Meshell Ndegeocello Charts an Infinite Vision of What Pop Music Can Be

Music Features Meshell Ndegeocello
Meshell Ndegeocello Charts an Infinite Vision of What Pop Music Can Be

In the 2002 documentary classic Standing in the Shadows of Motown, there’s a memorable scene where Meshell Ndegeocello asks Funk Brothers bassist Bob Babbitt if he felt any racial tension as a White musician in a mostly-Black band in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. When Babbitt gets choked up talking about the deep bond within the band vis-à-vis the emotional impact of King Jr.’s death, Ndegeocello places her arm on his shoulder to comfort him.

That exchange sums-up what Ndegeocello is like in conversation—sort of. Although no one was moved to the verge of tears when the veteran bassist/singer-songwriter spoke to Paste ahead of her new album The Omnichord Real Book, her debut for the iconic Blue Note label, she was similarly generous of spirit. She also asked as many questions as she answered, ever inquisitive and searching as she mulls the themes of race, sexuality, love and spirituality that her music has traversed in the 30 years since her debut Plantation Lullabies.

What the exchange with Babbitt didn’t show, however, was Ndegeocello’s playful side. Quick to spike her warm, hospitable demeanor with fiendish giggles, Ndegeocello would just as soon wisecrack about the appeal of licking one’s own testicles as she would offer insights on the unknowable nature of God. Likewise, her body of work can’t be confined to a particular mood or style. On her first hit, 1993’s “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night),” Ndegeocello reveled in a sense of conquest, the song’s narrator sneering at a woman whose partner she’d just slept with.

Taken alongside the rest of Plantation Lullabies, however, “Boyfriend” is just one of the many contours of desire that Ndegeocello channeled in the music. Even at that early stage, her songs rippled with a profound yearning to give and receive love, to connect, to heal, and to touch the transcendent. And she only expanded from there. On her second album, 1996’s Peace Beyond Passion, Ndegeocello plunged full-bore into the ravages of shame on songs like “Leviticus: Faggot” and “Deuteronomy: Niggerman.”

Conversely, on both the radiant cosmic dub of 2003’s Comfort Woman and her 2018 cover of ’80s pop-R&B hitmaker Al B. Sure!’s “Night and Day,” Ndegeocello captured simple affection with unparalleled grace and power. On Comfort Woman tracks like “Come Smoke My Herb” and “Love Song No. 1,” the music serves as a vehicle for transporting oneself to an all-loving source, as Ndegeocello’s voice carries through the galaxy calling out to the heart of the divine. Few artists, in fact, have so convincingly presented touch as a divine act unto itself.

With The Omnichord Real Book, she further dissolves the musical divisions she’s been toying with for the last three decades, revisiting the various stylistic stops she’s made along the way—only with greater ease this time. Aided by guests like Ambrose Akinmusire, Kenita Miller, Joan Wasser, Jeff Parker, Deantoni Parks, Jason Moran and producer/saxophonist Josh Johnson, Ndegeocello and her band live up to the “omnichord” of the album’s title by setting out to capture a sound that extends in every direction.

On “Virgo 3,” for example, Ndegeocello ponders the death of her parents with the line “they’re calling me / back to the stars,” a combination of Comfort Woman’s celestial tone, angular Sun Ra-inspired horns and glitchy modern electro-funk. On “Clear Water,” the band and a half-dozen guests put a startling new spin on Parliament-Funkadelic. Elsewhere, “The 5th Dimension” revisits ’80s rock-pop balladry at its most sublime. Consciously aware of the breadth of Black American musical expression (hence the “songbook” reference in the title), Ndegeocello and company flex their freedom to flout boundaries as if they never existed.

Looking back on her career path, it’s remarkable to think that Ndegeocello initially came to prominence as an upstart avatar of the neo-soul movement. Over time, she’s grown into an irrepressible explorer—not unlike, say, Prince or Björk—who embodies a kind of infinite vision for what pop music can be. With The Omnichord Real Book, she draws ever closer to realizing that vision.

Ndegeocello spoke to Paste at length shortly before the new album’s release.

Paste: The Omnichord Real Book doesn’t hint at anything like the classic Blue Note sound until the very end, with Oliver Lake’s arrangement of Josh Johnson’s saxophones on “Virgo 3.” It’s almost like you’re tipping your hat as you’re bowing out, like “Well, maybe that’s what you were expecting, but you got all this other stuff instead.”

Meshell Ndegeocello: [Laughs.] Miles Davis made it clear that all songs are just songs. How you arrange them, deal with them, and interact with them is on you. I come from that same belief system as well. It’s all the same music. What you hear on The Omnichord Real Book is a person who’s finally like, “This is what happens if you leave me alone and I get to just make things.” I come from go-go and my father was a strict jazz-head. But I was also a huge Van Halen fan and I liked the Bad Brains. I lived in DC, a city where all the bands came. So I liked bluegrass, country—I’m fed from all so-called genres of music.

Paste: And you went to see Rush every year growing up.

Ndegeocello: Yeah, I’m a huge Rush fan.

Paste: It just occurred to me: “omnichord” is like… the sound of everything-ness.

Ndegeocello: Yeah, I don’t mean to be corny or sound like a hippie-dippy person, but we’re all connected. I end the album with Oliver Lake because, when I was in high school I had this VHS tape of [the PBS adaptation of Ntozake Shange’s play] for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. Oliver [helped develop the music in the original production]. It was when I saw Oliver participating in freedom of expression, for lack of a better word, that I knew “that’s what I want to do.” Him and Prince. This is all in hindsight, but [discovering] Prince, Oliver Lake, a lot of theater pieces I saw when I was young, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show—that’s when I knew that sound and audible expression was my purpose. Oliver can’t play anymore because of an illness, but I [close things out] with him because [I wanted to end the album] at the beginning, at the [my original inclination] to achieve some freedom through music.

Paste: Your first five albums were on a major label. One could argue that they all fall under the general umbrella of pop—

Ndegeocello: Thank you for saying that! Yeah, pop/R&B.

Paste: —but at first, the public understood you in the context of neo-soul. And then, from the second album onwards, it was clear that, “Okay, this is an artist whose sound is not going to be contained.” What was the initial understanding between you and Maverick Records as far as how they were going to market you?

Ndegeocello: With the first record, I was very lucky. I had the option of [signing with] Paisley Park or Maverick. [My then-manager] Benny Medina was like, “Go to this new label. You’re one of just two artists there, so you’ll get attention.” True to the name of the label, they wanted me to be free and self-expressive. But the second record didn’t do as well as they expected. That was difficult, and then when I handed in Bitter, they were just not onboard and actually told me “we can’t sell this.” I’d started working with David Gamson, and they fired him and literally looked through Billboard magazine for a producer [with a hit that] I could work with.

And then with Cookie, I was told to make something “Black.” But I thank God every day. I was so naive then that I didn’t understand how it’s just business and commerce. I’m just a commodity. Music is a commodity. And I’m glad I didn’t understand that then. I was really just trying to be the best musician I could be. I failed a few times—there’s some uneven-ness—but I’ve been blessed to remain in this state of just trying to be the best musician I can, a good songwriter, and sort of a free radical of goodness. [Laughs.] Because I have to look back [on my work and feel good about it]. My first hit [“Boyfriend”] is a really confusing lyric [typical of the way] R&B is over-sexualized. But hopefully, you grow as an artist. Luckily, you can go through time gracefully and continue to be creative.

Paste: It was difficult for you when Maverick wanted you to make a record that “sounds more Black,” but with this new album you’re seeing yourself in this broader current of American Black expression. It seems like you’re in a different mindset now.

Ndegeocello: Oh, definitely. It’s an American thing. I’m a person of color who’s grown up in America. Even when I play music that deals with different time signatures that might be considered Afrobeat grooves, I’m very clear: I’m not African. The music I make is through this lens and experience that I’ve had. I used to try to stay away from it—or at least not focus on it—but more and more I’m starting to embrace my particular experience as a human and a woman of color in America.

Paste: You’ve done quite a bit of zig-zagging in your career. Some of your records are really varied; others are really unified. With this one, it sounds like you’re more comfortable than you ever have been giving us all of it.

Ndegeocello: That’s what made this recording so amazing to participate in. During Covid, my TV- and film-scoring career jumped off. When I score, we score as a team—it’s my keyboardist Jebin [Bruni], Chris [Bruce] the guitar player and Abe [Rounds] the drummer. We’ve spent a lot of time together. We always share music and we’re constantly in contact with each other. I may be the figurehead and the songwriter, but you’re hearing four people truly interacting with each other sonically. On the new album, you’re never hearing more than a third take. And then we would build on that. But we needed help. So I called [saxophonist] Josh Johnson. We needed someone outside of us who knew us that would just take the music and bring it to fruition. So what you’re hearing, I think, is four people’s free flow of ideas with a really amazing guide. And then we brought in other people. I wanted to ask you: Is genre like the Dewey Decimal System? Does it just aid the consumer and the DJ and radio put it in a certain place? I’m ready to let go of that.

Paste: It also sounds like you’re feeling more of an internal ease going between these things, with less of “Now I’m going to do this certain style.” It sounds like more of an intuitive flow now.

Ndegeocello: Thank you so much. Yes, I think that’s what you got on the record. I would stop scoring and just go to the Omnichord where there was no screen. I would just play my guitars and take long walks and just think about other things. I was listening to a lot of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan—you know how his music has that cycling and raga-like chant. I just had time to remember some things about myself. Before Covid, I was just on this treadmill of achievement. Things were good—I was doing this and doing that and I have a family—but then when everything stopped I could just listen to what I was hearing. That’s a life-changer. And then I’m playing with three other people where we’re almost symbiotic with one another, and who also have ideas and beautiful thoughts and feelings. And we had the space and time to do it. We went to Applehead Studios in Woodstock, where I recorded Comfort Woman, which had been one of the best experiences I’d ever had. So we went there. It was us, with no other distractions, in the woods. It was great. It was nice to have help and be surrounded by other people. We were all able to get out of our own way.

Paste: In the liners you say that your parents passing away “changed my view of everything and myself in the blink of an eye.”

Ndegeocello: To be honest, [working on my 2020] James Baldwin [project Chapter And Verse: The Gospel of James Baldwin] really affected how I saw my parents. I had a lot of anger toward my parents, and then I had to stop and realize that my parents were born before Civil Rights. I can’t even fathom what they went through, especially since one of my parents was mixed-race. They had a very tumultuous and secretive life, so I don’t know a lot of things, but a lot of things came up—secrets. When they passed, it was a lot of reckoning with those secrets. So with my children, I really don’t like secrets. I know people have that thing where it’s like, “Don’t tell them; they’re too young.” I don’t have that. The moment you start lying to your children, it’s a slippery slope. I lived with two people who lied to each other constantly. Not to be too TMI or disrespect them, but that was a burden.

Also, my father was kind of a musical tyrant. He did not understand the music I made when I was first trying. So we had a combative relationship. It’s because of him that I’m the musician I am—he taught me how to be a great bandleader—but it’s not like he understood. He just didn’t really get it. And he would be very critical. After he died, I realized I didn’t have this voice constantly telling me “It’s not good enough.” And then with my mother, it was a very hard relationship. She never even saw any of my performances, due to dogmatic aspects of religion and a lack of ability to nurture. I’m grateful for how I grew up because it’s made me who I am, but it was really hard. [Laughs.]

So when they passed, it was like a mourning of something I would never have. Does that make sense?

Paste: Sure!

Ndegeocello: There’s never going to be a reconciliation. I had to mourn never being loved or nurtured in a certain way. And I had to also realize: no more excuses. Because seeing how their lives ended gave me an example of what I don’t want to experience. And—I say this with my dick in your face—nobody here on this planet knows nuthin’ about death. Nothing. We don’t know anything that’s going to happen. And we all have these anthropomorphic ideas of creation and the creator, and I’m just like, “God, I wish I could erase all that shit out of my mind.”

Paste: Did you see the Pixar/Disney movie Soul with Jamie Foxx?

Ndegeocello: Oh man, I love that movie. And I just read Salman Rushdie’s [new book] Victory City [which deals with] the power of myth. I’m making songs of things I need to tell myself, and I’m just trying to create my own myths—my own world and my own understanding of myself—instead of being defined by others. Even as a musician, you get that: people constantly want to tell me who I am and what I should be doing.

Paste: I think all of us would buck against that—

Ndegeocello: See, I don’t want to buck. I just want to be in the room together with you. I don’t want to tell anyone else how to be. That’s the last thing I want to do. I’m like, “The world is hard enough.”

I was raised by men—musicians. As I come to understand myself as a Two Spirit person, I think I can embody both energies. But, as a mother I may be a little too soft on my children. And I’m okay with it, because the world is hard enough. It’s going to be hard enough with them as brown men. So when I’m with musicians and someone has bought the food and we have the studio time and the engineer is amazing, the least I can do is try to create a space where you feel honored to share of your musical gifts so that we can all have a good experience.

I’ve been on those sessions where somebody’s just on you, just fuckin’ down your throat, like “Play it this way.” Who wants to do that? I may edit and sculpt you at the end, but if I’m paying you, I want you to give me the best of yourself. I want you to feel good, to feel open and to play what you hear. That gives me the opportunity to hear what I wouldn’t hear! [Laughs.] There is some music where you have to play the exact part. But—much like religion—you can have two people read the same verse, and how they go about living out that verse or that surah is going to be totally different.

Saby Reyes-Kulkarni is a longtime contributor at Paste. He believes that a music journalist’s job is to guide readers to their own impressions of the music. You can find him on Twitter and Substack at feedbackdef.substack.

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