27 year-old R&B singer Janelle Monae is the new covergirl for BUST magazine’s August/September 2013 issue.
Here’s the highlights:
On when she first started singing?
I don’t remember. Singing is part of my DNA. Both sides of my family are musically inclined. I had living-room training. That’s when you go in a living room and sing in front of everybody, and then everybody sings with each other.
On what it was like for her growing up in Kansas City?
I grew up in a very big family. My mom has nine sisters and two brothers, so right now I have over 50 first cousins. I never really had any need for outside friends because my family was enough for me. My parents both worked really hard. We were living from check to check, but I never felt like I was in need of anything. My mom supported me when I decided to get into the arts, and it was a great moment for us when I decided to do talent showcases. My family would watch us rehearse and then take me [to the shows] in a little two-door Dodge. The hardest thing for me has been being away from my family. My mother is moving to Atlanta, so I’m excited about that, and my sister is moving to Atlanta too, so I’m really excited about having them here with me.
On before she started making albums, and studying drama at a conservatory in New York. And what led to that interest?
As great as Kansas and my family were, I wanted to leave after high school. I wanted to hone my craft, get better as a performer, and be involved with musical theater. But most importantly, I really just wanted a ticket out of Kansas City. I didn’t finish, but I learned a lot about myself. I grew up in predominantly African-American schools, so it was a culture shock for me when I moved to New York because I was the only black girl in my classes. I had to adjust, and people had to adjust to me. I also learned that I didn’t want to be in musical theater. I think it’s the control freak in me. I didn’t want to go from audition to audition and have my success be dependent on what I look like and whether or not I’m right for the role. So I started to plan for my future: to own my own label and write songs, plays, and concept albums that I could have full creative control over.
How did you support yourself before your music career took off?
After high school, I needed money to go to New York, but nobody would hire me. Then this lady from my church who was the supervisor at a cleaning service said, “Come here and I’ll hire you.” I was the youngest maid there, and all the women would ask me to sing while we cleaned. I was the only one with a clean record. A lot of the women were ex-convicts trying to get back on their feet. That was one of the most interesting jobs I’ve had. Then, when I moved to Atlanta, I worked at Office Depot. I got fired from that job because they caught me using the computer at the store to respond to my fans who had seen me perform. After that, I didn’t work any more. It was time. It was all or nothing. I pressed my own EP, The Audition, and I sold it for five dollars while living in a boarding house with five other girls.
On her last album, The ArchAndroid, being referenced Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and having a very sci-fi feel. How did you get so into science fiction?
I would always watch The Twilight Zone with my grandmother, and I knew about Star Wars and things. But when I met [my producing partners] Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder, they got me into Isaac Asimov, artificial intelligence, and cybernetics. Chuck asked me to watch Metropolis, and I was like, Wow. I saw the parallels between growing up in Kansas City and the have-nots living underground, working for the haves. That constant struggle was something I could identify with because my parents worked day and night, trying to make a living. I thought science fiction was a great way of talking about the future. It doesn’t make people feel like you’re talking about things that are happening right now, so they don’t feel like you’re talking down to them. It gives the listener a different perspective.
To read the complete interview, pick up the Aug/Sept issue of BUST Magazine. On newsstands now.