image courtesy of natalieduncan.com
So when did you realise you could sing?
Probably when I was five or six, at infant school in Lady Bay. I realised that the people they chose to sing at the front in assembly were only there because they were loud, while I already knew I could sing in tune and they should be choosing me. But I was too shy to sing at that age.
Do you remember your first performance?
When we were at primary school, and three of us sang Whitney Houston’s My Love Is Your Love, and we stood in a triangle and took it in turns. When it was my turn, the parents went nuts. It was ridiculous. When everyone at school realised I could sing, they became a bit sycophantic around me. It was weird.
You moved to the Meadows when you were 13. What was it like growing up there?
I won’t lie, some things happened to me there that I wanted to run away from. It’s not an easy place to live as a kid, but there’re loads of good things as well. Coming from West Bridgford and with my mum being Jamaican and not having any family around, there wasn’t any real mix of people there. The Meadows was really multi-cultural; there’re things like a black hairdressers and things which you can’t find in Bridgford, and for that reason I enjoyed it a lot.
You’ve been earmarked as one of the Most Likely To in Notts for ages, and it’s finally happening. Did you really put a deal off from Decca a year?
That’s not true at all. I read that on a profile about me, and I don’t know where it came from. I kind of want to put it straight.
Go on, then…
Well, after I did the Goldie programme, there was an A&R man from Decca - Simon Gavin - who spotted me, checked me out on MySpace and came to see me at the Malt Cross. That was in the space of about four months. He showed an interest, which was great - but I had a manager at that point who was also part of the BBC programme and he said to hold back because there were other labels interested. So I had three or four meetings with different labels.
That must have been a bit daunting.
I had no idea what was going on, and had no information about the industry. For me it was all just exciting and ridiculous that anyone would want anything to do with me. In the end I went with Simon because he seemed the most interested in my music, and what my songs are about. But it wasn’t a year, and I’m definitely not as awkward as those pieces make me out to be, I was pretty humble about it. I said to Simon; “Why the hell do you want anything to with me? It’s ridiculous that you’re putting this deal in front of me. When can I sign?”
For a lot of musicians, The Deal is the be all and end all. Is it?
Well, it’s obviously a good thing, but it’s got its disadvantages. There’s certain aspects of control you don’t have. My contract is good because I’ve been given a lot of artistic control, so morally it’s like an independent label, but it’s got the financial backer to be a major. I don’t think it’s the be all and end all to get signed, because anyone can start their own label and market themselves. I’m not really a self-publicist, so having someone to do it for me is perfect. I may have lost out on some aspects - just small things like not having one or two songs on my album that I would have really wanted.
Is there an element of security now, or is the pressure on to deliver?
It’s both, weirdly. Half of me is grateful I’m not doing function gigs in Nottingham and trying to just make money from it, and I’m actually doing gigs in my own right. But obviously there’s the pressure that if I don’t sell enough records to make back the advance, they might not keep me on in the future. But that’s always the case with labels. But I’ll always have a career in music, as long as I can sing and play piano.
Do you feel new artists get the time to develop, or do they have to make it big on the first album?
I don’t know, to be honest. I’ve not got to the release of my album yet, and I don’t know what they’ll tell me after its happened - whether they’ll say; “You need to smash it now on your second album, this has been an ease-in” or “You’ve got loads of control now – do what you like". I think there is still room in the industry for artists to develop - and if there isn’t, I’m still gonna.
Has there come a moment in your career yet when you’ve said to yourself; “I’ve made it”?
Not yet. I think that will come if my album sells well and people like my music.
We’ve seen your publicity shots; you’re looking a bit more glam these days. Were you sat down and told how to look and what to wear?
No, I just wanted to look better. I’ve always changed my look. The label let me wear what I want. They want me to have a look that’s me, I could have shaved my head if I wanted to.
You’ve been described as the next Amy Winehouse. That's a double-edged sword, isn't it?
I’m a fan of Amy Winehouse, and I just think there’s no comparison, really. I’ve come from a covers background and played a lot of her songs, and I think musically my own songs sit differently to hers. I was expecting that Alicia Keys would be the one I’d be compared to because of the piano, but it’s a basic way of looking at things. There’s a lot more to it than that.
It’s almost expected with female singer-songwriters that there’ll be an element of soul-baring, and you’ve always been upfront about your issues with depression...
I hate to say it, and it’s quite a clichéd way of looking at it, but they go hand in hand: being creative means you’re quite sensitive. Yes, I suffer from depression medically; that’s something that’s been there for a long time, and coping with it hasn’t been easy. But when I’m fine and happy, my creativity’s a bit flat, and there’s nothing really there. So it’s almost like a double-edged sword because I don’t want to be depressed, but I don’t want to not be, so I can write.
How did the label take that? Isn’t there a possibility that they could really push that side of you to promote the LP?
I had a good chat with my manager about it, so I don’t think they will. It is my back story, but more of that will come out in my music and the lyrics. There's no reason for me to push the fact I’ve got an issue - I’d love to be an advocate for people with problems, but only through music.
You draw heavily on personal experience in your songs, such as Uncomfortable Silence, and Flowers. How does it feel to be able to write and perform songs about other people, knowing full well that they know exactly who you’re talking about?
With songs I never think of them being public. I write them as an escape, and as art - as pretentious as that sounds. There are songs that are quite angry and about situations that have happened; that’s my way of dealing with that pain, and in a sense it’s a bit of a power trip to know they can’t answer back. I’ve had some bad experiences, and they’ve never ended where I’ve been able to stand up for myself. I think in life I’m quite a pushover at times, but with music I’m not.
Your song Old Rock is about working in a pub in Nottingham…
The Bell Inn. I worked there a couple of years. There was an old guy who used to come in, pretty much an alcoholic, and we had some good chats. But there was other times he was totally in his own world, oblivious to anything. And whenever he left I’d always feel like, God I hope he’s back tomorrow, cos he was so fragile and on edge. And at the same time my mental state wasn’t that great, because he reminisced about all these musical experiences and I worried that could be my future. But he used to tell me that when he woke up in the morning he’d say; “Thank god I’m alive.”
This is pretty much your Nottingham album, isn’t it?
Well I love Nottingham, even more now. I’ve lived in London for about a year now and whenever I come back it’s like a base for me, like nothing’s changed.
Are we finally geting noticed down there?
I’ve just been talking to the head of EMI’s A&R, Amber, about how Nottingham’s getting on the map now. There’s people from Nottingham I can definitely see going somewhere –Liam Bailey, Harleighblu and Chris McDonald. It would be an injustice if they didn’t. Jack Peachy - Gallery 47 - definitely him, too. I’m still inspired by him. His songwriting skills are above and beyond mine. I look at his performance and gigs and think how is he not being heard? It’s almost like a duty for me to talk about Nottingham; these are all my peers and I feel that there genuinely is talent here.
Do you think people have a different attitude towards you now when you come back?
Not really. People will talk to me about being signed and being in London, and there’s more of an element of excitement about me when I walk into a room, but people in Nottingham are really down to earth; if I was a dick, people would treat me like one.
How did you get involved with Goldie’s Band: By Royal Appointment?
My dad got a generic email about it after I performed at Splendour saying “we’re looking for people from Nottingham who might be interested in taking part in this programme”. He sent a couple of tunes and they liked them. Weirdly, when all this was happening I was in hospital and I didn’t know what was going on. My dad came to visit me and he told me but I wasn’t in the right place, so I just emailed them back quite cynically saying “nothing will come of it”. When I came out of hospital I started training to be a support worker with Roads to Recovery, helping people with psychoses, but the ball kept rolling and they kept ringing me for questions and interviews and stuff. Even right to the end I thought it won’t go anywhere – and then one day at work, my phone started ringing and it was Goldie telling me I was through.
What was it like performing in Buckingham Palace?
Pretty much a blur. Everything’s red and gold in there, it’s pretty garish. The amount of money they have made me feel a bit sick; there’d be a small ornament in the corner which would be worth a million pounds. And they’re all ridiculously posh; parodies of what you’d expect, (snooty voice) “Oh I do think you should sit heah: the acooustic value is a lot better heah”. Because none of the group were from anywhere near that background, we were all excited like little children to be there.
And you went on to work with Goldie on the 100th Metalheadz release. What’s he like?
The most excitable man ever. He’s got loads of energy which he channels into being creative. He’s completely non-musical, theoretically; he doesn’t write music or read it, but he hears it - his skill is in production. I’m used to saying to someone “What key is this in?” and he wouldn’t know. For Freedom he got me into his booth in his house, and told me to go nuts. I ended up singing completely at the top of my range.
You killed it on our stage at a couple of years ago, and you’re coming back this year. What can we expect from a Natalie Duncan performance these days?
I haven’t really changed, but my band has. I think the difference will be that the band are a lot more in tune to what I’m playing, and the songs just sound different. It’ll be a lot different to last time, but me on stage as a person talking will be the same. I’m not really confident yet.
Do you think you ever will be?
I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ll ever have massive bravado with all this spiel – it wouldn’t be me.
So what advice would you give to people who were in your position a few years ago?
This’ll sound like crap advice, but using the internet and sending things, getting songs out there on the internet is the best way. My A&R guy listened to my MySpace; it’s all about SoundCloud now, but these A&R guys do listen to stuff. If there’s a buzz about it, they will listen. And that’s it really - there’s no magic wand or formula.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Nottingham’s better than you think, trust me. From someone who’s been to London but from Nottingham all their life, people here are brilliant.
Natalie Duncan website