If an artist has been in the industry for more than a decade, there is an automatic inclination to put together a tough line of questioning that parallels nothing they’ve ever faced in their lengthy career. The entire trip to meet the artist, the writer goes over the questions their head, prepping themselves for a verbal duet with a veteran artist, hoping to not only leave a lasting impression but to capture their story in a dynamic interview and feature story. When it turns out that the artist is a 16-year veteran who has dominated the R & B world with just the mononymous name, Monica, things become a lot more difficult. When you walk in a room, into the presence of the beautiful, strong, classy and oh so passionate songstress you’d be lucky to remember your own name much less comprehend the disoriented scramble of thoughts shifting up in that head of yours.
The professional in me tried to pull it together, to make the most of the next 30 minutes. I locked the doors, pulled up close, exchanged a smile, and engaged in some of the most free-flowing conversation with an artist ever. We discussed so much that the interview had to be split into two-parts. In part one we discuss the 16-year journey and how it took off, we take a look back at some of her classics and we get the full inside look of her new album, Still Standing.
Parlé Magazine: Let’s start from the very beginning. You started out touring with a Gospel choir named the Majestics, what was that experience like and how’d you make the transition to R & B?
Monica: I was reared in a church anyway and my mom was married to a Methodist minister so gospel music was really all I knew as far as singing so it wasn’t anything that I thought was different. It was more different to start singing secular music. In particular, I was a big fan of Whitney Houston so I started singing “Greatest Love of All”, which was still okay to sing in church because it was such an inspirational song. So I started singing it at church talent shows, started winning those and I’d graduate from there. The transition for me has been easy because I keep the emotion the same. If you notice I do the same thing with secular music, of course the topics are different but I keep the same feeling.
Parlé: You started out in the industry with people like Dallas Austin, Tim & Bob, I heard Queen Latifah was your manager—having all those people around you, how did that affect you and how did those people help you grow?
Monica: It helped me to remain as normal as possible. You meet a lot of people that have been in the music business for a long time, they can be very strange, and that’s because you isolate yourself and keep yourself away from the things that everybody else likes to do. I was always shown the opposite. Dallas [Austin] always had it that if we recorded a certain amount of hours on a Monday, we might spend Tuesday at a lake with his family and my family. With Latifah, any time I would come to L.A.—at the time she was working really hard on Living Single and getting that off the ground—I would come to L.A., but still with be my family so everything in my life was centered around being normal and enjoying my life because when Dallas signed me I was only 12.
Parlé: Any one in particular that did the most to help mold who you were as an artist?
Monica: You know, I was already the way I am, I think the person who saw me the most and had the clearest view of who I was and me representing where I was from and still being a young girl that was not trained to be a musical artist would have to be Dallas. He named the first album Miss Thang, because I would come into the studio, listen to music and I didn’t know who Clive Davis was and I didn’t know who all these people were so with music it was either I like it or I don’t. I would sing the songs that I liked and the songs that I didn’t like I was very opinionated and out spoken, but I was still very sociable and lovable all at the same time. I think he saw who I was best and protected me from anyone ever trying to change me and make me like any of the other people that were out at the time.
Parlé: You’ve had a long career, so I just want to help the audience take a look back at it really quickly with some of your records. I’m going to name a song, I want you to tell me where you were and what type of person or what frame of mind you were in at the time…
“Don’t Take It Personal”:
Monica: I sang that song when I was 13, I don’t necessarily remember where I was, I would think I was in DARP, that was Dallas’ studio where we did most things in house there, but at that particular time I was just having fun. Most of my records I recorded at such a young age that I would either hear the beat and love it or I would hear the lyrics and love it. I just remember thinking, “what is this song really talking about?” He had to explain it to me like, ‘look, its not about any one particular thing. You’re a moody little girl and I think the song is a good representation of who you are some days. I think all women are like that.’ Dallas always had a real good way of breaking down what he was thinking when he made music for me.
Parlé: Next, one of my favorite songs, “Street Symphony”:
Monica: “Street Symphony” I was about 16 when I recorded it. I had taken a couple dates and one guy in particular that I liked, I learned that he was in the streets. “Street Symphony” was like my ultimatum to him at the time. Dallas and I were so close that I always shared my experiences with him so he wrote the song about that.
Parlé: The following album, “Don’t Go To Bed Mad” with Tyrese:
Monica: “Don’t Go To Bed Mad” was a song I actually did because it made sense. By that time I was 18 or 19. I’ve always liked Tyrese’s voice so him being on the song was like an automatic. When he agreed to do it I remember being real excited cause I knew he’d bring his own flare to the song, but at that time I was really serious into somebody and it was something I believed to be true, so when I heard the demo of the record I just told them I wanted to record it and make it a duet
Parlé: “Hell No (Leave Home)” featuring Twista off the Makings of Me album:
Monica: I always been a fan of Twista, I always liked the fact that he could go away and come back and fit right into whatever was going on and of course he’s clearly the fastest rapper around. So I thought it would be challenging for him to write me a rhyme as well, and that’s what ended up happening. He wrote it and taught me how to say it, that was the most interesting part of that whole ordeal. I always liked his music and I kept saying okay, Missy is the first person that told me she wanted me to rap in 2002 when we were doing “So Gone” and all of those records. She kept telling me that I think and act like a rapper and I was like, how is that possible, I’m far from a rapper. She said, ‘I’ll show you’. She started writing me these rhymes and I could feed it to her the same way she was writing ’em. So we tried to take it one level up with Twista giving me a more complicated rhyme. That was a good memory. I actually did that one here in NY.
Parlé: Let’s bring it all the way up to the title track for this most recent album, “Still Standing”:
Monica: “Still Standing” is the most personal song I think I’ve ever recorded in the entire 16 years at this point. It was written by Adonis, but produced by Bryan Michael Cox and Bryan is like a family member to me. I’ve had a lot of different things happen to me and I didn’t want to ever play the victim or just keep talking about what happened. I wanted people to hear how I overcame some of those things cause to me life is just full of different struggles and for me people get so stuck on the problem they never really get past things, they never really find solutions and ways to deal with their own circumstances. So “Still Standing” was like a personal testimony of my life and it ended up driving the television show and the album, I didn’t even expect that. When I gave Adonis all this history about me, I told him about different things that happened to me, I left and went to Luda’s restaurant for a while to just talk to him, spend some time with him—he and I are cousins so we spend a lot of time with each other and with each other’s kids. When I came back Adonis had written a song. It was just one of the first songs that I recorded, but heard first and it brought me to tears. Most times, you get used to feeling certain types of emotions, but I didn’t know that a person that didn’t know me very well could create that type of song. It is the most personal in 16 years.
Parlé: “Everything To Me” the lead single, let’s talk about that for a second, how’d the video concept come about and how did Chad Ochocinco become involved?
Monica: Benny Boom and I have been close for a very long time. He did “Should’ve Known Better” for me, two albums ago. I told him I didn’t want another pretty video with the holding hands and hanging out in the park. Then I was up late one night watching Obsessed and I called and I told him, we should do something like Obsessed where we have a man, that’s a known figure and he has a stalker and let that be the twist in our love. That scene I thought would make it more interesting than just the holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes that you see all the time. And then an agency called Tough Love actually casted Chad for me. I had never heard of him and they kept telling me that he has a great personality, he’s tall, women are going to like him and he’s gonna get along well with everybody. What I didn’t want was a diva in the video because I knew this video was going to be a little more difficult because it was going to involve acting and we were going to have to go from ‘hey how you doing’, to pretending to be married. So it all worked out. He has quite a personality. He treated everybody down to the cameraman with respect, you know it was just a great experience.
Parlé: This album, I know its a lot more personal than we may be accustomed to from Monica, but what else is different about this album?
Monica: I think the fact that I’m so different as a person makes it different. I lived, I learned, and I learned different things that I share. I talk about a lot of different subjects on the album and as I experience different things myself, I share that even if I’m not actually singing at that moment. This is the first time in ten years that I’ve been single, which is weird and scary and awkward and uncomfortable and all those different things at the same time, but there is somebody out there that is going through the same thing. Or you look at things like my losses, family members that I’ve lost, there’s somebody out there going through the same thing. And look at the love—I’ve felt some wonderful moments of love in my life and I was able to do songs like “Everything To Me” because of it. I just share a lot of different things.
Parlé: Let’s talk about the reality show. Originally it was supposed to be just one show, how’d it come about that BET picked it up?
Monica: See the one show was like a test. I wasn’t fond of doing reality T. V. really because I assumed that they wanted it to be very dramatic, they would be creating scenes and making all these things happen that weren’t happening. Once upon a time I had a very dramatic lifestyle, but that’s not the way I live after the birth of my oldest son I’ve changed all of my surroundings, if its not something positive I don’t even allow it to stay in my space so I didn’t know what they would be expecting. James Dubois came to me and told me ‘look, we don’t want you to be anything other than you. We gonna try it out, do a one hour series first, see how you like it. It was just a great experience because nobody ever tried to change what really took place in my life. Some people equate positivity, happiness, family, smiling, laughing and joking to boring but I equate it to peace of mind. So I wanted people that understand that to be able to enjoy it. That’s what really enabled us to do a full season with BET.
Parlé: Are you going to do another season of the show?
Monica: I’m thinking about it. I want to sit back and see what we can do to make it a little different. Everything would still be me, I don’t want to change it and have it to dramatic, but obviously we’re going on tour in August and September, myself and Trey Songz and if they follow the tour and they see what I do when the cameras aren’t there. I go to a lot of different group homes and youth groups, what I do-we get stuck on what our disadvantages are, I go back and tell them what the advantages of being underprivileged are, for me having nothing made me appreciate everything I had in my life. Coming from the type of family I had allowed me to stay extremely humble and respectful of the things around me. I just go to these girls and some of them boys and I just talk to them about the advantages and get them to stop focusing on their disadvantages. So if the show could move in that direction that would be cool for me.
Parlé: You mentioned earlier that you we’re single, everybody knows about the Rocko situation, anything else you want to put out there about that?
Monica: No, I don’t care about it, I don’t care about whatever was on the internet, I don’t get into any of that. My main priority is to make sure my kids are good, and their not thinking about different things that happened because we’re both artists. I don’t sit up on the internet besides the point of using twitter to stay in touch with my fans and there are other things about the internet that I didn’t know about that I’m learning—I mean my son works the ipad at four like a pro, so I’m learning that there are ways to keep in touch with my fans as well as inform them that when things are happening to me in my personal life, I’m not exempt from real life. Whatever goes on, I can’t be prepared for everything that will happen but I take it one day at a time. Roc and I, we make sure that our friendship stays in the absolute best condition and we make sure that we understand that we come second, and third and fourth and sometimes fifth to what the kids need, so we still take them to do things together and we still keep our relationship a certain way because only an immature individual would do the opposite so we don’t even entertain that stuff.
Parlé: Okay, now this one I have to ask because my writer, Shanique Byrd, did an interview and apparently Lyfe Jennings said that he was single, you were single and he wanted to know if there was an opportunity…
Monica: (shocked and blushing) He did not say say that! He knows I know his baby mama, (laughing) he was probably just playing. I met his baby mama, actually I went out a couple times with his kid’s mother, with Tiny and Toya and all of them together so he was probably just joking, he was probably just being silly. (laughing)
Parlé: Okay great, that means I still have a chance! Moving on, what else should people know about Monica, the person?
Monica: You know I’m not guarded, I think people know me pretty well. When I’m out, people will come up and hug me and ask me about my blood pressure and how my kids are doing. That was the one great thing about the show, it gave me the opportunity to just be me, and to just show people that I’m on air with my pajamas and my head scarf, I don’t feel like I need to show me in Louis Vuitton scarves and jumping out of Bentley’s to feel good about me. People, after watching twelve episodes of that, they know who I am, and it gave me a totally different spin on being an artist and now they see me as a human being. I think the only thing that they didn’t—well they probably could tell—I’m a lot more sensitive than people would expect. I have a really strong personality so sometimes people think that means that nothing bothers you, but I think I’m the most sensitive of my entire staff so I see things and I’ll burst into tears if I see commercials where dogs are dying or whatever it is. Sometimes I think that’s shocking to people because they are like, ‘that’s Miss Thang, she’s not supposed to be sensitive’. So I think its little things like I’m a nurturer or that I like to cook, or I’d like to get married and have more kids, you know just things like that they don’t know, but mostly I think they know me.
Parlé: What’s your hidden talent?
Monica: Fixing hair, but I revealed that on the show, not much left after letting 32 people follow you around for about 3 months. (laughs). The only other thing that I wanted to do that I didn’t go into very much on the show is that I always wanted to be a homicide detective and people always find that to be so strange.
Parlé: That is strange, why’d you want to do that?
Monica: My moms lived in the suburbs and when her and my dad split, his family lived in the total opposite side of town so I would be on Cleveland Avenue, all through Zone 3 in Atlanta, and I saw a lot of people die, but I would always see that the sense of comfort was brought by this one person and I asked what this lady did—I saw her hugging this young boy’s mother, he was really young and he was killed, and they said ‘oh that’s the homicide defective, they found the person that killed him’. I just became interested in it at that point and I did my homework about it and when I took my break from music, I did my homework about it while I was pregnant with Rocko and we were just finding out about the different things and I went out on the beat a couple times with an officer that I was really close to, but I just didn’t have enough time to give to the city of Atlanta, but it’s something that I would pursue later in life when I knew I had a certain amount of time because you have to be a part of the force for a certain amount of time. Cause its no joke, and when I do it, I don’t want to do it as Monica, but I don’t know if my singing job will allow me to be able to do it and not be disrupted when it comes to that because I would take it serious if they ever allowed me to do it.
Parlé: I don’t know why I’m just being reintroduced to your tattoos, I see them everywhere, how many do you have?
Monica: I have tons of them, I’ve had tattoos for well over ten years. My entire left arm is done over with a picture of Jesus and my brother’s name, the top of my hand says love and it has two hearts, one for each of my children, my mother’s name is on my wrist and its five hearts on this wrist, one for her husband, one for me, one for her and one for each of my kids, so everything has a certain meaning. When my father beat prostate cancer I got his name on my neck. Everyone of them has meaning, I don’t have Tweety bird or anything somewhere or something that I’d be pissed to look at later, each one of them means a lot.
Parlé: What do you want your legacy to be in music when you’re finished with it?
Monica: I would want people to remember me as one of the great vocalists, but I also want them to remember the person that I am more than anything else. I work more at being a better person than I do at being a better vocalist. Anybody can probably train themselves to be a great vocalist and to train their vocals, but to put something out in this atmosphere that’s positive, that’s not negative, that’s not continuously feeding the energy of people that don’t like to see other’s do well, I want to change some of that and I want to get people back in the state of mind of knowing that there’s strength in numbers and that unity is okay. We don’t have to be against one another so that would be one of the things that I would want people to remember about me more than the music.
Parlé: What advice do you have for young artists trying to get to where you are in your career and to the paces you’ve been?
Monica: I would say choose who it is that you want to represent and who it is you want to be and the type of music you want to do. You have record companies and they may be looking for something in particular, you don’t ever want to become something that you’re not because most people can’t keep it up for very long and what happens is everything comes crashing down. With me I look back at my career and I’m very happy and pleased about everything that took place because I was just me. And if I made a mistake I could take it a lot better because it was my mistake and my consequences, they were my actions so I paid the cost for them. As artists some people get too desperate to be on and they don’t stay true to who they are and what they want to do. If you make gospel music, there are incredible artists who have made it. If you sing jazz or neo-soul, whatever it is you do, make those decisions and sell who you are to a company that will respect you.
Parlé: Any final words you want to put out there?
Monica: I will tell you that the second single is entitled “Here I Am” and it is produced by Polow Da Don. I’m excited about it because we’re going to turn the song into a duet, which isn’t on the CD. It appears that Trey Songz is going to do it and since we’re going to be on tour in August and September it will give me some time to actually perform it out on the road and for us to really get it out to the public. That will be fun, haven’t really had a good duet in a while.
Parlé: Thanks for your time Monica, much continued success.
Monica: You are very welcome.
As you can see, I did make the best of my time with Monica. A true veteran and a true talent, she answered every question gracefully and showed just why she is such a dominating force in R & B music today!
images by Christian Ortiz for Parlé Magazine
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