Meshell Ndegeocello on Nina Simone, 'The Hustle,' and why she loves Chicago

 

By Karen Hawkins

Meshell Ndegeocello won’t say what she’s cooking.

A few minutes into our interview, the unmistakable clanging of pots gets louder in the background, and she asks with an apologetic tone if she can call back in 15 minutes.

Who can say no to that velvet voice? 

When we resume, she refuses to say what’s for dinner: “Oh no, I can’t reveal my secrets.”

Fortunately for fans, the acclaimed singer/songwriter is less cagey about her music, penning intensely personal songs that are sometimes spun out of pure heartache and always backed by her insistent bass. For her 10th studio release, “Pour une ame souveraine (For a sovereign soul): A dedication to Nina Simone,” she’s taken on 14 of Simone’s pieces, from the haunting “Either Way I Lose” to the classic “See Line Woman.”

Ndegeocello will be in Chicago twice in the coming months; at the Garden of Eve fundraiser for Howard Brown Health Center on Friday, Sept. 14 and at the Old Town School of Folk Music on Nov. 23.

Though she wouldn’t tell Rebellious what was in the oven, here are some questions she did answer:

How did you decide to record a Nina Simone tribute album?
I gotta thank (fellow singer-songwriter) Toshi Reagon. She did this Women in Jazz series, and asked to me to perform at the Schomburg Center (for Research in Black Culture), and I chose Nina Simone. Everyone asked me if I was going to record (the music), and that’s how it came about.

Was it daunting to take on Simone’s work?
So many people ask me that. It came with its baggage, but I have what I call subtle autism, my mind doesn’t really work like that. I didn’t really take that in.

Nina Simone has an enormous catalog  -- how did you choose which songs to record?
I picked the ones I felt like I could do justice to. I also picked the ones she had written. And “Either way I Lose” was written by Van McCoy, he also wrote “The Hustle.” I had to choose that one.

The album also features Reagon, Sinead O’Connor, Valerie June and Cody ChestnuTT – how did you decide who to record with?
Toshi, just because she was so instrumental in its beginning. Valerie June, I heard her on a mix tape on the internet and I fell in love with her voice. … I did a show with (Sinead), and I just love her and know she’s a Nina Simone fan.  She picked the song (“Don’t Take All Night,”), that was just a blessing for me. I just ask, and hopefully people say yes. My publicist suggested Cody ChestnuTT, and that’s my favorite track on the album (“To Be Young, Gifted and Black”).

Did you ever meet Nina Simone?
No, I wish I could have, that would’ve been great. But like with most icons, people say it’s good when you don’t meet them.

You’re playing two shows here soon, how are Chicago audiences?
That’s such a loaded question.  It depends what record I’m playing or where it is. I love Chicago, it’s one of my favorite places. I’ve had a lot of good times there, it’s a black migration capital in the past, it’s got great architecture, it’s cosmopolitan yet rural. New York is no longer the center of culture.

What can people expect at the Garden of Eve fundraiser (where she’s playing with producer/guitarist Chris Bruce )?
It will be an intimate set of old, new. I’m just going to sing some songs for the people. It’s kinda quasi-acoustic.

What makes you Rebellious?
Choosing to be a musician is pretty Rebellious. Choosing not to marry a man in hopes that he’ll take care of me is Rebellious. I could go on. Just surviving is a revolutionary act, to get this far in life, just living.

What’s the most Rebellious thing you’ve ever done?
To choose to make the music I have in my head and not try to make other people happy. I didn’t become a pop star or something like that, I don’t think I could if I tried.