Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1074

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Janelle Monae: Visionary Express

Janelle Monae
Janelle Monae Janelle Monae Janelle Monae Janelle Monae

Prestigiously described by rap-superstar-cum-industry-mogul Sean âP.Diddyâ Combs as âa true visionary - one of the most important signings of my careerâ, 27-year-old singer/songwriter/producer/dancer and self-styled âhigh funkstressâ Janelle Monáe this month returns with her eagerly-anticipated second full-length LP âThe Electric Ladyâ. Which - the follow-up to her double-Grammy-nominated 2010 debut album âThe ArchAndroidâ - is currently being pioneered by the thought-provoking, powerful funk groove of its Erykah Badu-featuring offshoot single âQ.U.E.E.N.â

Born Janelle Monáe Robinson on December 1, 1985 in Kansas City, Kansas, Janelle would go on to study drama at New Yorkâs American Musical and Dramatic Academy before eventually moving to her current home of Atlanta, Georgia, where she would soon go on to found her own independent record-label - The Wondaland Arts Society - with like-minded young artists. A move which in turn ultimately brought her to the attention of chart-topping rap duo Outkastâs Big Boi. A figure who would prove instrumental in the advancement of her career - not only through him inviting her to appear on Outkastâs Platinum-selling 2006 âIdlewildâ LP, but also through him the same year introducing her music to the aforementioned Sean Combs, who immediately signed her to his Atlantic Records-affiliated Bad Boy label. For whom Monáe would go on to release the 2007 Grammy-nominated EP âMetropolis: Suite 1 (The Chase)â followed in turn by her aforementioned 2010 debut album âThe ArchAndroidâ. Which - described as âpsychedelic soul with a sci-fi twistâ and lyrically dealing with the fictional futurist concept of Janelleâs alter-ego Cindi Mayweather becoming a messianic figure to the android community of Metropolis (as a sequel to the theme of said previous EP) - would reach a respectable Number 17 in the US while also charting across Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, the UK and The Netherlands.

Since which time Monáe (who has been named alongside the likes of Parliament/Funkadelic funkmaster George Clinton and cosmic jazzman Sun Ra as an innovator within the forward-thinking âAfrofuturism Movementâ) has gone on to attain her biggest mainstream success to date, as featured vocalist on one of 2012âs biggest-global smashes - American rock/pop trio fun.âs âWe Are Youngâ. Whose instantly-catchy chorus found it hitting Number One in the USA, UK, Canada, Australia and Ireland while also prestigiously garnering three Grammy nominations along the way.

â¦Which in turn brings us conveniently back to today. As an ever-charismatic Ms. Monáe - visually famed for her immaculately-coiffed hair and signature black-and-white tuxedo wardrobe - holds court with âBlues & Soulâ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis within the opulent luxury of her five-star Central London hotel. As she happily discusses her aforementioned new album (whose guests - alongside aforementioned neo-soul Queen Erykah Badu - impressively include global rock/funk icon Prince and contemporary R&B chart-topper Miguel) plus her early background in Kansas and ensuing rise to multi-award-winning international acclaim.

How Janelle feels in general about her new album musically and lyrically

âWell, the fact I took a more executive-production role this time meant I was able to produce some of my true musical heroes. Like Erykah Badu, whoâs an amazing artist - and so for her to be gracious enough to trust me and let me guide her through the song was GREAT. And while my last album âThe ArchAndroidâ was about self-realisation and realising that you have this unique ability and these super-powers, âThe Electric Ladyâ is to me more about just being unafraid to use those powers to actually DO things with your HANDS. Plus itâs also REBELLIOUS, in that thereâs a lot of PROTESTING going on. You know, I talk about how I feel about politics, how I feel about religious beliefs, how I feel about sexuality... While people also get a chance to understand my position on things like break-ups - which is that you have to move ON - and my position on love in GENERAL⦠So yeah, I think itâs just an album that does highlight and showcase my work very WELL. I was able to pick up the guitar, I did a lot of engineering⦠You know, I was able to contribute in a large WAY!â

The impressive list of guest-artists sheâs brought on board this time round

âWell, as I say, Erykah (Badu) guests on the first single âQ.U.E.E.N.â. Which is a song that was basically inspired by our private conversations about our views on community, women, being leaders... You know, itâs definitely a track thatâs meant to provoke dialect and get people talking⦠Then I also got to produce and duet with Miguel - whoâs an amazing writer and producer - on a song called âPrime Timeâ. Which is about the importance of the sharing of love-making between two people and how itâs a gift to be preserved and truly respected and handled with great CARE. Because as an artist, you know, while youâre out being The Electric Lady or whatever, everything becomes all about THAT. And so we do need to be able to de-compress and take the time to EXPERIENCE things like love - which is a side of me that I think is important and youâre gonna see more OF... Plus I also worked with Esperanza Spalding, whoâs just a consummate artist all-ROUND. Like her playing is most definitely state-of-the-art, plus sheâs opening a lot of doors for female musicians, PERIOD. And so to produce her was like a dream come TRUE... Then of course with this album I also got the chance to produce a bona fide all-time music ICON - i.e., PRINCE! You know, itâs not every day that he collaborates - and so the fact he trusted me does make me feel very honoured and HUMBLE! Plus Iâm also very honoured that he and I are now great FRIENDS! And when a friend - someone who cares about your career and wants to see you go far and to push boundaries and shake up the world - is happy to give their time to contribute to your latest project, you really do end up creating something truly GREAT together!â

How Janelleâs humble beginnings in Kansas still influence her artistry

âI grew up in a very community-oriented, working-class family. My mother was a janitor, my biological father drove trash-trucks, and my stepfather - who treated me just like his own daughter - worked at 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 Iâm out-and-about. Because I still consider what I do as work, even if it is 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.â

How she came to pursue a career in music

âI 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 theyâve been very supportive ever SINCE! I mean, I actually started out going to The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. But though that whole experience did prove to be a great life-lesson - I was able to get out of Kansas and outside of my comfort-zone and meet other people who were not like me and didnât have the same morals and values - at the same time I didnât wanna get too influenced by standardised teaching. I knew I had my own ideas and I wanted to make myself AVAILABLE for that. Which is why I ended up leaving and basically just following my instincts by moving to Atlanta, Georgia! You know, because my inner-compass and my spirit basically led me there, thatâs where I ended up starting my own recording-label - Wondaland Arts Society - so I could really develop myself as an artist.â

The story behind Janelle first hooking up with Outkast rapper Big Boi in 2006

âAt the time we were very much in do-it-ourselves mode. We werenât 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 was we were doing as a COMPANY. So he - along with (fellow Outkast member) Andre 3000 - allowed us to get on the Outkast âIdlewildâ album, for which we produced a song called âCall The Lawâ... And weâve been like family ever SINCE! Because Big Boi was very instrumental in introducing me to a wider audience of people outside of just the Atlanta crowds Iâd been playing to. Plus he was also the one who brought my music to the attention of Sean (P.Diddy) Combs, whose Bad Boy label weâre of course now with.â

The album âThe Electric Ladyâ is released September 9. The single âQ.U.E.E.N. Featuring Erykah Baduâ is out now, both through Atlantic/Bad Boy.


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