Ultra Natè Takes Novel Approach To 'Stranger Than Fiction'

Even the most successful dance divas face pressures following up their hits, as fans and the industry alike clamor for more of the same. An artist who wants to grow beyond constricting categories --

Even the most successful dance divas face pressures following up their hits, as fans and the industry alike clamor for more of the same. An artist who wants to grow beyond constricting categories -- as Ultra Natè most certainly does -- faces some hurdles and some headaches.

So, it's an early spring day, and singer/songwriter Natè is spending some much-needed quality time at her home in Baltimore. Her new Strictly Rhythm album, "Stranger Than Fiction," is due out April 24, and she has just returned from a club tour that saw her performing in cities as far-flung as Amsterdam and Los Angeles, London and St. Petersburg, Fla. Following last weekend's gigs at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Coliseum and Miami's Ice Palace, it's off to the stages of Hong Kong and Malaysia.

"I never stop touring. You can't," Natè says. "I love performing. That interaction with the audience is very special; it's something that should never be taken for granted."

While she's visibly calm, Natè doesn't hide the fact that this is another anxious moment among many in her 12-year career. "What can I say?" she asks with a sigh. "To have something so very near and dear to my heart now available for mass consumption can be stressful, to say the least."

Strictly Rhythm has licensed "Stranger Than Fiction" to various labels internationally. Avex released the new set earlier this year in Japan. (The Japanese version includes two bonus tracks: "Runaway" and a cover of the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love.") Throughout May and June, the set arrives in the U.K. and Germany (Universal), France (Happy Music), Spain (Blanco y Negro), Italy (Energy), Australia (Sony), Scandinavia (Scandinavian), and the Benelux (Digi-Dance).

Recorded in Stockholm, London, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York, the sterling "Stranger Than Fiction" finds Natè spreading her musical wings beyond her dance origins, infusing a decidedly rhythmic foundation with elements of alt-leaning pop and acoustic soul. It also finds her working with such savvy producers, songwriters, and musicians as Attica Blues, D-Influence, Brian Alexander Morgan, Nick Nice & Anders BarrÉn, Arnthor & Bloodshy, Lenny Kravitz, Nona Hendryx, and N'Dea Davenport.

Collaborating with such a diverse lineup of talent kept Natè from getting locked into any one creative pattern. She says, "It forced me to remain open and flexible to new ideas."

Perhaps most exciting for Natè was collaborating with other women. "It was such an incredible experience working alongside Nona and N'Dea," she recalls. "There I was with Nona, trying to remain cool and collected, all the while thinking, 'Legend.' Thankfully, the atmosphere was relaxed."

As for writing with Davenport, Natè, says it was a "very spiritual experience." The collaboration took place in New Orleans. She explains, "Being in a city that is equal parts Southern and French put me in such a weird head trip. I felt like I had a history there even though I'd never been there before."

The concept for "Stranger Than Fiction" is based on a romance novel, says Natè, with each song "representing a different chapter of my life." Consider these titles: the Alanis Morissette-etched "Ain't Looking for Nothing," the El Coco-sampling "Dear John," the melancholy "Eternal," the sensual "Twisted," the disco-splashed "Breakfast for Two," the haunting "Ghost," and emotion-packed anthems such as "Desire" and "Get It Up (The Feeling)."

Fans became aware of the new album when Strictly Rhythm previewed the set last summer with the single "Desire." By late summer, the song had reached the top of Billboard's Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart.

The set's new single, "Get It Up (The Feeling)," was delivered to club DJs in mid-March, with a commercial release set for March 27. In early April, the label will send the track to radio, while the Eric Johnson-directed video will be serviced to MuchMusic, MTV, MTV2, and VH1.

"It's quite interesting," admits Natè's manager/executive producer, Bill Coleman of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Peace Bisquit Productions. "Ultra's at a weird place in her career. She has three albums ["Blue Notes In The Basement," "One Woman's Insanity," and "Situation: Critical"] and many international club hits [including 1997's "Free," a European top-10 pop single] under her belt. And while she remains credible in the dance community, how does she move forward when many want her to keep rehashing 'Free'?

"Let's be realistic," Coleman continues. "There aren't too many albums being made today by real dance artists. It's all about the DJ-driven compilation. For an artist like Ultra, it's a double-edged sword: remaining true to her fans while honoring her own wishes and desires as a singer/songwriter.

"Generally speaking, how do you deal with record companies who think your artist shouldn't be too edgy or alternative?" Coleman wonders. "Too many labels want an artist to conform to the stereotypical image of the dance diva. In other words, you don't ask for the best, and you're asked to be content with what you are given."

Fortunately, that's not the case with Strictly Rhythm. "Strictly let us make the record we wanted to make," Coleman explains. "I don't think we would've been able to have such creative freedom anywhere else."

Upon hearing this, Natè nods her head up and down. "It's about longevity and the big picture," she says. "We're happy if we make a good record, and I believe "Stranger Than Fiction" is a good record.