Interview: Janelle Monáe – Singer, Songwriter and Producer

Posted: May 21, 2010 in interview, music
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Janelle Monae

Date of Interview: 05/21/2010

The musical work of Janelle Monáe cannot be easily defined or categorized.  And while such tasks have grown in importance on the business side of the equation, the only issue that concerns Monáe is that she remains fearless in her music-making.

Bridging (and blurring) the categorical lines that separate music lovers, Janelle has created a debut album for the ages, which masterfully pushes the limits of “rock and soul” music.  And at the age of 24, as a byproduct of the hip-hop generation, the spirit of innovation flows through her blood, and her music, too.

On May 18, 2010, Janelle Monáe released the follow-up to her critically-acclaimed EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite (Special Edition), which featured the GRAMMY-nominated singles, “Many Moons.”  In the midst of a promotional campaign for The ArchAndroid, the singer managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on her early experiences at American Musical & Dramatic Academy, her emotional attachment to “Smile,” and the kindred spirit she shares with Erykah Badu.

Clayton Perry: Since “Tightrope” served as the lead single for The ArchAndroid, I am curious to learn if there was a particular piece of advice or a particular life experience that forced you to learn how to “tip on the tightrope”?

Janelle Monáe: Oh, yes, for sure. But really, just simply being an artist, there are so many highs and lows in the music industry that I knew early on that I needed to stay right in the middle of all of that, not getting too high off accolades and praises.  Whenever you let ego come in and stand front-and-center, that’s a hard to thing to get rid of. And also, just learning to not get too low over opinions and critiques and all of the reviews and different things like that. And so, personally, I know that I have to have balance, and have to pull back and not lean too much on one side. I feel like when I was writing “Tightrope,” I wanted it to be an anthem for the people who also are going through being oppressed for just being themselves. And in those words that I wrote, I want them to recite those words. This is what you say to those people who are trying to hold you back from being you.

Clayton Perry: Since you intended “Tightrope” to serve as an anthem of sorts, when you reflect on the lyrics of “Cold War,” what do you hope music lovers will be inspired to fight for when they listen to your music?

Janelle Monáe: Well, I come from a working class family, so I create music for the people. My mother was a janitor and my father drove a truck for trash collection.  And my step-father, who is like my father, works for the post office. So I definitely empathize with those who are turning nothing into something, going through life struggles, everyday life struggles and just really, whether they’ve gone through oppression, depression, suppression…and just trying to stay sane in this world. And so that’s how I craft my music, to inspire and motivate the people always.

Clayton Perry: To date, I have had the pleasure of seeing you perform in New York City on two separate occasions. And at your album release party, I saw you perform “Smile” for the very first time. What kind of special attachment do you have to that song?

Janelle Monáe: Oh, man! I’ve been performing “Smile,” for as long as I can remember. It’s definitely one of the highlights of the set. I just think, as a human being, I have to ensure that I stay sane. And sometimes we can really lose perspective and we can get caught up in some of the negative things that are going on in our lives, and in the world, and not realize that life itself is just a blessing. And so “Smile,” when I heard Stevie Wonder’s rendition on With a Song in My Heart, it made me cry, and I’ve always wanted to give that same emotional experience that I had with it to my supporters.

Clayton Perry: Although you are a tremendous singer, I just have to say, James Brown would just be proud of your energetic performance. I know that you attended the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in New York City, but do you credit a particular pre-professional experience for merging your love of singing and dancing?

Janelle Monáe: Well, I was always heavily involved in musical theatre programs, which led me to school for musical theatre. In high school, I had the lead role in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. I had a part in The Wiz, too. And I wrote plays as well. I was a part of the Young Playwright’s Roundtable at the Coterie Theatre. And so I was always using my imagination and just writing. I guess this has been with me over half my life. It seems the musical theatre is just instilled in my heart. I went to school for a little while, but I left the American Musical & Dramatic Academy because I didn’t want to be too influenced by the standardized teachings. I didn’t want to sound like everybody else. I didn’t want to approach music and art or musical theatre like everybody else. I wanted to create my own musicals and bring out the things that made me human.

Clayton Perry: For me, it is hard to imagine someone having that much strength to just walk away from an opportunity like that. What inspired and led you to Atlanta?

Janelle Monáe: Not really an interesting story. It was just me following my inner compass. Something was telling me to move to Atlanta, and it was one of the best things that happened to me because I was able to meet so many like-minded individuals. I started my own recording label: The Wondaland Arts Society. This is my home. I’m from Kansas City originally, but artistically I had to make it to grow here, and I’m so glad I made that decision. I listened and I trusted my instincts.

Clayton Perry: Shed a little more light on the Wondaland Arts Society, especially two of your fellow collaborators, Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder. What kind of special relationship do you have with  them?

Janelle Monáe: Absolutely. The Wondaland Arts Society serves as a recording label. We look at it like a Motown. There are so many artists that we’re going to be putting out. Deep Cotton is next in line to put out their projects, and I’m excited about those guys. The label and the collective consists of artists, from visual artists to performance artists to actors to screen writers, graphic novelists, graphic artists, I mean musicians, you name it. We just want to help preserve art and create a blueprint for a generation coming behind us to follow. And we really want to help promote individuality, celebrating our differences. And we use music as our weapon and we have a right to our imagination. And Nate “Rocket” Wonder and Chuck Lightning have been creating all the music that you’ve heard. We’ve been collaborating together, just us three. Nate usually handles all the music that you hear and Chuck and I, we write and conceptualize together. So those are my favorite writers and producers. If you ask me all the time, who do you want to work with, I’m working with my dream team.

Clayton Perry: When you look back on your recording experiences together, is there a particular word that immediately comes to mind?

Janelle Monáe: Fearlessness. We were very fearless in this process. A lot of the songs came to me, and I think Nate and Chuck also said they had some of these experiences. But I got a lot of my song ideas in my dreams. I would literally wake up in the middle of the night. I would have my iPhone recorder by my bed, and I would just record whatever I dreamt, whether it was a full song or it was images that I’d seen, or whatever. We kept ourselves very open, and we tried to be as free as we possibly could in creating and not doing things just for the sake of being different, and, at the same time, not trying to allow politics on this album. We just really listened to our Maker, and a lot of the stuff couldn’t have been planned. We focused on the music. We knew that we wanted to create music to uplift and motivate the people. And that’s all we focused on when creating.

Clayton Perry: As I encountered your music, it also allowed me to be introduced to other artists. I actually saw the video for Sun Ra’s “Space is the Place” for the first time on YouTube just after discovering your work. And in my conversations with others, they have discovered – and re-discovered – artists like Fela and James Brown, too. What kind of historical appreciation do you hope that your fans will generate and pull from the previous generation of artists?

Janelle Monáe: Yes, as much as I love the past, and I love the past artists, artists like James Brown and whatnot, I think it’s also important to focus on new concepts and ideas. We really want to have focus on the future and create something that really hasn’t been done. Those are our goals. At the same time, we definitely understand those artists who come before us and who’ve helped open up doors and make it a little more easy for us to do the type of music that we love doing. People fought for us to have the creative freedom that we have, and we do pay homage to those artists. You can find that however you can.

Clayton Perry: I know this summer you are hitting the road with Erykah Badu and you also have a few appearances on the Lilith Fair. As you began to prepare for these experiences, what conversations did you have with Erykah and other fellow female artists?

Janelle Monáe: Erykah Badu and I are really good friends. She has definitely been a huge supporter of me at a very early stage of my career, and I support her evolution. So I am excited be on tour with her. We both really stand up and want to fight for individuality. I think it’s very important. So I’m excited to go on that tour. We also are musical theatre lovers at heart. We auditioned for the same school, the American Musical & Dramatic Academy. So I’m on tour, and I’m on the Lilith Fair tour that I’m honored to be a part of. And then I’m also on tour with Of Montreal, and they’re good friends of mine. I have a song with Kevin Barnes on The ArchAndroid entitled “Make the Bus.” If you listen closely, we were such huge lovers of each others’ voices that he was trying to imitate me, I was trying to imitate him, and we ended up sharing the verses. So one line, I would sing. The next line, he would sing, and we’d go back and forth like that. So I’m excited to be working with him because they’re also pretty wild and dramatic. We’re all going to save our dramas for onstage.

Clayton Perry: As you speak on the individuality you and Erykah Badu honor and appreciate, have you ever felt any backlash or pushback for trying to maintain your individuality?

Janelle Monáe: Thankfully, I have a very supportive team. I mean from Sean Combs to Big Boi to Atlantic Records, everyone here can remember when we decided we all really believe in the message, and we are free. It’s time that, as being a black woman and of the black people, that people understand that we are not all monolithic. We need to celebrate our differences. Being a woman in the music industry, I think that it’s extremely important that somebody is saying that, and saying that we need to celebrate our differences. Redefining how a woman can wear her hair and how a woman can dress and the type of music that she can create. I think that that’s important. I think that sparks the fire and it encourages other young girls who are deciding if they’re going to be comfortable with themselves and their unique qualities or if they’re just going to live vicariously through somebody else and follow somebody else. It helps them to love the person that God made them to be.

Clayton Perry: The ArchAndroid stands as the centerpiece of a four-part Metropolis series.  What reflection do you have on your first encounter with Fritz Lang’s silent film?  And do you see the series evolving past the fourth suite?

Janelle Monáe: I can’t give away too much of that information, but we’re constantly creating music. Suite IV will be out sooner than you think! We’ll never stop, like a waterfall, and that’s why we try to do what’s right with it, so that God doesn’t take away our superpowers and if it’s given us, that we’re very thankful for it. But right now, we’re just focusing on creating the visuals for every song on The ArchAndroid. It’s going to be a mini-movie – a mini motion picture that translates the music to the live experience.

Clayton Perry: Recently, I came across a quote from Brentin Mock in the Atlantic, and I wanted to get your thoughts on his assessment of the ArchAndroid. He wrote: “Monáe has given pop music its first Toni Morrison moment, where fantasy, funk, and the ancestors come together for an experience that evolves one’s soul.”

Janelle Monáe: I appreciate those individuals who are listening to the music, from critics to supporters and music consumers, and their letting it move them. They’re not trying to categorize it and keep accepting it for what it is. But I try to stay very balanced. I don’t get too high, I don’t get too low. At the end of the day, I am interested in breaking boundaries and exceeding all the genres and labels. I want to do away with all those things. I mean, great music is great music. You either love it or you hate it, in my opinion. I’m going to continue to create that music, hopefully lead by example and help promote individuality. Not just being different for the sake of being different. I think it’s important that you have a message and that you do the music that’s in your heart. That’s what I’m doing – without getting too high or low over any comment.

Clayton Perry: As more and more people become acquainted with Janelle Monáe, “the artist,” what would you like for them to know about Janelle Monáe, “the person”?

Janelle Monáe: I’m a doer. I don’t really do a lot of talking, I guess. But I’m very interested in uniting. I want you to know that. The thing I love about the Android is that it represents the other. And that’s why I connect with the Android. I think that we are going to live in a world with androids soon, because of the rapid advancement of technology. I think, though, that we’ll need a mediator for the other and the majority, of the haves and the have nots, the oppressed and the oppressor. There’s a saying in Metropolis, the movie, which inspired me. “The mediator between the mind and the hand is the heart.” And I consider myself the heart.

Clayton Perry: Well said, well said. As you have traveled internationally, how do you gauge your reception? It is often said that music is the common denominator for all people. Is there something you have seen in your travels that might have proven that?

Janelle Monáe: Well, I haven’t been able to not go anywhere and feel at home. I mean, we’ve played festivals with so many different ethnicities and colors and cyborgs and androids and gays, straights … All that. If music is making us united, I’m just very grateful that we’ve been able to create that music that people can bond over and unite on. And that’s happened across the world. That’s in North America, in Europe and in the UK as well. I think that people love what they love. Music has no color. So that’s the thing that I think makes people feel so inviting, and I think their live experience juxtaposes that. As it pertains to me, it has been keeping people coming, so that’s a blessing.

For more information on Janelle Monáe, visit her official website:

  1. Amazing. Janelle Monae is one of my favorite artist. Thank you for your wonderful piece.

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