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"My greatest influence is Jimi Hendrix," she reveals, "and if he's been reincarnated, or if he's looking down, sideways, or looking up, I just wanted to tell him that I love him and thank him for opening doors for me. I just wanted to make it beautiful for him."
She also wants it known that David Gamson, her best friend and producer on her first two albums, had started production work on this one when he was kicked off the project by powers at Maverick. "We handed them some stuff that didn't sound like Janet Jackson, and they didn't get it. I was sick of how they talked about him, how they treated him. I just couldn't see my friend treated like that. It was sort of a mutual decision. Then they named all these people I should work with -- this guy who worked with the Beatles, Daniel Lanois -- but did nothing to make it happen. I finally went to Craig [Street], 'cause I love his stuff, and they didn't say no. They gave us, like, a dollar to make the record. I'm really happy with it, though -- and David actually did produce a lot of the vocals."
What ultimately makes Bitter radical is that it's not trying to be. Not in superficial terms. In a culture gone mad for the faux rebellion and adolescent thrills of all things hardcore, it dares to be vulnerable, tender. But that's also part of what makes it another entry in the Ndegéocello diary of career struggles. There are no "singles" in the way they've come to be defined -- hook-laden, singsong choruses and junior high poetry for verses. The understated arrangements guide attention to the lyrics and the emotion in Ndegéocello's voice -- frayed and soothing, with a warm huskiness that slides from bruised to lustful with unnerving ease. It's exactly what a heartbreak album should be: simple. I ask what the company's reaction was when she turned it in.
"Well, I only made this record because I was contractually obligated," she admits. "And when I turned it in, I was literally told by the general manager, 'You're not going to sell a lot of records. If you really want to help us, you'll do a remix -- or maybe you could go write a song with a bigger name.' That was their vision. They were like, it's a beautiful record, but it's not gonna sell. I'm at a label where they obviously let me do what I do, but I just don't think they have any respect for what I do. You know, I had a really eye-opening conversation with Joan Osborne, who I think is so talented. I was telling her I handed in my record and they didn't like it, and she was like, 'I handed in my record and they told me to take it back.' I mean, I don't think anybody who works at any record company actually likes music anymore."
Ndegéocello is merely echoing the words of countless musicians who have gone before her and countless who will come after her. But I'm still struck by the note of bafflement beneath her frustration. Is she really surprised at the way she's been handled?
"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."