Never judge an album by its covers – ace ventriloquist Meshell Ndegeocello unmasked

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“People have a lot of preconceived notions about me. Most people think I’m tall… and angry,” laughs Meshell Ndegeocello, “but I’m like a lamb.” A fiercely individualistic bass-playing singer-songwriter and deep thinker,  whose work, with its themes that focus on racial identity, sexual politics, and the transfiguring power of love, among many other things, has sometimes caused provocation, Meshell knows what it’s like to be misunderstood. She agrees that there is a disconnect between the person her fans think they know from listening intently to her music and who she truly is. She admits to falling into that trap herself when she was younger in relation to Prince. “I love his music. Seeing him as a child inspired me to play music,” she says, though confesses when she actually got to meet her idol, there was a feeling of profound disappointment on her part. She doesn’t elaborate on what passed between them but sums up her experience by saying diplomatically, “I agree wholeheartedly with people who tell you never meet your heroes.”

Coincidentally, Prince just happens to be one of the songwriters whose work is featured on Meshell’s twelfth and latest album,  ‘Ventriloquism.’ It’s a wonderful tribute to vintage 1980s R&B that finds Meshell putting her own distinctive stamp on songs by artists that range from Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam (‘Take Me Home’) and Janet Jackson (‘Funny How Time Flies’) to TLC (‘Waterfalls’), George Clinton (‘Atomic Dog’), and The System (‘Don’t Disturb This Groove’). Explaining the thinking behind the record, Meshell says: “We made the record about a year ago and it was a very tumultuous period. I had a parent who passed away and another band member lost two parents. There was just a lot going on.”

                    altLoss often prompts us to take stock of our lives and reflect on the past, and in mourning the death of one of her parents, Meshell discovered inspiration for a new project, though ironically, it would come from listening to old songs.  “I had been going through my parents’ den looking through old records,” she reveals, “and experiencing and listening to the radio, and that’s where a lot of the songs came from. That’s the great thing about music – it soothes you and it’s able to work as a benevolent time machine. So the idea for this record sprouted from many feeds: from both grief and a lack of time, but also nostalgia, sentimentality, and just pure love for those songs.”

She says that Al B. Sure’s ‘Nite & Day’ and Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’ had a profound influence on her when she was younger. “They were definitely game-changing songs in my life. (Force MDs’) ‘Tender Love,’  was interesting. Any time I mentioned the song, people got such a clear memory of where they were and what the song meant to them. So there was a reason for each song.”

But though there’s a nostalgic dimension to the album – especially for those, like this writer, who came of age in the late 80s and for whom this music was a life soundtrack – there’s also something fresh and contemporary about it. Meshell, as she did on her 2012 homage to Nina Simone, totally reinvents her source material so that it bears little relation to the original versions that inspired her. The effect of listening to ‘Ventriloquism’ is like being transported into another musical universe. “Songs are vehicles,” states Meshell. “For someone like me, who has too much of an imagination, it’s a lot of fun when you get material that is already fantastic and then you can just use your mind to go on a journey.”

altThree of the songs came from the pen of noted Minneapolis duo, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis (pictured above), former members of The Time, who rose to fame as songwriters and producers in the 1980s. “I didn’t even notice that until we started doing the credits,” admits Meshell, who says that she also recorded a version of Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal’s Jam & Lewis-helmed ‘Saturday Love’ for ‘Ventriloquism,’ but it didn’t make the final cut.

“I love that period of music,” says Meshell with tangible enthusiasm.  “Jam & Lewis were the songwriters of that period. I kept thinking of their story. They were on tour with Prince and then got an offer to produce the SOS Band. I think they made a great decision in following their dreams as producers and songwriters. They’ve written so many meaningful songs to me. I love their production on (Michael Jackson’s) ‘Human Nature,’ and the ‘Human League’s ‘Human’ record.”

I remind Meshell that Jam & Lewis got fired from The Time, of course, by Prince, for doing outside production work. “Yes, for leaving the tour,” responds Meshell with a laugh, “but I think it was a good decision!”

Talking of Prince, Meshell elected to cover the late singer/songwriter’s elegiac ballad, ‘Sometimes It Snows In April,’ the only one of the tracks on ‘Ventriloquism’ that wasn’t a hit and released as a single (it came from the ‘Parade album,’ the soundtrack to Prince’s critically-panned movie, Under A Cherry Moon).  Explaining what drew her to the song, Meshell says, “You can write a love song or a breakup song, but he actually wrote a song that you can mourn to.”

altPrince Rogers Nelson (above), of course, was a seminal influence on Meshell when she was growing up.“His very first record, ‘For You,’  changed everything for me,” she discloses. “It was the feeling of it – the intensity, the synth work, and the fact that he played everything. And it was soulful and rocky. I think its purity also excited me and the lyrics were good and tantalising and interesting. I really liked it. Him and Stevie Wonder both did everything themselves on their records and so they both inspired me, especially on my first record (1993’s ‘Plantation Lullabies’), where I play a lot of everything and do the drum programming. I’m not as talented as those two people but when I heard their records, I was like, I can do this, I can be a musician.”

 One of the most striking ballads on the album is the Tina Turner hit, ‘Private Dancer,’ written by Dire Straits’ guitarist, Mark Knofler. Originally a mid-tempo groove, Meshell reconfigures the song into a slow, sultry, languorous waltz. “I love that song. It’s a song that appealed to me when I was younger but I wanted my version to sound like the words felt. It had an upbeat approach in the production but whenever I would listen to the words, it just felt so heavy and I wanted mine to feel like the words.” Meshell admits being curious about its writer, Mark Knopfler, who writes perceptively from a female perspective. “I really want to meet him and I want to ask him about that period of time. I have a huge curiosity about him, because he’s such a virtuosic guitar player, and I’m wondering if he had to straddle, after having a hit, whether to be this confident musician or head further into the pop world. So I’m hoping to run into him one day. “

altOn the new record, Meshell used many of the same personnel that were responsible for some of her previous albums, from the musicians to her engineer, mixer, and co-producer.  “We’re a team,” she says, acknowledging the value of their contributions. “We say Meshell Ndegeocello is a band. I’ve found a group of people that have a similar point of view like a band and so I treat a lot of projects that way.” 

She’s particularly keen to pay tribute to Peter Min, who mixed and mastered the album. “He’s done my last few records,” reveals Meshell. “We have a sonic rapport, which is great, especially when I don’t have time to me sit and labour over every mix. It’s good to work with someone who has the clarity and understanding of what you’re alluding to from what you recorded, especially when you play as a band. We pretty much record how we want it to sound as we record,  and wanted someone to beautify what’s already there instead of someone to reinterpret the mix.”

As for Meshell’s band, most of the guitar parts are handled by her long-time associate, Chris Bruce. “He’s a great guitarist and a friend and a collaborator. I really appreciate him,” she enthuses. It was via Bruce that Meshell met her producer, keyboardist Jebin Bruni. “He’s played with Tears For Fears, PIL, and Aimee Mann. His sonic vision is so clear. I love his synth textures and piano playing.” Meshell’s drummer hails from ‘down under,’ in Australia. His name’s Abraham Rounds. ” For me, Abe’s just an amazing drummer to play with,” says Meshell. “It’s like you’re playing with a musician, someone who’s composing, as we go, and not like a stagnant drum machine. He also did the arrangement of ‘Smooth Operator.'” Meshell says that all of the band members all play bass guitar as well, which means that they have a similar musical sensibility. Their different interests outside of music also rub off on one another. “We all expose each other to all the things we’re into in terms of art, craft, literature, and film,” she says, “and we just have an easy-going rapport about aesthetics with one another …and I think it gets better and better as time goes on.”

Being such a close-knit team, you would think, perhaps, that outside musicians wouldn’t be needed, or indeed, welcome, but Meshell invited bassist Kaveh Rastegar (from the jazz improv band, Kneebody), along with guitarists Jeff Parker and Adam Levy to participate in the sessions. “I think sometimes it’s nice to have other people bringing in their imaginations to round out the colour and expand the vision,” she explains. “Every person who is with you in the room changes the air and affects the mood.” She also reveals that the collaborative nature of ‘Ventriloquism’ and the way it came about allowed her the luxury of being able to “focus on the feeling of the music and my singing.”

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Going right back to the beginning, Meshell first came on the music scene radar as a 25-year-old in 1993 when she signed with Madonna’s Sire-distributed boutique imprint, Maverick (apparently Prince was also interested in signing her to his Paisley Park label, but she turned him down). Meshell was marketed as an R&B artist and released two albums – ’93’s ‘Plantation Lullabies’ featuring the hit single, ‘If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night’) and ’96’s ‘Peace Beyond Passion’ – that both did well commercially. Contrary to what some think, Meshell’s creativity wasn’t stifled by the major label mentality of Maverick. “I’m so grateful that they had a lot of trust in me,” she says. “They let me do whatever I wanted. It was a very safe place to be in. When Freddie DeMann was there, that was the person I worked with, and he’d managed some great people. He was super kind to me, and I think those first two records were the ones that I wanted to make.”

altThe situation changed, though, when Meshell unveiled her third album, ‘Bitter,’ where she abandoned R&B completely and morphed into an inspective singer/songwriter with hints of Leonard Cohen in her sonic DNA. She feels that ‘Bitter’ was a truer reflection of her musical sensibility than her previous albums but faced resistance from her record label. “They hated it and said we can’t sell this,” remembers Meshell. “I guess it was because it was too different from my other two records.”  Explaining what inspired ‘Bitter,’ Meshell elaborates: “I got to just play, write some songs and I worked with (producer) Craig Street, someone who had known me since I was 20 years old. So I was able to just play and be myself and not try to fit into someone’s understanding of me.”

Ironically, ‘Bitter’ came about because the record company had fired the producer of her previous two albums, Scritti Politti’s David Gamson. After that happened, the search was on for a new producer to mould her sound, and Meshell vividly remembers a conversation she had with an A&R exec whose viewpoint was alien to her own: “I sat in a room with a guy who said, ‘we need to find you a producer….who has a hit?” and he looked through the Billboard charts. It’s not like they were looking for an organic fit, it was just a case of making the numbers work.”

That taught Meshell a valuable lesson and instead of going with the latest hot producer in R&B, she hooked up with Craig Street and made ‘Bitter.’ “They didn’t like my choices on the third record,” she laughs, “but out of that, I made a really interesting record. At least I chose someone who loved me, Craig Street, who was the first person to even take notice of my music. So I went back to someone I knew I could trust and totally made me think a different way. And plus it was after I did ‘Wild Night’ with John  Mellencamp, where I got back into being in a band situation, and that influenced me as well.”

altBut after ‘Bitter,’ which despite being a personal triumph was a huge commercial failure, Meshell went back to the drawing board and came up with another R&B/hip-hop-slanted record, ‘Cookie: The Anthropological Mix Tape,’ though it seemed much darker and more provocative than anything she’d done before. But it put Meshell back in the US charts though she says it was meant to be an ironic commentary on racial stereotypes and how white America see African-Americans. “That record was a joke, but I don’t think people got the joke,” she laughs. “Maverick told me to make a black record, so I made what they assumed black to be about.”

                                 altAfter one more album for Maverick (2003’s ‘Comfort Woman’), Meshell recorded for several different labels until she landed at the French indie label, Naive, in 2011. ‘Ventriloquist’ is Meshell’s fourth outing for Naive, following in the wake of 2014’s ‘Comet, Come To Me’ (pictured above)  “I’m just blessed to have someone who loves me,” she says, describing her ‘relationship’ with the Paris-based label.  “They also happen to take care of that aspect of your life, but I don’t talk to them so our relationship is great. I’m not really good in those kinds environments but I’m glad I’m on Naive, they speak to my mentality as well – some stuff, I’m really happy I’m naive about. But music is my propelling force, I don’t want to know how to spin and sell it, I just don’t have that character.”

Looking to the future, beyond the current album, Meshell reveals that she has been working on a multi-media project related to the work of writer, James Baldwin. She’s interested in all the arts and professes to be an aficionado of the medium of film. That figures, perhaps, given the cinematic nature of some of her music. “I probably watch more cinema than I do listen to music,” she reveals.  I love (film director) Ken Russell and I’m a huge (Stanley) Kubrick fan and I like a lot of independent movies. There’s a theatre in New York called the Metrograph, and literally I just show up and watch anything that’s playing.” As well as watching movies, Meshell – even though some of her songs have featured in ten films – hopes that one day she’ll get a chance to write a full and proper movie soundtrack. “I’m hoping someone will call and I’ll get an opportunity to score something compelling,” she states.

altAnother unfulfilled dream of hers is to work with producer Brian Eno (above), though she did have an opportunity once, though it slipped through her fingers. “I think I was too immature and should have appreciated him more and hung around him,” she says. “He came to a show and then asked me to play bass with Paul Simon, but it didn’t go so well. Me and Paul Simon just didn’t gel.” Even so, Meshell was smitten with the ex-Roxy Music keyboardist and U2 producer during that brief encounter. “On meeting him, his essence and spirit were just so gentle and compelling and curious,” she says. “I’m excited by his sonics and ideas. He isn’t a virtuoso musician but it’s just his approach – the way he deconstructs ideas and his use of instrumentation – which I find so fascinating. He’s the only hero of mine that I’ve met that has lived up to all my expectations. I cherish a great hope that we’ll run into each other, even if it’s just for tea, and I’ll get to ask him two questions.” Meshell is reluctant to divulge what those two questions will be, but the thought of her and Eno drinking tea together is an arresting one – and let’s hope it comes to fruition. If their musical liaison were to happen, it surely would produce something potent and memorable.

Perhaps it’s the intensity of her music and its uncompromising focus that has led some people to see Meshell Ndegeocello as someone who’s angry. Judging from my pleasant encounter with her, it’s obviously a gross misperception based wholly on preconceived notions. Meshell proved extremely affable, laughed a lot, and seemed no stranger to humility. Though once consumed by music, age (she’ll be fifty later this year) has seemingly brought her a good degree of peace and contentment. “I have a family so I can’t be a 24-hour music junkie,” she says and reveals that she has other interests besides music. “I paint collages and I love to read,” she declares.

As she grows older, she’s also seeking, she says, a simpler life. “I’m weaning myself off of technology, and I’m really trying to fantasise about boredom and no electricity. I find myself playing acoustic instruments that I like that don’t need electricity and also I find myself trying to find different interests – maybe I’ll weave or paint more – for my mind to be engaged with. I’m just trying to enjoy life and understand things.” Aren’t we all.

                             alt‘VENTRILOQUISM’ IS OUT NOW ON NAIVE RECORDS.