Mark Seilger
A notorious perfectionist tries her hand at keeping it simple
John Mellencamp, played bass with the
Rolling Stones and Alanis Morissette, but
Meshell Ndegeocello’s primary focus has
always been her own solo work. Since
getting her start playing in go-go bands
in Washington, D.C., in the late ’80s, the
singer, bassist and bandleader has rolled
through pop, soul, funk, jazz and R&B.
She made her national debut in the early
’90s with hits including “If That’s Your
Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” and her
duet with Mellencamp on a cover of Van
Morrison’s “Wild Night,” but by decade’s
end began pursuing an increasingly
idiosyncratic path through her ever-expanding
musical imagination.
Ndegeocello recently released
her eighth studio album, the confident
and understated Devil’s Halo. It’s a
back-to-basics set that she and her band
recorded live to analog tape at L.A’s
Phantom Box studio. “We recorded all in
a room together and just laid it down,” she
says. “I wanted to slow it down and get back
to music that came out of my hands.” We
caught up with Ndegeocello at her home
in upstate New York to discuss her new
album, her philosophy about the bass and
her history as a self-confessed nitpicker.
What prompted you to make an analog
album this time?
I wanted to be able to play the songs and
not have to trust in getting punched in to
fix mistakes. Recording to tape was about
the experience of getting something on
the first or second take, before it became
mechanical. For once I didn’t have some
grandiose concept album or sonic idea in
my head. We had already played a lot of
this music on tour. During pre-production we
tried to work out better song forms. Then we
went in and recorded most all of the initial
tracks in three days.
So you’ve tried a more detailed,
modern approach?
My previous record, The World Has Made
Me the Man of My Dreams [2007], was
done on Pro Tools and had a lot of editing
‘I’m starting to enjoy trying to write songs that are
simple, songs you can play in a pub.’
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You’re also a songwriter. How do
you know when you’ve written a
good one?
I once worked with [producer] Craig Street,
who said that a good song can have just a
singer and a piano player or guitarist, and it
translates. That’s how you know it’s a good
song. That’s how I started with “Lola”—which
just started out as a guitar part and the
words—and “Crying in Your Beer.”
Who do you look to for inspiration
for that kind of song?
I really like [Pogues frontman] Shane
MacGowan. He is lyrically and melodically
an incredible songwriter. In that genre of
music, the history of the music he comes
from, Irish folk tales, it’s not about the
beat and the weird bass tone. It’s about
the harmony working with the melody and
hopefully transporting your mind to make
you involved with the lyric. That’s what I was
trying to do. I think I can get better at it. This
was my first attempt but I’m really starting to
enjoy that, just trying to write songs that are
simple that you can play in a pub.
Tell us about your songwriting process.
I use a little 8-track box or a little MIDI
sequencing machine, and I usually sit at
home and try to make beats, come up with
guitar parts and bass lines. Sometimes I hear
stuff all at once; I’ll have a really clear idea in
my head. Other times I try to work out things
that I’m hearing or feeling, and I keep demos
until I write melodies and hear lyrics.
Do you still practice on bass?
I’m trying to think of how to say this,
because it’s going to sound really Jungian
and super-hippie: I have a gift. It’s a unique
gift, and I guess it came from my father. I
did all my practicing from 14 to 16. I can
hear stuff, and play it. I can’t rip and run; I’ll
never be like Pat Metheny or Jaco Pastorius.
That’s not what I aspire to, but I can hear
bass lines and I think I play them well. So
I don’t practice that. What I practice is taking
a bass line and transforming it 20 different
ways or having 20 different feels or tempos.
I like to take an Elvis song and make it sound
reggae. I practice my imagination and styles,
and that has to do with listening. I try to listen
to a lot of different music, and try to hone my
ear to play whatever I hear.
Do you have perfect pitch?
No, I have pretty good relative pitch, and
I’m getting better. I have a bass player,
and he has perfect pitch. He’s pretty much
a genius.
audience. Being up front is a little daunting
sometimes, so I’d rather just focus on that
and try to sing to the best of my ability.
He must be totally intimidated playing
with you.
I’m totally intimidated by him! He’s
incredible. Everyone has a different
skill set. As a bandleader, I don’t want
you to be intimidated by me. I want to
make you feel like you can express
yourself, and when you hear something
in my music that excites you and
you want to add something, come on.
Music is not a competition. I like
music: You get a bunch of people
and you’re all concentrating on one
idea, and I like that more than being
competitive. I hated that about
the jazz stuff. That was the most macho
music I had ever played. It definitely
Julie Hasse
and tricks. And the first two records [1993’s
Plantation Lullabies and 1996’s Peace
Beyond Passion], took like two years each
to make. I worked with [producer] David
Gamson and we would nitpick and spend
six months on one song. That’s fun, I love
that—I love Steely Dan, and I guess that
inspired me to think like that. But after a
while, after spending all that time and energy,
it wasn’t any more enjoyable. I made a jazz
record [The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of
the Infidel, 2005] and I got to play bass
for two years straight, no singing. I got into
what I could generate from my hands, a more
instant approach. The feeling of playing was
more fun than trying to make someone’s idea
of a perfectly crafted R&B song.
‘The feeling of playing was more fun
than trying to make someone’s idea of
a perfectly crafted R&B song.’
Wait, you have a bass player?
I love my bass player. I’m not the best
singer-slash-player, because I focus on the
led me to what I do now: just trying to write
good songs.
–Eric R. Danton
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