Published Jul 08, 2014"Ah, we'll see if you feel that way later," murmurs Meshell Ndegeocello with a mischievous chuckle, when I share how pleased I am to speak with her. As with her music, you never know what you'll get with the acclaimed bassist and singer-songwriter, which happens to be part of her appeal.
Since her 1993 debut, Plantation Lullabies, which earned her three Grammy nominations, Ndegeocello has remained one of the most musically intriguing artists around. Though credited for sparking the "neo-soul" movement, her body of work draws from unexpected influences, styles, and time periods too expansive and seamlessly communicated to categorize under a single genre.
When her mellifluous voice is not showcased on her own albums, the celebrated bassist is an avid collaborator — her lengthy list of collaborations include Chaka Khan, Madonna, and the Rolling Stones. In addition, as a producer she's recently completed Anthony Joseph's album, Time, and Jason Moran's Fats Waller tribute, All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller.
Now she prepares to release her 11th album, Comet, Come to Me, Ndegeocello spoke to Exclaim! by phone about omens, what makes an icon, and Prince.
Comet, Come to Me is your 11th album. Do you still feel nervous releasing new material?
Oh, yeah. Of course you do [laughs]. Every time. I think if I don't, I should feel nervous. If I don't feel nervous, I should really think about doing something else.
The term prolific has been used to describe your career. Are you constantly working on material for new albums or do you go into a hibernation period and then sense that you're ready to make more music?
Yeah… there are moments. Like I'm here at my publicity office, once something comes up there are months where I'm just learning music or I'm doing other activities to help sell, so there are months at a time where I don't get to write. Usually I take the time to write in my hotel room or something. But I think that's one of the things, it's not a negative critique but I see it as just an observation — it used to be you put out a record every three years, now people do it every year because they're afraid to be forgotten about, you know. So every time I can't write, I either consider it self-editing or I try to prepare myself for one day, you know, I won't hear any music. So, yeah, I definitely take breaks and do other stuff.
What do you do when you're not making music?
Oh, I have a family so I spend time with them. I read. [Chuckles]. I just have a regular life, nothing exciting.
On Instagram you posted your studio set up in your bedroom. Is that where you find yourself making a lot of your music?
Sometimes. I just had to move to Brooklyn so I've gone from living in a house where I had an attic to myself [chuckles], to living in like a small apartment, so for now that is. Or sometimes I do it on the kitchen table. So, yeah, I try to be as mobile as possible.
Let's get into the album. It's fantastic and filled with a lot of great songs. Can you discuss the inspiration behind the album title, Comet, Come to Me?
[Laughs]. My partner dreamed it. She could just… she's really good at puzzles. Or, I don't know, she could see that it has all the same five letters. And then, after that, I was watching Neil Tyson's Cosmos and there's a section on the comet, and how it used to influence people, like either a bad omen or a good omen. All these things just started to arise about comets, and so it means whatever anybody needs at the time. It's an answer to some people. It's a bad omen to some. It's whatever you want it to be when it comes to you. So I thought that was fitting for how people, I think, feel about me. [Laughs]
Yeah. That ambiguity.
Yeah, and that you have no control over it. And then in the same way that it's not mystical, it's just a cycle. Blah, blah, blah.
That's really interesting.
You cover "Friends" [from Whodini's album Escape] is covered on the album. That record is from 1984, what made you remake that song for this album?
Oh, just the day and time. The word [friends] is also ambiguous these days. Or it's just a noun. It's just a weird… it's sort of been co-opted by so many people. I just don't know what it means anymore. It's just something I'm curious about. And if you listen to "Conviction," it's not a love song, it's a friendship break-up song. I think as I get older, I'm learning about friends, and making new friends and how to maintain old ones. It's just something that I think is funny. And it's a great song, people rarely cover hip-hop music.
"Conviction" is actually my favourite song on the album. This makes me think of social media, and Facebook friends and all this kind of stuff. You're very private. How is it being on social media where everybody is "friends" — how do you balance that?
[Laughs] Oh, I just see it for what it is. And, you know, some of the people on there are my friends, you know, my real friends and so I keep it like that. But then it's also important, in this day and age in terms of marketing music, to try and create some connection with your audience, so it's also a work tool. But, it's funny, yeah, it's actually, I find quite disruptive but I'm trying to balance it out. Try to do the best I can.
Do you keep a catalogue of songs in the back of your mind that you plan to cover one day or is it always a spur of the moment choice? Or is it like you said what happened with "Friends," a spur of the moment selection?
Yeah, or it was definitely in my… this song probably came up one day when I was looking for music to travel to. But yeah, whatever comes and hits me a certain way I just kind of go with that.
Are there any of your own songs that you would revisit or reinterpret?
Well that's funny, I have to do that before every show. I'm going to play old material so that when I play my new stuff I don't have to hear people ask for it. I'm doing it acoustically so I have to reinterpret them. But yeah, I just find that it's just not that interesting to me to play older music. [Laughs]. I mean it's cool. I'm glad people like it, I don't mean to sound like I'm not grateful. It's just that I play differently. I think differently. It's 20 years ago. I don't have the… I'm not a rapper. [Laughs] It's weird to do the first record so I have to figure out those things. That was interesting about "Friends" as well because I am a big fan of Guru, and other people with really distinctive voices, where their voice was just as interesting as their lyrics and them as a person. It's really just trying — how does one reinvent that style or create that essence for themselves?
What's been the most pleasurable part of making this album?
Oh, it's just pleasurable being with my friends — the musicians I work with.
All of them. I mean the last few years I've been lucky enough to work with people who happen to be my band mates but also my friends — Chris Bruce and Jebin Bruni and Earl Harvin. They're just great people to hang around. We have good conversations. We eat good food. We enjoy each other's company.
Speaking of collaborating, Prince's "Soft and Wet" record inspired you to make music?
Have you ever worked with him?
I've been in a room with him. Him and I don't really... he doesn't take a liking to me.
Like I wish he would but, you know, everyone's got different journeys.
Yeah. But I've had a few experiences with him but they never really — he's a very unusual person. And I'm quite simple and normal. That's all.
I saw your show with Jason Moran last year during the jazz festival [in Toronto] and it was fantastic.
You've worked with so many great artists. What about collaborating do you love so much?
Well, that's the thing I like about music, you get all these different minds together to concentrate on one song or one experience. It's the less lonely of the art forms [laughs].
Yes, that's true.
You get to learn something. You get to try and tap into someone else's interpretation or experience of how they want to hear something.
So you've worked with Madonna, Sinead O'Connor, Liz Wright. Are there any hip-hop artists you would like to work with since hip-hop is often a part of your sound?
Yeah, of course there is. I mean, yeah, I would love to work with Ali Shaheed Muhammad. I've worked with DJ Premier. I would love to meet the RZA, love him. I would love to, now that Snoop Lion doing this hip-hop sort of reggae collaborations, I would love to work with him in some kind of way.
There's a lot of the island vibe running through you're album, would you ever consider making an album in Jamaica?
I don't know, Jamaica has some complications. [Chuckles]
Yes, it does.
So I don't think I'd… I don't know.
I just made a record [Time] — please check it out, I think you might enjoy it — it's by a man name Anthony Joseph, a Trinidadian poet that lives in London, on a French label [Heavenly Sweetness/naïve]. I got to do that and from what he tells me of Trinidad I would like to go there. And where is Rihanna from?
Yeah, I'd want to go there too. And didn't Nina Simone go there to hide out?
Yes, she did. And she had an affair with the Prime Minister at the time.
Yeah, so I'd like to go there.
By the way, I love your Nina Simone album [Pour une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone (naïve)].
I'm a Nina Simone fan and it's the first album of remakes that I can listen to and not hear her and hear her at the same time. It's beautiful.
I hope so. I hope that if there is some afterlife she feels OK with it.
The term icon has been used to describe you, and I know every artist has a different relationship with terms like diva and idol and icon. What are your thoughts on that?
I use it more in terms of photography, imagery or art. I understand it as something that is just timeless and will transcend culture and future. But I don't know how to really relate that to people. [Laughs] You know what I mean? I know a few, Yoko Ono and David Bowie are iconic. Prince is iconic. Michael Jackson is iconic. I guess because they will just constantly exist in our history, I don't see them fading away at any time.
Yes, but for yourself, are you comfortable with that word being used to describe your work?
Not really. I mean it's flattering and I'm not ungrateful but… [Laughs].
During the NPR conversation you had with Ann Powers, Sharon Jones, Alynda Lee Segarra and Mike McCready, Powers mentions Jones' frustration with being labelled a soul artist. You've been credited for having "sparked the neo-soul movement." Are their musical labels that you don't appreciate as much as we, journalists and music fans, think you would appreciate?
I don't really think about it because it's so out of my control. I have to really distance myself from that conversation because… well, I'm about to review a record, part of some sort of magazine where they ask other musicians to do it, and I've read about, there used to be a society for critics that joined it, and you couldn't write about music, opera or art unless you had some understanding of the medium. So, I'm curious to see how I feel about that labelling after I write something, because I guess you have to use these adjectives in order to bring your point across. But I'm going to try and do it in another way, without making a generalization to help create a genre. So I get how it works for the writer but it is hard for the artist, especially being of colour where all the music are based on some derivative of the past of Irish, folk, blues, people of colour music. So, I mean it's a conversation that is so ethereal that it just dissolves into dust if you really truly want to have it.
It's interesting this thing you're doing for the magazine. You've played so many roles in music, songwriter, performer, collaborator, bassist, you've also taught music. Do you watch shows like The Voice? Would you considered ever being a judge?
No. Nah, not at all. Nope.
I just have no interest. It's not my thing. The instant critique of something — kind of the sensationalism of it. Nope. I'd rather teach, go to a place and teach.
There's another point you mention in your NPR chat that I love. You said that you used to be kind of sullen and a bit of a jerk to work with?
[Laughs] Oh yeah, definitely.
And that you were told by someone that "you can't treat me this way" and you took it in and appreciated it.
When fame first hit, did you lose yourself? When you're getting nominated for Grammys and people love your music and they recognize you, is that when that came out or…
No, I didn't lose myself. I didn't have a self.
I just had a… I'm not a follower but I'm not very… I had no foundation of rules to begin with, so I just kind of was swayed by whatever felt right, which has gotten me this far and I'm cool with it. But you know.
But when you took it in — that moment with this other musician — has that changed you just in general?
Oh, definitely. Definitely. I've had several people who have definitely aided me in my maturity in trying to be an emphatic compassionate human being.
Yeah, I think that's great. By the way, what is your favourite song on this new album?
Favourite? I guess the poet Kenneth Fearing, that's where the lyrics come from on "Continuous Performance" and "American Rhapsody" and so those are my favourite because his ability to create images, your mind is just so filled, to me, with images, with his words. I find those to be my favourite. Plus I didn't write them so I can enjoy them. I just love his poetry.
Will you be coming back to Toronto on your tour?
I hope so.