The voice on the phone didn't seem like that of the most exciting new pop performer to emerge this year.
Onstage in March at Minneapolis' Varsity Theater, Janelle Monae was high-concept, high-energy and high-hair. Her performance was an enrapturing and ambitious multimedia mélange of a Fritz Lang movie, Philip K. Dick novel, Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Frida Kahlo painting and James Bond soundtrack with a little Queen, Prince, James Brown, David Bowie, Judy Garland, OutKast and the B-52's thrown in.
Can I get an awesome?
On the phone Monday, Monae was polite, monotone and business-like -- more like she was applying for a job that she didn't really want than giving an interview to promote her next Twin Cities performance Thursday at First Avenue.
The first topic was trying to explain why Monae, clearly one of 2010's rising stars, is opening for Georgia cult rockers Of Montreal.
"It's not an opening-act type of thing," Monae said from Washington D.C., where she was playing with Of Montreal, which just released its 10th album, "False Priest." (She performs on "False Priest" and Of Montreal singer Kevin Barnes performs on her album, "The ArchAndroid.")
"I'm doing this because I thoroughly enjoy Of Montreal as friends and I truly love them as a band. Who goes on first doesn't matter to me. We're collaborating together."
Monae, 24, always dreams big. She has ever since she was a kid in Kansas City with her sights set on Broadway.
"I have the right to my imagination," said Monae, an OutKast protégée who was signed by P. Diddy to a record deal in 2008. "And music is my weapon for those who try to get in my way."
Her "ArchAndroid" is the most extravagant and wildly eclectic recording of 2010, a 69-minute concept album about a 28th-century android who is sent back to the 21st century to liberate Metropolis from oppressors. If you don't dig the sci-fi story, you can still groove to the music -- download just one song or consume the ear-expanding, 18-tune opus. "The ArchAndroid" has received glow-in-the-dark reviews.
"I'm very grateful, very humbled," the soft-spoken Monae said of the rave reaction. "I haven't gotten too high off the praises and accolades, and I haven't gotten too low off of any opinions or critiques."
One of the more remarkable aspects of the album is Monae's authoritative grasp of so many styles of music -- from funk and folk to classical and bossa nova. A devoted music-head who attended the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and performed in off-Broadway shows, she created her album with Chuck Lightning and Nate (Rocket) Wonder of the Wondaland Arts Society, her intellectual arts collective in Atlanta.
The musical diversity, she said, "just comes natural. It's not for the sake of being different or for any political reasons. I also feel for my generation, it's important that a lot of the music that has come before me -- and definitely has inspired me -- remains preserved."
Her first single, "Tightrope," suggested a modern-day female James Brown, complete with a guest rap from OutKast's Big Boi and a video showcasing Monae's stylish dancing in her trademark black-and-white, old-school waiter's uniform, capped by her stunningly tall pompadour. By contrast, the video for her current modern-pop single, "Cold War," is simply a closeup of Monae's face and bare shoulders as she sings.
"It was a very vulnerable moment for me and I wanted to share that," she said of the concept for the new video. "I want people to pay attention to the message, the lyrics. I had a host of other conceptual things, but once we got the footage back, that gave me chills. And that moved me. That felt most honest."
Connection with Gaga, Prince
With her art, Monae is trying to help young women "find their space in this world. I think it's definitely important that we celebrate each other's differences as it pertains to music and art and all those things. It opens up more doors, and people become more comfortable with themselves and not feeling like there isn't a place for them."
If her motivation sounds a little bit like Lady Gaga preaching, well, they seem to be kindred spirits from different planets.
"I like Lady Gaga," Monae said. "I appreciate her theatrics. I'm a theater student. I appreciate her being able to play the piano and her standing up to bring people together. What she is doing for the gay community is a really, really noble thing. People are happy to have her to be their voice. There are so many different people that need a voice. That's what I'm doing. I'm creating a voice and individuality and telling people 'it's OK to celebrate our differences.' I'm not about catering to a red state or a blue state; I'm about creating a purple state where we all can live."
Speaking of purple, Monae is a big fan of Prince -- and he is an admirer of her. In fact, he attended her concert at the Varsity, invited her to his Paisley Park studios the next day and later asked her to perform when he received a lifetime-achievement award on cable TV in June.
"He's bold and audacious, and he's been very honest," Monae said. "He's a friend of mine. He's been very supportive. He's come to my concerts. It's sweet of him to give advice to an artist like myself who is coming up against some of the very same things he was coming up against. He encouraged us as a team. He has great taste. And he's a very smart man. It was a great honor to have performed [his] 'Let's Go Crazy' at the BET Awards."
These masterful visionaries have made music together.
"Yes, we have," said Monae, sounding as elusive as Prince. "But I keep our relationship very private. "
So just dig if you will her performance.
Jon Bream • 612-673-1719