Even on a muddy-signal, three-way conference call between Cincinnati, Atlanta and London, it’s clear that modern Soul duo Nicole Wray and Terri Walker of Lady share an affirming bond.
Raised on opposite sides of the Atlantic (Wray grew up in Virginia and lives in Atlanta, while Walker is from London), their dialects call and respond like two talking drums. Both straight shooters, Walker talks about one of the things she liked most about Wray right off.
“There’s been none of that beetchy bowlshit,” she assures, speaking rapidly in her gravy-thick Wimbledon accent. “If you were there, you’d see that from the moment we met, we were like best friends, even to the point where my boyfriend at the time was like (in a mock New York accent): ‘Yo, man, where y’all goin’?’ ‘We’re about to go to the bar!’ ‘Okay, see y’all lay-dah! Bye!’ ”
Both women grew up immersed in soulful cultures. Wray grew up attending a close-knit southern Baptist church where she eventually connected to an experience beyond eating candy in Sunday school.
“The South had hard time struggles; the segregation, the slavery; all of that stuff comes from our ancestors singing hymns in church and hoping God would come one day and save them from slavery,” Wray says.
In London, Walker remembers growing up in an era when groups like Loose Ends and Soul II Soul created an international buzz and Northern Soul revivals were attended by all ages and races.
“The English scene over here, they just appreciate really, really good music,” Walker says. “When it comes to the soul, nobody does it better than you guys, the Americans.”
Around the time when Wray was a member of The Black Keys’ Hip Hop/Rock spinoff, BlakRoc, in 2009, she met Walker in New York at a recording studio. The following year, Wray lent background vocals to The Black Keys’ seventh album, Brothers. As artists, they discovered ways their pasts intersected long before they became a duo and signed as Lady to Brooklyn, N.Y., imprint Truth & Soul Records in 2012.
In their respective countries, both artists experienced solo careers that included the highs of mainstream chart successes (Wray peaked at No.
5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart with 1998’s “Make It Hot,” produced by Missy Elliot) and the lows of shelved releases and obscurity. Walker, a classically trained singer, began as a session vocalist for UK Garage artists and released three albums. And, like Wray, she also finished an album scheduled for distribution through Roc-A-Fella Records that never surfaced.
Today, they are excited about their fresh start. After being signed to Truth & Soul, Wray says, “We get to reinvent ourselves all over again.”
“I always wanted to have a backing band and do it really big,” she adds. “It took me all these years to figure out where I was in my life, but I feel like this shoe fits.”
When they planned their self-titled debut, Lady felt the live instrumentation provided by Truth & Soul co-founders Leon Michels and Jeff Silverman was so unfiltered and raw that it deserved honest songs. Ironically, the first song to make the album was called “Tell the Truth,” the first song they penned as a duo.
“The guys had a track that they wanted us to harmonize over and that became the first record to embark on the whole album,” Wray says. “And I guess they fell in love with it, we fell in love with it, we went back home, didn’t record anything over the internet. We always came into the same room every time, did the same routine and made it happen.”
Like those old Soul records that hook listeners with spoken Rap vamps, Lady’s latest single, “Get Ready,” begins with Wray’s testimony. The pair’s warmly modulated vibrato matches so closely throughout the song (as well as the rest of the album) that their voices merge into one bigger, united force. On the Doo Wop influenced “Please Don’t Do It,” they find perfect harmony, channeling renowned voices like the Sweet Inspirations.
“I think at times, us singers absorb a lot of stuff,” Walker says.
They don’t have any one particular influence — just your basic Soul music.
“Nicole, she mimics a lot of vocalists, even,” continues Walker, “and she has this thing where she can really pitch on and off, and, like a little kid, I kind of copy her a little bit and we end up kind of doing the same thing.”
Throughout the album, Lady sings stories of life, love and pain, engaging differently on each, according to the track’s mood. Unlike the Pop hybrids of contemporary R&B that focus more on hedonism as a means of escape, Wray and Walker felt it was their duty to write music for the people dealing with everyday situations.
“The music (Michels and Silverman) provided, it’s just beautiful; it makes you want to talk about pain, struggles and what’s going on in life because … everybody’s not going to the club every day,” Wray says. “You listen to every instrument, everything that was played on the album, everything comes alive.”
They can’t really explain their chemistry, but they know getting together had to be a mixture of fate and God’s timing.
“The moment the first note blended, it was just what it was meant to be,” Walker says. “Even when she would write something, she would write the first line of something and I would completely understand where she was coming from. I’d write what I write, and it would all make sense. And this is why it’s one of those things that is unexplainable.”
LADY performs Saturday at 20th Century Theater with Lee Fields & the Expressions. Find ticket and more information here.