I’ll go ahead and risk the cliche. Natalie Cole has had an unforgettable career.
The daughter of legendary singer Nat King Cole was the queen of the ‘80s, providing the soundtrack for those folks who cuffed their jeans, wore jelly shoes or simply loved to slow dance to some of the instant classics Cole cranked out.
She’s seen a lot in her lifetime—she lost her dad to cancer when she was 15, had a severe drug problem in the early ‘80s (she has since recovered) and has sold more than 30 million albums.
At 56, she’s better than ever, and recently released “Leavin,’” a collection of R&B and pop. She was even bold enough to cover Aretha Franklin’s “Day Dreamin.’”
Recently, we chatted about her singing style, her take on current R&B and more.
Q: Tell me about the new album. What were you trying to accomplish?
A: I was just trying to put out a record with some good music, having fun. I wanted to put out some music that we hadn’t heard in a long time from anybody, really. I want to let the jazz people do their jazz thing, so I’m moving on. R&B, rock and pop has always been my forte.
Q: What is your take on today’s R&B?
A: I think that there’s a lot of laziness. People aren’t writing as well. Writers are scratching their heads and tearing out their hair. They don’t know what people want anymore. We’ve allowed certain areas of the industry to dictate to us what good music is. It’s not what the people want, but they go along with it.
In the meantime, the radio stations that are playing old R&B and classics—they keep growing because folks are looking for other options. I don’t have any trouble with the new R&B. I just think that there’s a laziness, and I don’t quite understand why. The melody stays the same and never changes. The lyrics are the same, and they never change.
Q: When do you think all of that happened?
A: I don’t really care when it happened! I just want to get it fixed. I think the “why” is that the priorities have changed. The priority is more about making the money than it is about maintaining an art or maintaining any kind of quality.
Thus you have artists that their shelf life is so short, it’s ridiculous. Or it becomes so homogenized that very few artists can stand out. The requirement is how do you look? How can we package you? It didn’t used to be like that. People were encouraged to be individuals.
Q: So how do you really feel?!
A: Well, I mean, it’s not easy to stand up when the masses are saying: “Do this. Be that. Look like that.” I’ve been doing this long enough where I don’t fall under the pressure. But early on in my career, I was not encouraged to sound or look or be like anyone. I feel for the young artists who are under pressure to sound or look like somebody else or be somebody else.
If you don’t start forging your confidence and creativity—provided you have some—early in your career, it’s going to be really hard to make a mark or establish any kind of individuality early on. They will suppress you. They will oppress you. The business has become very, very tough. ... It’s all about who can make the most money in the least amount of time. Their careers are short, so they’ve got to make the money quick. Some of the artists, their days are numbered, unfortunately.
Q: How has this affected you?
A: I think I’ve been very blessed. I don’t know why I can still do this. It is so hard standing up against this pressure right now. There’s a lot of pressure for an artist like myself as well as a new artist coming out.
Q: And what’s the pressure for you?
A: To not try to be hip-hop! To act my age! And I mean that. To not be tempted to be out on the stage in little short skirts and shake my behind. There’s a temptation to do that because I look good!
Q: So why did you want to go back to making R&B music? You’re celebrated as one of the most successful artists in the smooth jazz game.
A: I think that I stayed too long doing the jazz thing. I wish I’d done this record at least five years ago. I think an artist such as myself—who is a little neurotic—I like to keep changing it up. I like to challenge myself. I do more than one kind of thing. People started calling me a jazz singer, and I didn’t like that. I don’t like to be labeled.
My versatility is a blessing, and I want to explore that part of myself. ... And I’m not the kind of person trying to sit back and say it’s all gravy now, it’s all cool. I’m really not that kind of a person.
Q: Well what kind of a person are you?
A: As long as I’m living, I’m here to have fun, live life and explore. I’m here to enjoy the journey. I don’t think you can sit back and cruise.
It’s kind of like John F. Kennedy said about the country. But for me, it’s not what life can do for me; it’s what I can do for the life that I’ve lived. And the life that I’ve lived with other people. I’m a very inspired and motivated kind of person.