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.
The ArchAndroid took her to many places she never expected to go. She talks about visiting the White House a bunch of times, how "Michelle and Barack" listened to her music, about performing Tightrope at a State dinner, about hanging with Stevie Wonder, about playing at the Noble Peace Prize pow-wow.
“It’s been amazing,” she coos down the phone at the scale of all she’s done to date. Now comes the sequel in the form of a prequel.
"The Electric Lady is about what happened to Cindi first," says Monae. "Cindi is definitely an electric lady, and that was who she was before she was the ArchAndroid. All of the things I'm talking about on the album, from love to politics to sexuality to religion to community, are told through her eyes.
“But remember that it’s forbidden for androids to have these thoughts and she’s going to be punished for this, so I wanted to paint a picture of what her life was like before she became the ArchAndroid.”
There's more. "It's also a love story because she's in love with a human and a relationship between humans and androids is forbidden. It's like the way gay marriages are forbidden in a lot of states over here or the way inter-racial dating was forbidden. She's forbidden to be in love, but you get a chance to hear all the love songs between her and Anthony Greendown, her human lover."
Just like the superheroines depicted in Kristy Guevara-Flanagan's Wonder Women! documentary, Monae reckons that Mayweather is a figure to inspire many and represent those who've been discriminated against.
“Whenever I speak about the android, I need to be very clear and point out the android represents the other in life, the people who’ve been discriminated against,” she says. “The album then came from me thinking about Cindi’s power and what this power could produce and a world full of other electric ladies, like a new breed of women. I started to think about what the electric lady thinks about and that helped me write the album. I realised I had to tie it all in to Cindi Mayweather as a prequel because I wanted her to talk about these subjects.”
The Electric Lady is full of female characters and matriarchs who have inspired Monae in her life and career to date. "I have a song on the album called Sally Ride who was the first American woman in space," she explains. "She definitely inspired me because she got to go to space at a time when they were not hiring female astronauts, let alone letting them travel to space. They were even more discriminatory back then than they are now."
Then, there's a song called Dorothy Dandridge Eyes. Dandridge was "one of the first big African-American movie stars," Monae explains, "and she opened up so many doors for women of colour. She was also involved in an industry which featured lots of discrimination against both women and blacks."
“There’s so many strong women in my own family like my aunts, my grandmother and my mother. All of these women help me stay strong and develop my personality and teach me about the importance of community.”
There are some men in there too – like Prince (“not only did he contribute, but I also got the chance to produce him, such an honour, he’s an electric man”) – but this is very much Monae’s salute to the women in her life who have helped make her who she is today.
Monae says Mayweather is a feminist. “I think she would stand up for her fellow women, she’s a feminist. She’s also an uniter. She’s not about dividing people up or segregating people, that’s not her style, that’s not her tactics. I’ve always stood up for women’s rights. I’ve always fought against the discrimination I’ve seen against women in the music industry and in this world. My job is to bring people together.”
Musically, The Electric Lady has got its funk on. It's much more of a throwback than her previous album and Monae says this rootsy buzz was deliberate.
"I never want to repeat myself. I did not want to do The ArchAndroid again because it's not reflective of where I am now and it's not very interesting to do what you've done before. I wanted to stay rooted in r'n'b and soul music, I wanted to show that those roots have always been a motivation behind my own music. I think it was so important for us to continue that musicality and for me to keep doing that music.
"I wanted to hear and to pay tribute to the pioneers of that sound like Bo Diddley and James Brown and Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix. Dance Apocalyptic was hugely inspired by that desire to teach a new generation about their roots and how innovative and fun you can still be. I didn't want to marginalise it."
Monae’s back and the android class is in session. Time to get dancing.