It’s safe to say we are very enamored with Meshell Ndegeochello. The out singer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter has been a creative force to be reckoned with since her debut album in 1993. In each album since, Ndegeochello has pushed the envelope of creativity, exploring a wide range of sounds and influences.
But we still weren’t prepared for her last album, 2009’s “Devil’s Halo,” which blew us out of the water. Then recently, Ndegeochello did a series of shows where she performed nothing but Prince covers (check out the YouTube footage, they’re awesome!).
That amped up our fanaticism for Ndegeochello to the point where, if you don’t like any of her music (or Prince’s for that matter), we can’t be friends. Ever.
So here we are. Our deep well of love and respect for Ndegeochello’s music, the excitement around her new album “Weather” (which is stellar, by the way), her upcoming show at World Cafe Live and our mutual fascination with all things that have to do with Prince made for damn-good conversation.
PGN: I find modern R&B, for the most part, to be very by-the-book and formulaic. But the great thing about your new album is that it is so experimental and outside the box. Do you think most modern artists stay in a stylistic box because they want to or because they are giving in to pressure from their fans and their labels? MN: I wish I could be an interviewer because, yeah, I would like to ask a few artists if that’s their choice or is it perhaps the producer. A lot of R&B music is producer-driven. There’s just a singer and the record companies bring them in songs from hit producers. It’s complicated. I think it’s just a combination of the business is sucking and people want to know they are getting things that sell. It’s a collective fear of anything new. I don’t know anyone’s motivations. I just personally don’t have that. I just want to try to explore different things as much as I can.
PGN: In a live setting, you and your band are set up like the performance is more like an informal jam than your show. Are you consciously positioning yourself as if to say, I’m just one of the musicians on stage performing tonight? MN: Yeah, definitely. Plus I grew up with Prince and the Revolution, so I think of my band as this collective organism. We come here and play music all together. And I grew up in [Washington,] D.C. The go-go scene influences how I interact with other musicians. It’s not all about me personally. When I go to a show, I want to see the collective spontaneity of the musicians and how they work out these songs that they’ve been playing for months and trying to find the things that I missed. That’s what I’m trying to do too.
PGN: How did you end up working with Chris Connelly on the new record, and were you familiar with his work in bands like Ministry and Revolting Cocks? MN: Oh yeah. Definitely. Oh my God. But then I just met him by happenstance through my guitar player. So we started sending each other lyrics and songs and we started this collaboration. But he’s a brilliant man. PGN: Is your music in any way influenced by Wendy and Lisa? MN: Oh, of course. Plus on the second recording and the third, I got to play with them and meet them. They are a huge inspiration along with so many others. Once you meet your idols and get to spend some time with them, it’s definitely going to influence you as a human and as a musician. They’re definitely a big influence in my life.
PGN: Recently you did a series of performances where you did an evening of Prince songs. Did performing his songs alter your perceptions of his music? MN: No. In my limited opinion, I have a really intimate relationship with music in terms of how it fits in my life. The reason I did that whole series of shows is that people had asked me to do my old music, which I’m not that comfortable with. So I thought I’d do the music that most inspired me. So I did the Prince show. I did a Gil Scott Heron show. And if I could, I’d do a Cocteau Twins show or a Simple Minds show. I like doing all the music that, as a young person and growing musician, got me where I am now. And doing this music just gave me more ideas. It put a flowering in my mind of how much there is to explore in terms of the R&B genre. Because you’re right: Returning to your earlier question, it’s never going to be like it was when there was Prince — when R&B just danced on the line of punk, new wave and all kinds of other things. But it’s inspiring to me to try new things.
PGN: What’s stopping you from doing a show of Cocteau Twins songs? MN: I don’t know. I guess I’ve got to find a venue or promoter that would be down with it. People think that this is some illustrious business where when you’re at a certain echelon you can walk in anywhere and they’ll give you a gig. The state of music now, even with live music, is you have to persuade them that it’s going to sell. I have to persuade some people that this is a good idea. That’s all.
PGN: What’s your favorite Prince album? MN: I’d have to say “Controversy” because it has so many body memories. I was at a point in my life where it really affected me. What’s yours? PGN: It changes every month. One month it’ll be “Purple Rain,” the next month it’s “Sign O’ the Times” — and then recently, there’s been a growing appreciation for the “Parade” album. MN: Oh, yeah. Definitely.
PGN: And maybe “3121.” MN: That’s not one I listen to often.
PGN: That’s the one album out of his last four or five where it feels like he got back to that sense of fun he had back in the 1980s. MN: OK, well I have a question. Do you think when an artist gets older like Prince they can maintain that spark, or do you settle in and continue to do your old catalog?
PGN: It depends on who that artist is. If you seem bored with music, it bleeds into your music. I think at one point Prince decided, There’s nothing new I can learn so I’m just going to retread the old stuff. When you see him perform today, it’s like he’s on an Ike and Tina Turner trip. And he can be more experimental than that. MN: Yeah, I sometime I feel he’s going toward the showbiz aspect and keeping his musicianship and creativity in his peripheral and not focusing on that. My dream is to go see Prince in a trio: guitar, bass and drums. Just as simple as possible, him and his guitar. Of course, I’d be the bass player and it would be the drummer of my choice and it would be totally awesome. But that’s arrogant of me, but I think it would be a cool idea.
PGN: What’s your favorite Prince movie? MN: “Purple Rain,” but once I turned 30 and did some reading, I realized how misogynistic it is. But, definitely. Come on, as a gay publication, what do you think now that he’s a Jehovah’s Witness? He’s so homophobic. What do you do when an artist takes a stance that’s so antiquated? That’s the lyric that changed my life: “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” Just sort of trying to get people off those generalizations.
PGN: I’ve always wondered about that, especially when he keeps bringing Wendy and Lisa [who are both lesbian] back into the fold for special performances. Where are they standing on the issue? Is he taking back the things he said or is he relaxing his views for the moment? I think it’s just a case of people still being in love with what he was and represented during the era for 1980-88. And they keep hoping that Prince will come back. MN: Yeah, you’ve got to have a little bit of freak in you. Just a hair. You don’t have to be doing anything, you have a little bit of something obtuse going on in your mind.
Meshell Ndegeochello performs 7:30 p.m. at World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St. For more information or tickets, visit www.meshell.com or call 215-222-1400.