A Long Convo With… Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe has a lot to say. The left field singer-songwriter, who’s set to release her full-length, sci-fi inspired debut The ArchAndroid on May 18, is no mere gimmick, with her back-to-the-future pompadour, crisp white shirt, black slacks and 1950’s saddle shoes. She’s a rather serious, complex artist who isn’t afraid to wave her freak flag. Yet, Monáe still aims to entertain the masses. There is something refreshingly charming about a woman who jumps on tables during concert performances and makes genre-melding music that sound like her life depends on it. Yeah, she’s pretty interesting. —Keith Murphy
VIBE: What was the most memorable aspect of recording The ArchAndroid?
Janelle Monáe: We traveled to Prague and to Turkey… I had a lot of the songs come to me in my dreams. I had my recorder next to me in my bed and I was able to record everything that I could make of the dreams, thank God. We dealt with the music first. I write music for the people because I come from a working family. My mom was a janitor and my father drove trash trucks, and my stepfather actually works at the post office. I’m very connected to that society. That’s where my uniform comes from…I’m paying homage to that working class who turns nothing into something.
How does a song like “Tightrope” play into your homage to the working class?
So many people deal with so many obstacles everyday that they need to relieve some of that stress. So “Tightrope” deals with balance and not getting too high or too low. So I just really focused on creating art, songs that I felt would connect to people. I let all my fear go on whether people were going to like it or not.
It seems you’ve gained some famous fans. Can you talk about the experience of hanging out with Prince at his Paisley Park studio?
He is a definitely a huge supporter of what I do. I shared with him The ArchAndroid and he loved it. He has given me lots of advice. He is even encouraging everybody to go and get ArchAndroid because he was moved and touched by it. It’s very inspiring just to watch him. I heard his new album and its really going to be great.
Let’s talk about some of the other songs on ArchAndroid. Let’s start with “Dance Or Die,” which sounds very tribal yet funky. What inspired that song?
With “Dance Or Die” when we were creating that song it was a very spiritual, tribal experience. Saul Williams was there and we were just all sweated out. We were having a good time. We brought in some live horns and we really went to a spiritual place. I chose to rap instead of sing on “Dance Or Die” because I want my lyrics to hit home in a very bad ass way. We were all losing it and jumping on furniture. It was a Wonderland Arts Society tribe…shirts off, sweating… everything.
How much of a melodic influence did Michael Jackson have on “Locked Inside”?
Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder inspired that song. That’s actually one of the first songs that I started producing myself. I was really inspired by their chord progressions and the melodies that I’ve cried to over the years from both of them. I wanted to incorporate that feel. I believe that when someone dies that doesn’t mean they can’t live inside of you. You can keep their spirit alive.
When I hear “Sir Greendown,” I think about a Disney musical on acid.
[Laughs] Yeah… That color represents a very surreal place for me. It was inspired by Salvador Dali’s painting. But “Sir Greendown” also reminds me of James Bond. But the funny thing is the music was already written. I had gone to an Of Montreal concert and Nate, who produced the music, had stayed behind to work on a song that we were working on. I came back to the studio and he was asleep, lying on the keyboards. And I heard this sound, this hauntingly beautiful chord. It was as though he had been possessed and this had come out. It was scary, but so beautifully arranged. That combination just inspired the lyrics and the dreaminess and the psychedelic, operatic feel that it has.
You are becoming known for your live stage show, which is very high energy and interactive. Your three-piece band has this huge sound that comes off like there are 10 musicians onstage. How were you able to get that large feel from such a small outfit?