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Natalie Carr Charts a Course for Success on Her Own Terms

In the driver's seat

Natalie Carr in the studio. (Photo by Shea McKissack)

During an especially hectic couple of days in May, Natalie Carr nearly drowned on one afternoon, then lived to pull herself from a burning car on the next. She had a blast.

The two near-deadly doppelganger encounters were scenes in a yet-to-be-released music video for the singer-songwriter’s sixth single, “Fate.” The video, Carr’s third, marks her most lavish visual production to date.

“I’ve never had an experience like this in my life,” Carr says, praising her creative team, the video production company Caravan and its crew. “I’m so humbled.”

Spun off by the lyric, “Fate hasn’t killed me yet / I’m still holding my breath,” which popped into Carr’s head as she was driving, the R&B-tinged groove sets Carr apart from the pack of young pop singers by her thoughtful — and thought-provoking — lyrics delivered with just the right amount of gravel in her lush and soothing vocals.

“I don’t remember what [the lyric] meant at the time. I just liked it,” Carr recalls of the hook. But once the song was fully developed, the meaning became crystal clear.

“[It’s about] confronting shame, living your truth, and not hating yourself for your past,” Carr offers. The accompanying video follows suit, depicting Carr visiting her younger self just as “past Natalie” is on the cusp of several bad personal decisions.

The song, released in April, exemplifies Carr’s songwriting style, which can be heard in person when Carr performs at Neighborhood Theatre on June 9. Synths shimmer over mid-tempo rhythms as Carr’s lush vocals sooth and caress, but a close listen to the lyrics reveal vulnerability and yearning, plus a determination to embrace life’s hard-won lessons. It’s like a lazy sun-drenched day at the beach, bright on the surface while riptides coil beneath the breakers.

We meet at Resident Culture Brewing Company in Plaza Midwood, where Carr works a few shifts a month whenever she’s not engaged in furthering her music career. In person, Carr is energetic, articulate and driven. When she makes a point, she hits the table top, making it shake. The demure and playful side depicted in Carr’s publicity photos is present, but so too is the thoughtful artist and the canny businesswoman.

Natalie Carr
Natalie Carr (Photo by Jamie Tout)

In a little more than two years, Natalie Carr has garnered the support of musicians, filmmakers and fans, perhaps because she has the talent, charisma and work ethic to be Charlotte’s next big breakout artist, a pop analog to rap’s DaBaby or R&B’s Anthony Hamilton. Or she could keep cruising in the groove she’s perfecting — chill yet explicitly honest tunes that mirror her listeners’ lofty hopes, deepest dreams and harrowing disappointments. It’s even possible her muse might take a hairpin turn as Carr starts to adapt her studio-crafted compositions to live performance.

Whichever fork in the road her career and craft take, it’s Carr’s call.

“It’s what am I going to do. Not, what’s going to happen to me,” says the musician, who turned 26 in April. “A lot of artists get caught up in that. ‘Someone is going to discover me and I’ll be a superstar.’ That’s how you get fucked. That’s how you end up broke, manipulated and alone.”

Finding a voice

Natalie Carr has loved, consumed and shared music for as long as she can remember. Growing up in Stamford, Connecticut, she started playing piano at age 7, and was playing guitar by middle school. There was only one drawback.

“I grew up hating my voice,” she remembers. “I just didn’t think it was very good.” Yet that didn’t stop Carr from singing, and the more she sang the more she realized she was being ridiculously self-conscious. “[Singing] is human. It’s literally what comes out of you when you’re expressing emotion.”

Carr acknowledges that she’s in a field filled with exceptional vocalists, but the fluttering melismatic flights of Mariah Carey and others are not for her.

“I have to let my voice be vulnerable,” she says. “I have to allow the cracks [in] for it to be Natalie.”

Carr attended Duke University in Durham to study public policy, an amalgam of statistics, economics and political science that still fascinates her. She also worked at Small Town Records, the college’s student-run label where she dabbled in music business management. She started working with Chris West, who has gone on to engineer albums for DaBaby in Charlotte.

West convinced Carr she had potential as a writer and performer. After graduating in 2017, Carr started working with producer and manager J-Mac (John McCall). Though J-Mac was then based in Raleigh, the two developed a tight working relationship. Like West, J-Mac saw long term potential in Carr.

“He wasn’t someone who was like, ‘Pay me this and I’ll do this for you,’” Carr says. “He wasn’t a cash grabber.”

In 2018, Carr decamped for Charlotte. After working with J-Mac for two years, she signed to his company Fourth Quarter Time in March 2020. All this time, Carr, who sees herself as a songwriter first and performer second, was writing material and developing her distinctive style.

“I have a hard time writing lyrics that I’ve heard a thousand times,” she says. Instead, she embraces explicit, even confrontational lyrics when she felt they bolstered her message.

“I speak on my shame and I’m trying to not shy away from experiences I’ve had,” Carr maintains. Realizing that many women have gone through experiences similar to hers, she hopes her songs might validate those listeners and make them feel seen and heard.

“If that means being explicit or raunchy or opinioned, I’m okay with that.”

Natalie Carr
Natalie Carr in the studio. (Photo by Shea McKissack)

She says her songwriting subject matter is a 50/50 split between autobiography and invention. Her current romantic partner frequently asks if certain lyrics criticizing male behavior are about him, and Carr must explain that some people and situations she documents are also fictitious.

“I can relate to the experiences I write about, but they’re not necessarily mine,” Carr says. “I want to tell stories, so long as there is an underlying emotional component that matters to me and whoever is listening.”

Sculpting a sound

Natalie Carr is not enthralled with the sound of “Bad Side,” the song that launched her recording career.

“It was influenced by who I was working with at the time,” she says, acknowledging that the song’s production leaves much to be desired. On the other hand, the lyrics about Carr’s romantic interest at the time drew praise from listeners and inspired fellow musicians to check her out.

 

With that February 2019 single, Carr also developed a key component of her emerging sound, a freestyle singing technique that resembles a R&B recitative.

“It set me up for that sing-rap thing I do — [with] a lot of words stanza by stanza.”

Despite Carr’s current love of sharply observed details and fictional devices, the second song she released cut close to home. She wrote the blistering take-down “Talk About You,” about her then on-again, off-again boyfriend.

To make the diss decidedly more cutting, the boyfriend was a sound engineer, and he was engineering the very session where the song was cut. Today, Carr marvels at her brazenness — and immaturity — in making that move.

 

Carr recalls that “Talk About You,” released in September 2019, was one of her first songs that J-Mac worked on.

“I wanted it to be sassy, invigorating, catchy — and a little bit bitter,” she says.

The goal was to give the record a big sound, Carr remembers. To achieve that goal, the pop record incorporated hip-hop drums and heavy bass hits.

“You have to experiment to find your sound [and] find your audience,” Carr says.

In June 2020, she dropped the raw and powerful “Used.” It represents a quantum leap for Carr. Lonely and isolated, she wrote the song in COVID-imposed quarantine, ruminating on dating in the 21st century where it’s so easy to feel disposable and so hard to find something real, meaningful and long-lasting.

 

Halfway through the song, Carr drops the devastatingly honest line, “He dicks me down / and now he’s just the plug.”

The lyric came from a place of anger, Carr reveals. Up until that point she hadn’t sent many messages in song. “Used” was the introduction to a more explicit and vulnerable songwriting style. It’s also the song where she first started tracking and engineering her own vocals, after learning Pro Tools and Logic.

“It’s made me a better singer,” Carr maintains. “I’ll add harmonies, move them around or take them out. When [I’m] comping vocals, I can hear all ways my voice can be manipulated, and how things can be designed.”
She has to remind herself it doesn’t always have to sound perfect. “I have to embrace being imperfect for any of this to work.”

On the basis of “Used,” Carr started getting messages from newer fans. One particularly poignant post stated that the listener had cried to the song every night of the week, and that it had helped her cope. The song’s message began to build a fan base for Carr.

“In the world of heartbreak, addiction, loss and grief, the only thing that allows you to move past and survive is being mirrored and understood,” Carr says. “For someone to get that from something I wrote down, freestyled and recorded in my bedroom was so cool.”

“Sad Little Rant,” which followed in July 2020, rocks a vibe similar to “Used.” It came from a place of sadness and feeling alone, says Carr, the notion of not being good enough.

It’s an oddly fitting sentiment for the accompanying video, Carr’s first, that turned out to be merely okay. Billed as co-directors, Sheeraz Balushi and Michael Finster actually shot different versions of the video. The best parts of each shoot were cobbled together into the final product. Due to her own lack of forethought and planning, Carr accepts responsibility for a missed opportunity, something she feels could have been potent rather than a random selection of shots.

“I look good in it,” Carr offers with a laugh. “That’s all I can say.”

With the moody, romantic “Blue Lights,” an exercise in pure pop with fewer R&B influences, Carr feels she and her team started to hit their stride. Following a treatment she devised, Carr and director Michael Finster, delved into modern-day film noir for the video in which Carr and her real-life partner play a pair of criminal lovers on the run.

They meet in dingy hotel rooms, never stay anywhere long, and smoke like chimneys. Despite all the smoke in the video, Carr says she neither smokes or drinks.

“It’s obviously not something I’ve lived,” she says. “I had this idea of love on the run. I’m in love with him and don’t want to leave because I can’t. I’m addicted to him.”

Carr subsequently recut an acoustic version of “Blue Lights”, accompanied by Finster’s spare and elegant performance video. She considers the original version big and epic, but she had started to wonder if the song might have even more impact if the instrumentation was scaled back to just voice and piano.

“[The song] is a good candidate for acoustic because it could be slowed down, it could be cinematic,” she reasons.

While Carr loves the full production version, she feels the acoustic variant is “a bit more beautiful, a bit more emotional.”

Big video, new band

The version of “Fate” currently posted on YouTube sans video is the second version of the song cut by Natalie Carr. She says she was dissatisfied with the production and her vocals in the original version. With J-Mac in charge, the new edition brought Carr to a place where she could feel the song more personally.

“We got the production in a good place and I said, ‘I’m going to try to recut it and see if I can fall in love with it again.’”

Like “Blue Lights,” “Fate” has also been recast with an acoustic performance video, recorded and shot at GrindHaus, producer, songwriter and performer Jason Jet’s production studio in east Charlotte. A release date for the video has not been set yet.

Natalie Carr
Natalie Carr (Photo by Rick Ullberg)

Carr says she loved the experience at GrindHaus because it was the first performance by her newly formed backing band, which consists of guitarist Shago Elizondo, drummer Jesse Lamar Williams and bassist Lamont McCain. It’s a tight-knit crew. Elizondo and Williams first played together over a decade ago as founding members of Lucky Five. McCain and Elizondo are current members of Anthony Hamilton’s band.

The band has been rehearsing in the lead-up to Carr’s June 9 gig at the Neighborhood Theatre where they will accompany her onstage.

“A lot of the songs I write are sampled — the production is samples,” Carr says. “We’re finding out, the band and me, that they’re hard to recreate with real instruments because they’re sitting between notes.”

Carr has found a musical soulmate in Elizondo, who is also the band’s musical director.

“Every time Shago and I get together, it’s like channeling,” she says. “He plays and I sing and every single time, I’m like, ‘This is so easy.’”

Carr promises a chill performance with the band, drawing on the players’ backgrounds in jazz, soul and R&B. “They make me want to write real R&B records,” she says.

In the meantime, Carr is aware that “Fate” has earned her more fans. She allows that the number isn’t the catchiest song she’s written, and that it doesn’t have “hit record” or “banger” written on it.

 

“But it is potent, and it is me,” she says. Carr thinks every song she’s put out has brought her a different audience, and that this simple straightforward tune has brought even more listeners to the table.

With that in mind, the pressure was on for Carr and Finster to create a killer video to accompany the song. Carr felt she was not up to the task. Up until then she had worn every single creative hat. While it was wonderful D.I.Y. training, Carr says she also learned that she’s not good at everything.

“None of us are,” Carr says. “I was wearing hats that maybe I shouldn’t have.”

Via Finster, Caravan, a Charlotte-based production agency that specializes in high-end commercials and documentaries, came into the picture. Carr and her crew, who had done everything D.I.Y. and low-budget, couldn’t understand why the heavy hitters were interested in the video. It turns out Caravan’s participation was due to their own fandom; they had heard the song and loved it.

“I was so shocked to hear them tell me how much the song meant to them, how much they liked the lyrics and what it brought into their heads,” Carr says.

The agency brought in director Dylan Hahn, who’s worked with local acts Emily Sage and Foxfire Run. Hahn also loved “Fate,” and had come up with a detailed vision for the song.

Over two days and four locations in May, Carr found herself in a new role: actress in her video. She found it strange that all that was required of her was to get to set on time, hit her marks, hold still to get worked on by hair and makeup, and recreate the emotions that fueled the song in the first place.

She marvels at the physical effect designed for the near-drowning scene, a bathtub rig with the bottom replaced with a pane of plexiglass, so Carr could look up at the camera when submerged under the upturned tub. She learned that she could cry on cue when called to do so.

At press time the “Fate” video’s release is still TBA, and Natalie Carr’s concerned there might be an artistic traffic jam. The fully produced video could come out when the video of her acoustic take on the same song drops. Both might run up against the June 17 release of her new song with the evocative name “Scraped Knees.”

“[The song] will be consistent with the sound of ‘Sad Little Rant,’ definitely in that lane,” Carr says. “Scraped Knees” will draw on a mix of hip-hop elements coupled with pop production and vocals. “Mid-tempo, lyrical, that kind of thing,” she says. “I feel like I’ve found my sound.”

 

With this whirlwind of activity and releases, it may seem strange that until recently Carr’s primary concern was that she may not be deserving of the attention she and her songs are receiving from a high-end production company and a crack crew of R&B musicians. She found it shocking to be surrounded by so many accomplished people who believed in her.

A talk with Elizondo set her straight.

“Shago is so incredibly reassuring,” she says. “He’s like, ‘Dude, we’re doing this because of you.’” This new understanding, however, comes with responsibilities.

“I am the catalyst,” Carr concludes. “I’m the center of these operations, I’ve got a job to do and I have to do it well.”


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