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Making music on her own terms

'I guess I'm weird. I like the darkness. I'm not afraid of it as much anymore,' says Meshell Ndegeocello, referring to the mood of her new album, 'Devil's Halo.' "I guess I'm weird. I like the darkness. I'm not afraid of it as much anymore," says Meshell Ndegeocello, referring to the mood of her new album, "Devil's Halo." (Handout)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / October 2, 2009

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Meshell Ndegeocello lets out a low chuckle when asked if she's worried her fans might think she's been hitting the bottle based on some of the boozy characters on her new album, "Devil's Halo."

There is "Lola," who imbibes until she passes out. One drink is too many and yet there are not enough drinks in the world to get over an ex on "Hair of the Dog." And the album ends with "Crying in Your Beer," a bleak plea from someone who seems to have fully grasped the concept of mortality.

"I live in a small town that's full of watering holes, and I get to see a lot of drama unfold," she says, letting her throaty laugh fade over the line from her home in Hudson, N.Y. "That's what's hard — everyone thinks everything's about me."

To the mainstream pop audience, Ndegeocello is best known for her "Wild Night" with John Mellencamp in 1994. But the singer-songwriter and bassist has made a series of solo albums devastating in their emotional content and adventurous in their musical spirit. "Devil's Halo" — with its collisions of trip-hop, psychedelia, pop, R&B, and jazz — is no exception.

"I listen to everything from prog rock to Human League to Joy Division to Ready for the World," says Ndegeocello, who'll play the Middle East Downstairs next Wednesday. "I'm one of those people — I really, really, really love music. So I just try to listen to as much as I can, and I guess through my filter it comes out in different ways."

Indeed, Ndegeocello's unique filtering process has endeared her to critics, fellow musicians, and a robust cult of followers who managed to find a point of entry at some stage of her deliriously eclectic career. Some signed on with her hipster funk hit "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)" when she was among the first signees to Madonna's Maverick label in the early '90s. Others came on board with the Mellencamp duet. Jazz fans became enamored following her improvisationally minded, all-star releases featuring luminaries like Jack DeJohnette, Pat Metheny, and Cassandra Wilson. And still others came to know Ndegeocello first as a sought-after side woman with artists as disparate as Joshua Redman, Alanis Morissette, Indigo Girls, and Karl Denson.

Metheny, who calls Ndegeocello "one of my very favorite artists," says the element that truly sets her apart is her "deep sense of personal vision."

"She is a strong and unique player with a strong and unique concept — and for me that is the draw," Metheny says. "There just are not that many people around that truly have their own thing. She is one of them."

Ndegeocello lets out a mock nefarious chuckle when she ponders the underlying reason she has been able to synthesize so many influences without sounding derivative. "I'm kind of an [expletive]. I really like my individuality, so I guess there's something in my psyche that's always like, 'but how can I destroy it and make it my own?"'

She certainly manages to do that to a cover of "Love You Down" by aforementioned boy band Ready for the World. Ndegeocello deconstructs the '80s slow jam for the 21st century, breaking down the backdrop with pounding high-hats and serpentine keyboards covered in fuzz but never losing sight of the core melody or innate sexiness of the May-December homage.

"I don't buy a lot of R&B; it hasn't fed me lately," she says of her decision to revisit a high school favorite. "I wanted to do something that would show that I really have love for it but was trying to hear it in a different way."

That statement could essentially serve as Ndegeocello's musical motto. It's evident in the catholicity of sounds on "Halo" that somehow hang together — like the way that "Slaughter" shifts on a dime from trippy electro-folk to violent rock swells, or how the bitter and dramatic "Lola" unspools with an unwieldy guitar solo into a wash of dreamy ambience that wouldn't sound out of place on a mid-period Genesis album. Darkness and light battle for equal time with the former winning beautifully in the deep melancholy of Lisa Germano's cello on "Hair of the Dog."

"I guess I'm weird. I like the darkness. I'm not afraid of it as much anymore," she says.

Ndegeocello has her work cut out for her when it comes to composing a set list.

While she reassures that she will be playing some of her older material, she says she's reached a "new place."

"What influenced the making of 'Devil's Halo' is I wanted to write songs that I'd like to play for a long time," she says. "These are grooves that can grow and change and evolve, and the songs are solid enough to depart from them. So when you come to the live show, I hope people understand I'm not ever going to be Katy Perry or Beyoncé, who I love. I'm just a musician and I play with amazing musicians, so hopefully they'll come check it out and I can keep live music alive."

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO
At the Middle East Downstairs Wednesday (Oct. 7) at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 at 800-345-7000 or www.ticketmaster.com

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