At this point in her career, either you get Meshell Ndegeocello or you don’t.
Unlike many of her peers, after 16 years of delivering powerfully soulful and stylistically diverse albums, the queer singer and multi-instrumentalist is showing no signs of losing her artistic edge.
Ndegeocello first came to national attention as one of the first artists signed to Madonna’s Maverick Records label in the early 1990s. Her first album, 1993’s “Plantation Lullabies,” was a critical success, earning three Grammy nominations for “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night).”
At the time, many credited Ndegeocello with sparking the neo-soul movement, but she never was one to get too caught up in categorizing her own music.
“I just make what I make,” she said. “I do the best that I can. I try to have a good time. I stay interested in other music. I don’t really believe in genres. They’re all connected. Neo-soul, I don’t believe in that. I know I was given that moniker for a minute. The best I can do is be true to myself and express myself to the best of my ability.”
Apparently her ability has grown over the years. Her upcoming album, “Devil’s Halo,” is an aural feast that finds Ndegeocello serving up an irresistible combination of R&B, rock, new wave and everything in between with fiery and sultry abandon.
The independent label Mercer Street/Downtown Records is releasing the new album. Ndegeocello and Maverick parted ways in 2003, and her 2007 album “The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams” was released on the jazz label EmArcy.
Ndegeocello said there were never any hard feelings or discord between her and Maverick during her time there or after the split.
“I loved being on Maverick,” she said. “I never felt stifled creatively. They let me do whatever I wanted to do.. I just don’t think they knew what to do with me in terms of promotion or getting the music out there. I really liked my experience on Mercer. They’ve been super-supportive. It’s a different energy, for lack of a better word. I’m just always happy to make music. I’m not really involved with all the inner workings. I always have a good time. I’m happy to get a budget to try and be as creative as possible.”
Still, it can be argued that Ndegeocello’s creativity has expanded since her split with Maverick. “Devil’s Halo” and “The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams” both seem to draw from a wider range of genres than her Maverick albums. But Ndegeocello said that was more a result of where her head was at the time.
“That’s just evolution and growth,” she said of her ever-evolving sound. “I’m around different people living in a different world. I’m exposed to a lot of different things. I definitely feel more excited about music now than I did back then just because I’m in a better place in my life. I did a world-music record on a European label [2005’s “The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel”] and it was a lot of fun to exorcise some of my demons. I don’t think too much about what other people are expecting of me. I just try to listen to as many artists as I can and maintain excitement about music.”
For “Devil’s Halo,” Ndegeocello made a point to say that she focused on musicianship and live-band energy over the use of advanced technology and studio tricks, on which she thinks many musicians have become too dependent.
“It’s too broad of a generalization, but sorry to say I do believe that. I’ve made several records with other people. Everyone is really dependent on Pro Tools and Auto-Tune. It was getting a little stagnant. It was really fun to make a record on tape with no click [track] and no Pro Tools.”
Ndegeocello is frank about the creative process involved in her new album, but when it comes to the meaning behind “Devil’s Halo,” she gets mercurial.
“That there is a gray area,” she said. “That’s all. Everything is not so black and white.”
We can’t be mad at her for that; the results are phenomenal. One of the most striking tracks on the album is her cover of “Love You Down,” a song by ’80s Prince & The Revolution wannabes Ready for the World. The original song might not have aged well, but Ndegeocello’s cover reinvents the dated slow jam as a powerfully sexy, yet ambient, crusher of a song.
“I grew up with that,” she said. “It was one of the songs that shaped my creativity: Ready for the World and Prince. It was just like time-traveling back to first feeling my hormones kicking in. I just tried to relive that. I love the song. It’s sexy and nice. I just tried to put a little Wu-Tang in it. Hopefully people will enjoy it and move their body to it, make love and have a good time.”
Ndegeocello’s knack for genre-mixing and her proficiency on many different instruments frequently earned her comparisons to Prince. Yet, while it was a heady experience to be compared to one of her idols, being in the same room with him wasn’t exactly what she expected.
“It’s amazingly flattering,” she said about the comparison. “That’s what I wanted to be. It’s not only flattering, it’s inspiring. It means I’m OK. I’m doing all right. But then I met him and that wasn’t so great. He’s a jerk, I’m sorry to say. I’d tell it to his face. I remember getting that first record ‘For You’ and playing each side over and over again, learning all the bass lines and telling myself my goal is to make records. Even though he’s a jerk, he’s one of the greatest songwriters of our time and he deserves all the accolades that anyone could possibly give him.”
Ndegeocello said despite her respect for Prince’s accomplishments, she couldn’t appreciate the talented mega-star’s insular way of life.
“I’ve had personal interactions with him. He’s created this bubble. My dare to him is like, dude, come hang out with me in Brooklyn. We’ll go get some Levis 501s, some Tims and some T-shirts. How about you hang out with some regular folks and just have a regular experience because you’ve created something that’s like a surreal reality. Not to be weird. I’m not like the dinosaurs. They couldn’t see their demise.
“Being in the time I am now, I get to look back on so many artists in terms of drug use, megalomania and other self-destructive behaviors. And I’m really glad that music is first and foremost to me and not fame and other things that people are battling with. Let’s sit on the porch and play some music.”
It’s that laidback approach to the flow of creativity that has also made Ndegeocello so in demand as a producer. She said she looks for “individuality and openness” in the artists with whom she works.
“Lately I mostly get called to do improvisational musicians,” she said. “So I have to really enjoy their playing and their technique. They have to be someone I can be around for eight hours at a time and that we enjoy each other and find some kind of connection. I [like to] create an environment that allows the artist to be themselves and get to what they are trying to achieve.”
Ndegeocello is about to hit the road in support of “Devil’s Halo,” requiring her and her band to figure out how to execute some of the new songs in a live setting. She said the live-performance element doesn’t weigh too heavily on her mind when she records.
“I was just asked to produce this French artist who specifically told me she wanted to have a record that could sound exactly the same live. When I’m making a record, I kind of have the Steely Dan approach: We’re making a record. It can be whatever it is in this environment but it may change live. I just like to use what I have access to and be open to whatever can happen that maybe only can happen in a studio. When I write a song, especially these songs, it was kind of a simple process. I wanted to make something that could exist with just a vocal and a guitar. But some of them grew from that. That’s why I like being more of a musician than being a recording artist. I like the challenge of bringing things to life.”
She also said the songs will vary from night to night and that she and her band are still trying to figure out which ones to perform.
“We’re all e-mailing each other now, submitting what we want to play. It’s interesting what everyone is choosing. It’s going to be a surprise. We have a very socialist band. Everyone has an opinion. I promised someone close to me that I’d play some old songs, so I’m curious to see what we come up with. We have to switch up or we’d kill each other. A few of the musicians I play with come from improvisational backgrounds. So in order to keep it fresh, especially for me, I have to switch it around or I become sort of tedious. I know that’s hard on the audience sometimes, but I definitely like to switch the setlist up.”
That being said, when asked if they would be open to spontaneous requests (like if a certain PGN staff writer stood on a barstool shouting out song titles), Ndegeocello said, with a chuckle …
“No. Um [thinking about it] … no. I play with musicians that have other groups they play with and their own lives. So we get together right before the tour and rehearse two weeks before and we prepare a certain number of songs that we can play well. I have a large catalog, but I don’t try to get the musicians to learn all eight records. That would be difficult.”
We’re not mad at her.
“Devil’s Halo” will be released Oct. 6. Meshell Ndegeocello performs at 7 p.m. Oct. 19 at World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St. For more information, visit www.meshell.com or call (215) 222-1400.