If you haven't seen or heard much from dance diva Ultra Naté in recent years, that's probably because she's been busy getting her 'Freak On' overseas.
No joke—the singer of modern dance-floor classics like Party Girl ( Turn Me Loose ) and Free provided vocals for an extremely addictive British chart hit, Freak On, one of several smash singles off the 2004 disc Can't Get Enough, from Swedish DJ/producer StoneBridge. Yet, while the super-tasty dance CD burned up discos all across Europe and Australia, it never received a domestic U.S. release.
Freak On finally arrives stateside on Grime, Silk and Thunder ( Blufire/Silver Label/Tommy Boy ) , Ultra's first full-length studio album since 2001's Stranger Than Fiction. It also includes a whole spate of new songs, from the Giorgio Moroder-esque Love's The Only Drug; a supremely electro-soaked re-envisioning of The Pointer Sisters' Automatic ( #1 on Billboard's Hot Club Play chart ) ; and the old-school soulful groove, Feel Love. The DJ known as StoneBridge mixed the entire album, while guests including The Brand New Heavies' N'Dea Davenport, Andres Levin and Eric Kupper lent their talents.
So what else has Ultra been up to since 2001? She's released a handful of singles, had her first child in 2005 and appeared that same year on the British TV series Hit Me Baby One More Time, in which out-of-the-spotlight pop stars performed their hit singles and covered a current chart ditty. Grime, Silk and Thunder also marks the debut of Ultra's own label, Blufire. A frequent performer at gay prides—including upcoming summer appearances at New York, Detroit and Indianapolis—I spoke with Ultra by phone and discussed her new album; her overseas freaking on; gay pride; and love being the only drug.
Lawrence Ferber: OK, let's start with the political quandry du jour: Hilary or Barack?
Ultra Naté: The jury is still out because I haven't really had a chance to look into the issues. And I'm going to sit down, focus and really get a handle on it because it's a very, very, very important moment. We really have to get rid of this Bush administration.
LF: There's a good bit of Giorgio Moroder's sound and influence on this album, particularly in the synth programming-heavy Love's the Only Drug, which is like a fierce, alternate-universe Grace Jones single. Would you love to work with Giorgio sometime?
UN: Definitely. He's been doing this thing for a long time. He has a staple sound and a very long history. I like to work with people that I feel there's something I can learn from. He's worked with people I love and respect, like Grace Jones and Donna Summers. He's an icon.
LF: Your cover of The Pointer Sisters' Automatic is doing really well on the charts. What made you decide to cover that song?
UN: It was really just kind of a spontaneous moment. I was just traveling around one day and heard it on the radio and I was like, 'Wow, I really love that song.' It really took me back to a really fun, really cool place in my teen years. I wanted to give it another shot, another moment, because I thought it was a really great song and deserved one more go around and those who heard it the first time would appreciate my take on it and those who may have missed it the first time will have a chance to get it now and really feel it.
LF: How and when did you first meet StoneBridge?
UN: Oh gosh, I don't know. I've known him for so many years. I think I met him when we were writing Desire [ for Stranger Than Fiction ] .
LF: Was the U.S. robbed by not getting the StoneBridge album?
UN: Definitely. But it's difficult in the U.S., the platforms for various types of dance music are just not in place here like they are in Europe and abroad. They probably didn't bother trying to release it here because unfortunately the people, they don't have the vehicle for it.
LF: Do they have better taste in dance music abroad?
UN: I definitely think they have a more open ear to various styles of dance music and a broader base of people who listen to and follow it. I've always had a pretty broad fan base overseas. I started out in the U.K. and was promoted abroad before the U.S., actually. So the European audience is very familiar with my music and I work pretty much all over the globe because of that.
LF: Why did you decide to start your own label, and did you feel empowered doing so?
UN: It's more of a business maneuver. It really puts you in a better position and now that the music [ business ] is changing and evolving so much it's leveled the playing field for the smaller entity to have more of an interest on the backend, like as far as being in control of the record itself and being able to make more money from it with the sales. It's really a functionality and necessity to some degree with how the music business has evolved.
LF: What were the three worst things about being on a big label?
UN: The politics. The red tape. And confusion with departmental things. You know every department has to be onboard to get things going down properly.
LF: And best things?
UN: Larger budgets for the making of the record and the marketing and promoting. And definitely the distribution opportunity.
LF: You have performed at innumerable Gay Pride events and even provided the theme song to Sydney's Mardi Gras last year. Do the drag queens ever approach you and say, 'Let's do a song together?'
UN: No, not really. Most of the drag queens are just happy performing my material. I've been told I've made certain ones a lot of money!
LF: Is there something special about a Pride audience?
UN: The energy is really, really tangible, the kids are really up for the live shows and they're looking for their divas to bring it, have fun and live those moments with them.
Grime, Silk and Thunder is out on CD. See www.ultranate.com for more information. Also, Ultra Naté is scheduled to perform at Green Dolphin Street, 2200 N. Ashland, on June 25; call 773-395-0066.