Every month of every year, I am pleasantly surprised to discover an amazing talent that has existed for years in the “underground” scene, while being ignored by “mainstream” radio. This month, I was introduced to the work of N’dambi, who has recorded as a solo artist for more than a decade and served as a background singer for several gospel and secular artists, including fellow “soul sister” Erykah Badu.
Inspired by the music of Nina Simone, N’dambi has harnessed the power of her contralto voice and let her creative spirits guide her from Dallas, Texas, to venues across the globe. Upon the release of her Stax debut, Pink Elephant, N’dambi managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on the influence of Nina Simone, her Stax experience, and the creative chemistry behind “Imitator” and “Can’t Hardly Wait.”
As the child of Baptist ministers, is there a particular Biblical philosophy that has guided your personal and professional life?
I believe that one of the philosophies that has guided my professional life is learning the importance of working hard and being diligent in every aspect of your work.
At what point in your life were you introduced to secular music, especially that of Nina Simone? On your second album, Tunin' Up & Cosignin', you open with the lovely “Ode 2 Nina.” In what ways were your influenced by her artistry?
The interesting thing about Nina Simone is that I didn’t know about her early on. A friend of mine said that my voice reminded them of Nina’s, and I remember thinking: “Who is that?” After discovering and listening to her records, I was impressed by how she used her voice as an instrument. So I became very excited and interested in her vocal abilities and who she was as an artist and I wanted to develop myself in the same way.
As a child, you grew up playing the piano and clarinet. At what point did you determine that you wanted to focus your energy and talents on your vocal instrument instead?
I always sang, even when I played those instruments. So there was never an issue of if I would sing, only if I would sing professionally. My house was full of singers. I was surrounded by music in my house. I was exposed to singing very early—especially in church. From a very young age, I was always encouraged to sing and use my vocal abilities.
You have quite an international following, and in 2008, you released an EP in Japan entitled A Weird Kinda Wonderful. At what point did you realize that you had an international following?
Well, the international following piece developed around 2001. My music was featured on several compilations overseas. So I received a great deal of exposure and developed a large Japanese fan base along the way.
Your first two albums [Little Lost Girls Blues and Tunin' Up & Co-Siginin’] were self-released, while your latest effort [Pink Elephant] was released on a major label. What life events led you to Stax Records?
Stax was very interested in my musical capabilities and the kind of art that I was producing. They also allow me the freedom to be me. And it has been a blessing to share my work through several brand new channels.
As you transitioned from the “underground” to the “mainstream,” so to speak, what have you learned about the business side of the music industry?
I learned you can’t go to the label and expect them to establish who you are as an artist. It is still important to engage in grassroots promotions and continue to think outside the box. You know better than anyone else what you want to bring to listeners. One of the things you learn as an independent artist is how to be a little more flexible and think out of the box, if necessary. Those skills help you to get out there in different ways, instead of waiting for someone to do all of the work for you.
When you look back on the recording experience for Pink Elephant, what thoughts immediately come to mind?
Well, I was able to work with Leon Sylvers III. He has a great track record. And he was the perfect producer for this album. There is a clear distinct beginning, middle and end, and the recording process was a lot more organic and filled with live instruments. I was like a kid in a candy store. Pink Elephant is a hybrid of musical elements.
What is the inspiration behind the album’s title, Pink Elephant?
The title is basically a message of empowerment and to find your personal greatness—no matter what obstacles come your way. The title also reminds us to shine bright and never dumb our greatness down.
My favorite tracks off of Pink Elephant are “Imitator” and “Can’t Hardly Wait.” Are these songs remnants of real life events or byproducts of fanciful imagination?
Those songs are just based on my imagination. They are relatable to me personally, but ultimately they were stories that I was interested in telling.
After reviewing the liner notes, I noticed that the same songwriting team crafted both cuts. What kind of chemistry did you have in the studio, along with James Butler, Ronnie Breaux, Samir Elmehdaoui and Leon Sylvers?
We have been playing together for quite some time. Since we had that previous chemistry, there is something to be said about mixing the personal and the professional and learning about people and making connections with them. It definitely elevates the music to another level.
Although you have a loyal following of fans across the globe, for many music lovers, Pink Elephant will be their first time listening to your music. Having spent a decade in the music business, what do you think has been the biggest obstacle in getting your music on mainstream radio stations?
I think the biggest obstacle is convincing people that what you have to offer is worth hearing. Radio is based on popularity and I believe that sometimes many people won’t brand you as “official” unless your music is being played on the radio.
Now that we live in the age of iTunes, what songs from your previous albums do you think would give new fans a “crash course” on N’dambi?
From my first record, Little Lost Girls Blues (1999), I would want them to hear “What’s Wrong With You” and “The Sunshine.” From my second album, Tunin' Up & Co-Siginin’, “Call Me” and “Ode 2 Nina.” And from my third release, my EP, A Weird Kind Of Wonderful, I would want them to hear “Can’t Change Me” and “Insecurity.” I think these would give a pretty good picture of my artistry.
Before you developed an international reputation as a solo artist, you served as a background singer for Erykah Badu and a host of other artists. How did those experiences shape your professional career?
I think one of things that shaped my solo career was just learning, when you’re on-stage, how to carry the stage and have a presence from one end of the stage to the other end. This helped me to become a better artist and transition into being a solo artist and understanding the industry as a whole. When I think about it, it wasn’t overwhelming for me to become a solo artist.
Since there is no such thing as an “overnight success,” what do you consider to be the key, defining moment of your career?
I think the career defining moment is still in the making. I’m still on the road. And I believe that every moment of putting an album together is a key defining moment. I am constantly on the road and trying to get my music heard.
My mentor, Edward Garnes, brought to my attention that you are the model on the cover on Marc Baptiste’s Beautiful Nudes (2001) photography book. And as I look through the liner notes of Pink Elephant, I wonder if modeling is still a secret passion of yours.
I just think that it is an extension of my artistic expression. I think they are interconnected and I don’t think one is better than the other. I always strive to be better and express my ways in different ways.
For more information on N’dambi, visit her official website.