Nona Hendryx balances soul, conscience

Boston Globe, July 8, 2012

NEW YORK— Let’s say you formed your first band as a Trenton, N.J., teen in the ’50s. You helped invent funk in a trio, LaBelle, that found cult status in the ’70s. You pioneered sci-fi themes before George Clinton. Later, you forged ahead as a solo artist and in collaborations with everyone from Yoko Ono to the Talking Heads.

You might be forgiven, at 67, for resting on your laurels. But that isn’t the Nona Hendryx way.

“Rust never sleeps,” says Hendryx. “I enjoy using my energy. What else are you going to do on this planet?”

In the cool of her midtown Manhattan studio, the singer strikes a naturally edgy elegance, clad in a form-fitting gray ensemble accessorized with silver jewelry. Gold records and industry memorabilia adorn the wall.

To the world at large, Hendryx is known as one-third of LaBelle, the band with the 1974 hit “Lady Marmalade.” (The one with the saucy French chorus, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?”) But here in New York, she’s appreciated for all she’s done since, as a songwriter, creator, mentor, and activist.

In the last few years, that has included a LaBelle reunion; a touring supergroup, Daughters of Soul, with Lalah Hathaway, Simone, Indira Khan, and more; and a slot on jazz drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s all-women Mosaic Project.

Now add to this “Mutatis Mutandis,” Hendryx’s first solo album in over 20 years, which brings her, accompanied by her longtime band, to Johnny D’s on Thursday.

The record borrows its title from a legal term that means “the necessary changes having been made.” And its theme, indeed, is change — political change. Its point of view is clear from the first bars of the brassy funk opener, “Tea Party.” “The Ballad of Rush Limbaugh” takes the form of a folk-rock ballad to excoriate the right-wing radio host with no punches pulled. “Oil on the Water” evokes the Gulf spill; and “Black Boys” deplores racism against young black men, while “Black on Black” addresses violence within the community.

In short, this is a pure protest album of the kind that’s rare these days — as well as a program of taut guitar funk and deep soul grooves that feels at once fresh and vintage.

“I wanted it to sound like what I do live,” says Hendryx, whose performance style was and remains vibrant, charismatic, and borderline risqué. “I love funky music with a conscience. A booty with a head attached to it, or a head with a booty attached.”

As for the overt messages, which she doesn’t bother to conceal inside vignettes or allegories: “As an artist I feel that I can be clear,” she says. “I wanted to talk about things that I’ve been concerned with, things that were keeping me up at night, things that were making me angry.”

Hendryx cites events that shaped the country in the course of her career, from the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., to the Vietnam War, Kent State, and what she calls a “healing period” that was ended and reversed by war and politics post-9/11.

“So much is at stake now, with a very right-wing portion of society getting a loud voice and taking back rights that we’d thought we’d dealt with,” she says. “It’s so easy in our society — especially as a person of color — to opt out. What am I doing if I am not being a part of the solution?”

Hendryx is known for her songwriting, and the songs on “Mutatis Mutandis” are hers, with one notable exception: her take on “Strange Fruit,” the classic lament on lynching made famous by Billie Holiday.

“That song had been in my head for a long time,” Hendryx says. “I always held it very reverently. I wouldn’t touch it.” But after the hangings of Saddam Hussein and his aides, and a spate of racial incidents in the United States involving nooses, she felt the need to revisit the song and its macabre imagery.

But Hendryx is much too funky to be strident. The musical choices on “Mutatis Mutandis” make it a soul album that happens to carry an incisive message. The closing song, cathartically titled “Mad As Hell, Pt. 1,” is melodic, wistful even. “It’s more of a blues,” Hendryx says. “And the blues has its own aggression that isn’t distorted rock aggression. It’s about the feeling of what you’re saying.”

A veteran of independent projects, Hendryx is releasing “Mutatis Mutandis” on Righteous Babe Records, singer Ani DiFranco’s grass-roots-oriented label. The two are acquaintances and share close friends and a similar sense of social engagement.

“After such a storied career, we’re honored to be part of Nona’s more recent and fearlessly political musical work,” DiFranco says in an e-mail. “She’s an inspiration.”

That sentiment could be echoed by droves of funk, rock, and soul musicians who played with Hendryx, whether alongside Patti LaBelle and Sarah Dash in the LaBelle days, or in her own band and many side projects.

“Sneaking into your rehearsals gave us that secret funk sauce,” Chic leader Nile Rodgers recently told Hendryx on Twitter, a medium she has embraced avidly.

Just a few days earlier, on Father’s Day, Hendryx had proclaimed herself a proud parent, again on Twitter: “I’m celebrating today because I’ve mothered and fathered musical children for over 40 years & still tickin!”

And with the new album and a forthcoming project titled “Women’s Bill of Rights,” which she says will feature an all-women band including Esperanza Spalding and Wendy and Lisa of Prince fame, Hendryx is nowhere near done.

“I’ve got to share the music, go out and perform for fans and for new people who may discover it,” she says. “And be able to be visible for the conversation I’ve started.”

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