As a professional dancer, I was fortunate to be a part of various dance groups, working with other dancers at my performing arts school, dance studios, and even on jobs. There was always a great sense of community because dancers are often put together to create a work of art. We audition, practice, and perform together. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same experience when I became a professional singer.
Once I left my church choir and embarked on the path to becoming a recording artist, I felt somewhat alone and isolated. I even tried my hand at being in a girl group because I loved harmonies and missed the fellowship that creating music with others brings. But it’s common in music as a singer to often work alone. In a vocal lesson, you work one-on-one with your vocal coach. In the recording studio, it’s often only you and the producer. Unless they’re a part of a band, Broadway or West End show, or in a church choir, singers can find themselves without a team or support system. Unlike when Sister Sledge sings “We are family, I got all my sisters with me….get up everybody and sing!” I had no other singing ‘brothers and sisters’ in the game. Even in my journey moving from New York to LA, it was a task to find the singing community. I eventually found out that it did in fact exist, but it was ever-changing from face to face and from place to place. Like an orphan, I really wanted a place to belong and people to belong to. I needed a family. Not family, as in people affiliated by birth or marriage, but as in a community or village.
In 2012 when I began working with Robbie Williams as a backing vocalist, I met a very talented group of brass players called the Atlantic Horns. One of the members, Mark Brown, invited me to watch them perform at the legendary Ronnie Scott’s Jazz club in the heart of London. I just thought it was going to be a nice, chilled evening out. Amidst an intimate and dimly lit stage, surrounded by some of London’s young. hot, musical talent stood a beautiful, sultry, soulful chanteuse. She was poised, effortless and mesmerizing in her stature and made singing look as though it was as easy as breathing. Her name is Natalie Williams, and she is the brains and beauty behind The Natalie Williams Soul Family. Shortly after she captured my attention, she was joined on stage by three other incredibly talented vocalists, all of who have had credible solo success and happen to be the most in-demand singers on the UK music scene. The energy in the room was alive and buzzing, and what began as a relaxing evening out quickly turned into a hip-swaying, hand–clapping, funky, finger-snapping jam session! I was so inspired to finally see and experience a community and support for singers that I had long been searching for and had only briefly experienced back home. But what’s so special about this group was the diversity, range, talent, humility, and support that existed amongst them and allowed them to come together from their individual lives on Sunday night to create a ‘musical feast’ for themselves and true music lovers to enjoy.
Being back in London for Robbie Williams tour rehearsals again, I had the opportunity to catch up with Natalie and family, to get to know her and her crew and how they balance their individual solo careers and find time to come together and break musical bread together! I even joined the family when they invited me to sing their finale song last Sunday. Check out the interviews and get to know The Natalie Williams Soul Family.
5 pieces of advice for longevity and success for singers
1. Be versatile. Be able to jump into many situations (whether it’s fronting a band, being a backing vocalist, doing recording sessions or vocal workshops). The more strings to your bow, the more you will work.
2. Be super friendly and learn who is who around you. Years ago my good friend Sharlene Hector (Basement Jaxx) taught me to always ask the sound guy his name (if you’ve not worked together before) and tell him/her you name. People appreciate that and they are the ones that make you sound good, so politeness will go a long way…
3. As a singer it is important to know what goes on in the band behind you. Know your keys and tempos and how to lead and conduct a band. Don’t be one of those singers that’s clueless when it comes down to the music. The musicians will respect that and it makes gigging and playing together far more enjoyable for everyone.
4. Take risks. Throw yourself into situations that are out of your comfort zone. It’ll only make you grown as a musician, and learn/write new music/songs on a regular basis. It helps keep things fresh. Make the music your own. There are many copy cats out there and there needn’t be. This is your voice! Inspire other people with YOUR sound.
5. Make your own gigs happen. It can start with a small gig you put on yourself in a local bar, pub or venue and turn into something much bigger down the line. Be prepared to put your own money into a project to try and take it off the ground. These kinds of things usually start snow balling and can become a real success if you stick at it. Surround yourself by talented musicians and singers. It feeds the soul and is always an inspiration!