From Vibe — 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?
I started out really small, just me and a guitarist. Then I incorporated the drums and keyboards. But I like for things to be very sparse onstage. I don’t like to be crowded by lots of people. I’ve been very blessed to work with good people, but they also happen to be really amazingly gifted musicians that play more than one instrument. I like raw, talented individuals who can just take an instrument and just destroy it. I want people to see that in the players onstage. I didn’t need to go out and search for all these band members and spend all this money flying in such and such. I was like, “Ya’ll better learn some instruments [laughs].” People always ask me who I want to work with. My band is my dream. On guitar is Kallindo, who also plays the piano and the drums. We have Mike who plays the drums and the harmonica. And then we have T. Brown, who plays the keys, the bass and the horn.
Your stage show points to a lot of different influences. Of course there’s the unpredictable Janelle Monáe side, which compels you to literally jump on tables and interact with the fans. But there’s also James Brown in terms of your dancing and the David Bowie-Ziggy Stardust element, which points to the sci-fi elements and theatrical statements of The ArchAndroid.
Well, I don’t choreograph any particular thing I do onstage. The music hits me in a totally different way each time. It’s as though I’m being possessed. There’s a spirit that lives in me. I get very possessed; I have a spiritual connection to the song and the people are there and my adrenaline is rushing. I don’t even remember half the stuff I do until I watch the video again. But I think I do all those things onstage because I believe in my songs. I want to give so much that I allow myself to have an out-of-body experience each time I perform.
When you first released the Metropolis EP a lot of critics and bloggers didn’t know what to make of you. Do you feel that the intergalactic storyline from your first project overshadowed the music?
I never thought people didn’t connect to the music. From “Many Moons” to “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!” there were so many parallels in the music. I think people are smart. What I’m doing I guess within the context of what’s out today may seem weird. But people connect with me. I feel like the public is ready for a different energy and a different perspective.
Do you feel like the audience is catching on?
Yes, I really do. The thing is we are not all monolithic; we have our own ideas and concepts. I have a right to use my imagination. I’m for the individual and embracing the things that make us all unique. If your art is moving people, I say continue. I’m uniting. It’s not about catering to a blue state or a red state. It’s about getting those states to come out and create a purple state.
You were just recently announced as the opening act for Erykah Badu’s “Out of My Mind, Just In Time” tour. What does that mean for you and what can we expect from your show?
I’m really excited about touring with Erykah Badu. She’s a good friend of mine. We’ve done dates together and we’ve grown very close. I support her and she supports me. I think you are going to get an electrifying performance as she is evolving and constantly coming up with new concepts and ideas, and so am I. We both are for individuality and connecting with the people. And we both actually auditioned, believe it or not, for the same performing arts school (New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts) and got accepted in different years. Her recording career took off so she wanted to further that, which is great because we have her now. So we both love musical theater. I think it will be a very theatrical performance.