Photo by Brian Ziff
Victoria Monét On 'Jaguar', Working With Brandy & Having GRAMMY Dreams
Victoria Monét didn’t realize her connection to the jaguar until after she recorded the titular song for her new project. A powerful, rosetted cat, the jaguar camouflages itself well. And, although it’s a present, integral part of the jungle, it’s seldom seen or registered. Monét, who's been a requisite part of the music industry for the past decade, having worked as a songwriter for Nas, Fifth Harmony, and most famously, Ariana Grande (for which she received two GRAMMY nominations), is finally getting her opportunity to be seen. This is, as she sings on Jaguar, her motherf**king moment.
On August 7, she releases part one of the Jaguar trilogy, with part one and two due to follow sometime in the near-ish future. This introduction to the new, uncamouflaged Monét, is a melting pot of sounds from the ‘70s and ‘90s, which she sops up and repackages into a sexy, kaleidoscopic trip. It’s filled with natural highs (the psychedelia of seeing your dreams come true) and boasts some of the year’s tersest and most dynamic songwriting. GRAMMY.com spoke to Monét about her anti-ego approach to music, her love of Beyoncé, and her future GRAMMY dreams.
You've been promoting for a while now. When was the project itself completed?
The album was pretty much done in February 2019, so I've had a majority of the music for a really long time. With some songs, I'd go back and add harmonies, but the vocal bit has been done for a minute. Only one song and one interlude were new this year, and I think that’s just me trying to finish the parts that follow part one, part two and part three—to be prepared for the next wave and have new music. But also, since I’ve gotten so used to these songs, I’ve gone back to them and added some things to keep them fresh.
So did the Khalid feature come after the project's initial completion?
Yeah, that was something that was recent. He joined maybe three or four weeks before we put it out, but I also had that song done in 2019, so he just added his verse. He was such a great feature and a perfect vocal for the song.
Did your team put any pressure on you to add a feature?
No, I actually planned to put this album out without features, but I also just looked at this as an introduction to a new version of me—giving people a chance to just hear me was fine with me—but Khalid ended up being the perfect fit, and became the only feature on the project.
Since you completed the project, has your time mostly been spent trying to figure out how you're actually going to present this project and the "new version of you" to the world?
Yeah, I’ve been just giving myself time to develop and go through different ideas creatively. I started filming things for the project in September of last year, so I had a lot of time to live with the music and see what it would mean visually, and to kind of rebrand. I know I was still doing the same color scheme—I've been wearing brown for the past two or three years, so it was just really easy for me to incorporate more '70s elements to match the music and really fall in love with that era. I've really been going into the style and the rhythm of it—how people were feeling and dressing [in those decades].
The project feels really psychedelic. I'm curious to know whether you ever took psychedelics to help with the creative process?
"Psychedelic" was one of the words I used to describe the music I wanted to make before I even made it, so I'm really pleased that comes across. I wanted to make something trippy that would take people into this other world. But I haven't experimented with any psychedelics myself. The furthest I've gone is weed, so some of the songs are marijiuana-enhanced. It's a really cool way to just relax and have some sort of freedom, to just release anxieties and be honest. If people are listening to this album on psychedelics, I wonder how it will sound to them. And also I hope sober people can listen to this and get that same feeling
Why did the date keep getting pushed back?
Initially, the album was supposed to be released on my birthday—May 1. When we were talking about that date it was mid-March, and we'd just entered the pandemic and believed that we'd probably be out of lockdown by then—we could do the release party, we could travel to New York and London by then. But seeing how the world was playing out, we thought it seemed a little insensitive and premature to release an album then, so we decided to take our time. And I'm glad we did that because that allowed us to release "Experience" with Khalid. And this most recent pushback from July 31st to August 7 is just me being a real Beyoncé fan and realizing that the internet is going to want to give her her flowers, just like I do. [Editor's note: Beyoncé's visual album Black Is King was released on July 31.] I want to be able to enjoy that day too. It's just a Beyhive respect move. I was also thinking about how Beyoncé’s album is animal-themed because of the lion king, and mine's called Jaguar. Plus, I also have releases as a songwriter on [July 31]. I have a song on Brandy's project. Then mine will come out the following week.
Something I love so much about your songwriting is how ambiguous it is. The songs on this project could either be about sexual and romantic success or your specific success as a musician. Do you see a link between the two?
Yeah, I do. I think it all comes into manifesting something for yourself. When something you've dreamed of comes true, there’s nothing but positive vibes. I think developing success and envisioning who you want to be, and being unapologetic in that process, while getting to put something out there that influences people and has an affect on them—makes me feel really, really good.
Did you write poetry before you started writing songs?
Yeah, I did. It was really brief, but that's how I got into writing. I used to love reading out loud in class, I think that was early proof of my love of performance—performing the lyrics, performing words that mean things. I definitely carried that into the songwriting.
I ask because there are millions of songs about sex, but I've never heard it being described the way you describe it on this project.
I feel that might be because I'm an only child and have a really big imagination, just being able to compare certain things—that's where it comes from. It’s not a planned thing, I just say whatever I’m thinking, then i realize that it’s something interesting after people listen.
How do you know when you've written a great song?
It takes a long time, after listening to the song over and over. If i really can’t stop listening to it then I think it’s a good song. But I also have a hard time deciding, because I’m really hard on myself too. I’m my worst critic. It’s hard for me to know when a song is done and if it’s better than I think it is. Maybe that’s a good thing, that I’ll never get big-headed about it. I just have the urge to make things better, and to always keep working.
As someone who writes songs for other people, you must be used to bringing out people's best and most interesting assets. Can you do that with your own music?
Yeah, and I think maybe even a little harder. I'm in my own brain so I'm thinking about my own thoughts—processing those thoughts. That's a part of art—figuring out what you love and what you don’t love, and making the best art from both of those places. I critique myself and try to make myself better, but I also give myself self-love and affirmation. You don't have to speak to yourself a certain way. All of it is about developing and becoming a better human.
Does asserting yourself come naturally to you?
I think, growing up I was more passive. If other people wanted to do a certain thing, even if I wanted to do something else, I’d be the one to sacrifice my own desires. But now, I've become firmer and more assertive with what I say. I'm strong and outwardly opinionated, but also willing to listen and to change my perspective. I'm more willing now to just be honest and say what I feel.
Do you know what your purpose is as an artist?
I feel like there's purpose in being an artist. Just having your experiences as an individual become something that the world can see and relate to, I feel like that's a purpose. Just giving people the opportunity to learn from your own experiences, or be inspired by them, or even join you in the feelings that you have through music. Music really has a certain influence over people that we don't even realize, from the slang we use to how we feel. We listen and it makes us wanna move. It's a language of its own. That's a way that musicians and artists and songwriters have purpose, just by communicating that language to people through song—the things that you can’t really express with words or actions.
When and how did you learn about songwriting, and all the technicalities therein?
I really just learned through trial and error. I didn't go to a music school. I mean, I took piano lessons for a really short amount of time when I was young, and at a point I could read music a little bit, but then I forgot all that and started out from scratch. I guess I just learned by listening and collaborating with other people. I've been watching and learning through touching. I could have gone to school and heard about the ways in which music is made, but I think I went to school in life instead—going through it and making things happen.
How does it feel to now work with your influences, like Brandy?
I didn’t go into the studio with her to make the song, I recorded the song at home and sent it to a friend of mine who is a producer who was working on the project. Then when she cut the song, she had me come to the studio to help record. It was a really beautiful full-circle experience, because when i first moved to L.A. I was in this girl group that was being produced by LaShawn Daniels, and he wrote all the songs for us, as well as "Full Moon" by Brandy, so just to hear her now recording something that I've written feels really beautiful. I'm so thankful because she has one of my favorite voices.
I love your mix of influences on Jaguar. You've got the wide space and textures of '70s soul couching those ‘90s Janet harmonics. How did you bring those two sounds together?
I brought some of my influences to the producer—specifically ‘70s influences—and was like, let's try and dig into this sound, by suggesting horn lines and string melodies and stuff. But i don't really have a classic ‘70s voice so i think that's where the ‘90s, the era I grew up in, is most prominent. You can hear my direct influences. I heard Janet growing up, I heard Beyoncé all the time. Not that i didn't hear ‘60s and ‘70s music too, because that's what my grandmother was listening to, but as far as vocalists and performers, ‘90s artists were the ones I was gravitating towards. I try to explore through melody choices as well, but I think that's where the combination of influences comes in. I like that. I don't think I’ve ever heard that combo either—a really on the nose ‘70s reference with a classic ‘90s R&B sound.
Is that how you assert yourself as an artist in your own right, by taking a little bit from all your influences?
It’s not something I even think about. I think of those artists as my parents. They’re in my DNA, because I’ve been so absorbed in what they’ve done throughout my entire life. It feels like a natural thing. Even when I just think I’m being myself, people are like, "You sound like Janet, you speak like Janet." I’m really not thinking about the mathematics of how to put stuff together, it just flows out that way because it’s what made me. I just want to be myself and let other people decide what they hear that’s familiar, because I think that lets people relate. I'm fine with all the comparisons, but in the studio, I'm not calculating what I'm going to bring to the table.
Are you going to take a backseat from writing songs for others to focus more on your own art and more projects like Jaguar?
I'm always in the middle of writing stuff for other people, while keeping my mind open for myself too. I already have a Jaguar part II and Jaguar III. The tracklist is already there but I'll probably be adding or changing things, because for me, nothing is finished until it comes out. So now I'm thinking about and working on the projects to follow that, so I just wanna be extra prepared, and really advance the timeframe so i can always have the next thing ready, while putting out new releases, so that there won't be a huge lull.
Do you ever take breaks from music at all?
Oh yeah. This pandemic has been the break for me. It's really forced me to sit down. People aren't making as much music and there isn't as much studio time, so there's a lot more in between time to just be a human, which I appreciate. I’m taking this as a refresher, then I’ll be back when the world comes back, although i don't think the world will ever be quite the same.
Do you feel hope for the future and your success as an artist in your own right?
Yeah, I do, and I feel really excited to just be able to share these parts of myself with the world, while not trying to put too much pressure on expectations, but of course I do want the accolades. I have GRAMMY dreams, I have award show performance dreams, I have world tour dreams. But really just being able to make music a career, and doing what I love—it’s a privilege. I think I’m just trying to keep that perspective, because you can really become wrapped up in this.
If your expectations fall short, is there a chance you might become cynical?
No, I dont think I’ll feel any kind of spite. This already feels like a dream and an opportunity to celebrate, considering where I’ve come from and how long it’s taken for me to get to where I am today. I’m not taking any of the current success for granted and I’m definitely not comparing my artist career to anybody that I’ve written for. It wouldn't be fair to me. I'm just really happy to be where I am. That's the kind of fulfillment that I want—not constantly comparing myself to others, and looking at where I am on the charts. If I get that kind of success I’ll be happy of course, but I won’t define my success on those things. I'm just trying to find the success in happiness.
You're clearly a very nice person, but have people in the music industry treated you as kindly in return?
Well, I try to surround myself with people who I really feel connected to, so I think I’ve been pretty good at protecting myself from any of the darker energies. As a person, I run from that—whether that’s friendships or professional relationships. I separate myself from that darkness quite naturally. So I think that everyone I do surround myself with is very nice, but I’m also very aware that I am in the music industry, which is kind of like a mafia, with the contracts and how things work. You know, contractually speaking, I've definitely been through the wire and have had hard times getting myself into certain deals, just because I love to do this. So, I've learned my lessons and I think on a day-to-day basis, I’m surrounded by a really great team. I love that most of them are women, by the way, but every single person on my team is someone that I really love. I feel surrounded by light, and maybe other people can’t say the same, but this is after years of trial and error. Now, I think I have the perfect group of women around me to take this thing where I want it to go. We’re all good people, so it makes me really excited to do this with them.