I was probably only the third German to meet these seven artists.
Helmut Fest and Jörg Beuttner signed Naturally 7 to their Festplatte label in 2002 after experiencing them in one of their breathtaking performances in Nashville.
And then they sent me to New York so that I could describe the phenomenon in words. My assignment: write a short artist portrait which gives you a sense of Naturally 7. Germany needed to be prepared for something really special.
No problem, I told them.
When I arrived at the studio on West 52nd Street in March 2003 to see Naturally 7 perform live I didn't yet realise that it would have been easier to write a feasible episode of Sex And The City. That's because after a set lasting half an hour, the ten invited guests (including Blue Note President Bruce Lundvall) just stood there, open mouthed. And I had a problem: I thought, no-one is going to believe me. There they stand, seven black guys, and they make more noise than Nelly, R. Kelly, Dru Hill, Jaheim (and whatever the rest of the crooners and R&B artists call themselves), but they don't play ANY INSTRUMENTS! Their entire music, the rhythms & beats, the bass, the keyboard effects and up-beat soul voices that just pull at your heart strings, the sort of sound I had hardly ever heard in fifteen years - they manage to produce that sound with nothing more than their very versatile voices. Did someone say "a-cappella"? Oh, come on! "This is as much acappella as Stevie Wonder is a pop singer.” But who would believe me?
Three years later
I have to ask again: "no tricks?” I've just listened to the new Naturally 7 album, twice in succession, and although I now know Roger, Warren, Dwight, Marcus, Rod, Jamal and Garfield pretty well and have already seen them perform live five times, I still can't quite believe it. "No tricks!" Roger, the group's leader, assures me. I feel rather ashamed for doubting again that they do it ALL with their mouths alone, with just a little help from their bodies. And let's make one thing clear from the outset: "Ready To Fly" is so damn good that it would be a fine album if produced by a group playing the usual array of musical instruments - drums, bass, sequencer, keyboards. The fact that it was produced without any of them makes it a sensation. If this album doesn't win a Grammy, I'll carve them one with my own hands.
Lost in Europe
Since their number-one hit "Music Is The Key" with Sarah Connor, Naturally 7 have found a new home in Europe. Starting in Germany, their performances have expanded into Austria, Switzerland, France, Scandinavia, Slovenia, Hungary and even to Japan and Singapore. They are rarely back in their home country, the USA, to see their families.
On this side of the Atlantic the band becomes the family. Though don't be under the illusion that things are as harmonious as their fantastic performances! After all, here are seven strong personalities with all their individual idiosyncrasies and demands, and it takes a certain measure of discipline to keep their energy and their moods within bounds. Synchronizing perfect harmony 24/7 for weeks on end is an art in itself.
Nevertheless, they always find time to write new pieces. Since 2004, they have produced a host of new songs, in hotel rooms and lounges, between sound checks and performances, all of which have taken Naturally 7 on to new professional heights. The new CD comprises 20 songs, none of which can be described as run of the mill. The septet has aimed high for this, its second album to be released in Europe: they have perfected the instrumental sound of their voices, whilst also placing the vocal aspect of their music in the forefront - there are fewer special effects, but instead, the overall impression is more rounded. At the same time, they wanted to increase their pop value. They wanted their songs to be more inviting, more infectious, less showcases of their vocal acrobatics. And they wanted them to become more spiritual. Pop and spirituality? "It's difficult to follow spiritual aspirations and to offer people easy access to the music at the same time," Roger admits. Yet they have succeeded in achieving this balancing act in an unusually easy manner. "Ready To Fly" is no 70-minute hymn of praise to the Lord, but an inspiring confrontation with one's own personality. "All of our songs have a message, and yes, it's usually a vertical one. But it beats in the rhythm of a happy heart. We did not need to sacrifice our artistic uniqueness to achieve that," Dwight explains.
Only two semi-cover versions
This is what you get on the album "Ready To Fly": Naturally 7 give "In The Air Tonight", Phil Collins' only song that doesn't trigger a battle of beliefs, an elegant sound costume full of soul, subtle rap passages and lyrics which transform the original story of a murder into an eye-witness account of the Ascension. That may sound ironic, but it is in fact a stroke of inspiration. The second semi-cover version, "What I'm Looking 4", is Roger's very personal adaptation of Diana Ross's "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", a tribute to maternal wisdom and the power it can unleash. (The Diana Ross sample is not a vocal imitation by Naturally 7, by the way; it is an electrifying remodelling from the mouth of Dwight's wife, Seon Scott.)
Except for these two numbers, Naturally 7 feature their own compositions, works which will be enjoyed by anyone who loves R&B-inspired pop music, not to mention all soul fans! Six of these incredible artists - Warren, as the rhythm-maker and heartbeat of the group, doesn't actually sing - prove their credentials as such outstanding singers that their performance brought tears to my eyes. Anyone of them could easily make it big as a solo artist, yet they all subjugate their talents entirely to the concept of Naturally 7. The group's unity may sometimes cloud the fact that here is a super group of incredibly talented musicians! I cannot think of any pop singer in all of Germany who comes close to any one of them.
"Ready To Fly" spans a wide range of genres. This goes from block party greats ("Can You Feel It"), perfect harmonies ("How Could It Be"), comforting ballads ("Forever For You", "Comfort U"), provocative confrontation with growing up ("Tradition"), Stevie-Wonder-like glitter soul ("New York"), brass-polished shuffle funk ("Cool"), heart-rending children's choirs ("4 Life") through to one of the most danceable goose-bump ballads that I have heard from the other side of soul for a long time ("Close 2 Me").
What unwinds so easily and profoundly in the course of 70 minutes is the result of some difficult studio work, the modern-day equivalent of building the Pyramids. "We need a full five months before everything is ready for a smooth period of studio recording, and then work in the studio itself takes another 5 months," explains Roger in a voice reflecting all the exertion that that process demanded. "Even studio professionals who have worked in the business for decades could hardly believe the amount of work it takes to record our special brand of vocal music," adds Rod. "It is a mammoth project! You can only understand it if you've been part of it, in the thick of it." Today, once the songs are written, pop and rock albums are recorded in a week or two in the studio. Time in the studio is exorbitantly expensive. All the same, Naturally 7 did not want to agree to any compromises, and it's true that "Ready To Fly" sounds so much more mature than its predecessor "What Is It?"
In order to maintain this standard in a live concert, Naturally 7 now have an "eighth" member: Andrew Lefkowits, an a-cappella sound engineer for some fifteen years. He helps to ensure that when "Ready To Fly" takes to the air on stage it is world class.
We all have something to look forward to. What makes Naturally 7 so inimitable and amazing is staying unique and extraordinary. And they are better than ever! Damn it, these guys deserve success more than most of the artists I have encountered and admired over the years in the global pop village. Above all, I know of no other group which is so incredibly talented, or any other singers who work their socks off like these guys. That last time I met them to learn all about their new album, three of them fell asleep at the table, and I was almost sorry to have taken up their time. "If I have the choice of going to an interview with Roger, or of letting him go alone so that I can get another hour's sleep, then I take the hour's sleep," Warren admits. But don't believe a word of it! None of them would let the others down like that. Not only are they true professionals, they are true friends!
By now, you do believe that Naturally 7 achieve their incredible sound with just their mouths and bodies, don't you?! The tambourine, for example, is simulated by scratching the skin ... Now I have heard "Ready To Fly" for the seventh time ... And still I want to ask ... really no tricks? I can hardly believe it.
Berlin, March 2006