Some artists don't get a second chance. Nicole Wray is not one of those artists. Remaining steadfast and resilient, as a 15-year veteran of the music industry, Nicole is back as Lady, a new soul group with a funk-infused vibe reminiscent of a time when music was more honest. We had a long conversation about what she's been up to. From failed management to lessons learned, Nicole technically never left the industry; she just wasn't in the spotlight. Ghostwriting for other artists and yearning for the stage again, Nicole found a new home with Truth & Soul Records in Lady. Now just off of the European leg of her tour, Nicole/Lady performs at the Howard Theatre on tonight to an audience of fans old and new. In this interview, this Lady discusses her career, what she thinks is ratchet about the industry today and what's next for her and her group.
SoulBounce: You entered the music industry at the tender age of 17, how was that experience being so young?
Nicole Wray: Oh wow, it was definitely an experience because I wasn't really adapted or really ready. I was still in high school, my mom was managing me, and we both didn't know what to expect. All we knew was that I wanted to sing, and she wanted to make sure I was protected and you know honestly to just get out there and just kinda like learn from everybody who I was working with. I started with Missy Elliott at an early age, I've known Missy since I was like 15 and she kinda took me under her wings, so I would be under her and be in the studio and watch her write and work with other artists and myself doing reference vocals for other artists before I even started working on my own project. So I was really wet behind the ears; I was young, I didn't understand a whole lotta things, I just knew that I was just kinda drafted. That's how I look at it, I was drafted into the industry and I felt my way around. After all these years I kinda just took my craft and evolved from not knowing and just learning the business from my lawyers and my accountants and a lot of business people. Business management and people that would sit me down and would teach myself and my mom the business and I kinda learned and felt my way around by myself for a couple of years. I mean it's been definitely a challenge.
SB: Wow, at 17 it had to be hard to think about business and wrap your head around it all.
NW: Yeah, it was honestly, I just really wanted to sing and then the business part of it kicked in and I was just like wow. My mom kinda sat me down and she was like yeah you gotta know what's going on. I know you want to sing, but you gotta know what's going on in the background. I would listen to her and then not listen to her. You know at 17 I was like "whatever, mom" you know. But now I've totally got the hang of it, I take care of a lot of things myself, and I just kinda got new management to come in. But I've pretty much been managing myself the last five years of my career.
SB: So since you've had 15 years in the business, what do you know now that you wish you'd known then?
NW: I wish I had a little bit more patience. Back then I guess when you are young, you want things to fly by night and happen and I guess you can just shake a tree and money will fall off of it. I guess just me being a big dreamer I just thought that whatever I set my goals out to be and that if I worked hard it would happen. Which it did but it just didn't happen as fast as I thought it was. I wish I'd been more humble back then and had more patience but you never know when you're young, you're just young. But I'm glad it didn't happen fast because I probably wouldn't be able to be standing right now because the way it was back then when I first came out and got my record deal. Things were moving fast and the industry was very intelligent and has evolved a whole lot now. Back when I got my first deal you know it was just different, it was like no tattoos and no cursing, and no this and no that. You had to be really discreet but nowadays you see a whole lot of ratchetness going on in the industry. [laughs] It was not happening. Like people watched you from afar, and they critiqued everything you did. You had to be on this level because companies didn't want this type of artist on the label, you had to be this, you had to watch what you said, watch what you're wearing, don't try to be too grown. Now it's just so ratchet, it's like wow, it's changed a whole lot.
SB: Why do you think it's so ratchet right now?
NW: I think it's a money thing, it's like you get these artists and no disrespect it's just that music is different now, it's not like it's gonna stay around. It's like they all kinda sound the same, and it's like let's just get these songs out for the time being. I just think it's really getting them money, they don't really have time to sit and establish an artist like they used to anymore. There are so many people, they have like The Voice and these TV shows that let the audience pick who they want. It's so different from when I started. I really don't know where the ratchetness stems from. [laughs]
SB: We have to figure it out!
NW: I mean now you got artists going to jail, they're doing so many things now that were kinda unspoken, you just couldn't do that in R&B when I came out. It was kinda forbidden, and I think now it's more of a "I wanna sign you now because you're on drugs and because you're gonna go to jail" and it's just weird, I just don't know. I used to get the conversations and sit downs of "Nicole, you can't do this, you can't do that, you can't be with these type of people," it was always this you can't, you can't, you can't because I was so young. Now I look back and think now as an artist you can do what you want to do and you get more fans and you get more record deals and get more deals thrown at you the more drama you have going on.
SB: So being back out now do you feel like you're competing against the ratchetness?
NW: Oh definitely, I mean I have my ratchet moments too, but I'm saying it was forbidden for me to do that when I was coming up. I mean I didn't come up in the middle class, I was raised in the projects. I still had friends who didn't understand the industry who were like "oh you think you're better than us because you're famous now?" and "oh you're not going to talk to us anymore." I went through a lot of that, you know, I got my record deal when I was in high school and nobody understood what was really happening. I'd try to tell them "yeah I know Faith Evans, I know Lil Kim, I met Mary J. Blige, I'm hanging out with Missy Elliot," you know at the time she had a big record out and nobody believed me. And then when it actually happened and they saw my video and I was at lunch, they used to let us watch MTV and BET in the cafeteria, my video for my single "Make It Hot" came on and everybody was looking at me like "oh my God, she was not lying" and my world changed after that moment.
SB: Speaking of the music of today, what artists are you into right now?
NW: I love Rihanna, I love Kendrick Lamar, I still love OutKast, Miguel, I love love love
Janelle Monáe. Who else? I love Raphael Saadiq and love that he made that transition into soul, always loved his voice when he was with Tony! Toni! Toné! and I grew up listening to him and I've listened to some of his new stuff and I love it. I love a lot of different music; I listen to a lot of jazz and old school hip hop, I love Wu-Tang Clan, Ghostface, Method Man, RZA, 2Pac, Biggie, I listen to a lot of music.
SB: Tell us more about Lady. How did Lady come about?
NW: Lady came about three years ago, I was in New York, I was down working with Diddy and Dame Dash and he had like a lot of little things going on. He had some artists he wanted me to meet and work with and Terri Walker was there too. We worked with the same producer and we just became friends. She knew some of the people that I knew and we kinda got to know each other. We found out that we both had albums out on the same label just in different countries and she was supposed to do some stuff with Missy Elliot or someone Missy was working with, and we just became good friends. She introduced me to a couple people and we performed at an event and then she was like I want you to meet the guys over at Truth & Soul and they asked us how did we feel, because they heard us singing and asked us how we felt about doing a girl group project. We really didn't know because we were just there in the city trying to get our own thing off the ground and focus on our own solo projects and she was doing her own thing and I started working on material for my project. And we went in the studio with the guys and taped some songs and we just started singing. Next thing you know we had like four or five records and it sounded good, the vibe was good, it just felt really nice. We really didn't know what we were getting ourselves into but the music sounded so good, really organic vibe that was happening and then we started listening back to the records and it was just amazing. And we decided we were going to do an album together after listening back and everybody was excited.
SB: Why the name Lady?
NW: They flew her back home to London and I came back to Atlanta, and she and I stayed in contact. Then we went back to New York to actually do the demos, do it live actually for the album and when we realized we had an album, everybody was excited about it and they asked us to come up with some names for the group. We really didn't know what we wanted to be called because it was organic it was such a shock to us actually doing an album together because we came here to do solo projects and we ended up doing an album together. It was just so cool and the guys actually came up with the name. We were struck, like "Lady?" We're two individuals, we didn't get it but we thought the logo was super cool and so we started coming up with our own interpretations of what Lady meant to us. We're like one because we were doing everything together, we're blended with harmonies and we wrote everything together so we just became one lady. And that's how we explained to the world when they asked us because we had no other explanation. [laughs] But Lady meant we were one, we really loved the name and we're just gonna say that we're one lady, we came together, we harmonized together, we wrote together, we shared our pain and our struggle together on this album and that's really what Lady is.
SB: Is Terri still involved?
NW: Terri is not involved anymore, boo hoo, but we're still cool and everyone wanted to know what really happened. Honestly, when I met Terri she was in New York doing her own thing, and happy doing her own thing, ready to get popping and I was there trying to get my stuff together as Nicole Wray and we kinda fell in love with each other as friends and we had so much in common. And before you know it she'd already had stuff going on, and I did too, but I kinda took to Lady I think a little bit more than she did. I just fell in love with it and I'm a songwriter outside of what I do as Nicole Wray the artist so I was doing a lot of ghostwriting for other artists so I was cool with it. But she had some other things going on that kinda pulled her back sooner than we thought was gonna happen. I think Terri and I, we didn't really know how long it was gonna go. People would ask us when we first did our European tour, how long are you gonna go and we just said we're gonna rock it until the wheels fell off and whatever reasons would pull us apart, there's no drama. I want people to respect the fact that we were both individual artists that tried something new and we loved it and we never set out for something to be forever. Unfortunately you know something was gonna call one of us back to do some solo things so that's what happened and it's been kinda hard to explain that to people. I feel really good about it, she's very supportive of Truth & Soul and myself and we're very much supportive of Terri Walker and what she does. And we watch each other on the sidelines and help each other whenever we can.
SB: So Lady right now is you, and the band and two background singers?
SB: You have a lot of funk and soul reminiscent to Motown on your latest release, is that what you were going for?
NW: I wouldn't say that's what I was going for, but I was blessed to be put in a room with some geniuses that this is their niche at Truth & Soul, this is their baby, their pride and joy. Honestly Terri and I we just walked into some beautifulness, and I think I needed that breath of fresh air in my career. And I'm blessed and I'm so thankful that I have the chance and have the opportunity to be doing this again, something that I really love that I always wanted to do with a band and be free and be able to sing from my heart and my soul. When I first got started I was doing R&B and I had a lot of writers, and for me I was young and I wasn't really going through anything, I was baby. I mean I had a lot of things bottled up inside of me, and I think the music wasn't really helping me release that pain and I grew into that pain. I worked with a lot of other producers outside of Truth & Soul, hip hip and R&B producers that were still producing these tracks that I still felt I'm not releasing what I feel. So when I met Truth & Soul I just released everything that was bottled up in me for like 15 years that I wanted. You know when my dad was on drugs and when my mom was a single parent and when this guy broke my heart and when I experienced this for the first time and I was able to have a platform to release all of that. I'm thankful to Truth & Soul because they worked with Adele, Amy Winehouse and The Expressions so to just sit in a room with these guys and to be able to just hear the drums and hear the bass guitar and hear somebody playing the organ, and I come from a Baptist church so I'm used to that soul and harmonies and being able to sing uplifting songs and even songs of pain, so for me it was just like I met my match. So that's why I was really wanting to stay, I was like I'm not leaving this, this is my dream. I'm blessed honestly to be able to express that and the way I want to express it and not have to dumb it down. This is something I really wanted to do and I prayed for and I'm blessed.
SB: You certainly are. So you just got off your European tour, what's been your favorite location and audience?
NW: France is really still in love with us. Anytime we go to Paris they just really love, love us. I feel like anytime I go to do a show the audience is getting bigger and bigger. We had an album released in March and we were just the new group, and now to see how it's evolving it's beautiful to see. I was super nervous when we first went out there because it was something that I had never done. I can sing loud and shout, but it was just with a different vibe and it's a different crowd, both of us were super nervous. But now to sit back, I just left from over there and I've been home for three days still in shock. They just received us so well over there I think they just have this respect for funk and soul. We're trying to just catch up here in the states and I hope that we can get more artists to tap into soul and funk because it's really the heart of and the foundation of music.
SB: Speaking of music you like, you really love hip hop, will that come into your next album more?
NW: Yeah I mean we're getting ready to start on the new album and you're definitely going to hear some hip-hop influences. It's definitely still going to be soulful and retro but it's gonna brighten up a little bit more. When I say brighten up I mean more drums, you'll hear more of a hip-hop distorted type of drum, more hard drums and bass guitar, those instruments will probably stick out a little bit more, more lead guitar. You hear a lot of organ and piano on this album, which is super cool, it really gives it that southern church and that soul vibe. I think for this next album we're going to evolve a little bit more and give it more of a bright sound and take it back to my roots and hip hop, maybe get some more features. I really would love to work with RZA from Wu-Tang Clan, he worked on some stuff that I did with the Blakroc and it was so amazing and it's kinda like along in the vein of what we're doing and just a little bit more laid back. So I'm hoping we can get these features and get the sound fully together, that's what I'm hoping for. And as far as the live show, sometimes it feels like a hip-hop show I have to remind them it's soul because towards the end of the show I got them with their hands up and rocking out with me and it feels like hip hop but it's soul and I still bring that hip-hop swagger because that's what I know. I remember when I had like a DJ on the stage and a hype man running around the stage with me, I have all those elements and I'm bringing that to the soul music and that's what's new about soul today. I come from hip-hop and R&B, and I want to bring that to the stage and you'll hear those elements on this next album.
SB: So speaking of the stage since you're performing at the Howard Theatre, it's like a reintroduction since people haven't seen you in a while -- at least not on stage. What can they expect from your performance?
NW: Wow, I mean it's really uplifting, a couple ballad songs where we slow down and then we have some funky, sassy uptempos, it's really electric, you can expect a lot of attitude from all of us. I'm really excited that I introduce my band and we all have a lot of things that we bring to the stage together as a whole. Just be prepared to have a good time and to leave everything at home. And just come here and understand this is soul music, you know, this is new soul you know what I mean? It's actually old soul with a new edge, and the edge is that I come from hip hop and R&B. I can't escape that no matter what, you can't, it's already been written. You can't take that away from life so I want people to understand that this is something new for me but I'm actually learning to love it and I want people to be able to relate to the song, relate to the music and really honestly to just come and have a good time.
SB: What song do you really connect with on the Lady LP?
NW: It probably would be "Get Ready" and "Waiting." I say "Get Ready" because I've been an artist for years that people love. I tell you I've got so much respect from your big artists -- from Beyoncé to Keyshia Cole to Fantasia to Alicia Keys -- and they know who I am. When I'm at home around my family they ask me so what happened to your career, why can't you get with these people? And I don't have the answer because I know I worked hard. But my answer now would be that it wasn't my time to be next to Alicia Keys or next to Beyoncé, but at the end of the day these females they do have respect for me and I have respect for them and they know my grind, they know what it is. It wasn't my time, my time is now, this is what I'm supposed to do. And my family knows that, and my friends know that now because they hear it in my voice and they see it when I'm on stage. They can see that I had to go through all these things, all this struggle and that's why I write music for people. "Get Ready" is that record to let people know that people want you to fail and not just succeed because they can't take that ball of fire and I wanted to tell people, both Terri and I, because we both had that same struggle where we're fighting against an industry that doesn't understand. Get ready because this is what we're doing, you can't stop our dreams and we're going to live it.
SB: You said something earlier about not being consistent in your career, what did you mean by that?
NW: Well I was signed to Missy, we put out an album and things didn't work out. They were working out, I mean you know the album went gold, things were happening really fast and then we just kinda just moved apart. She went way and I went the other way, I always have to be the one to explain that to people and it always felt weird because I never knew what was really happening and what I wanted to do and go from that to another situation and into another situation. After that I went to Roc-A-Fella Records, well actually after Missy Elliot I stopped for a little while and did a lot of writing and I got a publishing deal and I was doing a lot of writing and then I wanted to start doing music again. So I started taking meetings at labels that wanted to take meetings but that was just all. I kinda was like that girl who just sat and dreamed like I kinda just want someone to knock on my door and find me. I just didn't want people to tell me no because I know I'm good, I didn't want people to tell me oh, we have another artist like you. It felt like that for a while, people telling me you're dope, you're dope but we have somebody already over here like you. You don't have anybody like me! I'd always be shy to take meetings; that's what really kept me from getting back out there and staying consistent. And I didn't really have management, proper management at the time. People would come in and they'd leave because they didn't know what they wanted, I just kept letting people do that and get in my own way. Right now I have a team of people that want to do it with me and have been fighting with me and I really appreciate it. You can't do it by yourself and I was trying to do it by myself because at some point I just didn't trust people anymore and it doesn't really look cool to have an artist handling everything and to be the mouth for the brand, that's why I wasn't really consistent. I was doing a lot of music but it wasn't really getting in the right hands. Now my label says we're gonna work on an album, we're gonna work an album. My label says, we're gonna put the album out, they're going to put the album out. My label says, we're gonna tour, Nicole is gonna tour. So I'm being consistent right now because I'm listening and getting out of my own way and these people really want me to win because they want to win and that's really what it took me to understand that I had to get out of my own way and really start trusting people, because I've had so many people mess up things. I've let them mess it up, we messed things up together [laughs] so I've learned a whole lot over the years.
SB: Are you planning on doing anything else?
NW: Maybe one day you know act, I really want to do some movies and stuff like that. I want to get my hands into everything that I can while I can. Maybe teaching, a few friends of mine want to sing, I've been helping them with vocals and I'm pretty good at this, vocal coaching. I just like to stay busy, I don't like down time or quiet time.
SB: What makes your soul bounce?
NW: Wow, what makes my soul bounce? Good food makes my soul bounce! [laughs] I should be 1,000 pounds because I love to eat great food. I love great energy and people who love to talk and express their feelings and not hide, be honest. I just like good people. I've met in my life so many evil people and it's just like I'm meeting so many nice people and people that are friendly and welcoming. So that's what makes my soul bounce, friendly people.