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Bass Gear Issue 10 : Page 90

Photo by: Charlie Gross By Tom Bowlus For many folks, their introduction to Meshell Ndegeocello came when she teamed up with John Mellencamp on a remake of Van Morrison’s Wild Night . For others, it was her 1993 debut album, Plantation Lullabies . Regardless of how you “discovered” Meshell, she certainly makes quite the impression. Though she fancies herself a rhythm player, and would prefer to be groovy than flashy, her aggressive, strong, funky bass lines definitely draw attention. As a true dual-threat artist, Meshell’s vocals are equally compelling. Her broad vocal range and strong delivery are unique on their own, but a great compliment to her playing and writing style. &#0e;  
 Meshell adopted her current name, which means “free like a bird” in Swahili, when she was 17 years old. Prior to that, she was known as Michelle Lynn Johnson. She was born in Berlin, Germany, but spent most of her younger years in the Washington, D.C. area, where she attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Oxon High School. In her adult life, she has continued to move around a bit, and spent some time in the Bay Area. We sit down with Meshell to discuss her diverse musical career. TB: Let me set the stage a bit with a little background information. Your father was a saxophone player. Did you have any other musicians in your family? MN: My brother plays the guitar. My father is still a saxophone player. TB: How did your family’s musical background affect your own development as a musician? MN: I think only insofar as it occurred to me it could be a job. TB: Your dad was also in the Army. Did you move around much growing up? MN: Not as much as other military families, but sure, a bit. TB: Did this have an influence on you as an artist? MN: I think it influenced me as a person on the Earth; as someone who now values travel. TB: What do you think when

Meshell Ndegeocello

Tom Bowlus

For many folks, their introduction to Meshell Ndegeocello came when she teamed up with John Mellencamp on a remake of Van Morrison’s Wild Night. For others, it was her 1993 debut album, Plantation Lullabies. Regardless of how you “discovered” Meshell, she certainly makes quite the impression. Though she fancies herself a rhythm player, and would prefer to be groovy than flashy, her aggressive, strong, funky bass lines definitely draw attention. As a true dual-threat artist, Meshell’s vocals are equally compelling. Her broad vocal range and strong delivery are unique on their own, but a great compliment to her playing and writing style. Meshell adopted her current name, which means “free like a bird” in Swahili, when she was 17 years old. Prior to that, she was known as Michelle Lynn Johnson. She was born in Berlin, Germany, but spent most of her younger years in the Washington, D.C. area, where she attended the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Oxon High School. In her adult life, she has continued to move around a bit, and spent some time in the Bay Area.<br /> <br /> We sit down with Meshell to discuss her diverse musical career.<br /> <br /> TB: Let me set the stage a bit with a little background information. Your father was a saxophone player. Did you have any other musicians in your family?<br /> <br /> MN: My brother plays the guitar. My father is still a saxophone player.<br /> <br /> TB: How did your family’s musical background affect your own development as a musician?<br /> <br /> MN: I think only insofar as it occurred to me it could be a job.<br /> <br /> TB: Your dad was also in the Army. Did you move around much growing up?<br /> <br /> MN: Not as much as other military families, but sure, a bit.<br /> <br /> TB: Did this have an influence on you as an artist?<br /> <br /> MN: I think it influenced me as a person on the Earth; as someone who now values travel.<br /> <br /> TB: What do you think when you read or hear people talk about how you sparked the neosoul movement?<br /> <br /> MN: I laugh... Neo-soul is an idea created by the industry.<br /> <br /> TB: You seem to be driven by, and passionate about, a number of causes. The Red Hot Organization and Raise Hope for Congo come to mind. Are there other movements/causes to which you would like to bring attention and support?<br /> <br /> MN: Anything that might help someone suffering, not having their basic needs met, or without access to the elements to sustain life. At this moment, gun violence is an interesting topic. Information and education intrigue me… I want to do the best I can to aid those when I can, and when it actually effects change and brings about good.<br /> <br /> TB: Let’s talk about your music, a bit. Going back to 1993 and your first album, Plantation Lullabies, I’m struck by the strong, funky bass lines, great vocal delivery, and your sense of timing and “space.” If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night) and I’m Diggin’ You (Like an Old Soul Record) really caught my attention the first time I heard them. You had a lot to say on that album, as well. What was your muse at that time in your career?<br /> <br /> MN: This phrase: “The mind is an excellent servant, but a terrible master.” TB: Jump forward a bit to Soul Music (2003). I love your take on Who is He and What is He to You. You have a simple groove that just drives the song. Your bass tone fills a lot of the mix.<br /> <br /> MN: Bob Power mixed it, and I think it was his ears that made the sonic landscape.<br /> <br /> TB: That big, deep tone on Comfort Woman also stands out.<br /> <br /> MN: During that time I was really into Family Man Barrett.<br /> <br /> TB: Weather, from 2011, shows another interesting side of your musical anthology. Rapid Fire really has a lot going on, for how simple it seems at first listen.<br /> <br /> MN: I hope more people may take a chance on that recording. That bass line was written by Deantoni Park (the drummer on the recording and my hero!) I think I have been put in to a corner, musically, I love funk and R&B, but I am really into so much more, like: Ministry, Joy Division, Ornette Coleman, Big Star, Autolux, The Weather Station, Public Enemy, Ron Hardy, Actress, Lou Reed.<br /> <br /> TB: Did you play your Reverend on that album? I saw a YouTube video of you playing Dead End on the Reverend, and you have this killer, thick, burpy bass tone going on. Since that’s a passive bass, did you use much EQ on that, or is that tone all from fingers, hand position, and maybe some tone roll-off?<br /> <br /> MN: On Dead End, that’s a Pbass. On the new Nina Simon album, that’s all the Reverend. I wish I could send you a video, since the tone thing is a neverending conversation. But I’d like to say if you take an amp in one room, set it, then take it to another room you, have to reset it to sound a specific way in the next room. I listen and adjust as I go.<br /> <br /> TB: Speaking of Reverend, how is it that you started playing Joe Naylor’s basses?<br /> <br /> MN: I was in LA and saw it, and it was aesthetically pleasing. And then it sounded great! And it’s the first bass I’ve played with round wound strings in maybe 10 years.<br /> <br /> TB: You have played a huge range of instruments over the years. When you are not playing the Reverend, do you still keep coming back to your ’63 Jazz?<br /> <br /> MN: Of course; it’s just not a good travel instrument. The airlines make me nervous. I love the P-bass; I borrowed it from Chris Bruce, and I adore my Reverend.<br /> <br /> TB: That ’63 Jazz has a ’64 neck, right?<br /> <br /> MN: Yes.<br /> <br /> TB: Amplification-wise, it seems that Ampeg has been your most consistent rig.<br /> <br /> MN: Right now, my head is a Fender Twin and with 4x10 speaker cabinet. But fliptops are my favorite.<br /> <br /> TB: What does your pedal board look like, currently?<br /> <br /> MN: My pedal board setup currently includes a Morely A/B switcher, Boss TU-3 tuner, Boss OC-3 Super Octave, Ernie Ball volume pedal, and four pedals from Malekko Heavy Industries: the COMP (compressor), E. FILTER (envelope filter), B:ASSMASTER (like the old Maestro Bass Brassmaster), and EKKO 616 MKII (analog delay). I use a Voodoo Labs Pedal Power 2 Plus to power all of these pedals.<br /> <br /> TB: Do you do all of your own arrangements?<br /> <br /> MN: Many, most, but not all. I like the music and sensibility of the people I play with, and I turn to them for ideas often.<br /> <br /> TB: Your latest album, Pour une Ame Souveraine (For a Sovereign Soul) - A Dedication to Nina Simone. What inspired you to dedicate an entire album to her? Not that she wasn’t phenomenal… MN: Honestly, just kinship and admiration.<br /> <br /> TB: Have you worked much with Sinead O’Connor? Don’t Take All Night is really nice, and leaves me wanting to hear more… I remember hearing Troy for the first time. Man, that blew me away!<br /> <br /> MN: She’s a special person. I really hope to do more with her. Her voice is transcendent.<br /> <br /> TB: As long as we’re talking about other artists, I am a big David Dyson fan. What was it like working with David? Hearing the two of you play together is mesmerizing!<br /> <br /> MN: Playing with David is a lesson. He is one the best bass players I have ever heard!<br /> <br /> TB: I recently discovered (and quickly purchased on iTunes!) Your cover of U2’s 40, which you contributed to the Downtown Records’ Raise Hope for Congo anthology. That song has always moved me: lyrically, musically and spiritually. I know it means a lot of different things for different people, and I love how it closes out War and provides a “grounding effect” to Sunday Bloody Sunday. What does that song mean to you?<br /> <br /> MN: I think it’s unusual to have a protest song as part of our pop feed, and I wanted to remember its message, as well as a time when that could be mainstream. Working on that project and song was like a time machine for me. That was one of the first albums I saved up for and bought for myself. None of my friends even knew U2. I guess my upbringing made me connect it to the idea of 40 years in the desert. It takes that long for the people to forget the pain and forge a new way of thinking.<br /> <br /> TB: What are your thoughts about the role the drummer plays in you music? How does this affect how you develop your grooves? How does this affect your creative process?<br /> <br /> MN: Now, in this moment in life, I have to simply enjoy playing with another musician, and trust that they will forgive my mistakes... <br /> <br /> I just played with Mark Guiliana (and I haven’t in a while), but I forgot I really like to have a musical experience with him. I learn something every time, and it’s a challenge, and that excites me... And then, there is just pure human interaction. You want to feel as if you can listen to music and share quiet and more awkward times together.<br /> <br /> Then, there are interactions like playing with Charles Haynes. Then, you are witness to pure buoyant magic and ability that leaves you breathless. He is an amazing improvisational drummer; free and open. He’s willing to play with you, not against you, and he likes to dance; you can feel this.<br /> <br /> Gene Lake, as well; he has technical skill that’s rarely matched, but he’s a “harmonic listener” and a bass player, so he’s trying to create an interaction that makes you dance and support the music.<br /> <br /> Chris Dave… I really enjoyed playing with him. Our tone synergy was exciting, and he led me into being more open to change and learning to improvise groove.<br /> <br /> Deantoni Parks… I know this will sound simplistic, but I always tell him he makes me feel like music is not all in vain. I truly feel like i am playing with someone who’s not only playing a song, but rewriting it at each moment. The tone is the most thrilling and sonically pleasant I have ever heard (it’s him and also Jesse Honig). The engineer uses two mics. D made me understand that he is not only playing time, but controlling his volume, timbre and decay. Yes, like a drum machine, and this allows me to think in some many different ways. I can experiment with tone and space. I don’t play behind; I play the what and where, how I hear it in my head – “the terrible master.” But I need a confident drummer who won’t try to pull back if I do. That’s another thing; I like really strong personalities in drummers.<br /> <br /> TB: On many levels, I can see where folks might view you as a rather complex person. But reading through your prior interviews, I’m struck by how down to earth you seem to be. I love the fact that you embrace to role of bass as providing the foundation and groove. And you seem to place value in the simple pleasures, like listening to some good music and having drinks with some friends.<br /> <br /> MN: I definitely do. I have done this too long to look for grander pleasures. If the simple ones don’t work for you, you’ll never be satisfied.<br /> <br /> TB: But you also seem to have an active mind, and you are not afraid to “get political.” I, for one, believe that you can engage in deep, complex thoughts, but still recognize the profound merit of the simple aspects of life. Does this notion connect with you, as well?<br /> <br /> MN: Certainly. To be only engaged in complex thoughts doesn’t allow for much reflection, but to only dwell in simple things is just pathetic. I’m just living, trying to find meaning, so I don’t check out TB: Musically, both as a bass player and a vocalist, you have covered a very wide range of styles. More than most, I’d say, and you have had success across a number of musical genres. What is your secret?<br /> <br /> MN: It’s no secret – I have chosen music over other things every time. I just really like music.<br /> <br /> TB: What strikes me as a consistent theme across your musical offerings is that a sense of rhythm, vocal delivery, and “space” always stand out.<br /> <br /> MN: Thanks for noticing that. I think space makes all the difference. It is never about how much you play that makes it musical.<br /> <br /> TB: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. It’s a pleasure and a treat to be able banter about with you.<br /> <br /> TB: Before we sign off, one of the questions we like to ask is, “What advice would you give to a young bass player starting off their musical career?” MN: Listen, and be easy going. Find joy in the collective, when needed (Squarepusher is awesome alone). Laugh, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Music is just a way to see the world and meet people, and hopefully make money to live.<br /> <br /> TB: Thanks again…

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