Sure, her new record, the Joe Henry-produced Weather, is her most traditional in a wildly eclectic, almost 20-year career, but she hasn’t gone soft. The impossible-to-classify poet/singer/bassist is just staying true to her continued tradition of doing whatever the hell she damn well feels like.
The first woman to be signed to Madonna’s Maverick label, the bisexual activist followed up her hit R&B debut, Plantation Lullabies, with an album that featured song titles like “Deuteronomy: Niggerman” and “Leviticus: Faggot,” moving on from there to a string of albums that each drew from different wells of inspiration, mixing it up with everything from soul to hip-hop to dub and funk to jazz, pop, rock and reggae.
The Berlin-born husky-voiced songwriter has made a solid career out of zigging against the zags, paying little mind to fitting into any kind of classifiable box, and drawing from the best that came before her.
I recently spoke with the enigmatic performer, who was at her East Coast home, to preview her Thursday night set at Anthology. Here's what she had to say:
Scott McDonald: How are you?
Meshell Ndegeocello: Very good. I’m in New York, and it’s one of those really cold days.
SM: [2009 release] Devil’s Halo had so much going on. Was it a conscious effort to make Weather a more stripped-down record or did it just happen that way?
MN: No, it definitely was. I’m on a French label, and people just aren’t spending what they have in the past on records. We just decided to spend the money on the musicians instead of all the days of recording time. And once we got with Joe, he was like, “Well, why don’t we just do it like a jazz record?” So we played everything out, and it was like first or second take as well. There are very few overdubs. Essentially, what you’re hearing is a quartet. In my mind, if there was any planning at all, it was like one of those David Bowie records where he uses so-called traditional instruments but in a very modern way. So I wanted to make this modern music, but with things like just some simple drums, guitar and piano. Joe even had me singing more than I was playing bass. It was a good experience.
SM: I think it’s funny that you have three bass players in your band. That says a lot about you as a musician.
MN: Oh, yeah, man. I want something different, and on most of these albums, I just get sick of myself, so it works out.
SM: I know that you and Joe have appeared on each other’s albums before. What was it about this time that turned it into something more?
MN: Trust, I guess. When you try something new, you’ve got to find someone that even if you hate it, you can tell them that. It’s a comfort thing. But he’s also someone who can take me out of my comfort zone. In a lot of ways, he’s my antithesis. He drinks a lot of coffee, I smoke a lot of weed. We have different things going on. And in hindsight, I’m learning that it’s really good to have someone around to challenge your individuality, because something different will come out of it.
SM: Even when you were under the Warner umbrella with Maverick, it never seemed like you were restricted from doing what you wanted. Is it even more freeing at this point?
MN: Well, even before that Warner contract was up and that company dissolved, it became less about making music and more about how many units were being sold. I think I was a tax write-off for Maverick. I sold just enough so they didn’t lose any money off of me. But I think as things changed, I’ve just done more work in Europe. I met other people and did other things. I had an opportunity to participate in the larger Zeitgeist, but there are a lot of sacrifices that one has to consider when dealing on that realm, and I just didn’t want to.
SM: Sure. I just never felt that way, especially comparatively, with your records.
MN: Well, here’s a question for you as a journalist: There’s such easy access to music now, and you spend 20 grand on a record, knowing that you're going to sell that song for only 99¢ -- less than a candy bar costs these days. Do you feel there’s a lack of quality control? Do you feel inundated by so much music that you need to check out that maybe shouldn’t even have gotten to you in the first place. How are you feeling with all the density? Or are you happy to be checking out music pages on Facebook? Are you finding the right music these days?
SM: There are a lot of people out there who want to find the next big thing when they’re small. I have little or no interest in that. If it works out that way, great, but I write about things I like now, or have been a part of my musical history. And I still follow music the way I have for a long time -- liner notes, things I’m hearing about, producers, who’s working with whom, all of that -- and in a lot of ways, for me, it’s much more about curating a collection of things I like. But I’m also a glass-half-full kind of guy. I feel like even with all the garbage out there, good music will find a way.
MN: Sure, sure. And thank you for answering my question.
SM: Of course. And speaking of people’s personal music histories, are you still doing the Prince cover shows?
MN: I kind of let that go. People always ask me why I don’t do my older music, so I flipped it and said, “Well, here’s the music that inspired me to make that earlier music.” I did a few nights of Prince cover shows, but I also did a night of Gil-Scott Heron. But I don’t know if I’ll ever revisit that. I guess if someone was really interested, I might, but right now, no.
SM: Well, at least you’re picking great artists to cover.
MN: [laughs] Right.
SM: Easy for you to reconcile family and work?
MN: I’ve had a family since I was 19, so I really never knew anything else. When you’re young and you have a baby, you’re just doing stuff; you don’t think about it. You’re not in your head asking, “How should I do this,” or, “What’s the right answer?” You’re just in your life. I’m lucky to have had that experience, and now that I have a younger child, I’m actually trying to get that back. I want to be free-flowing. It’s just something I do. The family makes the music, and the music makes the family. I don’t have some lofty idea of being an artist. I’m just a musician selling my wares in Medina. [Laughs] Katy Perry will have to make the same record for the rest of her life. These are not my goals. I’m just trying to stay busy and creative. More than anything, I just want to try to keep doing interesting things.
SM: It seems like people always want to put bigger archetypes on you, whether that’s politics or women’s issues or whatever. Does that get daunting?
MN: I hate it. It’s ridiculous. But I’m black, I’m a woman, and I’m gay. I can’t help but be politicized just by being here. But I hate having to be the spokesperson for anything. I am interested in politics, and try to use whatever I have to do things with it -- I just worked with [sex-advice columnist] Dan Savage on an anti-bullying thing -- but it’s a burden sometimes. In a lot of interviews, that’s all they’ll ask about -- nothing about the music. Lately, I’ve been asked more about Occupy Wall Street than any of the music on this new record. I totally wish I could have hung out with Pete Seeger and done those important things. I just don’t think pop culture works like that anymore in these days and times. But I try to do what I can. Always. But my political highlight lately was the Muppet movie. I mean, yeah, let’s get after that oil tycoon. And I never thought I’d say this, because people see me as such a serious person, but, yeah, things are falling apart, so let’s just try to have a good time. Things are too goddamn serious. Hang out with your family, make some good food and stay positive. There’s enough crap out there to make you feel s---ty. Let’s laugh again.