Janelle Monae talks inspiration, performing, and Atlanta

Janelle Monae at Stubb's during SXSW 2009
Janelle Monae at Stubb's during SXSW 2009
Photo by Stacy Schwartz

Janelle Monae was easily one of the best new artists we saw at SXSW in 2009, and we've been anxiously anticipating her next show in Minneapolis ever since. A larger-than-life performer, Monae kicked, danced, and stage dove her way through a set of soul-funk-electo-pop grooves, flailing her tiny body around so hard that her pompadour would come unraveled mid-song.

We caught up with Monae via telephone from her home in Atlanta to ask her about her impressive live show, her new record, and the music scene in her hometown prior to her show tonight at the Varsity Theater.

What are the challenges of putting together such an intricate, grandiose stage show?

Yeah, I mean you run through challenges in life all the time. It keeps you more perseverent, challenging yourself. I mean, I have a support system, so I don't run into the challenges of - oh, you can't try out this, you can't try out that. So that's the blessing. I'm surrounded around people who encourage me to be as artistic and free and thinking as possible.

It's hard to imagine you playing a smaller club. What were your shows like when you were starting out as a performer?

They varied. I've always had love for getting up and actually entertaining - I like entertaining myself. So there was a time where I would kind of stand there and just sing ballads, and that wasn't the fiery, fearless side of me. That was just more to get myself used to the stage. Once I got used to the stage, I wanted to make it my home, so that's when I immediately decided that I needed to entertain myself more.

Was there a learning curve? Did you have to overcome stage fright or nerves?

I still get nervous. But I'm always willing to get on stage. There's nothing that's going to stop me outside of a medical condition, or something like that. Nothing stops me from getting out there, and I use those nerves and the nervousness as an adrenaline force.

Who are some of your favorite performers?

Of Montreal, Kevin Barnes - in terms of contemporary artists, I think Of Montreal has been one of my huge inspirations, and people I enjoy going to watch perform.

Janelle Monae talks inspiration, performing, and Atlanta
Photo by Stacy Schwartz

Your second album (The Archandroid) picks up on the same storyline that began in your debut (Metropolis - The Chase Suite). When you were writing the first album, did you know there would be a sequel?

No. It's about timing, and I was given bits of the story in my dreams. I was also given bits and pieces of the story through traveling and going to different places, so I just had to make myself available for my ideas, and what my maker was trying to encourage me to write about and create.

Your stories come to you through your dreams?

Mm hmm, a lot of them do. A lot. They wake me up. It's a good thing I have my phone by me, I can record my ideas on it.

Has the Atlanta music scene influenced your work? I know Big Boi (of OutKast) was a producer on this album.

Yeah, he's co-executive producing. Atlanta has a very thriving music scene, and we try to support each other. It's family down here. We really do try and hang out, and record together or record in each other's studio, or come over and listen to each other's albums. So yeah, Atlanta is really good for the artists inspiring each other, and coming up with new concepts and ideas.

Are there any up-and-coming artists in Atlanta that we should know about?

Sure, lots. An artist named Rahbi, a duo called Deep Cotton. Who else? I think that's it right now.

Your joining up with the Lilith Fair tour this summer. Do you feel, as a female performer in the industry today, that there still a need for something like Lilith Fair? Is sexism still present in the industry?

I do think it's important that female artists support each other and encourage each other. Because we understand what it's like being an artist. But I don't feel like I need to be extra taken care of. I don't like being catered to all the time, and I'm not like a drama queen. I don't really look for sexism or those things to happen to me - I just demand respect from both genders, all around. But yeah, I do think it's important as a woman that I support other women and they do support me.

JANELLE MONAE performs with the 54 TONIGHT, MARCH 31, at the VARSITY THEATER. 18+. $15. 8 p.m. doors.

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