Baltimore dance diva Ultra Naté has five NYC gigs in the next week, flaunting the various aspects of her vivacious appeal. Thursday, she’ll first DJ an early women-only party at Halcyon record shop in Brooklyn, then later join Susanne Bartsch and a stellar drag-queen cast at Kino 51/Arena, performing Ultra’s hits—spanning more than 16 years now—in her honor. Saturday night she’ll do a more traditional “TV track” performance at Splash, with another DJ set the following evening at APT. And she’ll cap it off next Wednesday the 23rd by singing for the savvy crowd at Roots, where she’ll officially unveil material from her fifth album, Grime, Silk & Thunder (Tommy Boy).
Five years in the making, with multiple producers and guest contributions from fellow clubland legends like N’Dea Davenport and Dajae, Thunder‘s 14 tracks shift between triphop grooves, retro disco-pop, and hard-house rave-ups, all deliciously enhanced by silky CTI-jazz textures. Only Ultra would dare draw a straight creative line from jazz-r&b fixture Norman Connors to a trance deity like Tiësto in this way. The record goes Madonna’s similarly elegiac Confessions on a Dance Floor one better in its rich instrumental allusions to club standards of the past, whether quoting from “The Message,” “Hot Shot,” Chic, or Roy Ayers’s Ubiquity.
Ultra’s current smash single, a slinky techno-pop remake of the Pointer Sisters’ “Automatic,” is her inspirational salute to the first bunch of versatile, church-trained black girls able to command pop airplay with dance, rock, country, funk, and swing material. But don’t expect mainstream America to embrace La Naté as wholeheartedly as do the drag stars who’ll perform her songs Thursday night. For mainstream America, polymorphous deep-house culture remains a ghetto unworthy of wider exposure.
Thunder also revises early Ultra hits “It’s Over Now” and “Scandal,” both immortalized on Blue Notes in the Basement, her 1991 debut. The new versions differ most from the raw house originals in how Ultra and her co-producers subtly update synth sounds and syncopated backbeats to reflect interim influences such as Tricky, Massive Attack, and Everything but the Girl. “I felt the new album, as a culmination of all my time in the music business, was a great moment for my first two singles to be revisited,” she explains via phone. Ultra remains as proud of her house roots as she is of her crossover pop hits, and she can sing, too: A vocal chameleon, she did the dreamy “Lethal Shot” live in one take from within a jazzy, improvised Eartha Kitt persona, while she rides the more robotic electrothrob of “Love’s the Only Drug” by evoking both Grace Jones and Annie Lennox.
Initially rising to prominence during the height of Europe’s fascination with American house music, Ultra enjoyed a broad global audience in the early ’90s, which sustained her after her U.S. label, Warner Bros., dropped her for being too “niche-market.” But in 1997, indie dance imprint Strictly Rhythm took Ultra and her niche market up the charts and to the bank with the Mood II Swing–produced chart-topper “Free,” with its Cher-on-steroids declaration, ” ‘Cause you’re free/To do what you want to do/You’ve got to live your life/Do what you want to do!”
” ‘Free’ became a gay anthem because those lyrics obviously resonated with that community,” Ultra recalls. “But I wrote the song coming out of [a difficult] situation with Warner Bros., and feeling empowered by that.” Two albums later, corporate politics unexpectedly shuttered Strictly, leaving Ultra on her own for five years. But now, with “Automatic” a No. 1 dance single, she’s cautiously optimistic and ready for anything. Known for frequently changing up her image and stage show to keep things fresh, she might not sport the dominatrix ponytail she’s flashing in the “Automatic” video. “I can never promise what my hair or my outfit will be doing, because a lot depends on how I feel at the moment,” Ultra chuckles. Lately I’ve been working a blonde Farrah Fawcett flip—so try to keep up with me!”
Keep abreast of Ultra Naté’s various exploits at ultranate.com.