Natalie Cole has always resisted categorization. Her early hits, including the pivotal “This Will Be” (1975), were exuberant bursts of pop-soul, marked by a strong Aretha Franklin influence yet boasting a flair and energy all her own.
Natalie Cole has always resisted categorization. Her early hits, including the pivotal “This Will Be” (1975), were exuberant bursts of pop-soul, marked by a strong Aretha Franklin influence yet boasting a flair and energy all her own. After drugs and personal troubles damaged her career in the early ’80s, Cole worked her way back with a radio-friendly cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” (1988). But even after hitting the commercial peak of Unforgettable (1991), which honored the legacy of her father, Nat “King” Cole, she wasn’t content to settle into patterns. A 1999 album, Snowfall on the Sahara, featured a version of Lorraine Ellison’s Wagnerian soul opus, “Stay With Me,” while Ask a Woman Who Knows (2002) brought Cole new acclaim as a first-rate interpreter in the vein of Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan.
True to form, Leavin’ represents another departure. The disc is Cole’s second for the esteemed Verve label, and everything about it-right down to the casual glamour of the cover shot, in which the 56-year-old vocalist looks 35, at most-announces that this is a new Natalie, ready to move in different directions though conscious of her venerable past. It marks her first project with successful r&b producer Dallas Austin (Boys II Men, Madonna), and consists mostly of songs Cole admires-everything from Kate Bush’s ethereal “The Man With the Child in His Eyes” to “Old Man,” Neil Young’s ode to intergenerational wisdom. One of the album’s most powerful songs is the title track, first recorded by Shelby Lynne. Cole’s soulful take on a woman’s emancipation from a bad relationship can be interpreted in light of her own romantic losses, particularly the recent breakup of her third marriage.
Cole is a friendly, relaxed talker, and discussing her work comes naturally to her. But beneath the quiet surface lies a woman with strong ideas and the conviction to see them through in the studio.
Could you talk a little about how this project came about?
Natalie Cole: It kind of was born out of desperation [laughs]. Originally, we didn’t know what we were going to do. I knew I didn’t want to do another jazz record, so it was a matter of persuading my record label to go with a more pop/urban project. And that was something that took a little bit of handholding and stroking, ’cause they were kind of flipping out.
And of course, Ask a Woman Who Knows, your previous CD, was a mature jazz effort.
I think the mistake that people have a tendency to make is kind of no different from the film business. When you see an actor who’s always doing comedy, you can’t imagine them doing anything serious. And I think that an artist that’s known for doing r&b or jazz for any number of years…they kind of get put into that category. It takes a vision from everyone involved to be able to say, “You know, that’s what they could do, but that’s not all they could do.”
Perhaps because your treatments of jazz and pop standards were so successful, people forgot that you also had tremendous success recording in pop and r&b mode earlier.
Right, right. And I missed it so much, so I’m really glad that we were able to pull off the project.
What about it did you miss the most?
I missed the freedom. There’s a lot of freedom in this record. I missed ad-libbing, you know, and being able to holler every now and then [laughs]. I missed all of that energy, and I just felt like I really kind of, in a way, fenced myself in a little too much. I didn’t know how much I missed my r&b stuff until we started making this record. I also had the opportunity to be an arranger. Dallas Austin kind of guided me a little, but he really didn’t press me or say, “Well, that’s a little too left…that’s a little too wacky.” Basically, this is like a setup for my next record, ’cause the next record will be probably almost all original songs.
Actually, there is one track on here that you had a hand in composing.
Yes, [that one] Dallas and I wrote, called “Five Minutes Away.” And that was written, literally, on the spur of the moment. We were like, lying on the floor at three in the morning, trying to figure out how to perform this song. It was wild. But I realized that sometimes out of desperation, you do end up challenging yourself.
There’s a wonderful warmth to the CD, a really relaxed vibe throughout.
Isn’t that neat? I really like the sound. It’s kind of raw. As a matter of fact, we were thinking of putting on the CD somewhere, “Natalie Cole’s vocals were not auto-tuned.”
How much of your own personal struggles and challenges did you reference in a song like “Leavin'”?
Oh, a hundred and fifty percent! [laughs] I mean, that’s my song! It was inspirational and autobiographical. Music-wise, I did a song back in the day called “Catching Hell.” It had that same feel, that same little bit of misery…just being worn down, torn down and having to acknowledge that it’s time. It’s time to move on. Your dreams have been dashed. And “Leavin'” is also a very empowering song. She’s made her decision, but she’s doing it with focus and she’s doing it with strength. And there’s the last part, when I’m hoping that women, in particular, will get that feeling of empowerment. Even the lyric that says, “I should have left a long time ago,” which is an additional lyric that Shelby Lynne allowed me to [write], is kind of a counter-lyric. She says, “Bye, bye.” It’s like, “I’m so out of here, and I’m feeling good about saying that.”
So it’s something that you felt would make it more personal.
Yes. Basically I took what she was writing and put an answer to it. It’s funny, because Dallas, when he first heard it, wasn’t real crazy about Shelby’s version. He didn’t quite get where I was going to take it. You know, it had a very country feel to it. But I heard it. I heard it as clear as day. I said this is what we’re gonna do. And the next thing I know, now it’s Dallas’s favorite song!
You bring up an interesting point, because many of the songs were composed by notable contemporary songwriters, like Fiona Apple. Did you go into the project thinking about how you would reinterpret this material or put your own stamp on it?
Well, that’s the scary thing. I picked the songs based on my level of interest and what I thought I could do with them. I still might not have been sure about the arrangement, but I sure did like that lyric from [Apple’s] “Criminal.” So I basically picked the songs based on what they were talking about. And I didn’t come up with the arrangement until we got in the studio, and I went, “Uh…let’s try this!”
The first single is a version of Aretha Franklin’s “Day Dreaming.” On that one, were you at all concerned by the comparisons the press used to make years ago-between you and Franklin?
At that time, that was a very difficult thing to hear. Because she was, and still is, my idol. It’s funny because when I first started, the first manager I had…when he came to see me in the little clubs I was starting to play in, he said, “You got to stop singing those Aretha Franklin songs, ’cause you sound too much like her.” It was a compliment! But then it worked against me. It ended up being a bad thing. So now, so many years later, if they want to compare me again, I’m cool with it. I’m quite happy with that. I’m just hoping that she kind of digs the version that we’ve done. This whole record is total honor and tribute to these songwriters.
Surely, one of the most personal moments on Leavin’ is Neil Young’s “Old Man.”
I love the song. What a brilliant songwriter he is. I realized that there was something in his song, “Old Man,” that spoke to me and speaks to all of us, because it’s really about being young and seeing older people and realizing that one day that’s going to be you. But at the same time, that old man had dreams that you’re able to live out, and by the time you get to that season in life, will you be able to look back and not have regrets? What will it be like?