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It’s a Wonderful Life: Janelle Monáe.
She’s been called “a different kind of diva” by Vogue Magazine and “a true visionary… one of the most important signings of my career” by Sean “Diddy” Combs. For singer, songwriter, and high funkstress Janelle Monáe, however, the impetus remains the same as it’s been since before her Grammy-nominated debut EP Metropolis, Suite I: The Chase captured the imaginations of fans and fellow artists. As she readies her first full-length LP, The ArchAndroid, her focus remains on stirring your soul, moving your feet and simply, creating good music.
The ArchAndroid blends the talents of executive producers Nate Wonder, Chuck Lightning, Janelle Monáe and Sean “Diddy” Combs, with co-executive production by Big Boi of Outkast. ““Musically, The ArchAndroid is an epic James Bond film in outer space,” describes Monáe, “in terms of influences it’s just all the things I love— scores for films like Goldfinger mixed with albums I adore such as Stevie’s Music of my Mind, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, and jamming experimental hip hop stuff like Stankonia.”
The ArchAndroid is a soaring, orchestral trip enlivened with blockbuster vocals, mysterious imagery, and notes of 60s pop and jazz. “It’s an organic symphonic sound,” says Monáe, who enlisted the talents of the Wondaland ArchOchestra to realize her sound. Elaborate orchestral arrangements were composed and conducted by Nate “Rocket” Wonder and Roman GianArthur for Wondaland Productions. Featured guests include the legendary Big Boi of OutKast, renowned poet Saul Williams, the psychedelic dance-punk troupe Of Montreal and punk prophets Deep Cotton.
The album realizes the next chapter in the story of Cindi Mayweather, the heroine of Monáe’s debut album Metropolis. She has been sent to free the citizens of Metropolis from the Great Divide, a secret society using time travel to suppress freedom and love throughout the ages. “It’s said that when the ArchAndroid returns, it will mean freedom for the android community,” explains Monáe. “Cindi Mayweather realizes that she is indeed the ArchAndroid.”
If this all sounds like the plot of a great movie, the Wondaland crew views each album as the creation of an “emotion picture.” Says Monáe, “The ArchAndroid is very inspiring for me. In terms of writing the music, we wanted the story to be very compelling, but we also wanted to make sure that the journey we’re taking people on makes them feel like they’re watching one big emotion picture.” The writing process was incredibly intense for everyone involved. “The music would sometimes wake us up in our sleep. We’d record melodies on our phone. Sometimes we’d stay up for days at a time just writing this music. The story and visions coming to us were so great that we wanted this music to capture everything we were feeling inside.”
“Over the last year and a half when we were recording the ArchAndroid I went through a very transformative period in my life,” explains Monáe, who has spent the time between albums traveling the world on tour. She’s joined artists No Doubt, Paramore and Erykah Badu on dates in various cities around the globe, including Istanbul, Berlin, Moscow and New York. She completed the album back home in Atlanta at Wondaland Studios and a strange haunted asylum for super-powered savants called The Palace of the Dogs. “The less said about that, the better—although I did like the Musiquarium [the recording studio] there, and I’ve got to thank Max Stellings [the asylum director] for allowing me to release these recordings to the world.”
“Overall, this music came from various corners of the world—from Turkey to Prague to Atlanta—places we were on tour. While recording, we’d experiment with different sounds. Once we became engulfed in the sound, we all had an emotional connection to the album. It has definitely transformed my way of thinking, the way that I approach the stage and overall, my life.”
The album’s first single, “Tightrope”, featuring Outkast’s Big Boi, speaks to her commitment to remain focused on what matters: the music. “As an artist it’s very important to always keep my balance and not get too high or too low about things. Even when I’m getting lots of positive reinforcement, to remain calm and enjoy the journey.” A funky party jam emboldened by the “classy brass” of Wondaland’s horn section, “Tightrope” features Monáe’s honeyed vocals reminding her listeners, and perhaps herself, “When you get elevated/ they love it or they hate/ keep dancing on them haters.”
Monáe also describes the recording process as a lot of fun. “We were up dancing on couches, jumping around, having jam sessions for hours and hours, just really enjoying ourselves,” she says with a laugh. “We let our free spirits come out and just listened to our hearts and the melodies that were within.” Now that the album is poised to release, she is focusing her talents on a deluxe graphic novel version of the album called The Red Book, as well as Dance Or Die, the eighteen-chapter ArchAndroid music video collection.
The journey of the past two years, she says, has taught her to “embrace the things that make me unique and to continue being an even bigger agent of change, especially as an artist.” Her hope is that listeners, inspired by the album, “embrace their own superpowers and become the voice of change, the hero—or The ArchAndroid—in their own communities.”