Go with the Floetry

All you gotta do is say yes / Don't deny what you feel /Let me undress you, baby / Open up your mind and just rest

And so begins the chorus of "Say Yes," the sparkling, slow-jam single from UK neo-soul duo Floetry. Although the lines could be construed simply as a gal's invitation to engage in some white-hot, late-night action, they can also be seen in a broader sense: as the performers themselves asking their audience to let down their guard and willingly sample what they have to offer as musicians.

And that's not such a hard thing to do. Floetry -- singer-songwriter Marsha Ambrosius (known as the Songstress) and her partner, spoken-word MC Natalie Stewart (the Floacist) -- are a couple of London-born lasses who obviously have their own ideas about what's missing in the U.S. soul scene, and they are here to spackle up the holes.

Many of the songs on Floetic, their beautiful debut from last October, are nocturnal passion plays ("baby-makers" to some) that daringly merge the erotic with the neurotic. In them, Ambrosius and Stewart portray women who long for love (for the long run or, at least, a long night), but the threat of heartbreak often gets the better of them. On haunting, uninhibited songs like "Getting Late," "Ms. Stress" and "Hey You," the ghosts of past tumultuous relationships loom, even when the women make a wee-hour booty call.

If this sounds like heavy shit for a couple of gals to lay on audiences who just want some tunes to get sticky and sweaty to, then that's a good thing, at least according to Ambrosius, 23, and Stewart, 25. They say they're too damn old to be immersing themselves in the shallow/callow soul trivialities on offer everywhere else. Theirs is mature music for mature people. The optimistic, basketball-loving gals are free spirits who would like their audience to take the time to smell the roses, love themselves and, most important, quit with all the bullshit.

"Our movement is all about love," says Ambrosius. "So it's only right that people wanna make babies under this music. It's two grown women trying to inspire it and just get grown people to love again. Why do they have to listen to younger kids speak of things that they're not allowed to do?"

"It's about honesty and responsibility and just being really aware that you're alive," adds Stewart. "Many of us nowadays are just so confused, paying bills and going nine to five from one day to the next. So we don't really give thanks to the breath that we're breathing, and rather than recognizing the problems in our lives, we're seeing that we're the solutions to everything, and just being honest and not carrying extra baggage."

Chums since their teen years, the two began doing their soul-and-poetry thing on the London circuit under the name Nat and Marsh. Eventually they landed in Philadelphia, where they caught the attention of J. Erving, the son of Dr. J and now Floetry's manager. They also cut some sides at DJ Jazzy Jeff's A Touch of Jazz studios.

"We kinda fell into the studio," says Ambrosius. "It wasn't about who was gonna do the album or recording it. It just so happened that we were doing a live performance and some of the guys saw us do our thing and invited us to the studio."

Once there, they worked with a six-man crew of Philly producers known as the Misfits, a team just as prolific and omnipresent as the Neptunes. Floetry reportedly recorded about a hundred songs, many of which ended up getting cut by other artists the Misfits were producing, such as Jill Scott, Bilal and Glenn Lewis. Another of these tunes was "Butterflies," which was recorded by a certain tree-climbing Peter Pan wannabe by the name of Michael Jackson.

Stewart says she wasn't sad to see the six-year-old "Butterflies" flit off to somebody else's album. "It was actually a record I just wanted to cut for someone else anyway," she says. Why not the troubled King of Pop? And instead of just turning the song over, she collaborated with the ol' tree-hugger on the song, which was released on his Invincible album. (Floetry's demo of the song appears as the bonus track on Floetic. )

"The demo and the end result, and Michael Jackson cutting the record, are so alike and it's exactly the way he wanted it. We spent two and a half weeks in the studio just perfecting it to the way he wanted it, to the way I wanted it. We were leaving the studio as sort of a team."

Now that they're songwriters for superstars, they hope to have people picking up on the artful, adult aesthetic they bring to the soul table as Floetry. It seems to be working already: The aforementioned "Say Yes" is getting heavy airplay on many black adult-contemporary stations across the country, enough to land them atop Radio & Records' Urban AC chart.

It's a rare and encouraging little victory for two artists of genuine talent. (Whatever happened to those?) Stewart subscribes to the theory that jazzmen like Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman have espoused for years. All things being equal, record companies don't like talents, still less geniuses. They're a pain in the ass. Why spend millions on some prima donna with his or her own pesky ideas about their career and art when the public will buy dreck from somebody who's grateful to do whatever you say?

"The music industry doesn't want another Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley or Prince," says Stewart. "So they have to try and kill live music, because live music comes from live musicians, and live musicians have something to say.

"And that's the movement, but hey, you can't deny art," Stewart says, ever the optimist. "The world is in too interesting a place right now for it not to change."

Floetry appears Thursday, July 3, at the Engine Room, 1515 Pease. ZIN, Young Flo and the Blackout Arts Collective will also appear. For more information, call 713-629-3700.

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey