Words Hadeel Mohamed
After 20 years in the music business and 10 studio albums, Meshell Ndegeocello has built a reputation as a genre-defying singer-songwriter and talented bassist. Her latest album, Pour Une Âme Souveraine, is a collection of reinterpretations of songs made famous by Nina Simone. Reflecting on her heroine, Meshell has said: “She was unusual, unruly, unparalleled. She was not an industry player, she was obviously difficult and volatile. She wanted success, was pressured to make hits but her own sound was still irrepressible. She was a loud, proud, black, female voice during a time when black female voices were not encouraged to make themselves heard.” We caught up with Meshell to discuss the album and its inspiration.
In ways your quote about Nina Simone could almost be about you. You’ve also experienced industry pressure. How much do you feel your stories are similar?
I would never compare them, if only because civil rights was the issue of the day in her time and feminism was yet to come. There is still plenty of progress to make but I had lots of options, freedoms and opportunities that she did not. I’d like to think I resist the categories of the music industry in the same ways but this album was not about me, it was really about celebrating Nina Simone.
The album draws on a range of musical styles, arrangements and covers. Was your intent to introduce the world to another side of her or a side you see?
I wanted to use as many songs she wrote as I could and I tried to choose songs that offer a glimpse into her power and versatility as a player, not just a voice. But I also just chose songs I love.
There’s a new biopic coming out and Nina Simone’s daughter has expressed misgivings about the direction the film takes. Were you worried about the possibility of misrepresenting her?
I can’t worry about that. She was a complicated woman and there is no 90 minute movie that will get everything in and across. I had a chance to meet with the director and I think her intentions are good. She has her own relationship to Nina’s story and I think that’s the one she’s trying to tell. She won’t make everyone happy I am sure, but she probably couldn’t do that no matter what.
You work with really diverse and unexpected musicians including Lizz Wright, Toshi Reagon and Sinead O’Connor. How do those collaborations come about?
I looked for people who were outside the mainstream, outside the expectations, as Nina was.
Do you have any idea where your music is going next?
I sure don’t. Music keeps me searching and I can only hope it keeps you interested.
Pour Une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication To Nina Simone [Naïve Records] out now.