Janelle Monáe Talks Tour Fatigue, Performing With Prince: 'I'm Still Pinching Myself' (Q&A)
The "Electric Lady" singer looks back on a year of big accomplishments and ahead to the future via her own "soul clock."
Whether you’re talking to Janelle Monáe or her alter-ego, the android protagonist Cindi Mayweather, 2013/2719 has been one spaced-out year. Monáe’s in-the-works funk-futuristic odyssey confronts ignorance and intolerance, and its latest installment,The Electric Lady, inspired Billboard to name her this year’s Rising Star earlier this month.
The Electric Lady is the prequel to Monáe’s first full-length from 2010, The ArchAndroid, and features guests including Prince, Esperanza Spalding and Miguel. She spoke with The Hollywood Reporter from Atlanta on New Year's Eve, where she headlined the 25th annual Peach Drop at Underground Atlanta, part of M&M’s Year of Peanut campaign.
Happy New Year, Janelle. Are you celebrating 2014, or 2720?
[Chuckles] Somewhere in between.
What does an android do after midnight?
We will be onstage celebrating life, music, love and unity, and doing it with the help and sponsorship of M&M’s. I’m excited to be headlining the Atlanta Peach Drop, it’s a tradition here.
It caps an excellent month and year for you. You just played a string of shows with Prince. How does a rehearsal with Prince go? Who calls the shots?
Well, he’s on my album, The Electric Lady, and I had the wonderful opportunity of producing him. So I got a chance to call the shots for that particular collaboration (“Givin Em What They Love”). And I’m just so thankful. He’s a genius in my eyes, and one of my musical heroes. He let me really trust my instincts and let me guide him. It was an unbelievable experience. I’m still pinching myself.
In the press, it seems writers lump your music into one broad category. Do labels like Afrofuturism and Afropunk limit the perception of an artist? Shouldn’t a band like Fishbone exist as punk -- or Janelle Monáe as futurism -- without the Afro- qualifier?
I’m not a fan of labels. I do enjoy hearing the descriptions of the music, and of me, and I think that perspective is everything. Sitting to the left of the sun looks totally different than when you’re sitting to the right of it. Everybody has a different perspective of what they think about the music, and I’m just thankful that they’re thinking of me. There are lots of incredible artists out making music, and to be able to have the attention of so many people and have them continue to support me at this early stage in my career, I’m very thankful for that.
The android theme is such a powerful symbol. It represents, for many people, outcasts -- or in your words, “the Other” -- who are often targets of bigotry. Is this the year when equality for all will finally emerge?
I’m hopeful and optimistic for us coming together and truly celebrating our differences and understanding that there’s no hierarchy here, there’s no one person better or more superior than the other, no pun intended. When I speak about the Other, the Other may represent the woman, the minority, the gay and lesbian community, that person who is oftentimes discriminated against because of who they love or the color of their skin, or the class they come from. I just love bringing awareness. As an artist, I think it’s important to bring awareness to the many different hearts that we may have as people. If we would just open up our minds and truly embrace the things that make us unique -- even if it makes others uncomfortable.
When did you arrive at a point when you stopped caring about what people think?
Well, I don’t ever think I stopped thinking that way. I mean, to a certain extent, yes, you put out music and you write words where people can understand where you’re coming from. I try to inspire and uplift, and sometimes I want people to cry, sometimes I want people to think about themselves. It just depends on the song, and where I’m going musically. But I don’t spend a lot of time sculpting my image or who I am as a person based off what someone else may want me to be. At the end of the night we all have to deal with ourselves, and if we’re not happy with us, then there’s nobody else who can get into your body and live it for you -- unless you’re a clone or an android, or something like that.
Are you writing every day?
I write something. I will say, seven days out of a week, I’m at least writing something down five or six days a week. Whether it’s a song title, whether it’s something that I said that was funny in conversation, or someone said something to me that was meaningful. But yeah, I find myself having lots of things to write about, and it helps with my next material.
Speaking of your next material, when do you expect to complete the next installments of Metropolis? Have you already written Suites VI and VII?
Well, I have a lot of things up my sleeve, and a lot of different surprises. And I’ve learned that when the time is right, think about it, do things according to your soul clock, and don’t be too ahead of your time.
What would you say is the biggest challenge that comes with mapping out and writing a series of albums based on a concept? And how did you know when The Electric Lady was finished?
We’ll say that with The Electric Lady, I was inspired by my painting. I was inspired by painting every night. I did this tour, like, three months straight, and did so many paintings at home, and my friends and family, they encouraged me to name the series of paintings. And I tried to come up with a name and had a really hard time figuring out what that name was. I just listened to the energy, I listened to the visual reaction that I got from each painting. And The Electric Lady, those words came to my spirit, and I started to think of a world where there were more electric ladies. ... I started to just write songs, and I started to put together horn arrangements, string arrangements, to just get out all the complexities of women. And to show how we’re not all monolithic, we’re not all the same. I brought in community to the album. I brought in a community of artists, like Esperanza Spalding, Erykah Badu, Miguel, Solange and Prince.
What did you teach those artists?
Well, I guess you’ll have to ask them what they got from me. But it was such an organic process. A lot of it was truly inspired by our private conversations -- I spoke to all of them offline about the state of music, the state of the world, where we are, our responsibility as artists. You know, when you listen to the lyrics of “Q.U.E.E.N.,” those are true conversations that Erykah and I would have about women and about those who are oftentimes marginalized. We were able to learn things from each other. I’ll tell you what I learned from them: I learned what it takes to work with another artist and how to communicate effectively, especially with somebody that is truly just an incredible artist in their own right. I learned what it was like to be on the opposite end as a producer.
You recently canceled some shows for vocal rest. Was that a blessing or a curse?
Oh, a blessing. I was overdoing it. I was warming up my voice for, like, two hours and then I had two-hour press, and then I had a two-hour show. And I was doing that for, like, five days out of a week for two weeks straight. Don’t ask me why I did it. I knew that I needed the rest. I knew that I needed to cut down warming up that long, and I needed to just take off for a couple of days. So I postponed the shows and will make them up in January.
At what point did you realize that you sang well?
Well, you know, I progressed vocally over the years. My range has increased, I’ve been able to do things that when I first started out I couldn’t do. You truly have to enjoy what it is you’re doing. Even if no one was watching me, or paying me to come and sing, or writing about me, I would always sing. It makes me feel good. And it is therapy for me, to listen to myself as I’m singing, as I’m recording, as I’m humming, as I’m doing all those things. It’s just a part of my DNA. It’s who I am.
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