Artistry: Artist Feature
Brave Soul Artist: N'Dambi

November 10, 2009 Print version       Other articles by this author

Photography credit: Jason Clark

Our Brave Soul Artist for the month of November personifies what it means to be every sense of the word. For the last 10 years, N'dambi has blessed the world with the beautiful instrument that is her voice, lyrics that tell vivid inspirational stories, and music that honors the essence of various genres of music such as R&B/Soul, Jazz, Funk, Rock and Gospel.
The daughter of strict Baptist ministers in Dallas, Texas - only two kinds of music were allowed in N'dambi's house -- gospel and country. Church was the center of the family's life in every way and there was no middle ground. Secular music was forbidden, but its irresistible allure eventually trickled into her life and began impacting the maturing young singer. Blessed with a deep contralto, N'dambi became especially enamored with the male singers from the 70's and 80's she'd heard and identified with while hanging out with cousins and friends. The funky soul of Bar-Kays' Larry Dodson, the sophisticated syncopation of Earth, Wind & Fire's Maurice White and the notorious abandon of the Ohio Players' Sugafoot influenced her heavily. Later, the mysterious, uninhibited imagination of Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson also became musical and cultural touchstones. Her independent streak led to college and a degree in English and creative writing from Southern Methodist University. Her developing, expressive voice, the poetic irony of her skillful writing ability and her musicianship as a classically trained pianist spurred N'dambi's musical ambition. N'dambi sang back-up and collaborated with another rising soul seeker, Erykah Badu all the while honing her artistry and slowly building a fiercely loyal fan base that resonates with the organic, authentic approach to her life and music.

N'dambi delivered her debut solo CD Little Lost Girl Blues in 1999. Since then she has
released the two-disc set Tunin' Up & Cosignin', and the 2005 set A Weird Kind Of Wonderful, which was released only in Japan. On Pink Elephant, N'dambi ingeniously distills soul-deep inspiration into a sensual style of elegance and power, making her a fundamental new addition to the Stax legacy.

Last month, I had the opportunity to witness N'dambi perform live, which is an experience in & of itself. Backed with a talented band of musicians, (and no background singers---I might add) she brought the house down as she performed selections from her most recent artistic offering, the infectious PINK ELEPHANT, as well as from her previous three recordings. Not only did she deliver an amazing performance, but she was a delight to speak with after the show, as she greeted fans and lovers of her music for nearly an hour and some change. A few days later, I had the privilege of speaking with her more in depth about her STAX debut PINK ELEPHANT, what inspires her, and how she feels about the gifts of writing, singing, and performing. Her commitment to the process of creating music is refreshing and genuine, and it shines through not only in her voice and lyrics but in her warm, down to earth personality. I am honored to present to you, a glimpse inside the heart, mind, and soul of the beautiful woman and artist known as N'dambi. Enjoy...

I don't mean to tell anyone's story in specifics...I mean to give you stuff that can try to work with and find yourself in the music and you can find the point of view that relates to you..."

What was the process of creating this album like for you?

This process was a growth process I'll because it was a lot of fine tuning that was involved in trying to create the right equation to make this album be what it is...and that's all the way down from picking the producers to what songs would make it...and then being more deliberate about what kind of instrumentation was used and how it would sound and how many minutes it would be. So all those things are things I took into consideration when making this album and those are things that I probably did not do before, so that was a large part of the process. The writing process was the first part of it and I had written a whole bunch of songs and it was about picking out what songs I thought would be good to go together. That was a process in which I went through several stages of what songs I thought would be good for an album. Trying to figure out what really made the most sense of the work I had written, and so all those things... & also finding the right producers want to find the person who helps you best articulate the ideas you have and Leon Sylvers was really instrumental in being able to help pull that off for me.

How did Leon Sylvers III become involved with the production of Pink Elephant? Additionally, in all of the promotional materials for the album it's mentioned that your experience working with him forced you to dig deeper by pushing your voice into a higher register than normal and layering your vocals. How did that process work & what was it like for you?

I had really wanted to work with him and I had calls with A&R to make sure that we could meet and from the meeting we talked about doing music and when we got in the studio we worked on the songs and it seems like it was instant chemistry so we continued to work on the album. Kinda like that...The process, i really didn't know how I was gonna go about doing the vocals because when I first started I said that I was gonna do more scaled down vocals... kinda more something like the Staple Singers---that's what I said I was gonna do, but when I got into it, the more I got involved I realized that I liked using the vocals more like instruments or liked to color it more and the more I did it, it was like this needs this background right here and we just started adding more... it was also fun in a good way because it was one of the things I hadn't really explored to that depth with albums before so it was fun to experiment with it and see what we could do to create certain elements of the music. Singing in a higher register ended up pushing me in different ways because I tend to sing in a certain range, but just exploring all the options of what you can do and how you can use your voice as an instrument... that was one of the things I had fun doing on this particular album and I tried to maximize by doing everything that I knew I could try to experiment with.

Can you discuss briefly the concept/idea behind the title of the album, Pink Elephant?

Well [Pink Elephant] was a take on the term there's an elephant in the room that people know that they choose to ignore and I wanted to make it more of a message that was about being fearless of your own personal greatness because if you think about an elephant, it's just a big thing and if you see one, you're gonna know it's there. I think that if you're your individual self and you embody your own personal greatness there's no way to avoid feelings. It's important for people to be fearless & mindful of their own personal greatness and shine as brightly as they can without feeling the need to dumb it down to make others happy because it's about being your best self cause when you are your best self, the work you do will reflect better.

A number of your songs on this album, such as L.I.E & Nobody Jones, Hot Pearl C, Love (from A Weird Kinda Wonderful) have a bit of kind of storytelling theme to them. Is it usually a conscious decision to write from a third person perspective?

That's conscious and part of that is my training with creative writing being that it was my major in school, and I wanted to be a writer first...I wanted to write novels and stuff like that so it comes from that and I always like to employ that in the work that I do. I always like to tell other people's stories---not necessarily that which is mine. The stuff that I see just by observing life and watching people.

The Brave Soul discussion topic for November is Trust. As it pertains to this topic, how important is the element of trust to you when it comes to working on music from both a performance and creative standpoint?

I think all those elements are important because when we work on music its almost like working on a relationship. One of the important factors is that when you're working with a producer or a writer, you want to have people you feel that you trust to help you articulate what you wanna say the way you wanna say it---and instincts....intuitively you will hear things that you know you feel are right. and your gut tells you it's right, its very ok to trust...and go with that, no matter how matter how many creative ideas come up. Some things you just know work because they work and there's no explanation for them. You just feel it in your gut. You know that's what you should go with. But at the same time, with being creative its always good to be in the collective of other creatives too because they can help you broaden your idea and make it have even more appeal sometimes than what you might have originally envisioned... and sometimes you might sit in one dimension but if/when someone else shows you another aspect of it, it can open it up and make it even wider than what you thought it was in the first place. Also its important to trust the process of you're working on things you should have a team of people you can trust that you talk to or allow to hear your music to listen to, to see what it means to someone outside of your circle because sometimes we write things and it makes sense to us, but it may not make sense to other people outside of our circle so its important to have that too, along with everything else. There's a stage of vulnerability and a stage of allowing yourself to go with the process which means you trust it, or otherwise you cant can make it, but you may not get the true essence of what it is that you want to create.

As it pertains to your experiences writing songs, is it a conscious decision to write about things that serve as a kind of inspiration or do they strictly come about based on your own experiences with regard to staying inspired? EG---The Sunshine, Nobody Jones, Insecurity, DayDreamer...etc.

Well a lot of it, I'm open to being divinely inspired and I'm also open to lookin and observing people and telling those stories...and a lot of time, those inspirations will come from simple life things like walking in the park. I had one discussion with a friend about walking in the park and why people don't do things outside of the norm and that led to me writing "Young Lady", so it's always a lot of life observation that I take in that inspires the writing and it helps me to tell the stories and I can always relate to something after the fact.

BSC is an arts organization with a focus on HIV/AIDS outreach through the performing arts. What impact has HIV/AIDS had on your life as a black woman and as an artist?

I think that overall it's important particularly for my people to be as healthy as possible because there's so many things we need to do and in order to promote that, I'm down for supporting things that will stand for that. I think its still important to bring awareness to how unaware we may seem about HIV & AIDS and how some of us are doing nothing and I think its important to be mindful of that and just in general be mindful of keeping yourself as healthy and safe as possible and take the precautions that you should take. I'm down to represent that because it's important.

In this day and age of many artists choosing to go the route of releasing and creating music independently as opposed to through a major label with distribution, what has your experience been like thus far being signed to Stax Records?

My experience has been great and one of the reasons why is because I'm with a team of people who are interested in what I'm doing and they are very very involved in making sure that people know about whats going on and it's been great to have longer reaching hands to get to places that I couldn't get to alone and it's a family that has been very supportive of the work that I've been doing so I have no complaints.

Can you share with the BSC readers who some of your artistic influences are...musically and otherwise? In laymans terms who & what inspires you as an artist?

I am influenced by Betty Davis, Zora Neale Hurston, I love Nina Simone, Isaac Hayes, The Sylvers, The Jackson 5, it's a whole bunch of folks, for different reasons. I like Smokey Robinson, Heatwave, Rod Temperton in particular.... its just a lot of people from all over the place, Marvin Gaye, I could go on.... I'm influenced by music from different perspectives for different reasons---from the sound, to the writing. Like I said I love Zora Neale Hurston, but then I love Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, I love a lot of writers too.

What is that process of live performance like for you? Are you always energetic and charged when you hit the stage or do you tend to feed off of the mood coming from the crowd?

Well one of the things with performing, its kind of like being someone else... kind of an 'out of body' experience...and one of the things is that no matter what happens, be it one or be it one hundred thousand, you wanna give the best show you can give so I try to focus more so on giving the best energy all the time. Now granted there are gonna be some days when I'm not feelin' my best and then some days it might be the energy of the crowd that will carry me through there and so I really try to focus on being the best at trying to convey whatever messages I'm giving through the music each and every time as much as I can, no matter what size the audience is...

Photography credit: Jason Clark

Have you seen or heard about Chris Rock's new movie Good Hair yet? Do you feel any responsibility to rep for natural sistas? Is your look a personal creative/artistic choice or a political statement?

I haven't seen the movie yet, but I have plans to go and see it. One of the things that's important to me just in general is that I wear an afro because I like wearing a natural and i think that also its nice to see sistas represent natural hair. I enjoy it when I get feedback from other sistas that say "Well you know I wanna wear my hair like that" and I say "YOU CAN..." I think the more we see images that look like that it may inspire us to want to look like that, and I think it's great being natural and I don't say that in disrespect to women who choose not to, I just think we have this nice cool texture and its nice to see it...

For more on N'Dambi, please visit:
N'Dambi Online