Meshell Ndegeocello: “You’re trying to express the inexpressible, to feed your heart”

(Image credit: Charlie Gross)

Over the course of her 25-year career, Meshell Ndegeocello has written, recorded and collaborated on music that crosses all genres. Jazz, folk, rock, hip-hop, soul - her art knows no boundaries. Her recent covers album, Ventriloquism, pays tribute to some of the songs and artists who have influenced her.

“These songs highlight memories,” she says. “My father had passed away, so I was going home often. It was the soundtrack to my time at home. A couple of the songs came on while I was there, and it was like a time machine, so it’s a collection of songs that live in my memory, and from discussions with friends about songs that got to them during that period in their life.

I’m really clear about my position as a bass player. I try to make it feel good

“Music has always been so important to me,” she continues. “People like Prince are the reason I play music.” Hence her poignant cover of the late legend’s Sometimes It Snows In April. Meanwhile, an acoustic rendition of Force MD’s Tender Love is informed by her love for Neil Young’s Harvest. Playing the 11 diverse tracks meant applying her technique to songs recorded by different bassists. 

“I’m an uncomplicated person and bass player,” she says. “I try to support the changes so that the other musicians can have a harmonic conversation among themselves. I’m really clear about my position as a bass player. I try to make it feel good, and I try to find a bassline that fits the instrumentation and also fits the mechanics of the groove.”

New feels for old songs

Ndegeocello and her musicians - guitarist Chris Bruce, drummer Abraham Rounds and keyboardist and co-producer Jebin Bruni - were at engineer S. Husky Hoskulds’ Groundlift Studios in Los Angeles, working on a scoring project, when they began the groundwork for Ventriloquism.

“We were all together, and we would sit in a room and play,” she says. “We’d learn the changes, learn the song, learn the parts, throw away the parts that didn’t work, and then we’d find ourselves within the groove of it. We play until it fits in a space where we all stop talking once you can see the expression on everyone’s face that means ‘This feels good like this’. It’s a hit-or-miss system. We just sit and play together. Go figure; who does that any more?”

A P-Bass going through a Hiwatt amp, to me, it’s the best distortion you could ever want

For the album, she relied on what she calls her “scoring gear” - several basses with a few effects and pedals. “I use a ’74 Fender Jazz with flatwounds, and an Olympic; there’s a lot of Olympic bass on the record. I have my signature Reverend Fellowship bass too, so I experiment with different things. I use a Malekko Assmaster pedal, a Tim Lefebvre Octabvre pedal from 3Leaf Audio, and a 3Leaf Audio Envelope Filter, and that’s the arsenal.”

For different tones, Ndegeocello keeps her options open. “If I’m playing the Fender Jazz, it might be the amp [which supplies overdrive], or I have a hollow-body Reverend I love. Funny How Time Flies by Janet Jackson is a P-Bass going through a Hiwatt amp, and to me, it’s the best distortion you could ever want. But I think I sound the same on every bass. I sound like me.”

To build new bass parts for these classic songs, Meshell begins by learning the originals. “You can’t deconstruct anything unless you learn what’s there,” she says. “So I take the bassline and then I wait for the transmission. Sometimes I omit a lot of the information in a busy bassline. For example, Don’t Disturb This Groove by the System was played by one of my favourite bass players, David Frank. It’s a great bassline, but it was recorded at the height of MIDI, and so it was ‘machine-y’. I have more of a warm, island dub approach to it.”

“Or take Atomic Dog by George Clinton,” she adds. “That one has a great bassline, but again, it’s arrangement by omission. I distilled it to the main groove, and I changed the cultural reference.

“I also changed Private Dancer by Tina Turner to 6/8. I’d just recorded with Pat Metheny, and he really got me thinking. To me a song is just a melody, words and a beat. The groove and the beat are the things I think stick out the most, and so I change it to how I hear the groove, juxtaposed to what the drummer hears, and that’s my individual voice.”

Life through the lens

Ndegeocello acknowledges these changes may not suit everyone. “Intention is where we diverge. The aim of the song? Only the writer knows that. I changed the cultural intention of the song, because I put in 6/8 African dance. To me, it’s about a woman who has to dance to make her money. I just put it into a culture that maybe would prefer the feel of 6/8.”

Intention is where we diverge. The aim of the song? Only the writer knows that

She continues: “There’s a reason why John Coltrane went from playing standards to [his 1965 album] Sun Ship. Eventually you’re trying to express the inexpressible, to feed your heart so that you can continue to grow. Some do it for the money, some for the girls, some for the fame. Everyone’s got different motivations, a different modus operandi. None of those answers are wrong.”

Ndegeocello grew up listening to music the old-fashioned way: on vinyl and CDs. She still makes albums, entire albums, in this era of streaming and single-song downloads - but she is not entrenched in the past.

“Young people are having their own experience, and it’s normal to them,” she says. “We’re just looking at it through our lens, with an idea of how we think it should be. I try not to do that too much. I try to be in the moment and accept things. I don’t listen to music like that. I have a record player, but I think it’s a great invention that you can be at the beach, pull up your phone, and have the best beach party ever. I love Spotify for that.

“It’s such a nuanced conversation. There is no right or wrong answer, but we can’t talk with passion and not become angry when we have different views. The sound quality is hard for me sometimes, but then I know the young people say, ‘How can you listen to a record that just has four songs on a side?’ I just try to find the middle way.”

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