One of the best aspects of writing about music is the access to all manner of live shows. Conversely, all those shows can also make a person a bit jaded, especially after a prolonged series of gigs that offer nothing particularly groundbreaking.
Then along comes a transcendent artist like Janelle Monae, who spent the past year opening eyes and ears to her incredible talent on tours opening for the diverse likes of No Doubt, Prince and Paramore. It was Monae’s gig opening for Of Montreal at In The Venue that got my attention; her combination of stunning vocal prowess, multimedia visuals, dance breakdowns and prowling stage presence was unlike anything I’d ever seen and easily the best live performance I saw in 2010—all of it done in about 50 minutes, as an opening act in a dingy rock club.
Monae calls her 2010 debut The ArchAndroid an “emotion picture,” and she considers the live show a vital part of the album experience. The album’s songs, and Monae’s live show, tell the story of Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling heroine sent to free the future citizens of a city called Metropolis from a secret society suppressing freedom and love among the humans and their android fellow citizens. That might all sound very sci-fi and prog-rock, but Monae delivers her story via a genre-defying blend of funk, R&B, hip-hop and rock, using visuals inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis, surrealist painter Salvador Dali and Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie.
“I knew when I created [The ArchAndroid] that an ‘emotion picture’ is a big concept and an idea I had not seen in today’s music industry,” Monae says in an interview with City Weekly about her show’s inspiration; she performs Monday in Orem with Bruno Mars and Mayer Hawthorne. “I just do what I feel is lacking and needs to be done. There are a lot of great artists out there performing, and I admire them. However, there were just a few things that made me think, ‘Hmm, the music industry could really use this.’ Or, ‘The live experience should feel like this.’ I just thought about those things and made a combination that felt organic and honest to me.”
Monae’s instincts have proven correct so far, and the people have responded to the ornate musical experience she’s concocted with her fellow songwriters and producers in the Wondaland Arts Society, an Atlanta crew she fell in with after growing up in Kansas City and spending a short time in New York City pursuing musical theater. Both Prince and Stevie Wonder proclaimed The ArchAndroid their favorite album of 2010, and Monae was nominated for two Grammys this winter. More stunning was the standing ovation her performance at the Grammy awards got from the jaded industry crowd at the show.
“That was so sweet,” Monae says. “That was a really big moment, to have people stand up and show love and support. All of it means so much to me, especially coming from a background of making the CD out of a boarding house. I’ve been an independent artist for a long time, and to see our vision come to fruition is an amazing thing I don’t take for granted.
“I don’t get too high, though, over the wonderful things that have happened, or get too low over things that didn’t necessarily go as planned. When we started off, we were selling CDs out of our trunks and boarding houses, going hand-to-hand, door-to-door, pushing the music.”
All that hard work paid off when her music found its way to OutKast’s Big Boi and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, eventually landing Monae a deal with Atlantic to release The ArchAndroid. In a year’s time, Monae has gone from living in that boarding house to living on the road, with folks like Mick Jagger showing up to watch and music critics roundly singing her praises.
“I could not have written that story at all,” Monae says of her rapid ascent the past year. “I don’t take it for granted. And I don’t take for granted that a young black girl can be on the Grammys with natural hair and get a standing ovation. That’s not a normal thing that happens. I feel very honored, and I feel like I have to continue to create music. And continue to inspire the people.”
Given the talent she’s already displayed, Monae will probably be inspiring people for a long time.
w/ Bruno Mars, Mayer Hawthorne & The County
800 W. University Parkway, Orem
Monday, May 30, 6 p.m.