Meshell Ndegeocello: ‘I have found my tribe, and they have found me’

The US neo-soul singer’s new album pays homage to artists who inspired her, including Prince and TLC, but she still doesn’t shy away from confronting modern issues head-on

Meshell Ndegeocello: ‘Fame and glory come and go, and that whole notion of being a star seems to me to be dying out. It’s becoming more about finding your niche, be that niche large or small’

Meshell Ndegeocello: ‘Fame and glory come and go, and that whole notion of being a star seems to me to be dying out. It’s becoming more about finding your niche, be that niche large or small’

 

Hit singles in the 1990s. Fame. The unforgettable video for If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night). Meshell Ndegeocello, her head as smooth as a billiard ball, white vest and braces, totally in charge. Always in charge, in fact. We guess that the American soul/funk singer has long since reached the stage where she no longer has to prove anything to anybody other than to herself?

“I’m not sure at all about that,” she answers, immediately setting the tone for a conversation that amounts to inquisitorial self-assessment. “I don’t know if anyone reaches that point in their lives. I feel somewhat unsure, but as a touring musician I’m confident and happy to be able to live up to the expectations some people might have of me. Whether I actually do it or not is something I don’t really care about, but there’s always the feeling that some fans want you to bring back the past for them.”

Playing the hits for nostalgic reasons, rather than creative ones – is that pressure for her? She has fallen prey to that, she admits, but is ever vigilant. 

“I’ve recently come back from shows in Japan and Australia, and the shows were the most relaxed we’ve ever done – in terms of audience expectation, that is. During some downtime in Sydney I had one of those epiphanies where I knew, as an artist, that people paid a lot of money to see me play well. Because of that, you try to make an interesting setlist.

“I am an artist from a period of time where I’d rather people listen to the songs than to have their attention distracted by visual stimulation, and so I tried to play in a way that even if you didn’t know the song you could still connect with it in some way. I have a hope that audiences understand music is a participatory thing – that what they bring also affects the artist’s performance. I try to bring my A game in terms of playing well, and of bringing sincerity to the music. I try to give a balance of that experience.”

Dirty Mind

It has always been so. The first album that Ndegeocello listened to repeatedly was Prince’s Dirty Mind – she loved the lyrics, while the songs (“the postmodern punk groove of it”) took her out of her skin. Born Michelle Lynn Johnson in 1968, she adopted her stage surname at the age of 17, using its Swahili translation (“free like a bird”) as her creative and personal mantra. She was one of the first artists to sign with Maverick Records (co-founded by Madonna in 1992), and her 1993 debut album, Plantation Lullabies, marked her out as a distinctive voice exploring Afrocentric, gender and sexuality issues. Despite her natural prowess as a musician and songwriter, however, the music industry (as opposed to music fans) didn’t take kindly to her not-unjustifiably confrontational reputation for facing various topics head-on. That, surely, negatively impacted on her commercial success?

I’m a musician, first and foremost, but I also happen to have a little bit of notoriety

“If I do think about it,” she muses, “I guess I would say that, yes, I’m not writing or singing simple love songs about having a good time. I like a challenge, so it’s more about that, possibly, than anything else. But I have found my tribe, and the people who can listen to my music with an open mind have found me.”

Ndegeocello admits to being lucky enough to have enjoyed a slow-burn career rather than to have started out with a sizeable hit song and a subsequent fadeout. What every artist really wants, she implies, is a gradual, level experience across many years. She attributes her measured achievements to having come from “the jazz world”, and it is within this, she explains, where she will always be playing gigs, even if she’s just the bass player. 

Meshell Ndegeocello - Waterfalls

‘Notoriety’

“I’m a musician, first and foremost, but I also happen to have a little bit of notoriety. People say that I hit certain topics hard, but I’m just living my life. As I say, I’m just a musician, and I guess there isn’t much difference between that and what Beyoncé or Ed Sheeran are doing.

“Speaking of Sheeran, who I think is a great musician, I reckon if his career fell apart right now he would just go play in pubs and pack them in every night. That’s how I try to roll. Fame and glory come and go, and that whole notion of being a star seems to me to be dying out. To many people, many artists, it’s becoming more about finding your niche, be that niche large or small.”

As an artist, is she now in the place where she really wants to be, and not, as has happened in the past, where the music industry wanted to position her?

Making the album was like being transported via a strange audible time machine

“I don’t think of it that way,” she fudges politely. “Ultimately, I’m trying to grow as a creative person. I’m doing music, of course, but I’ve also done theatre and essay writing, so I’m just trying to find my way in the world. I’m really into film, and I’m hoping to get more into that area. I like to tour. I’ve never sold a lot of records, and now there’s streaming, which may or may not have benefits. Honestly, I’m just trying to find ways to make music more interesting.”

Covers album

We will find out exactly how interesting later this month when Ndegeocello plays her first Irish show in almost 10 years. Her most recent album, Ventriloquism, will form the spine of the concert. A covers album it may be, but it holds huge importance for her as she rakes through her past, between 1985 and 1995, with songs that either formed or inspired her. The tunes were also chosen to reconnect with her parents, one of whom died in the months prior to recording. It was, she admits, cathartic to mourn via the music.

“Making the album was like being transported via a strange audible time machine. They say that olfactory senses bring you back to times in your life, but songs that remind you of joy and pain do the same. I suppose I should have been working on an album of original material, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to do that, hence the cover versions.” 

Even well over a year later, Ndegeocello remains deeply affected by them, both in the listening and performing. “TLC’s Waterfalls still gets to me when we play it, and Prince’s Sometimes It Snows in April is difficult to play live because we can barely get through it without being really moved by it.”

“I still feel music quite intensely,” she adds, not surprisingly. “It’s not like I’m on stage shucking and jiving. Sometimes I wish I could do that. I wish I were better at it, but I’m not.” 

Meshell Ndegeocello plays the NCH, Dublin, on Wednesday, May 29.

Neo-soul sisters still doing it for themselves

Angie Stone
Angie Stone

Erykah Badu
Once known as the queen of neo-soul, Erykah Badu released her debut album, Baduizm, in 1997, and has subsequently delivered episodic work. Her most recent is New Amerykah Part Two (2010), the follow-up to New Amerykah Part One (2008). What comes next is anyone’s guess. 

Jill Scott
In the early part of her career, Jill Scott performed as a spoken word artist (she continues to write poetry) but then morphed into a songwriter of no small repute. Her vocal style, also, has been praised, with critics likening her upper register reach to that of Minnie Riperton. Her most recent album, Woman, was released in 2015.

India.Arie
From her 2001 debut album, Acoustic Soul, onwards, India.Arie has delivered unshowy inner fortitude concealed within many gorgeous soul/R&B songs. Her new album, Worthy, released a few months ago, continues her signature presentation of delicate phrasing and steely resolve.

Angie Stone
Raised on gospel music, Angie Stone detoured into rap, funk and R&B before releasing her solo debut, Black Diamond, in 1999.  The album, according to Rolling Stone, shone “with the intensity of brilliant soul”. In June, Stone delivers her ninth studio album, Full Circle. Still in the game.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.