There’s no way to listen to anything Meshell Ndegeocello has done and miss the soulfulness of her message accentuated by that voice, set in the right tenor to match the majesty of her skill on a bass. Artists across musical genres have cooperated with her on songs ranging from the playful “Wild Night” with John Cougar Mellencamp and the reverent “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” with the Blind Boys of Alabama.
But whether you’re looking for your boyfriend (if that’s your boyfriend, he wasn’t last night) or wondering why it sometimes snows in April, Ndegeocello has got you covered. She also has provided songs for many films and currently scores songs for the Oprah Winfrey Network’s Queen Sugar.
This week Ndegeocello will be a panelist at the Vancouver International Film Festival as part of their Amp producer series. BGN contributors E.Angel and Lyrikal got the opportunity to ask her a few questions.
So on Sunday you’re participating in the Amp special edition of its Essential Producer’s Lounge, which focuses on female and non-binary identifying music professionals. What is the primary message you want to get across to individuals looking to get into scoring a series or film?
Hmm. Just the primary message that one must become selfless. One must realize that the score’s job is to enhance the visual. It’s something that’s extremely collaborative, and if you’re a musician that is in search of self-expression, this is probably not the gig for you. You know? So, I like to talk about that, ’cause just, that’s been my experience.
It’s taught me a lot about the power of the visual medium. It’s a good way to introduce people to your music, and it’s always been a catalog list for showcasing a song. So it’s just, whatever they want to know from me [and] I’ll try to expound upon it. I thought about those two subjects and put that on index cards, but pretty much I like questions.
So, talk to us about the circumstances that led to you scoring the theme song for Queen Sugar.
Oh, after I stopped my formal foray in pop music, I started having a lot more interest in the contemporary arts and more fine art projects. I had a chance to work with Jason Moran, an incredible jazz pianist, on a project that was based around Fats Waller, which in turn helped us create a good relationship. He [had] scored Selma when the TV show came about. He had too much work on his plate and suggested that I do it. And he also found that they were [looking] to license one of my songs. So, I think it was just like a natural pairing, like from the grand universe, just to a serendipitous divinity. It’s been a great experience. I mean, I’m very lucky to work with someone who knows what they want and can articulate it and at the same time already had a feeling for the sound I had. So, it was that sort of experience.
So the theme is entitled “Nova.” How were you introduced to the Bordelons?
I read the book. But then I realized it was an interpolation of the story to create a screenplay. But the first thing you do when you get a score is you get the pilot and you just sit with it for a while. I watched it over and over again, and the character that seemed to have the most energy that I could play off of the scenes that they gave me was Nova. I thought if I could get the theme to feel like her character, it would be a good energy to have.
What is your process for composing? Does it start with an idea or a sound or a note?
Oh, that’s funny. That’s always a funny question. I just literally sit there and watch things over and over again, until something comes to my mind in hand. Or sometimes I’ll start with a sound. Maybe just the piano [or] the bass. I think we established early that it would have a low country feel, like a Black Western experience. So, the guitar and the piano became my main instruments. So, I sit at those, those two instruments, and wait for the transmission and for the energy to happen. There’s really no science to it. I think a lot of composers probably do have starting points, but I try to keep that project organic one that comes from my heart. I treat it like I treat music.
What role did the locale play in composing the theme?
Sometimes in the visual medium — TV, film — there’s like a literal interpretation. People might have assumed there’d be horns that are a New Orleans thing. I went away from that. I thought of them as people of color who have migrated all through the South. There’s definitely a heavy Texas vibe, some of in the people I met in New Orleans. I wanted to intertwine all that gumbo of the diaspora and distill it through the guitar, the banjo, and the piano, the foundation to early music. I wanted to stay in that realm. It just affected me as the people that pass through New Orleans over time. Probably had all of that in there.
When we started, you made an interesting comment that if someone was trying to represent their own individuality, that doing a theme [for TV or film] really wasn’t for them. How do you see it [being] different from doing a composition for yourself or your band?
Where you can have a self, you’re just trying to captivate people. But when it comes to scoring, you have to please the director, the show runner; you have to please the station, the producers, and the network. It’s not just you and this one visual person making a piece of work together. There’s systems in play, and there are other people who are chiming in. That becomes outside of your control. If you’re a person who takes things personally, you will not excel at that job, because it’s not personal. There’s this unknowable mark that everyone is trying to get to, from Ava to Oprah’s network to the people who are probably buying ads, and every episode has a different director. So there’s just a lot to go on with this experience.
So is this the first television project that you’ve worked on?
First scoring project?
Oh no, no. I worked with George C. Wolfe on an HBO thing called Lackawanna Blues. I also worked on Disappearing Acts with Gina Prince-Bythewood. Those two were different experiences, a different period of time. That was unusual, too. I mean, every director is different. Some directors, you know, music is beyond secondary. It’s like the tenth thing they think about. And then some people, it’s really something they take personally and have a real opinion. Then that just becomes about developing a concise language between you and the director. That’s the thing that got me to, in terms of being a Black nerd, I’m much more tactile and sensory. I think working with Ava, I had to instill within myself the confidence to be able to communicate in a certain way. It’s a lot of back and forth and that was a lot to learn. George C. Wolfe for the other experience was more I could feel my way through it, and not everyone is like that. So, it just taught me a lot about communication and communication skills.
So does that kind of collaboration make you more nervous than just jumping in with your band and trying to collaborate?
Oh, of course. It’s a difference between a blind date and going out with your people, your family members. It’s very different because you don’t know one another yet. You’re trying to make something together and people are coming from a different energy, different criteria, a different reference point. It takes a minute to learn the language of it, the structure that they may be working with. I’m not a film school person. I’ve worked in film, but I’m not your textbook scorer. There’s some things I’m still learning. But I think that’s why I’m an asset. I think on Queen Sugar, I don’t want to sound arrogant or lofty. I make the music to make you feel good because these are heavy topics. I try to make the audible aspect of it medicinal so that these topics can enter your body and mind in a way that is not jarring. That’s an approach I have, but I’m not sure I can’t take that to other things. I got fired for the first time from score. It’s because I was coming from an angle, a spiritual, sonic angle, in terms of feeling, and they were not. We didn’t speak the same language or view the piece of work in the same way.
Have you ever gotten to a space where you were just stumped and had to figure out what that producer or director or whatever was trying to do? Do you have like any tools to break yourself out of that mood?
That project really brought me down. It let an intense doubt creep in, and I started to second guess myself. But then, I’m very lucky. I work with a team where we can all stop each other and do some like mental health checks. The thing is, this is not personal. If they do not like what I’m doing, it doesn’t mean that what I’m doing does not have value and it doesn’t mean I suck. [It’s] just language, and you move on. I’m autodidactic so I’m sort of a self-taught person in terms of a lot of aspects of the dominant culture. But I have a really good production manager, so he leads the team. When there are conversations that I feel I won’t be an asset to, I take myself out of them. But I’m the one people like to have at the spotting sessions. I can get a real good emotional gauge of what they’re trying to get. I’m not the one who can deal with the notes from the network. You try to delegate where you were, where your strong points are. There is a team. Hans Zimmer has a team of hundreds. I don’t think I ever want to get to that point, but I’m glad that I have a crew of five who are amazingly talented musicians and creative people. Together we try to create an experience where if it’s not me, then I definitely have someone I can go to, to aid me in getting to the end result. I hope!
And so do you, if you choose. Meshell Ndegeocello will be joining several others on October 5 at 5:00 p.m. at the Vancouver International Film Festival to discuss film and television scoring and production. Her ease with herself, humbleness about her talent, and self-understanding are evident from the get-go and make conversations with her both fun and enlightening. Look for the rest of BGN’s interview with Meshell Ndegeocello as she establishes her nerd creds soon.
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E.Angel is an engineer and holds a BS in electrical engineering from North Carolina A&T State University. In her spare time she works at her comic book store – Brainstorm Comics and Gaming - when she is not reading comic books. She's a real nerd who loves all things Star Wars and Star Trek, and is an avid gamer. E.Angel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on either game platform as Bunnehs Sister.