Perpetual Motion: Janelle Monáe zigzags between past and future, making found sounds along the way

“Some ideas just take longer,” Janelle Monáe says. She’s referring to the nearly three-year delay between the 2007 independent release of her debut, Metropolis Suite I: The Chase, and The ArchAndroid, which finally arrives via Bad Boy Records/Atlantic in May.
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“Some ideas just take longer,” Janelle Monáe says. She’s referring to the nearly three-year delay between the 2007 independent release of her debut, Metropolis Suite I: The Chase, and The ArchAndroid, which finally arrives via Bad Boy Records/Atlantic in May.

When the soul singer and her Wondaland Arts Society first issued The Chase, they originally planned to create four EPs. The storyline was inspired by the 1927 silent-film classic Metropolis, and centered on the adventures of Cindi Mayweather, an android who falls in love with a human and roams a dystopian future eerily similar to our present. Now, instead of four separate releases, there is The ArchAndroid. Imagined as an “emotion picture,” it comprises Suites II and III, with the fourth and final suite to arrive later (though hopefully not three years later). The ArchAndroid, she explains, “is similar to Neo in The Matrix, the One. For the android community, that means all the discrimination and spells that have been on them will be cast away. This deals directly with Cindi Mayweather because she finds out that she is, indeed, the ArchAndroid.”

The music on The ArchAndroid is reminiscent of OutKast’s best work, with surprisingly deft forays into classic soul and pop. Two overtures at the album’s beginning and middle mark the suites. Producer Nate Wonder worked on the album with Monáe and Chuck Lightning, and also conducted the Emory University Orchestra (dubbed for this occasion as the Wondaland ArchOrchestra) with fellow Wondaland member Roman GianArthur. “We didn’t bring in all the sections at the same time; we would bring in the brass section, woodwinds, and break it up like that,” says Wonder, who wrote the orchestra’s sheet music using Finale Music Notation Software. “We knew how to write notation, but it takes too long to do it by hand.”

Being in the moment was the Wondaland collective’s motto. Monáe talks about the songwriting in spiritual terms, and how songs like “Sir Greendown,” “Locked Inside,” and “Wondaland” emerged as she slept. “There were lots of melodies that came to me in my dreams—Easter eggs that wouldn’t have happened if we would have rushed,” she explains. One interesting inspiration was science-fiction writer Octavia Butler. “I had started reading Wild Seed after we started The ArchAndroid, and the main character is extremely relatable to Cindi Mayweather,” says Monáe, who promises a forthcoming graphic novel “for those who really want to get into the concept.”

To record her dreams in raw form, Monáe, Wonder, and Lightning used the iPhone application Voice Recorder. “I sing out all the parts—the bass lines, the drums, the strings,” says Wonder, who admits that the project “wasn’t as linear as we hoped for it to be.”

With so much experimentation going on, the post-production process became particularly important. He notes that the totemic lead single, “Tightrope” incorporates traditional percussion sounds such as 808 kicks and rim shots alongside exotic handdrum rhythms such as bongos, congas, and darbuka. They also cataloged found sounds by banging on walls, chairs, and desks, picking it all up with Blue Microphones and recorded into a PC using Cakewalk Sonar software.

“The demo version of ‘Tightrope’ had an irrevocable urgency that we were determined to preserve above all else,” Wonder says. “There were a lot of lowend elements that had to be carefully balanced using panning, gating, and of course equalization. The drums and bass in particular drive ‘Tightrope’ like a locomotive, so it was important that each of these elements be at the forefront of the mix. We tried running the bass through a Waves Doubler, which actually helped quite a bit with the spacing. Vocally, we wanted to allow the backgrounds—medium-hard pan, highpass EQ—to feel distinct from the lead, which we ended running through Antares Microphone Modeler and the PSP Vintage Warmer to evoke that raw, [James Brown] ‘Night Train’ sensation.”

Despite an emphasis on spontaneity, The ArchAndroid doesn’t sound like an expensive lark. The songs are focused and composed, even if the means of writing them was rather unorthodox. “Nate Wonder’s a spectacular producer, and Chuck Lightning writes movies and novels,” Monáe says. “All of us had ideas, but nothing ever left without us all approving it. That’s the system that we go by.”