David Nathan: I want to welcome to Soulmusic.com, an artist who I have worked with, in terms of she being a part of a show that I did a few years ago as a tribute to Nina Simone, and a lady whose music I have been hearing since her first album. I’m really happy to say that we’re talking today because of the release of a brand new album on Stax Records, and it’s entitled Pink Elephant. Welcome N’Dambi!
N’Dambi: Thank you for having me, David. I’m glad to be here.
DN: I am too, and I’m particularly glad because I’ve had an opportunity to listen to the record, and I really, really like it. I think it’s got some really good songs on there, I think the production is great, and I think that it brings out some dimensions of your artistry that I had not ever heard before. I don’t know if that’s a correct assessment, and I know you’re a little biased, but what are your feelings about Pink Elephant?
N: This album does represent a lot of growth, because I was trying to make art more deliberate than in past times where I had done things that were vibe-y, and I wanted to focus, and even in the production, to make it a little more smoother than I had done before, and as an artist, use my vocal ability to showcase what I can do, and not to overload people, but just to add some colours, thinking of my voice as an instrument and feeling it that way. Those were goals, so I believe what you were saying in your assessment was where I was going musically with this particular album.
DN: How long have you actually been working on this project? My recollection is that you first started working with Stax a few years ago. Is that correct?
N: Yes. I actually signed with them in late 2006. I really didn’t get started on it until somewhere around April or March of 2007. I have been writing songs for a while, it was really about finding a mesh of the right producer to match the ideas that I had in my head musically, and trying to help me articulate that through the music. Writing was always occurring, it was just finding the right person who could help me say what I needed to say. It really didn’t happen that I would meet Leon to work on the album until somewhere in, I want to say the end of 2008, coming into the beginning of the year. When we started working, the rhythm was quick. The first thing we wrote was ‘L.I.E.’, and it was just very magical, and it seemed like we had very strong chemistry, and just continued working and finished the album. It didn’t really take much time when Leon and I got together. It was more or less bits of finding the right match to create the right sound to make the music showcase us best.
DN: Let me say, for those of you who may not know, that the Leon to whom N’Dambi is referring is Leon Sylvers, who old school soul music fans will know very wall as the man behind hits by Shalamar, The Whispers, he worked with Gladys Knight, and of course worked with his own family, The Sylvers. I must ask you, N’Dambi, because when I saw that his name was on it, I was a little bit taken aback, because I thought, “When was the last time Leon Sylvers produced anything?” I thought of him, and I want to be respectful, but I thought of his as a producer who had already done his work and probably wasn’t active anymore, so how did this musical marriage come about?
N: I had mentioned to A&R that I really was interested in working with Leon Sylvers, and I know sometime around then, the meeting happened, and we talked. Leon likes what he likes, and he works on the things that he loves to work on, so it was whether or not it would be something that he would be interested in. He heard what I was doing, and he was like, “Yeah, I think we could work on something.” It was kind of like that, we just got together, and it was kind of magical. I enjoy working with him, because he stretches me and he always keeps me thinking. It was just one of those things. He’s very specific about certain things, and they have to be specific. That’s good for me, because it helps me to learn how to be more particular as well. It’s amazing. He has these great ideas, and I don’t know if he was just looking for anything to be working on in particular. I think he was at the point where he’d done a lot and created a lot, so he only wants to do the things that he feels a connection to, because he didn’t have to do any proving groundwork, like “I have to go at her and do this”. He just wanted to work on the things that he would really like, and he happened to really like what I was doing.
DN: So in other words, this was entirely your idea, to work with Leon Sylvers.
N: Yes, I wanted to work with Leon Sylvers. I’m a big fan of his music and his productions, and I always liked how it would sound funky and sweet at the same time. I thought, “If I could just get to Leon Sylvers, I think he could help me do what I need to do.” The suggestion was made by a couple of people, and it just happens that you put something out in the universe and it collects at the same time. It just met up, and he was the person.
DN: So your desire to have him work with you was based on what you knew about the music he had already done with other people?
N: Yes, that’s exactly what it was based on. It was based on what I had heard that he had done before, and I just felt like when he heard it, I thought he would get me.
DN: Apparently he did!
N: Yeah. I think he does.
DN: You said that working with him in the studio was really smooth for you, although you just noted that he really stretched you, I assume you mean vocally and in terms of how you interpreted a lyric, or was it just more that he really pushed you vocally?
N: Vocally, and sometimes how I might interpret a lyric, and he’s good at those things. If I read a line, and it wasn’t moving to him, he was like, “N’Dambi, that was kind of wack. Try again. Think of something else.” He’s really good about making sure, and he’s very passionate about it. He’s like, “If I’m going to do this, it’s got to be good. I’m not going to do anything that’s not going to be good” and I feel that way about music too. If it’s not good, I don’t want to put it out. I tried my best to do what I think is good, and if it doesn’t feel good to me, then I’ll abandon it or try to find a way to make it feel good. Because we work on that premise, we’re both really passionate people, and he was able to allow me to express my ideas. He listened to everything I wanted to say, any musical ideas I had, he listened to it all, and he didn’t make me feel like I could not talk about those things. He didn’t make me feel like what I had to say did not count. He really let me explore every idea, and he also knew how to put those things together. It was really a good combination of, you know, he was the teacher and I was the student, and there were times when he allowed me to tell him how I heard things, and it wasn’t where if I told him how I heard it, that his ego would get in the way and he would say, “Okay, we’re only going to do it this way.” He would let me stretch myself to the full extent a lot with all of my ideas and we would go with it. The goal was to shape it to where it would sound like me, and he really was good about helping me do that.
DN: I want to talk about some specific songs on the record, and I want to start out with a song that you mentioned in the beginning, ‘L.I.E.’, which for those who live outside the United States may not know, that in addition to spelling the word lie, it also stands for the Long Island Expressway, which actually some people in the United States don’t know where the Long Island Expressway is, but the whole premise of the song is that it’s about someone living a double life. So, my first question for you is, what inspired the concept or the idea? Was it based on somebody you know?
N: No, it wasn’t based on anybody I knew. It was actually based on seeing the acronym, L.I.E. and understanding, “Oh, Long Island Expressway.” It’s in New York. What can happen on Long Island Expressway? What if it’s a story about a man who works in Manhattan, he takes the Long Island Expressway every day to work, he goes and sells people these stories, these lies, and they believe him and they buy them, and then he goes back home. I just thought it would be a cool idea to tell a story about what a lie would be, and that’s kind of where my mind took me, and that was the story I told, the story about a salesman who lived a double life, sold lies came home to the perfect life, or so it looks to be, and then on the flip of it, he’s got money in a Swiss bank account and a lover in France, and he gets found out by someone who knows his secret, and he’s now worried about how it’s going to look, because he’s surrounded by all these people, and I just wanted to tell a story. I’m a storyteller, I always wanted to write books and short stories, so this is a way for me to tell a story in a song, and it would be like a short story.
DN: I have to say that, being the opening track on the album meant that I was immediately drawn in, and being someone who is also passionate about stories and the ability to tell stories through a song, which in my case goes back to my early years and appreciating Nina Simone, who I know is someone that you and I have talked about as an important inspiration for you too. I was drawn in because of ‘L.I.E.’ being a story, and that’s exactly what you said it was, a story in a song, and I thought it was very cleverly done.
N: Thank you.
DN: Absolutely. Well, I want to ask you about a few other songs, and I want to go into ‘Nobody Jones’. Even before I heard it, I was immediately drawn to the title, only because the only other song I saw with Jones in it was ‘Love Jones’, which of course is a classic 70’s ballad by a group called The Brighter Side of Darkness, and was also the name of a movie, Love Jones. As soon as I saw ‘Nobody Jones’ I thought, “I’ve got to check this out because of the title”. Am I correct in saying that was written by Rod Temperton? Was that him by himself or with you?
N: Actually, it’s not written by Rod Temperton, I’m just inspired by him.
DN: So it’s your song.
N: Yes, it’s my song. Leon helped me to write that song, but it was one of those songs that I was inspired by you know, ‘Heat Wave’, Rod Temperton. I just enjoy how he would produce music, and the stuff he did with Michal Jackson. I passed this boutique one day in L.A. and the name of it was Nobody Jones and I was like, “Wow! What if there was a girl named Nobody Jones and she lived on this street?” It never would have been on purpose, because they think she won’t ever be anything, but then she supersedes all the expectations of everybody, because she understands that she has purpose, she has value, she has worth, and she is a shining star and she needs to shine so that everybody will see. She supersedes, she overcomes her obstacles, she’s on her way to succeed to be whatever it is she wants to be, and she knows she’s important. She knows she’s great, she knows she has purpose and worth and value, so that’s the story I got when I saw the title. This could be about this, and it inspired the story. It was one of those things that people can probably relate to, or have felt. It’s like the Pink Elephant in the room when you know your greatness and stuff, and sometimes people like to, not necessarily celebrate it, but they almost kind of like dim the light on it. You’ve still got to overcome that and just be the brightest star anyway. It was fun to write that song.
DN: The next song I want to talk to you about is ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’. Now, there are two versions of ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’. There’s the X-rated original, and then there is a version which is radio-friendly. Am I correct?
N: Yes. I mean the original though, I really mean the original.
DN: I figured you did. All I’m going to say to the listeners who are going to be checking out the podcast at Soulmusic.com, if you want to know what we’re talking about, we advise you to go listen to the track, which you can hear at Soulusic.com and it will be on the same page as this interview, so you’ll be able to hear exactly to what we’re referring, but the jist of the song is, as I heard it, is that it’s really about someone who finds themselves going back, continuing to go back to a love situation that they know they should get out of, but they just can’t quite break free. Is that correct?
N: Right, that’s what it’s about, but you know, you have friendships with people, and you’ve been there for them, and you don’t think that they value you as much as they should, and there are a lot of tell-tale signs unless you know that you are being under-appreciated and taken for granted and you still hang on saying, “One day they’ll learn a lesson” and they’ll see who I’ve been to them. Sometimes you’ve just got to pick your feet up, and you get to the point where you’ve got to shut up and you realize, “I’ve got to celebrate myself because I am important and I do matter. I have to get out of this, because this isn’t making me feel good, it’s making me feel bad. So, when I get my strength, I’m leaving and I don’t want to come back. I want to be over this part. It’s one of those kind of songs.
DN: I always ask songwriters this question, singer/songwriters in particular, of course: is that drawn from personal experience?
N: That song was not, actually. That was inspired because I was listening to some UGK, which is this independent rap group from Texas, and they’re really X-rated (laughs). I had been listening to them one night, and I had a dream where this refrain kept coming into my head. I just talked to one of my friends and said, “Hey, listen to this. What do you think of this idea?” and she said, “Oh, this is great! Write this song” and so it just kept going on and on. I wrote it, and I didn’t write it all in one day, but when I finished writing it, it felt good. It felt like a release of some sort. I do have experiences that I can identify with that song in particular, but it wasn’t necessarily based on anything that happened to me right then in the moment.
DN: The next song I want to ask about is “Imitator”. Is that more from observation, or is that from direct personal experience?
N: Everything mostly I wrote on this album was from a more observational standpoint. I think I wanted to write more like a narrator, telling someone else’s story instead of mine in particular, and those lyrics were inspired by the music. The music I have been vibing around with, this band I play around with, they would play music that felt a certain way, and it felt like I should sing it like “Da-da-da-da-da-da” (singing) or something like that, talk-singing or whatever. I thought, “Now what would this story be about?” So, the music dictated the lyrics, and I just ended up writing a song about somebody being involved with someone, and at the onset of the relationship, they decided that they were two kinds of people that were on the same path with the same dreams and the same goals, and then when they got to start their life together, the guy, or whoever, I guess it’s a female since I’m narrating the story, the person would say, “I reached my mark, so I’m good and comfortable right here.” We have journeys together if we’re going to get where we’re going, but you’re not who you say you are, you’re someone else. You tell me one thing, but you end up being somebody else. I know that can happen a lot of times, because sometimes we feel that we have things in common with people, but what we’re really basing things on is, “Oh, you like blue? I like blue too.” or “I wanted a certain quality of life” or “I believe in saving the animals” you know, we’re not talking about any real deep concepts, we’re just talking about base-stuff, and sometimes we build relationships on a base-level. We don’t really get into the deepness of what we’re looking for, and we end up with people that we have nothing in common with.
DN: The one thing that strikes me about every song that we’ve talked about so far, and obviously this is in reference to what you said earlier, is that this album is really a collection of great stories about life, about life situations, relationships, and although you said it’s based on observations, it’s obvious that you’re quite a keen observer of life here.
N: Yes, of course you observe, and then you have your own experiences that you draw from, and I love to people-watch. I like to watch people live, and how they express themselves, I like people in conversation, I like people watching how they interpret who they are in their clothing, and they can tell you if they are really comfortable with themselves or uncomfortable. I pay attention to all those details, so I always knew that I could tell stories.
DN: When did you feel like the album was complete? At what point did you and Leon say, “Okay, we’re done”?
N: Let’s see. We had gotten to a couple more songs that didn’t make it onto the album, then we knew we were done. It was kind of in a place where, and I’m still playing with the notion of writing stories and putting them into song form, and I think the last song we really worked on was ‘Imitator’. That was one of the last things.
DN: At that point you said, “We’re pretty much done now”.
N: Yeah, we’re done. I think the last of the things might have been ‘Free Fallin’, just figuring it out. Those were the last two songs.
DN: How did you come up with the title? You’ve referenced what the title is, as you said earlier, but of all the things you could have called it, what was the inspiration for saying, “I’m going to call this Pink Elephant”?
N: Well, I had been looking for something. I wanted something catchy, I wanted something with two-words, I wanted something like, you know how you’re walking past a book store, and some titles catch you, and you’re like, “I want to know what that’s about”. I wanted something that was more conversational, like if you saw it, you would say, “What is that about?” That was what I was looking for in the title. I was playing around with ideas, thinking about the elephant, and the room, and that was too much. How do I say it and make it something else? I started playing around and I thought, “Okay, Pink Elephant” and when I look at what I wanted it to mean for me, you already have a certain definition associated with it, but that is not what I had drawn from it to get from the meaning for me. I realized that pink in and of itself is a colour for hope and strength, and I wanted to use that empowerment in just being fearless of your own personal greatness and understanding what that means, and embracing it, and shining despite whatever obstacles or environmental things that get in the way of your journey. So, that was what I came up with, and I’m very happy with this title. I think that it means exactly what I want to say now.
DN: When you presented that to the record company, what did they say?
N: What they wanted to know was, what that means. They said, “It’s cool, but what does it mean?” I went in to explain what I thought it meant to me, and they’re like, “Oh that’s great!” Once again, I wanted to say something that would give you a story to talk about.
DN: Well, you did. You definitely did, because when I saw the title, I was like, “Okay, why Pink Elephant?” So I guess what you wanted to achieve, you did, because it’s a talking point. It’s something that evokes a response from people. I guess that was your intention.
DN: I know that obviously, there are people who are aware of you from your previous albums, but I’m guessing that this album is going to reach a lot of people who don’t know you. How is that going so far? Are you finding that people are discovering you for the first time?
N: I am, I’m finding people discovering me for the first time, and people introduce me as a new artist and these things, like “this is my first time hearing you, and I enjoy your music and I want to learn more” or something like that. It’s really had a good response, gotten a good reception, and what my goal is now is to continue to grow listeners, to get more people to create awareness and create more listeners, so that’s why I’m out and about, doing shows in different places and going to meet people, and still doing a lot of the work that I would have done if I was an independent artist, getting out here and making people aware of the album being out, that there’s new music that they can hear, and there is a new artist if you will, that they can listen to. I’ve been really doing my thing.
DN: Is there any frustration on your part, knowing that you’ve produced two albums, and I understand there’s a third one in Japan, so in other words, this is not your first album as I know, and many people who have followed you will know, so do you have any frustration that there are these groups of people who think that this is your first record? N: That doesn’t really frustrate me, because I’m hoping that people will listen to one album and want to hear more music, they’ll go back and want to find out more history of me, and then they’ll learn about the other stuff in the past. I’m not upset about people who think of me as new. I think it’s just an opportunity to get to more people. Sometimes it takes so many works before someone knows who you are, and I’m not upset about that process at all.
DN: We have to mention, that of course you are with a label that has a very long history in terms of its name, Stax Records, so when you decided to move out of the independent soul movement into working with a major record label, did the history of Stax have anything to do with your choice?
N: It had a lot to do with it, because they had a history and a legacy of music that still exists, people still gravitate to, and still buy, that people still find value in, and I wanted to be attached to something like that. I like the kinship of knowing that they started in the South, and I’m from the South in America, and that was a personal kinship that I value, and then all the things related to the artists they embodied, such as Otis Redding The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, and all these people who created music that people still listen to and can relate to. I just wanted to be a part of something, so when the meetings of the minds came in agreement, I was happy to find that Stax would be my home. That was the right kind of fit if you will, for me, and the right place for me to be in would allow me to be who I was as an artist and allow that to be what I would bring to the table, and not try to change me into something I’m not.
DN: One thing I think is a relevant question is, of course we know that there are many other independent soul music artists out there, some still working independently, a few including yourself and Ledisi is the other person that comes to mind, who made a choice to align themselves with a major company. Was that choice a difficult one for you? Obviously when someone invests time and energy independently and goes out on their own as you did, that’s a big commitment to your art, and there’s always the concern I think that people have, “Am I now going to lose that independence?” So, did you struggle at all with that choice?
N: I think the challenge is definitely there, what actually being on a major label is, versus being independent. One of the things being independent was, is doing the music in a way where there wasn’t help from the major labels. You do things by the seat of your pants, because you don’t know all the rules, so you kind of just wing things, and you learned ways that work from it, and a lot of the grunt work is good, and that’s part of the important pieces that you want to have, but in this particular time being with the label, I think that my skill-set that I used when being an independent artist is definitely something that I use regularly, to help assist me in doing what it is that I do as an artist. Also, I must say that when I started out, I never wanted to be an independent artist, I did want a deal. I think a lot of us independent artists want deals, we just happened to strike out on our own, and we then find a road that works for us, and a team that works for us doing it that way, but it’s a good marriage, because I learned so much as an independent artist and that really worked well in helping me to do well on a major label. It goes hand in hand. Both experiences are valuable in their way, and going in with an understanding helps me be ahead of the curve really well.
DN: In other words, it would be a lot more pro-active, whereas someone just signed to a major label without that history of having to get out there and hustle, work and create that audience may even be at a little bit of a disadvantage, so in other words, you brought something to the table rather than “Here I am. I just want to make a record.”
N: Exactly. It was pro-active, and bringing something to the table, that was good and had a lot of advantages for everyone involved. It wasn’t that someone had to go and do the same kind of legwork to make this bicycle go. It’s important to know that being an artist, it’s important that you don’t wait on labels to do everything. If you want to be the best artist and do your best work, you owe it to yourself to do all the work possible to allow you to be the best at your art.
DN: Well, that’s a great place to conclude. I just have to ask you one more question, which is, obviously you did create, with your previous work, an audience, a fan base, and as far as you can tell, how are they responding to Pink Elephant?
N: I think some of them are really liking it, and some of them say that they have to get used to it, which I understand because this album has a little more programming than previous works that I have done before. Some people will have to get used to the idea of programmed music versus live, and it blows them off a bit. I think that it’s achieving the goal overall, which is to create soul music, and I know that everyone won’t like it, but I hope to get awareness, and get enough people talking about it, good, bad or different, but just talking about it.
DN: Alright, well we certainly have today. Again, I want to commend you on making a great album, and like you said, some people will love it, and some people may not, but I think the combination of you working with Leon Sylvers, and the creativity of the songs and the whole story-telling aspect of what you do, which I know is evident on your previous work too, it’s still very much a place, and I don’t think there’s any compromise, for want of a better word, but you put yourself in a certain setting, but the stories are still very strong, and to those who are going to be listening to this, and reading the interview, you don’t have to take my word for it, you can check it out yourself.
N: Wow, thank you. I really do appreciate it.
DN: When we hear good music, we have to tell people about it. So, I really want to thank you, N’Dambi for spending time with us.
N: Thanks for having me again, I really appreciate you, David.
DN: Well, you are welcome, and I look forward to seeing you on this side of the pond, meaning at this point, I’m referring to being in London, so we look forward to seeing you here.
N: I’m looking forward to coming there sooner than later. I love coming there, and I love performing there.
DN: We’ll be glad to see you. Thanks N’Dambi!
N: Thank you!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.