Music Interviews
12:10 pm
Sat September 7, 2013

'Electric Lady' Janelle Monae On Creating The Unheard

Originally published on Sun September 8, 2013 12:15 pm

Janelle Monáe's music is often called futuristic. That's partly due to her subject matter: Her breakthrough releases, the 2007 EP Metropolis and the 2010 album The ArchAndroid, form a connected story arc about a robot who falls in love with a human. But moreover, the work of the 27-year-old singer is difficult to classify — rooted in R&B but pulling from too many different genres to count.

Monae's latest album, The Electric Lady, is out Tuesday, and features appearances from some fellow envelope-pushers. Jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding and R&B singer Miguel both feature on the record, as do Monáe's mentor Erykah Badu and an unexpected fan: Prince.

"With this particular album, I wanted to go through R&B music that ranges from people like Bo Diddley to Jimi Hendrix to classical music," Monáe says. "That's what I love doing, is playing with all these different styles of music and creating something that just has not been heard."

Janelle Monáe recently spoke with NPR's Jacki Lyden about growing up in a big working-class family, making friends with her idols and performing at the White House. Click the audio link to hear more of their conversation.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELECTRIC LADY")

JANELLE MONAE: (Singing) Electric lady...

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Janelle Monae's music has been called funkadelic soul. It's been called futuristic R&B. But whatever you call it, it's almost impossible not to dance to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELECTRIC LADY")

MONAE: (Singing) Ooh, you shock it, shake it, baby. Electric lady, you're a star...

LYDEN: The 27-year-old artist has already been nominated for six Grammy awards since her debut album in 2010. And her new album out this week is called "The Electric Lady."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELECTRIC LADY")

MONAE: (Singing) Electric lady get away down, get down 'cause tonight we gonna do what we want to, lady...

LYDEN: Janelle Monae visited us at our studios here in Washington, D.C. Janelle Monae, welcome to the program. Such a pleasure.

MONAE: Oh, I'm just honored that you guys are taking the time to speak with me.

LYDEN: You know, we have been just loving this album. Who are the electric ladies in your life, Janelle?

MONAE: There are many. One, I will say that the electric ladies are not to be marginalized. And I think that you are an electric lady. I think that electric ladies are community oriented. They're women, you know, of many different shapes and colors and sizes. And when she walks in the room, you know an electric lady.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "Q.U.E.E.N.")

JACKI LYDEN, HOST: Let's listen to one of the tracks here. It's called "Q.U.E.E.N.," and it features the queen herself - your co-queen, I would say - Erykah Badu.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "Q.U.E.E.N.")

MONAE: (Singing) I can't believe all of the things they say about me. Walk in the room, they go in shade left to right. They be like ooh, she's serving face, and I just tell me cut me up and get down...

Erykah was one of the first female artists to reach out to me when I had just released my EP and, you know, not a lot of people knew about Janelle Monae. And she discovered me online, and she said: I want you to come out on tour with me. So we talk on the phone daily. And "Q.U.E.E.N.," our song together, was really inspired by private conversations that she and I continue to have about our community and how we can uplift them and how we can deal with those who feel marginalized and who don't often have people standing up for their rights, you know, whether it be the gays, the lesbians, the immigrants. And women are oftentimes marginalized. We wanted to show that two strong women can work together and create something great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "Q.U.E.E.N.")

MONAE: (Singing) Am I freak for dancing around. But am I freak, hey. Am I a freak for getting down. I'm cutting up, don't cut me down. Yeah, yeah, I wanna be, wanna be queen...

LYDEN: Talk a little about the neighborhood where you grew up.

MONAE: I grew up - I was born and raised in the Midwest - Kansas City, Kansas, and I grew up in one of the poorest counties, Wyandotte County. And I grew up to hardworking parents. Both of my parents worked day and night for the community. You know, they were janitors at one point in time, they were trash, you know, men, and they also worked in the post office. So they, you know, wore uniforms every single day and helped our community move forward.

And they just taught me the importance of working hard and turning nothing into something, I would say because I'm older and I understand class and different things. You know, I didn't grow up in a middle or upper class. We grew up poor, but I never knew that because I was always surrounded around love. And family is just so important. One of the biggest sacrifices that I've made to date has been leaving my family.

LYDEN: You had some really great female role models in your mother and your grandmother.

MONAE: Yeah. I will say that one of the biggest advantages that I think I've had as a young woman and a young artist has been growing up the way that I have. I was a maid at one point in time, because I was going to New York, I wanted to study arts in New York, and I didn't have any money. I had actually went up to my pastor, and I said: I need the church to pray that I find this job because I want to go to New York but I don't have any money. And there was a lady who walked up to me afterwards, and she said" I'm a supervisor at the Maids and I'll hire you. You just come.

HOST: Wow.

MONAE: And so I went every day. And I got a chance to be around women who were, you know, poor, trying to make it. And I was the youngest there, and they knew I could sing, so they would ask me to sing. And we would clean these houses, and I would drive this car. And that was my life for, like, three months. And it taught me so much. It inspired me to want to write music to inspire these people because they need it the most.

LYDEN: Your music's been called R&B. It's been called psychedelic soul. It's been called funk. Let's listen to one of the singles off this album. This one's called - I love it - "Dance Apocalyptic."

MONAE: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCE APOCALYPTIC")

MONAE: (Singing) Dance apocalyptic, bands that make her dance apocalyptic now. Bands that make her dance apocalyptic. Bands that make her dance apocalyptic now. Bands that make her dance apocalyptic. You're going crazy the hit men always spy you. Do that dance smoking in the girls' room. Kissing friends it's over like a power book it's floating in the bathroom stall. You're so freaked out worried about the bomb threats. You bought a house but I'm allergic to the house pets. Credit card they bought a new wife, poor shattered little lonely men.

LYDEN: It's so danceable. It's just great.

MONAE: Yeah. "Dance Apocalyptic" was inspired by an innovator, someone who inspired rock and roll, someone who inspired The Beatles, someone who inspired The Rolling Stones. We're talking about Bo Diddley. You know, he's an originator. And I wanted to, with this particular album, I wanted to go through R&B music that ranges from people like Bo Diddley to Jimi Hendrix to classical music. And so that's what I loved doing is playing with all these different styles of music and creating something that just has not been heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANCE APOCALYPTIC")

MONAE: (Singing) What's the matter? Your chicken taste like pork? You have triplets instead of twins? Does your food taste plastic?

LYDEN: Last year, you sign on as a rep for the beauty products company Cover Girl.

MONAE: Yes.

HOST: You certainly got the classic looks. Just tell me a little bit about that. What was going on there?

MONAE: I was very surprised, I must say, because I grew up like all girls looking at magazines and trying to figure, you know, figure this thing out, you know, if I'm going to be myself or do I want to try to fit in and, you know, what makes me beautiful and all those questions.

LYDEN: Is my face perfect circle...

MONAE: Yeah.

HOST: ...or is it a pyramid or am I a pear?

MONAE: Exactly. Should I wear mascara or should I, you know, all these little things that we do as women and just as people. We're curious about what we should do next with ourselves. And so when they reached out to me, we talked about my core values, and one of them has always been to encourage and inspire young girls to embrace and love the things that make them unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Janelle, you've visited the White House more than once. And earlier this spring, you actually performed for the president and first lady. What was that like?

MONAE: I got a letter in the mail when they hosted South Korea, maybe a couple of years ago, and Michelle and Barack, our first lady and president, invited me to perform at the state dinner. And that was my first time at the White House. And I was so - I just couldn't believe it. I was, like, who played this trick on me? I just - I think they're so - I thought they were so busy they didn't even know who I was. And turns out that Michelle is a huge fan, and she, you know, invited me to perform at the state dinner. Then I got asked to come back for her annual Easter Egg Roll, then I got asked to come back again for a Christmas party. And then we closed out the inauguration for a private party. And so I love them so much.

LYDEN: So did anybody dance at the White House?

MONAE: What? Oh, my gosh. Are you kidding?

LYDEN: Did they get down?

MONAE: We had a ball.

(LAUGHTER)

MONAE: Let's just say one of the nights ended with me on top of Valerie Jarrett's table kicking over glasses.

(LAUGHTER)

LYDEN: What a star. It has been such a pleasure. Janelle Monae's new album is called "Electric Lady," and does she sell it. Janelle, thank you for visiting us today.

MONAE: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I'm honored.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONAE: (Singing) (Unintelligible) surrounded by these games and senseless lies and blaming others, feeling victimized. Oh, tomorrow, one day they'll know to when you have to lose all the things you know, trying to light the fire deep inside...

LYDEN: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR smartphone app. Click on Programs and scroll down. We are back on the radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.