Q&A: Janelle Monáe Opens Up About The Making Of Her Star-Studded Sophomore Album, The Electric Lady
Next week Janelle Monáe will release her sophomore album, The Electric Lady. Much like her full-length debut, 2010’s The Archandroid, Monáe’s new album plays along the fringes of pop music and psychedelic funk, while also furthering the singer’s ongoing conceptual obsession with androids, science fiction, and futuristic feminism. Once again working with her cohorts in the Wondaland Arts Society (Deep Cotton and Roman GianArthur) and with production courtesy of Diddy and Big Boi and Monáe herself, The Electric Lady is far and away the most expansive and musically unruly thing that Monáe has ever done. It also doesn’t hurt that she recruited an insane laundry list of people — Erykah Badu, Miguel, Solange, Esperanza Spalding, and someone called Prince — to help bring the Lady to life. From any other artist, a rock/soul/funk/pop concept album about a future dominated by androids — complete with entire song shout-outs to Dorothy Dandridge and Sally Ride — might seem like an interesting (albeit kind of insane) mess of a listen, but it’s a testament to Monáe’s unwavering vision and total conviction regarding the material that The Electric Lady not only works, it basically soars. As we go sliding into the final months of 2013, it’s hard to imagine that anyone else in Monáe’s position will release anything quite as ballsy or wildly kaleidoscopic this year.
STEREOGUM: I didn’t realize until just recently that you actually grew up in Kansas. I went to school in Kansas. How old were you when you left there? You moved to New York from Kansas, right?
MONAE: I moved to New York from high school and I went to an art school there. I grew up in a very working class family. My parents worked very hard, day to day. They wore uniforms. My grandmother also assisted in taking care of us and I grew up around, like, 50 first cousins. So I had a very large family, a loving family. You know, they were all deeply involved in the arts and I just used it as a way to just stay focused. I knew I’d always love Kansas, but also I wanted to be out there in the world. I was always traveling around, performing and doing talent showcases and being driven around in my mom’s two-door Dodge. Being involved in the arts really did keep me encouraged because I grew up in one of the poorest counties in Kansas and resources were limited. We were in drug infested neighborhoods; sometimes you have people in your family that could succumb to that. There were dark days. I think that singing and performing and creating really helped me deal with a lot of stuff — it was my way through all of that.
STEREOGUM: The Archandroid came out in 2010. How radically did that record — and the response to it — change your life? Or did it?
MONAE: Sure it did. There was an amazing response. You know, we just did the music that we loved and wanted to hear — and we told the story that we felt could be of inspiration and empowerment. We just wanted to make sure that we were being very honest in the way we approached music, but I was definitely not presumptuous in thinking that everyone was going to love it … but then we got some incredible responses. That music took me to the White House, I got the chance to tour with Prince, perform with Stevie Wonder. I mean, I met some incredible fans, gained a lot of experience, and it opened up so many doors for us. It was a very important moment in my life, but when I went about creating The Electric Lady, I did not want to re-create The Archandroid. I knew we had something more to say.
STEREOGUM: Well when it came time to sort of get down to business with making the new record, how did you approach it? Are you the kind of person that needs to go away for a while and write? How does it usually work?
MONAE: A lot of my ideas come to me in my dreams, so I have to keep a voice memo next to my bed. I can have visions, I can have melodies, I imagine certain people … for example, I just dreamt of this band I’d never heard of before performing this song and it was amazing, so I’d have to stop what I was doing and record that idea down. I have to make sure I am available for those moments, I can’t be out partying all the time or … or even on tour for that matter. I need to be at Wondaland — at the Wondaland Art Society, the headquarters — and make sure that I’m getting rest … and dreaming, and staying inspired and spending time around other incredible musicians. I mean, we worked with some unbelievably incredible musicians on this album and I had the opportunity to produce more as well. In the end, taking that time at Wondaland and not having to be running all across the country was so important. It helped me to focus. I could pick up the guitar and start playing music every day … it’s always important to take the time to let yourself grow a little.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, and that’s hard sometimes. Especially when there’s this feeling that you need to strike while things are hot and immediately rush into the next thing, the next record. All told, how long did it take to make The Electric Lady?
MONAE: I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m like a time traveller, so I don’t really believe in time, time is relative, relative to where you are. And I try to not focus on that. I try not to let that be pressure. I have a very interesting way of dealing with time, so I don’t know exactly how long it took. But I do know I worked with some incredible artists on this album, I got the opportunity to spend time with Erykah Badu and write “Q.U.E.E.N.,” which we wanted to be this big female empowerment song, an empowering song for the community. You know, we wanted to make an anthem to those who are often discriminated against and marginalized. We wanted to just pose the questions of how society even treats women, from shaming us to trying to oppress us and placing us in these marginalized situation. I also got the chance to work with Esperanza Spalding on a song called “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes,” and there was Solange Knowles and Miguel … and last but not least I got the opportunity to work with and produce one of my musical heroes, an icon, Prince.
STEREOGUM: How was that experience? That must be so crazy.
MONAE: I’m still pinching myself, slapping myself, making my eyes really big out of disbelief. You know, he doesn’t collaborate with very many artists, and for me to produce him is a dream come true. He reached out to me around Metropolis: Suite 1 (The Chase), one of my first EPs and he expressed his admiration for what we were doing and the fact that I own my own recording label, the Wondaland Arts Society. He really did respect that and he thought that was cool, so he ended up taking us on tour with him. We did Madison Square Garden and a lot of big shows, so eventually working with him was this very organic thing. I’m still very thankful and humbled by the entire experience.
STEREOGUM: I imagine how surreal it must be to be in the studio with him. Like, did you give him direction at all? You got to tell him what to do?
MONAE: Yeah, absolutely.
STEREOGUM: That must be amazing
MONAE: Yeah. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: I love the fact that this record continues to build on the narrative that’s been ongoing throughout all the previous records. What is it about this science fiction element — particularly the android — that holds such fascination for you?
MONAE: Well, whenever I speak about the android I’m speaking about the “other.” The android represents a new form of the other — and as a storyteller and as a writer, and as someone who tries to get across messages, I think it was just a way to talk about how the android represents the new other and is also a parallel to other groups that are marginalized and discriminated against. You can consider the other in relation to gays and lesbians, or even to African Americans, or immigrants as well, the ex-communicated, and so on and so on. So I think it’s just a way to talk about the whole concept of the other and what that means … and as a woman I can relate to feeling like the “other.” I’ve always felt that way.
STEREOGUM: I know how difficult this industry can be for women, especially in terms of people telling you how you should look and wanting to dictate what your image should be. You have not only managed to cultivate a very specific aesthetic of your own, you’ve maintained a very strong stance about it. Has that ben a hard battle to fight for you?
MONAE: No … at least not as of late. There are definitely moments where as a woman you have to check your heart and check your spirit and check your ego … and then just check to make sure you’re feeling confident even if you’re not wearing makeup or you’re not in heels or a dress. I wanted to take a more unconventional approach to fashion and writing and creating. I think it’s important that there are more perspectives out there, for what it means to be a 21st century woman. The Electric Lady was inspired by my paintings, which dealt with a lot of those ideas. I would paint every night and sing at the same time while I was on tour and I painted the image of this woman — this female silhouette — and I wasn’t sure why I was drawn to painting this female silhouette so I went and talked to my therapist about it. She encouraged me to name the painting and then do a show at a museum or something. I had a hard time coming up with a name, but whoever this woman in the painting was, she was she didn’t want to be marginalized. I listened to the energy that I felt when I looked at the paintings … and I got this energy; this eventual reaction and the words that came to my spirit were “The Electric Lady.” I felt that electricity, I felt that’s what resonated with me and I thought about this world where there could be more electric ladies, that there was a new breed — a new 21st century woman — and so I started to ask myself what would the Electric Lady think about love, politics, sexuality, religion, etc., and that’s what helped me write the album. You know, I always just want to encourage the women to love themselves and be the change they want to see and to embrace the things that make you unique even if it makes others uncomfortable. You never know who you’re freeing when you’re just being yourself.
STEREOGUM: Are you excited by what’s happening in music right now?
MONAE: I am. I’m excited about this whole time in music and just being a woman and being able to be in creative control of the music and expressing the ideas that I believe in. This is a privilege and I’m just humbled that anyone that would come and spend money on seeing us and celebrating it.
STEREOGUM: Having done so much of the production work on this record, does doing more of that with other artists interest you?
MONAE: It has to be organic, you know? I love the production team that I work with and there’s nothing that those guys can’t do. If I have an idea I can just tell it to them and they can do it. I mean, for this album we brought in orchestras, horn players, string players, you name it. This is a musical album and I will humbly say that the difference between us and other people is that we’re not making beats, we’re writing music. That’s what I want to continue to do.
Janelle Monáe’s The Electric Lady is out 9/10 via Wondaland Arts Society and Bad Boy Records.