Janelle Monáe likes to maintain a bit of mystery
Singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe is a one-woman tableau of stylistic contradictions. Frequently clad in a 1940s-style tuxedo and sporting hair out of an ’80s rap video, she could be the product of a mashup of the Andrews Sisters and Kid ’n Play. But this cosmetic imagery belies the challenging complexity of her music.
Making her headlining debut here, at the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Monáe lists—and exhibits—influences as varied as Prince, David Bowie, Judy Garland, and Alfred Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann. Furthermore, the musical program she’s touring with is indebted to Metropolis, the classic 1927 sci-fi film directed by German expressionist Fritz Lang.
A near-cinematic air of mysteriousness extends to her basic communications. For example, she prevaricates when asked where she’s calling from.
“I’m in a desolate place right now,” she says with a sigh. “I’m not sure it even has a name.”
Actually, the 26-year-old is due to play Toronto the next night, so perhaps she’s stuck in Peterborough. It’s not clear if she’s speaking geographically or emotionally, but much of her conversation stays on the cerebral side. That fits with the tone of The ArchAndroid: Suites II and III, her heavily orchestrated album, which she hopes to turn into a movie of its own at some point.
“It’s all about timing,” Monáe explains, “and we’re not quite there yet. Things happened for a reason, and I feel everything is building to that. The audience is just starting to know me, and I’m still learning how to put all the pieces into place.”
There are a lot of pieces. Besides sporting some glossily modern club-beat sounds, the record is full of retro touches, including ’70s-style soul-jazz, P-Funk grooves, Beatles-like reversed tracks, and mellow acoustic guitars. Some of the string arrangements recall “Wild Is the Wind” composer Dimitri Tiomkin as much as they do Herrmann, or Quincy Jones, for that matter. There’s even an orchestral shout-out to Claude Debussy. Where did all this come from?
“I grew up in a very musical family,” notes Monáe. “And I was born singing. But we didn’t have a lot of resources, so the influences came later.”
Christened Janelle Monáe Robinson, the future performer parlayed talent into studies at performing-arts schools in New York and Philadelphia, eventually landing in Atlanta, where she gained the attention of OutKast’s Big Boi, who helped her get musical appearances in the Prohibition-set movie Idlewild. He also hyped the singer to Sean Combs, who signed her to his Bad Boy label.
She didn’t travel the expected hit-making route. Other members of her Wondaland Arts Society kept turning her on to different streams of popular culture, and the Metropolis bug bit about six years ago.
“I just thought it had so much to say about modern society and the roles we are forced into. I don’t want to be trapped by some monolithic idea of what an artist or a human being should be. At the same time, I don’t want people to know too much about me—for the same reason: so I have the opportunity to keep changing.”
Janelle Monáe plays the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Friday (June 29) as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.