Janelle Monáe has come a long way since she moved to Atlanta in 2001.
Her first few years here involved studying science at Georgia Perimeter College, living in a boarding house with six other girls, and hustling to self-promote her earliest work. She was even fired from an Office Depot for responding to fan emails while on the clock. Not long after, the 27-year-old neo-soulstress decided to plant her flag, found Wondaland Arts Society, and devote herself to her craft. Nearly a decade after she released her unofficial debut EP, The Audition, Monáe has transformed from an eclectic local act who has long donned her iconic monochrome wardrobe, into a full-fledged pop star.
Over the past three years, Monáe has discovered a mainstream audience following the release of her enthralling and eccentric debut, The ArchAndroid. During that time, she's gone from playing venues such as Smith's Olde Bar and Lenny's to performing at the Grammy Awards, working with Prince and Erykah Badu, and meeting President Barack Obama. With her sophomore record, The Electric Lady, due out Sept. 10, she's intent on continuing to make original, uncompromising, and captivating pop that she hopes defies genre descriptions or artistic categorization.
Monáe recently traveled to Detroit, where she promoted her new record and talked with several hundred people at an event for Job Corps, a nationwide educational and vocational training program. While on the road, she took a few minutes to discuss her artistic growth, recent collaborators, how one of her tour buses caught on fire, and her relationship with Atlanta.
What are some of the biggest personal and artistic changes you've noticed during the three years since The ArchAndroid hit shelves?
I think as a vocalist, I've strengthened my voice significantly and my range has increased from touring, getting the opportunity to sit in the studio, and experimenting with my voice. There's growth there. I've also had the opportunity to engineer myself in lots of [The Electric Lady's] sessions, so naturally I got pretty exploratory with my writing and the way that I was seeing certain songs. I'm excited for people to hear that side. I also got the opportunity to produce the collaborations on the album. So I understand what it's like working with other artists, guiding them, and pulling the best from them. That's really exciting for me.
I would say musically, I've definitely become a better communicator in terms of my lyrics. I got the opportunity to work with incredible musicians, incredible horn players, string players. I worked with an entire orchestra. I was very much zoned off just like with the [last album]. But my goal was not to recreate The ArchAndroid or Metropolis — that's redundant, boring, and dishonest, in my opinion.
There's an impressive list of collaborators who appear on The Electric Lady, including Prince, Erykah Badu, Miguel, Esperanza Spalding, and Solange. How did those come about? Did they happen in person or were there some contributions recorded in other studios?
I can't talk about each collaboration right now. I think we're going to put out a documentary going through each song. But I did have the opportunity to work very, very closely with all of these artists. It was a very organic process. I had the opportunity to just enjoy and learn from the experience, and learn about them. There's been admiration from afar and our energies just finally attracted. We made this happen and the timing was perfect. I'm still pinching myself that I got a chance to work with Prince. He's a musical hero of mine and he doesn't collaborate often on other artist's albums, let alone have another artist produce him. I'm humbled and thankful and can't wait to share those stories.
How have you balanced touring and recording? Some artists write on the road and separate the two. What's your approach like?
Touring and recording are two different things. [With touring], you're traveling all around the world and it's hard to make time for recording because you're going to sound check, doing interviews, you have to perform. You can't exhaust your voice. It's totally different, but [both sides] depend on each other because in the studio you have to record all this music so that you can perform it. You have to make sure these recordings are awesome and translate well on stage and vice versa.
Making time to record on the road was a challenge. I had to come off the road. I could've still been touring off The ArchAndroid, but it was time to come off the road and work on The Electric Lady. We've had situations on the [road]. I remember when we were at Glastonbury, one of the tour buses caught on fire. Not a lot of people knew that, but we had to basically have the [passengers on] the tour bus that caught on fire come over to my tour bus. People were sleeping on the floor. We were piled up and hot and bothered. No one got a chance to shower. It's those moments in passing that are out of your control, but you have to go on stage and have to deliver. It definitely bonded us as a touring family and taught us some lessons. I think we're going to be even [stronger] when it's time to go back out on tour this fall.
You have developed a rather signature look with your monochrome outfits and unique hairstyle. In your videos for "Q.U.E.E.N." and "Dance Apocalyptic" you deviate from that somewhat and change up your appearance. What was behind that artistically? Why now?
It wasn't about now. I'm moved to do that whenever I'm inspired. I wanted to create this rock star, the Electric Lady, who is a performer and is loved by women and men. That was the look. It was an artistic expression. [I won't] ever be enslaved to people's interpretations of my image, or even my own interpretations of what my image should be. As an Electric Lady, and as a woman, we're not just one-dimensional. There are many different sides and things we're into. For this moment, it was the right time for this rock star, this Electric Lady. That was her look, that's how she dresses.
You have lived in Atlanta for more than a decade. How has your relationship with the city changed? How has your identity as an Atlantan evolved?
I appreciate Atlanta even more. When I started my career, I was living in a boarding house with six other girls and had released an independent EP. I started in Atlanta. It's a very special place for me. It's my second home. I'm from Kansas City, Kan., born and raised. That's my first tribe. My second tribe is Atlanta. It's the Wondaland Arts Society. Wondaland is totally different from Atlanta because we're in our own little world and our own collective arc. That's where I am the majority of the time.
But Atlanta has opened up so many opportunities, not just for myself but also a lot of independent artists. I don't have the desire to ever leave Atlanta. That's where my mojo is — in Atlanta.
After weeks or months on the road, are there any Atlanta institutions or establishments that you particularly miss and find the need to visit?
I don't think there's a specific [place] that I have to go to. I enjoy just being at the Wondaland Arts Society, inviting folks over we haven't seen in a long time, cooking, sharing, and trading music with other independent artists, and just having normal experiences and being artistically stimulated. We have inspiration parties and wonder parties. We invite a lot of people over. I try and just have those moments.
When's your next show in Atlanta?
I'll be at the Tabernacle on Nov. 26. On Sept. 10, The Electric Lady comes out. I want to continue to make everyone in Atlanta proud. It's where I got my start and I want to bring it on home.
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