We caught up with Natty to discuss his second album release, upcoming tour and found out what he’s been doing for the last few years and it turns out there’s a lot more to him than his musical exploits.
Natty shot to fame around 10 years ago with his first album. Reggae rarely makes an appearance in the charts and Natty brought a unique roots-inspired sound with a more mainstream acceptability, which clearly went down well with the punters as his tracks have performed very well in the charts in both UK and around the world.
With a modest start in the music industry, Natty started off life (much like myself) as the go-to dogsbody in a music studio and worked his way up the ranks to produce many hits. His first session was with no other than Duran Duran, so a true baptism of fire!
What can you tell us about your latest album Release The Fear?
I released it early last year and focussed on CD and digital sales through my own website. I wanted to focus on that first and try to get some money together before pushing it out onto streaming and working on videos and PR. Everything costs so much money and it’s much harder for a small independent label to compete with the big labels. Even getting your track listed onto popular playlists is big business with large sums of money changing hands to be listed in the right places. This is why we had to do it this way.
The whole process from start to finish was totally self-sufficient. We started off by setting up the studio from scratch, had it up and running for just over a year to produce the album and also work on some other projects for other artists.
When you listen to the album in its entirety it’s kind of like a concept album, which is all geared around the 5 chapters of releasing the fear. The first song being a song called I’m Alive which is where we give thanks for life. Me personally, that’s the start of the process of developing my consciousness, and giving me the ability to even engage with my own fear, the starting point was to give thanks hence why the first song is called I’m Alive.
I put a whole lot of energy, love, blood, and sweat in making sure nothing was compromised on this album.
I’ll be doing an album review alongside this interview so you can check out my interpretations of the album there. It’s certainly a diverse album and crammed with all sorts of genres and styles. It’s obviously been well put together with care and attention to detail. You can hear what I thought of it when the review comes out!
I look forward to it, even if they’re not all positive! I don’t mind if they are constructive, I’m cool! Once I put it out there it’s more yours than it is mine, so that’s your album now, it’s up to you what you think of it and how it makes you feel.
It’s interesting to find someone like you who’s managed to take their music to the mainstream yet retain the roots and reggae influences. There are loads of interesting reggae artists out at the moment like Chronixx and Protoje bringing a revival to roots reggae but very few have made it into the mainstream. You collaborated on this album with some big names from both roots and dancehall with Alborosie and Busy Signal. How did that come about?
I was going to do some work a while back with Greensleeves which didn’t manifest in the end, but what I was left with was an introduction to those guys and start the conversations with Busy Signal and in some ways Alberosie who I also knew from the European touring circles. But with Busy I got the intro through those guys in New York while I was out there. He wasn’t really into the music and I had heard he demands a high fee for a verse, but he said “Ya man dunt wary bout nuttin brudder” I was very humbled by the way that he handled it, obviously he’s a superstar in the dancehall scene. That was great, he just sent me the verses and like a consummate professional, I didn’t need to redo anything – it all just fitted and sounded really good. There’s a remix out too as I was originally going to do it with some rap guys as well. It’s featuring Mic Righteous and Akala.
It’s the first time I’ve tried to work on collaborations and bring people together to contribute to my solo work. It’s a really tricky thing to get right without too many people getting involved and keeping it real. Even to just find people who stand for similar things. If you can’t stand for something then you’ll fall for anything, which is kind of what my mantra is. I’ve always made sure that my music was built on conviction and stood for something and to find artists to work with who also stand for the same things was really hard. It was really few and far between so I had to flip it over and make the music stand for something, to make it all about the song. For example, Busy Signal is an amazing artist in his own way, but he’s had the controversy with his views on homosexuals and just looking at his latest video – it’s just a lot of bums shaking let’s just put it that way! I’m not about all that, and it’s not really what I’m trying to put out there in my music.
Dancehall started off in many ways in the same way rap came out of the ghetto in the US, it’s all just poor people making music about things that mattered to them, but as with everything as soon as it becomes about money and the corporates get involved and it becomes something that can be monetised, that all goes out of the window, and I think that’s what happened to dancehall. That’s when the dynamic changes. It’s where there’s demand for other things like people fetishising about all sorts of mad things, like girls winding up with their big butts and other crazy materialistic stuff. All the early dancehall music used to stand for something more than that, it told stories about the real world and was a true voice of poor people or communities going through hardship or simply people wanting to help make a better place of the world.
Nowadays the corporate money does empower people who may not have had the resources to make it happen on their own and to get their voice out to a wider audience, it’s just that some people do the right thing and others abuse it. Corporate money does have the ability to turn something that was pure into a product, then turn it into a commodity and to make a profit from that by whatever means necessary even at the expense of that original purity. Not everyone gets seduced by the pound signs, big labels, and conscious music can go hand in hand. Bob Marley, for example was signed to Island records!
I feel I can have a better handle on what I’m doing as an independent artist and put my music out with complete control via my own label Vibes and Pressure.
So what’s the plan with Vibes and Pressure? Is it a platform for yourself or is it somewhere which will house other artists?
I’ve been doing some club nights with some of the other artists on Vibes and Pressure, it’s where we all get together and from there lots of ideas came about and artists have come on board. Right now I’m developing two or three artists, I’ve got a lady called J J who will be dropping her first project very soon. I use it to facilitate stuff as well, I had a friend who had something nearly finished but didn’t release it, but we helped put the finishing touches on and get it out.
Even the charity work I do is very much linked to Vibes and Pressure. For example, the nights we put on, the money we make goes towards food to feed the kids in an orphanage we have set up in Africa.
The charity is called Erase Foundation which is all about ending reliance and supporting empowerment. At the moment we’ve got one orphanage, four schools and we’re setting up another school in Masutu as we speak. We’ve also sent 17 containers full of relief goods out to Africa. Most recently we sent a container out to Sierra Leone to help the efforts after the mudslides out there. I did some gigs out there and got to know some people and wanted to do something to help. At the moment we’re trying to do more and to grow the charity, but it’s hard, it costs a lot of money. For example, just to send a container to Africa costs over two grand and that’s not the end of it – there’s all the politics on top and we all know there’s no politics quite like African politics! I love it really, everything is mostly straight to the point and there’s not so much fucking about and red tape, there’s none of that legislation to deal with. So as long as you know how to move it’s great, but if you don’t know how to move, you’re fucked! You can easily be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I love it out there, we’ve been sending stuff out there for a long time, and for me it’s my heart, there’s something amazing about Africa.
So tell me more about your travels. You took some time out of the music industry and travelled all around the world. It sounds like part of that was a voyage of discovery or a spiritual quest rather than just visiting places, can you tell us about your trips?
Yeah for sure, there’s been a bit of both. For example, I went to India earlier this year and did three shows out there. But I wasn’t just going to go out there, do my gigs and get out of there, I needed to stay out there and soak up a bit of the vibration. Every time I touch down I want to experience some of that. When I say I’m a spiritual guy I guess there’s a bit of that, but I’m always trying to find the highest vibrations from people like elders who I can learn from. I like to hang out with spiritual people from all over the world and learn from them. Whenever I take time out I like to connect with people and bring them to my music. I’m a musician, and that means I’m a conduit, I’m a teacher, I’m a poet, it means so many things more than just being a musician. I’ve got all of these responsibilities for all these people who come and listen to the music, so I can’t just sing about the stuff that I know just doesn’t help people – I can’t do it.
This latest album Release the Fear, I need to know about this shit before I sing about it, I can’t just make it up. So I spent some time in Africa and I met some shamans and holy people, I did the same thing in South America as well. I going to be taking a group of people out to meet my shaman out in the Amazon Jungle. I thought what would be a good way to wrap up the Release the Fear concept would be to take people out there to actually do it, and to see the oneness and go to the part of the earth that is actually taking care of all of our breathing pretty much.
So how did this trip idea come together?
So it was me and a friend, Nee who runs a company called Bigger Fish and also works in the mayor’s office. He’s one of these young Londoners, quite an established figure as a young black voice and gives speeches and things like that. So we are both going and we thought this would be a really good opportunity to bring other people along. I’ve been asked many times to bring people along on my trips so we put it out there, and stuck it up on Facebook and had around 80 applicants and we’re trying to go through the list and select a balanced group of 8 people to take on the trip. It’s going to be really challenging because it’s going to be going there with eight strangers but I think it will be cool and will be an adventure.
Where are you going on this trip?
We’re going deep into the Amazon Jungle, we’re going to fly into Venezuela then we’ve got to fly by small plane into the Amazon, then we’re going to travel up the river deep into the jungle.
We would love to hear about your trip when you get back, it sounds like it will be something very unique and would make a great story.
If you want to write about it that would be cool! We want to do the same thing again in the Brazilian jungle.
I guess in some ways music and travel aren’t too dissimilar in the effect it has on people. It’s all about that expansion on how they see things and opening their eyes to different ways of thinking. I can understand why you’ve ended up in this position!
A lot of things I’ve done through the Erase Foundation have been in Africa, but I do a few things here. Like at Christmas, I don’t really celebrate Christmas, so I go and play a gig for the homeless or something. We have got lots of little projects going on. We’re just trying to do it ourselves and make a difference. To me, there seems to be a massive disconnect in the value of life, and African lives seem to be worth a lot less than other lives around the world. When we see people dying in Africa, it seems to be totally different to when we see people dying in Highgate. There’s a huge devaluation of life in general through the media coverage of these events. Basically, what has happened to Africa over the past few hundred years and a number of corporations who have come in and created a whole heap of madness.
I guess the oil and minerals have been a big factor in that!
Massive! Even technology that we use every day like mobile phones. Places like the Congo people are literally dying to get that small bit of rare metal that’s needed to make the phone. That’s just one small element of it. Young people in Africa – all they want to do is to move to the west and make money, because of all this stuff that they’ve had put in front of their face. Not knowing that they are living in some of the most beautiful and richest lands already. Africa has been a big part of my life.
Growing up, I’ve had to put up with being treated differently as a black kid. I’ve been stopped on the streets so many times, and even wrongly arrested because apparently, I looked like someone despite the only similarity we had being our skin colour! I was slammed into the street, they dislocated my shoulder and threw me in a cell all for nothing but mistaken identity. All the way through back as far a Marcus Garvey right up to today with people like Colin Kaepernick in America, there’s something that as a black man you can either close your eyes and try and get on with what you’re doing and try to do the best you can, or you speak up about it. As I’m in a position where I’m a voice and I have an audience for stuff, it just makes sense that I do some proper work on a charity that addresses the disconnect that is happening in society but also in the minds of black children. There’s a lack of self-love, I experienced that lack of self-love, I wanted to be white when I was growing up.
I guess that was potentially more so for you having come from mixed race with a black mum and white dad?
You know what! I don’t even care if you print it or not. I grew up in a situation where even now I don’t speak to my white family. It’s not because I don’t speak to them, it’s because they turned their back on me when I was just a child. I didn’t even know why they didn’t speak to me back then, but I found out many years later that it was literally because of the colour of my skin. That’s my own family! In this day and age. So a lot of the family I knew and grew up in was a black African family and community.
But I’ve had many opportunities, I grew up in England, I’ve been very blessed in life to be able to lead the life I’ve lived. So I guess with the past and the stuff growing up as a kid being treated differently and not in a good way, it made me want to do something about it to help others who were not so fortunate as me. I end up wanting to more and more. With this charity, everything we’re trying to do is just to raise the vibration and no matter what colour people, black, white, pink, purple! Many people see us as a small member of the black community in London lifting up and doing something and sending out containers to Sierra Leone.
People see us saying “We’re going to do something, and we’re going to send a container” because we don’t know what the Red Cross is doing with the containers, we’ve just seen them muck up the whole thing in Grenfell because I’ve been down there and seen it myself. I have no trust for these big charities and want to do it myself.
On one level I’m doing it as a human, and on a second level, there’s a disconnect that just needs to be addressed on a social level. I have a responsibility, people have gone out and bought my album. I make money from what I do and I give thanks, I’m able to give something back. If anyone wants to get involved it’s Erase Foundation you can find us on Facebook.
Fair play to you for putting something back. There are lots of musicians out there singing about oppression and driving nice cars and living the high-life doing fuck all about it, so it’s a credit to you to be doing something positive with your influence and giving back. Although from our brief chat it’s clear that there wasn’t really another other option for you, that’s just the way you roll!
Absolutely that’s the way it is. I have to be. My dad was a good man, and although I don’t speak highly of his family, it’s about his family, not him. My mum and dad split up when I was young so I grew up mostly in a single parent family with my mum. However, he taught me a lot of good things, one of those things was about being a man and putting your money where your mouth is, having conviction and backing it up with action. You can’t just be writing songs about this shit.
You’ve got a good platform and as you said before you’re talking about things that are important to lots of people and being the voice to deliver that. That’s what your music can achieve, but to underpin that with direct action as well makes a massive difference and in some ways, it’s almost as inspirational as your lyrics!
Thanks for taking the time out to talk about this stuff and making it a part of this interview, most people just do the basics and want to talk about the album… when’s it coming out… just the usual stuff. Thanks for taking the time out to talk about it, the more people who hear about what we do and help expand it out at a grassroots level the better.
Even now I get people who connect with what I’m saying and experience my music live and it touches them on some level to do something with their lives. I get messages from lots of people who share their stories with me and it’s great to hear the message is inspiring people. This music thing is so powerful, the more I’m in it the more I’m learning.
So what’s next? What’s on your list? Do you have a gameplan or strategy for the future?
Yes, I do. One thing, it’s a bit early to talk about now, but I will talk about it with you next year. But the bits I can talk about include – going to the Amazon, then I’m on tour around the UK, then next year is going to be the 10th anniversary of my first album so we’re going to be doing a few bits and pieces around that. I’ve been in the studio already doing some different things which perhaps didn’t or couldn’t happen when signed to a major label etc. More shows, I’m a musician I love the studio but it’s the live shows where you really connect with people.
This is more of a self-indulgent question, out of my own interest as someone who has a sound engineering background and produced music. How do you find the connection between production, high production qualities and the essence of the music? As you clearly have a lot of heart in your music and think a lot about the lyrics, but also the analytical mind of a sound engineer. How do you find you balance the two together?
Composition wise, it’s got to move me from my belly, that’s when I know we can start recording.
And after that, do you find you struggle to put the mix down, can you say that’s done, and move on or do you want to keep working with it?
I’m a perfectionist which is partly why I’ve only got two albums in ten years! That’s not actually the main reason, I’ve also had the contractual restrictions from signing with a major label, but that’s a whole other story! I like to record things properly, then once I’ve recorded it properly then the mix doesn’t matter so much. It’s only if you get too insular and you get into a bad place and start to perfect high hats and little bits and pieces. That’s usually when the composition isn’t strong enough. If it’s strong enough from the off then it takes care of itself in the mix. I’ve written so many songs which people haven’t ever heard, and it’s just because I’ve struggled with it in the production sense and if I’m struggling with the production, my instinct tells me it’s the composition that’s the problem and that’s how I deal with it.
For me, it’s all about space. Miles Davis is one of my favorite musicians because the space between the notes is where you find the groove and that’s where everything comes from, it’s not what you play, but how you play. I’m very blessed to have a fantastic band called the Rebel Ship.
Let’s touch on those guys, is this a permanent thing now?
There are two or three permanent members like my bass player Jamal, keyboard player Kalvin, and both guitarists I’ve been playing with for years so it’s either one or the other, Tom or Leon, and then Toby or Wesley on drums. We’re basically a family and we’ve been doing everything together for such a long time now. They are all a massive part of what you hear on Release the Fear as we recorded it all together. If I can say one more thing on the recording, I believe if you get the right musicians all together in one room there’s a spirit that happens and you can capture this. We don’t over drum the mic kit, we make sure we can get as many people together all breathing at a similar rate and heart rates balanced, there’s something that can be caught there, and a lot of this magic is lost in a lot of modern music.
It probably helps to have a strong bond and friendship with the band is also a big bonus.
They also happen to be fucking good musicians as well! I’m so blessed to be working with some of the best people in their own fields and they believe so much in the music they are making, they’re not breadheads, it makes a massive difference. I’m very blessed. I’m very blessed in my life. I’ve got all this in my life, and I’ve also got family and children, I give thanks, I do this for a living, we’re not making loads of money, but we’re not struggling. I’ve seen people who are struggling and that’s not us.
Release the Fear was all about trying to give something back spiritually, there’s so much abundance in the UK and very little real poverty, which is why I see my music being a spiritual work here and my hard work is my charity work elsewhere. I do understand there is a big power that happens with music, I’ve had people come to me and talk to me about suicide and they’ve heard Release the Fear and it had a positive impact on them. Seeing someone at a gig in tears telling you their story, makes me realise that this music thing is no joke and I recognise the value of it. Rastafari works you know, this is the works – it’s all just part of the works!
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