“Ah, we’ll see if you feel that way later,” murmurs Meshell Ndegeocello with a mischievous chuckle, when I share how pleased I am to speak with her. As with her music, you never know what you’ll get with the acclaimed bassist and singer-songwriter, which happens to be part of her appeal.
Since her 1993 debut, Plantation Lullabies, which earned her three Grammy nominations, Ndegeocello has remained one of the most musically intriguing artists around. Though credited for sparking the “neo-soul” movement, her body of work draws from unexpected influences, styles, and time periods too expansive and seamlessly communicated to categorize under a single genre.
When her mellifluous voice is not showcased on her own albums, the celebrated bassist is an avid collaborator — her lengthy list of collaborations include Chaka Khan, Madonna, and the Rolling Stones. In addition, as a producer she’s recently completed Anthony Joseph’s album, Time, and Jason Moran’s Fats Waller tribute, All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller.
Now she prepares to release her 11th album, Comet, Come to Me, Ndegeocello spoke to Exclaim! by phone about omens, what makes an icon, and Prince. By
Comet, Come to Me is your 11th album. Do you still feel nervous releasing new material?
Oh, yeah. Of course you do [laughs]. Every time. I think if I don’t, I should feel nervous. If I don’t feel nervous, I should really think about doing something else.
The term prolific has been used to describe your career. Are you constantly working on material for new albums or do you go into a hibernation period and then sense that you’re ready to make more music?
Yeah… there are moments. Like I’m here at my publicity office, once something comes up there are months where I’m just learning music or I’m doing other activities to help sell, so there are months at a time where I don’t get to write. Usually I take the time to write in my hotel room or something. But I think that’s one of the things, it’s not a negative critique but I see it as just an observation — it used to be you put out a record every three years, now people do it every year because they’re afraid to be forgotten about, you know. So every time I can’t write, I either consider it self-editing or I try to prepare myself for one day, you know, I won’t hear any music. So, yeah, I definitely take breaks and do other stuff.
What do you do when you’re not making music?
Oh, I have a family so I spend time with them. I read. [Chuckles]. I just have a regular life, nothing exciting.
On Instagram you posted your studio set up in your bedroom. Is that where you find yourself making a lot of your music?
Sometimes. I just had to move to Brooklyn so I’ve gone from living in a house where I had an attic to myself [chuckles], to living in like a small apartment, so for now that is. Or sometimes I do it on the kitchen table. So, yeah, I try to be as mobile as possible.
Let’s get into the album. It’s fantastic and filled with a lot of great songs. Can you discuss the inspiration behind the album title, Comet, Come to Me?
[Laughs]. My partner dreamed it. She could just… she’s really good at puzzles. Or, I don’t know, she could see that it has all the same five letters. And then, after that, I was watching Neil Tyson’s Cosmos and there’s a section on the comet, and how it used to influence people, like either a bad omen or a good omen. All these things just started to arise about comets, and so it means whatever anybody needs at the time. It’s an answer to some people. It’s a bad omen to some. It’s whatever you want it to be when it comes to you. So I thought that was fitting for how people, I think, feel about me. [Laughs]
Yeah. That ambiguity.
Yeah, and that you have no control over it. And then in the same way that it’s not mystical, it’s just a cycle. Blah, blah, blah.
That’s really interesting.
You cover “Friends” [from Whodini’s album Escape] is covered on the album. That record is from 1984, what made you remake that song for this album?
Oh, just the day and time. The word [friends] is also ambiguous these days. Or it’s just a noun. It’s just a weird… it’s sort of been co-opted by so many people. I just don’t know what it means anymore. It’s just something I’m curious about. And if you listen to “Conviction,” it’s not a love song, it’s a friendship break-up song. I think as I get older, I’m learning about friends, and making new friends and how to maintain old ones. It’s just something that I think is funny. And it’s a great song, people rarely cover hip-hop music.