Me’Shell Ndgéocello covers Nina Simone

Bassist and songwriter journeys into the inspiration of Nina Simone



Photograph by Charlie Gross

For centuries, our musical continuum relied on internalizing others’ work—or sounds inherent around us—and playing a spirited game of aural telephone with the tones and arrangements. It was osmosis by way of interpretation. The goal was never to perfect a song, but simply to serve its potential.

Even amid today’s minefield of copyright paranoia and creative territorialism, that essential enthusiasm thrives. How else could punk bands continue discovering new ways to articulate three chords without emotional redundancy or competing lawsuits? Or how could hip-hop mixtapes even exist? Great and humble artists honor the intent behind homage, rather than vainly pursue absolute originality. And by those criteria, the twentieth century arguably birthed no more purposeful, remarkable musical storyteller than Nina Simone.

Me’Shell Ndegéocello would certainly agree. Her latest album, Pour une Âme Souveraine: A Dedication to Nina Simone, celebrates the late, great songwriter’s legacy as interpreter, singer, composer, and embodiment of musical soul the best way possible: by taking fourteen of Simone’s finest recorded moments (“Feeling Good,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” etc.) and reworking them to represent her own personal journey. “I’m not gonna lie,” explains Ndegéocello, “playing her music is so much easier than playing my own, because there’s something there I can hold on to and float by on that’s really good to play.”

Rather than solely focus on Nina the muse or Nina the conduit (“Nina the person overshadows much of the great talent she has,” says Ndegéocello), Me’Shell also pays dedication to Simone originals—that term, as established, being more formally distinguishing than spiritually accurate. Undernoted classics on Âme Souveraine like “Four Women” and “Real Real” combine Simone’s magisterial abilities as instrumentalist and vocalist with the power of her civic and feminist intellect. “There’s a great deal of narcissism you have to have within yourself to stay buoyant, so perhaps she never got to a place where she could feel grounded and write more,” Ndegéocello says in regard to Simone’s relative dearth of self-penned material. And, no doubt, Simone would encourage the next generations of female artists to carry on their sentiments in whatever voice suits the song.

From her home in Hudson, New York, Ndegéocello discusses six Nina Simone “originals” that have moved and shaped her as a woman, human, and musician. Some made it onto the album, others remain close to her heart, but they all epitomize her comfortable place in the continuum.

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