Mark Seliger

Fearless. Naked. Meshell Ndegeocello always seems to leave herself exposed.

Her latest disc, Devil’s Halo (Downtown/Mercer) picks up where the sonic assault of her previous album (2007’s The World Made Me The Man of My Dream) left off. Again Ndegeocello eschews the R&B art-funk that distinguished her ’90s material as a gripping ménage of rock, pop, ska and punk. In an exclusive interview with The Root, Ndegeocello talks candidly about her wounded love ballads—as well as how she deals with the backlash that comes with her wanton spirit.

The Root: It seems the mythical “Devil” plays a crucial role all of your new songs.

Meshell Ndegeocello: [Laughs.] The devil has always been one of the most intriguing characters—a former angel who suffered from a broken heart, and eventually jealousy, more than anything else. He became this evil dark lord. It’s one of those, “I hurt, so I’m going to make everyone else feel what I feel.” That’s pretty human. I really relate to that.

TR: Some songs on the new disc—“Slaughter,” “Crying in Your Beer” and “Bright Shiny Morning” are filled with snarky humor, but also emotional wreckage and naked honesty. Did you write them from personal experiences or from observations?

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MN: A little bit of both. “Crying in Your Beer”—I had a few family members in my life pass away. I haven’t experienced that with my parents, but I know I’m getting closer to that point. That overwhelms my subconscious. So I used that and other little stories to illustrate how we’re all searching for immortality through fame or other ways. That’s why in one song I end, “There is no encore.” Maybe there is no encore. I’ve been asking myself that for a while.

TR: What about “Slaughter”? It’s sung from such a painful, passive/aggressive position: “She said she loved me/ I run away/ Don’t say you love me/ I’ll run away/ My love will leave you slaughtered.”

MN: “Slaughter” is a little autobiographical. You have to learn how to love, I guess. No one really has a manual of how to do that.

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TR: In “White Girl,” you weave in elements of whiteness as being pure and innocent. Were you exploring the idea that some people of color give white people more benefit of the doubt, emotionally, than we do to other people of color?

MN: It’s a play on words, a joke about the puritanical white beauty. But what I’m trying to say is that love is about the attraction and the warmth that we have for each other. I feel like I get a lot more criticism from people of color when I’m in a relationship with someone outside my race. So I’m playing with the idea of the white beauty, but our feelings are what’s most important—the fact that the two people actually love each other.

TR: Tell me about “Lola.” It’s a great ballad about this lonely, barfly of a woman who seems to be grappling with abandonment issues.

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MN: You have to deal with the consequences of your choices. I live in a small town in upstate New York. It seems like the commonplace to meet [people] is a bar. And there you see a lot of different people, and the different personalities that come out when they’ve had one too many, or been there too long. In all my songs on the disc, no one is innocent. There’s an exchange, and both parties are not making good choices sometimes.

TR: You surprised me with the makeover of Ready for the World’s 1986 “Love Me Down.”

MN: It’s a song that brings up fond memories. It has a great melody. Also I had a great time trying to put the song through my [artistic] filter. I hope people hear the love in my version.

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TR: Your recent music is worlds apart from you early-’90s material. Were you ever concerned about disenfranchising your fan base? Did you suffer much backlash for being artistically courageous?

MN: Oh yeah! When I made [the Grammy-nominated, 2005] The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel, this improvisational/instrumental record—that was the beginning of the backlash. Even Bitter (1999) was a beginning of people questioning my artistic choices. But I’m a musician. The most important thing for me is becoming a better musician and becoming a better person. I wouldn’t be honest if I was just concerned about what other people wanted to hear. That would limit my growth.

TR: Talk about your role as a producer. You’ve produced discs for a handful of envelope-pushing jazz artists like Ron Blake, Oliver Lake and Steve Lehman, and Jason Lindner.

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MN: What I bring to the production table is being a good guide and sounding board. I want to create an atmosphere where the artist can feel free to explore whatever’s in their head. It helps me to be more of a nurturer. I enjoy that—being a positive influence on other people.

John Murph is a regular contributor to The Root.