Electronic textures, intimate revelations – that’s the fundamental formula of Natalie Walker’s evocative, elemental, bluntly emotional new album, Spark (Dorado Records). Spark finds the Indiana-born, Colorado-based singer-songwriter, whose prior work has been heard on Grey’s Anatomy, Ugly Betty, Bones, 90210, Smallville and Entourage, among other places, hitting a new creative plateau. With her richly expressive vocals floating in elegant, spacious instrumental settings, Walker explores powerfully personal territory on tracks like the reflective “I Found You,” the questing “Sunday Afternoon,” the gorgeous life lesson “Mars” and the delicate first single, “Uptight.” She also shows her adventurous side, feeling the rush of a humid Brooklyn night in the sensuous “Cool Kids” and diving headfirst into desire on the swooning “Against the Wall.”
Spark – which also includes a ravishing cover of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Galapogos” – occupies a sonic sweet spot between pop and electronica, but it’s more attuned to the demands of her storytelling than to any musical pigeonhole. Walker crafted half the tracks with Ted Bruner (Katy Perry, Ke$ha, Plain White T’s) and half with Dan Chen and Nate Greenberg of Stuhr (Mya, Nicole Atkins, Bebel Gilberto), the Brooklyn-based production team behind 2008’s With You and her 2006 solo debut, Urban Angel. Yet Spark is remarkably consistent; its jewel-box arrangements never crowd the song, incorporating eclectic instrumentation such as MiniMoog, vocoder, Fender Rhodes, cello and harpsichord . Creating it, however, was a bit of a journey. Walker flew to L.A., meeting with a string of writers, but didn’t click with any of them. Then she encountered Bruner. “I walk into Ted’s studio – it’s dark and he’s got a discoball going,” she remembers. “Instead of saying ‘Let’s come up with a hook,’ he wanted to know about me. He asked all kinds of questions. I got impatient, but he said, ‘I can't work with you if I don't know your story.’ Then I got it.” Bruner’s unorthodox route led to the incandescent song “I Found You.” “I revealed things about myself in that song that I’d never said publicly,” she relates. “But Ted refused to let me include a single detail that wasn’t true.” The song crystallizes Walker’s deep connection with the physical world, notably the awe-inspiring night sky of Colorado.
The intensely personal attributes of the material, though, made Walker feel reticent. This – along with what she admits is a bit of burnout after a decade of songwriting – delayed her return to the process. At last, though, she resumed work with Chen and Greenberg – and returned to L.A., where she wrote three more tracks with Bruner. Among these was the revelatory “Sunday Afternoon.” “That song was serious therapy,” she says. “It’s about my journey away from conventional religion.” At 20 or so she eschewed formal services; instead, she’d spend her Sundays drinking beer, strumming guitars and singing made-up songs on a rooftop with her best friend. She called these sessions her “church.” Later, she traded in her six-packs of Heineken for snowshoeing jaunts in the Colorado Rockies. The song describes “looking for God on a Sunday afternoon,” and it’s clearly something she still does in her own way, whenever she can. Like her spiritual pilgrimages, Walker’s musical search has taken her to an array of locales, including Philadelphia, where she sang in the trip-hop outfit Daughter Darling before going solo, meeting up with Brooklyn-based Chen and Greenberg, and journeying to L.A. in search of a new muse. During that time she’s gathered such champions as Jason Bentley (of trendsetting L.A. noncommercial station KCRW); electronica luminaries King Britt and Thievery Corporation; and Sofia Coppola, who placed Thievery Corporation’s remix of Angel’s “Quicksand” in her film Marie Antoinette.
It has also seen her incorporate an array of influences – not only homegrown hip-hop and indie pop but also the classical music and bluegrass she gravitated to as a child. She has explored them all over the years, but on Spark she is clearly in command of her deepest musical instincts – and ready to sing about her own life and convictions with unprecedented candor.