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Victoria Monet

Victoria Monét's motherfucking moment

11 August 2020, 08:00
Words by Grace Easton

Illustration by Grace Easton

Victoria Monét has risen to become one of the most in-demand pop songwriters around - and now she's stepping into the spotlight with her first solo project Jaguar. She tells Grace Easton about the journey from studio to stage.

Victoria Monét has spent lockdown planting seeds in her garden.

“Now I have cilantro, parsley, basil and chives. You know I haven't seen anything yet because it takes a while for them to even sprout, so I'm like watering soil right now,” she tells me.

Monét understands that patience pays off. She’s been making music for nearly a decade: first moving to LA to join girl group Purple Reign before embarking on a career as a successful songwriter. After working with artists like Lupe Fiasco, Chris Brown, Nas, Brandy and her long time soul friend Ariana Grande, Monét has only just taken the time to dedicate herself solely to her own music. Like the jaguar - the namesake of her latest project - she’s been working in the background figuring out the perfect moment to make her move.

When Monét was a kid growing up in Sacramento she used to make people turn around before she sang. “I was like ‘No! Don’t look!’” she laughs. “I didn't have to socialise as much as an only child and when I did have to, I was just one of the shy ones. So I gravitated more towards dance as a performer first, I really wanted to sing I was just too nervous.” Now 27, the Victoria Monet of 2020 brims with a humble softness that belies her music. Jaguar, released last week, is replete with bed squeaks and orgasmic groans. Every track drips with female pleasure and confirms Monét’s place among her contemporaries, other great women of pop unafraid to celebrate female sexual empowerment - Lizzo, Cardi B and of course, Ariana. But in a landscape that often attaches sexual liberation to consumerism, Monét’s vision is more soulful; a Motown-inspired sound with lush strings and rich harmonies.

Raised by her mother and her grandmother, Monét’s house was filled with music: “My Mom always played so much, everything from Buju Banton, Elvis Costello, Mariah Carey, Michael. Even if they weren't singing, some of my family did karate so I was able to see a lot of movement and vocals.” Visuals are important to her, so much so that she delayed the release of Jaguar until a digitally augmented video for the lead track was ready. Monét’s embrace of the disco nostalgia on Jaguar is an authentic nod to Black artistry of the past, serving a vision of empowerment: during lockdown, she took to Instagram to find black skaters to appear in the "Experience" lyric video and even made her own 70s style game show The Dive is Right.

BEST FIT: What are your earliest memories of songwriting?

VICTORIA MONÉT: I didn't know that I was songwriting but now looking back I was always making up melodies, and they would come and pass. Also as an only child, I think I looked at things more. I had a really good memory and I would mimic commercials and recite speeches at a really young age; I think I was just a very observant kid. I had this spongy essence where I could just look at people, sounds, accents and melodies and all of that stuff really, really easily.

That translates into songwriting for me because my style over the years has been so many things that I've heard; my mum’s really wide styles of music and combining certain elements of that in my own work. So I don't remember a specific songwriting memory before my very first actual song when I sat down and I got this beat. I remember going to this lake in Sacramento and sitting in my car and just writing it top to bottom. It was just so exciting for me to express myself that way on purpose, I still have that song and I listened to it recently.

It's interesting that a lot of the things that I do now I had on that first song. Sometimes you forget where you got it from and why you developed this way but I can hear it still in that very first song.

You were shy growing up; what was the journey you took to become the confident performer you are now?

I think dance and performance gave me that, I became really good at it and when you're good at something, people compliment you. I became a teacher too; I was teaching at dance studios in high school. And I think performing and hearing a crowd's reaction or developing in a certain craft will give you that stage presence and sometimes that carries out into the real world.

Not that you're cocky or anything - you just feel a little bit more safe in your own skin and more comfortable speaking up and saying what you like and don't like and what you want to do. You feel almost like you've earned that right. I think I got it from dance and then it came to songwriting. It was just levelling up starting from there and then building the ground in the songwriting world and being well rounded as a woman.

Was there a moment when you thought, “I can really actually do this! This can be my career!”

I used to tell my grandma, “I want to be a triple threat,” because she used to watch a lot of musicals with me. One of them was the story of Dorothy Dandridge and she was a triple threat; she was acting and singing and dancing and I always wanted that - I just didn't know how possible it was.

In my head I wanted to move to LA and be a performer and a singer and be in movies. But I’d spent so much time in dance and that seemed like the way in. I thought that maybe I'd book a tour and then I'll play the artist some music and they'll want to collaborate, I had this whole plan that wasn't very good.

The first song I wrote I wasn't planning on shopping it. I didn't even know that I could. I just wrote it because it was something that I wanted to sing. People a lot of times ask me what it was like transitioning from songwriter to an artist and I always felt like I was an artist that just gave songs away for a period of time because I really love doing that.

It felt like a lot of the songs that I was starting to write when I moved to LA… not all of them are for me, I was experimenting with different genres and singing with different voices for demos and I think that's how I learned. I've always wanted this particular life of a performer, travelling and seeing stages and influencing people and being positive and all of that. That's exactly how the journey needed to happen for me to really feel comfortable, coming in and pursuing it.

Were you conscious at the time that it would provide you with really strong foundation for your career or did that happen more organically?

When I moved to LA I actually came to audition for a girl group. I was planning the move already and I was working a lot of hours at a bank, and teaching dance at two different studios and just saving and saving. I heard about this audition in the middle of the year - towards the end of the summer. When I made it into the group (Purple Reign) it expedited my plans to move to LA.

The contract didn't really work out after two years or so, and while I was getting out of those deals the only thing I could do as much was write songs. I had it in my mind that I wanted to be more like Ne-Yo or Keri Hilson, where you're a songwriter and also an equally successful artist but for me songwriting took off first. And so now I'm just trying to level that out and get back to the original dream. As much as I love songwriting and sharing ideas and everything, I really have a passion for performing and for the stage, and expressing my truth through song.

"I just feel like now is my time. It's just been a journey. I never really separated art from being an artist."

I was always putting out music all along, I just feel like now is my time. It's just been a journey. I never really separated art from being an artist. I just feel like songwriting was definitely a more lucrative thing at a certain time and it's something that I also love to do. When I'm retired, and I'm frail and I can't perform, songwriting is going to come back as a major way for me to express myself... I'll be like 70 or 80 years old and still writing songs or commercials or scoring films - something to do with music for sure.

Did you have any mentors when you were first starting out?

I didn't have anyone that was doing exactly what I wanted to do but I grew up in the age of the Internet so I was able to research and enquire through music industry people. I did have one really special person who was writing the songs when I was in the girl group (Purple Reign) and vocal producing us - LaShawn Daniels. He passed away last year but he was the one of the greatest songwriters of our time I believe, working with everyone from Brandy to Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. A lot of my skills - even as a singer in the studio and learning how to vocal produce - came from LaShawn. I learnt so much hands-on from him as a baby going into the music industry. I feel like that's when you soak up the most, before you settle into a lot of habits. He's definitely part of my foundation.

What do you think it was from him that you saw and thought that you needed to do in your work?

I had never seen anybody go into the booth and just line-by-line come up with melodies. Or like mumble melodies for the whole song and then make them words. It felt freeing to see him do that it; like I can just sing whatever from the top of my head and it could be amazing… don't second guess things... well, don't second guess things at first and then second guess them when you're refining and everything. That was really interesting to me.

Also his harmonies: he adds a lot of really wonderful backgrounds almost like a treasure chest of one song underneath another song if you listen to all of the stacks. You hear that most when he works with Brandy or even Tamar Braxton. And vocal production: how it felt as an artist for him to be outside of the booth telling me how to sing a line better and express it, how he would comp the vocals together to make one massive piece was really interesting.

I'm lucky that I got to do that because - honestly, with his roster - he did not have to come in and work with these brand new girls who had just moved to LA and didn't have any money or anything to say for themselves, I just really appreciate that - it was a gift.

So many of your songs are about empowerment; owning your sexuality and your femininity. Why is that so important to you?

I think that we hear a lot about the woman's body and what we should do with it from a male perspective. I just feel like it's important for us to hear it from an RnB perspective and a woman's perspective because a lot of the time as women it's like “sit up straight. cross your legs, wear a skirt that's below your knees.” All the rules in certain religions or households just hold us up to such a high standard that isn't necessarily about allowing us to express ourselves, and be honest about what it is that we think about. I think my music just kind of rips that band aid a little bit and is like, “okay this is the way we also feel.”

I just wanted to package it in a pretty way so that it sounds musical and still really beautiful for the palette but also honest - honest for myself and honest for other women who may feel the same way. Just to give them a soundtrack that talks about things that they don't already have in their playlist. And it really feels freeing to just not have those restrictions. It's almost like I had masking tape on my mouth for a long time and now I'm just going to say everything I want! I hope [people] like it and they can relate, but if they don't at least I was honest.

Is that something that you’ve felt in your own life, struggling against rules, restrictions and religions?

Yeah I wouldn't say I'm opposed to having rules and standards but I definitely feel like I was a good kid and I didn't have adult conversations before I was an adult. But now that I'm an adult I feel like I should be able to say and really truly have freedom of speech in my music and in the world, as long as it's not offensive or hurtful. I feel like I should use the platform to be honest and let the people who feel the same way seek the music and discover it.

Did that feel exposing at the start?

No it actually felt really natural and good, because of the people I was working with and the responses I would get. It was a really encouraging process and I didn't feel ashamed at all.

Again, it goes back to confidence - just growing up and finding success in other areas can give you the confidence to really speak your mind and hopefully by me doing so, the next person who hears this doesn't have to go through all of that. They can sing along with the words and then they're already honest. It didn't really feel like I was going out of the way to be disruptive and expose certain parts of myself.

I was a little nervous about the video for “Moment” because it feels very Adam and Eve: I'm naked and in nature which I love and I had the most fun shooting it, and the concept we'd gone over for months before and all of the things were aligned. I wasn’t afraid but the day that it came out I was like, “Oh my gosh, my mom!” - it's just a different way to express yourself and I really am happy with it.

Has she watched it?

Yeah she's seen it and she thinks it's really beautiful.

The shots aren’t really sexualised, they feel very elevated.

Yeah I think it feels artful. I think if it was the same actions on a different camera or in different light it would feel different but it was really important that I let it be something that can be expressed but not crossing the line where it feels raunchy or like porn. I'm glad that we were able to find that balance. Everyone that I know really feels comfortable with it too, not that it should matter but in the back of your mind you're like: “Do you like it?”

Have you always felt a strong connection with the way that you express yourself being something that you do with your body?

I never really thought of it that way actually. I really kind of categorised dance and movement as separate from my subjects of song but I guess that does play a part in how I express myself and it's a part of my voice.

"I think just not being openly bisexual as a young person, there may be some parts of myself that I was hiding by being more quiet."

When I was younger I was a kind of a goodie girl - the last girl to lose her virginity in my class, I was already 18… very slow dating, very behind. Part of it is that I went to private school until sixth grade and so I wasn't as expressive and advanced as some of the other girls.

Also I think just not being openly bisexual as a young person, there may be some parts of myself that I was hiding by being more quiet. I think that the music industry, and gaining confidence and just navigating through life has helped me be honest and find my way. But I really loved anything in performing arts, and arts and crafts in general. I really loved drawing when I was a kid, I loved making things, painting, I took a ceramics class in high school... just little ways to be creative. I think that also comes from my grandma, she was very festive and that just trickles down to the things that I like too.

Now that we're in lockdown has it changed your plans at all for how you're going forward?

Yeah actually, I was supposed to release Jaguar on my birthday. I just had to push it back because I wanted it to come out with this music video which we weren't able to shoot in time. The week quarantine began we would have been in Cuba shooting. I wanted to release the song with the visual so I just decided to release a new single in between.

Also at the beginning of quarantine, I wasn't sure how to feel about putting out these subject matters in the middle of a pandemic. I just feel that art always reflects the times and for me not to put out something more emotional, something more directly related to the pandemic felt almost insensitive at first. I was just a little sceptical but I realise that people come to music to express as well and sometimes to escape.

It's just me overthinking a little bit, I was like, "I need to write a 'We Are The World' song," but actually I just need to release the music that I have, that I worked really hard on, and people will gravitate towards it. My concern is just connecting with those who do hear my music and really giving them as much content as I can. I've tried to create from home - you know we're figuring out a way to shoot the “Jaguar” video digitally, like with face mapping. There's work arounds when you want to get something done. Beyond that things have been pretty cool. I've been doing Facetime/Zoom sessions and I'm trying to learn new skills.

I also started piano lessons on this app, but I think I'm going to switch to having a teacher on Facetime because I'm missing that interaction with music and just having someone to bounce off of, and a tiny, tiny bit of Spanish too.

You've got so many hobbies!

And also binge watching shows! Oh my god have you seen Little Fires Everywhere? It’s on Hulu. That’s the best gift I could give you right now.

It was a book wasn’t it?

Yes and if this is the end of the book, I can't take it, I need another season. If you can split the days up - because it came out every Wednesday - I think that adds to it because you have to have patience. So try to watch one episode at a time. If you can't I do not blame you!

Is there anything that you're going to take out of this lockdown experience?

I think one big thing I'm learning is to be more self-sufficient. I'm learning that we need daily are things that we get through a third party. That's why gardening was important for me because it gave me power.

There were rumours at the beginning of this that we were going to run out of food; people are going to start being violent because other people are going to come and start stealing groceries from your house. People are going to be hungry.

It seemed like a really big risk not to be able to provide for yourself so I've gotten this water system and I've got a load of spring water so I don't have to get bottled water. The gardening thing is a lesson in power - just being able to grow your own food and know actually what's in it as well. Honestly, I really wish it was taught in school; the other subjects seem a lot less important. Looking around at what you have in the moment and being really grateful and present for it because you just don't know when it's going to be taken away.

I think once we all get going again, sitting down at a restaurant is going to feel like you're at Six Flags or Disneyland. I hope that that essence lasts a little longer than the first month. I hope that every time that you see your friends you hug them as tight as you do when you first see them out of quarantine. It puts things into perspective.

Jaguar is out now via Tribe
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