Natalie Williams: It's a Soul Family Affair
It's been a decade since soul-jazz singer, Natalie Williams first set foot on the stage of famed Soho Jazz club, Ronnie Scott's. The venue which opened in 1959, was the brainchild of the club's name sake, jazz saxophonist, Ronnie Scott. Scott wanted to create a place where musicians could jam and jazz heads could hear some great music. Since it began, the club has played host to many greats, including; Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Kurt Elling among countless others. The venue's history and cultural significance has made Ronnie Scott's the undisputed jazz mecca for the genre's cream of the crop.
So in 2007 it seemed like the perfect setting for the then untapped, exceptional talent of Natalie Williams. With a range and technique that enables her to glide effortlessly between the glorious melodic peaks of Minnie Riperton and the sultry, dance groove inspired modern R&B, Williams soon found herself fronting one of the venue's house band, the Soul Family. With seven studio albums to date in her discography, a two year stint as vocalist with UK Acid Jazz collective, Incognito, as well as collaborations with Drum & Bass pioneers Goldie and Nu:Tone, Natalie is truly one of the hardest working ladies in the music scene. To celebrate anniversary of her monthly residency at Ronnie Scott's, Williams and her Soul Family have scheduled a 10th-anniversary festival, featuring some very special guests. The line- up includes Shingai Shoniwa (Noisettes), Beady Belle and Neil Thomas just to name a few.
“I think the fact that the set is always different and that people know they can come to see some amazing special guests (sometimes already well established artists or artists on the cusp of becoming successful) that vary from month to month is the key. We've had people guest with the band who have later gone on to become household names, such as Emeli Sandé or Kwabs and I think audiences find that really exciting...the fact that they were there and saw them in such an intimate setting 'before they were famous’”. Williams replies humbly when asked for her theory on why her residency has maintained such staying-power.
“I started singing with the Ronnie’s house band 'The Ronnie Scott's All Stars' in 2007. The drummer and bass player in the band put my name forward when they were looking for a singer and after a few months of performing there I suggested putting on my Soul Family Sundays night, which had been going at another club in Soho for quite a few years before” Williams says, explaining how the Ronnie Scott's residency originated. “Jamie Cullum was our first guest and Ronnie's embraced the concept of the night and it's been going strong ever since”.
Always happy to share the spotlight with her fellow artists, it's often been said that Natalie will champion the music of others quicker then she will promote herself…Amy Winehouse, Emeli Sande, and Shaun Escoffery are all among the luminaries that have had slots during William's Sunday night sessions. “I've had many favourites to be honest. It's hard to name one in particular. Shingai (of the Noisettes) is an incredible performer (which is why we've asked her back for our 10 year anniversary festival). Bernhoft, an incredible Norwegian artist, was outstanding! He did a solo set playing guitar and used a loop pedal to do his own live backing vocals and beats. (It was) utterly mesmerising! Jamie Woon was another highlight. I'm a huge fan of his music, so hearing his new material a year or so before it was released felt really special. Funnily enough I met his mum at one of my own gigs. She came up to me after my set and started telling me 'my son's a singer...' etc etc. Usually when that happens I don't expect it to be the mum of someone famous or someone I'm already a fan of. She gave me his email address and that's how I got in touch with him…I love that!”
With albums like the critically acclaimed “ Where We Are”, “Secret Garden” and “My Oh My”, Natalie created her own versatile, accessible brand of Jazz-Soul and R&B, with her most recent project, 2015’s “Kaleidoscope” also giving nods to Country and Blues. Each project an progression from the last, it will be exciting to see where the music goes in the future. But is there new music coming in 2017? “I'm always working on stuff, but I'm not sure I'll have my own studio album ready by 2017. I'm doing a few collaborations though with various people, so even if it's not my own album that gets released next year, there'll be something that gets put out with a little 'Nat flavour' to it.”
For many fans, a live album from their favourite artist is a real treat, as it becomes an audio snapshot - merging the recording process with the atmosphere of a live gig and the intangible nature of a musician's relationship with their audience. On the idea of a live album Nat continues “I have recorded a live jazz album with the Ronnie’s All Stars, imaginatively called, “Live At The Club”. Recording a live album is daunting sometimes because you can't re-do anything, but then again the vibe at a live gig can be electric and it's great to be able to capture that on record. Some of my favourite albums are live albums. “Natural Wonder” (Stevie Wonder) and “Ella Live In Nice” (Ella Fitzgerald) have both been played to death. I definitely want to do a live album soon. Maybe that's what I should do in 2017”.
Balancing songwriting with performing is a juggling act for even the most seasoned professional. On harmonising the two, Williams shares “I do a lot of live shows, so the writing takes a backseat when I'm mega busy, but during the quieter periods I try and put my studio hat on and work on new music. We have a studio at home, so it's easy to record when inspiration hits. I tend to write a lot whilst driving…something about being alone in a car and singing away at the top of my voice gets the creative juices flowing. I've even been pulled over for 'talking on the phone' when in fact, I was recording a new song idea into my voice memo - that excuse didn't fly unfortunately.”
Drum & Bass devotees became familiar with Natalie's voice after she teamed up with both Goldie and Nu:Tone for the underground hits “Don't Give In” and “The First Time” respectively. But with the recent explosion of the UK Grime scene, would she consider entering that musical domain in the future? “I'm totally game collaborating with anyone interesting. In fact, I’ve got a track coming out with KDA featuring myself and an amazing rapper (I can't say who it is yet I'm afraid). It's a proper club track and not the kind of thing I normally do, but I absolutely love it.”
In 2013 Williams' live rendition of the Minnie Riperton's classic “Inside My Love”, while performing in BB King's Blues Club, undoubtedly had the audience breathlessly anticipating that note – the distinguishing whistle that Riperton is known for. So was there ever a fear she's wouldn't nail it when on stage? “I need to be in good shape vocally to sing that song and there have been a few occasions when that note has been a bit 'iffy'. Generally I have quite a high voice though, so when everything is in good working order I can 'bosh' out a high note quite easily (laughs) I did train classically too, so maybe that helps”.
Musical from an early age and inspired by artists Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson and later Shirley Horn, Natalie first discovered her voice when she joined the choir while attending an American high school in Berlin. However, it was her father, an obsessive jazz fan and poet, that truly encouraged her gift. “My dad's record collection was what got me into singing! I suddenly knew that was what I wanted to do when I discovered the amazing songs in the jazz standard repertoire. Dad always made me listen to the lyrics too (which most 13 year olds probably don't do) and was always very critical about my own lyrics...for good reason. He'd tell me off for using clichés and always pushed me to try and do better. We ended up co-writing quite a few of the songs from my “Where You Are” album. His poems are quite whacky, but I feel when we wrote lyrics together it really worked. He always found an interesting way to say things.”
“I'm a big foodie” Williams declares, on what she enjoys when she's not in musician mode. “So a lot of my time is spent thinking or talking about the next delicious meal I'm gonna have (laughs). I love cooking and both my hubby and I take great pride in our home cooked treats…we also love going out for nice dinners, of course. In fact, most of my band are the same. When we do our December Soul Family Motown shows we have a 'soul family supper club' where we go out and sample the delights of Soho before each show. Each night we choose a different restaurant and we do a sharing thing, so we all get to taste as many delish dishes as possible... all washed down with plenty of good wine of course!”
New years resolutions and ambitions for the next twelve months are at the top of most of our to-do lists. So what's Natalie's new years aspiration? “I don't generally do New Years resolutions, as they're often unrealistic and hard to stick to. I should probably eat and drink less, do more exercise and write more songs, but it's ok... I'm not a lazy person. I do always push myself quite hard and I love a project, so once I get an idea in my head I tend to see it through. Maybe the live album? (You've) got that in my head now (laughs)”.
Natalie Williams Soul Family residency will be celebrating it’s ten year anniversary at Ronnie Scott's from January 6th-8th ~ full show details:
Friday 6th Jan:
Main show special guest: Beady Belle
Late show: Native Dancer
Saturday 7th Jan
Main show special guests: Joey Dosik & LaSharVu
Late show: Scott McKeon's SuperJam
Sunday 8th Jan
No support Sunday
Special Guest: Shingai Shoniwa & Neil Thomas
No late show
Doors 6pm and 10.30pm (two shows each night)
Tickets: £20 - £45
47 Frith Street
Reservations: ronniescotts.co.uk | 020 7439 0747
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Words Karen Lawler