Janelle Monae, unforgettable in a tuxedo and killer pompadour, is a genuine talent in an age of the manufactured pop idol: thoughtful, smart, fearless.
She can sing – for real – and move, working a stage like it’s nobody’s business. She has performed with Prince, Stevie Wonder and Katy Perry; her single Tightrope is on Michelle Obama’s workout playlist. Her concept EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) and album The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) prompted critical gushing, as well as Grammy nominations. Or maybe you know her from the Chevy commercial.
At 26, the genre-defying (R&B/soul/funk/punk/art rock) artist shows a maturity in her work – and despite all her success, a sweet confidence that does not come off as arrogance.
“Being touched by music is all a part of my DNA,” she said earlier this week on the phone from Winnipeg, where she was beginning a string of jazz festival dates across Canada.
“It’s kind of something you’re really born with. But if you don’t listen to that and trust it, you won’t explore it fully. So you have to really dig deep inside and pull it out and be unafraid to express that in front of people.”
“Over time, the more confident others around you are, the more you feel like you can make mistakes or you can try out new ideas or you can experiment. So I guess as I’ve evolved as a person, my attitude evolved in a way of trusting my gut and going after the things that I think are cool and are cool to do as a performer.”
Monae grew up in Kansas City in hardly ideal circumstances: Her mother was a janitor; her father struggled with drug addiction.
But she studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, and wound up in Atlanta, where she was discovered by Outkast’s Big Boi and signed to Sean Combs’s Bad Boy Records.
Her 2007 concept EP and 2010 follow-up album are set way in the future, and feature Monae’s alter-ego-android Cindi Mayweather – creative risks which clearly paid off, as Monae successfully walked the tightrope between critical acclaim and commercial success. Tightrope provides the dance-inducing soundtrack to commercials for Kmart and the Chevrolet Cruze, but has also earned critical love.
Monae, meanwhile, has kept her blast into fame all in stride.
“I am a spiritual person and I take time and meditate and look at the trees and look at the clouds and the sun and the moon and the stars to put things into perspective of how small we are, here on Earth. Once I look at things that man couldn’t possibly have built, I become just like a normal searching human being. Not Janelle Monae the artist who has been to the White House.”
She’s also aware that her fame gives her responsibility as a role model to young women.
Monae is sexy (if ambiguously so), not just because of her looks, but because confidence and talent are as sexy as it gets. Sure she can be enigmatic, maybe even deliberately weird, enthusiastic about time travel and androids. When asked when we’ll hear new music, she says that will happen according to her “soul clock.”
“Can you explain what your soul clock is and how it works?”
“My soul clock is what tells me the time for you to hear new music ... It works on its own time.”
I ask when she knew she had made it.
“I have not had that moment yet,” she says. “I’m still on a journey. I’m still climbing. I don’t get too high off accolades or what have you. I purposely make sure to stay very balanced in this. When people in my opinion have felt like they’ve made it, they get lazy. And I’m not in a lazy spirit at all.”
Janelle Monae plays the Toronto Jazz Festival June 22, the Ottawa Jazz Festival June 23, the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival June 24, the Montreal International Jazz Festival June 27, the Victoria International JazzFest June 28, and the Vancouver International Jazz Festival June 29.