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In the spring of 2003, David Freeland – author of the book “Ladies Of Soul” – conducted this interview with David about his debut CD "Reinvention" and his choice to begin actively pursuing a new phase in his career - as a performer and recording artist...

DAVID FREELAND: Let’s talk for a moment about the title, Reinvention. How does this title reflect your life experience and your present state of mind?

DAVID NATHAN: Well, the real answer to the question of where the title came from was from a session that I did with a person that I work with frequently who’s an astrologer. And she and I were talking at the end of 2002 about what this year was about for me, astrologically. She said it was really about reinvention. So that was the first time I really thought about the idea. Doing the CD at this time was the result of my participation in one of the Landmark Education ( programs I had done. That was really one of the things I said I wanted to accomplish as part of doing that program – to complete the CD. So there was her conversation about reinvention with me, and there was my commitment to getting it done this year.

I have to say that I hadn’t thought in terms of what doing the CD would mean until after it was finished. I got really caught up in the recording process, and it was only after it was finished and I was having a meeting with somebody who manages different artists – he works for the company who manages k.d. Lang, Boney James, and so on – and he asked me a very pointed question: “Well, what do you want to do? Do you want to perform?” It was kind of an obvious question, but I hadn’t really thought it through. I hadn’t thought about the implications of the question until it was asked, because I hadn’t thought like that. I said, “Well, when I think about the underlying purpose of doing the CD, it was to express myself as a singer. But really, the truth is, I love singing, and that’s really why I did it. I really love to sing.” The point being, I don’t want to be confined to only singing on record – that’s not going to really be fulfilling for me. So I said, “Yeah, that’s absolutely what I want to do. The next part of my life, given that I’m in a reinvention mode, would be to perform, and to perform at clubs like Blues Alley in Washington DC, and a couple clubs out here – the Jazz Bakery and Kimball’s East in the Bay Area – clubs that are really designed for people who do jazz-inflected, acoustic kind of work. So I said, “That’s really how I would like to start, by performing on a regular basis.”

DF: Prior to this past year – your discussion with your friend – was there any time when you thought you might want to pursue a singing career, in addition to your writing work? Had you ever harbored that dream at any time before?

DN: Sure, at different times. Even when I was in England, I definitely flirted with the idea, but I didn’t pursue it with any real commitment. I would do performances here and there, I would do demos every now and again, but I was operating from a different place about it, and we were in a different time. Nowadays, primarily because of the Internet, there’s a lot more ways to sell product, to get your music heard, than there would have been when I first may have been entertaining the idea. The only way to do it back then was to get a record deal. So, there were a couple of times that I did pursue doing demos and presenting them to people.

A little known fact: I did a session with James Mtume and Reggie Lucas, who at the time were producing Stephanie Mills and Phyllis Hyman. Mtume had heard one of my songs on a demo, and he was more impressed with my voice than he was with the song. So we did a session together, one song, it was called “Chained to a Melody.” They were interested in pursuing that and taking it to record labels. I think they did – nothing ever really came out of it. This would have been around ’78, ’79, in that time period. So, there were different times that I flirted with it. I don’t think I was as clear about it as I am now. I don’t think I would have been ready for it. I think it would have been disappointing, maybe, because of the way so many people’s careers were done back then. Because of the kind of climate we’re in now, where you really can be entrepreneurial and you can do your own thing, there’s a lot more opportunities for people than there were, and so I’m glad now that I didn’t do it then.

DF: Do you feel it’s possible to pursue a writing career and a singing career simultaneously, in your view?

DN: No, the fundamental answer is no. There are two things that I could continue to do; one is my work as a music historian. The precedent was already set by somebody else – Billy Vera. Billy Vera is a performer who has had hit records and has performed for many years, and he still continues to work as a music historian, producing reissues and being a liner notes writer. I also think that there’s no conflict in me maintaining and owning a website. That’s totally viable, and there’s no need for that to go away. The only part of my writing career that I can see would have to be discontinued, essentially, is my writing as a journalist. It’s not really tenable to be performing and then writing a story for Billboard. It just doesn’t fit. And then one of the other areas which has been definitely a part of my work is writing bios, where I’m hired to write somebody else’s bio. I just don’t think the two things are compatible, for me to be promoting my own career as a performer and a singer and a recording artist, and then writing about somebody else – it doesn’t even feel like it’s right. I can’t imagine performing one weekend and then on Monday morning waking up and doing Toni Braxton’s bio. It just doesn’t compute.

DF: It’s nice to know that Mtume appreciated your voice.

DN: There are a couple of people like that. There’s one other person who also has been a champion of mine, even though we’ve never worked together, and that is the producer Thom Bell. Very recently, a friend of mine interviewed him for a project he was doing on the Spinners, and Thom asked him if he knew me. This was totally unsolicited – he said, “Boy, that guy’s a great singer, you know,” or something to that effect. So there have been a couple of people who have championed me, in a sense. It’s very encouraging. And even the late Nina Simone heard some stuff I was doing in the early 90s, some demos. She left a very precious message on my answering machine, and it was a message of great praise. I still have it somewhere; I need to find it and listen to it again. She was very praiseworthy and very complimentary, and I thought that was probably the highest praise I could ever get.

And one of the two other people that I need to mention is Roberta Flack, who really took some time when we were doing some things together in the early 90s, and did some work with me in terms of understanding viewpoints and interpretation of the lyrics. The other person way back, way back, in the late 70s and early 80s, who actually came to one of my shows, one of the few shows that I did in New York, was Phyllis Hyman. She happened to stop by a club, a bar, that I happened to be doing that night, and she didn’t even know that I was going to be there. I’ll never forget her reaction. I did this famous rocking blues song called, “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water,” and she was very effusive in her praise. So there have been people over the years that have really encouraged me, and I appreciate all that encouragement. So this isn’t happening in a vacuum.

DF: Was there an overall quality, in terms of the sound, you were trying to achieve on the CD? I was struck by how professional it sounds and how well arranged it is. Also, you assembled some very fine musicians for this session. What were you trying to achieve?

DN: Well, the primary thing for this particular project was to pick songs I really liked, songs that had some meaning for me. The way most of it – seven of the nine songs – was done was really in the traditional way that people recorded back in the ‘60s. We rehearsed before we ever recorded, and once we had rehearsed a couple of times and we knew what we were going to do, then we did a live session with the musicians all playing at once and me singing – completely live, in the studio. We kept some of my original vocals, and then I did some vocal overdubs two days later. Then the Sweet Inspirations came in and did some things, but the essential rhythm tracks were done in the way that people recorded back in the day.

DF: Who came up with that slinky, seductive arrangement for “You Don’t Know What Love Is?” I think the organ adds a really nice touch.

DN: A lot of the ideas for the arrangements really came from my co-producer, Giovanna Imbesi. Giovanna’s history is working with people like Dave Koz and Narada Michael Walden, and she’s just a very accomplished musician. The idea for the arrangements really came in the rehearsal. When we would start working on a song, she had the basic original music to work from, and then it was a question of she and the musicians and I trying some different things. So when we started doing “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” I told them what kind of feel I wanted, but it was a lot of her ideas. The actual arrangements were really hers.

DF: It sounds as if you had determined the songs you wanted to do some time before recording the album. Were there any that came to you after you began recording?

DN: Yes, “Cry Me a River.” We did two rehearsals, and there were some other songs we tried that didn’t work. We tried to come up with new arrangements for them, and they just didn’t work. One of them was the James Taylor song, “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.” And we couldn’t come up with anything that was different from what other people, such as Nancy Wilson, had done. We tried a Tina Turner song called “Confidential,” that didn’t work either. So we had a little time at the end of one of the rehearsals, and I said, “Oh, let’s just try ‘Cry Me a River.’” And my original thought was, “Well, we’ll just do it the same way I’ve sung it in performance here in Los Angeles,” and I would always do it as a torch song. I had the sheet music with me, and I showed it to the drummer, and for whatever reason he just started doing this samba thing with it, so it wasn’t anything like I had originally planned.

The other one that happened as an afterthought was “Tryin’ Times.” With all that was happening in the world, with Iraq and the war, I came to the rehearsal one day during the week before, and I said, “Let’s just try that.” So we tried it, and it worked. That one took on a life of its own, because after we did the basic tracks, then all these other elements got added with the Sweet Inspirations speaking, and the saxophone player, and then one of my neighbors, Forrest - who’s a rapper and singer - heard it, and he added his part to it. So it was an organic experience, and it was certainly not in the form that we originally thought it would be.

DF: Speaking of the Sweet Inspirations, they do some lovely back up work with “Angel Eyes.” The part near the end is very pretty. How did they come to appear on the disc?

DN: In my other role as music historian and reissue producer, I was responsible for the reissue of some of their work last year, the Atlantic recordings. So that put me in contact with them. And then, they came to an event we had in December at a club called The Parlor. They came by and they sang and really hung out with us, and it was really great. And I thought, “I know I need to do some backgrounds on some of the songs.” So I called up Myrna and Estelle, ‘cause those are the ones I knew best, and I said, “Look, I do not have Sweet Inspirations budgets. This is me paying for this.” And they said, “Look, you’ve done a lot to support us, it’s the least we can do.” They were just amazing to work with. They already had some ideas of what they were going to do, and within a matter of minutes, they had the parts down and just went and recorded. I think they were there for a couple of hours at the most, ‘cause they ended up doing four songs. They were so easy to work with. They were funny; they brought humor and good cheer to the session. It was just great being around them.

DF: And they support your own vocals well.

DN: Yes, they really do. Actually – and I told them this – after they finished, I said, “Well, I kind of figured this would happen. I’m going to have to go back in and do final vocals on the songs you did.” The only one that that didn’t happen with was “Angel Eyes.” But I did “Tryin’ Times” again, and “When Your Heart Whispers Love.” So, I kind of used their vocal as a “Sweet Inspiration!” [laughs]

DF: At times your voice sounds husky and deep. Were you surprised at how you sounded? What were your thoughts when you listened to the playback and you heard your interpretations?

DN: Well, like anybody, I guess I’m kind of critical, so even now when I hear it, I just hear the things that I would do again or notes that are a little off in my hearing. I think – and you can quote this – I think that’s the ‘Anita Baker’ in me. She and I share the same birthsign, and I think I’m probably pretty hypercritical of my own vocals. But at some point, I just said, “This is what it is,” even if there are a couple of notes that are little off, and the pitch is a little off to me as I hear it, I’m just gonna let it be, ‘cause the performance is the performance.

In terms of the sound of my voice, it’s definitely changed over the years. It’s a little deeper; it’s more of a “lived-in” voice – probably because I’ve lived. That huskiness is, to some degree, in my natural speaking voice, but for some reason when I’m singing it just becomes emphasized.

DF: What about getting in touch with the emotional current in the songs? Did you do any preparation for that, or, rather, did you find yourself swept up by the song as you were singing?

DN: I was pretty swept up. It was really pretty easy. I didn’t really do a lot of prep work on the songs; I just did what felt right. And that’s basically how I always sing. I don’t do a lot of figuring out what I’m going to do; I just seem to be able to know what to do. There are times when I know there’ s a little work to be done here and there, and obviously I correct, but the essential thing is pretty much what you’re hearing. There’s not a lot of doctoring or changing or any of that. You’re hearing it as I sang it.

DF: Now that you’ve finished it, how do you feel the album fits in, in terms of marketing? Do you think it has a certain niche?

DN: It’s very hard for me to be objective, because it’s mine but I think that there is an audience. I thought that ultimately, because of the way the musicians played, it would end up being more of a jazz album, but it really isn’t that. So I think that it has enough jazz inflections that I can get away with calling it jazzy, even though it’s not jazz. I’m not sure, but I think it fits to some degree with the kind of people who might buy Norah Jones, the people who might buy Mose Allison. I just suspect – and we’ll see – that there is an audience who likes good songs and who will enjoy the emotion and get something out of it, and hopefully be touched or moved by the performances. That’s ultimately what I hope for. I want people to be able to listen and feel something. I don’t know which songs will produce that effect.

DF: It might be different for different people.

DN: If I try to be as detached as I can – which is difficult – I just happen to have a couple of personal favorites. “I Could Have Told You” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” When I hear my own performances on those, those are the ones that affect me most emotionally, so I would hope that other people would have that experience, too. There are parts of the songs where I can tell that it’s real; there’s nothing fake about the way I was singing them. I wasn’t trying to impress anybody; it was really just what was there.

DF: I think “You Don’t Know What Love Is” might be my favorite as well.

DN: Not to get too much into dissecting it, but at the end of the song, when I was vamping, it took on different meanings. I think it has a certain kind of cynicism to it, but then I noticed as I was singing towards the end, I got kind of feisty – a little like, “You really don’t know like I know.” At one point, it was almost like disdain: “You don’t know what love is, I know, and love ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.” The word that kind of most comes to mind now, after listening to it, is “bittersweet.”

DF: You mentioned to me, in one of our last conversations, that you had decided to dedicate the CD to the memory of Nina Simone. Could you talk about that a little bit?

DN: Well, it was really kind of interesting that this was finished and then she passed away. And when I was talking to somebody about influences, the day I found out she died – which was actually the day after she died – I said, “Listening to Nina Simone probably had the most profound influence on me, not just because of the sound of her voice, but because of the way she made such a stand for artistic integrity, and she was willing to go wherever she needed to go, vocally, to make her point. I think that some of that is really kind of there for me too. And she sometimes sacrificed technique for emotion.” By some quirk of fate, they had not finished the artwork when it was supposed to be finished, so I got to include on the back of the CD a dedication to her. Ultimately, I decided to dedicate the whole thing to her.

DF: What kind of response have you received so far?

DN: Well, I did a radio edit of "Tryin' Times" and we are getting some great reaction to it within the industry; in early August, it will go out to radio stations and because of that is going on in the world right about now, the song's message is more timely and topical than ever.

One of the most interesting things is that there has been some real interest and response from people in Europe. There’s even been one person who’s spoken to me about coming over to perform in England. It’s kind of ironic to me that I’ve spent most of my life here, being a music journalist, praising the work of others. The complete cosmic irony would be that what I’m doing in this area would really take hold there, even before it took hold here. It would be great for me, the idea of going back to England and performing – because of course that is where I grew up – but there’s just a strange irony, if that should be how it turns out.


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