Photo courtesy of Warner Music
Words By: Chantle Beeso
Janelle Monae: Futuristic Insight
An Interview with Janelle Monáe
Wearing dress pants, a button-up shirt and a fedora to top it off, Janelle Monáe’s all-white ensemble certifies her as untouchable. Opening for Arcade Fire at the Toronto Island Concert, the curator behind the Wondaland Arts Society is pleasantly surprised to be performing at an amusement park. Having attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, what could have resulted in a career on Broadway turned into Monáe taking the stage in a new light. Naturally poised, Janelle Monáe sits down to talk about creation, inspiration and, of course, otherworldly existence.
Pound: You’ve said music is a platform to change the world. What changes are you looking to see and make with your music?
JM: I think unity. This, exactly what is here. Unifying people and my music being the catalyst to being people together. I think that if music connects to emotions and it has no religion, it has no race, it just touches people.
It’s the common denominator that I think will bring us all together. And that’s what I intend to do. So not to cater to just a red state or a blue state, but bring people together.
Pound: When did you discover you interest in androids and science fiction?
JM: I think probably when I started to work on Metropolis Suite I: The Chase, before that was released. My writing partner, who is also a graphic novel writer and screenwriter, Chuck Lightning, introduced me to those authors and those books.
Pound: Were you into any science fiction before that introduction?
JM: I grew up watching Alfred Hitchcock, Twilight Zone, things like that, but not reading any books. But I’ve always had an infatuation with the unknown and I’ve always been drawn to just otherworldly existence, something that people are afraid of.
Pound: When did you decide that you wanted Metropolis to be a continual story?
JM: When I started writing the album…I’m a writer. I grew up writing my own plays and musicals and I was heavily involved in musical theatre. So I’ve always been in love with a good story line and a concept. And this one was special because Cindy Mayweather, she’s an android, she’s my muse. She’s just so inspiring. I felt like her story was to be told. A lot of the songs came to me in my dreams and when you have situations like that happen, you know that it’s something special and it needs to be told in the right way. That’s why I decided to break it up and to just give you a little at a time because I know that there’s so much to the world. I could write about this album for years and years and years but I’m only going to do it in four suites.
Pound: You speak about your “uniform” as paying homage to the working class, what exactly do you mean by that?
JM: Exactly what it is: those who work everyday and have to wear a uniform. I just want to pay homage to them and give them a nod and let them know that I’m working too, and I see them. I, too, have a job; this is my responsibility. [I] make sure that the music we’re creating is getting out there and creating music that’s their choice of drug. Whenever they feel depressed or oppressed or suppressed I want them to listen to the music and let it organically be their form of medicine.
Pound: What are you looking to accomplish with the Wondaland Arts Society?
JM: I’m looking release more artists. Not only do we own the label but we’re all individually into our different things from screenwriting to writing graphic novels to music, of course, to graphic design, we have actors, you name it. I want to release more artists out into the atmosphere…music that we believe in. I want to create a team that helps promote individuality, to just create more diversity within the music industry right now, that’s our focus. And just really create a different blueprint for other aspiring artists to look to whenever they need inspiration or to know that you don’t have to follow the same coordinates to get to the same destination.
Pound: When you decided to take an alternate path toward your musical career, what emotions did you feel? Was there any fear?
JM: I wasn’t really fearful. What motivated me was when I was working at Office Depot. During the time I had left New York and I didn’t want to be doing that. And I got fired so that just motivated me even more and that’s when I met Big Boi. That’s when he heard “Letting Go”, a song I had written about being let go from my job and he put it out. And that was the start. I’ve never worked for anybody else since that song.
Pound: It’s amazing that you turned being fired into a successful career.
JM: Absolutely. Do it yourself mentality. That’s what we promote at Wondaland. We’re very self-contained, we have help but we don’t wait on anyone. We try to do as much as we can, turn nothing into something and just work with what we have.
Pound: Can you explain the concept behind the “Cold War” video? It seems very organic.
JM: Sure. That’s what it was. It was the first take, I had a lot of conceptual stuff before I did that take that I wanted to do, like “I want to do this, I want to do that,” and once we got the footage back and I watched that over and over again, “we said this is it.” Scratch everything else, this is the most honest that I can be. I want people to pay attention to the lyrics, the message, that’s it. I just want my face to be there and I wanted to deliver a message, unfiltered.
Pound: Do you have any specific memories of when you were recording The Archandroid (Suites II and III) that you’d like to share?
JM: Sure. I remember just not bathing for days, just getting up, working going to sleep, getting up working, going to sleep. Really in the zone. Everybody from Nate Rocket Wonder, [who] handles the music majorly, and Chuck Lightning is my writing partner, so us three. I just remember us being in our robes, pajamas just creating songs. We did it in our own environment and I just remember that. I remember us not combing our hair, not doing anything except recording. [There were] people coming over like, “what is wrong with you guys?” We were just really in the zone. We were all having dreams and all these really interesting and wonderful experiences that let us know we were on the right path.
Pound: You often mention staying balanced when you’re not on stage and in your life experiences. Why is it important for you to maintain that balance?
JM: Because I think you don’t want to go through life insane. I don’t think we should be reactionary, we should be proactive. For me, I don’t get too high off praises and accolades, because that’s when I think the ego comes in. And I don’t get too low off critiques or opinions because that’s when depression and wanting to be perfect comes in through trying to please somebody else and doing it for all the wrong reasons. So I think if you stay in the centre of it all you know what to take and use to help you become a better person but all the other stuff, just let that go and move on. Don’t hold on to baggage, just move forward. I think that’s just my personal strategy that helps me cope with life because you can only control your reactions.
Pound: Anything you’d like to share about Suite IV and Cindy Mayweather??
JM: [Laughs] no, I don’t have anything right now but we are shooting a video, a visual for every song on the Archandroid so that’s what I’m working on now. We have a very strong narrative and we’re crafting a headlining tour for the Archandroid. That will be my first major tour. And you’ll be able to see more of the Archandroid come to life on stage.
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