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Janelle Monae shows KCRW fans and friends how to do the Tightrope at Bob Clearmountain's studio

June 21, 2010 |  1:23 pm

KCRWJANELL06 Berkeley Street Studio in Santa Monica is plush and pristine, a lovely space where major artists such as Paul McCartney and Chrissie Hynde can woodshed in the city, working with noted producer-engineer Bob Clearmountain. Saturday night, though, Janelle Monáe and her band really woke up the joint.

Performing a short set sponsored by KCRW-FM (89.9) and to be broadcast July 2 during the station's "Morning Becomes Eclectic" program, Monáe showed the lucky crowd of 150 people why she's got the pop cognoscenti all worked up.

The rising star let loose her signature pompadour ("it's called a Monáe," she informed the crowd) during a high-energy outing that featured her intricate, powerful vocalizing along with expressive dancers in freaky costumes, the transcendent guitar meldtdowns of Maceo Parker's nephew Kellindo, and a black-and-white balloon drop. (Read more about Monáe and her Atlanta-based Wondaland Arts Society collective here.)

KCRW has supported Monáe since she released her first EP on Bad Boy Entertainment in 2007. In a post-show interview that will air along with the performance, she thanked music director Jason Bentley for KCRW's early grasp of her appeal.  Monáe's eclecticism -- the very quality that might make her a hard sell for commercial radio -- is exactly what makes her ideal for the Los Angeles station, whose on-air personalities specialize in thinking beyond the usual pop music categories.

KCRW currently has several tracks from Monáe's new Bad Boy Entertainment album, "The ArchAndroid," in rotation,  including the funky "Tightrope," the Wendy and Lisa-reminiscent  "Wondaland" (Lisa Coleman was in attendance Saturday), and "57821," which Bentley says reminds him of  "something from the 'Easy Rider' soundtrack.

"As you know, we have the luxury of playing things that we truly love without having to overthink it," Bentley said in a phone interview before the showcase. "I just gravitated to those tracks after listening to the album all the way through. 'Wondaland' is super catchy, and '57821' fits in with my current obsession with psychedelic rock."

Bentley has been following Monáe's career for a while, and he thinks her relatively slow rise represents a smart approach. "She's been working hard and being diligent," he said. "That's a better way of going about things. It's not like she blew up overnight and had to figure out how to deal with that."

In the past, Monáe's broad sonic palette might have been a hindrance. In the age of the download, Bentley says, it's a plus. "We're in a different time by virtue of the way music is consumed," said Bentley. "There aren't as many strict formats. Janelle is a very contemporary artist, no longer kept in a box by radio formats. I'm sure there will be some stations that won't get it -- but a star's a star, and she's got it."

Bentley is happy to have had a role in her emergence on the national stage. "She's been on two of our Hollywood Bowl shows and done unexpected performances," he said, referring to her crowd-pleasing opening slots on one bill that also included Adele and Chaka Khan, and on another featuring her friends in Of Montreal and the great Grace Jones. Bentley was able to introduce Monáe to Jones, one of her inspirations."I helped make that happen," he said proudly. He should be even more proud that KCRW is helping make Monáe happen -- and possibly changing pop history in the process.

-- Ann Powers


Photo: Janelle Monáe at Apogee's Berkeley Street Studios. Credit: Jessica Holmes Photography / KCRW

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