Interview | Ultra Naté
With Blisspop Disco Fest fast approaching, we spent time with Blisspop Fest artist and Baltimore-based dance music queen, Ultra Naté. As she is about to embark on her upcoming 15th Anniversary Deep Sugar tour this Fall, she is also simultaneously releasing a new EP with her latest project, Black Stereo Faith. As a champion of dance music throughout her extensive musical career, she recalls how disco music from the likes of Giorgio Moroder and others led to the creation of house music in the US, which eventually morphed into the sounds of a global commercial dance music industry.
For tickets to Blisspop Disco Fest at 9:30 Club and U Street Music Hall you can purchase a two-day festival pass HERE.
What’s your focus right now? Are you planning all the shows that are coming up for Deep Sugar?
Definitely planning all the dates on the anniversary tour for Deep Sugar. Most of them are in play but there’s still two dates that I’m working on; possibly [scheduling] an Ibiza date and a London date before 2018 is out.
I’ve never been to Ibiza! But I loved your video posts from Ibiza recently. What spots would you recommend to check out there?
It depends on what kind of music you like. Generally, if you like the more commercial stuff…
NO! [buzzer sound effect]
Yeah, boo! Exactly! So cool stuff is Glitterbox which is every Friday at Hï Ibiza. Saturdays at Hï is when Black Coffee has his residency and that’s a really fun night!
In all fairness to Ushuaïa, which is a much bigger, commercial EDM venue (to some degree,) they have brought back Luciano on Fridays at a party called Dystopia. I’ve always loved hearing him play. I haven’t been to Dystopia yet because every time I tried to go this season I couldn’t go on Friday because I’ve been working! I trust Luciano and I trust the brand.
Pacha is usually pretty good! It would depend on what night it is. For something kooky, they are still doing Flower Power which is a really old party. It’s been going on for like a BILLION years. It’s been on Tuesdays unless they changed it; sometimes they move things around. That’s been one of the more stable parties. It’s all 60s music and everyone dresses up like flower children and hippies. Anything from the Beatles to the Monkey’s to really fun old school stuff.
You have to go for sunset at Mambo, that’s a thing.
So there are a lot of good things to check out in Ibiza! There’s La Troya at Heart; Louie Vega and his wife Anané Vega have a residency on Tuesday nights. There’s a lot of cool underground house DJs that go to DC-10. Glitterbox is put on by Simon Dunmore but he is [also] the guy behind Defected. Defected has its night on Tuesdays at Eden. And then there’s also Pikes Hotel. The Pikes is legendary because that is where George Michael shot the Club Tropicana a million years ago and made Ibiza famous. Now everybody in the world knows about it.
You’ve got some great options to check out! Right there, everything I named so far would kill you in one week!
Thanks for sharing about Ibiza and all these cool spots to check out. So considering all these incredible parties you mentioned and the fact that you’re celebrating the fifteen-year anniversary of Deep Sugar, not to mention performing at Blisspop Disco Fest, what are the essential ingredients for a successful party?
It’s a few things. I come from the old school world of sound system culture so it starts with a great sound system. You can have a really great party without a good sound system but you better be playing some kickass music, have amazing décor and have really awesome people that can just make the magic happen no matter what.
[It’s important that] your audience is a really cool, music-oriented crowd that’s there for that vibe and not for posting up where the music is the backdrop and everybody’s focused on something else. With Deep Sugar and parties that I’ve gone to over the years, music was what people were going to; It was for that really religious experience of release, connection and vibe. So that’s even more important than the sound system. The music dictates the outcome of the crowd that you build over time. If you’ve got a good sound system that makes the music resonate and really helps elevate people’s experience, that’s a super amazing bonus!
A great atmosphere [is another]. It could be minimal, bare bones or something really elaborately done. It’s just about having a great vibe and energy that comes from the people that are in the venue. That’s the main thing, making people feel inclusive and welcome. Also [it’s important] to play music that makes people feel something; [something] that gives them hope, that gives them inspiration, that gives them love. [Something that] makes you feel anchored to the dancefloor. It’s really super simple, but people over the years kind of lost sight of that a little bit as the bigger house and dance music scene has grown to the animal it has become.
“[It’s important] to play music that makes people feel something; [something] that gives them hope, that gives them inspiration, that gives them love.”
The huge spectacle these days can be really distracting from the music.
Yea, that’s been the tricky part with dance music. It’s become so much of a spectacle; people rely so much on the bells and whistles that they forgot what people really want to experience when they come out. It’s not always about, “Oh, you’ve got to get a musical education.” It’s about making people dance. It’s a community.
To tie into that, at Blisspop we are really connected to the DC music community. One thing I don’t know is the history of the Baltimore music scene. Since you’ve been an integral part of it; do you mind sharing about the history of the community and culture of music in Baltimore?
Baltimore is a small city, so everybody knows each other through six degrees of separation. In the late 80s there were some key people, Wayne Davis being one of the primary ones, who brought the music happening from Chicago and New York here to Baltimore. [Wayne Davis did this] by creating that energy and vibe at O’Dells. O’Dells was one of the main seeds that was planted for the Baltimore community in the dance realm. A lot of people’s careers (myself included) sprung from that experience. That set the tone. That was the blueprint, so to speak, for what became Baltimore music culture.
Then some [of the music] shot off into a Miami-based hip hop bass blend which became Baltimore club. There were also those of us that were house artists [influenced by] disco and Chicago warehouse dance music. So you had these two different factions that were born out of the same scene and everybody just flowed between the two as communities. Both made their mark in the dance music world here in Baltimore and beyond, in a significant way.
This happened in the time period of the late 80s into the early 90s when a lot of the underground music was being made in basements. Baltimore had these core production teams starting to make music. That era had quite a few major label, significant releases that really impacted what became globally known as house music. So you had your Chicago and New York scene, which was always of note obviously. But there were significant things happening out of Baltimore which were part of that moment in time that spawned underground house music, evolving into a global sound which [progressed] into commercial dance music which everyone hears today.
For example, Basement Boys signed me to their production team. They had signed Crystal Waters; they had Mass Order. All three entities were all on major labels. We were positioned out the gate as major label artists selling on an international label with music we were literally making in basements of downtown Baltimore. That impacted how the evolution of dance music came from the underground into the commercial sound because we were playing on the radio alongside Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder.
“There were significant things happening out of Baltimore which were part of that moment in time that spawned underground house music, evolving into a global sound which [progressed] into commercial dance music which everyone hears today.”
That’s so fascinating, I love hearing how it happened! I know you sing beautifully and touch many aspects of the music business, do you also produce? I know you collaborate a lot with other artists.
Yea! I do. I have a lot of co-production credits, especially later in my career. With anything that you do, if you’ve done it a lot over the years you learn more and more aspects of it and grow outward. As the business evolved and changed over the years and I needed to evolve and change with it. It was born out of necessity.
Aside from producing as a necessity, were there other things in your career you had to learn or had to adapt to?
I’ve been an independent artist since 2003. I’ve been putting out my own music working alongside my management. The last two to three albums were released independently. There’s a lot of things that you have to learn to get your head around that whole process. That’s a lot for one person to take on. I would never take it on completely by myself. I definitely have a great management team that works with me on making this stuff happen. They are well versed on the business aspect of it and I learn as I go. I’ve been financing my own projects since then and that’s been an experience, trust me! Especially coming from a major record label beginning where there’s budgets and other people paying for things, but you are inadvertently paying for it in the end. Everything is recouped against your account.
It seems like a loan for these label deals?
It’s totally a loan! You’re an indentured servant when you’re on a major label. Usually your deal sucks. You have a really low amount of points on your record, so you have to sell a shit ton of records in order to make any money. The label spends a lot of money (well hopefully they spend a lot of money) to break you and to promote your record. So it’s a catch 22 with that situation. It’s a tradeoff.
But you know, you’ve got to get in the game in order to win the game. So if you get in it and you get some great success, try to renegotiate your deal for better points. There’s not one way to do it, though; it depends on the circumstances for each situation. That’s how you survive. Fortunately for me, my major label days were a good training ground because I had a big support system of people around me. I had great A&R, great management, and they soulfully cared about me as an artist. They helped me learn the lay of the land to navigate and grow as an artist. So I had a charmed experience in that way.
“You’ve got to get in the game in order to win the game.”
Do you think the current structure of the music industry is unsustainable? Think about it… there’s these huge behemoth labels interacting alongside a legislative body scratching their heads as to how to regulate such a dynamic industry.
It’s kind of any man’s guess! The labels pretty much fell apart when the music business almost went belly up a few years ago and now they are finding their legs again. [This disruption from] digital pretty much crippled the industry. In finding their legs, they’ve just further make it difficult for the artist to survive because they want complete 360 deals: so they want everything, including your first born. That’s the reality these days if you sign a major label deal.
There’s not a lot of artist development going on with these deals. A lot of artists are having to do all of the work themselves and then the major label comes in and up streams what they’ve already done! But a lot of times they are not investing in breaking and building a new artist and giving them time to grow. You basically need to have immediate impact or you’re done. That’s not how a lot of iconic artists that we know and love now started. It’s not how they would have been able to survive and become the amazing artists that they are now if it had been these kind of circumstances. It’s detrimental on a business level and an artistic level where the industry is at this moment. No one really knows how it’s all going to shake out in the end.
There are many factors at play…
There’s a lot of variables going on! It’s hard to tell where it’s all going to land, especially for new artists. You know, thankfully for me I’ve been doing it for a long time so I have classic records and newer releases. I’ve always been a live artist in terms of traveling and touring. This allows me to sustain my career in that way while I am putting out new material and working on new collaborations.
Breaking artists these days in the way the industry is so wild-wild-west, it’s a little trickier. The upside of that is that it also allows for more flexibility for artists to build themselves if they are willing to do the work. That’s where the tricky part can be. Not every artist has the tools to handle the business side of things. They just want to be artistic. Unfortunately, this situation forces people to diversify themselves into different areas. At least amass a team who can do all these things to build you as an artist.
So what would be the skills you recommend for up-and-coming artists trying to grow their career?
They’ve got to come into it with a lot of heart and determination because it is an uphill battle. The only thing you can do is present your situation in a way where you could look back on it twenty years from now and say, “I’m proud of that!” This is because it’s any man’s guess! There’s no template; there’s no model for anyone to follow anymore at this point. You just really have to try and come up with the best sounds with producers who are credible and talented with well sounding tracks because technology makes it so easy for people to produce music and put music out. It’s also dialed down the quality of the music so you’ve got a lot of shit music being put out very easily all the time. You’ve got to work against that.
It’s like swimming against the tide. What’s going to separate you? What’s going to make your music stand out? You’ve got to come up with things that are going to cut through the mess. So you’ll want to make it sonically sound great. You’ll want to come up with music that is close to your heart, that actually means something, that has a vibe to it. Maybe you create music that’s catchy or inspirational or emotional; there are people out there that feel the same way you do about any given situation or circumstance. Try to be clever in how you think about things and how you convey it. Have your visuals on point! You’ve got to have the total package these days, you know? Video killed the radio star. Doesn’t mean you have to be a glam queen…
“The only thing you can do is present your situation in a way where you could look back on it twenty years from now and say, “I’m proud of that!”
You are THE glam queen. You are so fabulous on stage with your elaborate costumes and makeup!
Thank you! That’s because I was raised by a pack of drag queens coming up in the clubs! That’s not everybody’s thing. I have some artist friends who are like, “I cannot dress up like that!” And I wouldn’t want them to! I don’t need a tribe of carbon copies, and that’s my thing, I’m true to that. I feel comfortable in that. People can read that when you’re feeling good about what you’re in. If you’re uncomfortable and it’s not really your own personality, it’s not going to cut through to the audience. You need to find what works for you and not be afraid to push the envelope a little bit. I feel like being an artist gives you license to be a little kooky and fun and experimental. Use that license! Work it to your advantage!
Use the tools on your phone to your advantage. When you say something, make it important and impacting. Nobody wants to hear your daily grind. Nobody wants to hear another whiner online.
“You need to find what works for you and not be afraid to push the envelope a little bit.”
Facebook ain’t your diary!
Yeah! Don’t be that guy! But be authentic. People still want adversity. Adversity is real and authentic, but you want to be smart about it. You want your real personality to come through. You’ve got to be willing to work harder than the average bear and be willing to take a lot of criticism. Anytime you put yourself out there you make yourself a target. The more popular you are, the bigger the target and the easier it is to hit ya.
“Anytime you put yourself out there you make yourself a target. The more popular you are, the bigger the target and the easier it is to hit ya.”
Have you had to deal with a target on your back at times in your career?
Yea in certain ways. But generally, there’s an air of good will towards me as an artist because I don’t put out negative energy. So people finding negativity, where I’m concerned, they are creating that same negativity 9 times out of 10. That’s not the place I come from.
There are more people who are inspired by what I do and the music I put out. I’ve met people around the world that have said my music has saved their life! They might have been considering suicide or they were going through a really bad situation in their lives, maybe they were coming out or they broke up with their boyfriend or their husband, or their lives fell apart, or whatever their particular circumstance. [My music] spoke to them and inspired them.
At the end of the day that’s more powerful than anything! To know that your voice, not just your literal voice, but your voice in terms of who you are as a person and the art that you’re putting out there can impact lives in that way. That’s the most important legacy that any artist can lead. So when I go to write and work on music, I’m approaching it from that standpoint. How is this song going to speak to someone? What message am I conveying? What is the emotion that I want the listener to feel when they hear this lyric or they hear this phrase? That’s how I approach my music.
“There are more people who are inspired by what I do and the music I put out. I’ve met people around the world that have said my music has saved their life!”
Well thank you for sharing; it’s an honor to speak with you! Is there anything Blisspop should be aware of in terms of new releases?
There’s always a new release! Yea girl, mama’s been workin’! It’s been a long, fun career… I have my most recent album Black Stereo Faith. I collaborated with Quentin Harris; it was the first group duo that I ever did. I was really excited about that. I enlisted Quentin about ten years ago to work on an album with me. As we started working on the first song I said, “Hey! Let’s just make this like a duo thing like the Eurythmics. Let’s do it together!” It spawned and grew out from there. We wanted it to be more live and really [explore] because it’s not always four on the floor peak hour. That’s just very linear.
Dance music really is pieces of different genres; from rock to pop; to hip hop, soul and gospel. Those are the origins of dance music that I grew up on and would hear in the club before it got so specific that it had to be this thing. So we wanted to go there without having any restrictions on us. Let’s just go as far as we want with whatever song, not meeting the need of any particular dance floor. Let the music just be as authentic as it can be. That’s how we approached it.
The album we released last year is now on Apple Music and other platforms. But we are about to release a new single, “Hey,” which is out now. The complete EP will be coming out in the Fall. We will continue to release singles off of Black Stereo Faith. Other than that, I am working on the Deep Sugar 15thanniversary tour, which is yay! I am also so excited to open for Giorgio Moroder, the “Father of Disco,” at Blisspop Disco Fest.
What does that mean to you to open for Giorgio Moroder?
GIRL! Are you kidding?! I was thinking about it today. Giorgio spawned a whole new genre of music! There are people that are iconic in every genre. He spawned the whole genre itself, the creation of it and from there everything else [in dance music] trickled down. I am a product of that. To some degree, I owe my career to him! He’s influenced me heavily. I love those records he produced. I grew up on them. In fact, I’m still playing them to this day! Recently, I did an homage track to his music on my Grime, Silk & Thunder album with a song called “Love’s the Only Drug.”
It’s fascinating to discover the range of artists he’s worked with and how he influences other artists to this day. He’s still staying extremely relevant at this time, with his recent collaborations with Sia and other pop artists.
With music, no matter how technologically advanced we get, the soul has to be there. You need people to bring that element to it. You don’t want to be so caught up in technology that you lose the soul in music.