She Sings The Body Electric

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

 

Related Articles

Melancholic For The Troops

Synth-pop sadsters Poliça talk about Donald Trump, finding happiness when they least expected and their debt to Prince.

Read More

Album Review: Devendra Banhart, Ape In Pink Marble

Cult folkie embraces obscurity.

Read More

Here Comes Your Band – An Interview With Pixies

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

Album Review: Banks

Elusive singer suffers enervating case of trying too hard

Read More

T Shall Overcome: Hot Press Talks with Jamie T

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

Larger than life – a look behind the characters of Narcos

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

Peak Practice - An Interview with Julia Jacklin

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

Album Review: Jamie T Trick

Triumphant return from likely lad emoter

Read More

Album Review: Aluna George, I Remember

Dance duo deliver aural wallpaper on second outing.

Read More

Wolf Alice Discuss Life in the Spotlight

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

All Edit to the Lads: The Editors talk Electric Picnic, Michael Jackson and new albums

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 ever

Read More

TV Highlight: The Get Down

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

Album Review: Crystal Castles Amnesty

Synth weirdos shrug off loss of talismanic vocalist and return with spellbinding fourth album

Read More

Some Like it Goth: Lera Lynn talks new music, True Detective and Colin Farrell's moustache

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

Album Review: Wild Beasts, Boy King

Mixed messages a-go-go as art-rockers deliver their most direct album yet

Read More

That Eighties Show

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

Album Review: Broods, Conscious

Lorde Acolytes Grow Into Their Sound

Read More

Album Review: The Avalanches, Wildflower

Landslide of fun from missing-in-action sample gurus

Read More

LIVE REVIEW: Belly @ The Academy

The comeback kids celebrate their return to Irish shores with a showing every bit as triumphant as 21 years ago

Read More

Jamie XX: "I Feel Comfortable Being Nervous, It Spurs Me On"

Jamie XX has cast off his shy-boy shackles to become one of the most innovative figures in electronic music.

Read More

Rejjie Snow is Out to Put Dublin on The Map With World Domination

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

Father John Misty Exposes His Demons to Hot Press

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

Marco Polo Star Lorenzo Richelmy Tells Us What to Expect From Season 2

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

Album Review: Bat For Lashes, The Bride

Stately concept record from death-obsessed enigma.

Read More

Album Review: Garbage Strange Little Birds

NINETIES ICONS KEEP IT SIMPLE WITH MAJESTIC RESULTS

Read More

It's Time to Welcome the Return of Orange is The New Black

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

Interview: De La Soul spoke to Hot Press about their past and what's yet to come

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

Brix Smith Start, formerly of The Fall, speaks to Hot Press about ventures old and new

The multi-talented Brix Smith Start discusses her new memoir, her old flames and how Princess Diana once flirted with her boyfriend.

Read More

Album Review: Ariana Grande Dangerous Woman

Up and coming siren seeks to be all things to all listeners

Read More

Can The New Top Gear Match Up To Predecessors?

Top Gear is back but can the new hosts fill the shoes of the previous trio?

Read More

Album review: Snarky Puppy: Culcha Vulcha

Multi-headed jazz crew try to terrify you into liking them

Read More

Irish comic book Preacher set to hit our screens

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

Album Review: Drake Views

DRAKE'S CAREER SERVES AS A CAUTIONARY REMINDER THAT WE SHOULD BE CAREFUL WHAT WE WISH FOR

Read More

'Fro Those About To Rock: Wolfmother Interview

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

ALBUM REVIEW: Lemonade is Beyonce's best yet

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 date

Read More

Album Review: Pothole In The Sky

Cavan singer reaches career high on magnificent third album

Read More

Album Review- Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop- Love Letter For Fire

Alt country crooner makes sweet music with Brit chanteuse

Read More

Album Review: Azaelia Banks Slay Z

CONTROVERSIAL RHYMER DROPS SURPRISE - AND SURPRISINGLY HOT - MIXTAPE

Read More

GoT Special: Let The Games Begin

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

Rusangano Family talk to Hot Press

As they get ready to perform at Dublin's Music Town Festival, limerick hip-hop three-piece talk politics, identity & Kanye

Read More

Album Review: Gwen Stefani This is What The Truth Feels Like

No Doubt front woman pours heartache into frothy comeback record.

Read More

Music World: Chilling In The Name Of

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

Rusangano Family: Our goal is to be 'of' the West of Ireland in as authentic a way as possible

As they get ready to perform at Dublin's Music Town Festival, the Limerick hip-hop three-piece talk politics, identity & Kanye

Read More

Major LZRs: The National’s Scott and Bryan Devendorf tell Hot Press about their new venture LZNDRF

With The National off the road, Scott and Bryan Devendorf are indulging their krautrock passion with their new LZNDRF

Read More

Cents & Sensibility: Santigold tells Hot Press about her latest album 99 Cents

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

TV HIGHLIGHT: Better Call Saul Season 2

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

Album Review: Lion Babe Begin

Smart R&B from New York pop royalty

Read More

Album Review: Alessia Cara - Know-It-All

Taylor Swift acolyte finds joy in sadness.

Read More

Getting Izzy With It: The Izzy Bizu interview

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

TV HIGHLIGHT: Making A Murderer- Our True Crime Romance

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

Review: Night Beats Who Sold My Generation

Acid-fried protest pop lands its punches

Read More

Review: Animal Collective Painting With

Zany return from psychedelic weirdos

Read More

Dua Lipa: Enigmatic for the People

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

TV Highlight: True Detective Director Cary Fukunaga

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 Nation

Read More

Kurt Cobain - Montage of Heck

Cobain demo collection shows new side to iconic artist

Read More

Joana Newsom - Divers

Quirky singer sticks to first principles

Read More

Metropolis: Jamie xx Interview

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

Ellie Goulding - Delirium

Pop maven releases her catchiest collection yet.

Read More

The Returned

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

Ryan Adams - 1989

Alt-country stalwart unearths Tay-Tay's inner miserabalist.

Read More

Disclosure Interview

Dance king-pins Disclosure talk overnight fame, celebrity friends and why Ireland has a special place in their hearts.

Read More

Lana Del Rey - Honeymoon

Overnight sensation proves shes around for the long haul.

Read More

Chvrches - Every Open Eye

Electro-pop trio come out swinging on second record

Read More

Thunderbitch - Thunderbitch

Gobsmacking surprise solo record from Alabama shakes frontwoman

Read More

Miley Cyrus and Her Dead Pets - Miley Cyrus

Miley unleashes heartbreaking eulogy to dead dog

Read More

Shamir Interview

He's the falsetto-voiced sensation who has tastemakers in a tizzy. Ladies and gentleman we give you future r&b super star Shamir

Read More

Opinion: Was The Daily Show truly radical?

Ed Power opines as Bruce Springsteen plays Jon Stewart out.

Read More

Z Nation: More Walking Dead Have Taken Over TV

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

Little Boots - Working Girl

Odd Synth Pop from the big new thing of 2009.

Read More

Alabama Shakes Interview

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

Interview with the cast of Orange Is The New Black

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 Interview

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

Everything Everything - Get To Heaven

Gloriously eccentric return from Manchester outsiders

Read More

Leon Bridges - Coming Home

Soul man's debut hits the vintage jackpot.

Read More

Cast of Orange Is The New Black talk season three

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

True Detective Season 2 Airs Tonight

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

Beck Shows How It’s Done

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

Tame Impala - Currents

Digital bliss marks return from Kevin Parker and chums

Read More

Stephen Mangan Interview

He achieved cult fame in I’m Alan Partridge. But Stephen Mangan’s latest comedy has an altogether more serious side.

Read More

Jamie xx - In Colour

Knob-twiddler from the xx finds sadness amid the sunshine.

Read More

Enter The Wu: Forbidden Fruit preview

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

ASIWYFA Interview

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

Alabama Shakes - Sound and Color

Slight return from acclaimed blues-rockers

Read More

Passion Pit's Michael Angelakos on public scrutiny and recovery

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

Le Galaxie - Le Club

Winning return from Ireland's greatest good-time band

Read More

Laura Marling on crisis, recovery and rebirth

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

Matthew E. White: Songs in the Key of Strife

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 White

Read More

Marina and the Diamonds - Froot

Welsh chanteuse has fun working through her identity crisis

Read More

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly

LA hip-hop luminary unleashes his masterpiece

Read More

Dutch Uncles - O Shudder

Moody mancs get their 80s on

Read More

Matthew E. White - Fresh Blood

Virginia soul-man goes dark

Read More

EP Archives: Hot Chip

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

Charlie XCX - Sucker

Underwhelming solo record from pop writer of the moment

Read More

Grit Happens: Hot Press talks to The Districts

Saviours of indie rock The Districts talk growing pains, extreme youth and how they fell for the blues.

Read More

Natalie Prass - Spacebomb

Newcomer pours her pain into exquisite soul record

Read More
 

Advertise With Us


For information including benefits, key facts, figures and rates for advertising with Hot Press, click below

Advertise

Find us elsewhere