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Meshell Ndegeocello: The Melody, the Lyric, and the Beat

Photo by Charlie Gross

The acclaimed bassist rebuilds a set of cover songs on her latest album, Ventriloquism, while focusing on her personal connection to classic soul and R&B;, and creating plenty of room for all-star guitar contributions.

Meshell Ndegeocello believes people connect with the most essential elements of songs: melodic hooks, words, rhythms. This utilitarian mindset is a big part of what makes up Ndegeocello’s signature sound as both a songwriter and as a player. Whether recording her own compositions, taking on cover material, collaborating with other musicians, or doing studio work, she consistently follows her own artistic vision.

As an accomplished collaborator and session artist, she’s worked with big-name artists across genres, including Herbie Hancock, Madonna, Chaka Khan, and the Rolling Stones, and has brought her personal touch to those sessions with the same gusto she delivers in her own work. Her bass tone and playing style is instantly recognizable, likely due in some part to her no-frills attitude about gear. “I learned early because I was poor,” she told Premier Guitar during our interview. “You can’t have any excuses. You play well and the tone is in your hands.”

Over the course of the last two and a half decades, Ndegeocello has been a prolific songwriter, from her first release—1993’s Plantation Lullabies, which featured the single “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)”—through 2014's Comet, Come to Me. She’s also explored cover material throughout her career, including one-off tracks like her 1994 collaboration with John Mellencamp (a version of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night”) and tribute albums such as her 2012 record, Pour une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone.

On her newest record, Ventriloquism, Ndegeocello takes the essential elements of songs popularized by artists such as Prince, Sade, George Clinton, Tina Turner, Janet Jackson, and TLC, and rebuilds them in her own musical voice. But the bassist is not willing to take all of the credit. She’s quick to mention that “Meshell Ndegeocello is a band,” and that her bandmates are a part of the creative process. In addition to her long-time collaborators in Chris Bruce on guitar, drummer Abe Rounds, and Jebin Bruni on keys, Ndegecello also called on a few hot-shot guitarists to contribute, including Adam Levy, Jeff Parker, and Doyle Bramhall II.

During our phone interview, Ndegeocello chatted about Ventriloquism and her longtime career as an artist, but also took some time to talk about making albums, whether there is still room for mistakes on records, and the value of honest performances.

Throughout your career, you’ve done quite a few covers. Ventriloquism features a range of covers filtered through your own musical lens. How did you choose your material?
On this one, I just chose the songs I like. I chose songs from my childhood. I had a lot of help with this from friends, just talking about this record. My father died, so I would go home and there was a certain station and they would play old songs, from my teenage years. “Tender Love” [by Force MDs] sort of sparked the conversation.

That was the first one you chose?
Yep, and then that turned dinner conversations into, “I remember where I was when that song came out.” “I Wonder If I Take You Home” was the second one that started to circulate in my mind, and then I was in the car one day and I heard “Nite and Day.” That just led me on the journey to the songs I really dug from that part of my life. I love “Sensitivity” and “Tender Love” and “Funny How Time Flies,” and then I realized they were all written by Terry Lewisand Jimmy Jam. I just started to weave something together where I couldn’t explain what I’d hear or see as the outcome, but just try to pick the ones that felt good—that felt true to who I was and the R&B that I dug.

“I learned early because I was poor: You can’t have any excuses. You play well and the tone is in your hands.”

I always loved “Private Dancer,” because it's written by Mark Knopfler and that was from that moment in time where there was a lot of songwriting coming from artists who had hits. I miss that period. There were all these little sleeper tunes, like all the tunes Prince wrote, for the Bangles and stuff like that. Now I’m wondering how many songs Ed Sheeran has written for modern artists right now that you don’t know about.

When a song speaks to you, how do you find the right arrangement and what kind of decisions do you make with the band?
This record was done totally as a band. Usually the takes are second and third takes, but we ran through them for a couple of days just to see which ones felt right and where we could reconfigure them in different ways. On “Smooth Operator,” we tried doing it like it was, approaching it from the same place. It’s such a good song, you can’t fix what’s not broken. So, we were like, “Just throw it away.”

I have this belief, now, that a song is just the lyric, the melody, and the beat. I feel like those are the things that connect with the people. So, the drummer had this groove, and we just threw away all the other stuff and I just maintained the melody and put it in 5. Just to do something different. To me music is audible collage and I’m just trying to make all the colors and shapes work.

TIDBIT: “My brother played guitar. I just have a serious affinity for it,” says Meshell Ndegeocello. In addition to longtime guitarist Chris Bruce, she brought in hot-shot guitarists Doyle Bramhall II, Adam Levy, and Jeff Parker to add 6-string colors to Ventriloquism.

How about production decisions, things like that?
That just comes in a real fluid way. We just all work together to figure out what works and doesn’t work. It was produced by the keyboard player, Jebin [Bruni], who made a lot of the harmonic and color texture choices.

When I get to L.A., the record that’s the soundtrack to my life is Harvest by Neil Young. That’s the record I listen to when I roll down the street. I remember asking Chris Bruce, the guitar player, “‘Tender Love’—can you make it sound like Harvest?” So, he’ll zap into those ideas and arrange the guitar part.

I’ve been told that I gotta check out Chris Bruce. You’ve worked together for a while, right?
I met him making [1999’s] Bitter. When I was making that record, I worked with my really good friend [producer] Craig Street, who’s produced a lot of really amazing records, and he just persuaded me to trust him and he brought in all new people. Abe Laboriel, Doyle Bramhall II, Wendy [Melvoin] & Lisa [Coleman] are on Bitter, and Chris Bruce played a lot of the guitar on Bitter. And that was just the beginning.

You know how people say brother from another mother? That’s what it was like. I felt like I met my cosmic friend. He’s just a top-shelf player. He plays all styles. He’s played with Seal, he’s played with Wendy & Lisa, Sheryl Crow, Aimee Mann. You’ve probably heard his work but you don’t know it’s him. He’s that kind of session guy, but he’s also probably the world’s greatest DJ because he listens to such a range of music. He’s the person that’s got me into Wire and Mark E. Smith and the Fall. He’s the person that’s just shown me there’s so many other ways to express yourself.

As a player, he has one of the cleanest, best tones. That’s what separates him. I’ve played with a lot of guitar players—a lot of famous people that people love and I’ve played in the studio with them and I’ve seen the magic. But I’ve played with those super famous people live and their tone is not as developed in the live sense as it is in the studio. Chris Bruce, his tone live, it brings you to tears. It’s warm, it’s fat, he doesn’t noodle, his pocket is incredible. I can’t say enough about him. He’s just a super-gifted musician who happens to play the guitar well.

Reverend Guitars and Meshell Ndegeocello collaborated on her signature Fellowship bass model. She also favors Fender Jazz basses and has a 1963 and a 1974 model in her rotation. Photo by Jordi Vidal

There are lots of really great guitar moments on the record.
I’ve got two other guitar masters. Adam Levy plays the electric on “Sensitivity,” and he’s incredible on there. And I also have Jeff Parker on “Don’t Disturb This Groove” and “Smooth Operator”—he’s phenomenal. They’re both amazing. Then the guy doing the narration on “Smooth Operator” is Eric Schermerhorn, who played with Iggy Pop. It’s like, I’m surrounded by amazing guitar gods in my world. My brother played guitar. I just have a serious affinity for it.

There’s some really great guitar work on “Atomic Dog.”
I forgot the other guitar god on there: that’s Doyle Bramhall! Chris plays all the acoustic and the layering of colors and then the solo stuff, and that’s Doyle. He’s like my hero. I can’t sing his praises enough—he’s a tone giant. He’s playing the blues and beyond; he’s interstellar with his playing.

You mentioned your brother is a guitar player. Did you pick up a bass just to play or to write songs?
I’m glad you asked that—it was songwriting. I picked up the bass because my brother’s friend left it and it allowed me to play with my brother. Then my father, he was one of those pawn-store goers, he would just find stuff. He found a 4-track tape recorder and he bought a Rhodes and at that time I realized I was more into the songwriting than I was into being a virtuoso.

So, did you start playing that keyboard first?
No, I had the bass. I played them simultaneously. I played the clarinet first and I was like, “Whoa, this is hard.” There wasn’t a lot I could do. I hadn’t heard Don Byron yet. If I’d heard Don Byron, I might be a clarinet player. I didn’t have access to any of that yet.

How old were you when you picked up the bass?
Fourteen or 15.

“To me music is audible collage and I’m just trying to make all the colors and shapes work.”

Something interesting about your career is that you’re known in a couple different roles. You’ve got your own music but you’re also featured as a bass player on some heavy sessions, playing with artists like Herbie Hancock, the Rolling Stones, and Madonna. What role does that fulfill for you creatively? What has your experience been like as a session player?
It’s completely separate. I love playing the bass. I’ve been hired to play the bass, but also, I have such a distinctive style, it doesn’t work for everybody, like, I can’t play bluegrass—I play too far laid back in the beat and it drives the drummer crazy. I would love to play country stuff; I would love that. I like playing bass because it shapes the music. I can really lock down on bass, make it groove, and not play too much.

On some sessions, I go and just play the bass part. They have the chords and they have where it bounces and I just do what they say and those people are more interested in my name or my tone. They’re not looking for my creativity. Then there are some people that give you something and say “do whatever you want.” And that’s cool, too. But I stopped doing that, in a way, because then you do what you want and they don’t like it. That’s weird. Then there’s collaborative things where you go and you're actually there with the person and they want you to bring your A game with your creativity in the sense of creating something together and I really enjoy that.

I did a session with Allen Toussaint one time, and he and I were the band. We played and, to me, it was incredible. He laid down one of the most amazing tracks I ever heard and the person was like, “Can you do one more take?” We did one more take and then the person came in and was like, “Could you do this?” And Allen was like, “No, no I can’t.” That really blew my mind. He said, “No, what’s wrong with it? If you can tell me what’s wrong with it, I'll do it again.” I think Pro Tools has opened up this thing of just, like, endless tracks. It becomes an endless exercise of someone else’s imagination.

Reverend Meshell Ndegeocello Fellowship Bass
1963 Fender Jazz Bass
1974 Fender Jazz Bass

Aguilar Tone Hammer 500
Aguilar DB 212 cabinet

3Leaf Audio Octabvre
3Leaf Audio Wonderlove Envelope Filter
Malekko B:assmaster
TC Electronic Flashback Delay

And there’s always something else to be perfected or something. There’s option anxiety.
I listen to records now and they’re soperfected. I feel like I’m missing something. I can’t wait to get back to where, for example, the drummer and I sing a lot together, and we’re just gonna sing until we get it right.

When you recorded Ventriloquism, how did you approach it the studio?
We record like we’re going to tape and then we listen to it, find the best take, and fix if there are issues with it, or we don’t fix and we build on top and omit. Omit is a production thing that people might need to get attached to.

Do you think there is still a place for mistakes on records in 2018?
Oh god, I miss those! I miss those so much!

There are some noticeable mistakes on classic records. For example, on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, the bass player on “Visions of Johanna” makes a mistake with the form. It’s a big mistake on a big record and it’s there to be heard.

One of my favorites is Stevie Wonder, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love).” I swear you can hear him fall off the drum set. He loses like a whole beat and a half in it, like something was going wrong.

There’s a so-called mistake in “Funny How Time Flies.” I go to the chorus late and Abe [Rounds, drummer] totally crashes on it. After a while, I liked it. We have a lot of those. I made records when you got a lot of money and I’ve made records where there was little money. That’s something else Chris Bruce has taught me. Sure, we all want to achieve perfection, but sometimes there’s these human things that happen in there that seem like failures or faux pas, but it’s like women. I don’t mean to sound weird, but a really beautiful woman is a little wonky. There’s something there that’s not so-called perfect. It’s like how the bananas with the little brown blemishes are ripe and more flavorful.

I could think of three other Bob Dylan tunes if I tried hard that have weird things. Or Parliament-Funkadelic records—oh my god, not perfect! A lot of funk records … Ohio Players. Not perfect. And I think that’s beautiful.

You mentioned Neil Young’s Harvest. Neil is still putting mistakes all over his records.
Yes! I wanna go back to the melody, the lyric, and the beat. The drummer, Kenny Buttrey, as long as him and Neil are together, it’s all good. It’s like the flow of those two musicians make everything else so it just sits and settles in a way that’s amazing. There’s definitely imperfection in that. I’ve seen him play live and he’s just banging on the guitar, and rumbling, and the overtones are coming out. I just saw Marc Ribot play with David Hidalgo from Los Lobos. It’s amazing. If they had so-called mistakes, it just led those two men into different waters. I think people were hoping that they’d make so-called mistakes because it would just lead them to this other place.

Unplanned territory.
Unplanned territory is where, with a virtuosic musician especially, you get the most amazing things. I’m sure no one was telling Coltrane and Elvin Jones, “I don’t know if that’s right.”

I must admit, I had a really bad show recently. The piano player forgot a song, I sung some clunkers, but after the show, everyone loved it. When you’re playing for people and not musicians, they want something else from you. I hate to sound corny, but the word I would grasp for is sincerity. If I pay $50 to go see you, I at least want you to be honest. Especially with certain musicians: I already know you’re a genius, I already know you can play.

YouTube It

In this performance, Ndegeocello and her band put their stamp on Nick Drake’s classic ballad “Pink Moon.” They preserve Drake’s lush and subdued sound while shaping the song by orchestrating his melodic lines among their instrumentation. Ndegeocello’s signature bass tone and style are instantly recognizable even when playing this song’s simple figures.