Janelle Monae: A Dance Musician Who Dreams In Science Fiction She sports tuxedos and a sky-high pompadour. Her music blends James Brown, David Bowie, Nona Hendryx and Kraftwerk. And she says her new album, The ArchAndroid, which depicts an imaginary intergalactic world, came to her largely in her sleep.

Janelle Monae: Dreaming In Science Fiction

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

(Soundbite of song, "Sincerely, Jane")

Ms. JANELLE MONAE (Singer): (Singing) Left the city. My mama, she said, don't come back home...

NORRIS: As an independent artist, Janelle Monae created buzz back in 2007, when she released a seven-song collection called "Metropolis." Monae's music and her persona are hard to pin down. She plays indie rock festivals and the R&B circuit. She often sports tuxedos and a sky-high pompadour. And her musical influences seem to include a blend of James Brown, David Bowie, Nona Hendryx and Kraftwerk.

Her musical journey began in Kansas City, where she was pained by her father's drug addiction but also pushed by a mother who focused on education.

Ms. MONAE: A lot of the people that I was hanging out with didn't really have a lot of goals. And I felt myself ending up walking dead, and so that's when I realized that I could actually go away and show that just because you come from a small, little town in Kansas, which is the poorest county, that you definitely have a choice.

(Soundbite of song, "Sincerely, Jane")

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) Daydreamers, please wake up, we can't sleep no more.

NORRIS: And Janelle Monae made that choice. She's now finished a new release, an epic concept album. It's called "The ArchAndroid," and it harkens back to the imaginary, intergalactic world she introduced in her earlier release, "Metropolis."

(Soundbite of song, "Cold War")

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) So, you think I'm alone. But being alone's the only way to be. When you step outside, you feel like fighting for your sanity. This is a cold war. You better know what you're fighting for...

NORRIS: And I love your music. You write about - or thematically, through the videos that you create to accompany the music, you seem to create almost alternative universes. Where does that come from, and why does that animate your art so much?

Ms. MONAE: I believe that imagination inspires nations. It's something that I live by. And I've always been a lover of Walter E. Disney, Salvador Dali, surrealism, Octavia Butler - you know, science fiction in general.

NORRIS: You mentioned Octavia Butler. She's a science fiction writer, and often when she writes about other universes or sort of parallel universes, they're not necessarily dark and scary; they're places that are full of wonder and delight.

Ms. MONAE: Absolutely. That's what I'm really drawn to. I love magic, and I do love wonder. I love fantasizing. And I don't know, I guess you can call me a dreamer.

(Soundbite of song, "Wonderland")

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) Take me back to wonderland, I got to get back to wonderland...

NORRIS: There's a song on your latest album that's called "Wonderland." And "Wonderland" is more for you than just a song title. It's also a circle or society that you've helped create in Atlanta.

Ms. MONAE: The Wonderland Arts Society, yes, and it's full of thrivals(ph) and artists who really, really want to help preserve art. You know, we have visual artists to graphic novel writers, you name it, screenwriters, to help the next generation. You know, I think it's very important that there's another blueprint to how an artist can actually break into the music industry and shift the energy in a very positive way, of course.

So, yeah, we're black and white and wear tuxedos, and music is our weapon.

(Soundbite of song, "Wonderland")

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) Take me back to wonderland. I got to get back to wonderland. Take me back to wonderland ...

NORRIS: There's a lot of heavy production that you hear in a song like this. And you actually, if you listen to the album straight through, you hear lots of different versions of Janelle Monae. It's like you put on different characters at different times. And in some cases, your voice is almost masked or modulated.

Ms. MONAE: This project dealt with a lot of self-realization. A lot of the music came to me in my dreams. Luckily, I had my iPhone by my bed and I could, you know, just use my recording device and just record what it was that I could remember. I just left it like that. So, if my voice has a different texture to it or, you know, if the tone switches up, I think the characters in "Metropolis" were moving through me, and I had to expose them.

NORRIS: So a lot of these songs came to you when you were dreaming. Is that where you find that you are most creative, in those moments when you first wake up?

Ms. MONAE: This was the first time when I was working on a project that songs came to me in my dreams. I was just so anxious. As soon as I would get up, it's like, oh, man, this song was absolutely gorgeous. I cannot panic, or I'm going to forget the string arrangement. I'm going to forget, you know, how my voice is supposed to sound. So, I would hop up.

And that's what I think is very important as an artist. You have to listen to what your maker is saying - OK, you need to say this.

NORRIS: And so it's not just the lyrics. You actually hear the chords and the orchestration.

Ms. MONAE: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Like, this song, "Neon Valley Street," the string - (vocalizing) -

(Soundbite of song, "Neon Valley Street")

Ms. MONAE: I just remember hearing that John Williams string arrangement in a lot of his songs.

(Soundbite of song, "Neon Valley Street")

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) May this song reach your heart. May your ears love the sweet melody. Every note, every chord...

NORRIS: Are we hearing actual strings there? Is there an orchestra there in the studio with you?

Ms. MONAE: Yes, absolutely. We recorded at Wonderland, and we brought them in. And it was - yeah, it was pretty cramped, but we made it happen.

(Soundbite of song, "Neon Valley Street")

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) For now, I'll pretend I'm holding your hand. May the song reach your heart. May the song reach your heart. May the song reach your heart...

NORRIS: Janelle, you've talked about wanting to create this whole landscape of emotions with this album - almost like a film or a novel.

Ms. MONAE: Absolutely, Michele. We like to think of "The ArchAndroid" as an emotion picture for the mind. I do believe that it will transform you. You won't know it. You'll have to listen to it maybe a couple times, but I think that it just prepares your palette for just more diverse music.

NORRIS: You talk about this music transforming people. There's one song in particular that might transform your state of mind - or at least your state from sitting to standing, and quite possibly dancing. And that song is "Tightrope."

(Soundbite of song, "Tightrope")

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) Some people talk about ya, like they know all about ya, when you get down, they doubt ya, and when you dip it on...

Yeah. I'm dancing now. Yeah.

NORRIS: I'm trying to sit still.

(Soundbite of song, "Tightrope")

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) When you get elevated, they love it or they hate it...

I also want to make it clear: One of the first responsibilities was to make sure that we created some jamming music. And with "Tightrope," we wanted to make sure that people love the music. Even if they don't have the time to get into the concept, we still wanted to make sure that they were having a good time and dancing.

(Soundbite of song, "Tightrope")

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) And I'm still dipping on it. See, I'm not walking on it, or trying to run around it. This ain't no acrobatics. You either follow or you lead. Yeah, I'm talking...

NORRIS: Janelle Monae, all the best to you. Thanks so much for coming in.

Ms. MONAE: Thank you, Michele. It was my pleasure.

(Soundbite of song, "Tightrope")

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) I can't complain about it. I got to keep my balance and just keep dancing on it. We're getting funky on the scene. And you know about it. Like a star on the screen. Watch me tip all on it...

NORRIS: Janelle Monae. Her new album is called "The ArchAndroid." The song is "Tightrope." And if you want to hear more of it - and I suspect that you might - go to our website, nprmusic.org. And there, you can also see video.

(Soundbite of song, "Tightrope")

Ms. MONAE: (Singing) Whether you're high or low (high or low), baby, whether you're high or low (high or low), tip on your tightrope...

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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