The New Normal: Janelle in Wondaland
From the outside, it looks like any other suburban Atlanta home, but as you walk through the front door of Wondaland, time and space seem to bend. In the foyer, dozens of antique wall clocks are strewn to the vaulted ceiling, hanging like portals to strange new dimensions. Staring up at the surreal environs, equilibrium is elusive. As my off-kilter eyes pan back down to the first floor, I half expect to see the White Rabbit skitter ball-of-nerves around the corner, but instead comes Janelle Monae herself, all five-foot-three of her, space-age pompadour bobbing with each step.
The elusive, machine-precise, sci-fi-shrouded performer – about whom I’d once written, “she’s too good to be human” – is now standing in front of me, wearing a Christmas apron over her standard black-and-white formalwear. “Come in, come in,” she beckons, pointing me to the hors d’oeuvres. “Get yourself some food. I made salmon dip.”
In the living room and adjacent kitchen, a mix of Bob Marley, Vince Guaraldi and classic R&B Christmas tunes spills from the stereo, swirling with the chatter of old friends, several of whom are busy decorating the tree. Monae and her presently jetlagged but still spirited band are back in town after a lengthy European tour, and an intimate holiday gathering is underway, complete with a tall cylindrical tank dispensing some mysterious concoction everyone is calling “wondapunch.”
This communal headquarters and recording studio in Southwest Atlanta is home to Monae and several other members of the Wondaland Arts Society, a liked-minded collective of creatives working in various disciplines – music, performance art, film, graphic novels and more.
“The Wondaland Arts Society was created [to come up with] a different blueprint for aspiring artists,” Monae explains. “We were going back and forth, talking to labels, and I just felt like they were really out of touch with where the people were, what they wanted to hear, and where music was heading. So I got connected with a collective of individuals who had the same goals as mine… [One of which is] to create music that’s like a drug for the people. Whenever they wanna feel euphoria or cry – this is an emotion picture.”
As always, Monae speaks elegantly and with purpose, making love to the words as they escape her lips, the way an old-time movie star would.
“Sometimes you can’t express how you feel, you just feel things,” she continues. “And that’s when you, emotionally, can get connected to the people; when you can be their hero or their villain. But I choose to be the heart, and to create music that unites us – to create a purple state, not just catering to a red one or a blue one but combining those colors and creating something magical; helping us all believe in our imaginations again.”
Kevin Barnes and Bryan Poole – Monae’s friends from the band Of Montreal, with whom she toured this past year – have just arrived, and the Wondaland Christmas party is in full swing. Soon, tiny paper-tuxedo-heart ornaments are being passed around, and everyone is told to write down their Christmas wish on the back, to be read aloud later. But first, Janelle and her ArchAndroid co-producers Nate Wonder and Chuck Lightning lead a heartfelt champagne toast, reflecting with passion on the year they’ve had (a breakthrough on so many levels), and giving thanks for all they’ve experienced.
“This year,” Lightning says, grasping for right phrase, “has been cartoon.” He then pauses, before adding, “and it was real, too.” In this statement, he reveals the central dichotomy of the Wondaland experience – to simultaneously be fantastical and free spirited and unafraid to soar, but to also be as down-to-earth as it gets, to remember who you’ve been, and to be who you really are.
“I’ve been wearing the same two colors [black & white], and I consider it a uniform for me,” Monae says. “And that uniform was intended to keep me connected to the people, to keep me connected to the everyday working man and woman, and the family that helped raise me. My mother was a janitor, and my father still drives trash trucks. So I grew up in a very hardworking family, and I’m constantly in touch with them… Remembering where I once was keeps me connected.
“I used to work at Office Depot. So when I want to complain, I start having perspective – perspective is everything. I remember where I was, and how I felt. You should keep journals. I think that’s important for everyone, to keep a journal of their past so they can realize how far they’ve come or not come – just a self-analysis… ‘Am I growing? What are my core values? What are the things that matter most to me?'”
There’s also a lot of talk about superpowers amongst Monae and the collective-in the liner notes to her first full-length album, last year’s The ArchAndroid, she even goes as far as thanking Wondaland for using its superpowers for good. In line with the society’s philosophy, its members refuse to be anything less than extraordinary, many of them taking on outlandish handles to underscore this – Nate “Rocket” Wonder; Chuck Lightning; Lord Disassembler; George 2.0; Mitchell, a Martian; and Wolfmaster Stanklin. On the flip side, though, the folks at Wondaland seem to prefer a thoughtful sincerity to the cheap, thin veil of irony. Don’t get me wrong – there’s plenty of laughter and carrying on at the party, but never when someone is being vulnerable. When each of us reads aloud our Christmas wishes, no one is scoffed at, no matter how sentimental or heart-on-sleeve his or her speech is.
“They’re just good people,” Janelle says of her bandmates and Wondaland collaborators. “We’re really best friends.We all truly hang, outside of rehearsing and being on stage… But the most amazing thing is that they’re giving people, and they make me laugh. That matters to me. I don’t care how talented you are. If your heart is not in the right place, nine times out of 10, I won’t be able to work with you.”
When it’s Monae’s turn to share what she’s scribbled on her tuxedo heart, her wish is that everyone finds someone who’s hurting or in need and reaches out to them. In everything she does, Monae exudes strength, compassion and leadership. While she’d be the first to stress how much she learns from – and is inspired by – her Wondaland compatriots, they seem to look to her for direction and guidance. It’s a familiar role for Monae.
“I’ve always been like a rock in my family,” she says. “Older people to younger have come to me for advice, and I’ve always felt as though I’ve had to be an example and a leader for those around me, so I grew up a little early. And I’ve always had goals – big, hairy, audacious goals at that.”
It was this deep-seated ambition – in tandem with her uniqueness and raw talent – that caught the attention of OutKast’s Big Boi (who first exposed Monae to a national audience by including her track “Lettin’ Go” on his Got Purp Vol. 2 compilation), and subsequently Sean Combs, who added her to his Atlantic imprint Bad Boy in 2006, calling her “possibly the most important signing of my career.” In a development deal that’s unprecedented in today’s quick-fix music industry, Monae and Wondaland are benefitting from their parent label’s reach and deep pockets, but have retained complete creative control.
“[When Bad Boy] came to us,” Monae says, “we were already established and releasing our material independently, and they were inspired by our movement. Sean Combs said, ‘I’ve never wanted to creatively give any input. I was just inspired by what you guys were doing as a collective, and I just want people to hear and know about you.’ And that’s what he’s done, and that’s what Atlantic is doing. When we needed more time to finish The ArchAndroid, they gave us our space. They didn’t tell us to take off any songs, and they allowed us to, creatively, be the drivers. And that’s beautiful. That’s what I’ve always wanted. And I think that’s what every artist should have on their label.
“And I’m trying to open up those doors – let artists know that they can do it themselves. I think it’s about people seeing you [executing your ideas], not you talking about the idea – make it happen for yourself and everything else will pan out better than you’d imagine.” It’s a sentiment Monae echoes in her hit single “Tightrope” – you either follow or you lead, or keep on blaming the machine.
Janelle Monae Robinson was born in Kansas City in 1985. Her family didn’t have much (in the liner notes to her 2007 EP Metropolis she writes about feeding her sister, Kimmy, jelly sandwiches when there was nothing to eat), but they were a strong family. Monae credits her mother with keeping her in line and teaching her “how to survive,” and her stepfather for helping with her schoolwork and showing her how to be disciplined. And from the profuse, detailed thanks given in those same liner notes, you can see how close Monae still is with everyone from her grandparents and her aunts to her distant cousins. She apparently had plenty of encouragement growing up, and began singing, dancing and acting as a child. By the time she was 12, she was writing her own scripts at Kansas City’s Coterie Theatre, as a member of the Young Playwrights program.
In high school, Monae was an International Thespian, and ended up earning a scholarship to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York. But once there, she realized she wanted something more. “School in New York honed my craft even further,” Monae says. “It taught me different techniques, but it also taught me that I don’t want to just be another musical-theater student auditioning for Broadway plays and getting roles thousands of people have already played. I want to create my own roles, my own musicals… Going to school helped me realize I have a hunger for creating.”
So Monae pulled up stakes and followed her inner compass straight to Atlanta, where she moved into a boarding house with five other girls on Parsons Street, in the heart of the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of several of the nation’s most prestigious black colleges. She got a day job at Office Depot to pay the bills, and in her spare time, began writing music and connecting with other independent artists. “I was doing dorm-lounge tours and really making a name for myself on the campus,” she says. “It’s because of their word-of-mouth that I’m even here today. I was selling [my self-released 2003 album] The Audition outside of the boarding house – people would knock on the door and buy it for $5.”
Eventually, Monae was fired from Office Depot for using a work computer to respond to fans on her website. But she wasn’t upset about losing her job; she was relieved and thrilled at the possibility of more vigorously pursuing her dreams, and captured the feeling in a new song called “Lettin’ Go.” It was this tune that caught the attention of Big Boi, who introduced Monae to Combs and would go on to executive produce Metropolis, a complex suite of songs set in the year 2719, about a human/android hybrid rock star named Cindi Mayweather, who breaks taboo by falling in love with a human, becomes a fugitive marked for death and eventually fulfills her destiny by becoming a game-changing revolutionary.
One can’t help but notice the similarities between Janelle and Cindi – the strength, the rebellion against backward societal norms, the tendency to get in trouble for doing the right thing, the move underground before re-emerging ready to lead. “Cindi is my muse,” explains Monae. “She’s haunted me for quite some time now. She is the uniter between the haves and the have-nots, the androids and the humans, the oppressed and the oppressor… There was a quote [in Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, also called Metropolis] that said, ‘The mediator between the mind and the hand is the heart.’ Cindi represents the heart, like I do. I’ve always wanted to represent the heart in the music industry and in this world. I want to be the mediator between those having hard times and those who are giving people a hard time. I want my music to be that common denominator people bond over.”
Three years later, in May of 2010, Monae released the second installment in her sci-fi saga, The ArchAndroid. The period in between gave her time to grow, both personally and as an artist. “I think I’m more fearless now,” she says. “I used to be afraid to make mistakes, and now I’m not in that space at all. I’m unafraid to fail – and in front of people. And I found out new things about myself as a result… I had an opportunity to diversify my voice, and to come to the studio with Nate Wonder and Chuck Lightning, and to fail until we got it right.”
It’s November, a month and a half before the Wondaland Christmas party. Monae has just wrapped up a tornado of a set at the Variety Playhouse, and I’m sitting awestruck in the middle of the seats, gushing with sweeping hand motions to my friends in Atlanta post-punk-soul band Tendaberry about what I’ve just witnessed. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something like this…
That was one of the most amazing shows I’ve ever seen. She keeps getting better every time. And the bigger venue actually adds something to the experience with this show – maybe it has to do with the size of her personality and the grandiosity the concepts. And it’s this musical pastiche. She’s channeling a whole spectrum – funk, rock, New Wave, R&B, showtunes. From the waist up, she’s got those robotic David Byrne coat-hanger-in-the-back-of-your-suit dance moves, but her feet are all James Brown, and then she’ll shift to fluid, blow-your-mind Michael Jackson style. Vibe-wise, she pulls off Bowie’s spacey mystique, Bjork’s whimsical weirdness and Judy Garland’s dramatic balladry. And the band is always blasting off on these interplanetary Funkadelic explorations, liquid-fire Hendrix solos erupting from Kellindo’s guitar. Flashes of Prince, Miles Davis, OutKast. All strung together with epic sci-fi/fantasy librettos, that wild buttoned-up two-tone look, and Janelle’s unmistakable singing – urgent, expressive, powerful; it’s unbelievable that a voice so big can come out of such a tiny woman. Collectively, it all creates this incredible intrigue. That’s what’s missing from music today. Every artist is so damned demystified by obsessive bloggers and oversharing via Twitter and Facebook. Can you imagine if T. Rex or Screamin’ Jay Hawkins had been able to bombard the masses with mundane shit like, “Can’t wait for tonight’s episode of Green Acres,” or “Fuck yeah, fishsticks for dinner!” Now it happens constantly and it’s killing rock ‘n’ roll! But that’s one of the things I love about Janelle – she puts the myth and wonder back in pop music. In “Make the Bus” she even sings, “Don’t really want to know it better, want to keep it in the realm of fantasy!”
When I finally get a chance to ask Janelle about this, she’s on tour in France, squeezing in our interview before a sold-out show. “I think we need [myth and mystery] in life, period,” she says. “It keeps us thinking, wondering. I love using my imagination. If I knew everything, life wouldn’t be fun anymore; we wouldn’t be able to appreciate when life gives us surprises and curveballs. It definitely keeps an element of surprise in the music we create… It’s about balance, just like in a relationship – would you show all your affection the first day you meet someone? I wouldn’t.”
This love of myth and mystery is a big part of what draws Monae to the works of particular sci-fi authors and filmmakers. “I love Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed,” she says. “And I remember being young and loving Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. Though I think they should change the name ‘science fiction’ because you don’t know if it’s true or not – nobody knows if an alternate universe exists; if there’s another you existing in another world.”
Monae says she also feels a strong connection with the androids she sings about. “I feel we’re going to live in a world with androids,” she says. “[Many scientists believe this], in particular, futurist Ray Kurzweil, who proposed the idea of the Singularity – when the computer’s brain will have mapped out that of a human’s, and you won’t be able to differentiate a computer saying happy birthday from your mother calling saying happy birthday. And I believe we’ll have to figure out how we’re all gonna live together… If we try to enslave them or oppress them, we’ll repeat history. I think that there needs to be a mediator, and I think musicians and artists – we’re the mediators. Because music is the common denominator that brings us all together.”
“[The albums I’ve been making] are about appreciating each other’s differences and not feeling we’re superior. Because we are not the Creator – we are man, we are woman, and I don’t believe we should discriminate against those who are not like us. As African-Americans we’ve experienced that in so many different countries. Gays and so many other people are having to go through a hard time in life because they can’t be themselves. My message is to embrace those things that make you unique and use them as your superpowers, and to love one another as we would our brother or ourselves, or our sister or our mother. Because we’re not in control – we didn’t bring each other into this world, and there should be an even playing field.”