Every time house and dance music legend Ultra Naté releases a new album it’s a cause for celebration. Her latest, simply titled “Ultra” (Peace Biscuit), is no exception. Maintaining the house and club vibe we’ve come to associate with her, Ultra Naté unfurls a set of irresistible bangers that are sure to have even the most determined wallflowers heading for the dance floor. More than 30 years into her career, Ultra Naté continues to find ways to speak to us, moving us both physically and emotionally. And her appreciation for her LGBTQ+ fans goes without saying, but it’s nice to hear what she has to say about us nevertheless.
Gregg Shapiro: From the early days of your recording career, you have been a presence in the dance music scene. Who do you consider to be some of your strongest influences from that world?
Ultra Naté: Oh, wow, there are so many. From my earliest days in the dance music scene, I would say the influences were people like Jody Watley and Madonna. I think there were some underground artists that were very influential that I may not even have known because I kind of accidentally fell into the music business. I was listening to really danceable R&B, as well as the early sounds of house music. Voices like Jomanda and Ten City; those kinds of groups were very influential and what I was dancing to in the clubs. What I was hearing on the radio was Jody Watley and Madonna, dance artists like that. I was also very influenced by Chaka (Khan) and Tina (Turner) and Cher. All the women with one-word names [big laugh].
GS: Did you ever get a chance to meet Byron Stingily from Ten City?
UN: Oh my God, yes! We’ve been longtime friends. We’re like family, basically. We’ve known each other since the beginning of my career. Initially, I was signed to Warner Brothers and was writing my first album. After I wrote “It’s Over Now” and “Scandal,” and was writing for the full album, Byron submitted a couple of songs, and one or two of them ended up on that album. We’ve probably been friends since 1991.
GS: Because you are closely associated with the house music scene, did you ever have the chance to work with the legendary Frankie Knuckles?
UN: Absolutely! That was my big brother, my mentor. Every year, we mark his birthday and as well as his official day, August 25th every year, that was sanctioned by, at the time, Senator Barack Obama. I feel very privileged to be part of a community that was very close to him on an intimate level and to have shared some really beautiful, longtime memories with him, and to have had conversations and have experienced that wonderful bear hug and his loving being. To be a part of his art! He’s remixed songs for me. Some of the work that I was doing with Quentin Harris, back in the mid-2000s when he had come back on the scene, doing production and remixing again, as well as a couple of projects that I was putting out. He was very influential as one of my mentors in my DJ career.
GS: 2021 was the 30th anniversary of the release of your debut album “Blue Notes in the Basement.” Were you able to do anything special to mark the occasion?
UN: Not really. We were unable to pull that all together. We are working on some things behind the scenes, I can’t really say what that is at the moment. We are working on things to actually give “Blue Notes in the Basement” and “One Woman’s Insanity” another day in the sun. It won’t come out this year, but for 2023, hopefully, all that will come together. We’re finally in conversations with Warner Brothers and it looks like that may all come together.
GS: The song “Supernatural” from your new album “Ultra,” is a marvelous house music track.
“Supernatural” actually happened kind of independent of the “Ultra” album in its origin. It kind of came out of the blue. My friend Kwame Kwaten from D-Influence, with whom I’ve had a longtime collaborative relationship on both my “Situation Critical” and “Stranger than Fiction” albums, is an amazing songwriter in his own right, and through the years has evolved into artist management and has been quite successful in finding new talent out there in the British community. He hit me up in early 2021 and said he was working with these kids out of a music school in the UK called Point Blank Music School. He really loved this new duo he was working with called Funk Cartel. They were a pair of brothers doing organic, early house kinds of sounds, very similar to what I was doing originally with Basement Boys when I first came out in the early ‘90s, but with fresher, modern sounds. That kind of stripped-down soul, right-in-your-face production. He thought I would be a good fit to come up with a song with the boys. He sent me that track, and I immediately loved it, for all the reasons that he mentioned. It did feel very reminiscent of those early days of “It’s Over Now,” when it was this musicianship in your face. That backbeat of house underground production providing the rhythm pocket, the groove that you heard in the clubs. On top of that, it was laced with really cool minimalist musicianship. It grabbed me out of the gate. Those kinds of songs are really easy for me to write to because there’s not a lot of noise getting in the way. It doesn’t mean to be over-done. It just needs to be a vibe and a cool energy. I opened up my mic and started singing, vibing with the melody, and let the song write itself. I had no idea if the guys would even like it. There’s always that. But they loved it and wanted to put it out. It ended up coming out on Skint (Records), which was backed by BMG, in 2021, independent of the album, which wasn’t finished at that time. I had collaborative rights, as cowriter and coproducer on it, to put it out and make it part of my “Ultra” album. In the end, it all made sense together as part of this 2020 pandemic isolation story because it was written during that period.
GS: It’s a good fit for the record. “Miracle,” on Ultra, made me think of your popular hit “Free.” It’s a song with an uplifting message. How important is it for you to include a song such as this in your repertoire?
UN: It’s extremely important. It’s the center of who I am and how I think. How I live my life. I’m very clear about the things that are not working, that are torturous, that are hurtful, that are detracting from my humanity or humanity at large. My own personal mantra is to find the good in all things. To look for, where is the growth in this? What am I pushing past at this moment? What is the next level of vibration that I’m working to get to? Because if things are this difficult in this moment, then I must be about the ascend to something amazing. If I’m having a really bad day, I’m like, “Wow, something really amazing must be right around the corner [laughs].” People need that, especially right now with so much negative energy coming from left, right, and center, in every direction. I feel like if I am struggling at this moment with feeling confident or secure, unsure of what tomorrow holds, then I need to somehow harness that fear and insecurity, all this angst that we’re all feeling, and somehow still be a beacon of light. That’s cathartic and therapeutic for me, and it’s also therapeutic for the rest of the world; having an anchor to hold onto.
GS: Speaking of “Free,” Ultra closes with a new version of the song. Why did you want to revisit that track?
UN: I thought it was important because it’s the 25th anniversary of the release of “Free.” The song is still so resonant and extremely universal. I feel like the trajectory it’s on is still growing and evolving, still affecting generations. There are so many crazy things going on around us that make it really important, still to this day. For the 25th anniversary, we wanted to do quite a few different things to celebrate and commemorate that this song is still here, still resonating with DJs, DJ culture and dance music culture, and beyond. Kids are still growing up with it. It’s created a life of its own. I felt that the best way to honor that was to make it a part of this 10th album. This album is self-titled and encompasses for me, who I am as an artist, but also my story as someone from a marginalized community. Ticking all the boxes of being black, being a woman, being older, being a veteran in this. I’m not a kid anymore. It ticks all the boxes of how it could all go wrong and be derailed and be over and been over for a long time. But I’m still here and I’m still doing it on my own terms. All of that is incorporated in this story of what this “Ultra” album is about, and “Free” is a very important piece in that story.
GS: Since the beginning of disco to the present day, the LGBTQ+ community has been one of the biggest supporters of the genre, and in many ways kept it alive over the years. What does your gay fanbase mean to you?
UN: Oh, the difference between still being in this industry and potentially not. Through hit records, it’s easy to sustain a career. But it’s the times when you’re in the lull or in between those periods, those that are loyal to this sound and this genre, this scene, this movement, that’s what has sustained my career. My career started in the LGBTQ community, in the underground house community, which is a mixed community. Even on a professional level, with people around me that work behind the scenes, in so many facets of my career, have been a part of my story and have brought their art and their vision to my story for so many years in so many different ways. There are too many to enumerate. From different producers or writers or co-writers that I’ve worked with. Fellow DJs, fellow record label people, radio people, designers and make-up artists, and videographers. In every aspect of my career, that community has been there. They have been strong supporters many times when I’ve been riding high and when I’ve been riding low; they’re always riding with me. When I perform, knowing the history, knowing the different areas of music that I’ve done, and this part or that part, or whether I did something dance or more hip-hop or drum’n’bass. Whatever things I’ve done, they’re locked in and they’re receptive and they’ve embraced my art from the beginning. They gave me the footing and the grace to evolve as an artist. I feel like that’s something a lot of artists don’t have the luxury of. Having a community that has grown up with them that was also learning and growing and developing. So, we gave each other that license. I feel honored to be a part of this community in that way, to have my art supported in that way.