Meshell Ndegeocello: A Virgo’s Dreams Of Past, Present & Future
Written by Ayana Contreras on August 3, 2023
In the three decades since the release of her debut album, Plantation Lullabies, Meshell Ndegeocello has never waivered from creating ideosyncratic emotive jazz-tinged soundscapes. Music that simultaneously envelops, comforts and sometimes challenges listeners.
The Omnichord Real Book, released in June 2023 on Blue Note Records, was produced by Josh Johnson and features artists such as Jeff Parker, Jason Moran, Ambrose Akinmusire, Joel Ross, Brandee Younger and Cory Henry.
Backstage at the Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa 2023, I spoke to the artist about the new album, the strength of the ancestors and the secret power of DJs.
Ayana Contreras: Okay. Omnichord, the new record. I love it, but I love all your records. By the way, I’m Ayana Contreras. I’m here backstage [at the Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa].
Meshell Ndegeocello: Hi. Nice to meet you.
AC: We’ve actually met once before.
MN: When? And you’ve got the …
AC: …I got the Ashford and Simpson t-shirt. So now we met, I’m good friends with Theaster Gates. And when you came to the [Stony Island Arts] Bank …
MN: Oh, came to the Bank, amazing thing. Nice to meet you again.
AC: Yeah, I DJ’ed did that thing.
MN: Yes! Nice to meet you again. Yeah.
AC: Yeah. So I’m over excited because the album’s so good.
MN: Oh, I appreciate that.
AC: I was actually at Blue Note [club in New York] when you did the residency (with Robert Glasper in 2022). I know Jeff Parker real well and so he invited me out.
MN: He’s amazing.
AC: Isn’t he an amazing guitarist? Amazing everything.
MN: Game Changer. Game changer.
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AC: And he’s on this album.
MN: Of course, he’s the inspiration to that album… I’m going to move close to you.
AC: Okay, perfect. Tell me more about the inspiration for this album because it’s a little different.
MN: Oh, when I was scoring in LA, I spent almost two to four years there working. And I would go to the ETA and see him play. And he is a walking songbook, so I was just inspired that everything could be improvisational or have self-expression. And I remember that side of me because that’s where I come from. My father was a jazz head and I grew up listening to Clifford Brown, Cecil Taylor, all kinds of stuff. And just made me remind myself that, yeah, I’m a much more multifaceted person and I wanted to make songs that felt good and could inspire self-expression.
AC: So talk about the use of the actual Omnichord [instrument] in the process. Where’d that come from?
MN: I was scoring all the time, so I was constantly on the screen, especially during Covid. And I decided to get off the screen and I got my old instruments out. And so I wrote a lot of stuff on the Omnichord and it was like a game changer for me, just to disengage my eyes and to just think of harmony and rhythm. It’s amazing.
AC: So I don’t have a favorite track on the record, I don’t. But I think the record that I’m playing a lot is “Virgo”. Tell me a little bit about the inspiration for that one.
MN: Oh man.
AC: Who’s a Virgo?
MN: I’m a Virgo.
AC: Are you?
MN: All the way through.
AC: I love Virgos.
MN: Oh, I’m a Virgo. All my moons and everything.
AC: Really? I’m a triple Cap.
MN: Oh see?
MN: Love a Capricorn, too. I guess it’s that energy of knowing you are one with the universe, meaning the stars, the elements. And it’s just my, I don’t know, love letter to my ancestors as well. They found peace in the ocean and now they guide my way, I think. I definitely don’t know if I could’ve handled that journey to here. Maybe I would’ve been one of those who went into the ocean.
AC: That’s heavy.
MN: Not to be dark, but it’s also …
AC: No, it’s not dark, but it’s heavy.
MN: Yeah. Yeah. So I’m just appreciative to my ancestors who are obsolete machines in the world. And somehow through all that, we still make joy and beauty and keep it sexy and make good food and beautiful music. I feel blessed.
AC: It’s interesting because there’s that cliche with the, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” But when you really think about it, I have ancestors who came up on the Underground Railroad. You think about what that really means.
MN: When I do all the time now, since 2016, to be honest and during Covid. It’s like I had to step back and whose dream am I living?
AC: Tell me more about that.
MN: This American dream is force-fed to you. I had to step back and take account and find my own values that are outside of this really limited understanding of society.
AC: So I’m going to just disclose, I used to produce or help produce a show called Sound Opinions, and I immediately wanted to review, have you on for Ventriloquism. And they said, “It’s a covers album. We don’t do covers albums.”
MN: Yeah, who says?
AC: But what I saw, I saw you perform in Chicago, spectacular. Just the way that you were honest to the songs, but yet you injected something new into each song. I thought, spectacular.
MN: That’s all we’re all doing. Even when I sing a Robert Glasper song, I’m covering it even though … it’s like everything’s a cover. Do not kid yourself.
AC: That’s a good point, so it’s very challenging at this point.
MN: Yeah, but be clear.
AC: So, tell me a little bit about Ventriloquism because I never talked to you about that.
MN: Oh man.
AC: That one is one, oh my God, that is a spectacular album. It sounds even better live.
MN: Oh, it comes out of sadness. The guitar player and I, he had lost his dad. I lost my dad. I was going on. And I would go to DC and I’d get in the car and the only station it got was the oldies station. So I would just listen to the songs I grew up with. And so I had to hand in a record. So my thought was like, “Let’s just do what we’re feeling.”
And we just got together and rehearsed the songs, put them in our body and just tried to bring life to them. But it’s a song that’s out of sadness and it shows the beauty of song. Not only does it soothe your broken heart or make you feel joy. When you can’t have your own imagination fully present, nothing’s better than having a great song to build upon, and that’s what we try to do.
AC: We’re at the Blue Note Jazz Festival [Napa], and you think about the history of jazz and how jazz is so much about interpreting other people’s compositions and somehow in pop music we lost that.
MN: Oh yeah.
AC: There’s a lot of people sampling people, which is not …
MN: It’s different.
AC: But it’s different than interpreting.
MN: Yeah, you got to put some of your humanity within that experience.
AC: Yeah. I think about, so I did the liner notes for the Charles Stepney album [Step On Step]. Yeah, right? Crazy.
MN: Right, crazy.
AC: The one thing I think about with him is “Can’t Hide Love”. If you ever hear the original version of that song [by Detroit group Creative Source]…
MN: I don’t know that one.
AC: It’s completely different.
MN: A whole ‘nother emotional state.
AC: Right. And so just thinking about re-imagining a song can breathe through life into it.
MN: Yes, yes. I mean, come on, Frank Sinatra didn’t write a note. We don’t give him any.
AC: Yeah, it’s wild. I don’t know. I don’t know. That is a weird dynamic with that.
MN: Yeah, yeah. But I mean also I think we’re also, I’m at the end of the critic. There’s music and experiences going on outside of whatever zeitgeist you believe is real. And so my focus is completely different now. I’m just trying to make things that are a good energetic exchange and for our wellbeing.
AC: So, let’s talk about that. You mentioned end of a critic. I have a lot of conversations about that. What is music criticism now? Does it even serve a purpose? From your perspective, do you think that it even serves a purpose?
MN: Yeah, well there was a time in the seventies where you couldn’t be a music critic unless you passed this, not an initiation, but you had to have some education towards music. So I do think a critic is helpful if they take their personality out of it and their quips and quibbles and just talk about the music, in my limited opinion.
AC: And have a idea of where the stuff is coming from.
MN: Are you really there to tell someone not to check it out or that it’s bad? Or you’re just there to share an insight that you may have listened to? I don’t know. I get something even out of the worst music. It’s just sometimes I give love to anyone who has the guts enough to put themself out there to be critiqued. So the best I can do is giving a listen.
AC: I like that. I like that. I mean, I think a lot of people are not like that. But then now that so much music is approachable.
MN: Yeah, yeah. But also curated, that word too I’m starting to question.
AC: I mean, okay, so I, full disclosure, I’m program director at a radio station.
MN: Yeah. Let’s talk about how do you do that? What goes on now?
AC: Well, I’m lucky I can play whatever I want to play.
MN: Wow, that’s amazing.
AC: So we got “Virgo” in rotation.
MN: You’re so kind.
AC: We’re playing these records. But I think that now it’s a whole different animal and someone is telling them these are the five. Because if you’re going by ear, I’m thinking about the songs. We’re the only station in the country playing a lot of music. You know what I’m saying? In a major market. It’s crazy.
MN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
AC: But it is wild. I think the contraction of people’s idea of what Black music is also happening. Because you saw with the Grammys, they now have an Alternative Jazz category.
MN: What you think of that?
AC: I mean, look, I know why they did it.
AC: They needed to do something. And also rock has 37 and 11,000 categories. You know what I’m saying?
MN: That’s how amazing we are.
MN: Cannot be generalized.
AC: Yeah, so it’s like give us more. More is better.
MN: All the time.
AC: But I do think that that that’s humorous.
MN: It is.
AC: But then where do they get played? Where do they get centered?
MN: I think things are going back, the DJ will forever and always be the grand selector. To me it’s having that live experience out with a DJ. It’s going to change it for people. As venues close, I think it’s going to be people are going to want to go out and dance and live music is what it’s all about, finding a way to experience it. And then the people buy that material and they have it for themselves.
AC: That’s the point. The venue and the festival for discovery.
AC: It’s kind of unparalleled for a lot of people.
MN: And the DJ in real time, nothing like it. That to me, they’re the curator, DJs, I trust them because they’re creating a complete picture with multiple feelings and arcs and nostalgia and the present moment and the future.
AC: Ideally, but I mean a DJ is just like anybody else like these people who call themselves critics and they may or may not actually have that.
MN: Oh yeah, you may not feel it. But they still are … I’m talking about the DJ that’s not just pushing his work.
AC: That’s true. That’s true. That’s true.
MN: That doesn’t come with the, I know exactly what I’m playing. They are watching the room. They are Jahi Sundance.
AC: That’s important.
MN: Like Apex.
AC: So, as we wrap this up because I want to be mindful of time, I just want to say, I am such a fan of yours. I love that you have made your own lane for all this time.
MN: I appreciate that.
AC: And just continue to grow and evolve. It’s wonderful to see because I feel like it’s just so rare and there’s so many of us that got lost in struggle. You know what I mean?
MN: Just taking the detour. We’re going to be back, going to be back.
AC: I want them to come back. It’s not over. It’s not over.
MN: You young. You got so much more happening.
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