Discover: Natalie Walker

Natalie Walker

Natalie Walker is an Indiana-born musician best known in the trip-hop/downtempo world for her two albums, Urban Angel and With You, offering listeners a distinctive, unforgettable flavor of melancholic, cinematic electronica. Having been part of the group Daughter Darling, Walker released Urban Angel in 2006, and her music has since been featured in film and television, including well known titles such as Marie Antoinette and Grey’s Anatomy. For fans of classic trip-hop, Urban Angel is definitely the album to listen first, With You and (to a lesser degree) her subsequent work having the feel of “deconstructed” trip-hop: these later albums feature a more restrained production style and organic sound, mixing in different ingredients and dosages for an increasingly experimental approach to downtempo, one very suitable for live performances.

Walker’s music uses the standard piano and guitar, but also synths and pads, with a prominent bass sound. This ensures a dark, submerging feeling (on Urban Angel most of all), which is sustained by a spellbindingly unique vocal delivery. The harmony-laden vocals, combined with the ingenious way she hits the lower notes (singing, but also switching to whispering and murmuring, almost like the spoken word component many fans of trip-hop deem necessary) hints that she would be comfortable in any situation, whether performing alone, or with a jazz quartet or even full orchestra. Her vocal technique has drawn comparisons to artists like Sarah MacLachlan and Alison Goldfrapp, and her work, somewhere between “soothing, and nearly ethereal” and “desolate [and] spacious”.

Quicksand, my personal introduction to Walker’s world, tells a story of heartbreak and coping with loneliness. The lyrics “I will rise from my sorrow” are repeated during the climax, and the song is accompanied by a suitable blue-filtered video. Quicksand features classy, but subdued instrumentation for an evocative result, with synthesized guitar sounds and a voice that is simply unforgettable after a few listens. The song has been remixed by trip-hop collective Thievery Corporation with their unmistakable signature style, and has also been given the drum and bass treatment by Bautista.

Another highlight from Urban Angel is Rest Easy, a song about love, but also about fixation, suffocation, and sadness, about not being able to let go. The repetition (“rest easy/ rest easy“), assures us that the effort of remembrance is perhaps the cure at hand during the blue moments. Walker’s music is one you can “project” yourself into, but it’s a heartbreaking canvas nonetheless, and you won’t be able to leave whenever you want, as something heavy will have attached itself to your shoulders without you noticing at first.

When it comes down to it, Walker has definitely done her fair share of “classic” trip-hop tunes as well. Crush embodies this in every possible way, a film noir-like soundtrack about lost innocence that recalls all of the genre greats. The song harks back to the Bristol roots and the darkness associated to trip-hop, through reverb-heavy drums, a magnetic, grandiose chorus and lyrics like “Crush the innocence of me/ Release what’s inside/ This is strong & sweet/ I wanna keep it goin/ Stop the noise in our heads/ Just take it in”.

Waking Dream is a track that meets Portishead to the sound of the Icelandic band Mum, its production evoking the power of nature while the lyrics hone in on shifting feelings, the comfort of fantasy and even, (according to Song Meanings users) addiction.

Both the Urban Angel album and its follow-up, With You, were produced by Stuhr (a duo comprised of Dan Chen and Nate Greenberg, both having worked in TV and film), and Walker has been quoted that she wanted every track to feel memorable. Remembering the process behind Urban Angel and working with Stuhr, she mentioned that it felt “perfect” and that “They’d send me the rough copy of a song and the music would just evoke emotion. It’s like fitting pieces of a puzzle together. They forced me to develop my real voice.

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It’s also worth noting that a number of my favorite electronic artists, among them King Britt, James Zabiela, RAC and Morgan Page, have remixed Natalie Walker’s songs:

The King Britt remix of Waking Dream transforms the song into a trippy, texture-filled summer journey, a car ride with the radio turned up high and the sunflower fields behind you.

Morgan Page’s remix of Over & Under unleashes the song’s full potential, transposing and starting from an even lower place – vocally – and then engulfing the original melody with antithetical synths, extra layers, patterns and rhythms, becoming the first remix I’d take with me on a deserted island. However, I also have a warm spot for Ashley Beedle’s remix of the same track, which has similar ideas, but also adds soft chirping sounds and mainly lets it float over LA on a sunny afternoon.

In the late 2000s, RAC was perhaps the biggest remix collective out there, and simply being on their radar was a badge of honor. Their version of Cool Kids immortalizes the track by attuning it to an infectious, ’80s disco/electro-pop sound.

In contrast, the Amalgamation of Sounds dub remix of Pink Neon deconstructs the original, separating its vocals and delivering a heavy-hitting, ’90s jungle anthem with the occasional break in the form of a stripped-down, looping piano interlude.

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I only have fond memories when it comes to Natalie Walker’s second album, With You. The above NYC live performance of Over and Under, which sees Walker and band rocking out, is a version of the song I kept going back to while stuck on my (lonely) research for my thesis. With lyrics like “now we are stuck/ right where we started/ this is the last time” hilariously pointing out my situation, but also providing a perfect haven of hope, forcing me to look within for answers (“I’ve always helped you/ I’ve always listened“).

Lost My Shadow resonates a bit differently when one happens to be reading about Carl Jung and his concept of the shadow. The honest lyrics, the more organic instrumentation, and the choice to feature more piano and guitar, make With You the Natalie Walker album which is most suitable for live performances.

If I had to pick, however, my two favorite tracks were always Monarch and Hypnotize.

Monarch is the embodiment of everything I love about Natalie Walker. The supreme vocals, honest lyrics, jazzy chorus, perfect drumming, subtle guitar, a delightful outro(!) and an “everything comes together” feeling that made me remember this track in particular over the years and return to it again and again (in fact, I’m resisting the urge to just have it on repeat right now).

I’m trying my hardest

Not to be a target

Don’t try to save me

I’m going my own way

You must think that I’m a fool

Butterfly in winter out of my cocoon

Now the wind blows so bitterly

I will never know my destiny

– Monarch

Hypnotize, in contrast, dazzles from the first second. It feels like an outlier, lending itself to the sensation of being suspended in flight, tall buildings and concrete, streetlights and nighttime urban exploration. It’s a bold song, opting for a jazzy cinematic feel for most of the duration and a warmer interlude, which sounds like briefly coming off from a holding spell. Walker eventually blends the two in an operatic, glitchy finale/outro.

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The artist’s third album was Spark, and songs like Mars and I Found You feature more synthesized vocals, going for an electro-pop direction, and Galapogos having a pop-rock feel. Half of the songs from Spark were still produced by Stuhr, while the other half saw Walker working with Ted Bruner (a producer who has also collaborated with Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, and Rusko).

If Spark marked the shift, the following album, Strange Bird, was a radical departure from Walker’s trip-hop roots. An equally complex sound, but a 100% different, dream-pop/indietronica feel, results in something like a School of Seven Bells meets Radiohead album. Strange Bird deserves attention because it’s totally new and different, updating the sound of Walker’s previous albums for the “producer era,” with the enveloping textures of Nothing Lasts Forever, the explosive last half the titular track, Strange Bird, or the tribal feel of Other Side.

In 2019, Walker released the Evenfall EP independently, and in 2020 she was one of the two featured artists on Dive Index’s Waving At Airplanes, alongside Merz, with spillmagazine noting that it felt like “almost creating a dialogue between the two.” Walker had previously collaborated with Dive Index in 2007, on Mid/Air.

I just discovered Waving at Airplanes, and the subsequent remix album from one of Natalie’s social media posts and I enjoy having new, great material to listen to. That every remix I’ve heard worked by using Walker’s vocals as a center, and creating entire worlds around it is a testament of her versatility, and both her and Dive Index are criminally underrated artists that I feel still have a lot to add to the current electronic music landscape.

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Featured Image is Strange Bird, Giclee fine art print reproduction from original digital collage art by Annalynn Hammond

About the artist (source: kolajmagazine)

I am interested in ideas as things and things as ideas. What is a thing and what is a thought? I see my artworks as the question marks on such unanswerable questions. I enjoy collage for both its thingness and its thoughtness. These images are undeniably someone else’s somethings–found, stolen, destroyed, appropriated. But a thing in itself is nothing. The idea’s the thing. In collage, the idea is front and centre: why are these things put together? Well, somebody had an idea…Cut and paste is thinking and thinking. The image is almost incidental–if the idea is worthy I hope nothing is seen but the glue.

Other works by Annalynn Hammond

Queen of Hearts
Nothing Holds
Forest Creature

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Reading material: The story of the “Bristol sound”

Extra reading material: An eye-opening primer on trip-hop production style from producer Orthentix & Just Don’t Call It Trip-Hop: Reconciling the Bristol sound style with the trip hop genre

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