September 29, 2011

An Architect of Experience

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Grammy-nominated R&B and soul singer Janelle Monae will arrive at Cornell to perfom a concert this Saturday night  at Barton Hall. Yesterday, the Sun was fortunate to catch up with Monae over the phone, and ask her a few questions about her work and her thoughts about performing in front of a college crowd.

The Sun: So, where are you calling from right now?

Janelle Monae: I’m in Brazil.

Sun: That’s pretty amazing. What are you doing down in Brazil?

J.M.: I have a show tomorrow night, for Rock in Rio, which Stevie Wonder is headlining.

Sun: As a performer, how do you approach a festival in Brazil versus a concert for a college crowd?

J.M.: Well, I’ve played in Brazil before. We were here with Amy Winehouse at the top of the year, and I will say that this is one of my favorite places to perform because the people come because they love music, and they’re willing to give it their all, just like I am as a performer. In any situation — college, jukejoint, my basement — if I’ve decided that I’m going to take the stage and present, I’m going to always give my all. I’m not going to go into a situation half-assing anything. So I really don’t take a different approach, I go in it to really have fun. That’s my goal: To make sure that while I’m onstage, I am really enjoying this. And I’m in love with my music, as well as music in general, and when you have audiences, which I think the college crowd is great with this, and the Brazilian crowd as well, and just music lovers all around, you know, you have a party. We become the party. The party is happening. So, I’m really looking forward to the college tour, just as I am Brazil, because I think that everybody’s going to come open-minded and really, they decided to come to Janelle Monae show, they should know by now that I’m going to give as much as I do each and every show.

Sun: Do you have any crazy stories? Any concerts that have stood out for you?

J.M.: Well I do also enjoy preforming in Denmark. I performed there with Prince and then we did a show at a festival called Roskilde, and everybody literally it seemed as though they had rehearsed choreography as audience members. Like “ok, we’re going to put these hearts up together.” And it was just amazing to see they had come prepared just like I had, and they had come ready to give, again, with no expectations, just “I’m going to be here so I’m going to give the best response that I possibly can.” To see all the hearts they made in the air with their hands was absolutely incredible. It’s mind-blowing to even think back to it, because it’s like, “man, who told you to do that?” They did, they wanted to do it, and that’s the beauty of it.

Sun: Your MySpace describes your music as “Punk/Rock/Soul”, and you’ve received a Grammy nomination for Contemporary R&B. With all the different terms used to genre-fy your music, how would you personally describe your sound?

J.M.: Transcendent, you know, timeless. And very inviting. I don’t believe in labels and categories at all, and I think that what I’m always trying to do is create something that lasts forever, and that will go on to the next generation and to the next generation. I think that’s the most that I can say. I think it’s not up to me to categorize it, it’s up to, and it’s fun for, everybody else to figure out what it is. But I focus on creating music and writing great songs and creating art. And I let everyone else figure out how they’re going to market it and what they’re going to say, but I’m not focused with labels or categories at all.

Sun: Could you walk me through your songwriting process, like how you would take a concept and turn it into a fully formed track?

J.M.: Well, it’s kind of hard because a lot of my songs come to me in my dreams. So when I was creating The ArchAndroid I spent a lot of time waking up and recording voice memos on my iPhone, from what I dreamt. It just really varies, you know, I think inspiration comes for artists in the wee hours of the morning. I do prefer to sing melodies first, and then create the words to them afterwards, because I think the melody is what will touch you most. Some of the greatest artists that I know work that way as well. I found that out later, and was like “oh, ok, that’s great to know.” And it’s something that works for me, but it varies. I’ve written songs in a cave before, I mean, I’m in Brazil right now and I’m writing songs in various spots. I just do what feels honest to me at that moment.

Sun: Let’s talk about The ArchAndroid. That’s an album with such a strong central concept. Was there a specific motivation behind it?

J.M.: Oh, a series of events that happened, that lead up to The ArchAndroid. It wasn’t just born overnight. It was a concept that developed as I developed, as an artist, and I knew what I wanted to say, and I knew what I wanted people to hear. I wanted an experience, I always want an experience in everything that I do. I consider myself an “experience architect,” and creating the emotion picture of The ArchAndroid was very fun, and it also took a lot of balance, because we have a responsibility to the jam. And so we don’t want the concept to be so heavy that you couldn’t really jam, you know, or you’re just jamming and there’s no concept. So there’s a balancing act with that and it really took me doing a lot of research and actually thinking about what I wanted to say. And I wanted to say that like Metropolis, the mediator between the mind and the hands is the heart. And I wanted the music to be what brought people together, I wanted music to be the heart. I wanted me, as the artist, the Android, to bring people together. And I wanted people to think about what it would mean to live in a world with androids, which will be deemed the “other.” And giving us a chance to rewrite history and to do things better than oppress those that are different from us. There are underlying messages, but again, it’s a series of things; lots of secrets hidden in there that I still find, or little nuggets that I don’t even remember doing. It’s just a very eclectic album that simultaneously came together because it was just honestly where we were.

Sun: Do you think there is a certain track that epitomizes what you were trying to accomplish?

J.M.: The album dealt with lot of self-discovery. I’d say “Cold War,” definitely. I mean, I’ve always encouraged everybody to be the archandroid in their life, you know, pretty similar to Neo in The Matrix or the Archangel. The Chosen One. The one who has been sent here to really bring us together. And I think artists have the power to do that, if they put their mind to it and their heart to it. Music is a common denominator and the one language that we all understand and can agree works — in time of war, in time of love, in time of celebration. And I believe that “Cold War” was someone accepting that they are this person, they are the person who’s been chosen to carry these tasks of bringing us together, or just speaking for the people and being the voice of those who can’t speak. And so I would say that, to me, was the flagship for the album, and “Tightrope” — the balance of dealing with life’s ups and downs, and encouraging the people. This is what you do when you feel oppressed, this is how you react to certain things when they come our way that we are not in control. But there are so many songs there that just deal with things that we all can just relate to, and just never had somebody speak or give that perspective in such a way.

Sun: In terms of individualism, where does the tuxedo motif come from, and what does it represent?

J.M.: Its something that I think you just have to embrace, and not everybody is fit to be an individual, and really be truly comfortable with themselves. It takes a certain kind of breed and I feel like that’s just in my DNA.

Sun: Are there other ways you try and make an identity for yourself while performing? I know you’ve been written about for your dancing.

J.M.: Sure, I love dancing. I think dancing is something that’s therapeutic for me, it’s encouraging me to be more fearless and free. It’s the one thing I can do and never feel like anybody owns that. That’s something that I can create, and something that comes from me.

Sun: Last question: What would you say to a Cornell student who has never heard your music to get them to come your show Sunday night?

J.M.: Well, they’re going to have an experience. It’s not just a concert, we’re putting together a full experience, and the people onstage genuinely love what they’re doing. I’m bringing the ArchOrchestra — string quartet, horn players — the full instruments that you will need to create a canvas that you’ve never seen painted before. So, if I were them, I would come ready for the element of surprise, and music and experience that they will never forget.

Original Author: Peter Jacobs