Photo by Mark Seliger
“Hello, this is Meshell,” flows the voice through the phone.
The pitch is heavy and heady, with a tone as rich and sweet and thick as a bourbon-laced pecan pie, yet elegant as midnight in Manhattan. It is a voice as innocently assaulting as a lover’s fingers, the aural equivalent to her prowess on the bass. This is the voice that seduced famed music columnist Timothy White and caused John Mellencamp to enclose Ndegeocello in his Indiana ranch to record a raucous cover of “Wild Night,” and a voice that refused to be silent in matters of sexual freedom.
She turned Bill Withers’ classic “Who Is He and What Is He to You?” on its head, then upped the sexual ante further with “If He Was Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night).” Undeterred, N’degeocello released “Leviticus: Faggot,” an oft-banned tune complete with groundbreaking video that shoved homophobia into the cultural foreground like never before. And as her record company demanded hits, she followed her heart(ache), and recorded Bitter, an album of such emotional intensity, it borders on ecstatic masochism to hear it.
So when thinking of how dark her canon, it’s a bit strange to hear Meshell Ndegeocello laugh, which is something she does a great deal during the interview to discuss her upcoming release Devil’s Halo. The disc deftly shuffles her hallmarks—raw sensuality, romantic betrayal, cultural examination, and spiritual searching—all set to compellingly crafted song structure or insanely danceable grooves. We spoke just as she was preparing for a short tour that will wrap before the birth of her second child.
Meshell Ndegeocello: Hello?
Steven Foster: How’ve you been?
Life treats me well, how about yourself?
Things are great, I’m talking to you. Congratulations on the CD, Meshell. It’s exquisite.
Oh, I really appreciate that. Thank you.
Can you tell me about the process you went through in writing it?
Oh, hmm. I think I definitely wanted people to dance and move their bodies. And I also just wrote about the people around me and some of the things I saw. I’ve always been someone who questions life and its meaning and what’s the best way to do it, and I seem to be around people who are doing the same thing, so I just wanted to talk about them a little bit.
Lola [the character in the eponymously titled track] would be one of those people?
Oh yeah, definitely. I live in upstate New York, a town called Hudson, and there’s many a watering hole. So there are a lot of Lolas going on. [Both laugh]
I love your laugh.
Oh, thanks. I’m quite silly, actually. It’s a best-kept secret.
Speaking of secrets, you’re going to have a baby soon, yes?
Yeah, my partner’s expecting a baby in November. And I have a 20-year-old son out of my body.
I can’t believe he’s 20 already. How were the teen years?
I’m kinda weird, and I’m a very easygoing parent. I’m sure later on when he writes his memoirs, I’ll get slammed, but I think we had a good time. [Both laugh]
Did the artistic/musical gene get passed down?
Well, he just DJ’d at gay pride in San Francisco. He goes to school to design video games. He’s an interesting man. Very different.
How long have you and your partner been together?
We’ve been together almost four years. We were married in Toronto.
What does your spouse do?
She’s a graphic designer. She was the head of publicity at Barney’s for a long time. She owns a stationery company. She’s amazing.
Let me pimp the stationery company.
It’s called Set Editions [seteditions.com]. She is known for a very popular card that just says “Stop Talking.”
She did the Stop Talking card?
Yeah. That’s my spouse.
[Laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah. She does some work for Jack Spade. Her stuff is in Paul Smith. She just did something for Design Within Reach. She’s an amazing artist herself. I’m just happy to be around her.
That’s so kick-ass. I can’t wait to go to the website. And hopefully many readers will as well.
Oh, I really appreciate that. You’ve made the interview totally great now. I love it. Anything you want me to say, you got me now.
Okay, let’s get back to the album. It opens so interestingly—“Slaughter.” It begins with a “You said you loved me” so soft and gentle and then just slams you with this…
… scraping guitar …
… and then it ends with that beautiful, sad, quiet, begging falsetto, “Be my lover.” Can you tell me what inspired that song?
Oh my God, totally! My partner loves The L Word. You remember when Shane was about to get married and then ditched the bride?
I wrote it for that. I submitted it, but I never got a call back. But that’s totally what inspired that song. And only you know that. You’re the first person I’ve told.
That’s so awesome. I have scoop!
There’s another song I wanted to ask you about—“Mass Transit.” That whole “Nobody’s home/Nobody’s home” voices bit, whispering, zooming around. You really love to play around in the studio, don’t you?
Oh, yeah, that is my playground. It’s paradise. I love being in there. It’s where I really get to express all the stuff that’s going on in the darker parts of my mind. And I love that [song] too, because to me it’s about how we transform ourselves, try to adorn ourselves to make others love us, and at the end of the day so many of us are just alone. You gotta really learn to be yourself, you know?
Totally. Now how long did you take to make the CD?
Usually it takes me between six and 10 months. This is the first record I made in seven days. I worked hard on writing the songs for over a year, but to record the record it went really quickly. I was surrounded by so many great musicians. I mean, the drummer [Deantoni Parks] played with this amazing group called KUDU. The guitar player [Chris Bruce] played with Seal and amazing people. And we were all just in one frame of mind and all alone together, and it took us seven days.
That’s amazing. Another song, “Love You Down,” sounds like an allusion to making love, both sonic and physical, and yet you have all these heat-tested emotions in there as well. You’re quite a sensual writer. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Oh, I love you. [Laughs] I don’t know, it’s the thing that makes life, I don’t know … tolerable. And human touch and affection and love. [They’re] the gifts I value the most. My family, and lovemaking, and just trying to be an open, loving, kind person. And that’s one of the things I feel about being gay and not so cut off and not so … I don’t know. I would hate to be heterosexual and follow such … such patterns, you know?
I totally get what you’re saying. I think that’s one of the reasons that I was attracted to your music, because it was so open in its sensuality, and I was so struck by that. It wasn’t so put out there, all dressed up like Madonna, in your face.
It seemed to come from such a place of, not manipulation, but more just raw, sensual honesty that I really never heard anyone express in such a way.
I really appreciate that. Hey, I mean life is full of explorations, and I’m hoping that people will, before they die, have great sexual experiences and not be pent up inside themselves, you know?
I am so putting that quote on a T-shirt.
Or make your partner create a card with that line on it!
Just a couple more questions. “Crying In Your Beer”—who’s singing that song? Who’s the narrator? That devastating lyric, “Don’t let me die alone.” Is that you?
Oh, that is me. Definitely. Yeah. I mean, about to have a child and hopefully see it being born. And I also realize that, especially in this time when we’re debating health care and everything, that [death] is a very big part of life that we can’t take for granted or try to push aside and act like it’s not there. I do think that in the ’80s and ’90s when AIDS was taking its toll, I think it affected our community significantly. And I definitely don’t want to have that experience alone. I’m hoping to have a peaceful transition with the people I love. And also my children, so they won’t have a fear of it, and they’ll embrace it with a fresh state of mind, instead of thinking that it’s hell, being afraid to let go and holding onto the world. Is that weird? I hope that’s not weird, but I just think we’re afraid of death and I’m trying to, in my own life, get past that.
No, no. Once again, I’m struck by your honesty. It makes me wish I was more honest in my life.
Let’s talk about Bitter. I mean, I adore the new album. I think it’s incredible. But I have to tell you, if I’m going through a spot, I’ll put Bitter in, and it will get me through because it’s so brutal.
Yeah. Yeah, yeah. [Laughs]
Tell me what was happening back there?
Oooh! Oh my God. I think that was one of the most depressing times in my life. It ends with “Grace,” I guess.
Literally and figuratively.
Yeah. I had fallen in love with someone really wonderful, and I was still having to find resolution in the relationship prior to that. [But] yeah, that
Yeah, well, f–k ’em.
Yeah. Exactly. And I do, because that, to this day, is everyone’s favorite recording. If the people buy the music, that’s more important to me than the critics or the record company.
You have a short tour coming up.
Oh, I love going on tour. It’s like experiencing your music in real time. When I’m in the studio, it’s my own personal flights of my imagination. But when you’re out there, you’re getting the interaction with the audience. I’m playing with my friends. It’s a great experience. And I love to travel, if just to meet other people.
You’re playing at El Rey in Los Angeles. I can’t wait to see you there.
Oh, please come. Please check it out.
Looking forward to it. Again, congrats on the new CD. And good luck with the baby.
Thank you. Be well.
You too, Meshell.
Meshell Ndegeocello’s disc, Devil’s Halo, drops October 6, on the Mercer Street/Downtown label.
Steven Foster profiled Lifetime’s JoAnn Alfano in the Septmeber issue of OutSmart.