After two decades recording and performing, Meshell Ndegeocello no longer has any illusions about the way music publicity works. "You need those generalizations to create a marketing scheme," the celebrated bassist and songwriter says, "and it's hard to make a generalization about me."
Ndegeocello spoke those words before a live audience on May 30 in Los Angeles, where she her band gave a "secret show" at the legendary Village Studios for about 150 fans. NPR's Arun Rath was there, and after a set that included songs from the new album Comet, Come to Me and some classics she hasn't played in years, he joined her on stage to talk about how old-school hip-hop, political slogans and record label drama have influenced her music. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and listen to selections from the concert below.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's All Things Considered from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath, in case you're just joining us. And if you are just joining us, you got here just in time. That is the bass of Meshell Ndegeocello. If you don't know her music, you should. She first hit the scene back in 1993 with this explosive and fresh combination of hip-hop, soul, funk and jazz, "Plantation Lullabies."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLANTATION LULLABIES")
MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) You say that's your boyfriend, you say I'm out of line. Funny, he said I could call him up anytime. You could call me wrong, say that I ain't right, but if that's your boyfriend, he wasn't last night.
RATH: Since then, she's put out 10 more albums, each with a totally distinct sound. On Friday night, Meshell put on a secret show for about 150 lucky fans at LA's legendary Village Studios. Along with some classics she hadn't played in years, we heard some new pieces from her upcoming album "Comet Come To Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "COMET COME TO ME")
NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) Wish I knew my momma, wish I could forgive my dad. Should have known better, wish I had. See more good than bad.
RATH: Meshell Ndegeocello hates interviews. In spite of all she has to say in her music, she says she's not much of a talker. But after that amazing show, she and I sat down in front of that friendly crowd to talk about her music.
RATH: It seems like, watching you perform, I know - you're almost, like, in a trance at times.
NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah, that's called worry.
RATH: My worry doesn't look like that. It's a lot uglier-looking. I checked on the Internet to verify my memory.
RATH: It was just over 20 years ago that I saw you on Arsenio Hall.
RATH: And saw you perform "If That's Your Boyfriend," and it turned my world upside down.
NDEGEOCELLO: Woo hoo.
RATH: Does that feel like 20 years ago?
NDEGEOCELLO: I really try to be in the now and the moment is what interests me.
RATH: That moment was an amazing moment.
NDEGEOCELLO: OK, good.
RATH: Was there any pressure to say, hey, can you - can you, do another just, like, "If That's Your Boyfriend" or kind of make more like that?
NDEGEOCELLO: Of course. Yeah, I mean it happened before "Bitter." I had started working with David Gamson on the third record because I really felt like we had a synergy. And so we did the second album. And then I guess label wasn't - they made it clear they weren't happy. And the memory - they weren't happy with me working with him the third time. And the, uh, the memory I have is sitting in a meeting and they go, them going - we're going find you a producer. And him picking up a billboard and, you know, looking for who had the top record. But those days are over. And I think that, uh, that moment - taught me a lot and it led me to "Bitter."
RATH: Let's talk a little bit about the new record.
RATH: "Comet Come To Me." And so it was funny because I - I felt bad - I didn't recognize Houdini at first when I first put on the record. And then - oh, my goodness.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FRIENDS")
NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) How many of us have them. Friends. Ones you can depend on - friends. Friends. Before we go any further let's be friends.
RATH: People hate on the '80s a little bit, but that was a great time. I mean we were there witnessing hip-hop being born.
NDEGEOCELLO: Yes, there's a lot of good music in the '80s. It's one of my favorite times.
RATH: What, what triggered you to go back to Houdini?
NDEGEOCELLO: Really I've been around a lot of improvisational, you know, highbrow jazz musicians. And sometimes I think, uh, it's my own inner perceptions - probably not them. You know, they think pop music or hip-hop music is simplistic. And I just wanted to re-envision something in a different way - like switching the meter constantly, making the parts played by other instruments that they might not have thought of. And just wanted to do something different. And then the double entendre of friends - what is that now? What does mean? And it's a fun song I just love it.
RATH: You mess around with double entendres a bit on this album. You played "Conviction" tonight to. And "Conviction" can mean a couple of things.
NDEGEOCELLO: A couple things yeah. Yeah, words fascinate me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CONVICTION")
NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) I think I'm always right you love to tell me that. You choose to lose just so you can take them back. Truth is a you were right, I was wrong. Your life and me is just one sad song.
RATH: That song "Conviction," too, can also - I could have read that four or five different ways depending on what was going on in my life at the time.
NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. And that's the beauty of music. Everyone has their own interpret - music and religion is so open to interpretation.
RATH: Speaking of - "The Sloganeer," which you played tonight. That's a song that just - I don't know, something about that in this past 10 years. Maybe you can talk about what lead to you writing that because it's - it's such a powerful song in our current world environment.
NDEGEOCELLO: I think I was on the brink of fanaticism. I used to be a religious fanatic.
RATH: During what period of your life was it?
NDEGEOCELLO: All of it.
NDEGEOCELLO: Now, I'm a - I think I'm a Judeo-Christian, Islamicly influenced agnostic.
NDEGEOCELLO: Who really enjoys Christopher Hitchens.
RATH: You're talking to a Christian Hindu.
NDEGEOCELLO: That's cool. Hey, man, it all works.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE SLOGANEER")
NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) I'm starting to believe that God is just my, my imagination. You prefer I believe in democracy, leaders, and fame. They just some monkey sensations. To know me is to know I love with my imagination. Can you imagine that there's just nothingness? Get a bang out of life.
NDEGEOCELLO: The one of my favorite slogans is from the British Empire the sun will never set in the British Empire because they had so many colonies all over the world. So the sun was always up somewhere. And just slogans in general. America, we're number one. No. You know, black power. You know, there's all these slogans, and that's what inspired that, once I realized that I'm wary - I'm wary of everyone who thinks they're right.
RATH: And on an album that's preceded by, that's spoken word, but "Haditha" means Scripture right?
NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah, that and Islam, which was a religion I really felt connected to until I realized they'd probably stone me to death.
RATH: Everybody laughs at that.
NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah, you have to laugh to keep from crying.
RATH: Do you - do you feel like, you know, we were talking about, obviously, the record industry back when I saw you on Arsenio was - it was a different world.
RATH: Do you feel like - is it easier now to be able to connect with, with your audience?
NDEGEOCELLO: I mean, it's a lot different. I have to socially interact on social media in a way that is sometimes awkward. But I think, in terms of creativity, it really separates those who want great fame from those who just like to make music.
RATH: Well, you can also hear more directly from the people who love your work now which is...
NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah. Yeah and it - yeah it's hard sometimes, sometimes I'm just like, you know, it's hard for me to explain. Like, I don't want to know what you think.
RATH: Going on a laugh. Drive safely everybody.
RATH: Meshell, thank you.
NDEGEOCELLO: Thank you so much.
RATH: That is the multi-instrumentalist, singer, and composer Meshell Ndegeocello from an interview we recorded just after a show on Friday night. My thanks to the Village Studios for all their help. Meshell Ndegeocello's new album comes out on Tuesday. It's called "Comet Come To Me."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M DIGGIN' YOU")
NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) Yes, I'm diggin' you. I dig you like an old soul record. Just sit back and relax, listen to the 8-track. I'll dig you like an old soul record. Remember back in the day when everyone was black and conscious, and down for struggle, when love brought you all together. Just sit back and talking, cultivating positive vibes.
RATH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast, look for WEEKENDS ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. You can follow us on Twitter @NPRWATC. We're back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and keep it funky. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.