Sweet Freedom – Natalie Duncan Talks Goldie, Lauryn Hill And …The Spice Girls

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Second chances are not commonplace in the mainstream music industry with its “here today, gone tomorrow” ethos.  Consequently, recording artists often have short shelf lives and are cruelly dumped by the major record labels once they have either reached their sell-by dates or outlived their usefulness. Thankfully, honey-voiced Nottingham-raised neo-soul singer, Natalie Duncan, who eight years ago had an album deal with the Universal-owned Verve label, is now able to write that all-important second chapter in her career by signing to MBE-decorated DJ/producer Goldie’s new record label, Fallen Tree 1Hundred.

That Natalie deserves another shot at stardom cannot be disputed by anyone who listens to her superlative new album, ‘Free,’ which is released on July 31st. It comes eight years after her debut long-player on Verve, ‘Devil In Me,’ largely fell on deaf ears. Though deemed a promising debut, its commercial failure led to the singer parting ways with the major label. For many performers, the chance of the big time would have ended there but Natalie’s mentor, Goldie, who discovered her on his TV talent show, Goldie’s Band: By Royal Appointment, in 2011, and which led to her Verve deal, was unwavering in his support for the singer. In fact, he recently said of her “she has always been a musical muse to me” and then rewarded her by making her the first signing to his new label.       

“Goldie’s exactly like he is when you see on TV,” laughs Natalie. “He’s got just so much energy, and he’s so much fun. You just laugh all day with him. I’m quite a shy, nervous person but he’s really great in bringing out the powerful, soulful person I have inside of me and forcing you to come out of your shell. He’s also such a really smart creative person so it’s great to be around his vibe and energy in the studio.”

For ‘Free,’ though, Natalie was mostly left to her own devices. “I wrote all of it and had full control with the production,” she discloses. “I guess that is one of the advantages of being on a small label. Basically, it was me and James Davidson – who’s an amazing producer – who made the record so it was just two people doing it and there were no voices coming from on high… apart from Goldie’s!”

‘Free‘ has a dozen songs, all written by Natalie. “It’s a collection of songs that are about a period of time in my life where I was leaving an old relationship and starting a new one,” explains the Croydon-born singer. “Also, I had just had vocal surgery and was learning to exist with a new set of vocal cords and I guess, philosophically, it was about letting go and growing into a new phase of life.”

The songs range from the infectious single, ‘Sirens,’ with its jazzy solo trumpet lines, to the uplifting ‘Diamond,’ a mid-tempo groove with poetical lyrics: “It’s about my ex,” says Natalie. Then there’s the brooding and deeply reflective ‘Karma.’ Natalie’s music is a seamless amalgam of soul and jazz and as such is hard to pigeonhole.  “I think I’m annoying to record companies for that reason because I don’t have a precise genre and I take from all of them to a certain extent,” says Natalie. “I’ve never really subscribed to the whole label/genre thing but I don’t mind (being called) neo-soul. The thing it’s closest to is soul but there are little elements of jazz in there and my voice is bluesy and soulful, because that’s the music I’ve grown up with.”

The album is tastefully produced and its arrangements are elegantly understated.  “I was really influenced by Solange’s record, ‘A Seat At The Table’,” explains Natalie. “I didn’t want to rip that off, obviously, but I think it was a huge influence on me before I went to make the album so I knew I just wanted three or four instruments, including horns. And knowing that I wanted space on the record, it just evolved from that.”

Natalie discloses that her personal life is the inspiration behind most of her songs. “I think for me, whenever my emotions are running high – whether happy or sad or stressed or angry – music just comes my way,” she says. “It inspires me. Because I was in what they call the honeymoon period of a new relationship, all these little creative phases of creativity exploded at that point. I was feeling loved up but it was also a bit crazy after leaving my last relationship. So was a bit of a messy period but in a really nice way.”

How much does writing songs and expressing her emotions via music function as a cathartic experience for her? “100%,” she responds. “I’ve always done it and it might be to my detriment sometimes because I always write about when something dramatic’s going on in my life. That’s my most creative time. So I feel on a subconscious level I try and source the drama in my life.”  

Accompanying Natalie’s keyboards are drummer, Richard Spaven and bassist Alan Mian, who played their parts remotely. “Having them on board was like a marriage made in heaven but they never met,” laughs Natalie. “They played together remotely. Alan’s a soulful, old school bass player, and Richard had played on Jordan Rakei’s records, whom I’m a huge fan of. So I was really excited to have them both playing on my album.”

The icing on the proverbial cake was the presence of US trumpeter, Aaron Janick (pictured left), whose elegant horn playing enhances ‘Sirens’. “He’s out in New York. He’s such a great, tasteful trumpet player, and for me, reminiscent of Terence Blanchard, whom I love. I’m just lucky that I got this group of musicians to be fair. I owe them a lot.”

Although she’s the only musician in her family, Natalie was deeply influenced by her father’s eclectic tastes in music. “My dad is a hardcore music fan, he’s into everything,” she reveals. “He’s just obsessed with music so he listens to anything and everything, from reggae, soul and jazz through to rock, heavy metal. So that answers why my approach as an artist is the way it is.”

Despite all the different styles she was exposed to, classical music really spoke to her when she was very young. “When magazines were still a thing that children used to collect, I got a magazine every week called The Music Box,” she says.  “It had a little child’s story in it and also had a cassette with a classical composer. So each week, I would learn a new composer.”  

But she didn’t listen to classical music exclusively. “I was also into the normal stuff, like The Spice Girls,” she laughs. “I’m not ashamed…they had some decent songs. So I used to listen to everything.” Natalie also reveals that she was attracted to the music of the cult New Orleans pianist, Professor Longhair. “I really wanted to be just like him. I played the piano and copied what he was doing.”

Although she was precociously talented in terms of music and began writing songs when she was very young, Natalie didn’t make her first stage appearance until she was 16, when she played Alicia Keys’ ‘Falling’ at a school concert. It was around that age that she was profoundly influenced vocally by another American neo-soul singer. “I remember literally listening to Lauryn Hill’s ‘The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill’ from top to bottom when I was kid, going through every song and singing every run and going through every little bit,” she tells me. “I’m pretty sure that my vocals and the way that I sing come from her. I listened to a lot of other stuff but it’s predominantly her.”

In 2011, Natalie got discovered by Goldie on his TV show, Goldie’s Band: By Royal Appointment, and got to sing with his Heritage Orchestra. She also appeared on his 2012 single, ‘Freedom.’ Her exposure led to getting a major record deal. “After a Goldie show, lots of these different labels were interested in me. It just kind of happened. I was very lucky.”

Natalie signed with Verve, originally a jazz label established by Norma Granz in 1956, and recorded her debut LP, ‘Devil In Me,’ in 2012. The label put her in the studio with Joe Henry, a respected singer/songwriter-turned-Grammy-winning record producer who  had helmed records for Solomon Burke, Aaron Neville, Bonnie Raitt, and Bettye LaVette. “It was an amazing experience,” says Natalie. “Joe Henry really knows what he’s doing. He might not have been current but then again I’m not a pop star, so I’m not trying to be like that. I really enjoyed the experience of working with one of the old school legends who’s a producer who tells you exactly what to do and who’s at the computer pressing the buttons. I learned a lot from him.”

The Sunday Times described the album as “one of the debut albums of the year” but when the record didn’t light up the charts, Verve showed Natalie the door and consequently, her career lost vital momentum. “I didn’t have a great manager,” she discloses. “He disappeared a little bit and that really hurt my career. If not for that, it would have been more of an upward trajectory but it went a bit downhill as there was no one promoting me properly.”

Even so, Natalie continued to do what she loved doing: singing and playing in front of audiences. “I’ve always performed live, and since then I’ve made a living doing covers,” she says. As for hopes of a new record deal, Natalie reveals: “I stopped caring about it a little bit. I got disenchanted with the whole getting signed thing. Getting another deal became less important.”

But then enter Goldie, who continued to use Natalie’s voice for his own projects, featuring her on his 2017 double album, ‘The Journey Man.’ One day, out of the blue, he put a question to her. Recalls Natalie: “He said, ‘do you fancy being the first artist on my label?’ And I said, ‘yeah, I’m not exactly doing anything else.” Natalie laughs at the recollection of how casually she and Goldie talked about their record deal. “It was just such a natural thing. I wasn’t trying to get signed,” she adds.

A superb collection of autobiographical meditations, ‘Free’ is Natalie Duncan’s most authentic artistic statement yet and is set for release at the end of July. It comes, of course, at a challenging time for everyone around the world because of the COVID19 pandemic – and, as Natalie can attest, the situation has been especially hard on musicians, whose livelihood depends on concerts in front of live audiences. “It’s hard because I can’t go out and gig, so I’ll probably just do a few online gigs,” says Natalie. “That’s all we’ve got now.”

Natalie Duncan’s album ‘Free’ is released via  Fallen Tree 1Hundred on July 31st.