Victoria Monét crossed many a radar with her songwriting work on her best friend Ariana Grande’s 2019 Grammy-nominated album thank u, next, but it’s her debut project, Jaguar, that has turned the Sacramento-bred singer-songwriter into a bonafide superstar. With her SG Lewis-produced single and song of the summer contender, “Experience,” she’s put forth a disco-driven jewel akin to Janet Jackson’s “All For You” and Aaliyah’s “Got To Give It Up.” Jaguar is sweet and succinct, honey-dipped and sauntering toward a slow, sensual climax. Each of the nine track’s lush orchestration adds to the mystique of the artist’s persona, but it’s her social media presence and friends in high places (she’s written for Brandy, Chloe x Halle, Kendrick Lamar, and T.I.) that may find Monét flying above the confines of the R&B genre.
Borrowing chops from ’70s soulsters Sylvia Robinson (“Pillow Talk”) and Millie Jackson (“It Hurts So Good”), Monét examines the joys of sex with symphonic experimentation. “Moment” kicks off the album, an ode to both sexual climax and career highs. On “Ass Like That,” she waxes poetic on her love affair with a man named “Gym. And “We Might Even Be Falling In Love (Interlude),” one of the album‘s several musical transitions, listens like a Motown marvel; clocking in at just under one minute, it’s a hit without a hook. Interview caught up with the artist about famous friends, the future, and the eternal fabulousness of disco.
MARCUS HOLMLUND: Many people know you because of a famous friend of yours. How did you meet Ariana [Grande] and become such close friends?
VICTORIA MONÉT: Time is really what made us best friends, but we met in a [recording] session in 2013. She was still on Victorious at the time, and we just hit it off. There was chemistry, and as the years went on, we continued working together and hanging out.
HOLMLUND: What do you look for in a friend?
MONÉT: Honesty. I need a friend that will tell me there’s something in my teeth. Loyalty. Someone who doesn’t change their opinion of you depending on the room that they’re in. Also, I love someone that lets me spoil them. One of my love languages is acts of service. I need a friend that allows me that.
HOLMLUND: What does it take to get a Victoria Monét-penned record?
MONÉT: It’s really a relationship thing. I’m not the type of songwriter that bases things on stardom. I do what I do because I love it—that’s a continuing theme in how I work, so that’s why I oftentimes work with friends. If we work once together in the studio and there’s a good enough energy, we oftentimes have a repeat.
HOLMLUND: So, you’re saying if I came to you with a million bucks and said, “Victoria, do my song,” are you open or…
MONÉT: [Laughs] Hell yeah. The second thing, obviously, is if I’m gonna spend a lot of time on it, I really just want to make sure the person is happy and that I’m happy, too. You can hear that sort of thing in the music, so you want that good working energy to come through.
HOLMLUND: You started your career by messaging the mega-producer Rodney Jerkins on MySpace, and you worked with him on a now-disbanded group, Purple Reign. But what’s incredible is for all the legendary work he did with Brandy, now you’re in the hot seat, writing on her latest album on the track, “Rather Be.” Talk about full-circle.
MONÉT: It’s insane. Even more full-circle is how before that girl group, I went to Six Flags when I was six or seven and made one of those music videos with the green screens and it was to Brandy’s “Sittin’ Up In My Room.” That makes it even crazier. I really never would have guessed I’d be writing for her. There’s no one like her vocally. Her tone and the layering of her vocals—it was just such an honor. She has such depth. It was another “wow” moment for me, for sure.
HOLMLUND: What do you look for in a production partner?
MONÉT: First and foremost, they have to be musical. I have a hard time working with someone that just knows one thing, like drums. I operate well with people who have a love for chords or maybe one really interesting sound they can find and start things out that way. I can really write with anyone who can start with a simple sound and create enough space for what I’m doing melodically. I love starting from scratch with someone. I love the back-and-forth. I’ve really never wanted to do anything else.
HOLMLUND: You came from a dance background. How does that come into play on this effort?
MONÉT: I’ve been trained in dance, but I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a dancer. I sort of took a pause from dance when I shifted my main focus to music. It took a backseat because studio and dance time would always overlap, and I’d have to choose what was most important to me. Subconsciously, though, when I was recording Jaguar, I always left space for performance. I was always thinking about putting enough performance space in my songs so that I could dance as hard as I wanted to without getting out of breath for the rest of the song. I imagine a lot when I’m creating. That’s why there are breakdowns and so much music with the band. I want live moments there, so I can give you a performance later. I think about all of it ahead of time.
HOLMLUND: Who inspires you, performance-wise?
MONÉT: The women I always think of first are Janet [Jackson], Aaliyah, Beyoncé, and Sade. I admire how Sade can just stand on stage and sing and it captures her aura perfectly, while someone like Beyoncé can do a stage show that’s almost not humanly possible. Aaliyah—she and I have a similar laid-back cool energy, and I love her melancholy vibe when she’s dancing and singing. I love that she can still be low-key while being captivating. I think that comes from the Cali girl in me. I’m just very beachy and chill.
HOLMLUND: Anyone you listen to that may shock people?
MONÉT: [Laughs] I think the most I listened to back in the day—and it was probably a phase—was Papa Roach. Nowadays, it shouldn’t surprise people too much, but I do listen to Coldplay. Musically, I feel like I’m really obvious. It’s not so surprising what I listen to because you hear them all reflected back in my music. I mean, Earth, Wind and Fire is a big one and you can hear their influence all through my work. I think I tell on myself too much for anything I listen to to be considered shocking to people.
HOLMLUND: What’s the most important album to you?
MONÉT: It’s not really an album, per se, but, definitely Earth, Wind, and Fire’s Greatest Hits. If you put all their hits together, I feel like you can find elements of everyone I’m inspired by. They came first, so it makes sense. They’re the godfathers.
HOLMLUND: Jaguar is obviously heavily rooted in ’70s slink. You have a way with sexual metaphors akin to Janet [Jackson] and Prince, namely on songs like “Dive” and the album’s title track, even going back to your EP’s. Where does it all come from?
MONÉT: Honestly, I can’t trace it. They just pop into my head. The reason I commit to them is because I don’t necessarily care what others think. I have no regard if someone thinks my lyrics come off cheesy or silly. It’s just a part of my personality to be a sort of flirty, sometimes comical type of person—that comes out a lot of the time in song form.
HOLMLUND: With the recent release of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” you’ve been hearing a lot of talk around reclaiming sexual pleasure and flipping the male gaze into the female perspective. Do you feel the same about your work?
MONÉT: I think it’s important I keep those kinds of things in my music. It’s truly from a woman’s perspective. We’ve seen and heard it go on for so long from the rap and hip-hop communities—and it was usually from the male’s perspective, other than maybe Lil’ Kim or Trina. I think it’s important as a woman to take that power back into our own hands, especially in an R&B lane. It’s important not to be afraid to go there and be honest. If a guy has a problem with it, he can relax.
HOLMLUND: What is your attraction to the ’70s? You hear it all over Jaguar.
MONÉT: The acoustic vibe in the music is what does it for me. Although I’m a ’90s girl, and I do love a ’90s top line, I think what was missing was the acoustic live instrumentation you get from the ’70s. Maybe that comes from hearing my grandpa play the saxophone growing up, or the short time I played piano as a kid. It’s just that “live feel” that does it for me. I love the human aspect of having a real live person behind a musical instrument. I also love how daring the ’70s were style-wise. It was pretty wild and free.
HOLMLUND: You chose to become a digital avatar in the “Jaguar,” which seems so poignant for the time, but definitely not ’70s-tinged. Was that intentional?
MONÉT: Well, that was definitely a plot twist. About two weeks before we went into lockdown due to COVID-19, we were actually planning to go shoot the video in Cuba. I really wanted that jungle element and you don’t get that in California, so it seemed right. We had this plan for a skating rink in the middle of the jungle, to have it all lit in the moonlight to make it funky and trippy. But, of course, lockdown said no. [Laughs] So we figured out a way to put me in that space with motion capture and it turned out a lot cooler—sort-of like a “I’m a superhero, superhuman, video game-y alter-ego.”
HOLMLUND: Why was it important for you to release this album now, in the midst of a global pandemic and a national recession?
MONÉT: 2020 has been an insane year, and music has been the light at the end of the tunnel for me. If I didn’t have this, honestly, I don’t know. There wouldn’t be too much else to be thrilled about. Maybe some good changes coming from all the bad, but all that takes time.
HOLMLUND: What does being a Black female singer-songwriter coming out with her studio full-length amidst all of this mean right now for you?
MONÉT: I think there are a couple of things that I’m fighting against. Along with the racial tension and backlash LGBTQ+ communities face in certain spaces, I think there’s a lot pushing against me, but, I do think it’s important for me to be an example of someone that can push through that. Especially for someone who doesn’t see a way out, there should be someone there to ease your mind about your situation. I want to be that for another person. I want to be that person who can show others that these things are possible even in the worst of times. If I’m in a room that someone like me can’t be in, maybe the person I’m in the room with can change their outlook to have empathy because they care about me, then moving forward, I’d like to think others like me would then get the same treatment I did.
HOLMLUND: What’s next for you?
MONÉT: I have more music to put out.
HOLMLUND: I mean, with the amount of interludes on this album, if you flesh those out—those are hit records right there!
MONÉT: [Laughs] Yeah. I’ve been getting scolded by my fans, like, “What were you thinking?” I think the long-term plan for those types of things is making certain concerts, when they come back, really special by doing extended versions of those tracks. Or I’ve even thought about, but wouldn’t promise, doing a project that’s full of just the full versions of the interludes and probably add features. I wouldn’t say definitely, but this is what’s been going on in my head.
HOLMLUND: What uplifts you for the future?
MONÉT: Kids. I think the kids today seem so smart and so advanced that you’ve got 8-year-olds talking about politics, starting businesses, everything. Maybe that’s just the internet, but it gives me so much hope for the next generation. As long as they’re not stuck on their phones.