Nicole Wray: vivacious lady in wait

Funkadelic soul sister, Nicole Wray, is blending classic jukebox blues, hip-hop, and contemporary soul to create an ethereal, multi-genre, sound that packs quite the wallop. Her guttural and gritty vocals soar high and bite low. She’s celebrating the new vibe as she tours worldwide in support of her most recent self-titled album, Lady.

Having started her career in the early 90’s as Missy Elliott’s protégé, she’s no stranger to running in big circles. Powered with a no-nonsense attitude (as evident with hits Karma, and Get Ready), Lady sings a raw warning to nay-sayers and men alike—this woman is proud, confident, and powerful. Yet, a tender and softer sound also emerges (If You Wanna Be My Man and Tell the Truth) suggesting that she’s as understanding and forgiving as a Lioness . By albums end it’s certain that Wray is slaying hard and taking no prisoners. This time, it’s her show.

I’m able to catch the Head Lady in Charge (appropriately nicknamed due to her recent single, Good Lovin’: HLIC Remix) as she’s headed to grab her morning tea. She’s up early, already busy, and preparing for a show later that evening. Having traveled all night from DC to New York, she needs to rest her voice. She’s energetic and ready to share some gossip with this humble writer. Despite the fact that her voice is tired, she’s bubbly. I picture her waking up to get her day started, bright eyed and glamorous, the type of woman that other women envy. I imagine her with perfect hair, a perfect smile, and a personality that rises with the sun (certainly not something I can relate to).

Warmly, Wray  jumps right into her story. She’s the seasoned professional, after all. I feel like I’m catching up with an old friend. I lean back, move a little closer to the space heater, and we converse. We go way back.

This must be an incredible experience for you, girlfriend! You’ve been traveling nonstop, and you’ve been all over the world. What has that been like?

Oh, it’s amazing, because I haven’t really ever toured that much! I toured a little bit back in the late 90’s with Missy Elliott, Timbaland, and Aaliyah. But I didn’t really tour much after that. I settled in and kind of went more with the writing thing. I was doing a lot of writing. I wanted to do some touring, but my career was kind of at a standstill for a minute, and I was just doing a lot of writing. It was pretty amazing to be on the road, to meet new people, and gain new fans that didn’t even really know I had a career like that. It was great to experience that life. Now, people Google my name and they be like, “Wow! That’s super cool and fun. I had no idea you were working with those people!”

I’ve always been intrigued by artists that start their careers by writing lyrics for other artists. You’ve clearly made the transition from being a writer, to being a solo artist headlining your own tour (with a clear amount of success), but is that a career move you’re glad you made?

I am so glad I did it. I had people challenging me. I had great people that were around me telling me that I had it. I was young, and I didn’t really know that I could write. And I was just doing a lot of writing, like poems and stuff I did in school. I would write my mother letters and be like, “I love you mommy!” But she kept those letters and drawings, and little pictures from when I was young.

Aw, moms really are the best! Unfortunately for my mom, I make her preview my work before it gets published (laughs). And I’m sure she saves it, too!

Yeah! I laugh now that I’m older, but it’s still cool. When you get older you’re either going through something, or you know someone that’s going through something. But I had my own experiences in life, and I just picked up a pen. You get to a point where you meet with producers and you write, and people would tell me that I was a writer…I would say “Whatever!” I mean, thank you, but I never thought I was an amazing writer. I guess a lot of people were saying, I like what you’re writing about, your voice is amazing. You sound great. I was like, well, I’ll keep doing it! I kept doing it, and doing it, and before you know it, it would get into the hands of other people and they would hear it. One thing lead to the next, I was getting other deals, and that whole situation was pretty cool. It was my introduction to the world, to fame, celebrity-hood, the industry. I was fairly young, and it was just a crazy experience. I just wanted to sing. My mom was managing me. She was taking me in and out of high school, on the road and in the studio working on my album. So I just kind of grabbed it, what I learned from everyone else. Kind of like, took it with me along the way. Before you know it, me and Missy Elliot…we kind of just grew apart. I would say, she was just so big as an artist. And I was still kind of new.

You were running in some impressive circles with some pretty big names in music at the time, and at a very young age. You were 17 years old, still in high school, and surround by immense talent. What was the best piece of advice you received while you were discovering your identity as a new artist?

I will say that I definitely started with some big people. Sylvia Rhone (former president of Motown and Universal Records, founder of Epic Records, and future celebrity judge for the American version of reality show, X Factor) was the one who signed me to Elektra Records, she signed Missy Elliot, she signed myself. I mean, I was getting advice from a lot of people. But I remember her telling me to, “use my heart and my mind”. And I never understood what that meant, because I was young. And I wasn’t the type of individual to get advice from the bigger people. I really took it to heart, but at the time I didn’t really understand what it meant. As I grew older and settled into my career, I totally understood. I have to use my heart and my mind to get there. And then I would be successful, and I would understand a lot of things. That was the advice I got from Sylvia Rhone. And I appreciate it. At the time I didn’t get it but I definitely, truly, get it now. Just stay true to myself, have expectations, stay humble. Which I was, and always have been.

Your most recent EP, Good Lovin’: The Remixes is a step outside of your typical “sound”. Essentially, you’re blending two very different genres to create an entirely new vibe. What has that experience been like?

Actually, that experience was super fun. We were at a big ‘ole studio in New York, and we actually cut vocals from the record. I’m not sure if you know, but Terri Walker (former, co-leading vocalist that comprised the second half of Lady’s duo) is no longer with the band. She was singing on that record and [Good Lovin’] was actually going to be the next single. You know, I have to explain to people that when I met Terri, she’s the reason I met [Truth and Soul Records]. We were in NY together, actually working on a few things with a few producers, but on our own individual projects. They wanted me to do some writing, and we came together. They wanted to see how we felt about doing a girl group. And we were both like, “Eh, not really”.

I’m glad you clarified. I did a little research, and I understood you were the face of Lady…but it wasn’t very clear if another vocalist was sharing that spotlight with you. 

Yeah, we were Lady together. And we came together in the studio with Truth and Soul Records. They played us some backing music, and we just started singing. We didn’t really know what it was going to be, but it was organic. We love to sing together, we’ve done shows together before we even worked on an album. We met in New York and we just became friends. You know, we just had our own individual projects, we were both already solo artists, and we tried to come together and do this album not knowing how long it would last. But it turned, we did it, we did some shows together. It was super fun! She just decided to go back and do her own thing that she already had on the table, and I decided to stick on and stay with Lady because I was having so much fun. It felt good to me.

Well, I’m excited to see where your career takes you. I love the look, I love the sass. You’re fresh, yet you’re classic. It’s refreshing to see a proud, independent black woman do her own thing. It’s really great to see you putting on such a unique, big experience.

It’s definitely going to be a big experience. It’s something I always wanted to do in my solo career. Still! The people I was working with, we did go back and talk about another album for the Nicole Wray Project. You know, to do another project. They were asking me what I wanted to do, and I told them I wanted a band! And they were like, “Ah ha, I don’t think we’re going to do that. That’s a bit much.” I had an idea of church girls, and a trombone, and we had pianists, we had a guitar. I came up with that live sound. Other artists like Missy Elliot and stuff, we kinda, like toned it down. I think it was too much live “stuff”. When they would go on tour like, they all used the same band. So it’s really cool to have your own band. It enabled me to do what I wanted to do with this project.

Is that where you would say you got the inspiration for your album? Did the live experience produce the foundation for what became your full-length album (Lady)?

Well honestly, Truth and Soul is the genius behind this thing. They’re totally feeding that truth and soul, and they back me. They knew that’s what I wanted. I just listened to the music and let it roll. It really showed my heart. I’ve always wanted that, but to be pulled into a situation where this is what they do is kind of refreshing. I just brought on my little swagger from my Hip Hop days, and my Rap days, and my R&B days. You know what I mean (laughs)? We just kinda throw all of that into one sound. We’re going to do a little bit more with that in this next album. You’ll hear a little bit more of my foundation, which is Hip Hop/R&B, and we’re just going to blend that into the Soul.

I was watching the music video for your last single, Get Ready. You’re originally from New York, is that where the project was filmed?

We actually filmed that in London.

I saw the city trains, the exposed brick, and the very urban setting. Naturally, I fell in love. I’m a diehard Chicagoan, so my next question is all about the Windy City. Have you experienced Chicago? Any performances, favorite digs, fond memories?

I have experienced Chicago a little. I was there with Lee Fields, to open up for him. And I was there before years ago with my album, and I had so many fans in Chicago. And honestly, I met some choreographers out there years ago that are now kinda, like, on and poppin’! I’ve seen them on TV and working with big artists like Rihanna and Beyoncé. So I mean, it’s been a while since I’ve been able to walk around in the city with the natives and see what’s gonna’ pop out in the open (laughs). I hope that I’ll have time to enjoy myself while I’m there.

What you need is a great tour guide. I’m trying my hardest to get into your show at the Double Door (November 15th). I know it’s going to be a fantastic set, and I’m hoping I get to see it!

Oh, you just let me know! We’ll get you on that list!

You’re the best! Okay, one last question before you go…what’s the wildest thing that has happened to you while you’ve been on tour? You must meet thousands of people from cultures all across the world, some of which have to catch you a little off guard. What’s an experience you’ll never forget?  

Oh, yeah! I met these young ladies in Germany, and they kinda took me out with some of my friends. They were super wild and they owned this bar. I mean, as much as I want to, I don’t usually hang out with fans and stuff like that. Just because, I just don’t know what can happen, and I don’t have security. That’s really the only reason, because I love my fans. I love meeting new people, you know? So I was just like, I’m going to hang out with them, and they were super cool! But they had these balloons. And they had this, like, coughing thing, and we’re sitting there having some drinks, and they blew up these balloons, and they inhaled it! They started to laugh and get wild! (Laughs) It was just the wildest thing! And I wanted to try it, but I was out of the country and I was like…maybe not the best idea! It was just so funny, and we couldn’t help but just laugh at them, because they were just laughing so crazy. That was probably the wildest thing that I saw in Germany.

Thank you so much, Miss Wray. You certainly are the Head Lady in Charge! Go get some tea, rest that voice, and good luck with the rest of your tour. I look forward to seeing you in Chicago!

Oh, yeah. I need to get some food and some tea! And I appreciate you, thank you so much. Please let us know if you need anything, we’ll make sure we put you on the list for our show!

-Cole Scott, junior editor, On Tour Magazine

Catch Nicole Wray as Lady when she headlines Friday night’s Soul Summit at The Doubledoor. 9PM. $10 Cover.