The smart Monáe
With her sharp suits and trademark quiff, P Diddy’s newest prodigy oozes star quality. She talks to Ailbhe Malone about the arrival of androids and on-stage orgasms
Published 13/08/2010 | 05:00
The hair is the first thing you notice. A staggering afro question mark quiff, it sits regally upon a small, pretty face, which is obscured today by a pair of giant, round sunglasses. The small face speaks -- "It takes me four minutes and two seconds to do my hair. I can't tell you how I do it. There's no hairspray involved though." World, meet Janelle Monáe.
You may not instantly recognise the name, but you'll soon know who she is -- the hair, the dapper black and white tuxedo uniform she wears daily, and that instantly legendary live performance on The Tonight Show with David Letterman. Astutely signed by P Diddy in an instance of like recognising like, Monáe's got star quality shining out of her buttonhole.
Engulfed by a hotel sofa, clad in an immaculate white jeans and white shirt combo, Monáe peers from behind her dark glasses. Kansas-born, music is in her bones, she explains. "My father's side are very musically inclined, his mother -- my grandmother -- played the organ, and my cousins would sing raw gospel, kind of James Brown soul. And then the other side was classically trained, beautiful operatic voices. So I would jump back and forth between those sides of the family. My mum sings, but she wouldn't consider herself a singer. Mind you, she does sing more than me, probably. But they were very encouraging of me, when I told them what I wanted to do."
Not all aspects of Monáe's lifestyle are as easily accepted, alas. With a blasting guffaw that seems ill at odds with her calm demeanour, Monáe adds: "My mum doesn't copy my hairstyle. She is always trying to take it apart and comb it and I say no! My mother's very heavy-handed, and she could hurt somebody's head!"
Although Monáe is gracious, and responsive, she yields a steely will. That guffaw may have been natural but it is a rare occurrence, and doesn't resurface during the course of the interview.
After high school, she moved to New York to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (a "huge cultural shock", she notes), and then onto Atlanta, Georgia, where she spent her time working in an office supplies shop, trying to get a record deal signed.
Realising that nothing was going to happen of its own accord, Monáe instead set up her own collective -- the Wondaland Arts Society.
"Wondaland is a state of mind -- it's in your heart, it's here now. It's a collective of artists who consider ourselves individuals and won't allow race or gender to create a barrier between us and our goals. We want to preserve art," she enthuses.
When one certain Diddy noticed Monáe's music on MySpace, he was quick to sign her to his label, but Monáe arranged it so that, in her words, she "got the better end of the stick" and managed to retain complete artistic control. Wrangling with a mega mogul? That's got to take some guts. Or just solid determination.
"I've never been unsure about being an artist," she says. "Just before, when I was going to record labels and trying to get signed, that was when I realised that I had to speak directly to the people. I had to redefine what success meant to me: it was to inspire people. I don't need a middle man to do that, especially if the middle man was going to hold me up and wasn't in touch with the people.
"I think of my fans as supporters. This is a movement. I'm not a celebrity, I'm an artist. For the most part, I can't say that we've had negativity surrounding this project because that's not what I give out. I believe you are what you give out, and I don't live my life like that."
The 'project' that Monáe speaks of is her new album -- The ArchAndroid. A tricksy concept album, it details the life of Cindi Mayweather, an android who has been sent back in time to free the citizens of Metropolis from a secret society. Along the way Cindi falls in love with a human, which is totally verboten. And that's the condensed version. It's an ambitious work, to say the least.
Mixing soul, hip-hop, jazz, funk and classical music, Monáe stylishly moves from genre to genre without losing any of her own personality along the way. Is she worried that the complex structure of the album will lose her listeners? She jokes, "I don't know if anyone will have difficulty understanding the scheme of the record," before the business-lady kicks in, "But, we did want to make sure that even if you knew nothing about the concept, you'd still be able to appreciate the songs individually. There's no wrong or right way -- I always encourage people to listen from the beginning to the end, because there's an arc to the story -- but we created the songs to stand alone."
At the end of the record, Cindi's fate remains unsettled. Driven out of the city by the secret police, her human lover forlornly searches for her. So, Ms Monáe, what happens next? Coyly, she responds: "I can't tell you what happens to Cindi. But she's well, she's living. She's excited about how people have gravitated towards her story. She's my muse. The whole android community is, because I feel like they represent the new form of the other. We can all relate to that -- at some point in our lives we've felt like the other."
The idea of using a muse to express a concept isn't a new one. Monáe has previously spoken of her fondness of Ziggy Stardust -- David Bowie's famous alter ego. What is slightly more interesting, though, is Monáe's own past. The daughter of two hard-working parents (her mum was a janitor, her father works in the post office), she had to deal with her father's drug addiction as a young child. Does she feel, perhaps, that it's easier to express her own feelings about discrimination and helplessness through a muse such as Cindi?
An icy chill swirls around the room, as Monáe shoots a death stare from behind her dark glasses. "I can be very direct when I want to be. But this is something I definitely believe we'll have to deal with. Androids will live in the world with us, and we'll have to choose if we're going to discriminate against them, and if we're going to repeat history and treat them like inhuman robots."
Surely though, negative experiences have affected her at some stage, no? "Sure, there have been negative people in my life, "she pauses. "Because when you grow, there are people who don't grow with you. So it's a hard thing to do, but in order to continue to grow you have to get rid of the weeds."
The death stare is wheeled out only once more, when speaking of possible love interests. There are none, in case you were worried. "I'm in love with what I do right now," she says. "I get all kinds of orgasms on stage. Really sriously, I'm in love with where I am artistically."
She may be speaking calmly, but the words seem empty -- a shock statement to entice press. On stage later that night, however, they ring true. While performing, Monáe is electric, with a presence that is inescapable. Her careful quiff falls down in her face and she's entirely lost in the music. Artists like this don't come along often. Monáe would be a star on any planet. We're lucky she's chosen ours.
ArchAndroid is out now. Janelle Monáe makes her Irish debut at Electric Picnic in September
Janelle Monáe isn't the only artist to think beyond our Solar System
Robbie Williams has expressed his utter belief in aliens. Now rejoined with Take That, will the Robster (right) continue to spend time UFO hunting? Time will tell "I'm stopping being a pop star and being a full-time ufologist."
Be-Bop and afro-futurism legend Sun Ra not only believed in aliens, he also insisted that he himself was an alien. A being from Saturn, to be specific. "I landed on a planet that I identified as Saturn ... they teleported me and I was down on a stage with them. They wanted to talk with me."
American Idol winner Adam Lambert has proclaimed himself a "glittery alien from Planet Fierce". Sadly, Lambert has yet to elaborate on where Planet Fierce may be located, but chances are it's "in your heart". "I realised that we all have our own power, and that whatever I wanted to do, I had to make happen."