Welcome to the second installment of Fuse's newest column, Then & Now! Throughout this interview series, we chat with some of your favorite artists from the '90s and early Aughts about their careers' biggest highlights and what they're up to today. This week, we spoke to Nicole Wray.
Nicole Wray first caught our ears back in 1998 when she was discovered by Missy Elliott and released her debut single, "Make it Hot." Since then, the Virgina-raised singer left Missy's The Goldmind label and signed to Roc-A-Fella Records. After her Elektric Blue album didn't get a release date, Wray eventually teamed up with soul singer Terri Walker to form the retro-soul duo Lady. Now, she is an independent solo artist who released her sophomore album—Queen Alone—on Sept. 23 after an 18-year wait.
Read on to see what Nicole Wray told Fuse about her days working with Damon Dash, why she changed her name and bringing back that old-school sound.
FUSE: Your new album Queen Alone is your first in 18 years. Why did it take so long?
Nicole Wray: There’s lots of reasons, we’d have to go back to the beginning to explain that [laughs]. I, of course, started out with Missy Elliott and Timbaland. I had just graduated high school, and it was a crazy experience. I was kind of under Missy’s supervision, and I was the muse. We worked on her album [Supa Dupa Fly] and then went on tour…everything happened really fast. I was her first artist signed to her record label [The Goldmind], but then she got so big and signed other artists. So I was getting overlooked. Myself and my management made the decision to move forward. So I took a break from that situation, gathered my thoughts, went back home for a little bit and started writing. In the midst of that, I met another manager who took me back to New York. Then I met some of the executives at Roc-A-Fella Records.
Yeah, I remember you working with Damon Dash.
I came in about a year or so before Jay Z and Dame Dash went their separate ways. But it was so much fun. They loved me as if I was their own. I was their first female singer they put out. I came with my crazy grind and I was so excited to get back on board and be with a major company. And to be writing and have people supporting me after the whole Missy Elliott situation. So we released the single “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” and that got a big buzz in New York and Hot 97. People were calling me like “Guess who’s on the radio right now?” And it was Mary J. Blige requesting my song. I was so stoked because I’m her biggest fan. So we moved past Roc-A-Fella when [they split].
I really didn’t have a choice, so I left with Dame and Jay Z went his separate way. Then the album stood still once again! It just felt like bad luck. I was going so hard and doing everything I needed, and I’m not seeing any results. Because I did a second album under Missy Elliott that never came out, and then two records with Roc-A-Fella. So Damon went on to do reality TV. That was something I didn’t want to do because I didn’t feel good about it, so him and I fell out for that moment. Then, we lost contact. So I moved to Atlanta, and the music scene is popping over here. My main goal was to get a publishing deal and to work with as many artists I could find.
So who did you end up writing for?
It was mostly rappers, like Waka Flocka Flame, Jungle Boy, Gucci Mane, Snoop. They needed me for hooks and I came through. Then I got a call from Damon Dash’s company! He said, “I got something for you.” I thought we were done and he didn’t want to work me anymore. He was like, “I got these guys down here and I need you for this project. They’re called The Black Keys and they’re on some rock and roll shit. I know you can kill it.”
Whoa, that’s so cool!
It was like a reunion between Dame and I because I haven’t seen him in years, and I’m thankful that he even called me. So everyone was there: RZA, Raekwon, Q-Tip, Mos Def. At the time, The Black Keys wanted to fuse rock and soul with hip-hop.
Was it difficult to transition into that sound, since you come from an R&B background?
No, I’m straight from the Baptist Pentecostal church! [laughs] I started singing in church when I was nine years old, so that foundation was already there. I’ve always wanted to belt out and sing, but in the past I wasn’t ready for that. I had so much fun and it struck me that soul is what I really want to do. This is where I should be, with the live sounds and instruments. That portal was opened once I went back to New York and worked with The Black Keys. Then they asked me to come back to work on the Brothers album. We worked at the Muscle Shoals studio and you can see Aretha Franklin, Cher…all these classic artists on the wall. And that’s what I wanted to be. It’s definitely been a journey!
I want to get back to the Queen Alone album. The first thing that stood out to me was all the live instruments, and I feel like people sometimes forget the beauty of that.
To go back to where it all started from the big band, then you get jazz…and then you have soul music with the bass guitar, lead guitar, piano, trumpet. They’re even more beautiful when stripped down in an instrumental, and that’s how we did the album. I would play them at home with a glass of wine and think about everything I’ve gone through. I heard those stories through the instrumentals and they took me to my past.
My favorite track on the album is “Guilty” because it has such a heartfelt message. What’s the story behind it?
My brother and I were living together at the time, and he got into a little bit of trouble. The night that he left my house, he was driving my car and got arrested. A lot of stuff was going on, and the South is just a hard place to live. Past and present, if you’re an African-American there’s always rumors surrounding the truth. It was a hard time for me and my family, just seeing how they had him chained up. It happened during the holidays, and he wrote me this letter. As I was reading it, I was looking at the Christmas tree and he wasn’t there. He’s my best friend, and I felt like I could’ve done something.
I started to feel guilty because I was around him all the time. So I said I was going to write this song and maybe it’ll make me feel better. And maybe other people can understand if they have someone who’s incarcerated, that trouble doesn’t always last. You’ll find your way to the light. When he got out after 40 days, I played him “Guilty” and he said “You’re gonna make it to the top with this song. It’s about me!”
The vibe of the whole album is very retro-soul with a hint of doo-wop. But in this state of R&B, I feel
like people are steering away from that to do a more trap-inspired sound. Yet
you did the complete opposite, were you nervous about that?
Not at all. Going into this situation—trust me—you get some whiskey, some Patrón and some funky ass white boys who know their fucking music. So I knew I was good. I have old fans since “Make It Hot” and new fans who don’t even know that song. I think about how they’re gonna feel when they hear this album. After I do a show and I see the response, I just feel so much better. They just wanted to hear me. I think I could’ve whistled on a song and they wouldn’t care! [laughs]
I knew of you as being Nicole
Wray, and then you were a part of the Lady duo. But now you’re going by Lady
Wray. Was there a reason for the name change?
It wasn’t going to be myself and Terri [Walker] anymore, and I didn’t want to confuse any one. I needed to put my name back into the forefront.
So I’m going to bring it back
to 1998 with your debut single “Make It Hot.” Can you tell me the story behind
Back then I wasn’t writing, and Missy Elliott was the solo drive behind “Make It Hot.” She played it to me in the studio, and she likes to play songs loud. I was like, “Wow, this song is amazing.” So I went some to learn it. That process lasted about a week and then I went to record it. Then I just remember flying out for the video, and when I blinked I was on a tour stage. It was that fast! And Aaliyah came on board with us and we all toured together, it was beautiful.
Which single would you say is
It will have to be “I’m Looking,” because it was the start of the Elektric Blue album that I never released. That was the first song I wrote for it. At that time, I was under Missy and Timbaland’s wave. So when I started writing, everyone was excited saying “She’s growing up!”
And what was the vibe in the
studio like for “If I Was Your Girlfriend?” I still jam to that song!
It was off the chain! I co-wrote it with Tone Hooker, and Boola produced it. They were both at Roc-A-Fella at the time, and we recorded it at one of Dame Dash’s lofts in Soho. We took the song to a club called Bungalow 8 and Samantha Ronson was DJ’ing that night. You had the Olsen twins in there, Naomi Campbell, Venus and Serena Williams…I was losing my mind. Dame handed her the record and the place went crazy! We took it to Hot 97 shortly after and it took off man. Every time I hopped in a New York cab, it would be playing. And I miss that. I’m independent now, which is cool, but those were some of the most memorable moments of my life.