N’Dea Davenport’s three-plus decades musical career is a constant trip down memory lane. Her incredible range as an artist is a combination of passion, authenticity, ambition, and self-awareness that has allowed the extremely gracious vocalist to enjoy a few stints as the lead vocalist for British funk-soul outfit the Brand New Heavies, while also carving out her own niche as a soloist and multi-talented performer in her own right.
“Music has allowed me to be accepting of myself,” Davenport confides via phone as she dines on brunch a few hours prior to the Brand New Heavies’ Atlanta performance last month at Buckhead Theatre. “Therefore, I can be accepting of others and continue to work on that. I can’t be no one else but me.”
The beautiful weather outside this afternoon aligns with Davenport’s good energy about sharing the stage with her original bandmates, guitarist Simon Bartholomew and keyboardist/bassist Andrew Love Levy. Along with co-founder Jan Kincaid, the multiethnic Heavies originally signed to Delicious Vinyl Records churned out danceable, retro grooves like “Never Stop,” “Dream Come True,” “Back to Love,” “Brother Sister,” “Dream On Dreamer” and “Stay This Way,” among many memorable others.
Davenport doesn’t mince any words when she comments on the Heavies’ internal conflicts and series of rotating group members over the years. “Families go through different variations of multiple relationships and circumstances,” she unapologetically says. “We’re no different. The dynamics have been a bit of estrangement and togetherness, but fans have been really waiting for a long, long time.”
A mainstay on the Los Angeles club circuit in the late Eighties and early Nineties who also spent time in New York and New Orleans, Davenport was originally slated to drop her debut solo project prior to joining the Heavies. The label heads at Delicious Vinyl asked for her feedback on the then instrumental acid jazz band formed in 1985 that was inspired by DJs/record executives Gilles Peterson and Eddie Piller. She felt a connection immediately upon simply pressing play on the stereo.
“They were some other younger musicians that wanted to try music,” says an upbeat Davenport, “and still trying to hold the tradition of soul and funk music. It was very organic how we got together. I didn’t know what they looked like. It didn’t matter. We didn’t even have time to catch our breath (chuckles).”
By the time the Brand New Heavies were set to release their hip-hop fusion-flavored sophomore project Heavy Rhyme Experience, Vol. 1, Davenport wasn’t included on that effort. She recalls the late great Guru of Gang Starr actually wanting her to join him on “It’s Getting Hectic,” one of the album’s cuts. Their jazzy duet “Trust Me” from his Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1 project became one of the first songs to feature an emcee on a track with an R&B vocalist.
Guru and Davenport had previously exchanged words in passing while he was an undergrad at Morehouse College and she attended the adjacent Clark Atlanta University, then Clark College. Always grateful to chat about her experiences with the exceptional veteran rapper, Davenport remembers Guru being “innovative, brilliant, funny and fixed in his views.” “When he put together the Jazzmatazz project,” recalls Davenport, “it was definitely one of the first and finest in how it was conceived. It started being the norm to put an emcee with a vocalist. That set up a certain precedent, too, that’s really not recognized. He definitely deserves a lot of props for his contributions.”
What’s also not common knowledge in musical spheres is the extent of Davenport’s ties to megastar Madonna. The performer contributed background vocals on the superstar’s 1990 chart-topping single “Vogue” and sang on the majority of the sequence on the I’m Breathless LP. “Madonna was one of the most disciplined at the time that I’ve ever met,” Davenport acknowledges.
Madonna actually wanted Davenport to join her on the Blond Ambition World Tour and in the documentary Truth or Dare, filmed in conjunction with the tour. Davenport declined the offer, refusing to sacrifice her own career objectives. The two haven’t spoken in years, but Davenport, admittedly frustrated for not graciously accepting Madonna’s proposition, still greatly admires the Material Girl. Davenport believes she made the best choice.
“This was all before Brand New Heavies,” confirms Davenport. “And I’d made a commitment that I wanted to go on, do my solo record and take my career to a different degree. I thought if I was gonna be a background singer, I may have ended up being a background singer for the rest of my life. There wouldn’t have been myself or Brand New Heavies. Sometimes you have to say no a lot to get the right yes.”
Another career highlight Davenport pinpoints is playing the all-female Lilith Fair concert series. Originally joining the Lilith bill following the release of her self-titled 1998 debut LP, it was common for Davenport to share the stage with acts like Meshell Ndegeocello, Natalie Merchant, Bonnie Raitt, Sarah McLachlan, Emmylou Harris, Indigo Girls or India.Arie. To date, she’s played over 30 of the ensemble festival’s shows, considering Lilith Fair “one of her favorite festivals.”
“There was no separation of what level of artist you are,” suggests Davenport. “It was a platform. We had a lot of fun. It was a great balance.”
Taking the stage with the Brand New Heavies in Atlanta allows Davenport to feel like she’s on vacation. Her extraordinary recording and performing career has landed her in the company of some incredible talent, but she can’t deny how much fanfare she’s receiving from reuniting with her bandmates for another hoorah.
Davenport believes the time away from the limelight is time well spent. “There’s actually a lot that hasn’t changed much,” she says. “We’re a lot more seasoned as musicians. It’s still very electric and energetic. It’s a nice vibe to see people like live music. It’s a perfect situation for the moment.”
N’Dea Davenport’s Top 5 Records:
- Anita Wilson - “A Perfect Love Song” from Worship Soul (2012)
- Luscious Jackson - In Search of Manny (1992)
- Prince and the Revolution – “Sometimes It Snows in April” from Parade: Music from the Motion Picture Under the Cherry Moon (1986)
- Future - Dirty Sprite 2 (2015)
- N’Dea Davenport - “Placement for the Baby” from N’Dea Davenport (1998)