September 5, 2008

Reggae Without Boundaries

By Elisa Bray

Natty grew up listening to Bob Marley, but he cut his teeth with Razorlight. Elisa Bray meets him

"I'm not much of a conversationalist first thing in the morning," Natty says with a friendly smile when we meet. It's certainly not true, but the 24-year-old north Londoner is only just getting accustomed to being on this side of the fence. Until a couple of years ago he was working behind the scenes as an engineer with some of the biggest names in indie music, including Razorlight. Now, with tours supporting both Kate Nash and Adele behind him, not only has he made his first television appearance on Jools Holland, but his reggae-tinged pop debut album Man Like I went to No 13 in the chart on its release last month.

After a fierce bidding war, which ended in Atlantic signing him in May last year, Natty is only too aware of the speed at which fame can creep up in the pop music world. He's reluctant to say where in north London he grew up, "'cos if I get real big I don't want people to know where my mum lives". But then Natty never planned this. For him, song-writing was a hobby - it was what he would do at the end of days spent engineering indie bands at Sphere, the renowned Battersea studio where he blagged himself a job on the back of his experience creating hip-hop beats for his friends using Cubase from his bedroom. It was only when he played a song to the producer Craig Dodds, whom he met at Sphere, that he got the idea to take it further.

"A song called 'Poet Thief' blew him away. He said: 'Oh my God! Can I have it?' Literally, it was the worst sound and it was just about a guy. I was surprised he liked it that much," Natty says, recalling his disbelief. The pair went on to work on songs which ended up on the debut album.

Natty taught himself to play guitar using books of Jamiroquai and Beatles songs at the age of 10, around the time that his English father and African mother divorced. "I was a little bit of a trouble- maker at school, but I was gifted in music," he says. "You find yourself in some circles that you're not supposed to find yourself in and then stuff happens... I wasn't bad, I just hung around with bad people. There were lots of times that I walked away from stuff. But I always had my own path anyway. I've never been part of a group. Even in school I was good at football and girls liked me, but I wasn't part of the cool crew."

They may bring to mind Bob Marley and reggae, but his dreadlocks mark Natty's decision at 16 to move on. He started reading up on African history and turned to spirituality. He explains: "I thought I should change my life. I guess it was the symbolism of my exit of one type of path to another and the first that came through was the Rasta faith. It's a constant reminder. It's a sacrifice having these," he says, looking at his dreads. "It's hard work and a sacrifice in terms of vanity." The name Natty is also a nickname for "roots", while also stemming from an unfortunate incident when he left his mother's prized original 1974 copy of Marley's Natty Dread to warp on the windowsill. The dreadlocks also bring him closer to his African roots. "I go there as much as I can just to soak up. African music is mainly what I listen to these days because you just get so much from it in terms of musical arrangement and tapping into your own self-expression."

His musical hero is Fela Kuti and his band - "probably the most funkiest group of musicians ever" - and he enthuses over how they marry dance elements to meaningful lyrics. "You come to one of my gigs and you see people dancing. That's what I got from Fela. You can make people dance, you can make people listen to your words. You can do anything."

His mother would play African music while he was growing up, but it was Paul Simon's Graceland, with its "real English-sounding voice I could relate to", that Natty listened to the most.

The lyrics to "If Is", "so I'll sing you this song out of my pigeonhole/but you'll probably still call me reggae soul", are about "stepping away from boundaries". Listen to the songs on Natty's album, and you'll find he has no musical boundaries. His influences span traditional English folk, the US folk of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, reggae, ska, jazz ("I used to be mad crazy into Miles Davis and Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder") and indie.

Working with indie bands in the studio in his late teens led him to look beyond the rock music of the Sixties and Seventies to The Strokes and The Libertines. "Of all the people around today probably my favourite acts are indie bands. I am big into Kings of Leon. I like Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend."

Working with Razorlight in his late teens on their No 3 album Up All Night was his lucky break and marked his return to songwriting. "I got real close to Johnny [Borrell]. He taught me a lot. He's really switched on. We'd sit up and chat because it was a residential studio so we were all living in each other's pockets for three months in the middle of nowhere in Cornwall. That's when I was getting back into the guitar and that was cool because Johnny might show me some things."

A self-professed realist, you get the feeling that whatever fame life has in store he would retain the same easy-going attitude. "We're all just human beings. Like Mariah Carey would come into the studio and say: 'I want this champagne, the right colour cups, the right this, the right that.' It's all just hype. It's all just people making music."

Natty plays Bestival this weekend ( His own tour begins on 3 October ( natty4d) and his single 'Bedroom Eyes' is out on 20 October on Atlantic

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