Ultra Nate doesn’t mind wearing the dance diva crown again. Just don’t confuse her with any prima donnas.
“Diva is one of those words that has a double meaning to me,” the Baltimore native said recently. “It’s a very positive thing on one side. I feel like when you are dubbed a diva, it’s like being elevated to sainthood or like planting your feet on the sidewalk in Hollywood. It’s that place where you can do no wrong.
“On the negative side of it, people see divas as being immature and childish and irrational and volatile and unpredictable and unstable, all that stuff that I’m absolutely not.
“For the most part, it means respect. For that side of it, I can definitely deal with being dubbed a diva.”
Nate has earned it.
More than four years between albums is an eternity, especially in the dance industry, but few in the know could forget the charismatic singer-songwriter, who burst onto the scene in 1989 with the scorching single “It’s Over Now” at age 18.
By 1994, Nate was at a crossroads after a bitter split with Warner Bros. over creative and career control and then an amicable break with her mentors, the Basement Boys. But the anthem-strong “Free,” the best dance track of 1997, bar none, has put her back on the dance map.
Nate honestly feared that her time away would hurt her standing.
“I had never intended for that much time to go by,” she said. “I had done two independent singles in between there, but I hadn’t had an official Ultra Nate release in four years, so I was kind of weary that that might be the case.
“People fall off all the time in dance music. There’s one slamming track and you never hear from them again; they’re off into obscurity. The fortunate thing for my situation, I had six years of longevity and two albums under my belt and about six or seven hit singles on the underground level, so I had some commercial success.
“That actually solidified my situation and made it easier for me to keep my head above water, even when I hadn’t put a record out in a few years. It was very apparent to me that the dance community hadn’t forgotten me and still respected me and loved my music.”
“Free,” Nate’s debut single for Strictly Rhythm, allayed all her fears: It was an instant dance classic (It remains on Billboard’s dance maxi-singles sales chart after 33 weeks); it spent nearly five months on Billboard’s pop Hot 100; it was a Top 10 hit in England and is poised for a rerelease there, and it went No. 1 in Spain and Italy and Top 10 in Canada, Switzerland and France.
Nate calls it “the most fun surprise I’ve had in a long time.”
“Free,” with its hook-laden chorus “You’re free to do what you want to do; you’ve got to live your life, do what you want to do,” takes “a look at the world we’re living in and looking at the situation around us, simply saying, ‘Look, this is not cool,’ ” Nate says. “There are a lot of not-very-cool things happening in the world, and we’ve got to address those issues and start dealing with them so we can make the situation better.
“People tell me all the time about different little things it meant for them. One guy told me that he’s in college and he’s having some really tough classes and that whenever he gets down, and the pressure gets too much for him, he’ll turn ‘Free’ on and it’ll get him through. I’m like, okay, whatever works for you.”
With a hit on its hands but no album to promote, Strictly Rhythm lured Nate back into the studio.
“We had to get it done quickly, according to the label,” she said. “They’re like, ‘We need an album now!’ Fortunately, I already had five songs done, and that was two of the ballads, ‘Every Now and Then’ and ‘Crying Time,’ which I did with Mood II Swing, and ‘Release the Pressure’ and ‘Situation Critical,’ which I had done with Al Mack. ‘Free’ was done, of course, so I was already five songs into having album material.
“It wasn’t too difficult to pull the rest of it together under the time situation. Conceptually, it was already in my head what the album needed to sound like, what it needed to talk about. It’s where my head was as an adult, realizing the situation that we’re living in, and I just wanted to write about that, bringing those issues to the forefront that people deal with day in and day out. I wanted it to have a real feel to it.”
Nate and her production team are putting the finishing touches on the album, titled “Situation: Critical,” slated for an April release. An advance copy makes it clear that Nate’s reign will continue.
In one word, being in control is “wonderful,” Nate said.
“It’s what you dream of. It’s like you’re working for yourself,” she said. “You’re doing it the way you envision it to be done. It’s the greatest reward and then to have it come out successful is even sweeter. I always knew I could do this, just given the opportunity and the resources to make it happen.
“That experience with Warner Bros. was very necessary in order for me to get here, so I don’t regret it at all. It was very necessary for my learning experience. I probably never would have been able to write a song like ‘Free’ if I hadn’t gone through the experiences and the growth process I did with Warner Bros.”
BWF (before we forget): “Free” ended a 43-week run on Billboard’s maxi-singles sales chart in late April 1998. … Nate later charted in the Hot 100 as part of the trio Stars On 54, with Amber and Jocelyn Enriquez, in a dance remake of Gordon Lightfoot’s 1971 hit “If You Could Read My Mind.” The track appeared in the “54” film soundtrack. … The Ultra Nate album discography – “Blue Notes in the Basement” (Eternal/Warner, 1991); “One Woman’s Insanity” (Warner, 1993); “Situation: Critical” (Strictly Rhythm, 1998).
More updates: Joe Henry, Marcus King, Lily Kershaw, Poliça, Sarah Brightman, Jerry Leger, Simple Minds, Grateful Dead, etc