BENCHED: Natalie May
Back from the bittersweet journey of self discovery, Natalie May endeavours to serve her own lemonade. Her sweet melodic sound and gentle-womanly attire champions a timeless Black British voice. This Burnt Oak crooner delved into the dark labyrinth of her mind to excavate the hidden coals she could harvest to fuel her art, to unfurl her kinks and quirks to produce crystal clear authenticity. Here’s what happened when I met with Ms Natalie May:
Tell me how it all started, tell me about your childhood and where you grew up…
I grew up in Burnt Oak, where I lived for 28 years up until last week, when I moved outa my mama’s basement. I have 3 older sisters who’re very intelligent, very book-smart and all I wanted to do was watch cartoons. My friends at school were all very pretty, got loads of guys and I bloomed very very late late late. So I wouldn’t call myself a misfit because my friends and my family all accepted me, but I wasn’t studious or the hot-ting like my friends. I always felt different. I always knew that I wanted to sing; I found my yearbook and all the messages were like “Hi Beyonce, I’m gonna miss you Beyonce”.
How was growing up in predominantly female household, has it influenced your music?
I think subconsciously it has; even though I saw my dad on weekends, i’m just so used to being around women. So when it comes to relating to men, its quite startling, here’s a man who wants to be in my space, how do I navigate this? My mum is super driven, very successful, so again its that narrative of being a independent, strong black woman. I grew up in a house full of successful female hustlers. I can definitely see that in myself; but sometimes it can create a kind of boundary when it comes to relationships and sharing a space.
Who were your musical influences growing and what was being played in your house?
Destiny’s Child! Destiny’s Child!! Destiny’s Child!!! My sister went through a goth faze and played rock bands like Lost Prophets. I ended up being a little bit alternative myself and was listening to Britney Spears. I lived for N’sync; Justin Timberlake!!! It was like I’ll wake up today because Justin Timberlake is alive. So very pop/r&b, with a little bit of rock because of my psycho sister. My Mum and Dad would play their Rare Groove and their Roots FM.
How would you describe your music and your style?
Its influenced by experience of being Black and British and having parents who’re of Caribbean descendants. My spiritual journey has brought me closer to my African roots as well. I had the chance to go to Kenya and experience the culture that is huge part of me, But i’m also British. So its about navigating my way through both cultures. Who defines your identity? Is it even a who? Is it family? Is it society? Identity is so interesting because its individual to everybody. I have a lot of peers who’re of the Conscious Community; who’re a group of young black people in Britain who’re interested in spirituality, african history, healthy eating and consciousness. Its a powerful movement. Most of them who’re born here want to move back to Africa; Where as I love the same things, but i’m British and its also apart of my story. My art just reflects all of that down to my personal style, I have an afro but I wear english heritage fashions.
Its almost a political statement; in some ways is that you being rebellious to British society?
Its all those things; but simply as an artist I need to express myself whether it be through fashion, music or art. If i cant express myself I feel stifled and depressed. My hair, my fashion, my class, my job, I have a stall down portobello and all these things have inspired my personal style. I’m a black woman with natural hair, in english gentleman attire. Which then poses questions and statements beyond what I intended.
What artists are inspiring you at the moment ?
I’m living for Solange. Her music is stunning obviously, but its also her message and her courage that I love. I watched her perform F.U.B.U (For Us By Us) at Love Box and the lyrical content…Even I was like, ooh girl you wanna get out of here alive. But the courage to be authentic in her truth is so inspiring. Love Minnie Riperton’s voice and her angelic style. Love my old school, art-deco jazz singers; The grace, the glamour, the poise, the elegance of those artists. Nat King Cole. Lena Horne.
You are well and better known for your first single ‘Sexy Sexy’ that you did with Rudimental, back in 2009; Tell me about about that period?
I’d just finished theatre school and I needed to sing, so I got a little side hustle-call centre job so that I could eat and also to pay for my studio sessions. Then Piers, from Rudimental, was recording in the same studio and he had left the beat of Sexy Sexy for me. I was like “what is this any soca, jump jump song?”, but thought hey i’ll give it a go. I booked the session but hadn’t written anything for it, so I ended up writing it on the tube and it worked. At this point Funky House was just kicking off, I was getting radio play, I played it to events management and It got out there.
That song boomed didn’t it?
Literally boomed, i did so many gigs, we did a video, it was in the film Anuvahood – in the sex scene.
So after the single dropped you went on tour and loads of success, what happened after that ?
I was very grateful for the opportunities and all the gigs that I was doing, but I wasn’t sure if the music really reflected who I was. I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go in, but what was happening now didn’t fit. I needed a break. This was my passion and this was what I loved, but I wasn’t living it. I was becoming lost in it. I got a job in a vintage shop called ‘One of a Kind’ (Portobello Road) and ended up styling ‘Florence and the Machines’, assisted her stylist on her video and worked ‘Rihanna’s’ stylist, just doing amazing fashion things. I was still gigging and still writing also, but I loved the fashion and so ended up juggling the 2 of them. Now that i’ve got my own stall now, I want to focus on the singing again.
What are your aspirations with singing?
All I want to do is just create some authentic, credible, classic music; that tells a story, that inspires and moves people. Tony Robins and Dr Jo Dispenzer, who’re motivational speakers and neuroscientists, talk about state and emotion. A lot of these motivational speakers use music in there seminars because it moves you, it makes you feel something. so I want to create music that alters peoples state; whether it be to their shadow or dark emotions, where they can express their vulnerability or their pain or whether it up-lifting. All in the cause of opening them up, and myself also, to being a better version of themselves.
Tell Me about Alchemy? How can readers get a tangible example of what is and how you use it ?
Alchemy started in ancient Egypt tradition and the basic principle is turning lead into gold. Lead being a dense, black, dark substance that you transmute into something very valuable, Gold. What I love about alchemy is how we can relate that dark matter to us and our emotions, our difficult experiences, our challenges and use it as potential instead of rejecting it. Consciously using that energy for positive use, instead of letting it control you and have you self-sabotaging. Its dark and its difficult, but in doing that I can have more authentic relationships and conversations with people. I can be completely open with where I’m at, not in a victim kind of way, but in a real way. My relationships have so much depth; I’ve learnt so much about my needs and what I want from a relationship. Its just a better understanding of self and finding that gold.
What advice would you give yourself back in 2009, when you first started working with Rudimental?
Trust the fucking process. You don’t need to know everything. Personally I like to plan, but if it doesn’t go with my plan, there’s no room for anything else and that is a limiting perspective. So open your eyes and bask in what is now.
What was your experience like being in the industry?
I was very anxious. I was very young, I didn’t have a very good understanding of who I was and the industry. In terms of the industry itself everyone was very lovely and very welcoming, but because I was so diligent with what I wanted, I became anxious.
So what are the plans for the future?
I have a lot of shows happening, i’ve started a new self development and awareness workshop with my friend; on mental health, emotion intelligence skills, creating a safe space for people to be vulnerable and to express their authentic truth. All of that as well a singing, doing shows, photoshoots, recording, music!
To anyone who wants be in your position what advice would you give?
Goal set, but definitely allow space for life to surprise you.