Janelle Monae: Funky Sensation
Prestigiously described by Sean ‘P.Diddy’ Combs as “a true visionary - one of the most important signings of my career”, 23-year-old singer/songwriter and self-styled “high funkstress” Janelle Monae this month releases her eagerly-anticipated first full-length LP ‘The ArchAndroid’. Whose futuristic and cinematic vibe is currently being pioneered by its punchily upbeat, brass-infused single ‘Tightrope’ - which additionally features a cameo from Monae’s early mentor, Outkast rapper Big Boi.
Already described as “ a soaring orchestral trip enlivened with blockbuster vocals, mysterious imagery and notes of Sixties pop and jazz”, ‘The ArchAndroid’ additionally boasts such diverse guests as renowned poet Saul Williams, psychedelic dance-punk troupe Of Montreal and punk prophets Deep Cotton; while theme-wise realising the next chapter within the story of Cindi Mayweather. Who, having been the fictitious heroine of Janelle’s Grammy-nominated debut EP ‘Metropolis, Suite 1: The Chase’, now turns out to be The ArchAndroid herself - sent to free the citizens of Metropolis from The Great Divide, a secret society using time-travel to suppress freedom and love throughout the ages.
Meanwhile, with the album itself due to soon be accompanied by a deluxe graphic novel version of it called ‘The Red Book’ (in addition to ‘Dance Or Die’, an 18-chapter ‘ArchAndroid’ music video collection) a soft-spoken, Atlanta-based Ms. Monae now takes time out of a hectic London photo-shoot to give an ever-attentive Pete Lewis the full lowdown.
Her Big Boi-featuring new single ‘Tightrope’ and its stunning, dance-themed video
“’Tightrope’ is basically dealing with how in life it’s important to keep your balance and not get too high or too low about things during the times when you’re either being praised or being criticised. Which is something that, as artists, Big Boi and I could both relate to. Because there are so many peaks and dips along the journey of just being an artist on the road to success. So we both felt it was important to kinda help those everyday working people who are constantly dealing with life’s obstacles, by giving them like a tutorial on how to deal with issues face-on. And the dance aspect of it basically signifies how sometimes people need to dance indefinitely to release a lot of the inner stresses they may be feeling at the time. So the moves are vey much self-explanatory. I mean, if there’s somebody who’s trying to oppress you, or holding you back from being yourself or from following your dreams, that’s how you can RESPOND! You know, it’s basically just giving you another option.”
The concept behind the title to Jonelle’s first full-length album project, ‘The ArchAndroid’
“I feel that, because of the way technology is so rapidly advancing - it’s becoming faster and smaller - there’ll come a time when robots will be able to learn the patterns of our emotions, and will be able to have mapped-out the human brain. So that, for example, if your long-time friend rang you, you wouldn’t be able to differentiate between her and an ANDROID calling you! And, while I am intrigued by that, I’m also concerned about how we’ll all get ON in the world! Because to me the android will represent a new ‘Other’ - just like any of us who’ve ever been considered ‘the minority’ at some time can feel like ‘The Other’! And so I’m basically asking people to think about whether we’d DISCRIMINATE against this new ‘Other’... And what makes The ArchAndroid herself very special is that she represents the MEDIATOR between the have’s and the have not’s, the minority and the majority. So in that way she’s very similar to Neo, the Archangel from ‘The Matrix’. And basically her return will mean freedom for the android community.”
With it already being described it as “an epic James Bond film in outer space”, how Jonelle breaks down ‘The ArchAndroid’ lyrically and musically
“If you listen to the album from the beginning to the end without skipping, you will hear that there is a story - and we like to think of the music as transformative because it is very diverse. I mean, in terms of influence it encompasses all the things I love - scores for films like ‘Goldfinger’ mixed with albums like Stevie Wonder’s ‘Music Of My Mind’ and David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’, along with experimental hip hop stuff like Outkast’s Stankonia’… And we like to describe it as ‘an emotion picture for the mind’ because I feel it’ll evoke so my emotions that you haven’t been in touch with before and that you didn’t think even EXISTED! Plus I do consider it genre-less, because I feel the music itself is so much bigger than labels and categories. You know, while recording we were on tour - travelling anywhere from Prague to Istanbul in Turkey to Atlanta, Georgia! And so we just experimented with all those different sounds we were hearing along the way.”
How Janelle’s humble beginnings in Kansas still influence her artistry
“I grew up in a working-class family. My mother was a janitor, my father drove trash-trucks, and my stepfather still works for the Post Office! So, because I feel very connected to the working-class, I do pay homage to them by wearing a black-and-white uniform every time I perform and whenever I’m out-and-about. Because I still consider what I do as work, even if it IS very much work that I enjoy... I mean, to me I make music for the PEOPLE - to uplift them, to motivate them, and to be a beacon of HOPE for them… I basically represent for individuals who are gonna turn NOTHING into SOMETHING.”
How she came to pursue a career in music
“I actually decided what I wanted to do very early on in life. In fact, when I was about nine years old I had a meeting with my family, told them what my plans were, and asked them to get on board… And they’ve been very supportive ever since! I mean, I actually started out going to The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. But, at the same time, I didn’t wanna get too influenced by standardised teaching - I knew I had my own ideas and I wanted to make myself AVAILABLE for that. So I basically ended up just following my instincts by moving to Atlanta, Georgia! You know, because my inner-compass and my spirit basically led me there, that’s where I ended up starting my own recording label, Wondaland Arts Society.”
How Janelle first hooked up with Outkast rapper Big Boi’s Atlanta-based Purple Ribbon label in 2006
“At the time we were very much in a do-it-ourselves mode. We weren’t trying to look for a major label to sign us, but just speaking directly to the people and pressing up our own CDs. You know, I was basically selling my CDs outside the boarding house I was staying in with five girls - and it was around that time that Big Boi first heard the music. And, because he was really inspired by it, he wanted to help and support what it is we were doing as a company. So he - along with (fellow Outkast member) Andre 3000 - allowed us to get on the Outkast ‘Idlewild’ album, for which we produced a song called ‘Call The Law’. And we’ve been like family ever since.”
Her current, ongoing relationship with P.Diddy’s Bad Boy label
“It’s a very uniquely structured deal, in that I still have my own recording label and I do creatively control everything I do. So in that way I guess you could actually say it’s more a PARTNERSHIP. You know, I do everything - write/produce/direct - in-house, and The Wondaland Arts Society - my recording label that I cofounded - has every kind of individual on board from performance artists to graphic novelists, screen writers, musicians, visual artists, graphic designers... You name it, we have it! And I think Diddy was really inspired by that, and the fact that we are self-contained and we do everything in-house. Which is why he wanted to expose what was going on at The Wondaground to the rest of the world. You know, rather than getting involved creatively he just wanted to be a project champion for what we were doing and contribute resources to the movement - simply because he BELIEVES in it!”
Janelle performs at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, London on July 1
Janelle’s single ‘Tightrope (Feat. Big Boi)’ is released July 5. The album ‘ArchAndroid’ follows on July 12, both through Atlantic/Bad Boy
Words PETE LEWIS