Victoria Monét photographed on June 3, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif. 
Victoria Monét photographed on June 3, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif. 
Austin Hargrave

Victoria Monét on her 'Friendship-Based' Writing Success With Ariana Grande

The phone rings. “Hi! It’s Victoria,” says a voice on the other end -- as in the Victoria, Victoria Monét, songwriter of the moment and not her publicist calling to connect us. It’s a small but seismic decision, picking up the phone herself, rather than having someone else do it for her. “Oh no, no, I hate that shit,” says Monét.

She prefers direct human connection, a meeting of intentions without an intermediary, and if there’s a presiding vibe to pop music right now, it’s just that -- songs that create a direct line from the listener to the rawest soul-stuff of an artist. Those are the songs Monét is writing, mostly with her main muse, Ariana Grande, the biggest pop star with the most feels to share: raw emotion ripped from text messages and plopped, practically unexpurgated, onto a trap beat.

Artists have long declared how “personal” their music is, but Monét and Grande have taken that to the next, damn-near TMI level -- and in the process created a new template for what a pop song can be. As a writer, Monét has 12 credits on the Billboard Hot 100. The chart-topping singles she made with Grande and a core girl squad that includes Tayla Parx and Njomza -- “Thank U, Next,” the no-holds-barred inventory of Grande’s recent exes, and “7 Rings,” a no-shame ode to buying yourself all the shit you want -- have earned a combined 1.53 billion on-demand streams, according to Nielsen Music.

“I’m hoping that people are inspired by the freedom we have to say what we want in songs. But I’m not sure that it’s something so brand new,” demurs Monét, 26. She speaks like Anita Baker sings “Sweet Love,” in calm, smooth, feminine tones. She sounds like a natural singer, but growing up a “shy teen” in Sacramento, Calif., she focused on dance. She always could harmonize, though, and cared enough to look up who produced the songs her favorite artists (Brandy, Destiny’s Child) sang, which is how she discovered Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins was behind them all. Monét DM’d him in 2008 on Myspace, and he messaged her back, asking her to audition for a girl group. A week later, she was a member of Purple Reign, moving to Los Angeles and starting a career.

Though Jerkins provided her entree into the music world, Monét says she really learned about songwriting, harmonizing and hooks from LaShawn Daniels, who wrote for Purple Reign. While the group’s album was stuck in label purgatory, Monét connected with and started to write for people who came through the studio. (Motown dropped the group before it released an album, and Monét hasn’t spoken to Jerkins since.)

Her songwriting break came in 2010, when she co-wrote the lyrics for Dirty Money’s “I Hate That You Love Me”; she has since crafted hooks for Nas, T.I., Kendrick Lamar and Fifth Harmony. In 2013, she was introduced to then-Nickelodeon star Grande and wrote a few tracks for her debut, Yours Truly. The two became fast friends: Monét started spending time with Grande’s big Italian family, playing card games and eating pasta and cheese. “It ended up being a lot more friendship-based than music-based,” says Monét.

When she and Grande write together, which is often, Monét likens it to a sleepover, a party, a therapy session. “It’s the closest I can get to writing for myself,” she says. Her recent single with Grande, “Monopoly” -- in which both women sing “I like women and men” (Monét identifies as bisexual) and extol the benefits of working with your best friend -- puts Monét and her distinct, hip-hop-influenced sound at the center of a track. But the two women’s voices blend so well, it’s hard to tell where Monét ends and Grande begins.

“Victoria is a brilliant collaborator, musician, writer and just as brilliant of a friend. She is a very pure person and I think that’s why we connect the way we do,” says Grande. “It’s so rare to meet people in the industry that haven’t been tainted by it in some way or developed some kind of crazy ego. She is a timeless writer and vocalist and one of the nicest people I know and truly deserves the world. I’m so proud of the work we’ve done together and so excited to watch her grow as an artist.”

Even when she records with Grande, Monét keeps the same habits she does with other artists. Her day starts with a motivational podcast, yoga or meditation (“Songwriting is such a sensitive energy. It’s just a vibration of frequencies”). Around 2 p.m., she heads to the studio. Sessions last about 12 hours, with much drinking, laughing, crying and eating involved (“Uber Eats, shout out to y’all”).

But if Grande’s new songs in particular have the intimacy and immediacy of texts between friends, it’s because that’s how they often originate, says Monét. She’ll present Grande with a simple beat or a melody, and they’ll fill in vocals from there, writing fast -- it feels more honest, plus Grande has perfect pitch and can easily self-edit. “It’s like you’re accessing her emotions in real time, before it’s stale,” explains Monét.

The “nonjudgmental, non-problematic” space that Monét has created for herself in the business is, she says, a corrective to what she felt early in her career (she’s been signed to BMG since 2016). “At first, I didn’t even realize how low on the totem pole I am,” she says. “First of all, I’m a woman. Second of all, I’m of color. Third of all, I’m queer.”  She has surrounded herself with a community of women who remind her that they’re “way more powerful” than the industry often makes them feel.

“It feels like a family,” she says. “I can walk away from business and have a conversation, or cry on the phone.” And then, most likely, put it all into a song.

This article originally appeared in the June 15 issue of Billboard.