Singer, dancer, and self-styled arts impresario (with her own Wondaland Arts Society), Janelle Monae, 24, is both a throwback and explosively original. On Tuesday, she releases The ArchAndroid, an ambitious concept album about a futuristic world of androids in need of unification. Monae spoke with Rebecca Milzoff about her influences.
Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis heavily influenced the album. “It talked about a constant struggle between the haves and have-nots, the ‘other.’ Androids will be the new other. I feel we’ll be living with them soon.” Also Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: “I listen to it on audiobook over and over.”
Monae calls her album an “emotion-picture experience.” Much like a symphony with movements, it’s meant to be listened to from beginning to end in one sitting. Scores from Disney films and composer John Williams inspired the arrangements. “Big songs!” A Parliament-Funkadelic show informed her sense of theater. “When I saw the Mothership come down? Wow! I love George Clinton!”
The Alter Ego
Monae performs The ArchAndroid as Cindi Mayweather, a persona inspired in part by The Matrix’s Neo. “She’s the mediator between the haves and have-nots, the chosen one to help restore unity and balance.” The Cindi persona reflects Monae’s desire to face her fears. “I’m attracted to things that scare me, like Psycho, my favorite Hitchcock movie.”
Her trademark skinny tuxedo is inspired by Marlene Dietrich and is a tribute to “my mother, who was a janitor, and my father, who drove trash trucks. It pays homage to how they put on a uniform every day and turned something into nothing.” The hair is the result of experimentation. “Some people call it a pompadour or a wompadour, but it’s a Monae.”
She grew up on classic musicals, particularly those by Rodgers and Hammerstein: “I’ve cried over string arrangements.” Other favorites: Nat King Cole, Lauryn Hill, Jimi Hendrix, and Salvador Dalí’s painting Portrait of Gala With Two Lamb Chops. “I’ll refer to my music in color, like ‘This song needs to be bright red.’ ”