Signed to Madonna's Maverick Records, Meshell Ndegeocello released her debut album Plantation Lullabies in 1993. Working from the Prince playbook, she wrote all of the songs and played most of the instruments herself, including everything you hear on "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)," which was her MTV hit, earning VMA nominations for Best New Artist in a Video and Best Female Video.
Meshell didn't have the constitution to be a video star: that brazen woman behind the bass is really a quiet creative type. And besides, she loathes lip-synching.
Pulling from her bottomless well of grooves, Meshell has released 11 albums, including 2002's Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape (which the Village Voice called "arguably the smartest R&B album of the '00s") and the 2012 Nina Simone tribute Pour une Âme Souveraine.
Her latest is Comet, Come to Me, which includes a song about self-delusion called "Conviction" and a cover of the Whodini old-school classic "Friends."
Meshell Ndegeocello: This particular record, just watching people, observation.
With "Friends," I'm such a lover of hip-hop and people think it's such simplistic music. No one ever really covers rap songs, so I wanted to do something to show that that music is still viable and interesting. I love the double entendre of the lyric, especially in today's world of "how many friends do I have on Facebook?" It was an interesting thought process for me to try to find things that make me laugh or question things.
Songfacts: You said they come from watching people. Has that changed over time? Many of your earlier songs seem very personal.
Meshell: Oh, definitely. I think I was quite limited as a writer. Everything came from the first person. I guess Weather [Meshell's 2011 album] was when I decided I wanted to try to hone in to the craft from the people I admired.
I wish I had that turn of phrase like Neil Young or Joe Henry, or the ability to craft words like Bob Dylan. I realized that was my weak point. So that's why I try to work with people like Benji Hughes. I co-wrote a song with My Brightest Diamond [Shara Worden's stage name. She co-wrote "Comet, Come to Me" with Meshell]. Chris Connelly, who I was a fan of from the band Ministry, we wrote "Shopping for Jazz."
And also doing the Nina Simone thing, which was being able to take other people's words and bring them to life out of my body. Also, there's the poet Kenneth Fearing. The lyrics on "American Rhapsody" and "Continuous Performance" are his poetry, so that was a unique way of taking something and adding melody to existing words that was really fun for me.
I'm always trying to get better at the things I'm kind of weak in.
Songfacts: What do you consider your strong suits?
Meshell: Sonics, groove - being able to deconstruct typical song forms. I try to keep things as interesting as I possibly can. Sometimes I'm criticized for being too challenging. I just try to keep things interesting, that's all.
Songfacts: It's remarkable listening to your music, because it's just one groove after another, and it's the kind of thing that some people get once in a lifetime. Does this stuff just come to you?
Meshell: [Laughing] Yeah. I mean, that sounds so lame. But yeah, literally it just comes to me.
I'm not a social butterfly - I've never been that great with people. I just sit around and listen to music all the time. My partner gets mad at me: if we go to Whole Foods, they have this record player section now, and I just find myself listening to stuff.
And when I'm not listening to other people's music, I hear all these other things in my head. I know that sounds crazy. I'm just constantly hearing melodies or grooves or structures. Not words, but just instrumental vignettes inside of my mind.
Songfacts: I'm getting it now. Because there are a lot of songs that you don't even put words on and other songs that you can tell the words are there to accompany the music. So it is, as you said, a challenge for you to come up with the lyrics, although you've done a fantastic job with it.
You said you're not that great with people, yet you also said that the songs on this new album very much are about people, so it's like you have put yourself in a spectator role where you are studying people.
Meshell: Yeah. Like documentarians or filmmakers. I'm starting to understand people who have that visual gift. You just watch and then from those things you see, you can create so much of your own imagery.
But that's fun, too. I can write from that way now. I'm getting better at that more than I am from the first person: taking my perceptions of someone else's feelings and turning them into something.
Songfacts: You really came up with an interesting phrase on "Conviction," with "you choose delusion, so you could take him back." That's what you would say to somebody in that situation.
Songfacts: How did that work out?
Meshell: It didn't. That friendship dissolved. [Laughing] But I struggle with delusion, as well. I used to be fascinated with lying, and I realized the easiest lies to tell are the lies you tell yourself. It's hard to get out of that, because you just can't accept reality. It's hard to swallow.
The 1996 nom is for providing the vocal hook on the Chaka Khan song "Never Miss The Water," which was written by Gerry DeVeaux and Charlie Mole. Here's the breakdown:
1994 - "Wild Night" - Best Pop Vocal Collaboration
1994 - "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)" - Best Female R&B Vocal Performance
1994 - "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)" - Best R&B Song
1994 - Plantation Lullabies - Best R&B Album
1996 - "Never Miss The Water" - Best R&B Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal
1996 - Peace Beyond Passion - Best R&B Album
2002 - Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape - Best Contemporary R&B Album
2005 - The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel - Best Contemporary Jazz Album
2007 - "Fantasy" - Best Urban/Alternative Performance
Meshell: Oh, of course, I did. Oh my God, yeah. I had a difficult childhood, not more or less than anyone else, but it had its issues. And I didn't really fit in, I didn't have friends. So, of course, that was part of the driving force. Once I saw that I could play the bass and then people would talk to me and like me, it sort of fueled the egomania that can happen.
But after the second record, that's when I was like, This isn't really for me. I like my personal space. And that's when I wanted to figure out how I could make music, yet not be so much into promoting myself or trying to create some sort of image.
Plus I had therapy. So I was able to work out some things.
Songfacts: Was there any particular incident that made you take that turn away from the spotlight?
Meshell: Oh, just the invasion into my personal life. Also having to look a certain way all the time, having to worry about, "I guess I can't go out in my Dickies shorts and my T-shirt." If I just want to go to the store, what will people say? It just became this constant self-consciousness that was not healthy, and it also wrecked a few relationships.
It just became tedious. If I gained weight, that was bad. If I lost weight, that was bad. Especially since I'm not the typical female artist. I didn't want the fame because I wanted swag and clothes, I was hoping I'd get fame so I could have an audience with Henry Louis Gates or something. So my priorities became different than what I was offered.
I think there's a path you have to take to become a pop icon or a pop star and a really different path to become an R&B star. And I just had too many other interests. I really like music, all styles of music. And I really like just being me, and trying to figure out who I am. I just couldn't cater to the other things that were needed.
Songfacts: Not being the typical female artist was really your strength. You stood out. When I watched MTV, nobody looked like you. You were special. You were unique. You even had a name that didn't sound like anything else. But then it sounds like that became a liability, which I find so strange.
Meshell: Oh, definitely. "Joan Smith" would have been a smarter choice [Meshell was born Michelle Johnson]. But, yeah, the name was difficult to say, and I didn't have the hyper-femininity that people were used to. And I wasn't the other antithesis of that, as well. I'm not very competitive.
At first it was great, and then yeah, it became a hindrance. But again, I'm okay with it, because it allowed me to cultivate the things that were really important to me, just trying to become a better musician, better songwriter. I'm hoping to go into the producing realm. I've met interesting people, I've been to interesting places. So I'm very grateful for what I have accomplished.
Her debut album was released the previous year, but this collaboration is often spun as some kind of breakthrough for Meshell, which explains her reaction when I mention it.
This was a curious case: two gifted songwriters teaming up to record someone else's song.
Songfacts: I have somewhere to go with this, I promise.
Songfacts: He was talking about how in the '90s he was disillusioned with the industry and just kind of mailing it in. I was working in the '90s in pop radio, and all of a sudden this song appeared, the "Wild Night" cover, which was the perfect little pop confection.
Meshell: [Laughing] ...uh huh...
Songfacts: Amidst all the grunge and hip hop that the typical pop station didn't know what to do with. We had to play it over and over and over, and there was even a little pronunciation guide for your name, which I thought was hilarious.
Meshell: Yeah, yeah, yeah, hilarious. [Laughing]
Songfacts: How did that happen?
Meshell: Oh, do you remember the writer Timothy White?
I had a person-of-color artist really ask me an asinine question like, "Do you ever regret doing that John Mellencamp tune?" And I'm like, "No, that's one the best memories of my life."
I went to Indiana. He has a compound, a studio. My first record I had made totally in a house with machinery, because I played everything on a computer - a real hi-pro production. He took me back to my roots where you just have a band in the studio and you played together. There was no clique. It was just trying to create a vibe and humanity. He was really nice to me.
That's one of the great experiences of my life. It made my second record much better, as well, because I started adding more live elements and playing with other people.
So, it's something I look back on fondly and I thank Timothy White for that, just for his crazy idea of, "Y'all should meet each other." And of course, Van Morrison, who's one of the many people I look to in his approach to singing and his lyricism. To me, it's about him and that great song and John and me coming together and having fun with it.
Songfacts: When do you add the titles to your songs?
Meshell: Ooo. At the very end. Why do you ask?
Songfacts: Well, it's interesting because many of your songs have titles that don't appear in the lyrics. And many of the songwriters I've spoken with start with the title. That's how they get going on a song. But for you it seems like it's more of an afterthought, which is a very unusual process.
Meshell: Oh, yeah. I have a laptop and I have drum machines and gadgets. I sit with myself and I try to cultivate my imagination so things just come and come and come and come. Then I'll have a song, and then I'll go to the next one. So it's at the end of the whole process that I go, "Oh, is the title in the hook, maybe? I don't know." Or, like, "Conviction," I just liked the double entendre of it. Some people really have conviction to their principles, and then some people have done something to get convicted, which is the other meaning for it. I just try to come up with things that keep me interested.
"Folie A Deux," I named that song because I am on a French label. I always try to put a shout-out to them. And plus that song's about breaking up and how we treat each other. It's two people involved in craziness, and that's how I see love sometimes.
So it's fun to add the titles at the end for me, personally.
Songfacts: How did you come up with the line, "If that's your boyfriend, he wasn't last night"?
Meshell: The most misunderstood song there is. It has such bravado, but it's more about how at that time I was seeing somebody and I didn't know they had been seeing someone else. That person confronted me in public. I wasn't as pretty as they were, and they just really gave a scathing attack on my person. So that's what came to mind: "Well, if that's your boyfriend, he wasn't last night." That's what that song is about.
Songfacts: I hear little elements of hip-hop songs in there. I hear a little Del tha Funkee Homosapien.
Meshell: Yeah. Love Del.
Songfacts: Where did the "Boyfriend, boyfriend, yes I got your boyfriend" part in the break come from?
Meshell: That's a nursery rhyme. I have a four year old. That tone and that sort of melody is for taunting, and that's how it came to mind. "I'm going to taunt you with this, no matter what bad things you say about me. Why aren't you berating him?" You know.
He and Meshell used a different arrangement of the song, adding dialogue from different women expressing their various insecurities and base desires.
The clip was big on MTV just as it was starting its transition away from videos.
Meshell: Jean-Baptiste Mondino and I. He did a photo shoot and we had a really good rapport. The thing that women go through, putting on the makeup - "war paint" is what I call it - trying to maintain a certain look so people are interested in you, I just really am fascinated by that and the whole construction of beauty. So he and I just went with that.
And I hated videos. I hate lip synching. So that's why we wanted to intercut live elements and show that I really could play. So that was the concept for that video.
Songfacts: Did he direct the video?
Meshell: Yes, he did.
Songfacts: Is "Leviticus: Faggot" the story of a real person?
Meshell: Yeah. Well... yeah. Someone I knew. Yeah.
Songfacts: On the Plantation Lullabies liner notes you specifically dedicate a song to a person named Ricardo George. Who is that?
Meshell: Just someone I knew. Yeah. He passed on.
Songfacts: When you are creating your bass riffs and the music is coming, do any images come into your head?
Meshell: Yeah. They're like dots with lines connecting. I just try to create something like a foundation. It's not colors or anything. It's just like foundational dots and movements and lines, waveforms. I don't have synesthesia. I know that's a big thing now with Pharrell and Blood Orange.
Songfacts: Well, it's not necessarily that. There are some people that when they play a riff, they picture a certain thing going on. They picture a sunset or something.
Meshell: Oh, no. Not at all. I'm much more aural. Actually, people comment because when I sing live, I never open my eyes. I have this fantasy that when we evolve as a species we'll all be blind and perhaps head to sonar. I just think the world would be really different without vision.
Songfacts: Has this gift ever left you for any period of time?
Meshell: It sure has. Yeah. All the time.
Songfacts: So it's not like you can always go into a room and create music?
Meshell: Oh, no. And I've been lucky. I've always been surrounded by writers, some really profound writers. I mean, really successful writers. And I was taught that when you have writer's block, it's just self-editing: Go do something else. So it never felt bad when I didn't write.
And also I had a kid at 19, so sometimes it was feast, and sometimes I had to just concentrate on being a parent and I wouldn't write for months. So I just take it as it comes.
I'm also not a dinosaur: I can see the comet coming to destroy me eventually. I watch the people that have come before me, and eventually that gift will leave. Eventually, it will leave and not return. So I try to stay curious and interested in other things and just see that as one facet of my personality and not put my whole being into that. I play music, but I do other things, too. I walk, I talk, I cook. I try to have a well-rounded life.
May 30, 2014. Get more at meshell.com.
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