Natalie Cole’s stunning new album Leavin’ is simultaneously a bold point of departure and a moving return to form for one of music’s most accomplished vocalists. The September 26th release from Verve Records is a truly inspiring piece of work that finds Cole proudly revealing her soulful roots after a decade during which she enjoyed unprecedented global success as an interpreter of the standards. Her success during this time ushered in a wave of similar crossover smashes from other artists and added to an already whopping lifetime album sales figure that now tops 30 million worldwide.
Now with Leavin’, which Cole collaborated on closely with famed R&B producer Dallas Austin (TLC, Boyz II Men, Madonna, Janet Jackson, etc.), the 8-time Grammy Award winning, chart-topping vocalist has managed to make a decidedly eclectic collection of cover songs her own. The outstanding tracks include a vivid update of the 1972 Aretha Franklin classic “Day Dreaming” (already the first hit from the album) to more surprising covers from a wide range of contemporary artists including imaginative interpretations of songs by Fiona Apple (“Criminal”), Shelby Lynne (“Leavin’”), as well as surprising takes on Neil Young’s classic “Old Man,” and the Isley Brothers’ sexy bedroom jam “Don’t Say Goodnight (It’s Time For Love).”
Leavin’ does not represent the second coming of Natalie Cole, more like the third or fourth coming, actually. Cole, the daughter of the late great Nat “King” Cole, first made her own good name with a series of fine albums for Capitol Records in the Seventies and early Eighties that found her working with the writing and producing team of Marvin Yancy and Chuck Jackson. Albums like Inseparable, Natalie, Thankful and Unpredictable included an impressive stream of hit songs, including no less than five #1 hits on the Black Singles chart: “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love),” “Inseparable,” “Sophisticated Lady (She’s A Different Lady),” “I’ve Got Love On My Mind” and “Our Love.” In 1975, Cole won the Grammy® for Best New Artist as well as the award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance. The next year she won Best Female R&B Vocal Performance for “Sophisticated Lady (She’s A Different Lady).” During the remainder of the Eighties after leaving Capitol, Cole worked with a number of different labels and producers, and continued to record more hits like “Miss You Like Crazy” and a left-field smash cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” that effectively reinvented a retro rocker into a major dance smash.
Cole’s career again took a major turn with the release of Unforgettable: With Love, an album that rightly went to #1 on the Billboard Album charts and won the Grammy® Awards for Album Of The Year and Best Traditional Pop Vocal Performance, while the song “Unforgettable,” which used groundbreaking technology to allow Cole to duet with her late father’s voice, received the Grammy® for Record Of The Year. Following this wildly popular and influential release, Cole’s career took a jazzier turn, and her recordings won further Grammy accolades during the Nineties, including Best Jazz Vocal for “Take A Look” in 1993 and Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for “When I Fall In Love” in 1996. Now once again with Leavin’, Cole has taken a great creative leap forward only this time in a direction that feels both familiar and fresh.
“I do keep reinv enting myself,” Cole says with a good-natured laugh. Unforgettable gave me a new career and the kind of opportunities that few artists ever get to have. It put me on the map as a jazz singer and put that album on the map as a musical phenomenon that only happens from time to time. But now I’m ready to do something else because that’s just me.”
And so Cole decided to go back to her future. “I started incorporating my R&B material back into my live performance,” she explains. “I’d start with “Unforgettable” then make the turn with some song and then go over to the R&B stuff, so by the end of the show with something like “This Will Be,” people would be on their feet. I missed that energy.” Cole says that the real spark for recording Leavin’ was desperation. “Good things come out of desperation,” she says. “I really wanted to make another album, something different, but the material just wasn’t there for me. My tour manager said, ‘Why don’t you do some covers?’ and I said, ‘That’s all I’ve been doing.’ And he said, ‘No, take some contemporary songs, and cover those.’ And I said, ‘That’s an idea.’ In a way, that’s part of the reason why this record is called Leavin’. For me, it represents a departure, a move towards something new.”
Part of what makes Leavin’ so moving is the creative partnership that Cole enjoyed with Dallas Austin. “In the beginning, we started talking about him just doing three or four songs. He said fine. He was also challenged because he had never done cover songs either — he’s a songwriter and a producer. But he said that he wanted to work with me. The next thing we knew 4 songs, 5 songs, 6 songs and he ended up doing the whole thing with me. We were blown away, but we were having such a good time. It was just three musicians, including Dallas, guys from there in Atlanta, and it was magical. Going to Atlanta sparked something in me. It took me back to when I first went to Chicago to make my first Capitol records. It was so nice. It was so creative — we were in the studio 12-14-hour days and we couldn’t wait to get back in the next day. Everybody was really on the same page.”
“What Dallas did was to give me a playground in which to experiment and then we’d decide what worked,” said Cole. “He never said no. He was just so supportive, which was really important to me. The session for this album has a great energy to it and part of the reason is the consistency of the musicians. There’s a lot of love and vibe on these tracks, and I think that comes through loud and clear.”
What comes through loud and clear on every track of Leavin’ is not just a lot of love and vibe, but also an infectious sense of excitement and rediscovery. “You can call it a comeback,” Cole says with a laugh. Indeed, Natalie Cole’s latest musical statement shows her coming back to contemporary material with the passion of a new artist and the skill of an artist very much at the peak of her powers.