Meshell Ndegeocello, Citrine Baron
"Neil Armstrong ain't got shit on Meshell Ndegeocello," says devout Ndegeocello fan "Q-Dan" as we peruse the jazz offerings at Everyday Music on 10th Avenue. The Q stands for Question Everything. "What did Armstrong do?" he continues. "Sit in a cockpit? Land on the moon? Meshell made the moon. She would have landed that spacecraft while playing some Herbie Hancock jam like 'Rockit' on the bass at the same time." I'm not sure the Armstrong/Ndegeocello comparison equates, but I'm not arguing. Ndegeocello does indeed paint planetary bodies with her bass sounds. Warm, stout, otherworldly, and dexterous bass sounds, with tones dipping into soul, jazz, hiphop, dub, rock, and funk. In the land of bass, Ndegeocello is a citrine baron. Her 11th album, Comet, Come to Me (out June 3), flashes all sides of her 10-time-Grammy-nominated sovereignty. One highlight is the clockwork, fractalized cover of Whodini's "Friends." Its ice-picked, staccato phrasing spreads and climbs opposite slathered, burnt-orange synthesizer. Ndegeocello's voice, handsome and silvery, turns the words out from rotating instrument cogs. Lines intersect, step up, then fall back into working negative space. It's open and tight, like the moon. Ndegeocello spoke from her sound check at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia.
You're a pure musician. That's getting rarer and rarer.
I think I'm just naive [laughs]. Ignorance is a blissful state.
About your Whodini cover, "Friends," you've talked about language morphing and how friends has become a malleable word. What do you mean by that?
I think language is constantly evolving. Unless you're one of those people who believes in Samuel Johnson's dictionary as the be-all and end-all as far as understanding the English language. I've always admired, especially with people of color in hiphop, how they just create language, or change it. But friends is funny to me in the world now, where it's even a verb. I think the social-media aspect of life has also made me question "Who are my friends, how many do I really have? What does that mean, exactly?" And I've had some friendship breakups as well that have made me think about how we develop our friendships. Is it like love, where you have friendship at first sight? Or is it something that develops over time? The Whodini song is brilliant. To me, very few rap songs are timeless, and I think that one is. I love Houston screw music, and I wanted to screw with my voice a little. The third verse is dedicated to the Bane character in Batman. I loved how they morphed that actor's voice to make it sound so ominous.
You're one of those people who hears what they want to play in their head. Where do you think this comes from? How do you cultivate it?
When I was a kid, I had experiences that forced me to create my own alternate reality. Whether it was not being able to focus at school or keep up, or home things. I have a real vivid imagination, and it has an audible side. I'll hear things in my dreams. I know it sounds hippie-dippy and shit, but I'm just real good at zoning out [laughs]. There's no big magic to it. I'll sit down and try to re-create it through my hands and ears. Some people sit around and draw. I don't consider myself a virtuoso musician in any way. I have ideas. I can sit for hours and work things out that I've been imagining.
You use Logic, right? Do you ever use Ableton? What about Logic works for you?
I do use Logic. I basically use it for a tape recorder. It's got cool sounds, but I try to make my own sounds. With Logic, I can work from my laptop, and it helps me record my bass and things quickly and easily. The keyboard player I play with is a genius at making his own sounds. I'm about to try Ableton. Native Instruments makes this thing called Maschine that's really drum and beat oriented. They're trying to get me to work that with Ableton, so I'm curious to see how my writing changes once I start delving into those two systems. I think the next thing I make, I'm going to make a bunch of samples of myself and give it a modern, sample-driven hiphop mentality.
On the new album, your song "Conviction" almost sounds like a Stones song.
Exactly! This bass player Kaveh Rastegar wrote the music. He plays in one of the most incredible improvisational bands I've heard in a long time, called Kneebody. He and I love the Rolling Stones. We wanted to do something that had that swagger, I don't know.
You sing, "Truth is, you were right, I was wrong."
That's the friendship breakup song. What do you do when you have a friend and they're exhibiting behavior you just can't get behind? I don't mean to be judgmental, but I want to be discerning. You have to decide if you can have that around you. Also, after a while, you realize when people are fake to you all the time. Also, everybody ain't your friend. Everybody's not for you. That means they're not your cheerleader, they're not going to help you, they're just not for you. It's a hard thing because everybody wants to be charming and nice, especially when you're an artist—you gotta shake everybody's hand. But life ain't like that.
What's the latest on your feelings toward Prince? I know you're a big fan of his music. And that you all had disagreeable words back and forth. He had been anti–Warner Brothers with "slave" on his face, then he called you something very unpleasant because you did a record with Warner Brothers. Now he's all good with Warner Brothers again?
It's been very enlightening. People are funny. It all comes down to "At least he's paid"? And I'm thinking, what about principle? Now it's like he's just running back to the master's house. You want your masters back from something you did 20 years ago. I say move on. But that's just my opinion. As long as he's happy. My thing is, you're a great musician, but every encounter I've had with you, you haven't been nice. This is a man who took the Roots' guitar, threw it up in the air, and let it fall to the ground. You're just not a nice person. And no one challenges you because they worship you. That must be a sad place to fucking be. Who are your friends? Our last back-and-forth ended poorly. It was in LA. I'm like, "Why don't you talk to me without your bodyguards around? Why don't we just have a conversation, me and you?" Eye to eye. But that's never gonna happen. Some people need an audience to feel better about themselves. I don't. All this comes and goes real fast. Your fame, your glory, it all comes and goes. And you don't take none of it with you. If I saw him again, I could move on. But you expect people to be around you and drink your bathwater. And I'm saying no, life is not like that.
How did you get to know the writer June Jordan? I'm a big June Jordan fan.
I knew her very well, she was a good friend. I used her voice on my album Cookie. I used to live in Berkeley, and she was living there and teaching. I got to meet Alice Walker, Angela Davis, June, and lots of the heavy hitters of thought. June Jordan was a life-changer for me. She gave me this thought—tell me what you think—she said, "There is no such thing as fiction. There's a piece of truth in everything."
I like that. And just the way she plays with sounds, and line breaks. She's got that one, "Mendocino Memory," that goes, "Half moon, cold and low above the poplar tree. Streaming brilliant through the far forgetful darkness of the sky." I don't know if I've ever seen a poplar tree, but I know exactly what that one looks like. Or "She who sees, she frees each of these, beggarly events, cleansing them of dust and other death." Shit, sorry, didn't mean to start quoting June Jordan to you.
No, no. Don't apologize, I'm right there with you.
Did you know Maya Angelou?
I never got to meet her. She passed away the day before my first show for this tour, and I decided to do all older music, which is off the first recording. It has a lot of spoken word and that kind of approach. At first, I wasn't feeling comfortable—I didn't know if I had that sort of voice anymore. But after Maya's passing, I realized that I needed to continue to do it, because that's where I come from. It's people like Maya Angelou, June Jordan, and Gil Scott-Heron who have created a space so that people like myself and others can express themselves in that way. There's something very strong about the word, because it does morph and change, and it is mightier than the sword, I must say. Maya's one of those people who's shown us that. She uplifted not just her people, but all people. And that's a gift not everyone has.