Janelle Monáe on her style, the female rock star and ‘The Electric Lady’

Written by Veronica Toney

Janelle Monáe recently released her new single “Dance Apocalyptic” off her fourth album, “The Electric Lady,” which comes out in September. But the R&B star isn’t drumming up publicity for the release through countless morning talk-show performances. Instead, she’s hosting what she calls “listening sessions” across the country, which included a stop in Washington on Tuesday.

“Welcome, take a pair of socks, take off your shoes and play in the grass,” an assistant says as people exit the elevator into the Gibson guitar showroom. Propped on a piano is a black-and-white painting that is an abstract likeness of Monáe, and, in the corner, an artist is painting another portrait of the singer. A patch of fake grass sits in the middle of the room.

When Monáe enters the room an hour later, she is wearing a crisp white dress shirt, black pants and bare feet — with bouffant hair and red lips completing her trademark look. (CoverGirl Hot 305 Red lipstick is her favorite.)

“Do you like the grass?” she asks her guests. “I have it all over my studio. I love the familiarity. I never wear shoes in my studio.”

Monáe stands in front of the intimate crowd and directs an assistant manning a computer to skip from track to track on her new album. At one point, she encourages those sitting in the grass to get up and do the electric slide. Although the piano remains untouched, Monáe lip-syncs along to her songs.

Before the listening session, she sat down to talk with The Washington Post about her style, her music, her art and what she does when she's in Washington.

What was the evolution you took to get to your signature style?

I see things through the lens of being an artist. I love minimalism — strong, bold, robust statements. [Photographer] William Klein was a huge inspiration for the black and white.

I also wanted to combine my roots, from Kansas City, which was to pay homage to the working-class woman and man, like my mom and dad, which is why I wear the uniform. I call it “my uniform” to pay homage to them.

You maintain a strong femininity despite your menswear-inspired wardrobe. How do you achieve that?

I don't believe in menswear. I don't purposely say, “Hey, I want to look like a man.” And so with that said, I think that, you know, I am a woman and enjoy being a woman. I enjoy pushing the stereotypes on the ground . . . on what women should wear and how women should dress and what's considered femininity.

I just don't believe in those labels. I don't believe in the marginalization of woman. As you know, we have to wear dresses and heels because we're women. I love dresses. I love skirts. I own all of it.

What are some of the most memorable responses you’ve gotten from fans on your style?

I've definitely seen people dressed to pay homage to me, and I've always found that to be really flattering. I'm honored. . . . I just don't take that for granted that my simple style has been catching on and causing more women to want to dress this way and more men to want to dress this way. It's great. It's uniting. It's a unity uniform. I just came up with that.

How do you stay trendy without losing your signature look? For instance, in the “Dance Apocalyptic” video your hair is down.

It's all according to my soul clock, whenever I want to change, whenever my soul clock says “try this” or “try that,” that’s when I do it. A bold red lip mixed with black and white, I try to keep that.

I wanted to have more fun in the videos. I wanted to pay homage to the female rock star and create her. I created this strong woman in the videos, and that was a part of her character, having her hair down.

How did you come up with the album title “The Electric Lady”?

I was painting on stage day and night, painting the image of a female silhouette, and I would sing as I would paint in front of my audience. I was painting the silhouette of this woman in these reds, greens and visceral colors — vibrant colors — and I didn’t quite understand why I was doing it. So I spoke to my therapist in Atlanta, and she encouraged me to name the series, like, “name this woman so you can deal with it and talk about it.”

As I began to go through all these paintings that I had done, the Electric Lady came to my mind. . . . I started to ask myself, well what does the Electric Lady think about love, think about politics? What does she think about religion, spirituality, sexuality?

Did you have the name and this epiphany before you started working on the songs, or did you already have the songs?

Well I was sort of in between. I was still working and being very honest and open about my life, but as I got to the title, I was like, wow, now I can really just go everywhere and bring up topics that I may have not necessarily been able to speak about in previous work. With this album, I definitely did not want to recreate or reprocess ideas. I wanted to go into uncharted territories and places that I hadn’t explored.

“Dance Apocalyptic” has a retro feel yet is very current. How do you achieve that sound?

Bo Diddley inspired that song. He's an American innovator, and he's a black man. He inspired the Rolling Stones, he inspired that vintage sound, he inspired Little Richard, the Beatles and so many different people. With this album, I wanted to do kind of a music history and to expose these great American heroes, these great musical heroes of mine that don't often get spoken about in history books. He is R&B. With “The Electric Lady,” I wanted to stay deeply rooted in R&B and soul, but it is such a wide genre. You can go from songs sounding like “Dance Apocalyptic,” which I consider R&B in the root of it, to songs that pay homage to Jimi Hendrix or futuristic-sounding songs. Being classic and transcendent, never going out of style, has always been my inspiration, musically and fashion-wise.

What do you like to do when you're in a new city, such as Washington?

I go to a museum or eat; I want to experience the culture. Museums are where artists meet. When in D.C., I go to the White House. I've been lucky to perform for the first lady and the president many times.

 
Read what others are saying