Janelle Monae might be the weirdest mainstream pop star since David Bowie. In an exclusive Irish interview ahead of Arthur’s Day she talks about childhood poverty, her controverisal Robin Thicke photoshoot and how she managed to get Prince to sing on her new record.
What a gloriously barking figure she cuts, with her outrageous tuxedos, sci-fi hairdo and jibber-jabber about androids and alter-egos from a thousand years in the future. To describe r’n b sensation Janelle Monae as a far-fetched cross between James Brown, David Bowie and Lady Gaga may verge on cliche – I’m sure I’m not the first to make such comparisons – but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. By the standards of mainstream pop, truly she’s an odd egg: a situationalist prankster with a bubble-gum soul.
As is often the case with visionaries, Monae does not make allowances for the uncommitted. Either you’re with her or, well…you’re probably sitting there slightly baffled at this strange creature with the toilet-brush quiff and a fondness for men’s evening wear. Five minutes into her exclusive Hot Press interview – which precedes her Arthur’s Day performance and the release of much anticipated second album Electric Lady – and already she is holding forth on Grand Concepts and making your head reel. Robots (“androids” is her preferred term) as metaphors for social repression, the significance of her black-on-white uniform, the ‘soul clock’ that tells her when a project needs to begin and when it’s done… you’re listening to it all tumble out and don’t know whether to be awestruck or politely baffled.
Monae’s pretension could lodge in the craw if her music wasn’t so irresistible. You will have encountered her quasi-hit ‘Tightrope’, a jittery nu-soul anthem from 2010 whose fans include Barack Obama (he’s had Monae over to the White House to perform it on four occasions). Now, with Electric Lady, she looks set to rocket into high-orbit. Reviews are ecstatic, she’s been invited to give a centre-piece performance at New York Fashion Week; the boss of her label, Atlantic Records, has pledged to do whatever it takes to make the record a hit.
Of course, considering the LP has cameos from Prince, Erykah Badu, Miguel and Esperanza Spalding (ask a Justin Bieber fan who just can’t let go), he may well be pushing on an open door. With teaser single ‘Dance Apocalyptic’ already ripping it up on YouTube, Monae, it seems, is finally set to become the star she’s imagined herself to be since she started hawking home-recorded tapes around Atlanta half a decade ago.
Strong-willed female performers are routinely called out for their supposed ‘attitude’ and, judging by her press appearances to date, nobody is going to confuse Monae (27) for a shrinking violet. Nonetheless, it would be simplistic to describe her as a diva. She knows her mind, no question, and, as already pointed out, the Philip K Dick shtick can be initially disconcerting (when she starts monologuing about the relationship between singing and painting you fear she may never end).
After a while in her company, though, you see a different side. Under the lacquered exterior, she seems shy, maybe even sweet. Asked why she keeps banging on about ‘androids’ in her work, for instance, and her voice changes slightly – becomes softer – and she explains that it goes back to growing up poor in Kansas City (actually in Missouri, should it ever come up in a pub quiz)
“I feel I need to fight for civil rights, having grown up in a family that went through the most horrific things,” she says, adding that she regards ‘android’ as a metaphor for ‘the other’ – whether that be black people, gays, women or any oppressed minority (she got the idea from the silent movie Metropolis in which mechanical men toil, Morlock-like, in the underground).
“I grew up with hard working parents. My grandma, she worked hard too. She was a cook for 25 years. My people weren’t victims or anything – but they had to struggle because of the circumstances they were put in, circumstances they struggled to break free of.
“My grandmother was a sharecropper – she was definitely discriminated against, treated differently because of the colour of her skin. So although an android is something from the future, what I’m talking about are people who discriminate against others in their community. I don’t want people to feel I am talking down to them in the songs. By using the ‘android’ it becomes a metaphor. It’s like the Bible.”
She’s looking forward to playing Arthur’s Day. Outside-the-box gigs intrigue her. Hence her joy at performing at The White House.
“I felt it was very important that I form a relationship with the President and the First Lady,” she nods. “Getting that first invitation, I was pinching myself. I didn’t know they were aware of me. ‘Tightrope’ was the song the First Lady and the President enjoy. I got to go there four times.”
Artistic since childhood, she embraced her black and white aesthetic in her early teens. By high school, her mother was driving her to talent shows around Kansas and Missouri. Upon graduation she studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and, from there, moved to Atlanta, sharing a boarding house with six other women. She was fired from her job at Home Depot for spending too long promoting her music on the internet. Attending a poetry jam shortly afterwards, she made the acquaintance of Atlanta music scenesters Nate Wonder and Check Lightning, who introduced her to the science fiction movies of Ridley Scott and Fritz Lang.
Word started to get around Atlanta about Monae, bringing her to the attention of Big Boi from Outkast. He requested a track for a mix album; she gave him ‘Lettin’ Go’, a wry account of her departure from Home Depot. From there her career has gone incrementally stratospheric.
Though straight she has become a gay icon, recently appearing on the cover of lesbian magazine Diva. This fills her with pride. As a woman of colour, she empathises with sexual minorities.
“I see a lot of parallels between black people and [gay] people. I see my responsibility to not only be a musician but to speak on behalf of those who are marginalised and don’t have the rights or the voices. People who are killed or arrested or fired from their jobs. I see a connection between being a woman and being an ‘android’."
Another magazine whose cover she recently graced was Vibe, a cheerleader for Africa-American music. She shared the splash with feminist bete noir Robin Thicke, singer of smash ‘Blurred Lines’. Inside, the two are pictured together, looking like the bestest of BFFs. In light of the controversy swirling around Thicke, did she have misgivings about posing with him?
“When I was living in a boarding house and working at an office depot and selling my CDs Vibe was one of the first major publications to write a story about me,” she says. “When they invited me to do the cover I didn’t know who it was [also sharing the spread]. I don’t comment on anyone else’s music and I won’t be able to comment on that. I was excited to be on the cover. They were behind me early. I wanted to return the favor.”
She’s happier talking about the heavyweight line-up of cameos on the new LP. It’s the presence of Prince that really stands out. The patriarch of Paisley Park duets with Monae on Electric Lady’s best moment, the lush ‘Give Em What They Love’. She’s a confident performer but, still, Monae can’t QUITE believe Prince agreed to collaborate.
“He was a fan of my Metropolis EP. He actually called me up to say how much he liked it. He invited me and the band over for a jam session at the house. I own my own record label and Prince thought that was cool. We’ve toured together. I was fortunate enough to open for him at Madison Square Garden. He’s a mentor to me. I was pinching myself in disbelief when he agreed to do the song. He doesn’t go on albums very often. More than that, I got to produce him, which was even a bigger deal.”
P.Diddy is also a famous chum and is executive producer of Electric Lady. Musically he and Monae inhabit different dimensions. As business people, however, they have a lot in common.
“He was very respectful of me as a businesswoman the first time I made his acquaintance,” she recalls. “He didn’t want to be involved creatively – didn’t want people to know about ‘us’. I got the opportunity to learn from him. Of course, he learned from me too. He is such an advocate for what we do. If we ever need him to go to meetings and speak on our behalf, he does it. What I admire about him is his work ethic. He is very passionate and that has rubbed off I think.”
Monae is a founder of the Atlanta collective Wonderland and regards her day-to-day existence as an artistic journey in itself. Hence her black and white dress code, a regime she follows at all times, regardless of circumstance. Asked whether this ever stops being fun she begins to dismiss the question but has second thoughts.
“It can be exhausting,” she nods. “Sometimes I find I want to wear more white than black or discover I’m wearing more black than white. And you need to keep it in balance. It’s all part of the bigger picture ultimately. I want to devote myself to changing people’s lives, to helping alter the future in a positive way.”
The Electric Lady is out now. Janelle Monae plays Arthur’s Day September 26
Synth-pop sadsters Poliça talk about Donald Trump, finding happiness when they least expected and their debt to Prince.Read More
Cult folkie embraces obscurity.Read More
As Black Francis and co return with their finest record in 25 years, the alt-rock luminaries talk egos, in-fighting and the controversial exit of bassist Kim Deal.Read More
Elusive singer suffers enervating case of trying too hardRead More
Where do you start with Jamie Treays? Here is an intense young man whose early career was dogged by severe panic attacks yet who has always aspired to an old fashioned, chart-slaying idea of stardom.Read More
With season two of Narcos freshly arrived in Netflix, Ed Power looks at how the series met the challenges of chronicling the larger-than-life story of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.Read More
Artist on the rise Julia Jacklin tells Ed Power about coming of age in the mountains above Sydney, and why she can't wait to get back to Ireland for Electric Picnic.Read More
Triumphant return from likely lad emoterRead More
Dance duo deliver aural wallpaper on second outing.Read More
Indie rockers of the moment Wolf Alice look forward to Electric Picnic, contemplate their overnight rise and tell Ed Power about the thrills and challenges of meeting your heroes.Read More
After more than a decade on the go, Editors remain in rude health. Tom Smith tells Ed Power how the Picnic-bound rockers came through past upheavals to end up stronger than everRead More
Hollywood’s over-the-top master of ceremonies is making his first foray into television with a Netflix show chronicling the birth of hip hop. But, wonders Ed Power, can Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down – the most expensive TV show in history – live up to the hype?Read More
Synth weirdos shrug off loss of talismanic vocalist and return with spellbinding fourth albumRead More
Lera Lynn's Southern-gothic country dirges were the only good thing to come out of True Detective season two. The singer tells Ed Power about her new album, out-acting Colin Farrell's moustache, and the darkness that informs her music.Read More
Mixed messages a-go-go as art-rockers deliver their most direct album yetRead More
It's back to the Reagan era and smalltown America in the new sci-fi epic from Netflix. Ed Power binges on the Winona Ryder-starring Stranger Things.Read More
Lorde Acolytes Grow Into Their SoundRead More
Landslide of fun from missing-in-action sample gurusRead More
The comeback kids celebrate their return to Irish shores with a showing every bit as triumphant as 21 years agoRead More
Jamie XX has cast off his shy-boy shackles to become one of the most innovative figures in electronic music.Read More
Up-and-coming Irish rapper Rejjie Snow tells Ed Power about his days as a budding sports star, touring with Madonna and bringing it all back home at Longitude .Read More
Josh Tillman grew up believing in literal hellfire and damnation, he tells Ed Power. As Father John Misty he struggles both with the pain of his pentecostal childhood and the demons of adulthood.Read More
As Netflix’s historical epic Marco Polo returns with a second season, Ed Power talks to star Lorenzo Richelmy about shrugging off bad reviews and why this tale of east meets west resonates with the present day.Read More
Stately concept record from death-obsessed enigma.Read More
NINETIES ICONS KEEP IT SIMPLE WITH MAJESTIC RESULTSRead More
Your favourite prison dramedy is back. Ed Power looks at what we can expect from season four of Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black.Read More
De La Soul have been part of hip hop’s tapestry since the genre exploded in the late ’80s. You could say they have a few stories to tell. Ed Power chats with the amiable Kelvin Mercer about the old days and the new.Read More
The multi-talented Brix Smith Start discusses her new memoir, her old flames and how Princess Diana once flirted with her boyfriend.Read More
Up and coming siren seeks to be all things to all listenersRead More
Top Gear is back but can the new hosts fill the shoes of the previous trio?Read More
Multi-headed jazz crew try to terrify you into liking themRead More
It's the Irish comic book they said could never make it to screen. Now after 20 years and endless speculation, Gareth Ennis's Preacher is finally coming to TV.Read More
DRAKE'S CAREER SERVES AS A CAUTIONARY REMINDER THAT WE SHOULD BE CAREFUL WHAT WE WISH FORRead More
It's ten years since Wolfmother's debut album reinvented heavy, non-ironic rock. In a rare interview,frontman Andrew Stockdale contemplates the album's legacy and explains why nostalgia is ultimately best avoided.Read More
As the Queen twists her stiletto heels into Jay Z's prone midriff, our man Ed Power judges the latest effort from the pop megastar to be her finest work to dateRead More
Cavan singer reaches career high on magnificent third albumRead More
Alt country crooner makes sweet music with Brit chanteuseRead More
CONTROVERSIAL RHYMER DROPS SURPRISE - AND SURPRISINGLY HOT - MIXTAPERead More
Tighten your tabard and sharpen your broadsword – the new Game Of Thrones is almost here. Ed Power consults the Lord of Light, throws a few interns on the pyre, and looks at what we can expect from the world’s favourite TV show.Read More
As they get ready to perform at Dublin's Music Town Festival, limerick hip-hop three-piece talk politics, identity & KanyeRead More
No Doubt front woman pours heartache into frothy comeback record.Read More
After years of buzz, Jack Colleran has just released his first album under his Mmoths moniker. He talks heartache, pressure and the negative stereotyping of lonely boys with laptops.Read More
As they get ready to perform at Dublin's Music Town Festival, the Limerick hip-hop three-piece talk politics, identity & KanyeRead More
With The National off the road, Scott and Bryan Devendorf are indulging their krautrock passion with their new LZNDRFRead More
Santigold’s new album, 99 Cents, may take capitalism to task but it’s also meant to be a fun listen, she tells Ed Power.Read More
Saul that you cant leave behind: Everyone's favourite crooked lawyer is back, as Better Call Saul returns for its second much-anticipated season on Netflix.Read More
Smart R&B from New York pop royaltyRead More
Taylor Swift acolyte finds joy in sadness.Read More
She's a soul sensation to watch - with a gorgeous voice that has already floored Sam Smith. Now the rest of the world is about to discover the sultry sound of Izzy Bizu.Read More
The out-of-nowhere success of Netflix’s Making A Murderer speaks to audiences’ insatiable appetite for true crime. Ed Power dons his detective hat and investigates the making of a television phenomenon.Read More
Acid-fried protest pop lands its punchesRead More
Zany return from psychedelic weirdosRead More
As a teenager she moved to London on her own, determined to break into music. Now Dua Lipa is about to see her wildest dreams come true, with her more-than-meets-the-ear sound set to conquer the charts.Read More
True Detective made director Cary Fukunaga famous. He reflects on the surprise success of the show and talks about putting himself through the grinder shooting his new movie, Beasts Of No NationRead More
Cobain demo collection shows new side to iconic artistRead More
Quirky singer sticks to first principlesRead More
With his mercury-nominated solo album in colour, jamie smith – aka Jamie xx – shows there’s more to the xx than shadows and sulking.Read More
Pop maven releases her catchiest collection yet.Read More
French series The Returned is a zombie lark with a brain – and a distinctly philosophical outlook. As the second series commences, Ed Power examines the show’s international appeal.Read More
Alt-country stalwart unearths Tay-Tay's inner miserabalist.Read More
Dance king-pins Disclosure talk overnight fame, celebrity friends and why Ireland has a special place in their hearts.Read More
Overnight sensation proves shes around for the long haul.Read More
Electro-pop trio come out swinging on second recordRead More
Gobsmacking surprise solo record from Alabama shakes frontwomanRead More
Miley unleashes heartbreaking eulogy to dead dogRead More
He's the falsetto-voiced sensation who has tastemakers in a tizzy. Ladies and gentleman we give you future r&b super star ShamirRead More
Ed Power opines as Bruce Springsteen plays Jon Stewart out.Read More
Zombies are the hottest property on television right now. With hit American show Z Nation arriving on Irish screens this month, Ed Power looks at how the walking – and occasionally running – dead have taken over TV.Read More
Odd Synth Pop from the big new thing of 2009.Read More
Their first album was an overnight phenomenon. Second time around, blues sensations Alabama Shakes are determined to do things on their own terms, they tell Ed Power.Read More
As a new season of hit prison drama Orange Is The New Black debuts on Netflix, Ed Power talks to key cast members and looks at how this quirky show become a surprise sensation.Read More
Young Fathers are intimately acquainted with uproar, having grimaced their way to the Mercury Music Prize and infuriated Gareth Gates. They talk about confronting stereotypes and channelling upheaval into music.Read More
Gloriously eccentric return from Manchester outsidersRead More
Soul man's debut hits the vintage jackpot.Read More
As a new season of hit prison drama Orange Is The New Black debuts on Netflix, Ed Power talks to key cast members – plus series creator Jenji Kohan – and looks at how this quirky show become a surprise sensation.Read More
Series one of True Detective was a creepy blockbuster for the ages. Can the Colin Ferrell-starring second series live up to the crushing weight of expectation?Read More
Were you watching Kanye? On a perfect summer's evening, Mr. Hansen delivered a spell-binding show at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin last night.Read More
Digital bliss marks return from Kevin Parker and chumsRead More
He achieved cult fame in I’m Alan Partridge. But Stephen Mangan’s latest comedy has an altogether more serious side.Read More
Knob-twiddler from the xx finds sadness amid the sunshine.Read More
Ahead of Wu-Tang Clan's greatly anticipated Forbidden Fruit headline slot, Hot Press assesses the legacy of the most impressible force in hip-hop.Read More
They've had their ups and downs - and now And So I Watch You From Afar risk controversy with their most radical departure yet. We join the band on the road in Luxembourg. Where they contemplate life. The universe and Jay Z.Read More
Slight return from acclaimed blues-rockersRead More
Life’s been tough for Passion Pit’s Michael Angelakos – who has fought a life-long struggle with mental illness. Now, though, he is in a good place – a state of mind reflected in the group’s winning third LP.Read More
Winning return from Ireland's greatest good-time bandRead More
She’s always been a little severe, but a move to Los Angeles plunged english folkie Laura Marling into a full-blown existential crisis, as she reveals to Ed Power.Read More
Sexual abuse, the corrosive effects of religions, the death of rock music – it’s all grist to the creative mill of latter-day soul-daddy Matthew E WhiteRead More
Welsh chanteuse has fun working through her identity crisisRead More
LA hip-hop luminary unleashes his masterpieceRead More
Moody mancs get their 80s onRead More
Virginia soul-man goes darkRead More
A 2012 chat with Alexis Taylor in which our man Ed Power dares to ask him about his band's geeky dress sense...Read More
Underwhelming solo record from pop writer of the momentRead More
Saviours of indie rock The Districts talk growing pains, extreme youth and how they fell for the blues.Read More
Newcomer pours her pain into exquisite soul recordRead More