Bassist/composer Meshell Ndegeocello’s artistry represents a hejira: a spiritual journey that began with her 1993 debut CD Plantation Lullabies and continues eight records later with Devil’s Halo, a 12-track collection of ethereal, moody musings buoyed by Caribbean riddims and guitar-centric, country-rock grooves, all laced with her caressing, occasionally falsettoed contralto. We talked with Ndegeocello by phone from her upstate New York home about her love of Sade, strippers, and life’s gray areas.
Devil’s Halo brims with a lot of musical and spiritual complexity and ambiguity.
I love the myth of the devil: the fallen angel who became jealous. So the symbolism of the Devil’s Halo for me is that there are gray areas in music and life. I’m a songwriter, and I just go and write about the people in my life, and where I’ve come to at this point in my life—from making records at 22 to being 41. I’ve seen other things, met all kinds of people, and had all kinds of experiences.
You aurally illustrate your experiences with some interesting tempos, tones, and textures. “Slaughter” shows your extraordinary love for Sade, and tracks like “Tie One On” and “Lola” highlight a wide array of influences, from pop to rap.
The RZA is one of the greatest songwriters and programmers. I’m really into the Human League, and Trevor Horn is a genius in the way he constructs recordings. Sade is that $200 bottle of wine: You’re not going to have that every night at dinner. She’s a great song stylist; her writing and her voice are amazing. The older Yes records had these beautiful tapestries and guitars. That’s what I tried to achieve in this particular recording: some sonic tapestries that people, even if they’re not listening to the lyrics, could just feel or hear, or just have a deep, inner dialogue with.
I definitely feel some ska-reggae basslines on “Mass Transit” and “White Girl.”
My bass playing is super-influenced by Sting, Prince, and Family Man Barrett, who has the most well-constructed, melodic basslines I’ve ever heard, and his pocket is just astounding. I’ll always have that sort of ska-reggae feel because it feels good.
Speaking of the pocket, please tell me how you turned Ready for the World’s 1986 hit “Love You Down” into—paraphrasing one of your compositions—a stripper’s classic?
I have a great respect and admiration for strippers! [Laughs.] I remember just grooving on that song for a while, and the melody and the beat just circled in my head, and that’s what came out of my body. I love taking other people’s songs and totally deconstructing them into my filter.
The title track is an instrumental interlude that captures the essence of the CD.
To me, that interlude or lullaby is a transition out of being so self-absorbed, to looking at things in another way. And I’m very glad to get to that point: I’m ready to see things not so much in black and white. And I’m going to continue to change as a human being.
Meshell Ndegeocello plays the Highline Ballroom October 6