Meshell Ndegeocello

What do John Bonham and Meshell Ndegeocello have in common?  They've both used hotel rooms for creative expression through some unique rearranging of the furniture. Ok, so there is a bit of a difference. Bonham and the rest of Led Zeppelin trashed their rooms in the name of hedonism. But Ndegeocello tastefully moves the furniture in her hotel room to reclaim the space as her own.  By doing so, she's able to create her ideal writing environment, an environment that often gets its best use at 3am. To craft her song lyrics, Ndegeocello draws on what she calls the constantly moving "image factory" in her mind.

The ten-time Grammy nominee has a new album, released November 8, called Weather.  She's on tour now supporting it. Ndegeocello's creative output is staggering in its excellence, and the critical acclaim throughout her career is universal in its praise. Read my interview with Ndegeocello after the video.

Do you have any other creative outlets besides songwriting?

I like to draw, but cooking is really my other creative outlet.  I can go through almost any cookbook.  I really enjoy that aspect of creating.

I've talked to many songwriters who are also visual artists. Do you have any idea why so many songwriters love to draw and are also quite good at it?

If I were a neuroscientist, I could somehow connect it to how the brain takes in information.  I definitely have some sort of dyslexia.  I love to read, and I can read at a rapid pace and with great retention, but I can't spell. Yet I can take in an image almost as if I'm a mirror.  It's like that way with music too. I can listen to something, quickly and immediately see it, then repeat it.

How can you "see it"?

The sounds are colors.  I can see how they feel.  I can see the landscape of the music from beginning to end, how it changes and moves.

That's what a poet would say about words.

I love poetry.  I just started revisiting a lot of Bukowski, and Orwell too.  I'm reading All Art is Propaganda by Orwell now.

Poets see ordinary objects in ways that no one else does.

It has to with imagination and the ability to take yourself out of reality, to define your ideas of what's around you in a completely different way.  

When you say that you can "see" your songs, do you mean that some of your songs start with images?

Yes, but it's more about the age I grew up in.  I see moving pictures, like images on film.  I don't really see still pictures.  Instead, there's something constantly reeling through my mind at all times.  Fantasies, almost, things I make up in my head.  A lot of the things I write start from those images.

When you say the age you grew up in, what do you mean?

As a child, I watched a lot of television with my babysitter.  I have a lot of movies and TV shows running through my head, so there's always a moving visual in my mind.

Back to cooking, do you find that it's a time to reflect on songwriting, or are you too busy thinking about what you're preparing? Do you instinctively know what works when you're in the kitchen?

Yes.  I don't know how or why, but I do. I'm more of an alchemist when I cook; I take whatever I can find and make it work.  Have a pickle and mayonnaise?  Let's make something! But I do think about songwriting when I cook. I always play music, and often I'll play something I'm working on at the time, usually just the instrumental tracks.  What I find interesting is that music often affects how I cook at the time.


If I'm listening to something that's irritating, or if it's something I really have to think about as I listen, I can't concentrate on cooking.  I need music that lulls me, that soothes me.  I cook much better that way.

Let's talk about your songwriting process.

There is no typical songwriting process for me.  It can start with a beat or a bass line, or sometimes it can start with lyrics.  This new album is one of the first I've done with multiple writers. Sometimes I wrote the lyrics and someone else wrote the words, or vice versa.  One one of the tracks, I wrote the music and Chris Connelly wrote the words.  He's also an essayist and a prolific writer, and he came back with 40 sheets of stream-of-consciousness lyrics for me to sift through. On one track, I had a simple musical idea that I gave to Joe Henry. All I told him was that I thought it was a love song.

If I'm by myself, I have Logic Pro, which has totally changed my process, because I find myself writing a lot of the music first.  I get my iPod with that music and scroll through all the verbal images in my mind of things I want to say or things I feel.  Then I distill the words and music to some interesting form.  It's funny, though, because I think I'm a weak lyricist, but I'm trying to get better.

How do you get better?

I'm trying to be more earnest, but I'm trying to be more image-driven instead of trying to necessarily tell my story.  I'm trying to get more universality in my lyrics.  I also read a lot and look at how others craft words. That helps. I mean, to be able to write poetry and novels is a true gift, that ability to string words along and keep people engrossed.  I'm a big Christopher Hitchens fan, and I love Bukowski as well.  Also Kay Ryan, Roland Barthes, Bertrand Russell, Carl Hancock, James Baldwin, Aldous Huxley.  I love the way Huxley strings together ideas and pulls you along. 

I like to read people like that to examine their styles and see why what they write is so effective.  I try to pick up on some of those styles for my own songwriting and somehow integrate them to be a better wordsmith.  I mean, all the great songs have great lyrics. They are all catchy tunes with words that you can't get out of your mind.  I'm trying to do more of that now for fun, to see what it's like to write like that.

It seems like it would be difficult to imitate the style of a novelist if you are a songwriter.

Oh yeah.  Bono's stuff to me is very Irish poetry.  And it's also Beat.  I don't think the music lover really cares that much; they're probably more in tune to the melodic sense of a song. But Frank Black's language is so vibrant as well.  I'm sure if he were a novelist, he'd have a great voice. So yes, I think as a songwriter you can create a voice for yourself with some literary elements.

How active are you when it comes to seeking inspiration for song ideas?

I have to work hard at everything.  It's not whimsical for me.  I'm inspired by people like Tesla and Edison.  Great ideas take time and effort, and they take failure.  I might write five songs, and only one is worth saving.  That's a 20% success rate.  To get inspired, I see art, I travel, I read, I spend time with family.  All of those things are inspiring to me.  I always try to be curious about my environment.

When you're young, you're writing about yourself.  You're the star of your own show.  All you have are your own experiences, and to you all of them are important.  I've made nine recordings, and I'm a totally different person now than I was when I started.  I'm not self-absorbed with something to prove.  I think that's one of the reasons why adult contemporary music is hard to gauge and find an avenue for, because people want to hear something transcendent.  They don't want to hear about the singer's gripes and joys.  It's work to stay interesting to people, to share your image factory with them in a way that's not based entirely on personal experience.

Does that involve being hypersensitive to everything around you in order to mine your environment for ideas?

Not really.  I just watched this Bukowski documentary, and he was asked when he knew he was a writer.  He said that he only writes because he had such a horrible childhood, and it's how he lets his thoughts free. And I'm the same way.  Writing soothes my mind and keeps me in a calm state.  It's very personal to me.  I don't think I mine myself or my environment for topics.  Instead, I'm just tilling the soil that my mind and ideas don't rot.  A lot of stuff comes out.  I don't know that it's good, and not everyone hears it, but luckily I have patience.

Has having kids made you more disciplined as a writer?

Definitely.  I also had a child when I was nineteen, so I had to learn to compartmentalize my time at an early age.  I think it makes me a better writer.  It's frustrating at times, because I'd love to be able to work for long stretches, but I've trained myself to keep ideas in my head for a long time. I think I'd be dead if I didn't have kids, because I'd certainly burn the candle at both ends by working non-stop.

Is there an ideal time of day for you to write?

Early, around three or four in the morning.   I find that time very soothing.  I love that feeling of the early, early morning and the silence of the world at that time.  But I do go back to sleep after I get some work done. 

Can you write for long stretches?

Like I said, I'm able to burn the candle at both ends.  When my first child went off to college, I was able to have stretches of 24 hours of nothing but writing.  I'd just stay up and write. What's weird, though, is that sometimes when I write I have the television on.  I like the images that go by on the screen.  And if something catches my eye, it might get me thinking about a song idea.

Are certain shows that are better for those images?

Yes, and I'm not telling you!  Laughs.

Because I'm trying to think what's on at 3am.  Isn't it just infomercials and bad movies?

Uh, yeah!  Laughs.  And good movies too!

How important is your physical environment when you write?

There's an attic space in my house where I like to write.  My partner is really organized, but my space is total chaos. There are papers all over the floor and towers of books.  I like not having to care how other people feel about how things look.  I'll go a hotel room on tour and take it apart. I make it look like I want it to look.

So that creates a good writing environment for you?

Oh yeah.  Just the fact that I can move shit around and make it look like my own space.  I can close the door so that it's only me, and then I can move shit around.

What you do in hotel rooms reminds me of what other songwriters have told me.  They say that working with their hands--whether it's woodwork, yardwork, or housework--makes them more creative. Do you see that in your process?  And a lot of them use time in the car to create.

I love riding around in the car and playing demos.  I look at the farms and listen to the music.  That really frees my mind.

Do you have an ideal emotional state for songwriting?

Probably depression. And writing, to me, is a catharsis for that emotion.