“I Have Been Working On My Time Travel Machine” – Janelle Monae Interview

Janelle Monáe‘s stunning new full length LP The Electric Lady continues the immersive science fiction world first introduced to us in her futuristic debut album, ArchAndroid. Her latest, a galactic concept album about an android named Cindi Mayweather who happens to fall in love with a human, is a work of grandiose scope buoyed by vocal contributions from the likes of Solange, Prince, Miguel and Erykah Badu singing socially conscious lyrics over an expansive pop soundtrack of funk, soul, hip hop, jazz and R&B. We recently caught up with the inimitable Atlanta based singer-songwriter to discuss forbidden love, why she compulsively drew pictures of naked women, the public’s biggest misconception about Prince and the musical film she’s been working on. 

Hey Janelle what have you been up to today? I have been working on my time travel machine. How's that been going? How long have you been working on that for? We've been working on it for two years. It's almost done now. It'll be ready September 9th just before the album comes out in the States. What was your headspace going into making the new album? Obviously there's a narrative continuation from your previous work but did you know exactly what you wanted to do going into it? No I didn't. The album title as far as the subject matter and the story was inspired by my painting. I paint and I sing at the same time when I'm on the road performing and I didn't quite understand why I was painting the female silhouette - I was painting the female silhouette every night - so I went home back to Atlanta when the tour was over and talked to my therapist and she encouraged me to name the whole series and do a showing at a gallery. I tried to come up with names for the painting but I had a hard time. I knew whoever she was in the painting she didn't want to be categorised so I looked into my spirit, I looked into the energy that I got from each painting, it was a very visceral reaction, and the words came to me, Electric Lady. Then I dreamt of a world where there were more electric ladies. A new breed. A 21st century woman and I asked myself what does the electric lady think about love, politics, sexuality, religion and so on. That's when I got the opportunity to write the album. I realised that all the subject matter it inspired were the same things Cindi Mayweather - the heroine of the story - was going to be disassembled for due to her thoughts on those topics. She's an "other". An android. But she's in love with a human being. Did you or your therapist ever figure out why you were compulsively drawing this image? That was god. That was god. It was god speaking to me telling me to continue creating these almost mythic superhero characters that people could aspire to be more like. The Electric Lady is a huge concept because the Electric Lady is deeply rooted in community and wanting to nurture the community and move the community forward in a positive way. She doesn't have a particular size or skin colour. She's the commonality between us. I didn't understand back then why I was drawing her but now I realise I was creating the woman I want to be more like and want to see more of in the world. The story is of this forbidden romance between an android and a human, what do you know about forbidden love? I think I can relate. I have certain friends who are in lesbian or gay relationships and they have been for years and they can't get married. There was once a time when African Americans could not interracial date. It's still going on. Muslims don't want their kids marrying Christians and Christians don't want their kids marrying Muslims. I think there are so many parallels to feeling like the "other" and being told that because we're different, be that class or race or whatever, we cannot love each other.

Do you think it is becoming easier to be an android in 2013?
No I don't think our job is done yet. Again, all laws of equality are not serviced in every community. There are still laws that ban same-sex marriage. Some people still don't believe in interracial dating. There are still places where young women are told who to marry by their parents. Not being able to have that complete freedom of choice, I think, is one of the greatest injustices in the world. What inspires you? I don't know what my expiration date is. I don't know when I'll pass on. All we have is the history books to tell the next generation who we are and what we did while we were here. I just think about my legacy, about all the people who opened up doors for me, all the opportunities I've had and I just want to make sure I do something impactful that will continue to inspire and nurture the community in a positive way. I think it's the stories of people who are often times marginalised that inspire me. If I can help lead them and be a voice for people experiencing discrimination, if I can do something to make it easier for them, I go out of this world feeling like I did something good with my life. That's what drives me. Obviously you're deeply inspired by sci-fi which always revolves around some kind of impending apocalyptic doom. What is our impending doom? I just think the lack of compassion we have for one another and how we use war or violence as the first solution to our disagreements. I think that religion is also going to doom us. When we feel like people don't share our religious beliefs we start to use devices and tactics which vilify other religions. They become the enemy because they're different. But they're not. They just believe in different things. We start hating in the name of god and hating in the name of religion. That's our biggest downfall. Your albums and work are so narrative driven is screenwriting something you want to pursue in the future? I grew up writing at the Coterie Theater Young Playwright's Round Table when I lived in Kansas City, Kansas. I wrote short stories and other actors would perform them. As a result of that when I write an album I think of everything from a cinematic perspective. I grew up watching Star Wars and The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock movies. It's in my DNA to think visually. So, yes, we've written a screenplay. We plan to have that in motion soon as a full movie for the ArchAndroid.  

Have you acted before? Would you star in it?
I acted throughout high school and college, actually. I went to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. But yes, I would definitely star in the movie and I look forward to that phase of my life. Where do your songs and visions come from? It varies. A lot of the times I get ideas when I'm sleeping. I have to keep my microphone next to my bed so I can write down words or sing any melodies I've heard. Recently, actually, I had a full band in my dream that didn't exist and I heard their song so vividly. It woke me up at 4 in the morning and I had to put that on my voice memo and record what I heard so I could take it and record it at the studio. Can you tell us about what it means to have Erykah Badu and Prince on the album? I'm honoured to have both of them. They're both my musical heroes and great friends and mentors to me. Erykah was actually the first female artist to reach out and take me on tour with her. We formed a sisterhood when we were on tour together. Q.U.E.E.N., the song we did together was inspired by private conversations we had about a woman's place in society and slut-shaming and the judgement society that puts on women and we wanted to create an anthem for women and for people who are marginalised. An anthem for the underdog. And Prince, it was incredible working with him. He reached out to me because he liked my music and he invited me and my band over for a jam session. We've been friends and he's been a mentor ever since. He took me on tour and I opened up Madison Square Garden for him. He's just there. The one thing I will say about Prince is that he does give back to the younger generation and tries to mentor and support them. It's a privilege and an honour because he doesn't often collaborate with other people and I also got the opportunity to produce him as well so that was incredible. What's the biggest misconception that people have about Prince? I don't know. He's still a mystery to me. He's mysterious and has this electricity when he walks into a room. But I would have to say it's his sense of humour. Prince has an amazing sense of humour that only his friends and family get to see. Thanks for your time Janelle. Thanks.             The Electric Lady is out now.