Meshell Ndegéocello insists that she doesn't have much to say. Nothing off the wall. Nothing interesting. Funny thing is, the most fascinating thing about her is how uninteresting she thinks she is.
"I know it's supposed to be a good thing when people want to hear about you, but there's just not too much to say," she says.
She pauses. Waiting. Hoping that the questions are over.
They're not over. But even if the questions do keep coming, she's "alright" with that. She understands.
"I was a little naïve," she explains. "I kept thinking about my new record and forgot about all this marketing and commerce and stuff. I'm lucky, ya know, I can pay my rent and I eat really well. I'm far, far from rich and far from poor, so it's all good."
Immensely humble and strikingly shy, Ndegéocello was born Mary Johnson in 1969 to a military family in Germany. After stints in Washington, D.C. and New York-area bands and a quick try at music at Howard University, the young musician undertook some solo gigs before becoming one of the first female artists signed to Maverick (co-founded, owned by Madonna). By the 1993 release of her debut album Plantation Lullabies, Ndegéocello had Grammy's approval, stacking her resume with three nominations that year (she is oh-fer-nine lifetime on wins).
Early in her career she sang a juicy duet with John Mellencamp on a cover of Van Morrison's "Wild Night," and popular acceptance of her debut album skyrocketed with the hit "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)." This month, Maverick will release her fifth studio album, Comfort Woman, to an attuned legion of fans and critics.
Comfort deserves every inkling of praise. A love-hewn orchestration, the disc glides from bass licks to vocal introspection with a rarified sense of what love would be if we had never discovered cheap sex. Once again proving herself the Hendrix of the bass, Ndegéocello smears gobs of percolating neo-soul prowess onto charming hooks that turn predictable emotions inside out. Pure and unadulterated.
"It's a love story, but, well, I don't listen to my own records," she says. "After it's done I move to the next thing. I think that's strange, listening to the old albums. I'd start to nitpick and think of what I could do differently. Can't dwell in the past. Gotta be in the now."
While Beyoncé has MTV Nation rapt, significantly fewer people notice Ndegéocello, even though she crams mounds of soulful fortitude into a three-minute song.
"Baring your soul means more when not everyone notices," she says.
If that's the case, Ndegéocello puts the soul in sister.
"You have to be content in these days and times," she says. "I don't read the news or watch TV. I'm a little too sensitive. I'm not meant to worry too much about the world... and I'm not that intellectual. Expectations cause me sadness. I feel like my mind has been colonized by other people's sexual outlook and I'm really trying to clear out the weeds of the garden in my mind and cultivate it with some other ideas: Prayer. Books. I love music. The sky. I like to watch the stars."
But while she's staring at the stars and trying to ignore the news, the world is ticking on-especially the music world. There is little more contradictory than Ndegéocello, one of the least material girls on the planet being signed to the Material Girl's über-corporate Maverick label (a subsidiary of Warner Bros.). But Ndegéocello says she always did what she had do to pay her rent and feed her kid.
"It's grassroots, music is. I'm the peace and love movement and that's all I have to offer. So if you want to spread that around, I'm way cool with that," she says matter-of-factly.
"How many rooms can you live in at one time? Only one-but you want more. You can keep spending money and buy everything you need and you'll still want something else. You can sell a million records and you'll always want to do more. It's just an endless cycle of suffering."
She sits silent for a minute and then lets out a chuckle.
"You know, maybe I'd feel different if I made millions of dollars, but that ain't happenin'." ©
Meshell Ndegéocello performs with Soulive and Ivan Neville at 4th and B, 8 p.m. on Oct. 9. $20-$23. 619-231-4343.