Janelle Monáe & Wondaland Team Talk Challenges & 'Treat' of Crafting New Music for 'Lady and the Tramp'

Janelle Monáe
Ramona Rosales

Janelle Monáe photographed on Oct. 30, 2018 at Skyline West Mansion in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles.

Monáe voices Peg in Disney+ live-action remake, as well as joining forces with Roman GianArthur & Nate Wonder on new tunes.

If you ask Janelle Monáe what it took to be the "booty bopping" Peg the Pekingese in the 2019 live-action remake of Disney’s 1955 classic Lady and the Tramp, she’ll say “lots of bits and kibbles.” For the eight-time Grammy-nominated singer, becoming her character for this month’s Disney+ feature was a fairly smooth process.

Their funky, distinctive hairstyles and undeniable coolness blend into each other, and Peggy Lee’s vocals for “He’s a Tramp” -- Peg’s signature song from the original film -- not feature Monáe’s naturally jazzy expression. Her sassy, swoon-worthy sound has been carefully constructed by her Wondaland Productions unit based in Atlanta, but Monáe’s writing and producing team -- consisting of Jidenna’s “Classic Man” featured guest Roman GianArthur and Nate “Rocket” Wonder -- took inspiration from the film’s 1910 New Orleans setting and some notes out of Disney’s playbook.

The three hopped on the phone with Billboard this week to speak about knowing the magical ingredients to re-create or create anew timeless Disney songs in 2019 for the new Lady and the Tramp.

That bluesy, swinging sound on "He's the Tramp" really adheres to the original film's time period and setting. What inspired you during the process of recording the song?

Janelle Monáe: This is set in like 1910, but I pulled from the '20s through '60s and some of my favorite jazz vocalists from Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee. Peggy Lee really did an incredible job in the original.... I time-traveled back and I looked into some of those recordings and what made them special. I wanted to just take that depth and the way it travels throughout the voices of some of our legends and throw it on my vocals somehow and someway. And then trying to have as much fun in that process. And by fun, I mean going into character, dig deep, think about the Shih Tzu Peg, think about her booty bopping up and down, think about how cool she is, think about that bang that she has. And that really inspired me. And eating lots of kibbles and bits.

I also heard in an interview that your mother was one of the background vocals on the song. How special was it to share that moment with her?

Monáe: Oh my goodness! She already is booking interviews herself. [Laughs)] So this was very special.... Yeah, I think she's gonna be hosting Saturday Night Live. Like in terms of having me as her child versus that, she might be talking about that more. But all that aside, it was such a special moment because she grew up watching the film and then to be able to have her share that film with me as a child. And I'm still a child and still being able to be a child and do it with your mom is amazing.

What's great about these Disney remakes is that it reminds us that we're all still children. We've all grown up watching the movies, and to see how different casts breathe new life into them has been so wonderful. For each of you, what was your favorite Disney movie growing up because of the music?

Roman GianArthur: I think for me Robin Hood.

Wonder: For me, it's Robin Hood and Jungle Book.

Monáe: I love Fantasia.

"What a Shame" is replacing the "Siamese Cat Song," which isn't the first time recently that a classic a lot of people have grown up listening to has gained a more sensitive remake. How do you consciously create a new piece to replace one that is deemed problematic?

GianArthur: I think Nate and I certainly fall into the category of having listened to these songs from Lady and the Tramp growing up -- "Bella Notte" the "Cat Song" even -- so it was a challenge. But you mentioned earlier like doing research on Disney, and we certainly did research a lot of songs. And we found the common denominator in a lot of the songs was a certain cheekiness, there's like a beauty, there's moments of like built-in laughs and things like that. It's like if you were singing them to yourself, you're gonna start laughing. So that was kind of the benchmark.

Wonder: We had a great time. I mean, just in terms of taking challenges on, sometimes things need an update. And we're not afraid to try new things. We don't mind being a vanguard. We're a vanguard in most of what we try to do, so we don't mind being a vanguard in these moments and trying to do something that's special and fun and live up to what it means to be involved with a Disney film. So we take on those challenges excitedly and passionately and with confidence.

I saw in a recent interview that you got to go through the Disney archives and see how these scores from the original movies were made. What is it like to not only experience that magical process but also become a part of it yourselves with your newer compositions?

Wonder: A real treat, a real treat.

GianArthur: You always say, "Oh my goodness, what have I gotten myself into?" And then you just start writing. And then you have to create something, and then you evaluate it, and then you see if you like it or you don't. And so what we have to do when we went into the process was actually watch that process come together, because some of the earlier versions of the "Cat Song," the earlier versions of every song in the film and other films from Disney, you connect with those writers because you see them in the moments when they're unsure, they're like, "That's not it." And you can witness and feel that relief when they're like, "Yeah. All right, now this works. All right, yeah, this is better."

Janelle, how do you pay homage to Peg but also bring yourself into that character and make it a little bit more original and revamped?

Monáe: Well, you start with what do you have in common? Where do you guys merge in terms of personality, in terms of spirit? And one, we both love black and white. Two, we both have really cool hairstyles. Three, one of the things I'm inspired by was Peg's coolness. She has a consistent cool about her passing through, and how do you bring that out? You bring it out in her voice, the way she talks, there's a confidence about it. People listen when she talks, she's a leader. She's a protector. These are things that I aspire to be daily. And she's fun, and she's a good time, and you get the sense that she's open to adventure. She's an icon, and that's something that I aspire to represent in my community. And you just try to bottle all of that up. It's not something that I can teach anybody -- you either are connected to that character and you feel a sense of deep purpose to if this can make people smile and laugh and giggle in those moments, then do it. Because you believe it. I believe that I'm Peg. And Peg is me. [Laughs]

For you musically, did it feel like you were working on your own music, like a similar sound, vibe or message, or was it like, "No, I'm strictly doing a Disney project"?

Monáe: No, I felt like all music is ours. Music is a universal language. And I think we had just a great time playing…. And I think the coolest thing is the freedom that was encouraged from [Lady and the Tramp director] Charlie Bean early on. It was just like, "We want to know what you want to do. We really want Wondaland to do the music and you guys to collaborate because we've heard your work and we've heard the overtures that the guys have done. We've heard the lyrics, we've heard the whimsical feel of the string arrangement." I think there's always been a connection between Disney and Wondaland…. We never want to lose our wonder.