Meshell Ndegeocello’s eighth studio album, Devil’s Halo (Mercer Street Records), synthesizes her varied influences as they’ve played out on her often brilliantly, at times, bafflingly, varied previous albums — notably Bitter, Comfort Woman, The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams, and Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel. At press time, the 41-year-old singer-songwriter-bassist-producer and her partner were awaiting the birth of their baby; that domestic equation is perhaps the most powerful element in the new music’s composition.
Speaking by phone from her Upstate New York home, Ndegeocello is lighter in spirit than she’s been in the dozen years I’ve been interviewing her. On Halo, that translates into vocals frequently delivered with a playful theatricality (first glimpsed on Man of My Dreams) that adds a jagged twist and a countercurrent joyfulness to sometimes emotionally bleak lyrics. All that serves as both complement and counterpoint to Ndegeocello’s patented mack-sexiness, which simmers through her remake of Ready for the World’s R&B classic, “Love You Down.” She talks about her love for RZA, the effects of downloading on indie artists, and what she has in common with black revolutionaries of the past.
L.A. Weekly:Press notes state that Halo has “no click track or electronic synthetics, with a focus on musicianship and live band energy.”
Meshell Ndegeocello: The wording is strange. I just really wanted to stress that there’s no Pro Tools. We recorded the initial tracks over a five-day period — me, [guitarist, co-songwriter and Halo co-producer] Chris Bruce and [drummer] Deantoni — to 24-track tape. Everything you hear on the CD is pretty much the first or second take.
How did you decide to co-produce with Chris?
The only past producer I’d ever wanna work with again would be David Gamson, but that hasn’t come up. I haven’t found anyone else I connect with, except for Chris. I’m a true believer that unless you’re Prince or Stevie Wonder — and even Prince is showing that he needs help — not everybody can produce themselves. I’m definitely not that person. Chris is a brilliant musician, amazing to work with, and just got the best out of me.
How did Spirit Music affect your approach to creating music?
In touring to support it, I got to play bass two and a half years straight. It improved my bass playing. It made me respect pop music. I know that’s weird, but I got to play with people who improvise seven days a week, 24 hours a day. That is an amazing skill. It made me appreciate songwriting because you need something that sparks their imagination to allow them to do that. On Devil’s Halo I was really concentrating on writing songs that would be inspiring to the musicians ’cause we’re gonna have to play them over and over again. They still maintain their form, but we all can have some personal self-expression.
You’ve said that the influences for Halo range from Human League to Wu Tang. Describe the Wu influence.
The track that’s Wu Tang–inspired is definitely “Love You Down.” I just love RZA’s programming, simplicity and space. He’s one of the greatest songwriters, and I don’t think he ever really gets credit for that. People keep him in the hip-hop genre, but I think he’s just great at these audio collages. I’m a big admirer.
Why “Love Me Down”?
Because it’s good. I love that song. Everyone remembers it from high school or junior high. It just brings back a flow of memories for everyone, so I knew I had to do it. And I hope to make a covers record.
It’s one of the longest tracks on the record. Most cuts are two minutes and some change; one is less than two minutes .
I guess I’ve purchased a few albums where I just go, “Wow. These songs are really long.” [laughing] My favorite period is when we lived in the land of the three-minute song. The Motown thing — I though they were genius in knowing that’s as much as a listener can take. I guess I was just really in that less-is-more, austere vibe.
One of Halo’s best tracks is “White Girl,” which reminds me of British artists from the ’80s experimenting with dub and reggae rhythms, groups ranging from the Police and Culture Club to .
English Beat, especially.
It also suggests Comfort Woman pushed out of its comfort zone.
Definitely dub is in my body forever. I think I hear everything through a dub filter. Even when I play rock music, I play through a dub filter.
How much was the hard-left turn of your last few albums — the experimentation in production, the genre-hopping — a conscious decision to burn down the tower in which critics and fans had placed you?
I made the first record when I was, like, 22. I’m 41 now. My son is 20. I’m just in a different place in my life. My partner is having a baby in a month. I see the world differently. I think the consciousness comes from that, with the artistic choices. I guess the world of the Internet also changes things. I’m no longer subjected to the Top 10 or the Top 100. I get the music from the last 100 years. That influences my filter, my consciousness.
Speaking of the Internet, chime in on the effects of downloading on the indie artist.
If you can afford it, please buy it. And just know that when you buy it, it allows that artist to have a chance to make something again for you. But if you can’t afford it but you really like it and you’re sharing it with your friends and spreading the positive sounds, I can’t really knock that. But your buying it allows me to take care of this next child and it allows me, hopefully, to make something else.
Let’s talk more about “White Girl.” A few years ago I interviewed you and you joked that you should do like all black revolutionaries and get yourself a white girl .
[Laughing] Yeah, I want a T-shirt that says that, but people won’t really get it: Like a real revolutionary, I married a white woman.
So you embraced the cliché?
It’s been an interesting thing in my life. I think I’ve always been postrace and I’m hoping that with Obama in office … well, to bring up the lyrics to another song, the common thread is that we’re all gonna die. So find joy. I’m hoping these [bigoted] ideas we all have will fall apart. It’s very limiting to us as a species, the concept of better-than/less-than. It just seems to be at its end. I’m like, this all fades to black, and it’s gone. It’s dust. Choose carefully what you obsess about.
Meshell Ndegeocello performs on Thursday, October 22 at El Rey Theatre.