The singer credits New Orleans and changes in the band to her renewed relationship with the band she was in when she first made her mark.
The logical next step after listening to London DJs play rare groove funk and soul? Make some yourself. The same DJ culture that led to R&B archaeology in the U.S. for records by the inheritors of James Brown and Blue Note Records prompted the birth of acid jazz in England in the mid-1980s, with The Brand New Heavies at the forefront. The group started without singer N’Dea Davenport, but she brought genuine soul to the Heavies’ urbane grooves and the band enjoyed its biggest commercial successes with her. “Dream On Dreamer,” “Brother Sister,” "Never Stop" and “Stay This Way” helped establish the group in America as well as England.
In the mid-’90s at the height of her success with The Brand New Heavies, Davenport bought a home in New Orleans as a place to go when she needed time off the road. Her relationship with the city, like hers with the band, would be cut short prematurely then both continue in different ways.
The Brand New Heavies play Sunday night in the Essence Global Stage Superlounge at the Essence Music Festival, and the band started in London where Simon Bartholomew, Andrew Levy, and Jan Kincaid were playing music rooted in disco, R&B, and jazz funk. Davenport thinks the club scene that produced the band was different because for the first time, musicians went to dance clubs in their recreational time. Rather than hearing other musicians play live, they heard well-curated soul, funk and dance music from the Soul II Soul sound system, or such DJs as Giles Peterson and Eddie Pilar. Peterson and Pilar each ran record labels, and each released records by The Brand New Heavies early on. The band was arguably the first retro soul band as it made a clear effort to emulate the sounds and grooves of records that were 10 or more years old from a contemporary perspective.
“This started a whole new movement,” Davenport says, one that would eventually produce Jamiroquai, Omar, and Estelle. Estelle performed at Essence on Friday and Saturday nights.
While the Heavies were finding their musical footing, Davenport worked and played in Los Angeles to establish herself as a solo artist. She sang backing vocals on records by Madonna and Al Jarreau and is featured on Malcolm McLaren’s 1989 album Waltz Darling, where the credits for “Algernon’s Simply Awfully Good at Algebra” read, “introducing Miss Ndea.” She envisioned a career based on classic funk and R&B instead of the newest, glossiest dance music and was thrilled when McLaren introduced her to Bootsy Collins, whose band performed on the album.
Waltz Darling producer Dave Stewart offered Davenport a development deal, but she already had one with Delicious Vinyl, which had released “Wild Thing” by Tone Loc and “Bust a Move” by Young MC. The label called her to ask her what she thought of this British band they were thinking about signing in the States, and suggested that she record some songs with them. She thought that would translate to a few months of gigs to help raise her profile, but it didn’t work that way.
“It was a crazy time,” Davenport says. 1991’s self-titled debut album blew up, and it didn’t matter how Davenport or anybody else felt about it—she was a Brand New Heavy. The newly formed band was a phenomenon—a cutting edge band that restated classic R&B values. For the next four years, its life was a whirlwind. “We lived on airplanes and in hotel rooms,” Davenport says. “People would follow me in the bathroom. It was crazy.” As an African American woman, she was as exotic in England as white British musicians playing classic funk were in America.
For a while, it was easy to eat, sleep and drink Brand New Heavies. Nobody had much choice, but it was also possible, easy and fun. Neither she nor anyone else in the band had families yet, and “there was time because we were young people to figure out that warm spot,” Davenport says.
After the success of 1994’s Brother Sister album, Davenport bought a home in New Orleans—“my country home,” she says, because she also had an apartment in New York City at the time. Years of pursuing musical success meant that she’d put off the sorts of domestic things that ground people. “I never had a chance to plant flowers,” Davenport says, and her renovated house in the Bayou St. John neighborhood became the place where that sort of thing happened for her. When 9/11 sent her running in the streets from her apartment near the World Trade Center, she retreated to New Orleans to heal. It wasn’t the first time her New Orleans home served that purpose.
The band’s rapid ascent affected members differently, and the generally unfiltered Davenport gets careful when talking about what came next. “People should know that there is a very interesting dynamic that has gone on unfortunately—and fortunately—within the group,” she says. Because The Brand New Heavies took off so quickly, the group lost control of its narrative quickly as well. The press and fans took control of the story and as the lead singer and an attractive, talented, exotic presence, Davenport became the focal point, which rankled at least one member of the band.
“With me being a female and a different kind of sister than they’d ever met—I brought talent, I brought intellect. I contributed in a lot of different ways, and for a lot of people that can be intimidating. It can be hard for some men to handle that. There were some entities within our band that got a bad wave of some of the downside of what the business can be like. It can turn into a very negative approach, an abusive approach, with other people that you have to work with.”
Davenport doesn’t specify how that abuse manifested itself, but “at certain stages, I have been forced to have to leave to be able to have some sense of peace and fairness to myself and my talent,” she says. “If it’s not fun, I don’t want to play. I want fans to know its never been because I had to go out and do a solo album or be in a higher position.”
The Brand New Heavies had a singer before Davenport, and it went through a quite few after her, but none became as identified with the band as Davenport. The linkage made it hard for both entities to get out of the shadow of the other, and Davenport reunited with them twice—in 2013, long enough to record songs for the album Forward, and again late last year. She credits the initial contact to producer Mark Ronson, who had a private party and asked her to join the band for the occasion.
“I never anticipated working with them again,” she says, and five months later, she was out again when the band named Dawn Joseph, the other singer on Forward, as its full-time vocalist.
Davenport is so diplomatic in her phrasing that it’s not clear what she means when she says, “At the same time, someone was playing a last gig to end of a former phase of our relationship,” but since founding member Jan Kincaid left with Joseph in 2015 shortly before Davenport returned, you can put two and two together.
“Recently, there has been a departure. I think it came to a head a few years ago. A shadow of a veil was lifted.”
That experience has made Davenport more wary. She’s now a better reader of contracts she says, and she prides herself on taking care of her own business so that if things go pear-shaped again, her situation won’t be impacted as dramatically as her story hints that it has been at times.
“It was bad,” she says. “It was not cool at all.”
When Davenport lived in New Orleans, she deliberately kept a low profile. She never became part of the local music community because she wanted the city to be a refuge. “It allowed me to separate real life from my career,” she says. Her one attempt to involve herself in the city’s creative community came when Davenport bought a space in the Bywater that she wanted to transform into an artists’ co-op, but the idea was ahead of its time and she ended up selling the building.
Renovating her house gave her hands-on lessons in architecture and interior design, and those two things have become her primary passions apart from music. Ten years after moving to New Orleans, she sold her house 90 days before Hurricane Katrina. She’s effusive in praise for the city, her time living here, and the role it has played in her personal and professional life.
“Going to New Orleans really enhanced my life,” Davenport says. “It taught me a lot about grace. It was a great, great teacher.”