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Soul Sisters

In the cluttered, money-mad landscape of modern R&B and soul music, the figures who stand tallest stand alone. Prima donnas like Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill have the creative vision and iron-fisted drive necessary to elevate themselves among their peers; Usher and R. Kelly work their mack-daddy game as lone wolves on the prowl. And when Beyoncé caught whiff of the big time, she left Destiny's children to write her own ticket (though she did throw her sisters a platinum bone on their recent reunion album).

The point is trite but true: You can't be top dog if you're playing second fiddle.

Unless you're Philadelphia neo-soul duo Floetry, that is. Between Natalie Stewart and Marsha Ambrosius, there are no dogs, no fiddles, no hierarchy, no competition. For these two, working in tandem is the only way to operate. The music they make is a natural extension of that relationship. And whether you put a hyphen, a slash, or an ampersand in the genre title doesn't matter to either of them.

"We classify ourselves as just doing Floetry," Ambrosius says by phone on a cool Philly afternoon. "Our music is very reggae-, jazz-, folk-, and soul-influenced. We heard so much growing up, but we go our own way. Expect anything, but it's always going to be Floetry."

Despite their natural ease on the mic, it wasn't music that brought the two together.

Stewart and Ambrosius first met on the basketball court in the late '90s as teenagers in their native England. They quickly discovered their mutual affinity for music, both as fans and performers, which kept them in touch during their college years. In 2000, the pair came together as a musical unit in Atlanta, where they had both moved on their own to pursue music and acting.

After making a mark together in the ATL, they found their way to Philadelphia, America's epicenter of neo-soul. Once there, they began penning songs for fellow Philly soul cats Jill Scott and Bilal and were tapped by the Gloved One himself to contribute a song to his Invincible album. The result was the R&B hit "Butterflies," and with the approval of both Michael Jackson and Sony Music, they were ready for their own shot.

2002's Floetic, their Dreamworks debut, garnered critical and popular success. Pairing Ambrosius' velvety-smooth vocals and the elegant urgency of Stewart's rhymes over fluid, funky instrumentation, the album offered a fresh take on the worn R&B model. "I usually do the speaking and Marsha sings," Stewart says. "But we switch it up. We let the music write itself. It's really just a natural progression of whatever we're feeling."

That feeling entails no small amount of soul baring and life affirming. Besides an undeniable sensuality and smoldering groove, the common thread that unites all the duo's work is its candid, positive confrontation of life's realities.

"More than positive, the music is just honest," Stewart says. "It's a celebration of life. I love living, the ups and downs, all of it. I'm an Aquarius, a very passionate person, almost to the point of being dramatic. But I'm also realistic."

The duo maintains a grounded perspective on the nature of success in the recording industry. The two give equal importance to writing music for themselves, peers like Jill Scott, or larger-than-life legends like Jackson or Earth, Wind & Fire. "Our own careers and writing for others go hand in hand," Stewart says.

While Floetry remains in tune with the defining sounds that preceded it, it's more concerned with making its own music than with following in anyone's footsteps.

"It's 2005, and it's still, 'Who are you influenced by?'" Stewart says. "You become the second someone. But how can you be the second Marvin Gaye if you're not from his age or Aretha Franklin if you're not connected to the social constraints from that situation? It's another way of keeping artists stuck, which has a big effect on society. Art imitates life and all of that."

"Imitation is one of the first stages of art," Ambrosius offers. "You have to know what came before and keep on moving. You learn algebra and trigonometry and all the different laws so you can write your own code."

With a second studio album, Flo'ology, set to hit shelves this July, Floetry will have another opportunity to pull away from the radio R&B pack. Expressing their individuality -- as a team, of course -- continues to be their first priority, whatever form of expression that may take.

"We're not really your average 'wanted to do this all my life' artists, as much as we are 'this is what I've been doing all my life' type of people," Stewart explains. "There's other things we do -- we paint; we write stories. This is just one of the things we do, and thank goodness it's our job."

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Jonathan Zwickel

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