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An Interview with Meshell Ndegeocello

[MUSICIAN]
“I Have the Same Birthday as Michael Jackson. He Is My Cosmic Brother.”
Phenomena covered in this interview:
“Bass face”
The Illuminati
Ouija boards
Mick Jagger’s lemon scent
by Melissa Locker
Illustration by Charles Burns
header-image

An Interview with Meshell Ndegeocello

[MUSICIAN]
“I Have the Same Birthday as Michael Jackson. He Is My Cosmic Brother.”
Phenomena covered in this interview:
“Bass face”
The Illuminati
Ouija boards
Mick Jagger’s lemon scent
by Melissa Locker
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Meshell Ndegeocello

Melissa Locker
20 Snaps

Meshell Ndegeocello found fame in the early ’90s, with a few radio hits, including the witty, strident track “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night).” The video was indelible: Ndegeocello, head shaved to zero, in a stark white tank top and suspenders, alternately reprimanding and caressing her bass like a beloved but disobedient child. 

Her bass playing over her twenty-year career has maintained a decidedly sui generis rhythm, giving her music—and her covers of songs by musicians like Prince and Nina Simone—a dazzling bounce and an emphatic pop that’s so precise you can almost hear the air between the note and the string.

Her most recent album, Comet, Come to Me, is her eleventh release. It finds her pushing the boundaries of the bass as a musical protagonist. It ruminates on love and human relationships, but is delivered in a kaleidoscopic package, kicking off with a cover of Whodini’s early rap classic “Friends,” then fracturing out with funk-, R&B-, and dub-reggae-inspired tracks.

Ndegeocello toggles effortlessly between being a musical hero and a rhythmic anchor. Her fluid proficiency has put her in high demand as a studio player, leading to stints with artists like Madonna, Alanis Morissette, Robert Glasper, and the Indigo Girls, and landing her music in a number of films, including Batman and Robin, The Hurricane, and Love and Basketball.

Ndegeocello lives part-time in Hudson, New York, a tranquil town with decent coffee and easy access to New York City. The town has become a hideaway for a subset of artists and musicians who work in the spotlight but prefer to live out their not-quite-suburban dreams in the shadow of the city.

When she answers the phone, she seems to have forgotten about our interview. But Ndegeocello is immediately game and charismatic—the type of pro who can turn it on as easily as she can walk into, say, the Rolling Stones’ recording studio with her instrument and deliver a technically perfect bass line, unfazed by the rock royalty in the room with her.

—Melissa Locker

THE BELIEVER: Where does your story begin?

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO: My origins are just a complicated childhood: born to a father in the military, a mother with an eighth-grade education who was a domestic, then add in all the American issues of racism and American schooling and you have me. But my dad’s a musician, so that was always around me.

BLVR: What album did you listen to as a kid that drove your parents crazy?

MN: Prince’s Dirty Mind album. They thought the spirit had gotten me! My mother’s very religious, too, so they didn’t like that record. And I just played it over and over again all the time.

BLVR: What appealed to you about it, aside from the fact that it drove them crazy?

MN: I liked the lyrics; I liked the synth and the postmodern punk groove of it. It just made me feel badass. When I put it on I could embody this other person through dancing.

BLVR: When did you start playing the bass?

MN: Around fourteen or fifteen. It was the instrument that was left in the house that would allow me to jam with my brother.

BLVR: There was a saxophone in the house, too?

MN: I tried the clarinet, and anything you had to blow. The blowing thing is something that you either have a predilection for or not. And I don’t have that thing. It was just unsanitary. I couldn’t do it. I am a complete germaphobe.

BLVR: How much Purell do you have in your house?

MN: Well, I read an article that said I should stay away from that, so I wash my hands all the time. And I have a four-year-old.

BLVR: I have a kid, too, and they are disgusting. So I feel like for a while now there has been a “chick bass player” phenomenon. What is it about the bass that attracts women?

MN: I can only speak for myself, and, honestly, I don’t know. I just played with Melissa Auf der Maur a few days ago, and I would say it just looks really good on her. It looks really good, like she’s wielding a sword. And who’s the lady who plays for the Talking Heads? [Tina] Weymouth? I feel like when she played, it was almost like she was a drummer. I think it just showed her rhythmical prowess, and I think I play the bass—the reason I became so attracted to it is that it’s rhythmical. You are able to walk around, but you’re not the guitar player, so you don’t have to shred and kind of be corny, and it’s like the foundation without being really up front. Like you miss it when it’s gone; you notice it. And I just like that position in the band. Like, “I’m not up front, but you’ll miss me if I’m not there.”

BLVR: Speaking of Melissa Auf der Maur, do you kind of consider yourself part of the rock canon of female bassists, like Kim Deal and Kim Gordon and D’arcy Wretzky?

MN: I wish! Kim Deal, man. Her playing and the way it works with her singing—they really complement each other. I feel like I am someone who looks up to Kim Deal and the rock canon.

It’s weird. Aimee Mann doesn’t play the bass anymore, and [her quitting] was such a pivotal moment for me. I feel that musicians are in a fellowship, and that fellowship is a responsibility. I think all musicians should understand that you have chosen not to be a soldier but a musician.

BLVR: What about the “bass face” phenomenon? Do you know what I’m talking about?

MN: I totally do. I have it, too. I try not to. Actually, I love the bass player from HAIM, because her bass face—along with her attire—is the most awesome combination.

BLVR: In the past you’ve said that Sting influenced your bass playing. Was that Sting in the Police or Sting of Brand New Day? Because there’s a difference.

MN: Oh. No, no. Definitely Sting in the Police.

BLVR: OK. Are you going to see his musical?

MN: No.

BLVR: You say that so confidently.

MN: Yeah. I think after The Soul Cages, I sort of had to step away.

BLVR: When he starts name-checking things like barley in his songs, you sort of have to be like, “What? Did you write a song about barley?”

MN: He’s a wordsmith, and eventually you run out of hot topics, and you sort of have to let the fundamentals of the day take over, and that’s great. You still need to be a poet in order to bring those things.

BLVR: Do you think you’re going to run out of hot topics anytime soon?

MN: I already have. I’m really good at melodic and sonic things, but I don’t really think I have anything to say. But I really enjoy the puzzle-making of taking words and adding a melody to them. It’s funny, I think after you are a star like Sting and you no longer think you need any guidance or aid—it would be great to see those stars work with other songwriters.

BLVR: The title of your album, Comet, Come to Me, reminds me both of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia.

MN: Both two visual pieces that I have watched many times, over and over again. But I only saw the original Cosmos, and then after the title [of my album] came to me. I saw the new version. The title came from someone’s mind. All the words in Comet, Come to Me have the same five letters. Their mind worked that out as a puzzle. It worked as a title for me because as I am coming out of the religious malaise that has burdened me, it makes me like things that are signs or totems. I saw [that episode of] Cosmos that was about what comets used to mean to everyone and how people would interpret their appearance throughout history. That’s why I like it as an album title: because it can be anything that you interpret it to be.

BLVR: Who was the person?

MN: My significant other. She’ll wake up and be like, “That has all the same letters.” She’s a designer and a wordsmith.

BLVR: What do you hope listeners take away from the album?

MN: Whatever they want. That’s just it. Interpret your own thing. Like a couple of the reviewers or interviewers I had before, I was trying to stress to them: I don’t want you to write about me. I don’t want to affirm your belief, so why don’t you just write about whatever experience you had, or whatever you thought about the music? I got a chance to critique the new Michael Jackson record. I really realized that it’s much more interesting to hear a critique of something that is really based on the object and not the person behind it.

BLVR: What do you think of the new Michael Jackson album?

MN: I’m not a big fan of necromancy.

BLVR: Is that what you call it?

MN: I’m joking. It was hard. I tried to be as positive as possible, because I have the same birthday as Michael Jackson. He is my cosmic brother. I love him. My thought was: Imagine if you gave those vocal tracks to James Blake. That could have been a more interesting experience. It wasn’t my favorite. I’m totally beating around the bush: I didn’t like it. It was just not an enjoyable listening experience. And it’s weird to listen to someone who is no longer physically on the planet and had nothing to do with that piece of work.

BLVR: If someone used a Ouija board and got in contact with his soul from the other side, do you think he would have liked the album or do you think he would have agreed with you?

MN: Now that I’m out of all that religious stuff, it doesn’t matter. His molecules and atoms have gone on to be other beautiful things. It doesn’t matter. He’s made more money dead than alive, so it doesn’t matter. He’s dead.

BLVR: So when you pass away, before you go, are you going to light all your masters on fire to make sure nothing like that happens?

MN: Some of them! I don’t even know where they are. I just got some of the drives back, and I must admit I could record over those drives without a thought. As soon as I am done with a demo, I just delete all those programs. Then my cloud got full—and I just despise whatever this frickin’ cloud is. There’s not one email I don’t delete.

BLVR: You really have no commitment to the past?

MN: I have no problem with deletion. I just move on.

BLVR: But once you pass away, you wouldn’t want people to forget about you, right?

MN: I don’t know.

BLVR: I guess when it comes down to it, what do you want your legacy to be?

MN: I don’t know.

BLVR: Definitely not your demo tapes.

MN: Surely not. My legacy is in my family, not in my work. For me. I don’t know about for other people. I try to forget a lot.

BLVR: But before you forget a lot, I do have a few questions. Your first real hit was a duet with John Mellencamp. How did that collaboration come about?

MN: There was a writer who worked at Billboard magazine who had been really supportive of my music, and he was good friends with John Mellencamp, and he suggested that we meet. Sorry if I sound rote; I’ve answered this question a lot. So that writer from Billboard: it was his idea. He’s no longer here, rest in peace, and that experience was definitely one of the highlights of my life. It was definitely a really interesting, craft-changing experience.

BLVR: Where did “If That’s Your Boyfriend,” another big hit of yours, come from?

MN: Youth. Oh, youth. Blame it on the young. I look a particular way—I’m kind of androgynous—so, growing up, it was very clear that I could engage physically with both genders, so there wasn’t really a thought there. And I was having an experience with this one guy, and then his girlfriend confronted me and wanted to obliterate my self-esteem by teasing me about my looks. That thought came to mind, that she was just so confident that there was no way that this guy could be interested in me, and from that hurt came that song.

BLVR: It’s an interesting song, because it’s female-driven, but it’s not exactly female-friendly.

MN: It’s not very female-friendly. It’s definitely lashing out. I haven’t listened to it recently. I never really listened to it. It’s funny. It’s aggressive and angry and it’s so funny that that’s the song everyone likes.

BLVR: Does it kind of make you feel uncomfortable now, as a full-grown woman and a mother?

MN: Luckily I don’t know shame. But, well… I’ve done other horrible things, so that one is nothing.

BLVR: You’ve done horrible things? What have you done?

MN: I’ll never talk about it. But that doesn’t bother me. It’s not my James Frey moment. I believe it takes looking back to remind myself I have grown, I think, musically, and that I have better ways of trying to incorporate my emotions within my songwriting. It has an awesome bass line, I think.

BLVR: Do you think songs need to have a positive message or just a good beat?

MN: I got bored the other day. I was watching all these Illuminati videos. Sometimes you’re on the Amtrak train and the only thing you can get online is YouTube. I started from… I’m too embarrassed to say how I got there. The video was about how Beyoncé and Katy Perry are part of the Illuminati.

BLVR: I believe that.

MN: I had to watch it. But do I think something has to have a positive message? That’s not the question I wanna ask. The question is: are you affected by music? I think rhythm and certain sonics, colors, can affect you, whether it makes you wanna dance or makes you feel sexy or sad. There are equations I think you can use to create that. It’s powerful, but I think it’s still up to the individual about what kind of energetic frequency they would like to put out.

BLVR: So you’re not a big believer in the whole “Metallica made me kill people” argument?

MN: No, that spirit was in that person and it has nothing to do with the art. I don’t want to scapegoat people. But, you know, if you have a very good bottle of wine and a sunset, the person you’re with may wanna hear Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and things will happen. But only if that was already in the cards.

BLVR: Joni Mitchell can do that to a girl.

MN: Exactly. It’s about taking responsibility for your actions.

BLVR: You started your career on Maverick Records, which was partially owned by Madonna.

MN: She’s an Illuminati, too.

BLVR: She is. Are you an Illuminati? I feel like we need to establish this.

MN: No, I am a lamb. I will be slaughtered. Madonna is interesting. I mean, she changed music. She definitely did. She gave me an opportunity that no one else would give me, so I am very grateful to her.

BLVR: Do you think it was important to be on a label run by a woman?

MN: At that time I think it was, definitely. I had to choose between Maverick and Prince’s label, and I think I was compelled and seduced by the fact that she was a woman and that she just seemed to really enjoy what she was doing at the time. I love pop music. From Madonna to Scritti Politti, that’s what I had growing up.

BLVR: What was it like to play “I’d Rather Be Your Lover” with Madonna?

MN: It wasn’t that big a deal. It was fun. I think she only stayed at the session for, like, ten minutes. I just played the track and moved on. Sometimes people ask what it was like when I got to meet Mick Jagger, and I must admit that you just try and chill out and be your best self around anyone that you meet.

I’m probably not the best hang. I just do what I do and then I wanna go home. She’s a cool person, but there was no great tangible relationship. I look back at those experiences and think about how many friendships I’ve squandered due to my aloof, wanna-go-home personality—all the fun I could have been having. But part of what I like about music is you have five to seven people in a room concentrating on one song at the moment, trying to make it sonically be a certain way, or just interact interpersonally in a way so that you can play better. Those things excite me more than who I am playing with. I mean, the most striking thing about Mick Jagger was that he was just very attractive and he smelled so good.

BLVR: What did he smell like?

MN: Between some rare flower and lemon. It’s those things that stick out, and the way he moved. But rarely is the musical experience fun. It’s like making a fucking porn movie and everyone is waiting for you to bust a nut. Sorry, but it really feels like that.

BLVR: You tried out to be Living Colour’s bassist.

MN: I sure did.

BLVR: How different do you think your life would be if you had actually gotten that job?

MN: I would be playing down in South America. I don’t know. I mean, knowing their story, I’d be mad.

BLVR: It’s hard to imagine. It probably would have just delayed your story a few years. You’ve also been producing a fair amount. How do you choose what projects you want to produce?

MN: People ask me. They just come up and ask me to do it. I have a weird style. I’m not as good as I wish I was. I don’t have a style. I just try and aid the person I’m playing with and bring their ideas to fruition. I kinda want to be like Teo Macero, David Gamson, with a little bit of Brian Eno.

BLVR: But you know Brian Eno’s not doing much producing anymore?

MN: I wish he was, because he’s the only person I’ve ever met where I squandered the opportunity because I couldn’t figure out the social aspect.

BLVR: What happened?

MN: He came to my show, and he wanted me to play on a Paul Simon song and Paul Simon and I did not get along. It was an immediate dislike, and I felt that affected Brian Eno. That’s the only relationship [like that I’ve been in] where I felt like I would want to learn from someone sonically. And I find that when I listen to music, I just really admire him. He’s probably my favorite, actually.

BLVR: It sounds like you listen to a lot of different types of music, which might explain how you also make a lot of different types of music. I think you’re really hard to categorize. What’s on your iPod right now?

MN: I really like this band Hurray for the Riff Raff. Erik Satie. I love John Grant. I’m adapting a Lou Reed song.

BLVR: Did someone ask you to adapt it or are you just doing it for fun?

MN: I met him, and that was complicated. That was interesting. It started out rough, but then I eventually grew to really love him.

BLVR: Did you end up doing anything together?

MN: I did a live thing, but I never got to work with him. The song I really like by him is “Magic and Loss,” and I’m doing an arrangement of that.

BLVR: There are very few bass players who are sort of the front of the band, who write their own songs and sing their own songs.

MN: Lemmy.

BLVR: Lemmy, of course. Do you feel a sort of kinship with Lemmy?

MN: Yes, I do. More so than any other singing bass player.

BLVR: Wow. So you and Lemmy, huh?

MN: Oh yeah. Forever.

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