Janelle Monae makes an electric return
New album The Electric Lady marks the return to the limelight of the fabulous Janelle Monae. She reveals how her musical vision is powered by feminism, futurism, painting and the funk
Every night on tour, Janelle Monae would walk over to an easel set up onstage and start to paint. Monae was the star turn, a woman who knew that every eye in the house was on her and her fancy footwork.
These were the shows to promote her album The ArchAndroid, events which were populated by a cast of madcap performers in capes and masks. Nights full of delirious soul and funk and pop, occasions full of delight and daring and daftness, happenings you didn’t come across every day of the week.
Every night and every show, Monae would paint. Every night and every show, she would paint the same mysterious lady. Every night and every show, the same lady.
Months later back home, she stared at a stash of paintings she’d kept from those shows and wondered what that routine had been all about. All those paintings, all those takes on the same lady.
“It did kind of freak me out that this happened every night,” she says. “I don’t know why they turned out the way they did, I didn’t know they were going to be the same form, the same woman, every night.
“Creative folks are constantly drawing inspiration from a higher power and I honestly think that power was speaking to me through those paintings I did every night. I just didn’t know what that power was saying to me or what I was supposed to do.”
A friend encouraged her to name the figure and the series as a way to stop freaking out. “I went through hundreds of paintings and I couldn’t come up with a name, but I knew she made me feel a certain way. I felt this energy from her, from this electric lady, and that’s where the title came from. She was the electric lady.”
Cue The Electric Lady, Monae’s new album of interstellar sonic fun and games. It has a galaxy of superstar guests (Prince, Solange, Miguel and even people with more than one word in their name like Erykah Badu, Big Boi and Cee-Lo Green) and a platter of wild songs which bounce and soar and head for the hills. And, because it’s Monae we’re dealing with, it has a concept which demands that you suspend reality for a time.
Monae, as we know from her past, is fond of the concept. Rewind to 2010 and the arrival of The ArchAndroid. This was where the Kansas native turned her love of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near into an album about Cindi Mayweather, an android rebel from 2,719 rocking a killer quiff and sporting a tuxedo.
It was far-fetched, outlandish, spectacular, artistic and a little bit barmy. Monae did interview after interview about Mayweather and her life and stuck rigidly to the script. But the songs were amazing, the music was superb and it all came together in the wash. Concepts are always good when the music is good. The world sat up and took notice of this woman in a tuxedo who danced like a demon, sung like an angel and fancied herself as the embodiment of an android.