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Right on the Monáe

The musical nerds taking over the world.

The first rule for writers – apply seat of pants to chair – works for musicians, too. Thirty years ago, the hairbrush and the bedroom mirror were the first and usually last point in the journey of the would-be pop star. Now that the studio is the bedroom and you or I could, with patience, learn to make a record that sounded like one by Quincy Jones, there are some fearsome talents out there playing the long game. Interesting things happen at the point where ambition meets anonymity. You can be a fully formed artistic product before the world even knows you exist.

Michael Jackson grew up in public. The first time Madonna was mentioned in Billboard, she was mistakenly described as a “young New York duo”. But when Sean “P Diddy” Combs first contacted Janelle Monáe through Myspace on the advice of Outkast’s Big Boi, the then 21-year-old singer had been working on her music, her black-and-white, Fritz Lang-inspired aesthetic and bizarre alter ego (the android Cindi Mayweather) for years, with the former student project the Wondaland Arts Society. Monáe ignored Combs’s email, assuming it was a hoax. When he eventually signed her to his Bad Boy label, he concentrated on exposure rather than development, because it was clear she already had a “self-contained movement”.

Monáe grew up in Kansas, obsessed with The Wizard of Oz and imagining herself as some kind of 21st-century Dorothy. Her love
of musical theatre fed into later ambitions fora pan-generational synthesis of black music from James Brown to Stevie Wonder, the likes of which no one had ever quite seen before.

Gotye, also known as Wally De Backer, is the Belgian-born Aussie responsible for the biggest-selling song in the world this year – the strange, Sting-and-Peter-Gabriel-soaked love complaint “Somebody That I Used To Know”, which found its way on to radio and into the charts “backwards”, following YouTube fame (300 million hits and counting). De Backer spent his twenties in the “frat house” – the
former family home in Melbourne given to him by his parents, where he lived rent-free, tooling around with vintage synths to his heart’s content.

Gotye’s guest vocalist on that track, Kimbra Lee Johnson, had a quiet upbringing in Hamilton, New Zealand, where, undistracted, she was able to lock herself away with a stack of CDs by Prince and the Mars Volta and write music for a decade, her confidence gently bolstered in a series of local competitions. Isolation, patience, the necessity of do-it-yourself, the wide reach of the internet and the technology of the laptop – there’s a new route for the old-fashioned pop star. These “straitened times” we never stop bashing on about mean nothing for the musical personality determined to write it large.

Where Gotye’s Making Mirrors was cool, persistent electro-soul, Kimbra’s debut album, Vows, is a breathtaking achievement in plush
R’n’B – full of drama, humour and warm, hands-on experiments in sound. It took over three years to make, with seven different co-producers. In its scope and ambition, from the sophisticated Anita Baker soul of “Old Flame” to the Janet Jackson schoolyard chant of “Posse”, it recalls Monáe’s 2010 debut, The ArchAndroid, which she admits was an inspiration.

Kimbra, Gotye and Monáe now record in professional studios, with horn sections, engineers and every sonic luxury that money can buy. And they all sound like pop stars from the 1980s – not the synth stuff we’ve been hearing revived for the past few years in the Tings Tings and La Roux but the adult 1980s of network radio, lush and expensive – Prince, Sting, Michael, Janet. Kimbra was born in 1990, Monáe in 1985 (Gotye is an ancient 32) – this music is new to them; it’s a passion. They probably feel like the Rolling Stones did, hearing old American blues for the first time.

Music such as this is extremely hard to write. Melodic figures are complex and idiosyncratic, moving through the kind of unexpected modulations you simply don’t learn strumming a guitar. In “Sally I Can See You” (Kimbra’s powerful coming-of-age ballad levelled at a friend she left behind in New Zealand), the intimate, imperative tones of Kate Bush merge into the kind of double-cream Disney melodies you heard in late Michael Jackson.

The overall effect is so confident – so sure of its influences, laying them bare and celebrating them – it feels like a painter in an early period, working with the bold strokes of a master. This is the post-hip-hop generation – music “in the school of”, with a no-holds-barred, borrow-from-everywhere mentality. “I might be listening to the Jackson Five or it might be Balinese gala music or Femi Kuti,” Kimbra said recently. “I figure that will hopefully result in a unique product at the end.”

As Huey Lewis said, it’s hip to be square. The writers of some of the most dizzying, charismatic songs in recent years are as straight as they come. The old model – getting signed before you’re shaving, loaded with booze and thrills, kept in the dark by a cigar-sucking manager – is stuff of legend. If you want to make it today, you keep your nose clean. Gotye celebrated his number one at a restaurant in Shepherd’s Bush with “a simple pasta meal and a glass of good red wine”. On “Posse”, Kimbra chants: “Skipping school, ’cos it’s cool, but it’s not for me . . . I don’t read my palms, I read the psalms – they speak to me.” Meanwhile, Monáe was described by Telegraph as perhaps “not just a humourless science-fiction nerd but actually an android herself, created in a laboratory as a super-musical cross between James Brown, Judy Garland, André 3000 and Steve Jobs”.

The more nerdy you are, the more artistic control you retain. The penniless, jack-of-all-trades musician can take punk’s DIY ethic and reach the world with it now. Until recently, Gotye was burning CDs, sending them to record companies, writing his own press releases and learning Photoshop so he could make an album cover. This led him to make his own videos, too, which quickly became as well known as his songs. There’s a strong visual aesthetic and a whole artistic world in evidence. In the promo for “Somebody That I Used To Know”, his and Kimbra’s famous hand-painted bodies suggest time and effort, a visual representation of Gotye’s musical practice sampling old vinyl recordings and pasting them seamlessly into living, breathing, digital songs. All over Making Mirrors, you detect a terrific, almost pointless level of effort – a kind of musical marquetry.

Technology makes everything easier but that shouldn’t mean you don’t have to work as hard. Whether it’s a stage show (like Lady Gaga’s) or Kimbra slaving over the EQ of a drum kit, there will always be an aura of greatness hanging around those who go the extra mile. Maybe that’s what allies these new few with the old giants of pop and their luxuriant musical world. Perfectionism, a grand vision and a hint of: “Come on, is that really necessary?”

Warner’s chairman, Rob Cavallo, predicts “a 15-to-20-year career” for Kimbra (“[She has] a big, big musical brain”) and compares her to Prince. Yet ten years ago, an album such as Vows would probably not have emerged from an unknown 22-year-old. Take the record contract away tomorrow and she might do OK without it, too. These are Facebook children – capable, practical, self-promoting; open, natural, sunny – but focused and much harder to mess with.

“This venue is great because it’s got a great resonance,” says Gotye at his sold-out gig not long ago at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. “But
it does mean I can hear people talking in the third row – so can you save that for afterwards?” It’s a pretty anal thing for a pop star
to say but no one seems to mind. The crowd emits a respectful “shhh”, which moves round the room like a Mexican wave.

Kimbra’s “Vows” was released by Warner in 2011, Janelle Monáe’s “The ArchAndroid” by Bad Boy Records in 2010 and Gotye’s “Making Mirrors” by Eleven in 2011

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future