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The Early Riser

Neo-soul pioneer Meshell Ndegeocello is one of the great riddles in R&B music today. Her newest album, Devil's Halo, provides a couple of clues.

Author K. Leander Williams Photography Mark Seliger

SHOWBIZ MYTH NO. 3: Rock stars don’t keep the same hours as the rest of us. Mythbuster? It’s just shy of 2 p.m. in bucolic upstate New York, and bassist/singer/songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello is preparing lunch at her home after several hours of rehearsal for an upcoming tour. Practice has gone well, and Ndegeocello and her band are buoyant—especially considering they started practice around the time most of us are hitting the snooze bar.

“We had work to do,” Ndegeocello explains, her husky voice deepening even further, feigning seriousness before breaking into a chuckle. “Believe me, I’m quite capable of sleeping all day, too.”

Still, the rehearsal schedule adds yet another (thin) layer to Ndegeocello’s mystique. She has spent two decades keeping audiences guessing about everything from her sexuality (album title from 2007: The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams) to what sort of aartist she really is. Ndegeocello scored a hit single with a duet with John Mellencamp back in 1994 (a raucous cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night”), but since then she’s flitted between genres, from the groove-oriented autobiography of 1999’s Bitter to the instrumental jazz of 2005’s The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel.

“There have been times when I’ve considered not making any more records, just to be rid of this whole music industry process of categorization,” she confesses. “What keeps me doing it is how much I enjoy the process of making something that people can listen to forever, no matter what the style of music is.”

Ndegeocello feels Devil’s Halo, her latest disc, is yet another departure from previous efforts, not so much musically as lyrically. “It’s not as autobiographical,” she says, referring to her signature frankness about lovesickness, promiscuity and spiritual awakening. “I see these songs more as people-watching, which I’ve been doing a lot of when I’m at my apartment in Brooklyn.”

Perhaps the piece that’s closest to her heart is the dreamy cover of the ’80s R&B group Ready for the World’s slow jam, “Let Me Love You Down.”

“It’s a favorite from childhood, and there’s a real drama about transcending age differences in dating,” she says. “It’s cool that it’s about the lyrics as well as the beat. You can either nod your head to the music or check out the story.”

Brooklyn-based writer K. LEANDER WILLIAMS burns the candle at one end.


What else to listen to on the go in October

Lyle Lovett

This lanky Texan’s latest offering—an effortless blend of old country, gospel and ragtime—exhibits the dark depth of Townes Van Zandt, the growly grit of Steve Earle and the pop-open-a-cold-one vibe of Hank Williams III.

Nellie McKay

Straight outta the Poconos, McKay deploys her coquettish voice and bizarro lyrics to evoke a sort of rap-singing cabaretin-space, complete with virtuoso ukulele. Somehow, combined with the songs of Doris Day, it works.

Yo-Yo Ma

This massive, 90-CD box set and 312-page hardcover companion book comprise a collection of the cellist’s career so complete (and, at $789, so pricey) that it’s probably only for the most insatiable of Mr. Ma’s fans.

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