Natasha Bedingfield Gets Political on Her First Album in 9 Years (Album Review: ‘Roll with Me’)

Photo: We Are Hear

The year was 2004. “These Words” was all over the radio, and you were enamored by the fact that British pop singer Natasha Bedingfield was indeed able to write a classic about writer’s block. “Unwritten” then followed—the title track from her debut studio album of the same name. The song would make its way into two teen movies in 2005, Ice Princess and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and became the theme song for the MTV reality series The Hills in 2006. Thereafter, the song reached number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, was the most-played song on U.S. radio that year, received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (she lost to Christina Aguilera), and became the third highest-selling song by a female artist in 2006, behind only Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” and Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous.” Life was good.

Bedingfield’s follow-up album, Pocketful of Sunshine, was equally popular and saw the continued success of its title single, which also peaked at number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 3 on the Canadian Hot 100 in 2008. This song too made its way into several American television series and romantic comedies, including The Ugly Truth and Easy A. At the time, Bedingfield named it her favorite song, commending it for centering on embracing positivity and dancing your troubles away. It would be then that she would be typecast as “perky, sunshine, and empowerment,” and empowering tracks like “Unwritten” and “Pocketful of Sunshine” would be what would become expected from Bedingfield. This is nothing new—she accepted that long ago, but only now has she started using it to her advantage.

In 2010, Bedingfield returned with Strip Me, her third studio album. While seeing the moderate popularity of the impeccably underrated “Touch,” the album became somewhat of a commercial failure, charting in only three countries worldwide and barely reaching the top 100 of the Billboard 200 chart. Underrated is the only suitable word for Strip Me, an album where Bedingfield grew with her songwriting and production and showcased her ability to exist outside of white girl songs from the 2000s. In 2012, she spoke about how she had started work on a fourth album, tentatively titled The Next Chapter, working with producers such as RedOne and Dr. Luke and expressing plans to release the album internationally—given that Pocketful of Sunshine and Strip Me were both released in different versions in the U.S. and the U.K., often with different covers and track listings, something she described as jarring and “devastating” that she would turn her back on her native country to meet the demands of the American pop market. She said that, in a lot of ways—excluding “Unwritten” and “Pocketful of Sunshine”—most of her music “just didn’t translate” when it came to commercial success in different regions, especially the United States.

After that, Bedingfield took a break. She did a song with Lifehouse, contributed to Disney and charity soundtracks, and recorded some other under-the-radar collaborations. She toured with Band of Merrymakers, Night of the Proms, and Train. The Next Chapter was never heard from again. She knows most people think she vanished, and honestly, she’s fine with that. “It’s almost worse to be overexposed, or to be in someone’s life too much,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing for an artist – especially a songwriter – to withdraw for a bit and live a bit of life.” Then, in the summer of 2019—nearly nine years since her last album—Bedingfield released the song “Roller Skate” and later confirmed it was the first single from a new album. The record, Roll with Me, followed in late August, her first release under Universal and the independent label We Are Hear, an empowerment-focused company run by women.

Natasha Bedingfield for Billboard magazine, 2019 (Photo: Kenneth Cappello)

Roll with Me was produced entirely by Linda Perry, the renowned songwriter and producer behind a number of pop classics by P!nk, Christina Aguilera, and Gwen Stefani. The album marks the arrival of a new grown-up, politically aware Natasha Bedingfield. “It definitely touches on some deeper and more social issues,” Bedingfield told Variety. “As a pop singer, often you’re just entertaining people or singing things that are uplifting, and discouraged from being political. But having done this for so long with a microphone right in my face, I feel like I’ve earned the right to talk about stuff that really matters to the world — or to me. And, how can anyone with a heart write something that’s true without touching on some of those issues right now?”

Social and political climates aren’t the only thing that have informed Bedingfield’s new music. About two years ago, she and her husband of ten years welcomed a son, Solomon, and Bedingfield says motherhood ignited a flame in her to promote positivity and caring about our world. “It made me want to be more socially aware and less willing to ignore that stuff… I just feel like I had a new kind of courage,” she said of parenthood. Bedingfield had still been working in music and in studios for much of the last decade, working with names like Nick Carter and Bebe Rexha, but it wasn’t until recently that she decided it was time to revive her own recording career. Actually, it wasn’t until Linda Perry called that she realized she wanted to make another album. Struggling with finding her place and her footing as a woman over twenty-five in the male-dominated pop music industry, Bedingfield described herself as feeling “creatively stifled [on a] major label” in the earlier years of her career, and that Perry recognized this struggle for artistic control right away. She invited her to join We Are Hear, an offer which Perry described as a “no-brainer,” since she very much admires Bedingfield as an artist. “Natasha is a deep feeler,” Perry said. “She wants to have purpose — she needs to have purpose. Singing about rainbows and unicorns is not where she wants to shine. Her intentions are to heal not pacify.”

“Kids and guns, starting out so young” begins Roll with Me’s fourth track, “Hey Papa.” It’s a prime example of the socially and politically aware themes that the album explores. Bedingfield says the song’s title is in reference to the “metaphorical male figures” we’re often told to look for when things go wrong, “like dads or gods,” which brings to mind similar themes explored on the Black Eyed Peas’ “Where is the Love?” during the Bush administration. “Obviously the hero is me and you, but we’re looking to all these people outside ourselves during this weird time,” she explained. “[Y]ou turn on your phone and it’s like, ‘What bad thing happened while I was asleep?’” It begs the question, are Bedingfield’s classic earlier tunes—reminiscent of a simpler time—needed now more than ever? “When there’s prosperity and an amazing leader in charge and everyone’s jobs are doing well, people for some reason like to hear sadder songs,” Bedingfield said. “But then when there is bad news every morning and the world feels divided, we need music that takes us out of that place. It’s a reason to get out of bed. But also maybe people are more willing to own what they find pleasurable [now]. And be like, ‘Yeah, this is what I like!’ And celebrate it.”

Above all, Bedingfield knows the undying, timeless power of music, especially during difficult times. The album’s lead single, “Roller Skate,” is a unique earworm that indeed makes you want to get outside these concrete ceilings and roller skate all around London. Life might be oppressive, but music reminds us that we can exist outside of that. “So many tragedies happen before you even leave your own bed,” she said. “That’s when you really need music. Music helps you get out of the panic.” It might seem like Roll with Me is a departure from the earlier empowering, “lighthearted” Natasha Bedingfield, but it’s not. The album might not be game-changing in terms of sound or production, but it’s the lyrics and themes that again stand out the most. “Entertainment can be both — it can be entertaining and it can be about things that matter,” she explained. “There’s been a microphone in front of my face most of my life, and it’d be terrible if I didn’t say some stuff that really mattered.”

Natasha Bedingfield performing at the 12th Annual Super Girl Surf Pro in July 2019 (Photo: Getty Images)

Another particular highlight of the album is the female empowerment track “No Man I See,” which preaches that women should never let men convince them that they are not strong or that men are superior. It’s something that Bedingfield and multitudes of other female artists in the pop music industry have experienced, namely her former songwriting partner Bebe Rexha, who recently took to Instagram to discuss how a male record executive told her she was getting “too old” to dress provocatively at 29 years old (in response to which she released the empowering single “Not 20 Anymore”). Bedingfield says she’s experienced the exact same thing working in the music industry, stating that not until working in music did she know that 30 was supposed to be old. “That’s not even half your life,” she said. “When I turned 30, people would say stuff to my face, but I was like, ‘I feel great!’ I enjoy being experienced and I feel young because I’m always trying new things and feel like a beginner.”

Roll with Me also doesn’t shy away from experimenting with different sounds and influences, including reggae on “King of the World” and gospel on “Wishful Thinking.” Things also get melancholy as Bedingfield contemplates the future on “Where We Going Now,” and the lyrics continue to get political on “Can’t Look Away.” Since signing with an independent label, Bedingfield describes herself as “being in a good space,” and loved making an album with only one other person. “I feel like writing an album with one person and letting that person produce it, that’s given me a freedom because it’s let me explore a different side to myself,” she explained. “A producer is allowed to have a vision. Sometimes if you’ve had some hits, you end up chasing them and writing something that sounds like ‘you.’ Everyone expects it to sound like your other thing… your label does particularly. It’s freeing. Actually having constraints frees you.” Bedingfield also described Linda Perry as being known for “taking people out of their comfort zones and bringing out a new side to them,” saying, “[S]he really took me to a different place and I felt a new kind of freedom having one producer do the whole album. She gets a vision for something and she’s pretty determined! Every musician who works with her ups their game.”

As if a new album and a new vision weren’t enough, Bedingfield also had the pleasure of re-recording her vocals for “Unwritten” for the theme song of The Hills reboot, with some help from Perry. As for the fact that she will probably be remembered best for “Unwritten” for the rest of her life? It doesn’t bother her. In fact, she sees it as she should see making an era-defining song: as an impeccable achievement. “I love that that song has surpassed me. When people sing that song, they’re not actually thinking about me, they’re thinking about something in their life, and a moment that that song represents for them, and I love that. The goal of every mum is for their kid to leave home, so ‘Unwritten’ is its own full-fledged human being right now! I did my job!”

Rating: 6/10

Jeffrey’s favorites from Roll with Me: “Kick It,” “Roller Skate,” “Hey Papa,” “It Could Be Love,” “Where We Going Now,” “Can’t Look Away,” and “No Man I See”

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