Happy 25th Anniversary to Lisa Stansfield’s third studio album So Natural, originally released November 8, 1993.
At least initially, the line of accomplished British rhythm and blues singers that began to launch from those shores in the early 1980s weren’t seen as part of a larger movement. And that’s hard to believe given the sheer musical (and commercial) magnetism of artists like Imagination, Loose Ends and Sade. Jumping ahead to 1989, it was incontrovertible that a distinctly English form of R&B was not only making noise there, but in America and elsewhere around the globe. In short, it was indeed a movement.
One of the acts riding the crest of this sonic vanguard was Lisa Stansfield. Born in Rochdale and raised on a steady diet of The Supremes and Barry White, Stansfield went from semi-obscurity to nearly instantaneous visibility due to a string of sharp singles and an equally keen debut album, Affection (1989). Sanctioned by Arista Records, that project was groundbreaking in two ways. One, its melding of fashionable dance music and classic soul idioms was unmatched. Second, Stansfield was a white singer with a respectful and authentic understanding of black music.
On Real Love (1991), Stansfield’s sophomore affair, her vintage soul inclinations took center stage and prolonged her positive critical and commercial notices. After a four-year streak of wins—and enduring the backbreaking work to achieve this feat—Stansfield was due a rightful break. She did not miss a beat though.
In June 1993, the singer-songwriter relocated to the Windmill Lane Recording Studios in Dublin, Ireland to commence work on what was to be her third album, So Natural. Remarking on this period to liner notes essayist Nigel Williamson in 2003 for the inaugural reissue of the long player, Stansfield explained, “What I remember about making So Natural is that we hadn’t had the time to write anything before we went into the studio. So, we got in there, locked the doors and worked from ‘nine to five’ to come up with the songs.” With Arista setting So Natural for an early November release, the pressure was on.
Flanked again by Ian Devaney and Andy Morris, Stansfield’s longtime friends, co-collaborators and former Blue Zone companions, the vocalist returned to the durable record making method that served her on her two previous albums. In addition to the twelve-piece string section starring on the collection and gifting the sum of it with a sensuousness and sensitivity, Devaney and Morris pool their own strengths as instrumentalists and producers in tandem with the other crackerjack musicians on call for So Natural. Of interest is the associate production courtesy of Bobby Boughton and Stansfield herself.
The aural portrait painted for Stansfield’s third outing is as absorbing in its classicist objective as Real Love was beforehand. Take the demure and restrained title track which emphasizes Stansfield’s rich, honeyed tone; the plush arrangement recalls the pinnacle of early-to-mid ‘70s soul. The same can be said for “Never Set Me Free” and “Marvellous & Mine” (an eventual fourth single), two other luxurious entries comprised of evocative strings, brass and bass rhythms.
At the same time, Stansfield couldn’t just repeat herself again. Under direction from the singer, Devaney and Morris lent some modish production effects for sweetening purposes that help to considerately break So Natural from Real Love. Examples include “I Give You Everything” and “Goodbye,” each of their balladic cores boosted by a carefully applied atmospheric glazing, whereas the breezy “Little Bit of Heaven” has its flavor deepened with some chirpy disco widgetry.
Excusing a resplendent cover of Gloria Scott’s “(A Case of) Too Much Love Makin’” and the soundtrack commissioned “In All the Right Places,” Stansfield and Devaney cover the scripting of So Natural’s material. From a technical standpoint, everything is exceptional in its “verse-bridge-chorus” structure. But, these songs are thematically different as they’re steeped in Stansfield and Devaney’s mounting romantic relationship; they married in 1997. That personal feel suffuses Stansfield’s singing across the expanse of So Natural including one of its most significant compositions, “In All the Right Places.”
Asked to contribute the theme to the erotic drama Indecent Proposal—starring Demi Moore, Woody Harrelson and Robert Redford—she agreed. Written by Stansfield, Devaney, Morris and the late film music maestro John Barry, the song’s conception and completion happened right before Stansfield entered the studio to draft So Natural. Under Barry’s guiding hand, the debut take of “In All the Right Places” is an orchestral wonder featuring on the movie’s companion LP; the secondary take to appear on So Natural is drawn from its jazzy sound arc. On each version, Stansfield vocally burns the house, its emotional relevance in relation to her own real-life love with Devaney a clear inspiration.
The British and European campaign for So Natural began in the spring of 1993 with “In All the Right Places.” Issued as a dual single from the Indecent Proposal soundtrack and Stansfield’s third album, it was strangely withheld from American record store shelves. Bookended by the title song and “Little Bit of Heaven” as the respective second and third singles, So Natural was released everywhere in world in November 1993—except the United States.
That Arista Records opted not to give the album an American rollout—especially given the platinum and gold returns of Affection and Real Love stateside—was a mistake. The label’s bungling undercut Stansfield’s career momentum there, but thankfully, at home across the pond, she maintained her commercial prominence: So Natural procured a platinum certification with ease.
For Stansfield fans, unable to import So Natural in late 1993, they got a chance to connect with it in both 2003 and 2014 when it was domestically released as a reissue. Among a plethora of remixes and another cinematic song assignment (“Dream Away”) was a sumptuous B-side from the period—“Gonna Try It Anyway”—restored to Stansfield’s So Natural set.
Putting aside her semi-stunted trajectory in the United States, Stansfield’s métier flourished with further albums as the decades went on. And while So Natural wasn’t offered the same shot at the wider exposure afforded to Stansfield’s first two albums, it isn’t any less powerful—or soulful—than what came before or after it.