"Proper Is Both a Subjective and Universal Term": An Infectious Conversation With the Magnetic Natti Vogel

By AJ Kiehner

Friday, November 24, 2023

In advance of his long-awaited return to National Sawdust, I was eager to meet and speak with the chameleon composer, polyglot, and cabaret stalwart Natti Vogel. Donning an appropriately effervescent orange shirt, Natti hopped onto the Google Meet video call with a bubbly “heyyy there!”—exactly as marvelous as I anticipated.

After our standard salutations, Natti dished that he’d just returned home from a trip to England, predominantly traveling to Cambridge for a stay of relaxation and writing (though, he confessed that it was heavy on the relaxation, as he spent a decent amount of time watching Doctor Who). Despite a bit of jetlag, he was delighted to jump into a conversation about his December 15 National Sawdust performance of “A ‘Proper’ Natti Vogel Concert,” and was more than game for what turned into a equally giggly and introspective chit chat about social justice, whales, handjobs, artistic inspiration, and much more.

AJ Kiehner: Generalized, but I’d love to get a Natti Vogel snapshot for those who might not know you. Who were you, who are you, and who do you want to be?

Natti Vogel: I thought this would be an easy question to answer, but it’s really esoteric. 

Who was I…I've lived many different lives, and been different things to different people in different places. When living in New York full time I tended to lean salty and satirical; there was a yearning and romance underneath my music, but it really was all about hunger—both desire and literal hunger. It felt like I was giving someone a handjob with my foot, making a brownie, and speaking in four different languages all at the same time—all hands and all tentacles were on deck. I was scattered.

Who am I…currently, as a person and a musician, I’m infatuated with how music and languages are both really universal at their core. I love languages, I'm pathologically obsessed with learning them—not for clout, not for academics, but mostly just because I think they're pretty and it's fun to chat with all different types of people. I love getting to know people through music and banter.

Who do I want to be…someone who is helping to break down barriers by pushing the boundaries as an artist. Music and speech are some of the only places people can be heard, and it will only continue to evolve. I think, eventually, language and all genres of music will become universally accessible via technology. Who knows, maybe we'll be able to speak to whales someday. I’d love to see a future me chatting and making music with a whale.

AJK: As someone who is clearly constantly evolving and adapting, how would you describe yourself as a musician? What would be your lower thirds? 

NV: I think pop is who I am - you don't have to get smarter than that - it's short for popular, and almost anything *can* be popular, at least in theory, whereas every other genre seems to have so many other restrictions. But when I was trying to break into the music scene, my fully authentic self was not considered mainstream material.

Cabaret was the most welcoming setting to lean into my natural queerness and activism as a young songwriter, whilst constantly being surrounded by legends who can consistently challenge an audience with joy and chutzpah. I’m excited now that there’s a chance I can bring that level of dangerous honesty to the pop world.

AJK: Do you feel that artists now have more freedom to express themselves? Yourself included.

NV: Oh, it’s definitely different now. We have - ugh, for lack of a better phrase, “broken that glass ceiling” - guhh, what a weird saying - who wants to be covered in shards of glass?! But, you get it. 

For instance, in my song “gen lover'' there is a line "it was all a bad dream / now I wake up with him inside of me." It’s crazy that I had to consciously dare myself to write that explicitly, and that it still sounds “naughty”, when it’s such a sweet sentiment. 

“Cabaret was the most welcoming setting to lean into my natural queerness and activism as a young songwriter, whilst constantly being surrounded by legends who can consistently challenge an audience with joy and chutzpah. I’m excited now that there’s a chance I can bring that level of dangerous honesty to the pop world.”

AJK: You’re known for pushing the needle—yet your December show is called “A ‘Proper’ Natti Vogel Concert.” What’s the “Proper” all about? Why the intentional quotation marks?

NV: The “Proper” is funny; it’s many different things. 

This show is performed with a chamber orchestra. To coordinate a set with that many musicians we had bi-weekly calls and love sessions. The whole thing felt…well, stereotypically proper! 

But the quotation-marked “Proper” really has to do with my amorphous chamber orchestra family. We’re all classically trained graduates of music school who now have the ability to do whatever we want artistically. We’re these little bats that can adapt to whatever “proper” means in any given setting; what’s suitable for one could be lowbrow or pompous elsewhere. We can be in a dingy basement one night, a folk club in Iowa the next, hop on stage at Carnegie Hall, or perform at a private dinner for a Prime Minister. Proper is both a subjective and universal term—it really just depends on your environment and the crew for whom you’re playing.

AJK: You recently debuted the “Proper” evening at Joe’s Pub and you are now bringing it to National Sawdust. Both venues are rather intimate. What do you love about these types of spaces and what about them maybe feels scary?

NV: Truly, virtually nothing scares or daunts me. Intimate venues can be intimidating because they can feel sparser, but I learned really early on not to cry if only a few people come to a show. Of course you want full rooms and you want to sell out, but to get good at your art you need to perform as much as possible—not every room is going to be full—but that's how you build skill and skin.

National Sawdust feels like home. Every show I've done there is really special—the lighting and sound have consistently been stellar. It has always felt like a playground to try new things and to have no fear; a safe space to explore and just kill it. 

AJK: What can the National Sawdust crowd expect on December 15?

NV: This will be our third time performing as a group. The warmth and artistic kinship is unreal. And especially at National Sawdust I know it will feel like we can really let loose. 

But if you want some highlights – there will be a 9-minute through-composed song called “Promise Anything” that’s really fun to play, it’s an athletic dive into the deep end and it’s exciting to go on that journey; and on “Tommy” I really expose myself - everyone cuts out other than me and Sam Quiggins (killer cellist, who plays with such juicy rhythm), it’s a gay heartbreak anthem, but listen carefully to the lyrics - the knife isn’t pointed where you might think.

About AJ Kiehner

AJ Kiehner is the Director of Development at National Sawdust, joining the team from previous leadership positions at the Metropolitan Opera Guild, Opus 3 Artists, and the Leonard Bernstein Office. A passionate fundraiser, he is also an accomplished interviewer, writer, and documentarian. His endeavors in those fields have been highlighted via Beneath the Earth Film Festival, the Metropolitan Opera Guild, the Garden Club of America, and the Tecolutla Turtle Preservation Project, and his work for UNICEF/Procter & Gamble, captured onsite in Uganda and Oxford, was selected to be featured at the Opening Plenary of the Clinton Global Initiative.