Meshell Ndegéocello’s 11th album Comet, Come To Me is the latest instalment of one of the most distinguished and uncategorisable careers of our time.
It started out in the mid ’90s as a bassist for Madonna and has gone on to encompass rap, soul, jazz, blues and rock – though always from a sideways angle, with Ndegéocello’s distinct husk, opaque and patient songwriting and mastery of mood providing a constant thread. Her sense of calm is comparable to that of another artist whose longevity has revealed her as a unique and unapproachable auteur, Sade. Comet, Come To Me, though, finds her in an altogether lighter mood.
Comet, Come To Me feels like your most direct and immediate record in some time, and you’ve spoken about how making it was a spontaneous experience. Did you set out in advance to make it this way?
Consciously and unconsciously. I’ve been making records for 20 years, so there’s a trust that has developed with me and the people I work with; so there was an enjoyment and an ease. I loved the recording process.
Unlike previous records by you, it doesn’t seem tied together by a particular theme – musical or lyrical.
I don’t think people listen that way any more! The way people come about hearing music, they don’t listen to the recording as a whole. It’s a different way of listening these days. Of course, after a while the concept record became not that interesting to me. This one just came about through life experience – the randomness of being alive. The not knowing was what was interesting.
‘Choices’ is one of my favourite tracks – I love how the piano comes in midway through to open it up, and the opening line seems really timely: “Too many boys in senseless competition, too many girls change their minds.” What were you thinking about when you wrote it?
Well, I’m sure you have your own interpretation of what it means, right?
For me, it brought to mind boys sexually harassing teenage girls online.
Oh, definitely! There are many things. Sometimes I’m very wary of the competitional aspect of masculinity, from war down – all based on men trying to prove something, either their status or their strength. Sometimes I watch old Disney movies and there are so many…dresses, things, the perfect man. Choices for girls. And then the whole loss of reputation that you were talking about.
One of your earliest and boldest stances against that reinforcement of traditional masculinity was ‘Leviticus: Faggot’, a key song for me growing up. It’s 18 years since you recorded it; do you listen back to it and how does it make you feel?
Oh, I listened to it recently because I’ve been thinking about redoing older music, so I had to. I mean, the reason I love it is the string arrangement, which was done by this great gentleman who did work for The Temptations. I’m 45 now and I’ve had a lot of experiences, and the gender thing is very difficult sometimes – not because I experience bigotry towards my gender per se, but more trying to uphold ideas of what people think my gender should look like or be like or do. When I play music, it’s the only time I can let go of those things – the feeling of making music together as just humans. Which isn’t something I feel too often out in the world.
That’s interesting – I recently read that you feel raceless and genderless when you make music. Yet you’ve approached those themes head-on over the past two decades.
It just doesn’t come up consciously. Not to be Freudian or Jungian, but I guess it just leaks out. But as I age I think I’m getting past it. This realisation has been hard for me – all I have control over is my response. So I’m trying to channel my feelings into music or a creative space and to understand I can make my existence as good as I need it to be until something arises and I have to deal with it in a very calm manner. And I’m not suffering, I’m far from suffering. I’m not being beaten. It’s just the general anxiousness that people in America deal with.
Comet, Come To Me seems to have a lightness about it as well as the calm.
I recorded Comet, Come To Me in California, with 83-degree weather every day. There’s a guy called Pete Min, who I really love to work with – we did it in his studio. The engineering is crucial and he’s the Ninjaneer – you barely know he’s there and he just creates a vibe where it’s very easy to be creative. It was a really small production, just me and my friends. We treated it like an improvisational album – we had charts, and we just played them well and embellished when we wanted to. It was fun to make and fun to play.
Was that the first time you’d recorded in California?
No. Weather (2011) was also recorded and produced in California, in Joe Henry’s studio. But that was a different vibe, energy-wise. There was a dark cloud with little rays of sunshine creeping in every now and again.
Bitter (1999) was another LA record. I started out working with David Gamson, who produced the first two records, and who was in Scritti Politti – I love them. When I found David, I felt like I’d found my brother from another mother, we just musically hit it off. We had a similar groove aesthetic. He introduced me to so many sounds. But my label at the time wasn’t happy with the sales or the vibe of the previous record, so they didn’t want me to work with him any more. I called in a favour from my friend Craig Street, who I met when I was 21 and who was the first person to take notice of my music. We only had a lil’ bit of budget, and it was done in a short time too. After what the record company said I took it personally; you just feel the heaviness of my weary mind on it.
But at the same time, looking back, Bitter seems like the album that opened up your career; the moment you stopped being just one type of artist and started to be anything you wanted.
Oh yes, Bitter was a life-changer. Afterwards, I was still asked, why don’t you make black music? So then came Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape (2002). No one got that it was a joke. It’s a parody of what they think black music is. They just wanted hot beats, so I did all that, though I still tried to make it an interesting record. I find I love that record now. But it was hard to have people question your blackness. That really hurt my feelings.
It was as though you’d responded to their request that you get back in a box by telling them exactly what you thought of their box – and then you never went near a box again.
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You’ve returned to hip-hop on the new record, in a way. That cover of Whodini’s ‘Friends’ is a pretty bold, arresting opener. Why that particular song?
I had friendship break ups and was just curious about how that word worked since the Facebook moment, and in general how we relate to each other. I’ve seen articles about how humans are starting to have a lack of eye contact – we don’t talk to each other, we just text. I’m curious as to how this interrelating is adapting, and it made the song stick in my mind. Plus, I’ve been hanging around some improvisational people – and I wish I could play fast or be super-jazzy and play lightning licks, but I’m not. I’m a kid of hip-hop, go-go, head-banging rock’n’roll. And some people think things are really simple, like hip-hop. I remember Prince did. But I just wanted to show that it’s really interesting music – there’s so much stuff I wish I could reintroduce people to, not just the ones you know, but the outliers, like Dr Octagon.
It’s funny that you mention Prince. You recently tweeted: “in 2002 Prince called me a “house nigga” for making a record for Warner Bros. Past is prelude ain’t it.” But you’ve always praised his music, and you’ve often covered him live. How do you reconcile your personal history with him as an influence?
Oh yeah, he’s not a nice person. But I just have to accept that. It’s just something between he and I that I try to rise above. Maybe one day we will have a good experience, I don’t know. Everyone’s not meant to be friends. But I have no doubt in my mind that the reason I play music is because of him. And I really appreciate all his works.
I felt bad for tweeting, and it taught me a lesson – I can’t let my hurt override my sanity. I asked him to play the guitar solo on ‘Trust’, and that’s when we had that fated phone call. But it’s OK. I try to have empathy. I don’t know what his life is like; I don’t know what made him the person he is.
You’ve also had close links to another megastar – Madonna, for whom you played bass (and delivered a guest rap on ‘I’d Rather Be Your Lover’ in 1995), and whose record label Maverick you were signed to in the ’90s. Was that a more positive experience?
Well, it can be related to ‘Friends’. My mistake early on is that I thought people were friends. I thought we were taking time and creating some sort of concept. But it isn’t like that in the music business – it’s a business, and I couldn’t do that as well as I can now. But she’s a lovely person and she is responsible for some of my most important relationships. I just see it the way it is. I wish I could ask her whether she enjoys making music still, what it’s like for her. She could just make a killer fucking dance hit…
So could you. I feel like some of your most underrated work has been with dance acts, whether mainstream (Basement Jaxx’s ‘Right Here’s The Spot’) or underground (Miguel Migs’ ‘Tonight’). Do you have any plans to make more electronic music?
I’m hoping other people ask me, I would love to! Actually, I met a DJ from Georgia who worked with Frankie Knuckles and he and I are going to spend some time together, so I might make my own dance music…I’m hoping to channel my Arthur Russell and Larry Levan, so wish me luck.
Your ’90s work was very straight-talking in terms of its approach to political issues: as well as ‘Leviticus: Faggot’, you rapped about how racism and sexism intersected on ‘Soul On Ice’, and critiqued capitalism on ‘Shootn’ Up And Gettn’ High’. Does it feel as though nothing’s changed that much in two decades sometimes?
Well, there’s another song I sung, by a great writer named Benji Hughes – he’s kind of like my Philip Larkin; he writes great experiences about everyday life – named ‘Oysters’. It says: “Things ain’t ever gonna change.” As I age – and as I make friends with older people, so I can ask them questions! – I realise you’d have to reconfigure our education system to make that change. I just don’t know how you can do that globally. I’m not saying we should become homogeneous, but asking how we can learn to tolerate each others differences? So far, no one – no scientist, no religious person – has come up with a way to do that. This is why I try to make music that can give you a moment of peace.
‘Oysters’ does say that – but it also says, “you can always change around me.” It takes solace in a lover; it doesn’t feel like resignation.
It’s whatever the person needs it to be! When someone else describes what they hear in a record, those are the moments I live for. Someone telling me their vision is more exciting than anything I could feel or imagine. That’s why music brings me great solace – even when a song is not that fun to sing for me, like Tom on the new record. I wrote it with a friend who had a really dark experience, and when I sing it, I think of that.
Comet, Come To Me closes with a song that feels wearied but also comforting, ‘American Rhapsody’.
Those words are from a poem by Kenneth Fearing, who wrote during the Great Depression. To me, it’s this weird necromantic lullaby, it’s ultimately a sleep of death that it brings about. It definitely has echoes for today. The industrial aspects of it, singing of the industrial age…I think people are just afraid to say we’re in another Great Depression, why the economic divide is so large and why there are people suffering. But you can read so many philosophers who predicted this.
The biggest idea we have to confront is this idea that you can make it if you try. It’s just not founded right. I don’t even tell my kids that. “You can be anything you want to be” – that’s not true. Riches are shiny and everybody wants the material aspects of life; it can overwhelm those who aren’t trained to be critical thinkers. I myself have fallen prey to that.
Finally, what’s the significance of the title phrase?
Someone I love very much has a unique mind, very visual and spatial, and they’re really good at complex puzzles. They said “comet, come to me” has all the same five letters – that’s why they saw it in their mind. But I’m also quite taken by astronomy, and the new series of Cosmos by Carl Sagan – there’s an episode that talks about comets, about how they used to mean plague was coming, or something good was coming. A good omen or a bad omen. Whichever the customs of that society made it out to be. Until science figured out that they had a trajectory and came round all the time, it was left up to your imagination. To me, so much of music and religion fall under that same principle: so open to interpretation.