Nona Hendryx has been called everything in the book since the ’60s. She’s a Jersey girl who became a pop sensation with Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, the group that released “Lady Marmalade” as Labelle in the ’70s after member Cindy Birdsong secretly joined The Supremes.
But through it all, Ms. Hendryx says, she’s always been Nona, no matter what labels others have saddled her with. She’s now preparing for the only Long Island date of her current tour. She’ll appear this Saturday, July 21, at 8 p.m. at Mattituck’s Old Mill Inn. We caught up with Ms. Hendryx to find out more.
Q: Why are you performing here on July 21?
A: I released my first album of new songs in 29 years, “Mutatis Mutandis,” on Ani DeFranco’s label, Righteous Babe Records. The title is a legal term that translates to “changing those things that need to be changed” and this is a collection of songs I’ve been writing about events that have had great effect on me since 9/11, such as the war in Iraq, the oil spill in the Gulf and Hurricane Katrina. I thought this was a good time to release an album because I want to share my thoughts and feelings with others to see if I can help bring about change, instead of just being upset or angry about them, so I’m taking my message to the road.
Q: What was it like growing up in Trenton, N.J.?
A: I grew up in a very different time in South Trenton. The neighborhood I grew up in is actually gone now and state buildings and others have been built in its place. It was very working class at the time and we were a part of that. New Jersey is the Garden State, so there was also a lot of farming going on, but much of that is gone now or has been industrialized.
The fabric of New Jersey has changed. It’s become much more corporate. It’s not as many smaller companies that were a part of my growing up there, so I miss that. The community was a lot more tight knit, too, so if I was being mischievous or bad in the streets, somebody would either correct me or tell my parents because everybody knew everyone else. That’s changed, too. I miss that, but time marches on and I still have a huge amount of family who live in Trenton, so I go back and see them, especially my sisters and brothers.
Q: What happened with the Bluebelles in the ’60s?
A: We were in England performing and we had to change to Patti Labelle and The Bluebelles because there was a 50-year-old English dance troupe called The Bluebelles. Then we morphed into Labelle after Cindy Birdsong joined The Supremes. We were devastated at first because we didn’t know she was leaving, but we decided everybody has a right to do what they want to, so we just moved on as Labelle. We were together for 17 years after that — longer than most marriages.
Q: What was it like performing with the Talking Heads?
A: That was a really great experience, too. We became like a big family, almost like the New Wave Grateful Dead because Bernie Worrell from P-Funk was there, one of the Johnson brothers, Steve Scales on percussion — this was the expanded band, you know. It was like 10 of us or more and it was just a great experience, working with Jerry and Tim on their solo album and with Bryan Eno — I loved it.
Q: What did you think of the 2001 remake of ‘Lady Marmalade’?
A: I thought it was really good. I really loved what Missy Elliott did with it and I thought Mya, Pink and Christina Aguilera brought a new vibe to the song with a nod to the original.
Q: How did you come to appear on the TV show ‘The L Word’?
A: I know the girls, BETTY, who do the music for L Word and I’m sure that’s how I was invited to be on the show. I was portraying an old friend of Pam Grier’s character and she was going to break up with this young guy and I was trying to tell her how to get her relationship stuff together. Pam loves to sing so we did a re-make of one of my songs, “Transformation.”
Q: And you already knew Pam Grier from the Linc’s TV series in the ’90s, right?
A: Yes and from back in the day when she was known as Coffy Brown, you know? During that early Black Panthers period, a lot of people sort of crossed paths. Pam Grier we knew because she was an actress, but she was also political, and Angela Davis, who was a good friend, so a lot of people were involved. Poets and musicians and everybody intermingled.
Q: How have you dealt with people stereotyping or labeling you over the years?
A: I choose to say that I know who I am and I know what I am and that’s enough for me. You can call me whatever you want to call me. In my lifetime I’ve been a Negro, colored, black and now I’m African-American and each one of those times I was still Nona and it’s been the same thing for me with sexuality, I’m still Nona, no matter how anybody wants to identify me.
Q: What else have you been up to lately — I know you’re in Boston right now.
A: I’ve been working on the music for the new Lee Daniels film, “Paperboy,” which did really well at Cannes and will be coming out in America once they finish getting their distribution. I’m working on a musical called “Skin Diver,” influenced by a CD I did in 1999 called “Skin Diver” on Private Music, which I’ll be coming back to Boston at the end of the month to continue working on.
I’m also the ambassador for Berklee College of Music in Boston, so I’m working in three of the different departments — music theater, musical ensemble and their electronic production department — and we will be working on the “Skin Diver” project. I interface with the teachers four times a year about the institute and review work, share my thoughts and ideas and it’s great. I love doing that.