When Meshell Ndegeocello takes the stage at the Siren Mountain Jam in Boone, N.C., this week (Friday, June 21 at 9:30 p.m.), she’ll be in good company with Toshi Reagon, Joan Osborrne and other LGBT-friendly female artists. Not only has Ndegeocello been spending the last few months writing music for a brand new album – one she says could be the “gayest album ever” (with a release date anticipated early next year) – she’s also been jamming with fellow artist friends and finding ways of reconciling what it really means to be a recording artist in the digital age.
AfterEllen.com: Your latest album is a stunning tribute to Nina Simone. What inspired the project?
Meshell Ndegeocello: I’d have to thank Toshi Reagon for that. She was the curator (of a music festival) at the Schoenberg Museum in Harlem. She asked me to be a part of it and I chose to focus on Nina Simone for my contribution for the festival. The response was overwhelming and people were asking if I was going to record it. The record companies were interested — it all happened really quickly.
AE: Why Nina Simone?
MN: I remember my first time hearing Nina Simone. I was 22 or 23 and it changed my life hearing that amazing voice and her musical ability – her social consciousness.
AE: You’ve also blended really great music with social consciousness.
MN: I’m a musician, first and foremost. I just really love music – all kinds of music – all genres. That’s the propelling force. That’s my job in the tribe. Even if I didn’t have a recording career, I would always play music.
AE: Is there ever any pressure to follow up on mainstream success?
MN: Pressure? There’s always pressure [laughs]. I put pressure on myself. …Sometimes I’m an idiot [laughs] – I’m so open. Things come in [to my head] and walk right out. But I’m happy to be that kind of person. It can be detrimental with friends and people. It’s airy up in here, but what you see is what you get. A friend of mine taught me: “Your yes means nothing if you can’t say no.”
AE: I reached out to some of your fans on Facebook and Twitter. There was a great question about your song “Outside Your Door” – specifically what inspired the lick and chord progression in the chorus.
MN: If I knew that… It’s just pure aesthetic. I like it a lot. I wrote that when I was 20 years old. I’m the kind of person, every day – sometime during the day – I sit alone and play the piano and guitar. I don’t practice scales and lightening licks and shredding. I sit and practice, making up things – to see what colors I can create. It came from sitting and some and that pattern just came from my mind.
AE: Toshi Reagon’s also appearing at Siren Mountain Jam. Any chance we may see you performing on stage together?
MN: I hope so. It depends on when she gets there. But, of course. I had an interesting childhood and Toshi is my mentor. She’s the one of the people – I wouldn’t be here without her. I am indebted to her. She is great friend. She’s a great inspiration and one of the most amazing vocalists. I’m humbled in her presence.
AE: How have you grown as an artist?
MN: I’m learning. Definitely. Over time, I can do it quicker. I don’t have to mull over things for months at a time. I’m getting more confident and surrounding myself with great musicians. I learn from other people. I just listen.
AE: Is it different being a musician today – with social media – compared to when you got started?
MN: The way that social media works and this new way of distributing music – it has it’s pros and cons. One of the pros is that there’s so much out there and if you search you find something interesting. I love the music my friends send me.
AE: What about the cons?
MN: It’s hard because you used to pay a publicist to sell the idea of you, blah, blah, blah. Now that falls on you. You have to be okay with sharing so much of your life and taking time to tweet and Instagram. If you’re not that kind of person, you lose your cache. I’m learning to let go of the idea of sales. We’re moving toward a certain immediacy people want and that’s going to come from live performance. I come from a live performance background; I never sold a million records. Now, people spend millions making records and hoping they will sell a million versions of a 99-cent single. That’s just not smart math to me. I’m just trying to rethink things and become a better musician. I don’t want to end up in Vegas. [laughs]
AE: What do you think about before you walk onto the stage. Do you have any rituals?
MN: I’m just quiet. I get a lot from the crowd. You hope the sound system is good. But I don’t have any rituals. Not yet. I try to go out there and play well and give the people a good experience. If I get you to pay attention without having you film me for a show…
AE: What’s it like with so many cameras pointed at you while you’re playing?
MN: It’s disturbing in the weirdest way. You’re constantly thinking the speakers are not going to make me sound good. It’s really hard when people YouTube your show – and they’re not getting how you really sound. There are pros and cons and this immediacy. There’s an Islamic saying – “Speed is likened to the devil.” Everybody wants every thing fast – but it’s not always the best thing. So I stay calm and clear and play for people who still listen to music – listen, not watch music.
AE: What about the new album? What can we expect?
MN: I’m almost done writing it. It’s a mixture to me of an existential crisis and the feel and sound that’s as gay as possible. It’s Ron Hardy and Arthur Russell and the Donna Summer tracks that Giorgio Moroder did. People may think, “I sure can move my body to it.” I’m creating a mantra. The thoughts are so quick they permeate you without you even knowing it. … I start recording in October. It usually takes three months for everything to get done. It should be out in January or February.
The Siren Mountain Jam is June 21-June 22 in Boone, North Carolina.