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Prince, Miguel, Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder, Outkast, and Diddy – these are just a few of the icons that artist and innovator Janelle Monae commands the respect of. Her infectious mix of funk, pop, R&B, and sci-fi has scored three of the most original and danceable records you’ll ever hear.
From, the Metropolis EP, to The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, each progressively follows the story of Cindi Mayweather, an android from the future who travels back in time and falls in love with a human. Intricate storytelling and high-brow concepts aside, her work is also simply a great time.
Monae will soon be joining New Zealand sensation and fellow modern soul vanguard Kimbra for a national co-headlining tour later this month. Ahead of these highly-anticipate dates, Janelle chatted to us about her upcoming Australian shows, collaboration, and how to succeed in music.
Watch: Janelle Monae feat Miguel – PrimeTime
Janelle, you’re doing a tour with Kimbra soon. How did that collaboration come about?
Janelle Monae: We met at the Montreux Jazz Festival and just kind of expressed the love that we share for one another and each other’s music, and we’ve just kept in contact ever since. She was just unafraid to say how big of a fan she was and, likewise, I expressed my admiration for her as well.
What is she like to work with?
JM: She’s a ball of fun. She has lots of ideas, she’s very smart. She’s just upbeat, always ready for the next thing. We text-message all the time, new concepts and ideas we have for the stage and for the show. It’s hard to narrow things down because there’s so much there, from her range of music and my range of music.
So what should fans expect from your Australian shows?
JM: The unexpected. To have their minds blown, their hair and wigs blown back. I think that after people have seen this show they’re going to feel a lot better about themselves, and about life, what their purpose is if they haven’t found it.
You collaborate with a lot of amazing R&B and soul artists – is collaboration something that’s quite important to you?
JM: Absolutely. I think that individuality through collectivism is a huge way to change the world. You bring your individuality to people that are also trying to shape the world through ideas and you’ll be able to do something that is life-changing for somebody else. I love that, I love collaborating. I love understanding other artists’ processes, I love learning.
Is there anyone in particular you really want to work with, or any one style you really want to learn from?
JM: I love Johnny Depp and I love Tim Burton. I would love to collaborate with both of them.
In film? Or having them do a video clip for you, for example…
JM: Whatever we want to do.
Awesome. You’ve said that the android theme in your music represents the “other.” Does using science fiction in your lyrics enable you to express things that you wouldn’t be able to otherwise?
Watch: Janelle Monae feat Erykah Badu – Q.U.E.E.N.
JM: It’s the way that you express it. I’m not afraid to express anything. But I’m also annoyed by cliché and repeatedly telling the same story that everybody else tells. I love having a unique approach. I think exploring fiction and certain things in different worlds and alternate universes… it really does give a different perspective.
What’s the main message that fans can take away from The Electric Lady?
JM: That fans can take away… I’m sorry, what? What can they take away from the album?
JM: I don’t know. That’s a really difficult question. I don’t know what they take away from the album.
So you leave it up to everyone’s personal interpretation?
Okay, cool. What draws you to R&B and funk in particular?
JM: It runs through my veins. It’s part of my DNA. I was born with it.
How different would your music be without Atlanta?
JM: I don’t think that I would be here. I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Atlanta helped me grow and discover new things about myself that I would not have found if I had stayed in New York or stayed in Kansas. I started to become an independent artist here. I was trying new concepts and ideas. I was just unafraid to do it by myself.
It lead me to meeting my production team, Nate Wonder and Chuck Lightning, and I created and co-founded the Wondaland Arts Society and my own recording label, so all that started here. This is the foundation of Janelle Monae.
You just mentioned Wondaland – can you talk a little bit about that?
JM: It’s a history school, art collective… we’re just really rewriting history. We have actors, screenwriters, musicians of course, visual artists, you name it. We’re just trying to create a different blueprint for aspiring artists.
Since there are so many different art forms amongst you guys and so many ideas being thrown around, do you think you would do things outside of music? For example, you’ve said you love to write, would you ever put together a novel or a script or other kinds of art?
JM: Yeah we have a screen thing, I’ve already written a couple of them that I’m involved in. I’m constantly writing. I write all my songs. I write journals… I do a lot, it’s just not published.
We wanted to ask you, one of our favourite lyrics in Q.U.E.E.N. is “Am I a sinner with my skirt on the ground“. What do you think about the music industry’s attitudes towards female sexuality?
JM: I think that it’s something that’s marginalised, that there are many different ways to show your sexuality, and to redefine what sexy means. That’s what I’m interested in.
Watch: Janelle Monae – Dance Apocalyptic
What advice would you give to people to find the strength to do that? Because it can be quite difficult.
JM: I think you just have to always put the message out of women being in control of their bodies. Also at the same time, understanding that there are many ways to be sexy, and to express your sexuality, and to remain in control of that.
That’s one of the reasons you wear the tuxedo as a uniform, right? To redefine what it means to be feminine and sexy?
JM: No. It’s because I can’t afford any other clothes [laughs]
Fair enough. Just finally, what advice would you give to someone who is a little different and marginalised and wants to get into music?
JM: Embrace the things that make you feel comfortable. Remember there’s power in the word ‘No.’ Don’t get too high, don’t get too low. Oh, and also that perfection, and complacency, can both be the enemy of greatness.
So it’s about finding a middle ground?
JM: Balance in all things.
Well, thank-you so much for talking to us today. We’re really excited for you to come to Australia.
JM: Me too. I think people are going to have an incredible experience. I think people’s lives are going to be enriched, and they’ll feel better about themselves after they see this show. So I encourage everyone to see it. Thank-you so much.