Since the late 1980s, the bassist, singer, and songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello has blazed a singular path through pop, jazz, dance music, soul, hip-hop, and other worlds, amassing Grammy nominations, chart hits, and collaborations with a who’s-who of top musicians from Madonna to Jason Moran. Her brand new album Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone is a stunning tribute to the iconic North Carolina-born jazz singer. Ndegeocello performs songs from the record at Reynolds Theater on Friday night, followed by an evening of varied covers at Motorco on Saturday. Yesterday, we spoke with Ndegeocello by phone to learn more about her recent and future projects—and what she thinks of the persistent coinage “neo-soul.”
The Thread: Your new album and live show feature songs originally written or performed by Nina Simone. What does she mean to you?
Meshell Ndegeocello: A lot. She’s a musician that I truly admire for her facility and her ability to make a song her own. Also as an activist, a person who evolved the world, and a human being trying to figure out how to survive existence.
What made this the right time in your life to take on her music?
Toshi Reagon was the curator of the Women’s Jazz Festival in Harlem and I chose to focus on Nina Simone. After I did it, a couple people asked me if it would be a recording and that kicked the ball rolling, about 8 months ago. It went fairly quickly once the seed was planted. It grew in a real—I hate this word—organic way.
How did you decide which songs to do?
Just the ones I felt like I could do something good to. I definitely picked ballads because I think people forget that she had the ability to create a mood as well as political material.
Were there any challenges in making such iconic music your own?
Oh, definitely. Just the fear of people’s judgment alone causes some great anxiety. “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” that was a difficult one. When I sang it, it was very brooding and dark. It just didn’t have the feeling it needed for these times. It’s beyond skin-color now, I think. Young people need to feel embraced and loved and feel that they can go on. So I wanted to have that trans-cultural feeling. I think Cody Chesnutt brings a joy to it that is incredible. When we were recording it, it was during that Trayvon Martin incident, so I’m happy a man is singing it, because it’s hard to imagine being a young man of color in society today.
Were you walking a tightrope between honoring the songs and making them contemporary?
I’m not like Man on Wire, but it’s definitely a balance beam. [Laughs] It’s not death-defying, more like being considerate and hoping someone’s there spotting you. But yeah, I knew that I could bring something different. It was about bringing something of high quality. My hope is that it does feel new to you, and for those who know her work, it brings back a pleasant memory.
You mentioned Cody Chesnutt—you have some other guest singers on the record?
Were any of them involved in the original live project?
Just Toshi. I had met Sinead a few times and knew she was a huge fan, so that was great and I’m so glad she did it. Valerie June, I was enamored with her recordings and got to meet her at SXSW. Lizz Wright, I’ve worked with before. Her voice, to me, is very much in the realm of Nina Simone. It makes you feel something that’s hard to describe.
The album just came out on October 9. It’s doing well?
I hope so! We’re out on tour right now, so I’m focused on that. One thing I’m hoping the album does is to remind people of song stylists like Nina Simone, or the Whitney Houstons of the world. They didn’t necessarily make money from a catalog of songs they’d written; they were performing other people’s works. But I also included four songs that Simone had written and one that her husband wrote.
One review of the album said that it “deconstructs” Nina Simone—is that concept meaningful to you?
In an academic way, I doubt it. I chose the word “dedication” carefully. Forgive this colloquialism, but I’m just trying to send her a shout-out. If there’s an afterlife and she can see us, I want her to see that there are people who are inspired by her music and life. Musically, I’m just doing what she did: you have charts, you hear the song, and you try to make it your own. That’s a gift. Katy Perry has it, a lot of singers have it, and it’s something I want people to have a bit more respect for. That’s the only thing I’m trying to deconstruct. The person still matters as much as the song.
Regarding the album title, what does it mean to be a “sovereign soul?”
You’re royalty but you’re still one of the people. That’s how I feel about Nina Simone. A lot of people ask, “Do you feel a similarity between you two?” Not at all. Growing up, even though she was in poverty, she lived a regal life. Her parents in no way had impoverished minds. I grew up in a different, much more urban experience.
[Laughs] You sound like a friend of mine. I think I’m the puppet, but there are a few where I definitely felt like I made the song the puppet.
What kinds of songs are part of “Ventriloquism?”
This Cat Stevens song got into my consciousness when Salman Rushdie put out a book about what it was like to have a fatwa on him. From Harold & Maude, Tea for the Tillerman, I love Cat Stevens. I don’t know if people remember the VH1 special where he became Yusuf Islam. I guess he fascinates me now because I want to know, especially because I had a period when I was uber-religious and Islamic, how you go from this loving, bright person to thinking someone needs to be killed for a novel. So that’s one song I do, “Wild World.” I’ve also been really interested in George Clinton as a lyricist. I think that incredible groove overshadows some amazing things he has to say. So I take one of his songs and strip it down so you can hear the words.
Can you tell us about the instrumentation and musicians in these shows?
We’re a quartet. I play bass and sing, with drums, keyboard, and guitar. We’re a modern band; we play 21st-century music. It’s not rock, it’s not jazz, it’s not funk, it’s not R&B. All those things are in there and we filter them through our 21st-century mind. It’s the same band as the Nina Simone record except for a different drummer.
Is doing both these shows on consecutive nights happening a lot or just here at Duke?
No, just here! I’m curious to see how it feels. On the covers night, I might do some Nina Simone, too. I think the covers show will be a more open, laidback experience. We treat it as, “Let’s see what the music makes us do.” So it’s fun for us, and I hope that people enjoy it. Wish me luck. [Laughs]
You’ve also done some evenings of Prince covers lately. How did those come about?
I was playing at a venue called Largo in L.A. and it was just a suggestion. Everyone knows I’m a huge Prince fan. After this, though, I think I’m going to be tired of doing other people’s songs.
Right, all these projects involve reinterpreting music—do you know what the draw of that is?
I sure don’t! Honestly, not to sound arrogant, I think I do it well, and then people want me to do it. I did this Fats Waller thing with Jason Moran, and all of a sudden, they want four more of those. I do treat it as if I’m just the bandleader: you’re given a piece of sheet music and you try to make it fit with the people you have. I quite enjoy that.
But it might be time for some originals after this?
Oh my god, yeah. I think I’m going to go bang on a cowbell. [Laughs] Get into some tribal beats, something different.
You started out on the D.C. go-go scene. Do you remember what attracted you to it, and was there anything you carried forward from it?
Definitely. I think the way that I lead a band, interpret groove, and understand space—that all comes from playing in the go-go scene. And what attracted me to it was just camaraderie. I used to play four nights a week in go-go bands. It was a way to work and meet people. It’s very tribal dance music, and people go there to move their bodies and feel a moment of transcendence. In my bass playing, it’s the center of my groove.
I have to be obnoxious and ask if the word “neo-soul” mean anything to you.
Not a goddamn thing! [Laughs] Be careful of slogans, they’ll get you. “Neo-soul” and “the sun will never set on the British empire” are probably the best slogans I’ve ever heard in my life. I try to avoid them. It’s just good music and music you don’t like as much.