The opening track on Pour une ame souveraine ("For a Sovereign Soul"), Meshell Ndegeocello’s 10th album in a career that spans over 20 years, is the apt “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” It’s a song whose core message (“I’m just a soul whose intentions are good / Oh, lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood”) applies as much to Meshell as to the legendary woman being honored by the collection, Nina Simone.
From the start of her career, Ndegeocello has been compared to the late icon by critics. Musical geniuses with a rep for not suffering fools, who were and are leaps and bounds ahead of most of their contemporaries—regardless of race or gender, both women are something of patron saints for artsy bohos and serious political activists alike. Pour—a tribute album of 14 songs famously recorded by Simone and done in collaboration with a who’s who of underrated indie singers like Cody Chestnutt, Lizz Wright, Toshi Reagon, Sinead O’Connor and Valerie June—arrives in the midst of an especially fertile, muscular period in Ndegeocello’s own career. Having traversed R&B, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop, electronica, new wave and folk, she effortlessly synthesizes all influences and experimentation into a sound that sits outside any specific genre.
Last year’s Weather, produced by the great Joe Henry, is a gorgeous, literate collection that ranks as one of the two or three best things Ndegeocello’s ever done. Pour pushes the envelope further, creating a singular world in which a country twang in one track jostles neatly against the raucous New Orleans energy of another, while a hymnal effect might hum through the song that follows. It’s sensuous and sexy, and, at times, haunting, easily one of the best albums of the year.
PW spoke with Ndegeocello from the upstate New York home she shares with her partner and their 3-year-old son, Atticus. (Her eldest son lives in San Francisco and is, according to his proud mom, “a very interesting person.”) The 44-year-old musician was open and at ease, laughing often as she explained the genesis and execution of Pour une ame souveraine.
Can you remember the first time you heard Nina Simone?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. My friend Kofi Taha and I were working on a film. I was just a PA, and he was working with the teamsters. It was a Spike Lee movie. What year was that? It was like, ’90, ’91. That was the first time I ever heard her.
Do you remember what the film was?
No, I don’t. But I’d met him after work, and we were just riding in the car, and he played “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” That was the jumping off point for me. Her voice was so unique, and the music was so interesting. I’d just gotten to New York from D.C., so that’s my memory association with her. It definitely opened the door that there was this other mode of black expression for me. [The film may have been Malcolm X, which was released in 1992; Meshell’s debut CD, Plantation Lullabies, was released in 1993.]
What was it about her and her music that inspired you to do the CD?
Chris Bruce [Pour’s co-producer] is like our resident DJ on tour, and he had been playing a lot of her stuff. And then I got asked to do the Women in Jazz series that Toshi Reagan curated at the Schomburg in Harlem, and I chose [to honor Nina]. It was just something that was kinda circling around in the ether. After the show, people asked me if there was going to be a recording, and that sparked the idea to try to get it done. We talked to the label, and they were interested, and from there it sorta had its own legs. I didn’t have to do too much to get it to happen.
You’ve often been referred to as the musical or artistic daughter of Nina Simone. Do you feel a kinship with her in that way?
I guess they mean that [her influence] is in my oeuvre. Definitely, yeah. But she’s in a league of her own. I really can’t think of any artist that is as unique as she is. I kind of stay away from that [way of thinking], especially with this recording. There’s just no comparison. And I grew up after the civil rights movement, so there’s no way I could understand or even begin to put myself in the position she was in as a recording artist. It’s a deeper subject to me than just “we are both black, we look a certain way, and we do political songs.” Her story has so many facets to it. You can associate a lot of people with her–Whitney Houston, for example. But in terms of her gift, she stands alone.
I hear your respect for Ms. Simone in your voice when you speak about her, but I think you’re maybe not giving yourself enough credit.
Well, thank you. But I really do hope people see that in her story, there are various stories that should be addressed in this time and in the past. I’m hoping that this album will have them look into her more and try to find out more about her.
One of the things I appreciated about this collection is that in its 14 tracks, you really captured her range. A lot of people reduce her to just being this icon of rage and fury. They forget or gloss over the fact that some of her most radical, subversive work was her love songs. Those underscored the fact that it is a political act when black people love each other and themselves in a culture determined to annihilate black people and drive them mad–in both senses of the word. If you simply reduce her to the angry political songs and statements, which are hugely important, you miss the crucial aspect of her celebrating black people carving a space for vulnerability, playfulness and tenderness with each other. And she created work that was completely universal out of that. I hope that people listening to this collection will embrace the totality of her expression and what it means.
Yeah, I hope so too. As soon as I started the project, I went and read Princess Noire, which is someone else’s take on her life, and then I read her [autobiography], I Put a Spell On You, and that’s the only real information I had. Hilton Als wrote the liner notes, and he gave me some articles to check out. Again, I’m careful to even try to imagine what it is she went through, but the part that stuck out to me when making the recording is that she was probably one of the greatest song stylists ever. I think she tried hard to be a great song stylist, and she achieved that in songs like “Turn Me On” or “Either Way I Lose.” They’re so romantic and beautiful and sexy. So it was important to me to do them. And Sinead O’Connor was the one who was like, “‘Don’t Take All Night’ is the best Nina Simone song ever recorded.” [Laughs.]
I had all these people coming with all these different energies. I tried to sing “Young, Gifted & Black,” but it just had a gravity that was too dark, you know? We asked D’Angelo, but he was too busy rehearsing, and I’m so happy things turned out the way they did because I think Cody Chestnutt has given that song such modernity and presence. I can’t help but think of Trayvon Martin. During the recording process, that was the question everybody had: How can I make this song my own? That’s the only thing I try to take from Nina Simone every chance I can–to make something truly mine so that you’re not wondering about the quintessential version you may have in your mind; you’re captivated by the one you’re hearing at the moment.
Cody’s take on the song is stunning. There’s the long-running debate over who does it better—Nina, Donny or Aretha—and Cody slides right into the conversation.
Yeah, and I’m very happy about that.
Given the enormity of her catalogue and that she’s famous for songs she wrote and those she covered, how did you decide what to include? Did you have a list of what you wanted to do and the artists picked from that list, or did they come with things in mind?
Chris and I picked them together. I wanted to take something that would be a clean listening experience in one sitting, so I left out a couple of songs. Like, it would just take me a minute to get “Mississippi Goddam” to a place where its relevancy would still work, so I kinda stayed away from those. But also it was super important to pick out ones she wrote so royalties would go to her estate. She gets writing credit on “See-Line Woman” and “Young, Gifted & Black” and “Be My Husband”–actually, her husband wrote that. But it was important for me to pick those, and then, like you said, to find the romantic, beautiful ones and the ones that I felt such connection to. I mean, this could be three volumes.
Will there be future volumes?
Probably not. You know who I’ve been really into lately? Or who I feel has not been really given the regard I feel he deserves as a lyricist?
I’ve been really listening to a lot of George Clinton. If you just read the lyrics of “Cosmic Slop” right now–I wish Obama would–I mean, “I’m an untied dog in a dogmatic society.” I’ve been really on my mission of finding someone to fund that project. I know he’s super funky, and it’s a great band, and everybody loves this thing about Parliament, but have you ever just listened to the lyrics? Just give yourself a day and listen to the lyrics. I find him to just be incendiary. That’s where my mind is.
But also all of a sudden I’ve been asked to do this Stevie Wonder tribute or this Fats Waller, and I’m kinda like, I wanna stop worshipping dead people. [Laughs.] I wanna deal with people who are alive now, if that makes sense.
I know there could be a Volume Two, but I think it’s gonna live and grow in the live show. I think I’m going to pick different songs that I didn’t choose [for the recording] and put them in the live performance, and it will live that way.
When did you start this project? There’s all this conversation around Ms. Simone right now, so it’s the perfect time for the CD to drop, but given how long this sort of project can take to come to fruition, I’m curious about when you started working on it and how long it took to come together.
Are you really asking did I come up with it before all the Nina Simone movie stuff came up? [Chuckles.]
No. We don’t have to talk about that at all. But I know a project like this can take a year or even two to pull together when you have so many different schedules to coordinate and commitments to iron out, especially with the caliber of artists you have.
I guess about 11 months ago, we recorded it. And it was a small budget, so we did it in, like, seven days. I did that show at the Schomburg, and it started a few months after that. Chris and I realized we didn’t have a lot of time. I went to South by Southwest and met Valerie June, who I’m just enamored with, and she said yes, and then the ball rolled quickly. Toshi [Reagan] was down from the get-go. And then we called Lizz Wright, and it was rapid fire from there. The last two tracks [completed] were the Sinead O’Connor and the Cody Chestnutt, just because they had weird schedules.
The artists on this are all real musicians known for their putting their signatures on their work. With tracks like “House of the Rising Sun” or “Young, Gifted & Black,” did you and Chris have the arrangements and everything worked out, and then present that to the singers, or were they involved in that foundational process as well?
No, I already had the “House of the Rising Sun” arrangement. It’s inspired by Sharon Jones. I went to see a show of hers, and she does this thing where she’s playing the blues, and then it goes into James Brown, and then it goes to Africa. That’s how it works in my mind–all those things in one. Nina Simone has that blues record that’s really popular, so I knew I wanted to put a blues number on there. But I knew I wanted it to sound like a cross between the blues and Africa. And then we had it done, and I just sent it to Toshi, and I just knew she would understand it from the get-go. There really was no discussion. I felt like we have such a musical connection—her, I and Chris—that I was like, you hear it? OK, do it. And that’s how that worked. I did “Real, Real” and then felt it was missing something, so I sent to her and she did the background.
PW's Music Issue 2014