Interview: Meshell Ndegeocello
by Couch Sessions
Interview by Stone and KDotScribe
I know it sounds cliche, but Meshell Ndegeocello really needs no introduction. As a musician, her 20 plus years in the game have spanned it all. Honing her skills in DC go-go circuit, Meshell has been able to do everything from achieving pop super-stardom (with the John Mellencamp duet “Wild Night,” to the heights of creative expression, with albums such as Dance of The Infidel and Comfort Woman.
We caught up with Meshell a few days after her breakout performance at Washington, DC’s Black Cat. She is on tour to promote her newest album, Devil’s Halo.
Stone: So not that many people know that you’re from DC and you got your start from doing Go-Go bands. So tell us a little bit about that.
Well a lot of the bands originated from high schools, and just people around my neighborhood. When I started playing, it just started a natural development. It definitely affects how I play [now]. I’m definitely a groove oriented player. Go-Go is all about people moving their bodies, and it’s not about being showy. So, I definitely think it’s influenced my playing and how I construct grooves, It was an unusual time, a lot of violence around go-go, so I was definitely happen to get out of it.
STONE: So do you still follow the music?
It’s funny, I found some old Rare Essence recordings on iTunes, and I checked those out. And I get tapes every now and then. You know I think it’s funny, I believe it’s a music that can only exist in DC. It only works there and fits that frame of mind, you know?
KW: Can you say more about that “frame of mind” ? You know there’s Wale right now, trying to take Go-Go out of DC and bring it to everyone else? What do you think about it?
I wish anyone great successes trying to do anything. I don’t know when I say frame of mind, there’s this underbelly to the Washington area, that’s a little dark and seedy and hyper-sexual. And to me, when the music is really good, it maintains that grit and those forces, in my limited opinion.
KW: I have a question about your music making process in the last 15 years. What about your personal process of making music has changed in writing music and putting it together? I know the technological peace has changed a lot, but for you personally how has that process developed?
Well, I’m a child of hip hop, so I have drum machines where I piece things together, but I happen to also play [instruments]. I sit sometimes and write on the piano. The process varies depending on temperature or location. There’s no science to it for me, I just try to get what’s in my head out through my hands and try keep it as simple as possible. I think the only thing that’s changed for me is I sing more. There are too many great MC’s and I never would lump myself in that box, so I definitely try to sing more, do spoken word or have a flow. That’s all that’s really changed.
KW: Keeping in that same vein, you know over the years artists definitely change and get better, and you’ve definitely established yourself as a successful artist, but what experiences have happened that made you a better artist or better able to put those thoughts and sounds from your head onto paper?
A lot of times the failures make me better. I love to learn from my mistakes–the best way to really improve upon things. I’ve learned to surround myself with better people. People who would love me if I was a car mechanic or something. Just the things that aid me in writing is just quiet time and space. A good home life, and good food. Simple living. I don’t do well in chaos.
KW: You and me both.
STONE: One of my favorite albums from you is “Comfort Woman,” I think it sort of marked a change for you musically, In my opinion, What were your thoughts in the making of that album?
I don’t know. I was up in Woodstock when I made that. I got to record that on a farm with chickens and horses and all kinds of things. I was just in a very good frame of mind. I also lived in Northern California before I came to record–a very quiet place outside of Oakland in the redwood forests. I don’t know, I guess really in love with the greater picture of life and was able to take in all of the beautiful sensuous things–like with my eyes and mind. Just this really feeling of peace, plus it was right after September 11th–to have been in NY and experiencing that. I remember going back home and just totally checking out from the world. I had my own little world going on for myself and it was a very soothing place, but I had to get back to reality.
KW: In keeping with what Stone said, I think one of my favorite albums is actually Dance of the Infidel, I mean “wow,” I feel like people slept on it, but I love, love that album.
I appreciate that, thank you.
KW: It was kind of a change from what you were doing before, so can you talk about where you were when you made that album?
Well, I think part of being involved with Islam prior to 9-11 and having it be a big part of my life, then watching everything fall apart and seeing people do things that I was really ashamed of, and also doing things myself that I was ashamed of-it just really made me look deeper into my faith and myself. And what I used to tell people about the Dance of the Infidel record is that its improvisational music, because I don’t like the word “jazz”. There’s no regimen. Like if you read a verse your interpretation and feeling of it is going to be completely different than mine. Like if you play the melody and I play the melody, even though it’s the same melody, it’s going to feel different. And pretty much, that’s what I learned about religion and life, and politics. Everything is filtered through people’s experience, their beliefs, hurts and joys. And it comes out in different ways, but we’re not all meeting at the same place all the time. That’s why great writers are so important and rare. So that everyone can get the same thing from something. But I think that’s difficult to achieve as well, but it just really made me see world for what it was. And a lot of that music is just to express that and to also put a certain energy out in the world. Having an “alternative lifestyle” it made me ask myself why am I embracing a religion that won’t even accept me? And so, it was my gift to the creator, if there is one, because I’m also humble enough to know, like– I don’t know. No one does. So how about I just live a good life and do the best again, because without the devil and without God you only have yourself to blame.
KW: Well thank you for that, it is definitely a gift to your fans.
Ah, well thanks.
KW: But to move on to Devil’s Halo, your new album, I know the crowd was really feeling the “Love You Down” Cover, I think I was like 16 or 17 when it came out, but it was so awesome. Can you tell me how you came to reinvent this track?
Someone suggested that I do it, but whenever I brought the song up when I was playing it in my iPod and stuff, people would have a rush of memories–people would go, “Well I remember where I was when this came out or this happened to me when..” and it was just funny to see people’s reactions. So I just sat with it on my mind for a while and sat at my drum machine. I know it sounds weird, but I just wait for the transmission–and that’s how the song came out, if that makes any sense. I just wait for the transmission and that’s how I heard it. I love to deconstruct and destroy songs.
STONE: I wanted to talk about some of your collaborations. You’ve done work with Basement Jaxx and a lot of other outstanding artists. Do they approach you or do you approach them? What do you do to make those things happen?
Well sometimes, I just get a call. I’m lucky enough that people just call. I mean honestly people just call and want to work with me, and it works better for me. It’s more fun to work with people who want to work with you, I rarely go out and try to find people. I think the only person I went and asked was Kenny Garret, but otherwise people are kind enough to share their time and talent with me. And I just try to be a humble participant. I hope that makes sense.
STONE: That’s cool, it definitely makes sense. And how’s the studio process work for that, you always add your own touch to a lot of the collaborations?
Yeah, that just comes from environment and I listen to music all of the time. Not one particular genre or period, I just like music and I try to surround myself with people who play a different kind of music and will pass me off some stuff. I’m not like a surfer of the internet, I’m still kind of old school, so my friends give me music or pass stuff on. I ind out good things that way, so when I’m in the studio all those things are in my head. Things I’ve heard or when I get a feeling from a musician and they want to try something. And I’m definitely a person, that’s like if you hear something you want to try, let’s try and we’ll try it and it’ll be yay or nay. I try to have a no judgment kind of vibe, there’s no greater than or less than. Either it works and people feel it or you don’t and I just try to trust my instincts and make good choices.
KW: Okay, so the title of your album, “Devil’s Halo” I know you don’t often see those two words put together, so I think it’s pretty interesting how you juxtaposed them. Can you say more about how you came up with the title of this album?
Oh yeah, I think people forget that the devil was an angel, a fallen angel, who I guess gave into jealous–gave into his greater than/ less than ideas. But I guess in life, at this age in life, I’ve learned that there is humanity in imperfection and imperfection in humanity and once you find that out about yourself and others, you’re a little more humble and accepting, and not so hard on yourself and others. So that’s what it means for me. And then the song is just stories about people–asking questions, trying to figure out love, be loved, feel beautiful, be lonely. The thing that connects all human beings is death, so I mean that’s what it all about for me–just a balance, there has to be a balance no one is filled with evil.
KW: You had the crowd buzzing with the “White Girl” song, I know it resonated with me for personal reasons, but there was quite a lot of talk about it after the show.
I guess people from the other album have a specific perception of me. But you know, I think Obama is the beginning of post race. All of that is in all of us. I don’t think one African-American here that doesn’t have something else inside of them. And it’s also a construct, a total, absolute made up idea–race. Plus, I’m in a interracial relationship, and I noticed [that] my so-called people were harder on me than anyone else. And that’s really difficult. That breaks my heart.
There’s this myth that white women are pure and stuff, but I’m just saying our feelings are and that’s what is most important, you know. The feelings you have towards another person and what you put out in the world and I’m hoping people get to the point of ending the idea of the other. And that’s all, plus it’s got a really cool beat.. and it’s hot the baseline.
STONE: We always have this question we have at The Couch Sessions, and this will be our final questions. Artists usually love it or hate it. What are your top 5 songs that you’re listening to on your iPod or your car–your top 5 right now?
Hmm. I love the Empire theme by Jay-Z right now, I know that’s kind of weird That’s my one. Let’ see what else am I’m listening to–there’s a group called Broadcast, not sure if you know them. And Kings of Leon, “You’re Somebody,” it’s like one of my favorite songs. And ahh…It’s hard one, I listen to so much different music. I just started getting back into Kraftwork. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them. Oh, and Black Milk. So that’s been in my rotation. And then a good a friend made me a killer playlist of like hip-hop from the late 80’s and 90’s so I’ve been rocking that Like OLD stuff. I’ve been really in that, so I’ve been in a real hip-hop state of mind, lately.
STONE: So what does the future hold for you? I know you just dropped a new album and you’re touring.
Just to go tour the record, meet new people, eat good food, make some new friends. I have a child on the way–in November. I have a son that’s going to graduate from college. Life is..I don’t know what to expect, I’m going to take it as it comes.
Devil’s Halo is in stores now.