Meshell Ndegeocello grew up just outside Washington, and the unclassifiable musician’s new album, Ventriloquism, has its roots in the city. After her father died in September 2016, she found herself back in her childhood room, listening to old tunes. That experience inspired the emotional collection of ’80s and ’90s R&B covers—songs like Al B. Sure!’s “Nite and Day” and Sade’s “Smooth Operator.” As she returns to DC for this performance ($55), the singer shares some musical memories.
Discovering New Music
“DC for me is go-go, it’s Fugazi, it’s Bad Brains. I listened to DC101, WOL, WPGC, WHUR—‘The Quiet Storm’ was my favorite nighttime experience. I remember going to Kemp Mill Records a lot. There was [a record store] up in Silver Spring, Vinyl Ink. That was a good one.”
Favorite DC Concerts
“I was in the audience at Breeze’s Metro Club for that [classic 1986] Rare Essence live recording. I saw Parliament-Funkadelic in 1976. One of the greatest shows of my lifetime. The Capital Centre is where I saw Prince for the first time. Life-changing!”
Attending Duke Ellington School of the Arts
“I was a quiet kid, and it was pretty mellow. I thought I wanted to be a visual artist, and it’s there that I realized I’m a musician. I felt safe being who I was, and I was surrounded with materials and an environment that fed my mind and made me want to pursue a creative life.”
Playing Bass in ’80s Go-Go Bands
“It made me a much better musician. You have to be in tune with the audience. Rare Essence was my favorite band, and their bass player truly inspired me. He’s one of the first people to give me pointers. To me, you can only experience go-go live. Very few recordings truly [capture] how it feels to be in that room with sweaty bodies moving to the music. There’s nothing like that feeling.”
Meshell Ndegeocello will perform at the Kennedy Center on April 26. Tickets start at $55.
This article appeared in the April 2018 issue of Washingtonian.
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.