“I guess my music has an element of soul and songwriting, but also melody and misery.” Take one listen to Devil In Me and Uncomfortable Silence and we defy you not to fall head over heels with Nottingham born, London living Natalie Duncan. With an absolutely incredible, drop dead gorgeous vocal, the piano playing 23 year-old, whose sound is simply classic, describable, perhaps, as sitting somewhere between Radiohead and Nina Simone, pours her life into her lyrics. Indeed, as Duncan herself puts it, “If you want to know who I am, all you have to do is listen to my music.”
Having already been featured in i-D and RWD magazine, Natalie has also won fans in the form of SBTV, Radio 1/ 1Xtra’s Mistajam and Mojo. Though she shies away from the ‘P’ word, Duncan’s soul, classical and jazz infused compositions most definitely have huge crossover pop potential. Her album is songwriting at its very best, underpinned with a voice that is really quite extraordinary. Listen carefully to her multifaceted songwriting, and you’ll hear that Natalie has the ability to appeal to everyone from Jools Holland to the NME, 1Xtra to Radio 2. Indeed, as well as working with Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry (Ani DeFranco) on her own album, Natalie also features on Goldie’s latest hit, Freedom, released to celebrate 10 years of his label, Metalheadz. The single was recently made Mistajam’s ‘Jam Hot’ of the week.
“It was a great experience and really helpful creatively,” she notes of working with the D&B legend. “Goldie is a perfectionist and so am I – when the two world’s collide it’s either perfection or complete disaster. I think – I hope – it was the former!”
From D&B to Dubstep; last month Natalie found herself in the studio with Magnetic Man, working on a track that will appear on their second album, due later this year. “Writing my own songs is a challenge as it is because I always want it to be brilliant and there’s lots of failure with that. So working with someone else, taking their ideas and trying to manipulate their ideas into working with your ideas is hard – but I really like the challenge of it,” says Natalie of collaborating with such instrumental producers. “Working with Arthur was great – he left me alone with the music so I didn’t feel this huge pressure. I’d love to work with him again.” The sounds she’s working on with both Goldie and Magnetic Man may be radically different from her own stylings, yet Natalie is someone who is able to master all types of musicality. “My songwriting, whatever type of music I’m writing to, whether mine or someone else, is quite abstract,” says the self-taught pianist. “I like to think the songs I write are more interesting than ‘just’ a love song or a pop song. I like to explore and mess around with melodies as well, being quite intricate and delicate with parts of melody – having classical elements and then making it into blues. I don’t really have a formula; I want to write a song that sounds a particular way, so I do.”
Natalie began singing, writing and playing piano at around 5 years-old. Borrowing her grandma’s piano that had found its way into her parent’s house and “dragging” her friends into her room, she “forced” them to record harmonies onto her tape recorder and held regular songwriting competitions – which she always won. “I was really anal about it whereas they weren’t that bothered,” she laughs. “I suppose that’s when I realised I was a bit obsessive about music.” During those formative years, each Saturday Natalie was exposed to her dad’s huge record collection, which included everything from Freddie McGregor to Pink Floyd, Professor Longhair and Sly & Robbie, and a range of dub, roots and blues. “I’d listen to the TV or stereo and just play along on the piano, improvising what I heard.”
Natalie’s first band was in secondary school and featured herself on drums, a bassist and a lead guitar (“it didn’t work out so well!”), which was followed by a plethora of other bands while studying music at college. Borrowing a guitarist from one of the bands – Harley Blue – Nat finally went solo at the age of 19 and began performing her own material that she had been crafting throughout her teenage years.
Two years ago, she was approached by Goldie to work on a music project he was doing with the BBC, which led to a fruitful partnership culminating in the recent single, Freedom. Before that though, Natalie and her incredible songwriting caught the attention of Simon Gavin, who signed her to Decca Records last summer after seeing her perform at a pub in Nottingham in 2010. It took him nearly a year to persuade the reluctant Duncan to sign. “I just wasn’t that sure about having a record deal, I didn’t really get how it all worked to be honest. He won me round eventually though and I’m glad I’m with a label that basically sent me off to do exactly what I wanted to do and make the record I wanted to make without interference.”
Since then, Natalie has turned her demos, recorded on a basic 8-track, into a fully-fledged debut album, produced by Joe Henry. “Devil In Me definitely has a sound even though each song is quite varied; I think that’s down to Joe and the band I was with. They’ve helped to transform my demos, which were just me and my piano, into these incredible sounding songs.”
Uncomfortable Silence was written after a breakup, when a broke Natalie was forced to live in a bedsit. “I had no money to pay for our flat and I had to live in this crap place,” she recalls. “Some people were round at my house after a party and I just felt like I was in a massive hole. I didn’t want to be by myself at all. There’s no happy ending,” she grins, noting Eliot Smith, Lauryn Hill and Pink Floyd as particularly key influences on the record.
The incredible title track, Devil In Me, is a dark look at destructive relationship, while Old Rock recounts the musings of a crazy old man that used to frequent a pub she worked in. Gil Scott-Heron meanwhile inspired the dub-drenched Pick Me Up Bar. “I watched a documentary about him and it reminded me that I’d been thinking there wasn’t enough being said in music anymore. No one has that passion to change things through lyrics. So I wanted to write a song about the crap ideology that we’re sold; like an energy bar with no added sugar that will ‘make you feel better’; it’s all rubbish.” She’s at pains to point out there are uplifting moments on the album; Flowers for example is a thank you to a particularly close friend who’s been on hand for all of those post Devil In Me moments in life. “The album does epitomize a lot of heartbreak and anger,“ admits Nat with another grin. “I’m definitely a welcome grim-reaper for the pop world!”
Her debut single, the beautiful Sky Is Falling was written last summer, and is self-explanatory once listening to the lyrics. Heart-wrenching, wrought, Natalie’s vocal is perfectly, deftly placed; she has an innate ability to wring emotion from each note without sounding forced or overdone.
Natalie’s album will be released this summer, preceded by the single, Sky Is Falling, out in April.