National Portrait Gallery

Devotees

Floetry

Marsha Ambrosius (b. 1977) & Natalie Stewart (b.1975)
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Eschewing the established route paved by most British soul artists before them, Floetry – singer/songwriter Marsha Ambrosius (born 8 August 1977 in Liverpool) and Natalie Stewart (born 13 February 1975 in Germany) – decided to make their mark in the United States before finding success in the UK. Self-confessed tomboys, they met on a basketball court (Ambrosius harboured dreams of playing professionally until a severe injury), but it was their musical concerns and ambitions that would unite them. The more introverted Ambrosius possessed a penchant for writing material that betrayed a heart-on-sleeve vulnerability and contrasted with the spoken-word bite of Stewart’s penmanship. By the time they creatively joined forces to form Floetry, both had graduated from university. Additionally, Natalie had cultivated a following on the British spoken-word circuit and Marsha had signed a publishing deal.

Combined, Ambrosius and Stewart could deliver perspectives on the same subject but execute them differently within the same song. Ambrosius’s acerbic, but also at times demure voice differed wildly from the Stewart’s dead-pan tone and prose. This contrast led them to sub-title themselves ‘The Songstress’ and ‘The Floacist’, and, by the time they performed at London’s Jazz Café in the late 1990s, they had their eyes set firmly on success in the United States.

They made Philadelphia their second home after being invited to perform in the Black Lily open microphone night for female performers. When Ambrosius and Stewart’s US manager Julius Erving III introduced them to Jeff Townes (also known as DJ Jazzy Jeff and owner of A Touch of Jazz record label), they became officially immersed in the city’s music scene and part of the City of Love.

Working with Townes at A Touch of Jazz, the duo combined their song-writing skills and submitted material for consideration by the label’s best-known artist, Jill Scott, (herself a Black Lily alumni and future pioneer of spoken-word meets soul vocals). Within two years Floetry had signed a recording contract with Dreamworks Records, with Townes executively produced and mixing their debut album, Floetic. In interviews and in songs, Ambrosius and Stewart retained their UK roots, returning for what would become annual ‘nights at the Jazz Café’ gigs in London, as well as spreading their creative talents on inquisitive and open-minded musical peers.

In 2001 Michael Jackson recorded Invincible, his first album of new material in nine years. It contained the sleeper hit ‘Butterflies’, a track co-written by Ambrosius, Jackson and Andre Harris. When ‘Butterflies’ became a much requested track on late-night urban radio and subsequent Billboard Top 20 hit, Ambrosius’s musical reputation, and that of Floetry, soared.

The duo toured heavily, and Dreamworks issued Floacism Live, in 2003. Despite signing their record deal in the US, Floetic was short-listed for that year’s Mercury Music Prize. It also attracted three Grammy nominations for Best Contemporary R&B Album, Best Urban/Alternative Performance and Best R&B Song. Although they failed to win at either ceremony, the transatlantic acknowledgment spoke volumes.

The plaudits didn’t end there. Ambrosius’ vocal arrangements for Justin Timberlake’s hit single Cry Me A River, from his debut solo album, Justified was awarded the 2004 Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance – Male. 2004 also saw Say Yes’ arguably Floetry’s stand-out single, nominated for a Grammy Award in the Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. It would gain a second nomination, in the same category, a year later.

With Floetry’s US profile growing, so did the platforms on which the duo chose to entertain. They appeared on the US television show One on One, attracted nominations from the NAACP (National Association Advancement of Coloured People), Soul Train and a BET (Black Entertainment Television). Not long after the release of their second album proper, Flo’olgy, the duo received another Grammy nomination for Best Urban/Alternative Performance for Superstar, a track that featured US rapper Common. An NAACP Image Award soon followed.

However, Floetry’s work came to a sudden halt after Ambrosius posted a diary entry on the group’s official website in early 2006 announcing that she had been offered a solo recording deal with Aftermath Entertainment, the record label owned by pioneering rapper/producer Dr Dre. In a long statement, she said:

‘I have been offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to create my own album. Along side the mastery of Dr.Dre's magic and the collaborative efforts of my choice, I shall make my personal mark in music history. Whereas many wouldn't have even blinked an eye lid before saying yes, I actually did… I believe that this would be completely beneficial to Floetry as well as my long term goals...’

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