“Poetic delivery with musical intent” – that’s what singer-songwriter Marsha Ambrosius and emcee-songwriter Natalie Stewart call the fusion of soul and spoken word that is Floetry. The London duo’s name was suggested by a fan. Recalls Natalie: “Somebody said: ‘Yo, that stuff you do is so dope. It’s like poetry, but it’s like you’re flowing.’ I thought, aha – Floetry! My flow goes with Marsha’s singing to stress the meaning of our songs. We are a songstress and a floacist [pronounced like lyricist].”
They are also much sought-after songwriters. Among the compositions they’ve provided for other artists is “Butterflies,” the second single off Michael Jackson’s Invincible album and a #2 hit on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart. The pair has worked extensively with Glenn Lewis, penning “Simple Things,” “Lonely,” “This Love” and “Take You High,” from his World Outside My Window. They wrote “Love Again” for Jill Scott and Jazz (Dru Hill), from the “Rush Hour 2” soundtrack, as well as “You Are” for Bilal, from 1st Born Second. Faith Evans and Brandy likewise requested songs from Marsha and Natalie.
Most recently, the girls have collaborated with Mr. Cheeks (“Let’s Get Wild), Motown artist Journalist (“The Way It Used To Be” – they even appear in the video for that track) and Arista up-and-comer Cherokee (“Star”). (Though Marsha and Natalie work together almost exclusively, Natalie was prevented from participating in some of the pair’s commissions as she was unable to leave London during their production.)
Still, the #1 priority for Floetry is Floetry. To illuminate who they are, the pair composed a defining anthem, “Floetic,” which serves as the first radio track off their debut album, as well as the title of the album itself. Says Marsha of the disc’s musical center: “We put floeticism into everything we do. We are two opposites on the planet coming together and making something real creative happen.” Natalie confirms: “We’re very different. People often laugh and say Marsha’s jiggy and I’m earthy. But we round each other out.”
Indeed, these opposing forces complement one another, which is evident from their respective musical tastes. Says Natalie: “I have a Jamaican family, so I have a lot of reggae in me, a lot of rare groove [vintage soul] and revival music. Marsha has a lot of funk and soul in her. We’re both into hip-hop, but my hip-hop is Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Common; Marsha’s is Jay-Z and Nas.”
The merging of these influences produces an eclectic sound Marsha describes as “a combination of everything that makes you feel good – it’s Aretha’s ‘Respect’; it’s Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing’; it’s the ‘Friends’ theme. It’s everything you have to smile about.”
But the two are quick to point out some of Floetic’s darker themes as well. Natalie declares: “I’m a character writer, a storyteller” and suggests that not all her stories end happily. Marsha also concedes the expression of some difficult truths: “When I record a song, my main goal is to be honest. If I’m singing about a woman who just got beat down by her husband and she’s about to die – I’m gonna sing just like that woman.” With the song “Sunshine,” for example, the girls explore the theme of loss in a way that exemplifies their bond as collaborators and friends.
Natalie comments further on Floetry’s aspirations: “I jokingly say that what I’m working toward in life is to be influential. I’ve been famous since I was born – when there were only six people in my world, the other five knew me, so I’ve been famous. Now it’s about influence. Love songs today seem to be about arguments and breaking up, and the club songs are all about getting one over on someone else. It seems like every music video has some kind of fight in it. There are lots of things Marsha and I want to say that aren’t necessarily dark and dingy. It’s like, come on, I just want to be happy for someone. We don’t deny the difficulties in life, but we want to say something positive, too.”
Helping reconcile Floetry’s creative impulses was the team behind A Touch Of Jazz Productions, which is overseen by Jeffrey “Jazzy Jeff” Townes (as in Jazzy Jeff And The Fresh Prince). The roster of producers (collectively known as The Misfits) includes Andre “Dirty” Harris, Vidal Davis, Ivan “Orthodox” Barias, Darren “Limitless” Henson and Keith “Keshon” Pelzer. This crew’s combined credits encompass Jill Scott, Will Smith, Lil’ Kim, Darius Rucker, Kenny Lattimore, Musiq and Cherokee, among others, with demonstrated expertise in everything from hip-hop to soul to gospel to pop to jazz and beyond. Floetic (issued Aug. 13, 2002) is an A Touch Of Jazz/DreamWorks Records release.
“Nat and I were writing together, but we didn’t really work with tracks; we just did it to my voice – I was the track,” explains Marsha. “We went down to A Touch Of Jazz and Darren and Keith played us some music. I was like, ‘Yo, this sounds like a party, happy, feel-good-type vibe.’ So I just started singing, ‘Floetry and we’re alright,’ and ‘Floetic’ happened from there. Nat would write a hook. I’d write a verse. Nat would write a verse. I’d write a hook. And we rarely come across producers who can actually play, but with these guys … Vidal will get on the keys, Keith will get on the keys, Dre will be on the guitars and drums. Darren and Keith would start up with another beat and we’d just explode. It was a creative explosion down there.” In fact, “Floetic” was born in the combustion of a single night.
Natalie picks up the thread: “So we went back the next day and made another track, and the Touch Of Jazz guys were, like, ‘Come back tomorrow.’ It kept going on like that and we cut 11 songs in seven days. There are three rooms at the studio. We all got together and we’re bouncing these songs, running from room to room. And the guys are saying, ‘These girls write real quick,’ and me and Marsh are thinking, ‘These guys really understand what we’re saying.’ It was a great union.”
Perhaps Natalie and Marsha’s contagious chemistry was predestined. After all, before the music, they had the court. “Natalie and I met through basketball,” Marsha informs. “That was our main love. I was the superstar of my area of London; she was the superstar of hers. Everyone considered us rivals.” Says Natalie of their respective camps, who anticipated a showdown, “They were hoping one of us would put the other in her place.” But Marsha insists, “It was a friendly competition.”
Even when it came to hoops, though, the girls were a study in contrast. “I’m an organized ball player,” says Marsha. “My father’s a coach, so I played Division 1, 2, 3 Junior League and Women’s League. Nat was a street baller. I met her at the NBA three-on-three tournaments that kicked off each summer. I was trying to play professional.”
Nonetheless, their connection was undeniable from the beginning. “Our families are extremely loving and we share those kinds of value,” ventures Natalie. “I think we’re kindred spirits – I think we’ve known each other before. With Floetry, we always say that as long as we share in it equally and give it back to the God, we’re gonna be cool.”
Natalie Stewart was raised in a military household. “My father was in the British army, so I was a bit of a get-up-and-go army brat,” she reports. “We spent a lot of time watching ‘Sesame Street’ in different countries [Germany, Hong Kong]. That’s how we learned the language. It was much more innocent when I was a kid – we communicated with people more on body language and facial expressions. I look at people on a more spiritual vibe now because of all the moving when I was little.”
As the youngest of three children, Natalie found herself trying to keep up with her sister and brother, who were five and seven years older. She also spent a lot of time alone. “I had a very big imagination,” she says. “When I was eight, on my summer vacation, I wrote a book and printed it up at my mom’s workplace and sold it to the kids back at school. I used to tell my mom I wanted to be a writer, an author. That was my thing.”
By the time she was eight, Marsha Ambrosius had also begun to discover her thing. “My father’s a bass player,” she informs, “so I’ve been surrounded by music my whole life. We would just sing around the house, harmonizing to everything. Like the ice cream man – just make a song out of his little jingle.”
When she was 16, Marsha formed a singing group. She recalls: “I had this silly group for a local talent show. A holiday to Spain was at stake. We were like the female Jodeci. We got to the finals and my friend got very ill and then it was time to go onstage. I was thinking, ‘I can’t do this alone,’ but the people who organized the contest kept saying, ‘It’s your turn.’ So I got up and sang Mariah Carey’s ‘Vision Of Love.’ My mother and father were sitting there. They were awestruck because they had never heard me sing like that. I put my all into it and it was, like, ‘Wow, maybe I do have something.’”
Natalie and Marsha both attended Brits Performing Arts School. Marsha studied business and finance and dabbled in a few creative courses: voice, performance technique, recording technique. Natalie pursued acting and directing. Then, they went off to college.
Marsha relates: “In ’95 I left the college I was going to because I had a bad injury that stopped me from getting my scholarship to Georgia Tech. I then did a certificate in marketing at a different school, but I kept thinking about music. I said to myself, ‘Okay, I do have a little something – let me try it.’ And when I did, I ended up doing a demo that was played on radio in Britain for a while, which got me a publishing deal.”
Natalie, meanwhile, had enrolled in Middlesex University, then transferred to North London University. “I met a lot of zombies at university, people who were trying to make themselves into this or that,” she laments. “They just didn’t interest me, and I really needed to fly. I called my father, who is very ‘let’s get a degree’ and said, ‘Daddy, I’m a poet.’” She immediately made good on her declaration, forming a poetry group with three friends. They called themselves 3
“We were hitting the poetry circuit, doing performance poetry, spoken word,” she remembers. “All this time I’m calling Marsha and saying, ‘What’s going on with you?’ She had her publishing deal. She was writing. She was doing her thing, and I was doing mine.”
After a few months, however, ego clashes surfaced in 3 Plus 1. So when Marsha called Natalie saying she had a hook and wanted Natalie to add her poetry to it, Natalie jumped at the chance. She called Marsha the next day with some verses.
“I was getting into real problems with my group,” recollects Natalie. “We had this performance scheduled, and I said to them, ‘You know what? I’m gonna do my own thing at the show. I’ll see you guys there.’ So I called Marsha and said: ‘I got this show. Do you want to come, along?’ And she said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’”
“We rehearsed on the train on the way to the show,” Natalie continues. “It was different for Marsha because she’d been on the R&B stage, which can be tough; sometimes the audience is kind of waiting for you to go wrong. People might be sitting back, like, ‘Look at you. Look at your shoes. Look at your hair.’ But the poetry crowd is more ‘C’mon, sister – speak up!’ We had a real breakthrough when we got up there; it was an incredible feeling being onstage with somebody you feel 50-50 with. And there was such a reaction from the audience: Everyone was crazy about it.”
Quickly acknowledging the magic they’d created jointly that night, the girls began writing together in earnest.
“We’d lie on the floor and trade ideas back and forth,” Natalie illuminates. “Marsha is a genius when it comes to melody. She hears the tone in my vocals and arranges the melody around it. I’m more into language, the way you put words together, what you emphasize. So we were writing and we were leaning on each other. One of the biggest journeys Marsha and I went through was turning around and saying, ‘Yo, I need you.’”
Initially billing themselves simply as Nat And Marsh, the pair began receiving raves on the London performance circuit. They were soon booked solid. About that time, a friend who lived in Atlanta encouraged them to explore the poetry scene there. “So we went to Atlanta and blew people away,” says Marsha. “And I’d always been afraid of the U.S.A., thinking, ‘They have major talent – what are we gonna bring? But we were something new; our music was something fresh to them. And then we got a phone call from a promoter in Philadelphia.”
Floetry promptly landed in Philly, playing (among other gigs) Black Lily, the multicultural answer to Lilith Fair. The two-day trip became a week as the girls agreed to join the show for two additional nights. Shortly thereafter, they met J. Erving, the man who would become their manager.
“When we first hooked up, he was on his way to a Sixers playoff game,” recalls Natalie, “so he said, ‘I’ll hear something quick.’ We did an a capella for him and he said, ‘You got anything else?’ So we did a couple more. He ended up missing the first half of the game, which, in basketball terms, is big love. It’s funny because we grew up in basketball, and it turns out J. is Dr. J.’s [Julius Erving’s] son and he ends up being our manager!”
The girls returned to Philadelphia in July 2000, developing their relationship with Erving, writing at Axis studios, playing Black Lily shows and building their street crowd. Before long, they were shopping for a record deal and by August, Jeff Townes had heard their music and invited them to A Touch Of Jazz. That’s when Natalie and Marsha and the Touch Of Jazz producers cranked out those 11 songs.
Floetry was feeling good, but they were about to feel even better. As they prepared to leave for a trip back to London, Townes asked them to listen to a message he’d gotten. Marsha reminisces: “So he hits play, and this really light voice comes out of the answering machine: ‘I’m really interested in that stuff coming out of A Touch of Jazz. That Floetry stuff is really cool.’ It was Michael Jackson!”
When the pair returned from the U.K., their career momentum began to reach critical mass. Townes secured a label deal with DreamWorks Records, and it was determined that Floetic would be the first album released under the arrangement.
“The next thing we hear,” says Natalie, “Michael Jackson wants us to send him some songs. It was unbelievable. And we were cutting so many tracks – we had them to give. Between July of 2000 and the end of the year, we’d cut 100 songs, about half of which were for other artists.”
Recollects Marsha: “Natalie had to be in London, so Andre and I were working on this track she and I’d started, and I was, like, ‘No, this isn’t what we were thinking.’ I was listening to the beat, and I could just hear this song called ‘Butterflies.’ I sang the melody to Dre, but it wasn’t going in the direction I was feeling. I’m sitting in the booth, bored, chewing bubble gum and Dre’s saying, ‘Please cut the song.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not doing it.’ I’d been in the studio every day that week from 2:00 in the afternoon to 8:00 in the morning. Dre finally said, ‘Let’s just get something down and come back to it tomorrow,’ so I did it.”
Natalie jumps in: “I heard the next morning that everyone was going crazy, saying how great it was. That song went to Michael. We get signed to this record deal and the next thing we know, Michael Jackson wants to record ‘Butterflies.’ We’re, like, ‘What?!’ This is the epitome. This is what it’s all about. I remember watching this man do the moonwalk. We said to each other, ‘Okay, we can retire now.’”
It’s this sort of triumph the girls feel they must experience together in order to fully appreciate, a belief that perhaps more than anything illustrates their identification as a creative unit. Says Marsha: “There have been shows where Nat’s smiling at me for something I’ve done, and then she’ll start spitting all kinds of freestyles, and I’ll be thinking to myself, ‘How is someone that clued?’ I chose the right person to be down with.”
Natalie concurs: “We’re right there for each other, seeing it, feeling it. You know, there have been some arguments and some tears but also a lot of hugs. It all comes down to ‘You shared this with me.’ We don’t have boyfriends. We don’t have children. We don’t have anything we’re carrying with us. What we very much have is each other.”
Marsha jumps in with the last word: “We’re sisters,” she says, and leaves it at that.