle was masterminded by our managers. They’re longtime friends and pulled it together; she was a total sweetheart. My dream collaboration can’t be dialed down to just one. I’d have to say Lenny Kravitz, Calvin Harris, Florence Welch from Florence and The Machine, and Nile Rodgers.
She gets a lot of heat for drawing inspiration from Madonna. But when it comes to fashion, I sometimes feel like Lady Gaga might be watching a lot of your videos. Ahem. Thoughts?
It’s probably more that creative minds think alike. Madonna, Gaga and I all have a big gay influence on our costuming in terms of the people we work with and aesthetics we appreciate. Part of being an artist, for some, is not just the music but the clothing, hair and makeup. You’re playing with art and design, and if you have the budgets to really experiment then it’s really fun!
There’s a sense of wonder and hopefulness to the songs on Hero Worship. What was your headspace like when you created this record?
People’s confidence in their ability to earn a living, sustain a job, and take care of their families had been obliterated with the recession. Simultaneously the music industry went belly up. Everyone at every level felt the crushing blow; many are still trying to get back on their feet. People need hope. Music always inspires people and I hope that this album can be that. I want them to not only survive: but thrive and excel beyond where they may have been before things went bananas!