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A Quietus Interview

Monáe Talks: Janelle Keeps The Famous Flame Of James Brown Alive
Laura Snapes , June 23rd, 2010 08:01

It's a woman's, woman's, woman's world... Janelle Monáe talks to Laura Snapes about working with Erykah Badu and Big Boi... in the third person of course

When faced with a hyper self-aware musician and their all-encompassing artistic vision, there's always the naysayer temptation to point out the flaws and contradictions in their masterplan. Like many extraordinarily precocious music makers, Kansas-born Janelle Monáe sometimes makes statements that can come across as gauche, even arrogant – during this short phone interview, she'll refer to herself in the third person more than once, and talk in oxymorons about "like-minded individuals". She graciously accepts compliments, but she's not really modest by any stretch of the imagination, talking about how she wasn't surprised by P Diddy's offer to work with her, for example.

She is, however, extremely likeable – charming, eloquent and tenacious – and she barely registers on the Kanye Scale of Hubris. Plus, if you had just created an album like The ArchAndroid – an 18-song, two suite set that plays with so many genres as to almost defy categorisation, a ball-bustingly incredible record that's almost certainly set to position her as a global superstar – then any attempt at self-effacing humility would surely make her seem like a dreadfully insincere cove. What makes it even more astounding is that this is Monáe's debut album (aside from The Audition, a self-released LP from 2003), which came out when she was just 24, following a well – but not widely – received 2007 EP, which told the beginnings of Cindi Mayweather's story.

Musical alter-egos are far from uncommon – the amount of flimsy masks and conceits around at the moment is starting to grate – but few have a back story as meticulously researched, innovative and enticing as that of Mayweather. The EP that preceded the album, Metropolis: Suite 1 (The Chase), is set in 2719 in the city of Metropolis (inspired by Fritz Lang's once-lost 1927 classic – soon to see a theatrical re-release for the first time in its fully restored and reconstructed form); at one time an android utopia, before the Wolfmasters took over and split the city along class boundaries. Android 57821, aka Mayweather, falls in love with a human named Anthony Greendown, against the rules of the now dystopian society. Faced with the threat of disassembly for her romantic transgression, she goes on the run from a fascist government who are able to impose their rule across time and space. The ArchAndroid, Suites 2 and 3 combined, sees Mayweather upheld as a godlike figure for her rebellion – on the cover, Monáe wears a crown of skyscrapers inspired by the poster for the original release of Lang's film. She discovers her personal and romantic capabilities along her eloquent journey, to an exquisitely produced soundtrack that puts a futuristic spin on the music of James Brown, Bowie, The Mamas & The Papas, and the late Disney composer Paul Smith without ever coming a cropper in the mires of Ronson-esque pastiche.

Android loins aside, Mayweather and Monáe are essentially one and the same person; playing with traditions of Afrofuturism to describe the situation that she – and perhaps other young black female musicians – finds herself in and breaks out of. She too escaped, from the atmosphere of drugs and violence she experienced in her younger years in her hometown of Kansas City, to Atlanta, to pursue her uncompromising artistic vision. Those digging for contradictions have found another in her signing to Bad Boy Records, run by P Diddy, whose reputation for successfully promoting artists and strong female role models is about as strong as Courtney Love's grip on reality. Annoyingly for us – though admittedly, not with the sweet deference that you might expect, but cocksure boldness – she refuses to discuss her preconceptions of Diddy, though the crackling phone line and a heavily stage-managed, 20-minute major label interview might have been responsible for that. As she says (in so many words), Monáe doesn't give a toss what you think of her, but we at The Quietus think you should know that in our none-too-humble opinion, she's possibly the music for our daughters (and sons) that Neil Kulkarni has been searching for. If she's not a global superstar by the end of the year, we'll eat our Fall LPs. And there's a lot of them.

Congratulations on the album, it's incredible.

Janelle Monáe: Thank you, I'm very glad you like it. Thank you very much.

How's the tour with Erykah Badu been?

JM: Oh it's going marvellous. I love her, we're friends and we love one another and support each other. We're both fighting for individuality and a celebration of everyone's differences. It's been really fun. We're looking forward to doing some things together on stage before the end of the tour, so I'm excited to see what we come up with.

Have you talked about working together on a record?

JM: We have discussed a long list of things that I won't disclose…

We've not got a lot of time, so I'm going to cut to the chase. Can you tell me about the atmosphere you grew up in, and what Kansas is like in terms of creativity?

JM: In Kansas, I was heavily involved in the arts – musical theatre, theatre, a capella choir – you name it. I was a young playwright as well, I would write plays. I was one of 12 kids at the Coterie Theatre to write at the Young Playwrights' Round Table. Art is my sixth sense, and it led me to New York. I was able to hone my craft there and it kept me out of trouble, so I didn't use my creativity to do any bad things, because… because you can creatively be good at doing some crazy things in the world. So I was busy with musical theatre, and writing, and focusing on me being an artist that inspires people and heals people. And that led me to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York.

I know you left the Academy because you weren't happy with the character roles that you were being typecast into. Would it be fair to say that you went to Atlanta to reinvent yourself? Why the move?

JM: Yeah, I wanted to really feel inspired and start things with Janelle Monáe. I was still in school, so I wasn't auditioning that much, but I didn't want to be too influenced by the standardized teachings. I wanted to get in touch with Janelle Monáe, because I knew that she had some great things inside of her, and I didn't want to get dictated to by anybody, except for just listening to and accomplishing my own heart, to get in contact with the things that made me unique. And I wanted to create my own musical. I'm a writer, director – I'm all that – and I'm doing that now with The ArchAndroid.

When did you start writing music? How much of the sound that we hear today existed before you went to Atlanta – is that where it really came together?

JM: Yeah, it was definitely moving to Atlanta and meeting Nate "Rocket" Wonder and Chuck Lightning of Wondaland - our production company, which is the three of us working together. I did release something independently when I first lived there, called The Audition. I was living in a boarding house with five other girls, and I was literally selling The Audition, the CD, out of my house. That was acoustic, just me and a guitar, but then I met those guys, a group of likeminded individuals who were willing to stretch their imagination along with mine. We love the film industry and everything that's about creating a big idea, a concept album. We're into movies, and we wanted to create an "emotion picture" with The ArchAndroid, so we did that. We took a very cinematic approach to that.

Correct me if I'm wrong because I've never been there, but going from the Midwest to the South – was moving somewhere that's perhaps less progressive, creatively and politically, important to realizing the message you wanted to convey with The ArchAndroid?

JM: Yeah, absolutely. Moving to Atlanta was for peace of mind – there are more trees, it's not as congested, but it's still very progressive. People are still involved, moving, and in the arts. It's inspiring. I couldn't breathe – fresh out of Kansas in New York. I needed to go somewhere and have a fresh canvas. I'm more creative, I'd say, when I'm around trees, I can meditate in the park down the street from my studio. There are so many other likeminded individuals in Atlanta, and it's about the family down there. I have a creative family down there – it consists of visual artists, performance artists, screenwriters, graphic novelists – you name it, they help make Atlanta special for me.

Isn't there a graphic novel to accompany The ArchAndroid coming at some stage?

JM: Absolutely. I don't have the actual date, but we have the first issue printed up, and we are back and forth with companies who we want to represent us, so I'm just excited about it. I can't wait to give you the chance to get more in the world of The ArchAndroid and Cindi Mayweather.

Can you tell me more about the Wondaland Arts Society? Is it going to function as a proper label for other artists at some stage?

JM: Yes, we are going to be releasing more artists through Wondaland. The next part is a group duo, who are going to be Deep Cotton, and they're on '57821' on The ArchAndroid. Their music is absolutely incredible. They wear tuxedos, and man… it's just crazy. We consider ourselves rivals as well – individuals who won't allow race to be a barrier between us, and we want to help preserve art. We're going to definitely continue to allow music to be our weapon, and we do have a right to our imagination. That's one of our mottos.

It's interesting what you said that you could be more creative in a place like Atlanta, particularly when New York has such a well known, thriving music scene in Brooklyn. I'm guessing it was important to you to move to a place where you could create your own?

JM: I wanted to get more in touch with Janelle Monáe, and yeah, I needed to be in a less congested environment. I do think that your environment helps shape your music. I'm all about creating art on a clear canvas, versus a canvas that has been used and used and used, where everyone's trying to create on the same canvas.

I've read your thoughts on the musical genres that young black women get pigeonholed into, and how people think of these women in a very one dimensional way. I wondered what you think about the state of female R&B that's around at the moment?

JM: Oh… Well I can't really speak, y'know, on that. I don't believe in categories and all those things. I mean, James Brown was in soul, but to me he represented punk, rock & roll, he helped influence the Rolling Stones – he was all of that. I think it diminishes the artists, and that people should respect their individuality, whether it's great or bad. I think that you can really diminish someone's brilliance by saying, oh it's this and it's that. No it's not – again, I've always just wanted to represent individuality. I think we should celebrate our differences more. I think the world would be better if people were more comfortable, and if we didn't have pins and needles about who God made them. We're not all monolithic, us young black women, and we have our own ideas and concepts – we're into science fiction, we're into so many things, and we should be constructive and unapologetic about who we are. I don't apologise to anybody about the kind of artist I am. Nor will I allow anybody to define who I am either.

Your costume is a tribute to your mother and father, and workers in uniform. To a certain extent, is it also a rebellion against the culture of taking your clothes off and flaunting your body – the kind of imagery that's become the expected norm amongst young female musicians these days?

JM: Yes, it started off to pay homage to my family – my mother was a janitor – so I come from a family who have turned nothing into something, and who deal with everyday obstacles, they have to work hard to make ends meet. So that's how it all started – I wanted to wear a uniform to pay homage to my family and everybody else who was working. I worked in a depot, I've had jobs where I've been in uniform, so I wanted to make music for that audience, to motivate and empower and inspire them – for people who are depressed or oppressed. I want my music to give people the chance to dream, that's what I want, to indulge them. I think that, somehow, that fashion became fashionable, for women. I've been in Vogue like four or five times, and I appreciate that, I think it's cool because as women, somehow, people need to know that we're not all monolithic. There are so many ways to be confident and sexy. I own heels and dresses, but at the same time I love tuxedos. Again, that's what I like. I don't apologise for it at all, and I hope that, I guess people are inspired to be themselves and not allow their clothes to define who they are.

What's interesting is that you do use your body a great deal in your music, but in a totally different way to the norm. How did you cultivate your dancing style? And how long does it take you to come up with a performance like the incredible show you did on Lettterman?

JM: Oh! I don't know… I don't really choreograph too much of what I do, so a lot of it is really creating art for me. I think dancing is an art – it's one of the most free moments, y'know, especially when you're not thinking, you're just allowing what you naturally would do to the music to come out. I think that's beautiful, and so I'm just really creating art right before my eyes and the audience's eyes. There are certain dances that I think, oh, wow, I actually love how that feels or how that looks, so I'll keep that, but I just don't restrict myself and think that's when I come up with all my best stuff. I just pull out certain things, like when you go on David Letterman, you pull out those moves that make you feel a certain way, like you wanna make the audience feel a certain way as well.

Something that people have expressed concerns about is how an artist like you, with a very individual and specific vision, has joined up with a label like Bad Boy Records, which doesn't have a great reputation for promoting its artists, nor for finding strong female role models. Did you have any preconceptions about Diddy or Bad Boy before you worked with them?

JM: I was done with labels, major labels, small labels, and I had already started my own label, the Wondaland Arts Society. So I was totally like, I'm not going to do any more showcases, because I felt the music industry as a whole… I felt like I could take things into my own hands. I didn't have to beg anyone to do anything for me, I wanted to come directly to the people anyway. I wanted to do it, so that's what I did. I started the label and I started selling CDs independently. But then Sean Combs – I wasn't surprised that he wanted to be in business with us. He has big ideas, and we have big ideas, and he said, creatively, I don't want to be involved, I just want to help you guys. We caught him at a good place in his life, and I'm very thankful to have him as a campaign champion, and somebody who loves what the Wondaland Arts Society is doing, and who can help us go to the different places that we want our music to go to. Again, I'm not about dividing, I'm about uniting. I'm just thankful to have him to help us unite so many people, and make people aware of the Wondaland Arts Society.

I wanted to ask you about the collaboration with of Montreal. How did that come about, and when did you first meet them?

JM: I met Kevin Barnes at his show at the Tabernacle in Atlanta. They live in Athens, Georgia, which is an hour and a half from Atlanta, and we just started talking about how I was so inspired by their performance, and they had been admiring me from afar as well. We had so much in common, so we started to hang out. We went on tour together, and organically we started working on music. I would send him stuff, he would send me stuff, and we worked on 'Make The Bus'. We both love each other's voices so much that if you listen closely to 'Make The Bus', one line is Kevin singing, the next line is me. Then we switch it up, and you can't even tell – it just becomes one voice instead of two, because we blended in so well together.

[The PR cuts in to say we have two minutes left.]

I've read you talk about your love of Prince, Madonna and reinvention. After the four suites of the ArchAndroid project, will we be seeing Cindi Mayweather again?

JM: I have plans, but I don't want to disclose them.

Ha, fair enough. You've said that you went going through a massive transformative period whilst making The ArchAndroid. Could you tell me about that?

JM: Well, a lot of this album came to me in my dreams, so I was able to document those. I became a more fearless writer and producer all round, I'm not afraid to make mistakes. I used to be a perfectionist, and then I started to be unafraid to fail, not afraid to make mistakes, and then a lot of great things came out of my voice, a lot of character came out of it, and I was able to stretch outside of anybody's expectations of what I could do. I transformed into a more evolved person, an artist.

In a lot of the articles I've read about you, people have compared you to Lady Gaga. You've talked about how genre and comparisons are reductive – does it frustrate you when people constantly draw these comparisons?

JM: No, not at all. People don't define me, I define myself. I respect her, I like her. I think she's great. But again, I've been this way for many, many years, and some people are just now catching on, we're only now meeting each other. But not at all, no. I'm very much confident in who I am, and I let everybody else discuss those things while I focus on creating art.