"Sometimes a song can really change the air in the room," consummate bassist Meshell Ndegeocello tells Exclaim! "It makes life not seem so hard." On her new album, Ventriloquism, the 49-year-old covers an array of songs that resonated with her in her youth. But it's more than just escapist nostalgia: the album is an outlet for Ndegeocello and her bandmates to mourn.
"It was a really interesting time in my life. My father had passed away, the guitar player's father and mother passed away, we were all kind of shocked about the outcome of the presidential election. So there's a longing, a sadness to the music. I think you can hear our questioning."
A blend of the familiar and the foreign, Ventriloquism takes songs from the '80s and '90s and does away with their puerile simplicity. With subtle touches — an octave change; a whimpering guitar — songs like Janet Jackson's "Funny How Time Flies (When You're Having Fun)" go from carnal to woeful, from an erotic ballad to a wistful dirge. You've heard these songs before, but they change in both shape and meaning as Ndegeocello filters them.
"The most memorable things about a song are the lyrics and the beat — those are the things that stick out," she says. "I take those and try to clothe them with my ideas, with my colours. I try to add a piece of myself. It feels like it's mine, but it's still familiar to the listener."
Her take on Prince's "Sometimes It Snows in April" is an example of that ingenuity. Her vocals are less theatrical and more despairing; the backdrop is a little cloudy. The result is gorgeous and chilling — Ndegeocello's pain unclothed. "The Prince cover was about grief, it's me working out my grief for him. He is the reason I play music, and the first artist that really lit that spark in me. I owe so much to him and his legacy."
It's not just personal grief that Ndegeocello confronts on Ventriloquism. She's also mourning the death of a moment in America — no matter how erroneous, there was a vision for a harmonious, post-racial society during Barack Obama's presidency and that hope faded when he left office. Ndegeocello describes a lingering shock over Donald Trump's election and how it influenced her and the band while recording Ventriloquism.
"Barack Obama had his problems, but now I really mourn him," she says. "We've made a huge mistake. I think we're at the beginning of a reckoning." Part of the proceeds from the album will be donated to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in support of defending constitutional rights for marginalized communities across America.
Although Ventriloquism explores pain, loss and grief, it's not meant to be a sad record. There's a brightness to it that adds balance to the project, it allows joy and pain to exist in layers.
"To be in pain and to show weakness is something that society doesn't really deal with well. We don't know how to grieve," says Ndegeocello. "But I don't think you can get to a lighter place without sitting in discomfort. When you try to avoid it, you're lying to yourself. The band sat in the discomfort and that helped us get out of it. And what comes out of that is great joy!"
Ventriloquism comes out March 16 on Naïve Records.