Remembering Nina Simone with Meshell Ndegeocello

Meshell Ndegeocello has just released her tenth studio album – a collection of subtle interpretations of songs written or performed by Nina Simone.

Ndegeocello arrived on the music scene back in 1993 with her debut album Plantation Lullabies. The multi talented singer, rapper, bass player was one of the first artists signed to Madonna’s Maverick record label and she teamed up with the Material Girl to contribute to the Bedtime Stories album.

Since then Ndegeocello has released a stream of critically acclaimed albums ranging from neo-soul to jazz, folk, psychedellia and hip hop. The musician’s latest album Pour une Ame Souveraine (For a Sovereign Soul) is a tribute to Nina Simone. To honour the iconic performer Ndegeocello has teamed up with a variety of vocalists, including Sinead O’Connor, Lizz Wright and Cody ChesnuTT.

Ndegeocello spoke to OUTinPerth from Georgia, USA where she was hanging out with her family before getting ready for her upcoming US tour.

Selecting just fourteen songs to represent Simone could not have been an easy task. The legendary singer is known for her incredibly large body of work, which is apparent when you compare the number of greatest hits collections available. It’s often noted in musical circles that no two Nina Simone hit collections share a tune – so prolific was the singers output. Ndegeocello explains how she chose which songs best represented the performer,

‘It was really important to include songs that she had written. One of the reasons you get so many different collections of her music is so many different people own the rights to her songs; everyone but herself. So many record companies have weird contracts on her, and they’re allowed to make money off of her. It was important to select songs that she’d written, and the ones I thought I could do justice to, and to include the classics that she’s known for.

Simone was known for her interpretations of other singers songs, often exposing a beauty not heard on the original recordings, her version of songs like The BeeGee’s To Love Somebody, or the Beatles Here Comes The Sun give the originals a run for their money. Ndegeocello declares her favourite Simone cover,

‘To me the Leonard Cohen song Suzanne, she has the quintessential version. It’s something she made her own. She had a classical background, where you were nurtured to take things you didn’t write and make them your own. She had that ability to take a song and digest it and put it through her filters to make it her own.’

Through the collection Ndegeocello shows that she too has a knack for re-interpreting well known songs. She transforms the classic Feelin’ Good into a subtle version that is distinctly different to the big band stomper treatment it has recently received from Michael Buble, George Michael and a host of reality TV wannabes.

‘I guess I have different styles, but for that particular song it was just the feeling I get from it is not immense elation. The title of my version should be Feelin’ Good – question mark. That song’s always had a feeling of sadness to it, and I wanted to bring that out.’

Increasingly Ndegeocello’s records feature a coming together of some of some of the most talented musicians working today, reminiscent of the way jazz records were made in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Ndegeocello explains how the team for this collaboration evolved,

‘Chris Bruce is my friend and I think we have a good really musical feel together. Chris introduced me to the keyboard player Jebin Bruni and he’s amazing. He was on touring with P.I.L when he was nineteen and has played with Aimee Mann and Tears For Fears, but it’s funny because when you’re around him he’s like a metalhead, listening to all this obtuse metal and art music. I wanted to have an environment where he could be all those things – not just pretty piano music. I love working with him because he’s so interesting and he paints with such interesting colours.

‘Deantoni Parks is my musical hero, he’s one of the greatest drummer and musicians I’ve ever met –so I always want to work with him.

‘I met Sinead O’Connor in Melbourne and we seemed to have a good rapport. Toshi Reagan, the record was kind of her idea, she invited me to perform in Brooklyn at this Women in Jazz event and I performed Nina Simone. After I did everyone asked if I would record it, and that’s what got the ball rolling. Liz Wright just has an incredible voice and it’s always a pleasure to work with her, Cody ChesNutt, he picked a song that had such gravity and he made it uplifting.

Though her music has traversed many different genres Ndegeocello has regularly included references to her bisexuality in her songs. Most memorable though was her track Leviticus Faggot from her 1996 album Peace Beyond Passion which tells stories of people encountering extreme homophobia – unusual subject matter in it’s day for an R&B dance track,

‘I grew up in an environment where there was homophobia and it came out of a bunch of experiences all bundled up into one song, it just came from life. It’s a story that a lot of people can tell.’

Sixteen years after the songs release the singer notes that she feel in some ways things are starting to get better,

‘I think things are changing, my thing is that I’m starting to think, why is someone else’s private life anyone else’s business? As I get older I realise that I just want to have a quiet life. I want a simple easy going life, and I don’t have any control over what other people are thinking, I guess that’s tolerance. I mean, just leave people alone. I just want human beings to evolve more.’

Ndegeocello isn’t letting on too much about what direction her career might take next, declaring that she has few ambitions in music, but more jazz recordings and performances might be on the horizon.

‘I don’t think I’m ambitious at all, I’m curious, that’s the objective that describes me. I just want to keep playing music and play all kinds of music.

Graeme Watson

Photos: Charlie Gross

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