Interview with Nate James


Nate James crept into my consciousness during grueling140 mile round trips, commuting down the m25 from my home in Brighton – I played his “ Set The Tone “ incessantly to cheer me up during the journeys - so much so I became concerned for my car stereo’s sanity.

I just loved the velvet quality of his vocal style, sheer craft of technique with inventive rhythms that made me into a nodding dog at the wheel.

I had recently discovered a latent talent to do portraits of people in mosaic and begun to do a sequence of famous people many of whom were black icons such as Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, Tupac Shakur, Olaudah Equiano and Bob Marley. Then I thought: why not do one of a singer who is taking music forward into the future, representing ‘British Cool’?

Nate’s voice has the timbre that echoed the roots of soul, his song writing expresses a deep consciousness and keen observational power; whilst also blessed with the humble ability to collaborate with other artists. Nate responded enthusiastically and monitored the progress of the mosaic portrait via emails; eventually we arranged to meet up in a new tapas restaurant in the city of London called Pintxo People. I’d recently installed a huge mosaic mural in there, then learned that it has great food and friendly staff- an ideal space for Nate to view some of my other mosaic portraits as well as the artifactI was creating for him.

Thankfully Carla (Nate’s personal assistant) helped me to stay calm as we awaited his arrival by listening to my crude interpretations of his songs without laughing at me and I was able to express my admiration of him to her so I could avoid ‘gushing’ all over him.

What follows is a summary of my brief interview I had with Nate in the smoking area of Pintxo People underneath my recent Tio Pepe mosaic installation. I have summarised to avoid my embarrassment due to my hapless giggling and stumbling vernacular which was revealed when listening to the tape recording.

Nate James interview with Edi Mandala

on 22nd Jan’08 at Pintxo People, EC1

I began by putting forward my theory that many musicians are really visual artists – working with sound rather than colours - and then confused him with a question within the question about his thoughts when I offered to do a mosaic portrait of him.

Edi – What did you think?

Nate - At first it was like: ‘why me?’ but I was interested in what could come from it. I was an art student once so I knew that if you give an artist full reign you’ll never know what may come out of it - it could end up looking abstract or like reality, as you’ve done. So I was really intrigued to see what would come out of it.

Edi - So you felt safe with that one photograph you gave me? You could have picked something really ‘out there’.

Nate - Yeah I could’ve but it was a really good one of me done for the album art work.

Edi - It is clear you have always been interested in visual art…is that something you’d want to return to in the future?

Nate - Definitely, yes indeed – I did a lot of projects for O-level art at high school and a big inspiration was Salvador Dali. I love pop art and religious art and made Andy Warhol style prints using 4 colours. I was massive into printmaking and fell in love with screen printing. It became my forte. When I get my own house finally in London I’m going to install a printing bed so I can get back into it. It’s great because you can make gifts for Christmas and stuff. You know, unique stuff that is truly one offs – they are more meaningful to give to friends.

Edi – Thanks, the next question is slightly complex: what is most important - Religion or Archaeology?

Nate - Wow… it depends, it’s like what came first chicken or the egg? One can argue that religion inspired archaeology. But I suppose that Religion is more about learnings and teachings when archaeology is more scientific – digging and uncovering myths to provide evidence, facts. But I’ve been reading recently about how they can go hand in hand – like two sides of the same coin. Proving the same fact although they have different focuses – these differences influences each other. Maybe I’m being safe here, not being too controversial. You see I’m not an overly religious person, although I believe in a higher being and people go somewhere when they die but I don’t go to church much for example. Yeah. That’s why I think they go hand in hand.


The mosaic before and after grouting

Edi - Yeah, I read that a scientist recently failed to clone himself so that he could win some prize or something notorious. What would you do if you had a clone? How would you both get on? What would be the advantages? What problems would you get into?

Nate - I am not a big fan of the whole cloning thing because I think it’s messing with Mother Nature and the natural course of life. Everyone wants to live forever; everyone’s searching for the Holy Grail or fountain of youth or some such. It’ll be quite exciting but with science you have to be careful, it’s whether its done for good things or bad….for instance they split the atom to make energy, then designed a bomb. Once the technology is made, all kinda things can happen. When they do something you wonder if they want to make a superior race or make society what they think society should be, like cleansing …all kind a shit can be attributed to it. But if I had a clone I’d firstly make sure that they know that I was the first! I think we’d get on ‘cause I’m an amiable character, we’d get on all right, yeah!

I’d be scared though, it’s funny you know, the other night we went out to a bar and I came out to have a cigarette and I looked to my left and there was this one guy, then I looked to my right and it was his identical twin and it really threw me for a second cause I was like – I’m sure I just saw you but it was a different conversation in the other ear and then the mannerisms, voice and facial expressions were identical, it was just really weird…. it’s very interesting but not the same problem with clones.

Edi – What or where is the most beautiful, peaceful place in the world that you’ve been to?

Nate - I had the luck to go to Rwanda last year to work with a charity called SURF. They look after genocide survivors and I went to a place which was a hard week emotions-wise. I met orphans, rape victims and people that had been given AIDS because they’re from the wrong tribe. Pretty hardcore stuff. But later we went trekking and found ourselves near the forests where Dianne Fossey lived and died among the gorillas in the mountains and we found a small island in the middle of a lake that was no longer than say one hundred metres across – I mean it was tiny. And there was this one shack with this one guy who lived there and he had fish, goats, whatever he needed and it had a sign put up saying welcome and a number you could call to go over there and there was a ferry that took us over. There was not a cloud in the sky and we just lay there enjoying this beautiful sunset – just stars and water scratching and lapping my feet and it just blew me away.

Edi – Thanks for your answers, what are your immediate plans for the future?

Nate - Well I’m off to America in a couple of weeks, and then I’m back and forth touring the country. Lots of gigs – keeping the ball rolling. The States is a big country so lots of touring to do and my new album is getting made over there. I got to do various shows across Europe and my new album comes out in September – just gonna crack on.

Musically I’ve done Motown style and then went more experimental on my second so this time I want tot strip it down to bare essentials – just me and piano, or me and strings or guitar. You see, with me a song is a song, no matter what level you play it at – whether it’s a 15 piece band with orchestra or just a pianist. We can produce them up at a later date but right now I want to stick at the bare essentials…why not call it “ Bare Essentials “, no need to have a studio and recording engineers, just have 2 microphones so the music is just my voice, with something?

I said that it sounded like a good album title and still think this after considering it for a while. Nate and I hugged our goodbyes and took a few moments to take some photos with the manager of Pintxo People.


It was all so interesting for me. I had been examining every part of this face to do the portrait and here he was sitting next to me in living, breathing flesh with a talking voice that evoked musical memories for me – decades separate us yet here I was, an older, worldly-wise man enthralled by the intellect, zest for life and sheer talent of this young singer.

We enjoyed a far reaching conversation sharing views of our mixed heritage over delicious tapas food. We could have easily chatted for hours but he was soon to be off to the gym. I have experience as a gospel singer benefiting from the tutelage of great musical directors such as Karen Gibson and do backing vocals for MAUVE gigs and at the open mike events. But I learned about the difference between those that can sing and a truly professional Singer - it takes immeasurable consistency and commitment to do it well whilst creating new music as you go along.

This has been an inspirational project because Nate’s talent is like a touch paper – the spark for fire works. We share an ancestry that helps us to synthesize culture with our creative natures – two sides of the same coin as he referred to. He is completely immersed in the musical world, dedicated to notes as I am with colours and he is performing his dream. Nate shared with me the story of his journey – being aware of his singing talent at an early age and refusing to let disappointment, disillusionment or exploitation distract him from his path.

After all, isn’t it our dream that makes us distinct us humans from the animal kingdom: The ability to transform our dreams into life? My epiphany occurred somewhere on the M25 since then I’ve been carried on a tide of creativity, giving me the sweet taste of happiness and fond memories. Such as when Nate and his band appeared on ‘Later, with Jools Holland’ one night when I was grouting his cheek of his mosaic portrait. Thanks for being a part of this Nate - It’s been an honour.

The Pictures include various images used for monitoring process – a fun element was that Nate took part in the creative process, using his skills as a visual artist to so that the finished item was to personal satisfaction, such as the fluorescent grouting and use of beads. Nate’s first viewed his mosaic portrait in the designated Smoking Area of Pintxo People Tapas restaurant – we are standing in front of my recent mosaic installation featuring Tio Pepe. We are joined after our interview in the bar by restaurant owner Jason Fendick. Nate liked the staff and food so much their that he returned later on in February for a ‘leaving do’ before going on a tour of America for 6 weeks.

Edi Mandala - Feb 15th 2008