Unlike the rest of us, musicians have the option of playing secret gigs to show appreciation for their backers — for those times when a thank-you card just isn’t enough.
To that end, burgeoning recording artist Janelle Monáe performed an exclusive set Saturday night at legendary music producer Bob Clearmountain’s Berkeley Street Studio in Santa Monica, Calif. Santa Monica’s own KCRW 89.9 FM hosted the event, meaning the public radio station was probably entitled to some of the gratitude the 24-year-old was dishing out to early supporters of her music and career.
With its low lighting and cozy, nicely worn, mix-matched couches, the venue chosen for the performance lent itself well to the tenor of the evening. Somehow the very intimate tone of the small area effected a large, concert-like feel. By 8 p.m., the studio was packed and abuzz with a palpable eagerness for the 5-foot-2-inch, tuxedo-wearing David Bowie protégé.
Though no stranger to the New York and Atlanta underground music scenes, Monáe hopes to break into new markets with the drop of her first full-length LP, The ArchAndroid. The album takes listeners on a psychedelic journey through the past, present and future. Complete with soulful injections of ’60s pop, jazz and experimental sounds of futuristic hip-hop, Monáe’s most recent release also shakes up the norms of the music industry by incorporating scores from musicals, world music, film soundtracks and influences from artists such as Michael Jackson, James Brown and Stevie Wonder.
A consummate musical storyteller, Monáe continues the narrative arc of Cindi Mayweather, the main character from her debut and Grammy-nominated album Metropolis: The Chase Suite, on The ArchAndroid. According to the story Monáe weaves on the new album, Cindi was sent to free the androids of Metropolis from an oppressive secret society that has used time travel to suppress love and freedom throughout the ages.
Monáe performed her material with drama and theatricality, marching on stage robed in black like some kind of angel of death, her two dancers wearing the same thing. She only sang a few songs the entire evening, leading with “Dance or Die.” The song, the second track from The ArchAndroid, describes the violence, ignorance and oppression that exist in Metropolis. In the chorus, Monáe speaks directly to the androids and tells them to keep dancing and keep playing their music to find the peace and freedom they seek.
Later in her set, “Tightrope” allowed Monáe to flaunt her impressive James Brown-like footwork and get the crowd up on its feet and dancing. This energetic song stressed staying focused on what matters most: According to Monáe, that’s making good music.
With the release of The ArchAndroid, Monáe is seeing her career rise to new heights. The young co-founder of the Wondaland Arts Society — a collective of creative songwriters, musicians, producers, dancers, actors and bloggers — will soon be honored by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for her innovative new sounds.
This summer she will also be going on a nationwide tour, occasionally appearing alongside the likes of Erykah Badu, Common, The Roots and Kings of Leon.
Monáe’s unique songwriting and vocal stylings are sure to guarantee her a place in the experimental music pantheon once she gets a firmer footing in the industry, but until then listeners can enjoy watching every step of the star in the making’s progress.