A few weeks ago, early risers who happened to turn on their TV to the NYC wake-up show Good Day New York were treated to something a bit more scintillating than the usual feel-good news stories and traffic reports. Those lucky viewers were instead treated to the sight and sound of one of house music’s most revered vocalists, Ultra Naté, and one of its most in-demand producers, Quentin Harris, along with backing singers Inaya Day, Darryl D’Bonneau and Jason Walker. Adding to the slight cognitive dissonance of the scene, the song they were playing wasn’t one of Ultra or Harris’s many clubland hits, but a slinky near-cover version of “I’m Too Sexy” – with the leather-clad Ultra seductively purring the verse, and Harris, clad in shades and a top hat, gamely handling the “I’m too sexy” spoken-word chorus.
The song is from a hot-off-the-presses LP from Ultra and Harris, with the two veterans working together under the BLACK STEREO FAITH banner. The morning show was the culmination of a coming-out weekend of sorts for the duo, with the self-titled album’s release on the Peace Bisquit label followed by a pair of tag-teaming DJ gigs – one at the polysexual Battle Hymn extravaganza, and the other a silent disco at Lincoln Center. The release is an unexpected, multi-layered revelation, featuring little in the way of straight-up vocal house. Instead, the varied work boasts gospel-tinged disco (“SNL”), propulsive new wave (“Transformation”), drama-infused rock (“All the Money”), swirling dance-pop (“Tears”) and plenty more. It’s a varied, rich and assured work, boasting real musicianship from multi-instrumentalist Harris himself, augmented by guitars, bass, drums, and on a couple of songs (including the soaring “Taking Me Higher”), a full string section. Ultra, needless to say, handles lead vocals, with contributions from such notables as Day, D’Bonneau, Walker, Monique Bingham and Colton Ford.
Only a few hours after their GOOD DAY NEW YORK appearance, the Baltimore-based Ultra and Harris, who currently resides in Albany, are chipper and chatty – no small feat, considering their pre-dawn call time. Sitting in a Hell’s Kitchen eatery, the two are ready to talk about their not-so-new alliance, the BLACK STEREO FAITH album, and Ultra’s all-time classic anthem, “Free” – which, as it happens, was released almost exactly 20 years ago.
Photos by Karl Giant.
You both have your own successful careers. Why team up as Black Stereo Faith?
QUENTIN HARRIS: For me, the story starts way back before I had moved to New York, when I was working for Mike Huckaby at Record Time in Detroit. I was pricing records, and there was this one in particular… the name of the artist on this album was intriguing to me, and the artwork was intriguing to me. It was Ultra Naté’s One Woman’s Insanity. I listened to the album, and I just thought that her voice was like nothing I had ever heard before. And the music – even though it was in a dance music vein, it didn’t feel as though it was a one-note record. It touched on a lot of different sounds and a lot of different moods. I can remember thinking to myself, “I’m gonna work with this woman someday.” I kid you not.
Fast forward, I started becoming “Quentin Harris” and we tried to work together twice, but it just wasn’t gelling. And I’m not the kind of guy who likes to force things. But the third time…the third time was the charm. This was when my studio was on 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue. The things that we were doing and the songs that we were making weren’t like anything I was known for previously. It felt like we were meant to create; it was like were making whatever felt good to us. Then we got about three songs in, Ultra said, “Why don’t we become a band? Like the Eurythmics!” I said, “I like that idea!” And the rest is history.
When was this?
QUENTIN HARRIS: That was ten years ago [laughs]
That really is history. Ultra, when did you first become aware of Quentin’s music?
ULTRA NATÉ: I knew about him through the remixes that he had been putting out, and the stuff that he was doing with Monique Bingham. When I finally met him, we hit it off immediately. This was around the time I started deejaying, and we’ve always played Quentin tracks at our Deep Sugar party. He’s always been part of the party’s fabric. He has a different kind of vibe in the way that he approaches production and remixing that I really like, and his musicianship is of a broader range than your run-of-the-mill DJ-turned-producer. And I just found his sound appealing – it had a slightly darker, bluesy, emotional aspect to it, which I think my writing and vocal style lends itself to.
When it came time to really get going on this record, I happened to be working on my Hero Worship album. Dance music at the time was feeling formulaic; soulful was having a difficult time, EDM was driving everything. I ended up making an album geared towards that sound, with a various songs from various collaborations. I had to get that work out. But at the same time, I told Quentin that I wanted to start working on another album. I wanted to work on a different story, one that was more of a conceptual throwback to what it was like when I first started, when I was working with Basement Boys.
You’re referring to 1991’s Blue Notes in the Basement album?
ULTRA NATÉ: Yeah. I wanted to make that kind of album, where you’d be exchanging energy with one person or one unit, as opposed to working with this person for this song and that person for that song. I wanted to make an album from the ground up, in the studio, grinding it out with one person.
When did you know that your partnering with Quentin was the way to go?
ULTRA NATÉ: “Give It to You” was the first song we wrote, ten years ago – and the synergy was there from out of the gate. That song was the seed. It led to something that was more about musicianship and arrangement and artistry than what happening on the charts at that moment. I wanted to make something with layers and different components, something that was like an adventure – and Quentin was so ready for that as well. So we decided to create this other thing, Black Stereo Faith, that gives us license to get rid of the rules.
I get the feeling that this is meant to be more than just a one-off project.
QUENTIN HARRIS: That’s certainly what we’re hoping.
ULTRA NATÉ: And I think it would be refreshing. Dance music needs a shot in the arm. People need to take risks. They need to break away from formulas.
You’ve always kind of done that to some degree, haven’t you?
ULTRA NATÉ: I think so that’s what made my first offerings as an artist, songs like “It’s Over Now,” stand out. That’s what gave me my success. They were different writing-wise and they were different vocal-wise, and that’s gave it more personality. It gave the music a kind of sincerity, and connectivity with the audience.
You mentioned Eurythmics, and there’s a bit of new wave on the album, along with gospel, rock, disco, pop….
QUENTIN HARRIS: That variety wasn’t really done purposely. We were just doing what we felt at any particular time. Ultra would come into the studio with songs by artists that she was digging that day, and we would just start working on things.
ULTRA NATÉ: We would just have a feel in mind, and then he’d use that as a jump-off, building some keyboard ideas around it. As Quentin would be working on something, he’d be looking out of the corner of his eye to see what I’m vibing to. And then I might hum a vocal component, and he’ll add that. It all just keeps feeding off itself.
QUENTIN HARRIS: Then there was that day that she said, “I want to do a cover of “I’m Too Sexy.” I looked at her like, “Really? The I’m-too-sexy-for-my-shirt Too Sexy? You’re trying to get us booed off the stage?” But hen a light bulb came on. We can make that song everything it wasn’t.
QUENTIN HARRIS: Sexy! [laughs]
ULTRA NATÉ: If you flip it, if you do it in this low-slung kind of way, you can actually make it cool. But nobody else but Quentin would have gone for that idea. They would have been like, “Girl, you are crazy.”
QUENTIN HARRIS: We were working in her house at the time. I got the track together, and I was getting ready to do the vocal, and I told her, “Oh, you have to go downstairs now. I have to get into character.” I couldn’t do the vocal in front of her.
ULTRA NATÉ: But he got into it. Once he got his head around the idea, he realized that maybe this is not completely ludicrous.
Given your discographies, do you find that people were expecting a record that was more house-oriented?
BOTH: Yes, totally!
QUENTIN HARRIS: Especially people who are from the soulful side of things. When thy heard we were working together, the first thing people were saying was, “Oh, she’s gonna do stuff like ‘Rejoicing’!” Little did they know that this was going to be nowhere near that. And I’m happy about that. I’m happy with the direction we went, and I’m very proud of this album. This is an album that I’ve wanted to make my entire life.
ULTRA NATÉ: If you listen to my albums, as opposed to just my singles, then you know that I do a wide swathe of styles within the dance umbrella. When you do an album, you have that kind of creative license. You have a place to let the full range of your artistry come through.
QUENTIN HARRIS: An album is a window into your life, into whatever you are experiencing at that time. That’s why I’ve always been a champion of albums.
But the dance-music world is a very singles-oriented one, isn’t it?
QUENTIN HARRIS: Yes, it’s always been a singles game. But let them do that – I’m still gonna make an album. Pick it apart if you want to, but I’m still doing it.
I think some artists believe that listeners won’t even sit through a whole album anymore.
ULTRA NATÉ: But if you don’t create the opportunity, how are people going to know that that’s an option for them? How are they going to learn the art of listening to a whole album, in the way that it was designed and the way that it was programmed? It’s that journey, that possibility to be inside the music. I think the dance-music industry is partially to blame – it’s created this ADD mentality of hit-it-quick, and then you’re on to the next thing. And that’s been a disservice to dance music. It doesn’t allow time for a song to build into a classic.
Because tracks come and go so fast?
ULTRA NATÉ: People are onto the next record before the last one has a chance to become ingrained within your soul, before it becomes part of the fabric of your life, before your life’s experiences have a chance to become attached to it. But if you allow that to happen, a song can be around for years.
Do you have plans for more club-oriented remixes coming out?
ULTRA NATÉ: Yes, for sure. We want DJs to be able to rock the dance floors with our music. But the album should always be the foundation. We didn’t go into this even thinking about remixes – we’re 100 percent behind our original work.
The album just sounds super well-recorded, too – really rich yet really clear.
ULTRA NATÉ: With so much live instrumentation, we felt like that was very important.
QUENTIN HARRIS: That Mark Ronson album [Uptown Special] was kind of the reference. I was like, “Our album has to sound as good as this.”
ULTRA NATÉ: Or as good as a James Bond soundtrack [laughs]. When I listen to my old records, the band Chicago and stuff like that, there’s so much resonance, and you really need that to be there. Those records still sound amazing.
QUENTIN HARRIS: You can still discover new things in them that you never heard before. That has to do with how they were recorded, and the depth and layers that are in those recordings.
Ultra, do you find the lyric-writing process difficult?
ULTRA NATÉ: It can be, but sometimes it isn’t at all. Lyrics can happen through what I call free-thinking. I’ll just write it down as it comes into my head. I may work on it a bit more after that and come up with nuances, but a lot of things are just in-the-moment. Like when I wrote “Tears,” which is specifically about the passing of my ex-husband’s father, who I was very close to. As I was writing it, we were on deadline. I was working on the lyrics on the train to New York – but I kept getting stumped as I got to the chorus, because I was actually grieving as I was trying to write it. And that’s where the line “I can’t write this song without shedding a tear” comes from. It was literally what was happening.
QUENTIN HARRIS: The way she writes is amazing.
Besides the recorded work, there’s the deejaying aspect of Black Stereo Faith. When you guys play together, are you actually tag-teaming?
ULTRA NATÉ: Yeah. This past weekend is actually the first time we really did it.
QUENTIN HARRIS: Though I have played at her parties before, and that’s been kind of like tag-teaming when she jumps in. But I can play with anybody – I think that comes from being a musician.
ULTRA NATÉ: We already have a lot of trust. I obviously knew coming in how Quentin plays, and he knows how I play. We never really had to have a big pow-wow or anything about deejaying – we just do it.
How was it playing the silent disco? Those events can be kind of weird.
QUENTIN HARRIS: It was interesting. There were three different DJs on stage at once, and people could tune in to the one they wanted. And you could see who they were they were listening to by the light on their headphone.
ULTRA NATÉ: So the goal is to get more lights!
One of the DJs you were up against was Tommie Sunshine, right?
ULTRA NATÉ: Yeah, and he had us a couple of times. But we had our significant moments as well.
QUENTIN HARRIS: It was like, “Okay, we’ve got something here that’ll get them.” And when I put on “Sweet Dreams,” that was it.
ULTRA NATÉ: And when I sang “Free,” everybody’s lights turned blue.
Speaking of “Free,” it’s the 20th anniversary of that iconic song’s release. What’s it like to have a hit like that, one that even the Good Day New York hosts seemed to know, on your discography?
ULTRA NATÉ: It’s pretty crazy. But I’ve always felt that if you craft really great music, it’s going to sound great in perpetuity. And it has a message that can translate to anyone in any situation. The song has such a strong personality, sonically.
QUENTIN HARRIS: I can remember when I first heard that song. It was a game-changer. I didn’t think anything in dance music had sounded quite like that. There was an almost alternative-rock element to that song.
ULTRA NATÉ: And that’s exactly the way that song was approached. What happened was, I had done my two albums for Warner Brothers, and then I had been dropped. At that point, I had six years of being an artist under my belt at that point – but I was originally going to be a doctor, and I was asking myself, should go back to that situation and continue my education? Or should I continue with music? I was at a crossroads.
What made you decide to stick with music?
ULTRA NATÉ: Well, around that time, my manager Bill [Coleman] was instrumental in getting me into the studio with Mood II Swing. And they were like, “So what do you want to do?” And the first thing I wanted to do was a rock song. Everybody was like, “Wha?” [laughs] People were telling me that dance-music fans don’t respond to guitars – but I needed to do something that nobody else was doing, something that you don’t hear in the dance-music industry. Otherwise, you’re not throwing a big enough rock to make any ripples in the pond.
QUENTIN HARRIS: You threw a boulder!
ULTRA NATÉ: At that point, I had nothing to lose. I could have left music and been fine, so I was gonna make the record I wanted it to make. And when we made “Free,” we made it as a certifiable rock record, like a Nirvana record. Then once we had that down, I told Mood II Swing that we’ve got it – but let’s move it a little closer to the dance floor. Let’s do those signature Mood II Swing drums. And that was it!
What’s next for Black Stereo Faith?
ULTRA NATÉ: Well, we’re just getting started, and there’s so much promotion to do with this album that it’s hard to think about next steps. But the album is doing really well, and we’ve had a lot of fan-base support right from the start. We actually went Top 10 in iTunes the day it was released, and to be on that chart with Chainsmokers and Calvin Harris and whoever is pretty crazy. And that’s with no machine behind us – we’re a mom-and-pop shop. I think people are finding the album really refreshing.
QUENTIN HARRIS: We knew it was a good record, but you never know what’s going to happen.
ULTRA NATÉ: You know, it’s not an album that’s driven by the 4/4, it’s not a “get to the chorus before you bore us” kind of record, so it was a risk. It was the same as with “Free” – like, this sounds great to us, but will anyone else get it? And when they do get it, you just start bugging out.