Out singer, songwriter and musician Meshell Ndegeocello is back with her latest effort, “Ventriloquism,” a covers album that proudly brandishes unmistakable queer iconography on the cover and features songs — some classic, some a little more obscure — by artists ranging from George Clinton and Sade to Prince and Janet Jackson.
With a string of live performances across the country on the horizon, we got a chance to ask the uncompromising and fiercely independent musician about the new albums and the artists she was inspired to cover.
PGN: First off, congratulations. The new album is amazing and you make all the songs on it undeniably unique and your own. Is it a coincidence that almost all the songs on “Ventriloquism” are from the 1980s?
MN: I didn’t really set out to do that. I think I thought they were all from the ’90s — which goes to show how old I am; I can’t even remember anymore. I just wanted to go back to something that was both under-celebrated and made me feel good.
PGN: Are you making a conscious effort to reclaim and repurpose songs that were very digital and synthesized in origin into something more analog, organic and folksy (but equally if not more sexy) on this album, or am I really overthinking things?
MN: Not exactly that, but it was my intention to highlight the songwriting, to show the craft that went into these songs, and also to take things that felt very ghettoized by genre and decontextualize them.
PGN: Do you think the mainstream casual listener will pick up on the significance of the album cover art?
MN: I hope so. I mean, I hope queer folks will, at least. We need representation and symbols of life anywhere and everywhere.
PGN: When it came to artists like Prince, Janet Jackson and Sade, who have really deep catalogs full of hits and fan favorites, was it hard to pick just one song or “the right song” from their repertoire to cover?
MN: Nope. I knew what I wanted to do.
PGN: You’ve covered numerous Prince songs while performing live in the past. How did you settle on “Sometimes It Snows In April” (which, by the way, your version is stellar) for this album?
MN: Well, it was the first cover since he died. It felt like the only choice really, since it really felt like the anthem to his death.
PGN: As an artist and a fan, do you have any feelings one way or another about how the industry always ends up treating the passing of an artist like Prince as an invitation to go off to the races with recordings or releases that the artist probably didn’t want out there?
MN: Yes, I actually want my own catalog burned at the stake when I go. But, I am here now and I guess I am arrogant enough to think I have something to bring [those songs]. Or maybe just that the [songs] have something left to bring me, and that I need to hear them live again before I can let them go.
PGN: You also covered a deep cut from Janet Jackson. What was it about “Funny How Time Flies” that resonated with you, and do you think Janet gets enough credit for how much the “Control” album changed the game and the landscape for R&B and pop singers?
MN: I don’t think Janet gets enough credit, period. [It was a] game-changer for sound and also for video. “Funny How Time Flies” just felt thematic with the rest of the album.
PGN: I know it’s way off subject, but I have to ask: Have you seen “Black Panther” yet?
MN: I actually haven’t. I have been trying to see it with my family, but we have not been in the same place. I think we’re going to simulcast on opposite coasts by now. It’s not off subject — somehow everything feels very connected now.
PGN: Are the songs covered on “Ventriloquism” going to take up a lot of space on your set lists when you hit the road this spring?
MN: I think so.
PGN: Have you ever considered doing a live album? I’m only asking because I’m guessing it would be fire.
MN: You’re not the first person to ask. Could happen.