She’s just a cosmic girl

Janelle Monae is an unusual lady.

That, at any rate, is the impression she wishes to convey. The last time I spoke to the world’s hottest R’n’B singer, she delivered a five-minute monologue explaining how her new album was informed by her experiments in painting. Softly and sincerely, she described how, during her 2011 world tour, she would go on stage with a palette and easel and splash down watercolours as she performed. Eventually she was inspired to translate her emotions into music.

“That was a lie,” she says, speaking in advance of an appearance for Arthur’s Day on Thursday. “The record was really inspired by ants.”

Ants? She nods. “Oh yeah. I used to watch ants as a kid. Growing up I realised there was a secret world that lived under my feet. I realised the ants had names. I met an ant named Sally May.”

She seems to be speaking in perfect seriousness. Were it anyone else you might be tempted to roll your eyes. Monae, however, is worth indulging, with songs as cosmically daft as her interview technique — but a lot more compelling.

Recorded at her ‘Wondaland’ studio in Atlanta, Georgia and featuring cameos from Prince, Erykah Badu and others, Electric Lady, her second LP, might just be her masterpiece. It finds her bounding between genres — one minute she is dabbling in nu-soul, the next straight up ’90s R’n’B or frazzled psychedelia. Somewhere between James Brown and Kraftwerk, the results are thrilling and bonkers in equal measure.

Good luck getting her to talk about it in a straightforward way, though. Asked about working with Prince, she explains they recorded their duet underwater. She is speaking in metaphor, surely? She shakes her head. “We did it in a place called New Atlantis — it was extremely wet.”

A performer with a strong vision, you wonder how easy it is for Monae to cede control. Was it difficult learning to work with others? “I enjoy collaborating with those who are able to take their shoes off — the sort of person who doesn’t comb their hair in the morning, who jumps in the river. I love free spirits. The artists I collaborated with represent a very unique space in music. Some are ‘electric ladies’, some are ‘electric men’ — they’re just like giant ants, who are very smart and create their own world and their own underworld.”

As her conversational technique attests, Monae keeps her image under lockdown. She is relentlessly ‘on message’, no matter that the message is light years beyond eccentric. Several years ago, she embraced an androgynous black and white ‘uniform’ and never goes out in public wearing anything else. Her gender neutral style has led to speculation about her sexuality, heightened when she recently graced the cover of lesbian magazine Diva. Does she care her orientation has become a point of public conjecture? “At the end of the day it is all about my music,” she says. “I only date androids — that’s the honest truth.”

Monae stays ‘in character’ until conversation turns to her gig in Ireland. At this point, she smiles and seems to relax a little. Briefly, there is a glimpse of the sweet and perhaps shy individual beneath the high-concept pop star.

“I love going there,” she says. “I celebrated my birthday in Ireland once. I’ve been to pubs. I use the beer to marinate my hair. It keeps it warm and silky.”

*Janelle Monae performs at Arthur’s Day today.

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