Interview with Natalie Nicole Gilbert

Natalie Nicole Gilbert: Multi-Talented
Performer and Founder of On Time Talent

Natalie Nicole Gilbert is a voting member of the Recording Academy with nine (9) solo albums and an additional six(6) singles to her credit, and first appeared on the Grammy ballot in 2013. In addition to her music, she has more than ten years in broadcast radio as a radio host and voice-over talent, and has done national commercials for McDonald’s, Cadillac, Quiznos, and other well-known brands. She built her home recording studio in 2005 when it was still a relatively new practice, and continues to produce and co-produce her own music. She’s also a session vocalist for the Dublin Studio Hub, and film and TV composer with Music and Pictures, whose credits include Law and Order, The Office, and many others worldwide. She brings her extensive knowledge of what is radio ready and what is easiest to license for film and TV to her own acoustic and electric songs.

Natalie Nicole’s style is a hybrid most easily thought of as fresh nostalgia. Her influences range from Whitney Houston and Bill Withers to London Grammar and Sabrina Carpenter. Vocally driven with the storytelling and beat beds you might expect from someone who majored in dance, her vocals are both intimate and powerful. Natalie has called Los Angeles home since 2006. (From Natalie N. Gilbert)

TSM: Natalie, thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to do an interview for TSM. It’s great to have you in the magazine.

NNG:Thanks so much for having me back, it’s a pleasure.

TSM: First of all, I’m amazed by all that you do – sing, dance, act, write, and you began performing at such a young age too – singing on stage/screen at four years old! What inspired you to start singing at that early age? And who were your early childhood music influences?

NNG: First and foremost, I grew up with music of all kinds at home. My mom would play classical music and show tunes for my ballet class, and I often heard her practicing music for concerts and events at home in genres ranging from vintage pop to gospel to jazz. My dance teachers discovered I could sing and gave me vinyl 45s of songs from The Sound of Music and Shirley Temple films to sing solo at recitals, so I was often exposed to timeless music at a very young age.

TSM: At what age did you start writing songs? And what was the first song you ever wrote?

NNG: Around age four I think. The first song I remember writing had something to do with a tree and seasons, and I kept singing it over and over to myself in the back seat during one of our road trips so I wouldn’t forget it. I asked my mother to write out my compositions once I started muddling around on the piano around age five or six; we still have sheet music she notated from some song I wrote about boyfriends and girlfriends falling in love.

TSM: What’s your process for writing lyrics? And where do you get the inspiration for your songs?

NNG: I have two main formulas for writing. In the first, I write the lyrics out fully like a poem with a sense of rhythm, but no melody or musical notions. Then I decide if it’s going to be primarily guitar or piano, then create the pace and main chord progressions and try to fit the lyrics to that, cutting lyrics and syllables here and there to tailor to the developing structure. Those are the songs that tend to be very wordy and intellectual, full of ironic phrases; this is the method I used for “Breathing Hope,” “Dangers Surrounding,” and “Here Now,” for example.
 
My second favorite formula, which is easier and much more conducive for collaborations is to start with a riff or a full piece of music, and see what words come to mind when you play the music circuitously. “Say Anything,” “Stop Thinking About Me,” “Luminescent,” and “Sweet Australia” were all written with that simpler method. Songs originating that way tend to be shorter, more upbeat and composed with more two dollar words.

I also have a sort of litmus test for seeing whether a composition is good enough to finish. I tuck the song away for a few months, and I won’t bring it back out again until it comes to mind on its own. If the melody or a lyric phrase pop to mind later in a catchy way, and especially if I’ve forgotten that I’m the one who wrote it, then I’ll pick it back up to polish and finish. “Orion” and “Just a Word” came about that way, and there are many incarnations of both. I would test myself to see how much of the song I remembered on my own without looking back at the initial handwritten scribbles from months or years prior, and would sometimes scrap any lyrics that didn’t have enough staying power to be remembered so long after the fact.

TSM: Tell us a little bit about your dancing and acting background.

NNG: I was cast as Maria in West Side Story for a school production, so my mother decided to enroll me in a prestigious acting school. I did a number of musicals, Shakespearean plays and black box theatre pieces with that company (Walden Theatre), and went on to become a theatre and dance major at Youth Performing Arts School. I was accepted for their vocal department also, but wanted to focus more on the talents I hadn’t exercised as much. I stepped into radio work then for a number of years, and someone who heard me on the radio invited me to come in and audition for the part of the Narrator in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I also worked with Pleiades Theatre on a period piece (Alison’s House) and a play about stalking (Boy Gets Girl). Around that time I also began screenwriting collaborations with John Cosper, and we produced a few short films, mostly romantic comedies. My growing experience with radio commercials got me picked up for numerous TV commercials and a bit of independent film work. I think many guessed that I moved out to Los Angeles to pursue acting, though it was really just to blend in more with the other creatives and widen the amount of resources I had readily available. Workshops that were $300-1,000+ to attend elsewhere are $0-100 here. Though these days, most workshops are now on Zoom, but it still helps to be local to maintain those artistic collaborations. 

TSM: While you were in college, you landed a job as a radio host. Over the years, you’ve been heard on the air at:  WJIE, Lite 106.9, Oldies 103 WRKA, 101QFL and KDAR. Your voice is also heard around the country on regional and national spots for McDonalds, Cadillac, Quizno’s, as well as videos for the Army, Eppic Films, Site Organic and others. What was the very first spot you did? And what was the most memorable one you’ve done?

NNG: The very first? Hard to say. Probably something for an in house client at WJIE. I used to call radio stations when I was a teen and request songs, and they’d often put me on the air; I recorded a few of them on a cassette and labeled it ‘my first promos’ as if I expected to have many more, though I had no way of knowing that would be the case. Once I became a regular host on WJIE a few years later (somewhat by chance after responding to a part time help wanted ad for another station), I got a few phone calls asking me to come record a commercial for this production house or that client. I was treated very differently as a DJ than a voice-over talent. At radio stations, the onus was on me to do every turning of the audio dial, or add every music bed or audio element that needed to be mixed in. When I arrived to do VO recordings at production houses I was asked, “Would you like water, soda or coffee, Ms. Gilbert?” Then I got to sit in the vocal booth with no responsibility but reading the script over and over. It was relaxing to let someone else manage the recording gear instead of doing ten things at once. Music recording studios are similar; after doing so much of my own production and tracking in my own home studio, it’s always a relief to go into someone else’s studio and just sing. It also helps me speak the language of the engineers or producers since I know more about the tech aspects than someone who hasn’t produced their own audio.

TSM: You are also a writer – articles, short stories and poems. What are your favorite subjects to write about? Do you have a preferred type of writing?

NNG: Though it’s generally less marketable, I love writing poetry. It’s so free of rules and has so many uses. I also like that it can be so easily turned into a song or a larger piece. Poetry enables you to put your full vocabulary to use with few boundaries, and I love that it engages the mind and can keep one sharp and articulate. It’s sort of like creating your own word puzzle.

As for favorite subjects, I love to write about transitions. Seasons of change are the times I feel most compelled to write – as I notice the pattern of things passing away and new opportunities arising. Songs like “Here Now,” “Can’t Take This Anymore,” “Say Anything,” and “Lay Down and Listen” were the result of such seasons, and at times they feel like anthems of strength or resolve during times of flux and stress. I write them for myself as much or more as for others.

TSM: Can you share a short piece of your writing with our readers?

NNG: Sure. I dug through my online writing archive and found this short poem I wrote in 2009:

Fabric
My shoulders pressed down
by the here and the now
vexed by the future
perplexed with culture’s vultures
What you already know
may be more than you show
But disclosure may
not change the outcome
When you’re tired of
the lies that they sell
trying to counteract
with the truths that you tell
to yourself while
your mind’s still awake
the covers can’t cover over
can’t make you safe
They’re just the fabric that covers your eyes
Daylight streams in
while the screams weigh in
tires squealing against
the pavement
when the traffic dies down
all that’s left is the sound
of your pulse and
the breath in your lungs
Just for today
let that be enough
To cover your eyes
From the daylight
piercing the night
from the inside
‘you may not
need this world
but this world
needs you here’
not merely to stand
but also to steer

TSM: You also own and operate On Time Talent voice over studio, where you produce much of your own music. What inspired you to create On Time Talent?

NNG: A few things. After 9/11, the radio station where I was working had a number of budget cuts. I was doing morning news then, and as one of their newest hires I completely understood why I’d be the one to let go. Reporting during such sad times was very stressful. The 9/11 tragedy hit advertising and radio station budgets hard, so it was difficult to find work in my field right away. So, I created On Time Talent as a voice-over agency initially, partnering with some radio friends and shopping our voices to local production houses for commercial work. I came up with the company name because I loved this clock graphic, and timing is always urgent with commercial audio; clients always want the audio files yesterday. After a few years of recording for clients on site, I asked a friend from high school to help me piece together a home recording studio. I’m certainly not an audio genius, but my experience working in broadcast studios prepared me well for essential recording at home.
 
I find recording at home to be such a different experience. It enables you to be more picky, to do as many takes as you want without worrying about the hourly studio budget the way you do in a commercial studio. That freedom can be both a blessing and a curse, though; I’ve seen many fellow songwriters get stuck in a mode of forever tweaking a song and never releasing it after fiddling with it for months or even years. I have a number of audio scraps I’ve set to the side like that myself. On the other hand, it also enables you to record things you would never waste time recording in a public studio on someone else’s time – like the a capella opening to the candlelight version of “Breathing Hope” or the all-voice-no-lyric track “Celtic Bee.” 

TSM: Tell us about your latest album release Don’t Blink and the inspiration behind it.

NNG: This is my thirteenth studio album, and it’s so different from all the others. I’ve been on a long hiatus from music due to deaths in the family and work obligations. You can sit back and feel like you have so much catching up to do, or you can choose to embrace that wait and delay and say “what have I learned in that window of time?”
 
It’s especially powerful to me because I’ve done the reverse of what many indie artists do in their career, as most start with recording covers and then develop their sound and eventually do originals later. All twelve of my prior albums were a chalk full of originals. I love songs from so many genres that my mom and family introduced me to that. I’ve always wanted to cover, but I always knew that if I did so I wanted to do it properly with everything properly licensed for release. With all the years I spent behind the scenes working radio, entertainment law and music licensing, I didn’t want to disregard those business aspects. Now that I’m back in school full-time, I finally have the time and resources to sit down and give these songs – both originals and covers – the full fleshing out they deserve with live strings, full jazz band, or textured electronic stylings, depending on the era. It’s also been a delight to take some of those songs out of their original acoustic sphere and blend them with beats and synth, or take an electronic song and make it more acoustic. I also just love taking a song originally done by a guy, and putting it in a female voice which automatically gives it a different tone and meaning.

TSM: What are you studying in school?

NNG: International Relations presently, which you can imagine is a topic rife with importance during times like these. My courses via the London School of Economics have delved into EU policies, political economics, international security and humanitarian efforts in the midst of emergencies (which I studied just before Covid came along). For my next degree I’m aiming at International Journalism, which is so vital right now. With my background reporting news during 9/11, my resume already leans into handling those roles. 
 
Those aren’t the topics you tend to see most musicians studying.
 
Indeed! I’m very left and right brained, which has its pros and cons. I love a spreadsheet as much as I love poetry. I did consider furthering my study of music and I may still eventually. I did take a course on the Anatomy of a Pop Song at UCLA. I often see some fans condemn artists for getting involved in politics or being brainy, but as artists we can’t check our humanity, and our concerns for our communities and our countries at the door. The Beatles were known for music that spoke to a generation reeling from the Vietnam and Korean Wars. People often say of those who lived in the 40s, “Why didn’t they do more to stop Hitler?” If we pretend art isn’t a piece of that puzzle, whether it’s satire or comedy or music, then we ignore that art ultimately is a telescope into humanity. It’s intent is to examine our lives as individuals, but also as people. Can we really say U2 shouldn’t have penned “In the Name of Love?” That Josephine Baker shouldn’t have used her music to accomplish the feats that she did? I think if we pretend that music is only meant to be ice cream to make us feel better when life gets tough, we minimize music to simply being a commercial jingle. There’s no harm in making a living that way, and I certainly have some peppy dance songs myself, but I like to use all my talents and skills. 
 
TSM: What is one thing you would change in the music industry?

NNG: Ooof, so many. Many of them are changes that are occurring with the industry kicking and screaming, and the pandemic is expediting them. For a long time the recording industry fought cloud-based music. Rather than finding a way to embrace it, they resisted it. Now they’re being forced to make up for lost time. One of the hardest parts of the entertainment industry at large is that it views artists as a commodity rather than individuals. That affects decision making at every phase. The ability artists have now to record at home, release their own music to mainstream outlets, to go viral and glean as many listeners as their big label peers is really a reckoning to behold. As indie artists, we are better positioned to shift in eras where new music lands on Spotify, TikTok, and Instagram instead of radio stations. And I say that with no small affection for my radio days in the past, which I do recall with a lot of fondness (even if the hours and demands were exceedingly stressful). I think it’s exceedingly hard for labels and radio to flesh out what a new blueprint for the industry could look like without them losing the things they value for their bottom lines. As music really shifts to a subscription model rather than a physical product model, it will have a tremendous impact on which artists are readily available to the markets. Of course, I say all of this recognizing that the pandemic will forever change the way artists make a living. Many depended on live performances, playing for events and festivals, and selling merchandise via those same avenues. That’s been obliterated now. Managers can pretend artists will be back on stage in the summer or fall of 2021, but that’s very optimistic. The science at present just doesn’t back it up. Instead of aiming to return to “normal” in some amount of months, they need to be rethinking how to reach fans today. Some are doing virtual concerts and festivals; even some music awards have moved into online territory. As with the move from physical music to cloud-based subscriptions, it will be easier if they embrace it early on rather than avoiding it until the last possible second. Fans play a big part in that too; labels and artists can try to reshape the music landscape all day long, but ultimately how fans listen and engage will dictate where and how new music lands. 

TSM: What would you say are the key qualities that make a song successful?

NNG: Hmmm, well if you ask 100 artists this question you’ll probably get 200 different answers. For me personally as an artist, I see a song as successful when it hits a nerve, when it speaks to many people. You can certainly measure by stats and plays and income as well. Like anyone I do like to consult those metrics to see where my fans are listening, and which songs they’re listening to and downloading most. As with other sides of the industry, I don’t think this can be computed by numbers or awards alone, any more than you measure the success of a nation purely by its GDP, and I say that as a voting member of the Recording Academy/Grammys. There are tremendous performers out there who can captivate an audience who’ve never taken a home any kind of trophy. There are also plenty of songwriters with multiple platinum number one singles whose names you’ll never know. Ultimately, I think a song’s success is best measured not by its spot on the charts, but by its staying power. Are people still listening to it decades later?
 
For instance, you may find this funny, but I never knew much about the Spice Girls until very recently (I didn’t own a TV during that time period, and I was working in morning radio so I didn’t have traditional waking hours or news exposure). There’s a reason they can still pack a stadium years later on their reunion tours, and yet they never took home a Grammy. In their heyday they weren’t together for very long in the grand scheme of things. Yet people connected with them because of their individuality and their melding music from a variety of eras. Pull them up on Spotify today and you’ll find they have over seven million monthly listeners (That means at least that many separate individuals have listened to them on Spotify in the last month). Spotify and iTunes/Apple Music didn’t even exist when they were on the charts in the 90s. I think music with real staying power is the stuff people are introducing their kids too, just as my mother did by playing Schubert and Streisand for me. It confuses people sometimes when they see how young I am versus how old the music is that I tend to listen to on my own. But that’s the beauty of music and sound recordings; they take on a life of their own to be dusted off and replayed years later long after the music maker has faded away. I would love for the music I create to play some small part in that legacy, to be its own time capsule. 

TSM: Who are some performing artists and authors you admire?

NNG: In no particular order: Calum Scott, Sting, Bill Withers, Mary J. Blige, Melissa Nathan – people who speak candidly, have soul as well as variety, and demonstrate strength and/or humor when faced with adversity. Bill and Mary plainly have soul and candidness, Sting records in castles at times (I hear) and likes to try new sounds and rhythm structures, and Melissa wrote comedy novels even as she perished with breast cancer. All of these are highly talented writers who seem to get the bigger picture.

TSM: If you had the power to do something in the world today, what would it be and why?

NNG: Granting the essentials to those who pursue them. I don’t believe in handouts, but I do believe in empowering the unemployed with job training, the underprivileged with everyday resources, and treating people of all races and orientations equally.

TSM: Anything else you’d like to share? And where can readers find out more about you and your work?

NNG: I think one thing I’d encourage other indie artists to do is really stay connected, all the more during the current times. I have someone on this latest project that I met in songwriting workshops fourteen years ago, and another that I met online last year when I was trying to get in touch with someone else who shares the same name. There are so many more avenues today to discover new music and connect with co-writers and collaborators. If you’re wanting to freshen your sound or try on something new, go looking for it, don’t wait for it to find you.
 
I would also say that if you’re looking for ways to support your favorite artists right now, follow them everywhere you can find them. In today’s industry, the number of followers and listeners you have on top platforms like Spotify, SoundCloud and Twitter are a huge currency for artists looking to negotiate contracts or find exposure for new material. I have heard so many instances where an opportunity came down to two very talented people, and the producers of this TV show or that music project gave it to the artist with more Twitter followers, or a measurably larger fan base. Even if you don’t have a lot of spare money in the midst of higher unemployment rates during the pandemic, you have no idea what every additional stream and follow means to your favorite artists. We can see where you’re listening from in our analytics, and it’s so moving to see our music reaching destinations where we’ve never traveled (and may not be able to for some time). 

TSM: Thanks again for the interview, and wish you the best of luck with everything in the future.

NNG: Thanks so much Jessica. Always a delight to catch up with you.

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