Drea D'Nur's soulfulness and vocal prowess are impossible to ignore. Just ask Blur/Gorillaz leader Damon Albarn. He heard D'Nur sing once. That was all it took.
When Gorillaz – the "virtual" band led by Albarn and given graphic representation by artist Jamie Hewlett – released "Humanz," its first album in seven years, it's fair to wonder how many of the 140,000 people who purchased it during its first week of release in early May were aware of the album's Buffalo connection.
In fact, within the dense mix of "Humanz'" mélange of funk, EDM, rock, pop, soul and disco is the voice of D'Nur, Buffalo independent artist, mother of five and a woman rightly revered as one of the most soulful singers in our region.
D'Nur has spent the past decade perfecting her eloquent blend of gospel, soul and blues, in the process gracing our most prestigious stages – among them, Canalside, for a production that paired the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra with Buffalo singers and musicians in the 2015 Tribute to the Music of Stevie Wonder; Kleinhans Music Hall, where the D'Nur-conceived "The Spirit of Nina Simone" concert and documentary packed 'em in during late February, and is set for a reprise performance on July 22; and the Tralf Music Hall, where she led the band Verse through a stellar set opening for R&B legend Anthony Hamilton in 2013.
“When Drea approached me about doing the ‘Spirit of Nina Simone’ show, it was clear she was an artist with a clear vision of precisely what she wanted to accomplish, why she wanted to do so, and how she was going to get it done,” said Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Executive Director Dan Hart. “I could not help but become a big fan right then and there. So the success of the February show did not surprise me.”
But the Gorillaz hook-up is something of an entirely different order. The band has sold more than 16 million albums since 2000. That D'Nur can be heard alongside legends like Grace Jones and Mavis Staples on an album kept from the top of the Billboard charts only by the likes of Kendrick Lamar means that she is now working in an international arena.
Still, she needed her mom to watch the kids to make it to New York for the sessions.
"I was like 'Mom, this is it, so you gotta have my back, and she did, she had the kids, and everything was fine," D'Nur – her last name borrowing from an Arabic phrase roughly translating as "servant of the light" – laughs as we chat over lunch at the Em Tea Coffee Cup in Buffalo's Hamlin Park neighborhood, a few weeks after the release of "Humanz".
Naturally, I'm wondering how all of this came about. D'Nur shakes her head and grins, still somewhat slightly dazed over the unfolding of events that culminated in her sitting in a recording studio with Albarn.
"My friend Q (producer Quadir Lateef) was playing some tracks for (Gorillaz co-producer) Twilite Tone in New York," she recalled. "And when they were wrapping up, he said 'Got anything else?' " So Q played him my music. And they said 'Um, we wanna meet her, tomorrow. We're working on the Gorillaz album, and the Gorillaz just flew in, and we're gonna have a meet-n-greet party at our loft in Brooklyn tomorrow, and we want her there.'' (laughs) So I just – man, it was so last minute. We’re talking like 10 o'clock at night on a week night. But I was like, 'OK, I'll be there.' And I took a bus. "
D'Nur was afforded some first-hand exposure to Albarn's working methods, as he sat on the floor near where she was singing, coming up with fragments of lyrics and handing them to the singer on the spot.
"What do you think of this?" he'd ask. In the end, many of those lyrics formed the core of the concept behind "Humanz," which posits a dystopian vision in which resistance is a heroic necessity , and sounds an awful lot like a pointed criticism of Trump's America. (Britain's NME.com concurs, in its review of the album: "The animated band’s four albums have so far sold 16 million copies worldwide – more than Blur – and that’s largely thanks to America’s warm embrace. Perhaps by way of thanks, this long-awaited fifth album is about America going to hell.")
"He has all these sheets of paper scattered around him, and he'll just come up with a stanza, or a half of a stanza even, and use different color inks to keep of track of which bit goes with which," D'Nur laughed. "It's so random. He takes these stanzas, and then he hums them to himself and comes up with a melody on the spot. And he grabs one of these phrases and says to me, 'I think I want to use this as a starting point.' That's when he told me the concept of the album, which is this: Trump becomes President, and all of the conscious people, we just leave the planet, and we go to Saturn, and we start all over, and throw a new kind of party."
I ask D'Nur if she believes Albarn can actually make this happen, and if there's a sign-up sheet being passed around. She guffaws.
"He probably could. The man is amazing."
Despite her abundant experience and readily apparent poise, D'Nur still experienced butterflies when she found herself exhausted after a lengthy bus-ride and sitting across a table from a bonafide superstar. Years persevering as an independent artist in Buffalo had taught her to seize opportunities when they present themselves, however. So she just rolled with it.
"I was freaked out," she admitted. "I knew who the Gorillaz were, just from working at Record Theatre, so it was enough to be like, 'Oh my god, the Gorillaz!' (laughs) Damon was like, 'I heard your song, 'Don’t Know Why,' the one about the water and the earth, and I really like your writing and your tone, so we really wanna get you on the album – even if it's just background singing, I just really wanna make sure I hear you, because we're looking for that quality you have.' So I just said, 'Well thank you, I'm just honored that you would invite me to the project.'
"And then I decided that I would clear my head and give all I had to give. I stopped being nervous. And I just did it."
Lateef, who said he has been listening to D’Nur for 12 years, called her talent a “gift” that needs to reach a wider audience.
“I travel the world and I hear a lot of music,” he said. “But every time I hear Drea, it gives me chills.”