Soul singer Meshell Ndegeocello, 49, remembers her childhood in D.C. as an all-you-can-eat musical smorgasbord. “I grew up going to see Van Halen one night and Prince the next,” she says.

After getting her start playing bass in local go-go bands, Ndegeocello, a graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, went on to become a genre-crossing phenom, recording critically acclaimed albums woven through with jazz, blues, funk and other musical threads.

For “Ventriloquism,” the album she released last month, Ndegeocello did something surprising: She recorded 11 covers, all R&B songs from the 1980s and ’90s. The process led Ndegeocello — who performs two shows at the Kennedy Center on Thursday — to find new depths in songs made famous by TLC, Janet Jackson and Prince.

Why did you decide to record a covers album?
I owed my record company a record, but so much was going on — I was scoring a TV show, my father was dying, I had been fired from another TV show. When I would go see my dad, who lived outside of D.C. in Maryland, I’d listen to WPGC, the station that plays all the songs from my teenage years.

I’m imagining you singing along in the car.
Yeah. I was in my mother’s old car, and that’s the only station I could get to come through. It was like the soundtrack to that sad experience, but those songs gave me lightness of being, and that’s what I hope my record does. We’re in pretty strange times these days, and I’m hoping it gives people a chance to get in their sonic time machine and see what they feel.

R&B singles from the ’80s and ’90s can sound pretty dated today.
I know what you’re saying. When my band and I would listen to them in the studio, to learn them, we’d laugh at the production. It was a period where production overwhelmed songwriting, but when you strip that away, these are really great songs. Like “Private Dancer” — when you take those words out of that glossy pop production, it’s a pretty dark song. “Tender Love” is like an insipid love song, but it works — it speaks to your inner romantic.

TLC’s “Waterfalls” always felt a little treacly to me, like an after-school special. But in your version, the sadness of losing a loved one really comes through.
We recorded that a few days after my dad died, and the guitar player — his mother and father had just died too. In that recording, you can feel our emotions on the surface. I mean, a lot of great songs are about confronting the ultimate conundrum, which is the end of your life cycle and of the people you love.

Click here for full article. (Washington Post)