By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
"You just think," she answers, "that if someone signs you, they get you. It's also a question of, what do you do when your art becomes your livelihood? See, I thought it would be a great thing that I could make music and make money. But it kinda warped my idea of my art. It's like, am I doing my art to make money, or do I just feel like if I didn't do my art I'd die? I try to take that [money] mindset out. I'm not doing this for money. Maybe that's convoluted and delusional." She pauses. "I just go out and play music because I think there are people who want to hear what I do."
In a separate interview, Craig Street (who's also produced Cassandra Wilson, Holly Cole, k.d. lang) sounds more optimistic. "The fact is," he says, "that Maverick is putting the disc out. I believe they will get behind it. And hopefully somebody at Maverick will remember that when they signed Me'Shell, they signed her as a really intense, creative artist. Hopefully somebody at Maverick remembers that maybe it's not everyone's job to sell 30 million copies of a record, that some of the cachet of being a great record company is that you're able to balance those that sell 30 million against those that come out with great artistic statements."
He goes on to compare her to the Duke himself. "She's a phenomenal bandleader, in the style of Ellington -- people who could do everything. They could write, play and perform. I've seen her on live gigs where, literally, things would be thrown together -- musicians from all over the place who she would never have seen before -- and she would literally go around, while still playing the song, and in a really natural, very easy kind of way, direct each musician into exactly the position she wanted them to have. I've seen her do that onstage a number of different times. It's an amazing thing to watch."
At the restaurant, sipping on an iced tea, Ndeg√©ocello says, "They get upset [at Maverick] thinking I don't like them. That's not true at all. It's really not. They do what they do really well, but they're very pop-oriented. That's just not what I do. And it's hard to go to their office, and ain't no black people over there. So, I don't really expect them to understand me, you know? I mean, I'm on a label where Alanis sold 28 million copies of her first record for them. Candlebox sold 5 million. The Deftones went gold. I haven't even gone gold. And that made me feel like a failure. I just really wish that, if they don't know what to do with me, they'd let me go. Not that any other label would have a clue. √£
"It's very important," she adds, "that people know that [former Maverick partner] Freddie DeMann is the one who signed me. I love him. He may be a little difficult, or -- most of all -- a little out of touch with music that's going on today, but I love him and am so incredibly thankful to him, because he really pushed to sign me. Everybody's always like, 'Oh, Madonna signed you,' or '[Maverick A&R honcho] Guy Oseary is this great genius.' No, it was Freddie who had the guts to sign me."
The exhaustion is clearly two-sided. In a faxed statement, Madonna writes: "Me'Shell is a musical genius and a brilliant lyricist, but she is also a tormented soul and a reluctant star. Her love of music is so pure, and she is very uneasy with the whole idea of promotion, marketing, and commercial success. It is a challenge to work with her, but also a great honor."
You don't need perfect pitch to hear the frustration, even impatience, in those words.
FOR ALL THE PRICKLINESS OF HER career scenario, and the heartbreak that permeates the new album, Ndeg√©ocello radiates bliss, serenity. On tour behind her last album, she was visibly shrouded in sadness. She spoke of changing her name and leaving the business. Her conversation was peppered with words of weariness and disillusionment, and though she made it clear she wasn't suicidal, she also made it clear that she was "ready to go."
A lot of her current happiness can be attributed to Walker. Part of it is due to her move from L.A. "I loved my first three years here," she says. "My son went to a great school, and I did a lot of session work. I thought I could make it be what I wanted it to be. I guess I was a little delusional. I got really sick of it after a while. It's just not progressive." And she's clearly charged by her move north. "I really like it up there," she smiles. "It's quiet, has good food, has a cool music scene. And there's an activist culture. I just love the vibe of the people." But most of her newfound contentment is simply due to her rethinking of her place in pop culture, her hopes for her art, and her deflection of outside expectations.