Interview: Janelle Monáe
"I've already gone out to 30, so I already KNOW where I see myself in 10 years from now."
Janelle Monáe isn't your average R&B star. She references The Wizard of Oz, Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin rather than Mariah, Aaliyah and Aretha. What's more, not only does she believe in time travel, she also claims to have travelled into the future — a future where humans, androids and aliens live in perfect harmony. It makes sense that fellow R&B eccentrics Prince and Erykah Badu are fans (the feeling is mutual, of course), along with Stevie Wonder, Big Boi (who introduced her to Sean Combs, the man who eventually signed her) and Michelle Obama, who recently put 'Tightrope', off 2010's Grammy-nomiated concept album The ArchAndroid, on her list of favourite workout jams (seriously). Monáe is bringing the entire ArchAndroid Orchestra to Sydney this week to perform her "Emotion Picture Show" at Vivid Festival this Saturday and Sunday. I spoke with Monáe ahead of her tour, and I was surprised by how serious and driven she seemed, even over the phone — she's taking the android thing all the way.
Ariane Halls: You've always had a strong sense of where you want to go with your career and with your image — you've even got a uniform. Were you always this determined when you were growing up?
Janelle Monáe: Um, yeah. My parents tell me that I was pretty set on — well, either I wanted to do enter talent showcases or I wanted an exchange student program to come to our school. I mean, I was pretty goal-oriented and knew where I needed to go after high school, what I needed to do, and that I wanted to be an artist, you know? For all my life I never wanted to be anything other than what I am now, and I've actually exceeded all of my goals, which is a blessing and I don't ever take for granted.
So, if you've exceeded them already, where do you go next?
I just, you know, I'm a growing person. As I grow up, I'm interested in other things. As of now, I've always been a writer — songwriting, movies; I'm focusing on a large film. And so, I'm pushing myself in that area — pushing myself as a musician. I've picked up guitar. It's a very therapeutic experience to me; really challenge my mind. There's quite a few things that I'm sure that I'll get more involved in as I continue to grow as a person and as an artist.
You're writing a film — what are some of your favorite films?
Some of my favorite films are… well, I'm a huge science fiction lover, because it focuses on things that people haven't proven, really — which are in the future — and there are unlimited possibilities, which I love about science fiction. Nobody knows if it can happen yet, and for me, I'm interested in Ridley Scott; I love his work. I also love, of course, Metropolis; it's a huge inspiration — the origin of science fiction filmmaking. I love Bladerunner as well… I could go on. I just appreciate great writing and honest writing and honest acting — Gattaca, Star Wars — I am just a lover of great work.
Gattaca has almost started to come true — there's a lot of science fiction that's starting to come true.
Our women's issue is coming out very soon. What females do you look up to? Not just in music — who do you find most inspiring?
Growing up, I was really into Lauryn Hill. I just thought she was just such a strong woman, and that she really packaged her life — from her being a mother and her being an artist, being a woman in hip-hop, her being female — she was packaged in a way that I could relate to and that I aspire to. She was a big inspiration to me, growing up, in terms of finding myself as a young woman and as an artist. I love Nichelle Nichols, she played Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek. She really broke some barriers, she really was the first black females not be a maid or a houseworker — she was on a spaceship! I do admire Oprah Winfrey, of course — I mean, every woman should. She's accomplished a lot, and she's humble, and she's just a great person overall. Michelle Obama, as well — I've spent some time with them at the White House, a couple of times actually, and she's just a really inspiring woman and she's just aware of what her role should be in society, and she does all she can to be a positive role model for all women. She doesn't lose her cool.
What would surprise us about you?
I don't know! I mean, I know myself because I am myself and I know that I have many dimensions to myself. You'd have to get to know me to understand some things, you know? People who are surprised by, when they meet me, I'm a very chilled, relaxed person, naturally, but at the same time I'm very hyper-energetic, you know? Manic, if you will [laughs].
Monáe's performance at Glastonbury 2011, after which her Amazon sales increased by 4928% (according to NME).
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I've already gone out to 30, so I already know where I see myself in 10 years from now. In 30 years, I see myself, a principal at a conservatory arts program for aliens and cyborg androids.
And you can't tell us what happens there, right? It's against the rules.
No, I can't. Time will have to tell, you know?
Janelle Monáe performs this Saturday 26 and Sunday 29 at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. Tickets from $59 via Vivid Sydney.