Team Sodajerker meet an inspirational songwriter with 11 albums, 10 Grammy nominations and a 20+ year career under her belt
his latest featured interview by the Sodajerker podcast team showcases a songwriting talent who first emerged on the music scene way back in 1993. Born Michelle Lynn Johnson in Berlin in 1968 (her father was a sergeant in the US army), Meshell Ndegeocello began playing bass in her early teens, and adopted the name Ndegocello at the age of 17 – it’s Swahili for “free as a bird”. She attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington DC, the city where she grew up, and cut her teeth performing on the city’s go-go scene in the late 80s.
Meshell auditioned at one point to become the bassist in funk-metal outfit Living Colour; she was unsuccessful, but she carried on sending out home-made demos and before too long she came to the attention of no less a personage than Madonna, who signed Meshell to her Maverick Records label. Maverick released her debut album Plantation Lullabies, which spawned the single If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night) – a huge radio and MTV hit on both sides of the Atlantic, even if it only troubled the lower reaches of the charts.
Since then, she’s released 11 studio albums, been nominated for 10 Grammy awards and worked with everyone from Chaka Khan, Alanis Morisette and Indigo Girls to Basement Jaxx, The Rolling Stones and Scritti Politti. A singer, rapper and bass player, her music has spanned hip-hop, soul, rock, jazz, funk and reggae over the years, and she’s renowned for her honest, uncompromising lyrics. But as she explains to Simon and Brian, that could be about to change…
Perhaps you could start by giving us an idea of when you first got interested in writing your own music…
“It started because my father had a Fender Rhodes and I had a four-track, even before I picked up the bass, when I realised that you could put parts together and create your own music. I guess that was around the age of 14 or something like that.”
Your father played saxophone… did you learn much from your life at home, in terms of music?
“Yeah, I just learned by being exposed and listening to it a lot. Music brought great solace in my childhood, and my father had a vast record collection so I’d just listen to music for hours on end.”
We’ve had a couple of podcast guests talking about using the bass as a writing tool… is it like that for you, or are you more likely to compose on the piano or the guitar?
“It doesn’t really work like that for me… it’s not really a thought process for me. I mean, I can write on bass, but now my laptop is really my writing tool. It just depends on where I am and what I have around me. Sometimes lyrics come first, sometimes melody, sometimes harmony… sometimes basslines. And I used to be really into drum machines, so the songwriting process has really varied through time.”
And of course you’re known for your Prince-like ability to pick up lots of different instruments…
“Yeah, I mean I mess around with a lot of things. I think I’m just a curious person and I like to figure out stuff. That’s the thing with music, for me: everything has its own timbre and brings out different things in your imagination. But with technology… it’s funny to be alive in this moment because my laptop is my primary instrument at the moment.”
Who would you say have been the biggest influences on you?
“Well, I’m a really big fan of Jaco [Pastorius], but not for his virtuosity. The first Jaco record I got wasn’t Jaco, it was Word Of Mouth with all those incredible arrangements. He was one of the people that made me go, it’d be great to be a virtuoso bass player but I’m more intrigued by songwriters, and the construction of a piece of music to take people on a journey.
“So Jaco Pastorius, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Bela Bartok, Arvo Pärt… these are the people that inspire me. And Sting, his early records with The Police, lyrically he was able to spin a tale and he had an amazing turn of phrase as a lyricist. Bob Marley as well, to take simple religious songs and turn them into these amazing, rhythmical, reggae experiences. I really like The Human League, Talk Talk, Wire… I’m really into Kurt Vile, I think he’s an amazing songwriter.
“I could go on and on. Bob Dylan! They seem simplistic, and you can make fun of his voice, but I think he’s written these amazing musical experiences that, if civilisation were to end, I think his music would stand out more than others when it’s found by the next civilisation. Of course I’m a big fan of The Beatles, but I just feel that’s overwhelming song structure; I’m a really big fan of Timbaland because he shows us that the sound quality of the tones and the rhythmical exploration are just as interesting as the chord structures. And of course Brian Eno, I love Roxy Music.”
“I find myself wanting to let go of song form altogether”
Do you have specific ideas about song structure when you write, or do you not think about verse-chorus-bridge so much?
“Oh, not at all! I find that – especially in this day and age – utterly boring. I’ve been to songwriting retreats and stuff and that’s what killed it for me, the fact that modern songwriting is so formulaic. You’ve got section A, then you need the pre-chorus, then you hit them with the big double chorus… I understand all that, I get it, but I find myself just wanting to break the mold and try something different and let go of song form altogether.”
You’ve always been quite confessional in your songs, and not afraid to lay yourself bare. Now that you’ve made over 10 albums, do you find you can still do that or do you need to find other inspiration for songs?
“I sure can – I just choose not to, I’ve grown tired of it. I find… I’m trying to be a better writer, be a better storyteller. Or sometimes it’s like, I don’t really care about the words, they’re just a vehicle for melody. I’m at a point now where I’m more interested in something instrumental, because lyrics fail me: there’s so much to say and I’m not sure anyone’s saying it well, so I find myself wanting to take myself out of that world.”
You’ve worked with lots of interesting people over the years, from John Mellencamp to Madonna, the Stones and Basement Jaxx. Did you learn anything from those people that’s informed how you make music?
“Oh, of course! Everyone has a different methodology. Basement Jaxx definitely taught me about sonics and sound, and also just the method of singing a lot and letting someone sift through it all and find the phrases which they like. That’s a different way of making songs… I come from hip-hop, I totally get it, but it’s really freeing for a singer. You mean I can just go in this room, and sing all these different phrases and melodies I have in my head, and then you’ll take it back to the studio and you’ll construct it into what you want it to be? I think that’s an amazing way to make songs.”
“A lot of musicians don’t get credit for their contribution to the song”
Although you didn’t write it, we always thought your playing and rapping totally made Chaka Khan’s Never Miss The Water. What memories do you have of working on that one?
“Well, it’s funny you say that because I got to do Standing In The Shadows Of Motown which was the most wonderful, humbling experience. It’s one of the reasons there’s no hierarchy in my songwriting room: when we’re all together it’s just what’s best for the song, because in that Motown situation I learned that certain songwriters would come with melodies and chords, but how the drummers did the rhythm or where the bass player put their notes really contributed to the song. And not a lot of people give due credit to that.
“I remember working with David Gamson who produced that track, and him and I would sit for hours just trying to figure out what bassline would work, because there are so many possibilities and it really affects the delivery of the song. So I appreciate you saying that, because I feel a lot of musicians don’t get due credit for their contribution to the song.”
When it comes to your rapping, do you draft those words over and over, or do you just freestyle over a track and hope you find what you want to say?
“No, I grew up in a time where I committed everything to paper. But when I’m recording, I try to have it all memorised, so that it’s a performance and I’m not just reading down the sheet.”
We’ve got to ask you about If That’s Your Boyfriend… as well. What can you tell us about writing that song?
“That’s when I lived in MPC60 world. I was really into making beats, so that’s how that one came about, it’s literally just samples, drum sounds and my bass. And then I got to work with Andre Betts who wrote Justify My Love for Madonna, and he helped me perfect the sounds.
“But that’s the most misunderstood song I have, because it sounds like I’m balls-to-the-wall and arrogant but it really comes from a place of hurt, where I’m seeing someone who I think is the bee’s knees but there’s this other person who can’t believe that person would like anyone who looks like me. It was sort of a ‘f**k you’ to that person. But it was fun to write… people forget, but I wrote that song when I was 19. I had all this life and vitality, and no real structure, no-one was telling me how a song should be, and I think that song just comes from pure heart and groove. I listen back to it now and I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s a really weirdly structured piece of music’. I think it goes back to having great curiosity, and no fear.
“It sounds like a mean song, but it was a response to someone saying something really hurtful. But as long as someone feels something from a song, I don’t think the writer really has any control over how people take it in. And that’s beautiful, I love that. It sucks in religion but it’s really good in music!”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 70 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts –including the full 60-minute interview with Meshell – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.