It’s hard to believe it’s been two decades since Meshell first leaped into our consciousness. With one seriously funky bass line underneath John Cougar Mellencamp’s 1994 cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night,” she instantly became both a rarity and an icon: a bald, androgynous black woman with a provocatively titled 1993 debut, Plantation Lullabies, a tongue-twister of a last name (Ndegeocello, “free like a bird” in Swahili), and an earthy voice that could whisper, taunt, seduce, or preach.
Most of all, though, there was that feel and that tone. No matter what the context has been—and through the years, she’s recorded with everyone from Alanis Morissette, Basement Jaxx, and Chaka Khan to the Rolling Stones and Zap Mama—Meshell’s lines have always been greasy and muscular. Her strong note choices, tight mid tone, nimble staccato style, and tasty vibrato ornaments may have been inspired by the go-go music of her native D.C., but the way Meshell combines her influences is hers and hers alone. As a leader and frontwoman, she has commanded the stage while letting the talents of her always-superb bands shine. When stepping to the mic, she has also adroitly shared space with bass luminaries, including Yossi Fine, Jonathan Maron, David Dyson, Mike Neal, Jesse Murphy, and Mark Kelley.
Ten adventurous, wide-ranging albums after that delicious debut, Meshell’s bass style and stage presence may have become a bit less extroverted, but her palettes are wider, her exploration deeper, and her penchant for collaboration stronger than ever. In the last couple years, she has released the spacious, soulful Comet, Come to Me, her 11th disc, as well as Continuous Performance, a diverse four-song EP of new and previously unreleased live performances from 1999. She has been a guest on Victor Wooten’s Sword & Stone/Words & Tones and on Robert Glasper Experiment’s Black Radio, and she has found time to produce albums by blues/folk singer–songwriter Ruthie Foster and British/Trinidadian singer Anthony Joseph. Meshell, who did a run of 2011 shows honoring Prince and Gil Scot-Heron, also achieved critical acclaim for last year’s fresh Pour une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone, as well as her vocal and co-production contributions to Jason Moran’s funky All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller. Her shapeshifting, angular take on Whodini’s “Friends,” a highlight of Comet, puts a fresh, 2014 spin on that 1984 classic.
As she moves into her third decade as a recording artist, Meshell’s reputation for honoring giants of the past while carving a unique path through the contemporary landscape is as solid as a rock. Like the artists who inspire her, she moves through the world putting it all on the line, baring her soul and following her heart while prioritizing artistic integrity and soulfulness as though there were no other option.
Which bass players had an impact on the way you first thought of bass?
Prince, Sting, Stevie Wonder, Sade bassist Paul Denman, Bernard Edwards, Keith “Sabu” Crier of GQ, and the bass players of Parliament and Funkadelic. A lot just came from the music I was exposed to, especially go-go music and bass players like Michael Anthony Neal. But who can really say? I just saw the bass as foundation.
How has your playing changed over the years?
I play a lot less, and more distilled.
How do you choose bass players to work with?
We have to choose one another. I try to choose players who have an ease of being and don’t bring any “Meshell baggage” to the table, meaning, “Oh, she’s the bass player, so I’ll overplay,” or “these bass lines are repetitive and easy, so . . . .” I try to choose someone who is confident in their voice. I love Alan Hampton, and I think we play well together because he sings, too. Mark Kelley is just a beast, and his pocket is transcendent. [Longtime Meshell guitarist] Chris Bruce is one the best bass players I have ever heard; he can play so many different voices and feels.
How did you decide to get a signature instrument from Reverend?
I saw a Reverend bass in a guitar store, and it was the first modern body that was actually attractive to me. And then I played it, and the sound felt good to my ear.
You’re known for playing a Jazz Bass. What inspired you to make a signature instrument with humbuckers?
I really love P-Bass, as well, and actually, I play many different configurations. I love Kay basses and I try to play what’s needed for the recording, which is different from playing live. And for the dub sound I am working on, the Reverend pleases my ear. I wanted this bass to speak in a different way—clean and bold. I am not trying to have my signature bass sound like old basses. I am working on a new sound.
What other gear are you using?
I use pedals by Malekko. I use a Fender Twin as my power amp and Ampegs for my cabinets; I vary speaker sizes depending on the gig. I love old Ampeg B-15 combos. But so much of what I do I try to have in my hands.
Have you become more comfortable singing and playing over time?
It’s hard! I am not the best. That’s why I envy—and I mean, truly envy—drummers because of their ability to separate the control processes of their four limbs.
Which composers/songwriters have had a big impact on the way you write?
[Producer/drummer] Deantoni Parks and all the others who work hard to create music.
What was different about the production or writing process for Comet?
The ease and familiarity between the musicians. I don’t get large budgets, so I have to be really organized, and that’s part of the production style: formulating a schedule that aids the musicians in their creativity—not wasting time or over-thinking, and coming prepared with complete songs. I love making music and being in that environment. It’s all I have ever known, and it brings me great solace.
There’s an Aston “Family Man” Barrett flavor on the album, too.
He is the absolute. For a while, I used to listen just to Bob Marley.
Do you set out to break new ground for every album?
Of all my efforts, I am told, “It’s too different from the past.” Some say it’s the same; some like, some don’t. After a while, I just stopped caring about what people had to say. Some reviews are great, some harsh. I take a compliment like a critique and a critique like a compliment.
What do you love about covers?
Sometimes, I just want to think of ways of feeling different emotional states. That’s why I like covers: I can step outside of my story and try to bring someone like Nina Simone’s music to life.
Did you study and dissect Simone’s catalog before deciding which tunes to do?
I listened and tried to do well. I tried to make people want to revisit her catalog, and I wanted to remind them of her gifts as a musician and an arranger.
Are you seeing more women playing bass, singing, and leading bands than when you started out?
I was lucky I had Kim Clarke of Defunkt. She is one of my favorite bass players, period. Tina Weymouth, Carol Kaye, Gail Ann Dorsey—come on … there will always be some woman somewhere, somehow, who is great, creative, and talented. The only time I feel at ease, genderless and raceless, is when I play the bass with my friends.
Did you enjoy not having to play bass on All Rise?
Yes. Taurus Mateen is a very special bass player, and I hope this recording will solidify his place in history. I know that seems lofty, but just listen—he is playing and moving the music in way that is unique. He is like the drummer Tony Allen, a force of change and movement with grace and spirit.
You have experimented with alternate tunings. Do you still have a sense of adventure about the instrument’s possibilities?
I do, all the time. The other music I make lives in a world where perhaps no one will hear it, because it is just for my pleasure and exploration. Often, I do not record it; it’s just for me and the amp and whoever is at the house.
Could you imagine getting more into producing?
That’s my goal; I want to produce improvisational music. I am hoping to find artists who need production aid.
Does your background as a bass player inform your process as a producer?
No. David Gamson, Craig Street, and Bob Power have been the people I want to be as good as.
Would you teach bass or share the wisdom you’ve gathered over the last couple decades?
I am not a great teacher, but I am developing an idea on what I can share musically.
What advice would you give to someone who’s ready to take their bass playing to the next level?
Play often with people who want the best in you; then, having been challenged, move on and be better. Listen well. Communicate well. Be creative. Be diligent. Be open.