One of the most iconic voices in the history of dance music, Ultra Naté has been carving a fiercely independent groove and sound across a career spanning three decades. From her early works including Notes From The Basement and Situation Critical, to her latest offering, the sensational long player ULTRA, her sound has captivated, delighted, uplifted and moved in equal measure.
Recorded in lockdown, and featuring a host of talented collaborators, ULTRA is the singer’s most personal work to date. A collection that spans everything from Afrohouse, Electro and House, to Soul and Nu-Jazz, ULTRA is a definitive moment in her career, a sumptuous, luxurious outing by an artist embodying absolute confidence and self-awareness. We felt it was high time we sat down with one of the dancefloor’s greatest assets and found out what makes Ultra tick 30 years on…
Hi Ultra, welcome to DMC World! Where in your world are you right now, what are you doing, and how are you feeling?
ULTRA : Hello and thank you! It’s wonderful to be here! I’m just returning from the road, Gran Canaria specifically, so now I am home recovering from the trip. It was kind of around the world in a day for a private gala. Other than jet lag, I’m good and looking forward to the holidays but quite saddened over the recent events in Colorado Springs, we must do better as a society.
Congrats on the video for RICH M’FKs, which is also the first time you’ve directed your own music video. Why did you decide to direct it yourself, what were the challenges you came across being behind the camera, and how was the experience for you?
ULTRA: Thank you so much! It was fun and amazing, I never really thought about it on the front end as directing and producing my own video! I looked at it as a visual inspiration, and I had the concept, tools, and resources to bring it to life, so I worked towards that end. The biggest challenges were wearing so many hats, which is my usual state as an independent artist, but this was a different space, so putting a good team together whose art and input I trusted was key. I also took the pressure off myself of worrying about anyone’s expectation and just trusted the process. I used a combination of experience on the artist side, visual references, research, and experimentation.
The message of the song is obviously crystal clear. Is this the most political song you’ve written and recorded? What was the particular set of circumstances that made you think, ok, I really need to put my point across about this?
ULTRA: Anger was the circumstance that made me think “OK, this is what this song is going to be about.” Henrik Schwarz’ instrumental inspired that conversation and I let it speak. How can we not, as artists, speak to what we see and what we feel? As a songwriter you are tuned in and affected by so many stimuli both good and bad. I chose not to push that emotion back but to let it have its voice. I don’t think it is the only political song I’ve ever done; I think my song “Free” is quite political. It’s just that “Free” is clubby and feels uplifting in its production as opposed to “RICH M’FKs’, which is more aggressive in its approach. It was never meant to be a cute, kumbaya, go for the charts, easily digestible tune.
The track is taken from your tenth studio album ULTRA, which was up for GRAMMY consideration. It’s also an independent release, which makes it even more impressive. Why did you decide to release independently and not through one of the majors?
ULTRA: The majors are not interested in anything that’s not go for the charts and easily digestible. They largely don’t seem to trust that clubbers have a range of thoughts, feelings and emotions that can be conveyed through club music and expressed on the dancefloor. I’m also not what they are looking for when they are deciding where to invest their budgets for new music. And if by chance there is some interest, they want to own everything and forever, even under the circumstances where myself (and my team) have created and financed everything on our own when we come to the table. For their machine, you are expected to give up everything which is not sustainable for any artist. A partnership makes more sense and is fair, when you come to the table already self-contained, but that is not the reality for most situations in today’s current business model.
The album is a real celebration of different genres within dance music: really up front house vibes on HAPPY FEELING, chugging jazz notes on FUN, Afrobeat influences on MIRACLE, more electro sounds here in RICH M’FKs. Was it a conscious decision for you to have such a broad spectrum of sounds on the album or did it just materialise by itself?
ULTRA:It really materialized on its own, I wrote the songs that inspired me and made me feel good in a very dark moment. And because I’ve been a part of dance music culture for 3 decades and counting, at this point, all these vibes are natural places for me to sit. I’ve been a chameleon creatively my whole life, long before I understood that’s what was happening. I’ve just learned over the years to embrace that and not be confined by the expectation of what dance music culture is to any given person you talk to.
The album was recorded in lockdown – how much of an influence did that have on your work, in terms of writing material but also the logistics of recording a full long player remotely?
ULTRA: In terms of logistics, it was not problematic at all, obviously the preferred way is to get in the room with people you are working with and vibe together. But everyone was super focused, as writing and producing / creating was an anchor or lifeline for all of us. Many of us threw ourselves into it ferociously, others were mentally and emotionally frozen. It can really go either way for creatives, but for me it gave me structure as I put myself on a schedule every day and was able to continue with a thread of inspiration from session to session. I could set goals daily of what I needed to accomplish, and it gave me focus and purpose. It was also a great distraction from the madness and grief that was happening everywhere! I could immerse myself in music which has always been a huge tool for me from childhood, when dealing with trauma. I just – as we say in yoga, go inside. It’s very Pisces, I just sink to the depths of the ocean and hang out there. It’s my little escapism, I guess – a survival skill.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention FREE. It turned 25 this year and it seems like you’ve been celebrating in style! What was it like performing it at the final of the Women’s Euros at Wembley Stadium in front of almost 90,000 people?
ULTRA: Now that was a moment I will never forget! Everyone asks me what that felt like and I can only say I felt like a gladiator! It was epic and surreal walking out on the pitch, in this huge structure, the lighting and the roar of the crowd was so intense. I really can’t do it justice describing it. It was emotionally overwhelming to be there singing my own song, knowing there are another 30+ million people watching around the world at that moment, on top of the 90K standing in front of me singing at the top of their lungs. Just wow! That is the experience to have!! I would love to do it again in some way. Bucket list!
Why do you think that single, out of all your releases, is still so potent?
ULTRA: There are a lot of different reasons for that, at the base of it a lot of great work went into crafting “FREE” at a moment when the music industry was a different animal. When the “dance music industry” specifically, was a different animal. A song like that got an opportunity to be exposed to the masses in a way that might not be possible now. My writing & production collaborators, my management, my label Strictly Rhythm at the time – there were a lot of elements that existed in that moment that all conspired together to launch “FREE” and my album, Situation Critical. The whole industry went belly up just two short years later and it hasn’t recovered since. It has evolved into a different thing by no one’s fault, but it is what it is. Now we are in an industry that releases 100K songs a day. It’s saturated, overexposed and controlled by corporations who are not here for the love of house. It’s a different animal…
You’re still incredibly active on the US party scene and over here in Europe as well, not just performing live but also DJing. How long have you been spinning for and what kind of genres do you usually go for in the booth?
ULTRA: I am entering my 20th year of DJing which is phenomenal for me when I say it out loud! It really started from a place of just wanting to hear a good beat while I was home off the road one weekend and started experimenting with vinyl in terms of actually blending. Myself and my late DJ partner DJ Lisa Moody, got the bug and started playing every opportunity we had, within that same year just a few months later I decided to launch my own party brand called “Sugar” which has evolved over the years into “Deep Sugar”. Deep Sugar is still going although we lost Lisa last year. “Sugar” gave us a place to build our chops and celebrate house music in the way we wanted to express it as women. When I DJ, I play a varied mixture of underground, there may be disco elements, there may be Baltimore club elements, gospel house moments, unreleased goodies and edits, tribal beats, whatever I’m feeling. But it’s going to be a party on the dance floor for people ready for the journey. I’m not going to play the top 20 records on any music sites to get the crowd going. I’m going to play what I feel makes people dance and walk away feeling like they have connected with each other and with me.
What’s your go to track to get the dance floor pumping?
ULTRA: I don’t have one track to get the dance floor pumping, it really depends on the crowd, the venue, and the event. I try to tune into who I am about to be in front of and decide from there, it also depends on what the DJ before me is playing and how I want that transition to feel.
The DMC Back To Mine albums are pretty legendary (if we say so ourselves!) – what five tracks would you put on the playlist if we came back to yours after a gig for a chill out?
And when do I get to curate a DMC ‘Back To Mine’ album set?!?
Any burning ambitions left for you to conquer?
ULTRA: Yes! I would love to have one of my songs from the new album in a major movie. I’ve had so many great placements for commercials, film, and television over the years, it would be amazing to land a blockbuster. On the label side, a proper and highly motivated major label partner ready to carve its own lane would be dope, as well as another shot at Wembley!