Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Meshell Ndegeocello: Like a Real Revolutionary

As promised, here is the interview I did with Meshell. First up is the version that appears in the current LA Weekly. I am ambivalent about it. I was assigned a non-negotiable 1,000 word piece so I side-stepped reviewing the new CD (Mark Anthony Neal has a great take on it here,) and opted for a Q&A style so I could squeeze in as many of Meshell's own words as possible. That meant jumping around a bit and choosing chunks out of the conversational stream in order to cover as much ground (as many topics) as possible. What's lost in that is the natural flow of the conversation; there's a condensing of her answers and my questions. I will include the interview exactly as it transpired in Blood Beats Vol. 3. In the meantime (also as promised) I am including more excerpts from the original transcript... not everything (I need y'all to by Blood Beats 3) but enough to flesh out the conversation a bit more. First, the Weekly piece, then the bonus stuff...

Meshell Ndegeocello: Like a Real Revolutionary

Meshell Ndegeocello’s eighth studio album, Devil’s Halo (Mercer Street Records), synthesizes her varied influences as they’ve played out on her often brilliantly, at times, bafflingly, varied previous albums — notably Bitter, Comfort Woman, The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams, and Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel. At press time, the 41-year-old singer-songwriter-bassist-producer and her partner were awaiting the birth of their baby; that domestic equation is perhaps the most powerful element in the new music’s composition.

Speaking by phone from her Upstate New York home, Ndegeocello is lighter in spirit than she’s been in the dozen years I’ve been interviewing her. On Halo, that translates into vocals frequently delivered with a playful theatricality (first glimpsed on Man of My Dreams) that adds a jagged twist and a countercurrent joyfulness to sometimes emotionally bleak lyrics. All that serves as both complement and counterpoint to Ndegeocello’s patented mack-sexiness, which simmers through her remake of Ready for the World’s R&B classic, “Love You Down.” She talks about her love for RZA, the effects of downloading on indie artists, and what she has in common with black revolutionaries of the past.

L.A. Weekly:Press notes state that Halo has “no click track or electronic synthetics, with a focus on musicianship and live band energy.” But that's pretty standard for you...

Meshell Ndegeocello: Yeah, the wording is strange. I just really wanted to stress that there’s no Pro Tools. We recorded the initial tracks over a five-day period — me, [guitarist, co-songwriter and Halo co-producer] Chris Bruce and [drummer] Deantoni — to 24-track tape. Everything you hear on the CD is pretty much the first or second take.

How did you decide to co-produce with Chris?

The only past producer I’d ever wanna work with again would be David Gamson, but that hasn’t come up. I haven’t found anyone else I connect with, except for Chris. I’m a true believer that unless you’re Prince or Stevie Wonder — and even Prince is showing that he needs help — not everybody can produce themselves. I’m definitely not that person. Chris is a brilliant musician, amazing to work with, and just got the best out of me.

How did Spirit Music affect your approach to creating music?

In touring to support it, I got to play bass two and a half years straight. It improved my bass playing. It made me respect pop music. I know that’s weird, but I got to play with people who improvise seven days a week, 24 hours a day. That is an amazing skill. It made me appreciate songwriting because you need something that sparks their imagination to allow them to do that. On Devil’s Halo I was really concentrating on writing songs that would be inspiring to the musicians ’cause we’re gonna have to play them over and over again. They still maintain their form, but we all can have some personal self-expression.

You’ve said that the influences for Halo range from Human League to Wu Tang. Describe the Wu influence.

The track that’s Wu Tang–inspired is definitely “Love You Down.” I just love RZA’s programming, simplicity and space. He’s one of the greatest songwriters, and I don’t think he ever really gets credit for that. People keep him in the hip-hop genre, but I think he’s just great at these audio collages. I’m a big admirer.

Why “Love Me Down”?

Because it’s good! I love that song. Everyone remembers it from high school or junior high. It just brings back a flow of memories for everyone, so I knew I had to do it. And I hope to make a covers record.

It’s one of the longest tracks on the record. Most cuts are two minutes and some change; one is less than two minutes...

I guess I’ve purchased a few albums where I just go, “Wow. These songs are really long.” [laughing] My favorite period is when we lived in the land of the three-minute song. The Motown thing — I though they were genius in knowing that’s as much as a listener can take. I guess I was just really in that less-is-more, austere vibe.

One of Halo’s best tracks is “White Girl,” which reminds me of British artists from the ’80s experimenting with dub and reggae rhythms, groups ranging from the Police and Culture Club to...

English Beat, especially.

It also suggests Comfort Woman pushed out of its comfort zone.

Definitely dub is in my body forever. I think I hear everything through a dub filter. Even when I play rock music, I play through a dub filter.

How much was the hard-left turn of your last few albums — the experimentation in production, the genre-hopping — a conscious decision to burn down the tower in which critics and fans had placed you?

I made the first record when I was, like, 22. I’m 41 now. My son is 20. I’m just in a different place in my life. My partner is having a baby in a month. I see the world differently. I think the consciousness comes from that, with the artistic choices. I guess the world of the Internet also changes things. I’m no longer subjected to the Top 10 or the Top 100. I get the music from the last 100 years. That influences my filter, my consciousness.

Speaking of the Internet, chime in on the effects of downloading on the indie artist.

If you can afford it, please buy it. And just know that when you buy it, it allows that artist to have a chance to make something again for you. But if you can’t afford it but you really like it and you’re sharing it with your friends and spreading the positive sounds, I can’t really knock that. But your buying it allows me to take care of this next child and it allows me, hopefully, to make something else.

Let’s talk more about “White Girl.” A few years ago I interviewed you and you joked that you should do like all black revolutionaries and get yourself a white girl.

[Laughing] Yeah, I want a T-shirt that says that, but people won’t really get it: Like a real revolutionary, I married a white woman.

So you embraced the cliché?

It’s been an interesting thing in my life. I think I’ve always been postrace and I’m hoping that with Obama in office ... well, to bring up the lyrics to another song, the common thread is that we’re all gonna die. So find joy. I’m hoping these [bigoted] ideas we all have will fall apart. It’s very limiting to us as a species, the concept of better-than/less-than. It just seems to be at its end. I’m like, this all fades to black, and it’s gone. It’s dust. Choose carefully what you obsess about.

The LA Weekly interview is here.

BONUS excerpts:

Anytime there is a new Meshell album, one of the first things your fans ask is ‘Who else is playing on it?’ I know that [guitarist and album co-producer] Chris Bruce played on Bitter, but how did you come to have the rest of this particular lineup of musicians on Devil’s Halo?

Oh, uh, well, Chris is also just a friend. We haven’t played together [since Bitter] but we’ve kept in touch and we’ve played on some other people’s recordings, so that’s how it came to be. I was really looking for a change and he was the first person I thought of. And also, him and Oren Bloedow had been working with Lizz Wright so, like I said, we had just kinda ran into each other and Oren had to take another spot so Chris was my next choice. The drummer I also knew for a long period of time, just kinda knew from around New York, and he played on The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams. I fell in love with him. He’s my musical inspiration. And Keefus [Cianca] I’ve known since, like, ’93 in LA, when I lived in LA. But this was our first time to actually get to make music together. We just definitely had an instant connection. And the bass player I’ve known for a long time, too. So just kinda, like, people that I have a good rapport with, and that are inspiring. It just kind of came together in a natural synthesis.

Why does Meshell Ndegeocello have anybody else playing bass for her?

Because Mark Kelley is the best bass player in the world, hands down. I don’t know, I was talking to another interviewer and it’s really hard to explain to people. I guess an example is how I grow musically. I hope and think I grow musically. Also, I’m a bass player but I’ve been liking other instruments as well, so it’s not my schtick. I’m interested in other things too, other instruments. I’ve loved other things I’ve [heard] him play, and I can work out ideas in my head that only he can do sometimes.

Seeing Lisa Germano’s name in the credits made me smile.

Yeah, a lot of people, I mention her name and – a lot of people in my circle don’t know who she is. But it was just great to work with her. That was Chris’ idea and I’m glad it really worked out.

The musicians on the CD are the touring band as well?

Yeah, very much so.

Another striking thing about this album is the way you use your vocals. Even when the subject matter is grim, there is a notable playfulness and theatricality to your delivery that started with The World has Made Me the Man of My Dreams

Right, yes…

That’s when you seemed to start pushing your vocals, playing with offbeat accents and such, and that really carries over here. It has me wondering about a sort of chicken & egg equation: Did the music you were playing free you or inspire you to flip-up your approach to the vocals, or did you start writing music toward these voices and characters in your head?

Oh, there are a lot of people in this head. [She laughs.] I think I’m just becoming more comfortable to let those people out. That’s all.

I’m obsessed with sequencing on albums, how they are set up and how they unfold, how narratives can seem to almost organically play out versus how you can sometimes feel the plot being manipulated. On Halo, the first words out of your mouth are, “She said she loved me / I ran away / Don’t say you love me / I’ll run away…” and from there it’s a ride through polymorphous sex, boozing till black-out, lust and disappointment, blistering rock & soul. Did you sit down with your band, write the songs and then shape the album? Or did you already have in mind a kind of narrative you wanted to play out?

I wrote all the songs by myself except for “Die Young,” which a really good friend of mine wrote but never finished so I kind of finished it for him. But I usually write everything, and then I got together with Chris and we played a lot of the songs live and just tried to work out stuff, and then everyone contributes something so then it becomes a collective.
      I live in upstate New York and I just kinda sit in a room… I live in a teeny, tiny town; you could walk the whole town in minutes, and there are a lot of watering holes. So I’ve just been watching people, observing people. I think I’m less solipsistic, I’m trying to be, and narcissistic. I just like watching other people and seeing how they deal with life. Watering holes seem to be the unifying factor – drinking and love. That’s just kind of the head-space I was in.

You know, this is the fourth or fifth time I have interviewed you, and both in your [phone] conversation and in the energy of your performances on the CD, even when the material is bleak, there is a kind of joy consistently conveyed. It’s definitely the most “light” you’ve ever been...

Well, thank you. I agree. And you’re the first to hear that.

[I]n another interview I did with you when your son was very young, I brought up the issue of race and asked what kinds of conversations you had with him about it. At the time, you said that because he was so young you wanted to protect his childhood and not bring it up until he brought it up, and then you’d try to answer whatever questions he had. So now that he’s twenty, and you and Obama are post-race but there are tea-baggers and birthers and Republican operatives who most definitely are not, what kinds of conversations do you have with him about race?

He’s definitely had to experience that situation where, ‘You may be post-race but when you walk in the room, all they see is a very large Black man.’ He’s very clear about that. But also, the thing that he and I have discussed is, avoid delusion and insanity. And be kind. Because people are really suffering from delusion and insanity. When you see them out there protesting and being threatening, you have to step back and realize that’s delusional and insane. And be humble about it. Don’t you live your life that way. You have to truly see them for who they are, and just be kind.

Now, how does someone who is clearly very happy in her relationship write the lyric, "A wife is just a whore with a diamond ring…"?

Oh, now we get into the sexism. [She chuckles.] But, I mean, not to generalize, that’s what I see a lot. A lot of the images that I see in pop culture are like, 'If you liked it, you shoulda put a ring on it.' It seems like relationships have become like an exchange, I don’t know...

A trading of commodities.

Yeah, sex in exchange for all the finer things in life. But I also understand that there are some women who swear that everything is equal, that she’s super feminist, but if you don’t hold the door for her she get’s really upset. So, I critique both sides.

Having lived in LA, the Bay and New York City, how did you come to live in a small town in upstate New York?

Because I hate New York City. I’m really not a city person. I miss the Bay Area but there wasn’t a lot of music going on there, so it was hard for me. And when I lived up there I was a little bit too relaxed. This is a happy medium for me. It’s quiet. I love the change of seasons. It just works for me. It’s by the water. I’ve got a little bit of everything I need, here.

When you are an artist whose voice or vision is frequently misunderstood and you seem to constantly butt heads with people who say “No,” and it’s not because your work isn’t good but because they just don’t get it and aren’t willing to try, you – the creative person – can develop an almost Pavlovian response to the word no, or to any criticism...

[Meshell laughs]

So, where do you go, who do you trust to engage the work, to not have an agenda or blind-spot, and to pull your shirt-tail and tell you that what you are doing is not working, that it may not be good?

Oh, I have Chris. I have my partner who is an amazing artist herself – not a music artist but a writer and a graphic designer – so I have her. I have my best friend of twenty years. They’re not “yes” people. I’ve been very blessed to have that around me and I don’t take it for granted. I’m very wary of people who I feel don’t have my best interests at heart. I’m not in it to win a popularity contest. I like to be challenged.

How did you come to be on your current label (Mercer Street Records)?

Oh, yeah, [owner] Josh Deutsch contacted me and gave me this amazing opportunity.

Do you think this label might be your home for a while?

Oh, I know not the future so I never even speculate.

Other Meshell interviews are in my books Blood Beats Vol. 1 and Blood Beats Vol. 2, both of which are cheap as hell on Amazon right now so... please buy 'em. And my webmaster loves it when you leave comments here on the blog. It makes her feel like her work is seen...


suomynona said...

Thank you for the extended bits. I can't recall seeing her in a better place, or sounding so happy. People equate her lyrics with her life, but like she says, she's not necessarily writing about herself. The songs may come across as depressing, but isn't that what love is sometimes? I'm excited to hear what you think after you see Mark and Deantoni. Best band I have ever seen. And even Chris has some solos on this tour. I don't recall that last year. He rocked it in Minneapolis (as you saw in the video :)

Thank you again Ernest (and to your webmaster -- thank you as well -- but could you fix the spelling slip at "NdgeOcello"? Thanks again). Looking forward to meeting you someday.

P.S. All of your reviews of her work/articles/interviews can be found at

Mikel said...

Thanks for posting a great interview... Been waiting to read a good one with Meshell that didn't devolve into cliches; thanks for delivering.

E-Dub said...

Fantastic! I'll have to post as my fb status: Choose carefully what you obsess about.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this!

Me'Shells music is so wonderful and deep - every 6 month I freak out and listen to her CDs for a long time. And everytime I find something new that attracts me even more!

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this!

Me'Shells music is so wonderful and deep - every 6 month I freak out and listen to her CDs for a long time. And everytime I find something new that attracts me even more!

All the best from Berlin / Germany!

Anonymous said...

thanks for this.

Kia said...

Another big thank you from a long time fan. I can document my life with her music as the soundtrack & I'm always eager for her new releases. I hope the new baby brings her family a wealth of happiness.

copper gypsy said...

"Choose carefully what you obsess about." I love that and will have to give her publishing on that, as I plan to cop it!!! I saw her live in LA and yes, she is much lighter. What ever she's doing... she's doing it and doing it and doing it well!

Artur Carneiro said...

Thank you to let all of us know more about this fantastic artist. I´m from Brasil, and here we don´t even have meshell cd´s in music stores. Knowing she is fine and doing her thing is so good. I listen to her music since her first album and i always wanted to know what she thinks about downloading, i feel more confortable now, thanks!!

Elise said...

I am so pleased to have come across this interview. I bought "Devil's Halo" as soon as ITunes let me as well as pre-ordered the CD. I listened to it, no lie, everyday, several times a day for at least a month (my friends are sick of my obsession. LOL). I flew from Miami to California specifically to watch her perform for several nights. This is probably "the icing on the cake" of my entire "Devil's Halo" experience. Love the album. Love Meshell. If I could write my dissertation on her, I would. LOL. She is a true artist, and I am grateful to her for sharing with the rest of us.

Thank you for the gift of this interview. And I will definitely be buying your books.

Nadege said...

Great interview. I've played and
created mixed CDs & tapes of
Meshell's Plantation & Peace
Beyond Passion. Having a hard
time finding Meshell's other
CDs. Her music is utterly divine.
And usually, it's all about the
intstruments for me.

Meshell's words hit home in a
positive way. Her instrumental
introductions really caught my
ear & I've been hooked every since.

Anonymous said...

To me, Meshell is one of my heroines, and is one of the most beautiful women in the world; right up there with my partner, my Mom, and Grandmas. Not for her looks (although I find her to be a stunningly good looking woman), but because of her affect upon my spirit. I had the great pleasure and honor of meeting her after her performance last year in Seattle, and she was gracious enough to autograph a vinyl copy of "Devil's Halo" for me. I'm a 44 yr old white boy who has never been star-struck in his life. But truth be told ... I was trembling at meeting the artist who moves me like no other. I find comfort in her feelings, experiences, her turmoil, passion, and utter joy ... in knowing that she captures so many of the same emotions I feel and wish I could express as eloquently.

Thank you for such a great interview and allowing us the benefit of getting to know someone like Ms. Ndegeocello just a little bit better.


Sarvi said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. Her music moves me so powerfully; it's wonderful to have a peek into the thoughts of this artist.

Dawn Burns said...

Ernest, I'm just revisiting this interview as I listen to Meshell's album. I appreciate how you chose to share bits of your conversation so we could discover what's on her mind and how she approaches her brilliant, adventurous music.

Meshell's music has deeply resonated with me from the first moment I heard "Boyfriend." She's the kind of artist whose music I love being obsessed with (and I carefully choose those commitments). I'm inspired, moved, challenged, LISTENING actively, and striving to live and create with the feelings her works seize up in me. She's beautiful. Period.

I've always really loved your writing and I thank you for sharing your experience with Meshell the way you did.

Peace. Respect.