November 10, 2011 at 2:01 pm EST | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Meshell’s magic

Meshell Ndegeocello
‘The Weather Tour’
The Birchmere
3701 Mount Vernon Ave.
Alexandria, VA
Tickets: SOLD OUT

Bi singer Meshell Ndegeocello is earning raves for her new album ‘Weather.’ (Photo by Charlie Gross)

It’s hard to say what the first thing that pops in someone’s head is when they hear Meshell Ndegeocello’s name — the John Mellencamp duet (“Wild Night”)? Her rap on Madonna’s “I’d Rather Be Your Lover”? Her endless soundtrack contributions? Or maybe her own memorable songs like “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” or “Leviticus: Faggot”?

Regardless, Ndegeocello has established an adventuresome, restless musical persona that gives one the impression she’s out at inner city music clubs into the wee hours every night in hot pursuit of something to sate her seemingly endless sonic wanderlust. But in reality the 43-year-old D.C.-area native is living happily in upstate New York with her wife of five years, Alison Riley, and their son who turned 2 this week.

Her new album “Weather” dropped this week and is earning raves. She left Thursday for a mini-tour that will bring her to the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., Tuesday (it’s sold out) and also to Philadelphia and the Hiro Ballroom in New York. In January, she’ll resume with dates in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Minneapolis. This is first date at the Birchmere since Oct., 2001.

“She’s a very unique and gifted artist,” says Michael Jaworek, who booked her at the Birchmere. “Her jazz CD ‘Jamia’ always knocks me out.” (It’s a pretty gay month there — Kate Clinton, Chaka Khan and Four Bitchin’ Babes are slated for coming weeks.)

She exudes an easygoing and laid back vibe during a phone interview this week during which she discussed her new album, her philosophies of concert giving — don’t expect hits! — and her formative years in Washington.

“I’m enjoying my nice, settled married life,” Ndegeocello says with a soft chuckle. “It’s great up here. I can work here but if I need to go into New York (City), I can just hop on a train and be there two hours later.”

“Weather,” produced by Grammy winner Joe Henry (Aimee Mann, Solomon Burke, Ani DiFranco), was recorded in 10 days in Los Angeles, mostly because hotel accommodations are easier there. The quick pace — five days of music, five days of vocals — works well for her, she says.

“I think it enhances the immediacy of it,” Ndegeocello says. “I’m really comfortable with it. I still believe in live music and music that comes from your hands. I don’t want to sit around and edit myself in pro tools and make somebody’s idea of perfection. I’m really into the David Bowie productions in Germany, you know, really traditional instruments but played in a really modern way. That was my goal.”

The process has resulted in a low-key album a Washington Post review said incorporated “a palette of small, delicate sounds” used “to powerful effect.” It also noted, “the only constants in (her) 20-plus-year career … are brilliance and an output that dependably moves back and forth between experimental, critically acclaimed projects and more accessible, widely embraced work.”

That always forward-looking outlook has a huge impact on Ndegeocello’s live performances. She’s touring with a drummer, bass player and keyboardist. Ndegeocello, known for her bass playing, may do some bass work but is “trying to concentrate more on singing” this time out. She says she and her combo will likely play “Weather” in its entirety, but aren’t aiming to reproduce it live.

“See if you just want to hear that, then just go buy the record,” she says. “My goal is to get the best musicians and go out and have an open, live experience. I just have to have the audience opened to something new and us trying to bring something new to the music.”

But is that wise, when audiences are only just absorbing the new album, if they’ve had a chance to hear it yet at all? There’s no musical snottiness or self indulgence in her warm speaking voice when she explains, but the bottom line is, Ndegeocello doesn’t care nor does she apologize for her philosophies of concert giving.

“I hope some of these will be people’s favorite songs, but really it’s more about trying to bring them in and give them a good audible experience. … I’m hoping they’ll like these songs even if they don’t know the music. That’s my goal.”

Have more hits-oriented artists who often take audience requests and even encourage them, made it tough for more tradition-eschewing singers like Ndegeocello? And what does she do when fans yell out requests?

“It’s sad to say, but I usually just have to ignore it,” she says. “I try to just stay in a clear mindset and just move on and play the set. That’s the thing I think people sometimes don’t realize. We rehearsed. We have the songs we’ve learned and planned to play. I’m not a juke box. I just have to be extremely confident and move on.”

Ndegeocello says that’s not a dis to other artists who encourage fans to yell out requests.

“I’m just not that kind of artist,” she says. “If I was, and had connected with so many people in the zeitgeist, yeah, that’s incredible. I just never thought of myself as that way … I love David Bowie, but even he didn’t want to be Ziggy Stardust his whole life. I don’t think (requests) are rude, I really wish I could make everyone happy, but it just hasn’t worked out for me that way. I’m just always trying to find new things, to stay fresh and stay creative. Anyone who’s followed me will know that I’m more forward thinking and rarely like to revisit the past.”

Ndegeocello doesn’t mind a little looking back though, during our conversation. She remembers Washington fondly. She grew up more in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs — she still has family here — and cut her musical teeth on the local go-go scene and also by dancing in gay nightclubs.

“D.C. is really the reason I connect music to movement and dance,” she says. “I love seeing people experience music through their body. I love to see people dance and give them that momentary transcendance.”

Ndegeocello left Washington in 1989 and moved to Harlem, which she says was a much different vibe than the D.C. she was used to, mostly living just across the line of Southeast Washington. She says the city has changed drastically since her years living here.

“I think it’s changed in a lot of ways but some of it is me seeing it in a different way too,” she says. “It can be a harsh place, kind of a dark hole … sometimes it feel like the whole town is high. My experience in D.C. is like everybody is on something, whether it’s money, power or drugs.”

During her years with Maverick, Madonna’s now-defunct Warner Bros. subsidiary, Ndegeocello enjoyed being courted by various labels in something of a bidding war. She remembers a dinner meeting when she met Madonna and says they enjoyed a “really business-like affair.”

And there’s no great backstory on their collaboration.

“I just literally went into the office one day and they were like, ‘Could you put some bass lines on this and can you do it this week?’ It was no romantic thing, really.”

And yes, Madonna was there when Ndegeocello recorded her part.

“She’s very involved,” Ndegeocello says. “She’s always watching to see what happens in the studio, but there was also a very relaxed rapport.”

Ndegeocello, who’s bi, acknowledges her musical genre morphing and her gender and sexual fluidity are not mere coincidence.

“I’ve just never been like that,” she says. “I don’t even have favorite foods and stuff. I just try to take everything in as an experience, whether it’s gender or music. Sometimes I feel super femmed up and very mother earthy and sometimes I could just set everything on fire and be some war lord or prince. Sometimes I feel like a fabulous gay boy in San Francisco and some days I’m like some African queen. I’m able to cycle through them. Being any one thing, either in music or otherwise, has just never worked in my brain chemistry.”

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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