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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Today, one of the most unique recording artists around. She's made a career challenging the conventions around her. When most women musicians were being promoted as sex symbols, she shaved her head and played the bass.

When talking about race and sexuality in song (missing audio) she scored 10 Grammy nominations by speaking her mind, and when many artists tried to earn indie cred by shunning mainstream music, she scored widespread praise, critical success collaborating with artists ranging from John Mellencamp and Chaka Khan and contributing to movie soundtracks.

Who else could we be taking about but Meshell Ndegeocello? And now she's back with her eighth studio album that's full of the complexities and richness we've come to expect from her. The CD is titled "Devil's Halo," and she joins us now in NPR's Studio 4A along with her band. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Ms. MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO (Singer, Songwriter): Thanks for having us.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Would you mind introducing the band before we start?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Oh sure, sure. On piano is Keefus Ciancia; on guitar, Christopher Bruce; on bass, Mark Kelly; and on drums, Deantoni Parks.

MARTIN: Welcome everybody. Thank you for joining us also. Meshell, one thing everybody says: Great artist, tough name to pronounce. How am I doing so far?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Excellent.

MARTIN: Okay, thank you, thank you. I understand that this is a name you chose for yourself.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: How did you come to choose it?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: I think when you're young, you're searching for your identity and being rebellious, and it's just something I chose. I like the meaning of it, that's all.

MARTIN: Which means, and it means?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Free like a bird.

MARTIN: Free like a bird. Do you feel free like a bird?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Often, yeah, sometimes. I'm just human. I feel a range of emotions.

MARTIN: And speaking of range, this album has influences all over, from rock to rap. Was there an overall idea behind the album, or was it more about how each song came to you?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: I must admit, not that much thought goes into, like, what category it goes in. I just, I hear a lot of music in my head, all different styles. I was - being here in my hometown, I remember I had radio stations that played various genres all on one, and I especially love WOL. You know, they played pop and R&B and different things. So it's just a part of who I am, you know?

MARTIN: So what song are you going to play?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: It's called "Blood on the Curb."

(Soundbite of song, "Blood on the Curb")

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) (Unintelligible) what good is loving me if I, if I can't feel it? I can't feel it (unintelligible) I'll be outside waiting for you (unintelligible) I'll be outside waiting for you. The blood excites me. My anger and my evil child, baby. Blood on the curb excites me.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Okay. "Blood On the Curb." What's going on with that?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Oh. Well, it was sort of inspired by a few things. Bansky, the graffiti artist, has captivating on the Palestinian wall. And it's also the young man who went into a mall and took other people's lives. Anger and feeling not a part - not - unloved. What good is loving me if I can't feel it? And I think our culture is so, we sort of romance violence and feel war will bring peace, and it's kind of just about sometimes your anger and your evil, it's captivating, it just takes you over.

MARTIN: You think it's intoxicating?

MARTIN: Some people do. Yeah. Not myself. I mean I can relate often, but I've tried to grow as a person and deal with things differently. I just hope we as a species...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: ...finally do that.

MARTIN: You know, I've often been intrigued by the sort of transcendent quality of your voice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: The lucid - and I think to myself, well, what does an angel sound like? If I could imagine, what does an angel sound like? I could easily imagine that an angel could sound like you.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Oh, that's very kind of you.

MARTIN: But then I...

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: You don't live with me on a day-to-day basis.

MARTIN: True.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: True that. But then I think about songs like "Blood On the Curb."

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah.

MARTIN: "Die Young." This album called "Devil's Halo," and I'm wondering, are you intentionally playing with the angelic quality of your voice and these heavy themes?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Ah, you make me sound much deeper than I really am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Well...

MARTIN: This is NPR.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: I love NPR. Okay. No. You know, the myth of the devil - the devil was once an angel and there's a humanity in imperfection and imperfection in humanity.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: I think in us all exists that you're trying to balance those things. I just try tell a story with a song and somehow be able to transmit the emotion to you. That's all I'm really trying to do.

MARTIN: Where do you get the inspiration from? You were mentioning a couple of things happening in the news.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: Is that a big source of your inspiration and ideas?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah, I used to be an infotainment junkie. Then I realized that, you know, even that is wrought with entertainment and to keep you in one sort of, you know, mindset and fear. And when I grew up, I didn't know a lot about government. I'm hoping we start to educate people more about how the government works and how you can better have an effect on it.

I mean I just got to keep hoping and meditating on change instead of complaining, which I think the society could kind of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: ...you know, hopefully get hip to.

MARTIN: Well, your music isn't all like, you know, heavy, you know, (unintelligible)…

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...and in fact this album, a wide range...

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...of emotions and sounds.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: In fact, there's some classic R&B with a rather steamy cover, if I may say, of For The World's "Love You Down."

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah.

MARTIN: Isn't it?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah.

MARTIN: Do you want to play that?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah. We're going to play that. All right.

MARTIN: "Love You Down." Here it is.

(Soundbite of song "Love You Down")

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) It never really mattered too much to me, that you were a little bit wrong for me. All that really mattered was you were my girlfriend and baby that's all that mattered to me. Let me love you down, even if it takes all night. Let me love you down, baby it'll be so right. Let me love you down.

Remember when I drove you home from work. I love the way you kiss me bye. All of your friends think I'm just no good for you. But I'd do anything for you. Let me love you down, even if it takes all night. Let me love you down, baby it'll be so right. Let me love you down, baby it'll be so right. Let me love you down.

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: That was "Love You Down." Meshell Ndegeocello is here with her band. We're here in NPR Studio 4A. We're talking about her new album titled "Devil's Halo" and what ever else is on her mind.

A couple of songs on the CD which we really enjoyed but which we cannot play...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...because of F word is all over it.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Oh, I could do without the F version.

MARTIN: Oh, hey. I was going to ask about that.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah.

MARTIN: But I do want to ask you about you and the F word.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Okay.

MARTIN: Because you got this like beautiful kind of lady like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...thing. There's this petite little person and here's she coming out with the F word in a lot of her - and I just wanted to ask about your relationship with the F word. Is it like the okra in the gumbo?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: It's that indefinable ingredient that makes the stew, or what's going on?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Thank you, Mark. I curse like a sailor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: I mean, they're just colors to paint with, you know, or darts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Either way, it works.

MARTIN: You know, you're off course, you know this. You're credited with pioneering the neo-soul movement.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Oh.

MARTIN: You've heard this, right? How do you feel about that?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Well, I mean it's cool. It's great. It's very flattering.

MARTIN: And what do you make of the fact that so many filmmakers, for example, love your music? Why do you think that is?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Hopefully because they feel it or like it. I love film. I can watch 10 movies a day if I was allowed to. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: ...I just like, I love making music to accentuate the visuals. You know, I like when they aid to the process.

MARTIN: And also, one of the things that distinguishes your career, as we were saying at the beginning of our conversation, is that the way you've managed to move among worlds.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, you've moved, you know, the big labels, the big pop names like, you know, Madonna.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah.

MARTIN: And you've also worked a lot with independent artists. I think most people still think of you as an independent artist. I would, I think. What's that like? Do you feel you have to switch gears?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Oh no. I'm - I don't know. I just like the music part, whether it's the pop or a larger label or a smaller. I try to work with people I have a good rapport with and we get along, and that's all I'm really thinking about, that it's a good creative process, you know? And so, but, you know, Madonna's just a human being like, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: ...anyone else.

MARTIN: Do you have any advice, though, for artists who might be just starting out? And you often hear people say that the funnel is narrowing in some ways.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah.

MARTIN: That they feel that you cannot - I mean especially in regard to rap, for example, many people say...

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah

MARTIN: ...or hip-hop, that they're just genres that it's narrowing because the market's only going accept sort of a narrow range of sounds or artists or identities. And your career demonstrates the opposite. So do you have any advice?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: I mean I think we're in an amazing time. I think large companies are dwindling away and it's more about the music. And I think either you do it for the music or you want to be a star, and those are two different things, you know? And I just like to play music, you know? Surround yourself with honest people, is one thing I'd say. And worst lie you can do is lie to yourself, so just be good.

MARTIN: Well, it's been great visiting with you.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: What song can we go out on? Can I nominate?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Oh.

MARTIN: Go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: No. No. Go ahead. What were you going to play?

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Well, we were going to play an old song. We were going to play "Faithful."

MARTIN: "Faithful."

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Yeah.

MARTIN: Meshell Ndegeocello's new album is called "Devil's Halo." To see pictures of her performance at NPR, and to find out more about her music, please check out our Web site at NPR.org.

Meshell Ndegeocello, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: Hey, thank you for having us here.

(Soundbite of song, "Faithful")

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song, "Faithful")

Ms. NDEGEOCELLO: (Singing) My daddy made no excuse. I believe my lies are truth. Why won't you eat what you're fed? 'Cause when I touch myself I think of only you and when I touch someone else. No one is faithful. I am weak. I'll go astray. Forgive me for my ways. 'Cause no one is faithful. Now I hear voices and I can't stand to be alone. 'Cause emptiness is all I've ever known. Soiled by my lust, I feel no shame...

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