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At the restaurant, sipping on an iced tea, Ndegéocello 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. ã
"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, Ndegéocello 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.
"I stopped beating up on myself," she says. "I stopped asking myself why I didn't sell this number of records, why I don't have corporate sponsorship. I just don't buy into any of that anymore. Getting out of L.A. helped get me out of that mindset . . . I just surround myself with people who have absolutely nothing to do with the music or movie business. I try to hang around writers, visual artists, conceptual artists -- people who aren't concerned whether masses of people are going to accept their art.
"It's really important to me," Ndegéocello says passionately, "that I'm not only creating my own resistance movement, but showing celebration. It's a claiming of what is rightfully mine, my history, my heritage. I feel I owe this to people like Tom Wilson, a black man who produced the early Bob Dylan records but who no one knows about. He died in obscurity. It's about Richie Havens, who opened for one of the greatest musical experiences in our lifetime -- Woodstock. It's about Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman, Lenny Kravitz and Ben Harper -- people of color who resist these bullshit definitions of black life or black art. It's about not being defined by the color of your skin, and having people think that all you can do is shuck and jive. That's what I'm hoping comes across in my music, ultimately. That's what I'm striving for."