Concert Preview & Interview: Meshell Ndegeocello

Grant Walters Grant Walters Concert Preview & Interview: Meshell Ndegeocello
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The acclaimed singer-songwriter, rapper, and bassist - the first woman to ever appear on the cover of 'Bass Player' magazine - will play a sold-out show on Friday night at The Wex in support of her latest album, 'Ventriloquism'

Ventriloquism, the 13th album from iconic singer, songwriter, rapper and bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, is the most crave-worthy kind of covers record, one that deconstructs an essential collection songs and puts them back together in a way that re-imagines their fabric without completely stripping them of the emotional textures that appealed to the listener in the first place. It’s an incredibly difficult artistic negotiation to pull off well, but Ndegeocello has found that critical tipping point and walks through Ventriloquism‘s 53-minute length with expert agility.

The album’s 11 tracks are a study in R&B from an era that leaned heavily on bright synths and bouncy drum programming as the palette, but Ndegeocello has set aside pastiche in favor of organic arrangements that bring in acoustic guitars, fat snares, moody Rhodes, and even harmonicas as storytelling tools.

So Force M.D.’s 1985 radio staple “Tender Love” sounds closer to nouveau-Nashville than the technicolor sparkle of its predecessor, and while there’s still a soulful chug on “Atomic Dog 2017” that gives a slight tip of the hat to George Clinton’s electro-funk classic, Ndegeocello and her band pull out the melody into a dreamy taffy swirl of southern twang and trippy keys. It’s delightful, especially on repeated listens, to hear the love and affection that was clearly invested in those new directions.

As a whole, Ventriloquism has exceptional depth, exposing fresh layers beneath the surface of each of the selections that may have been harder to dig into for all their 80s and 90s slickness. For Ndegeocello, conceptualizing Ventriloquism was more about giving the songs a different voice rather than focusing on reconciling them with her own.

“I wish I worked that way,” she explained to me in an interview last week. “I make choices about the arrangements, because I just hear them as I hear them, but I don’t really have a map or directions. I felt like these songs took me somewhere else when I needed it, so I wanted to take them somewhere new as well.”

Columbusites fortunate enough to score tickets to her now sold out Friday night show at The Wexner Center for the Arts will have an opportunity to embark on that journey with Ndegeocello in person.

Ventriloquism finds Ndegeocello contending with and overcoming a period personal struggle in the past few years, including the death of her father, Jacques Johnson, in 2016. Some of the album’s tracks took on new meaning as she explored them and shaped them in her current context.

“Well, the Prince tune feels much heavier to me since his death,” she reflects. “‘Tender Love’ and ‘Sensitivity’ really shined through as opportunities for new interpretations. I think they both are such a bygone era and I think the feeling of ‘bygone’ is what got me most. All around, the tunes just felt… not nostalgic so much as overlooked.”

Her beautiful, haunting reworking of the aforementioned Prince ballad, “Sometimes It Snows In April,” does invoke the sadness of his untimely passing in 2016, but it also pays tribute to his perpetual musical genius that she believes will continue to unwrap itself for future generations. “I think Prince will shake out of modern music for decades to come,” she affirms. “My hope would be to inspire more innovation, not to just repeat. That seems like the proper tribute.”

One of the album’s most compelling highlights is Ndegeocello’s homage to Tina Turner’s “Private Dancer,” which boils down the  brazen mid-tempo rock prototype to a dark, rich concoction that simmers under the lid of a slow-burning rhythm section. “I was fascinated that Mark Knopfler wrote it. And it is such a dark story, and this moment in time feels like it was the time for the truth of that darkness to shine through.”

By contrast, Ndegeocello and her associates have punched up Ralph Tresvant’s 1990 white-linen clad “Sensitivity” with old-timey panache, seemingly having a bit of fun with the sentiment with tongue planted firmly in cheek. She shares that modern R&B music may be lacking some needed sentimentality and romance, although she doesn’t equate those old school heart-notes with a more progressive male perspective. “I do miss it, just as an option. I don’t think it was better then. I rarely look back, but sometimes it seems like even as progress gets made, the narrower the definitions of things.”

Ndegeocello was recently quoted in an interview with Billboard magazine expressing her frustration with National Recording Academy president Neil Portnow’s recent comments about women in music needing to ‘step it up’ to win more Grammy awards. For many, the argument is baffling given women in music have historically pushed the envelope and dug in and broke barriers to be heard and respected in places where male artists haven’t had to.

“[Women] are there and ready to contend,” she insists. “They just need the time, the support, the belief. It’s really just about balancing the playing field — hire them. They’re there and they’re killing. The more the culture can be defined and supported by women, the more women it will attract. Believe me, it can be pretty inhospitable to be or feel or present as anything besides what culture most carefully prescribes.  In the meantime, use female engineers, hire female musicians, sign acts led by women, support those releases. Insist on equal pay.”

Ventriloquism will in and of itself serve as a form of activism, as Ndegeocello has committed to donate a portion of the album’s profits to the American Civil Liberties Unions, an organization she believes is doing critical work for underrepresented populations. “There are lots of organizations that resonate with me, and I’d like to give to all of them, but in this time when racial/social/gender/queer rights are so jeopardized, I think basic human rights need protection and defense.”

Meshell Ndegeocello will be on stage at The Wexner Center for the Arts, 1871 N. High Street on The Ohio State University on Friday at 7:30 p.m. At press time, no additional tickets remain for the event. Visit the venue’s website for additional information. More information and links to purchase Meshell’s new album, ‘Ventriloquism’, can be found on her official website.

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