No one like Nona: an interview with Nona Hendryx
Thu. August 16, 2012 by Gregg Shapiro
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) Before we get to your new album "Mutatis Mutandis," I'd like to go back a few years first. The last time I interviewed you was with Patti and Sarah, when the Labelle reunion disc was released. Looking back on the disc and the tour, how would you describe your experience?
NH: (Nona Hendryx) [Laughs] It was a lot of things. It's very difficult to put into a short sentence. It was joyful, exhilarating, difficult, interesting, enlightening and great experience.
GS: Of the nine songs that you wrote or co-wrote on "Mutatis Mutandis," were any of them written or conceived of during the Labelle reunion period?
NH: Those songs came out of me over a period of time since 9/11. I've written many songs since then, but these are group of songs that live together. The most recent being "Mad As Hell". I was in the process of writing three additional songs that I didn't really have time to complete, which will become another project.
GS: With songs such as "Tea Party" and "The Ballad of Rush Limbaugh and "Mad As Hell," not to mention your cover of "Strange Fruit," would it be fair to say that "Mutatis Mutandis" is one of your most political recordings
NH: Yes, I would say it's the most, as a set of songs. We were always (political) as Labelle, and within my solo career, there've been social statements, some political but more dealing with social thoughts and feelings and expressions. But this is much more pointedly political.
GS: You make reference to second amendment, the right to bear arms, in "Tea Party." We are speaking a few days after the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado, another example of senseless gun violence. What are your thoughts about that?
NH: Only how sad it is. Looking at this you see how impossible it is to legislate the individual, the human being. This has been an ongoing problem and I think we can look to European countries and learn a strong lesson about gun control. It still happens; it happens everywhere. We are just more prone to that type of violence because of how we have accepted weaponry over time, since the birth of our country. I parallel that with the desire to legislate a woman's body. Which one is more threatening and more violent? One gives birth, one gives life. One takes life. And you want to legislate the one, but not the other. I don't understand it. My brain can't compute that.
GS: I don't understand it either. "Temple of Heaven" was co-written with queer singer and bass-playing legend Gail Ann Dorsey. How did that collaboration come about?
NH: That came about through me and Felicia Collins. Felicia and I had this grand idea of putting together a rock/metal/funk band and one of the people we immediately thought of was Gail. We were talking with Cindy Blackman, the drummer who has worked with Lenny Kravitz and recently married (Carlos) Santana. That was going to be the band, that's what we were working on. This is one of the songs that came out of our first get together to see what we could make.
GS: Grammy-winning lesbian jazz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington performs on the song "Let's Give Love A Try" and you can be heard singing on Carrington's rendition of your song "Transformation" on her "Mosaic Project" album. What did it mean to you to have that song covered by another performer?
NH: It's not the first time. It's the same, but different. Terri is really talented and she has this great ability to take something like "Transformation," which is a funk-pop groove, written by me and Carole Pope and Kevin Staples, two Canadians...
GS: …of the band Rough Trade.
NH: Yes! And she gave it another life, in terms of the horn and piano parts. I think it's beautiful. I really love it. It's one of my favorite things that I have now.
GS: Amidst all the anger and frustration on the disc, love offers hope on songs such as "Let's Give Love A Try" and "When Love Goes to War". Do you think love stands a chance in these times?
NH: Love always stands a chance [laughs]. They say, "perennial as the grass, it will bloom." As long as there are young and old hearts, people who've been jaded or crushed or hurt by life's experiences, that is the thing that powers our getting up every day and walking through the pain and the difficulties that is part of the human experience.
GS: Nine of the 10 songs on the disc are original compositions. Why did you choose to cover "Strange Fruit" at this time?
NH: I've been moved by that song for I don't know how many years. It was so owned by Billie Holiday. I found it difficult to get to, to interpret, to feel that I could actually do it justice in any way. It had to do with that. When there were a lot of noose hangings in different places in America, in the South and somewhere in the Northeast. It brought back that vivid image. And the rise of the Tea Party and other things that were going, it just felt like that kind of thing could happen again. There was that young gay man who was left hanging on the fence a few years ago, he was killed. It felt so palpable that that kind of energy was on the rise in America. I went into my studio one day and made my version of the song to try and get out of me feelings that came up. That's the way for me to express it rather than say, getting angry and doing something that would be harmful to me or to others. Music is my release and that's how that song came about.
GS: Your version is very effective. "Mutatis Mutandis" is being released on Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe label. How did that come to be?
NH: That came to be through Lisa Barberis, who manages me, and also Cyndi Lauper and other people. She knew someone in England, Ian Blackaby from Ardent Music, and she introduced me to him about releasing it in Europe and the UK. Because here in America, these kinds of political [laughs] and social recordings aren't so welcome. He said, yes let's do this. He also said he represents Righteous Babe, Ani DiFranco's label, there and he said they might be interested. He sent it and they came back with a positive response. We worked out an agreement so that they would do the distribution and I do the other grunt work, the marketing and promotion and stuff like that myself. That's how it came about.
GS: I'm glad that you mentioned, in your words, "the grunt work," because there is a pledge page for your "A Woman's Bill of Rights Tour" (http://bit.ly/KCS2nv) in which you make reference to "the new business of making music."
NH: It really is the old new way [laughs] of the music business, because the music business became top-heavy and it toppled over. Unfortunately, those on the lower rungs were crushed by it, because the outlet for many artists was that the labels, who could provide tour support and a lot of the other things that go with the promotion of a musical product. Without that, basically it's going back to the old school way of selling your music directly to your fans, which is how people did it in the beginning. Out of the back of their cars or however they were able to do it. That's what I'm doing and many artists are doing, re-engaging our audience one-to-one or twenty-to-one by however many people come to a show. We're making that happen again. There is a real feeling of investment in the artist and what the artist is putting out for their friends and fans to listen to or buy or care about.
GS: You also mentioned Cyndi Lauper. Cyndi has collaborated with Harvey Fierstein on a new Broadway-bound musical based on the movie "Kinky Boots." Do you have a Broadway musical in you?
NH: I have a musical, but it may not be Broadway [laughs]. It's based on my "Skin Diver" album. I've been working on that with Charles Randolph-Wright, who is at the moment preparing the Broadway musical of "The Berry Gordy Story". Charles and I have been working together for quite some time. We worked on plays with music called "Blue" and "Oak and Ivy" that were performed at Arena Stage (Washington DC). We've done quite a few things together. And "Skin Diver" has been our long awaited baby that we're birthing [laughs].
GS: When your tour does come to town, what can people expect?
NH: They can expect my high energy, funky, rocking performance, where your head is nourished and your soul is nourished and your booty is shaking.
Nona Hendryx performs with Kahil El'zabar's Ethnics on the Main Stage at the 23rd annual African Festival of the Arts on Sept. 3 in Washington Park, 5100 S. Cottage Grove. Visit http://www.africanfestivalchicago.com/2012/site/DPWStage.html.
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.