January 15th, 2015 | Interviews

photo by ward robinson

Any given night, downtown Mexican restaurant Señor Fish turns into a funk scene. They’re not there for the music. The stereo bumps endless mainstream radio pop. But the place has become the go-to taco eatery for funk sweetheart Moniquea, her collaborator XL Middleton, his MoFunk label-mate Eddie Funkster, and a crowd of their scene comrades. They all happened to be there lining the bar when Moniquea met up to discuss her new album Yes No Maybe. She’s a cool, funny, down-to-earth lady and we talked some deep subjects—especially love. This interview by Daiana Feuer.

While we were drinking pre-interview, you mentioned you started rapping in 7th grade. Did you have a rap group?
I didn’t have a group per se, but I had a group of friends that would rap together. I was rapping like a madwoman.
That’s so cute…
You mean: ‘cooool.’ It was cute too—don’t get me wrong—but it was really more than anything just … COOL. Ha! I was always the only girl. That was always fine with me but became interesting as I became older.
They accepted you as an equal?
Absolutely. Sometimes I’d get embarrassed, in the way that maybe acceptance makes you a little bit embarrassed. Because of the other people around you that aren’t doing it—meaning girls. If we went somewhere that guys were rapping, I was like, ‘I don’t know if the girls will get mad at me if I go start rapping.’ That was the uncomfortable part. But I really loved it. Especially when I went home and thought about the day. Just to pay it forward to my mom—that’s because of her and her band. When I was little I’d sit and watch their rehearsals—mouth wide open. They were called the Roses. It was my mom, her sister, a cousin, and two friends. They did a lot of soul, Aretha Franklin, New Birth, people like that. Once I got around 10th grade, I started remembering why I‘d been drawn to music. When you’re a kid, you’re struck by everything that’s happening. When I got older, I realized they were my source of inspiration the whole time. My mom would always lead ‘Jump To It’ by Aretha and I thought that was her song!
What was your first stage performance?
If you really want to get technical, I did it at my first school. I was probably in the 4th grade. But when I really, really did it for people to see, I was in 10th grade and it was at Pasadena High School and it was the talent show. There were people from different schools competing. It was the biggest talent show to date that we’ve ever had in Pasadena, and I won. I rapped and sang a song I wrote. When they said I won, it was an out of body experience. It struck something inside of me. It was extreme to me because it was the first big thing I ever done—to be around your peers and to get that acceptance from them saying, ‘We like your type of sound and your type of voice’ I will never forget.
On Yes No Maybe you’ve streamlined your sound into funk music, but your first record had a lot more genres on it. Were you still figuring things out then?
It was completely different styles. For the longest time I had been trying to figure out someone to understand my voice and the music I like. The person that actually found that inside of me is XL Middleton. I am still proud of that 2011 Moniquea album. It was something that I had to get out. My childhood friend Teddy Bear produced it. It will always mean a lot to me. I was always running into people telling me to sing like this or that: ‘Can you do Mariah Carey on this? Toni Braxton on that?’ But I kinda wanted to be doing the Moniquea the whole time. As cliché as it might sound, it’s true. That album I wrote, I loved it—but I was still searching for someone to find me musically.
How did you and XL Middleton link up?
We’re from the same town, Pasadena. I knew of him and he didn’t know me. He’s been doing his thing for quite some time, and I have too but we never had the chance to connect. We met one night at a local Pasadena show that we both happened to be booked for. He’d heard one song on the Moniquea album—‘Can’t Let You Go’—and it was funky to him. He liked it. We ended up connecting on that song. It was history from there. I’m not a runner—I don’t run all over to sing. I’m a straight singer. I feel a certain way when I sing and it’s a funky sound that might hit you like Cherrelle or Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King. I have the straight sound like they have. I’ve always been this way and I’d been looking for something to accompany that sound. My voice has always lent itself to the funk. Finally someone gets me and can produce me.
Are you a couple?
No—ha ha! Everyone always thinks that.
It’s probably that video you made (‘You Can’t Train Me’) where you pretended to be a couple.
That’s the operative word, isn’t it! But that was the introduction of him and I musically.
It’s great to find people who speak your language.
It’s incredible. And I can say the same for Eddie Funkster. Him understanding the voice that I had—that meant a lot to me too. XL and I had been working together prior to meeting up with Eddie Funkster. Since we all came together it has been like an apple.
An apple?
SOLID. You know how it grows? That’s what we’ve been. I’m having the most fun in these last three years that I’ve ever had and I wouldn’t trade it.
I saw a live video from 2012 for ‘Secret,’ which is on your new album. Is that a song you wrote before starting to work with XL?
That song is one I wrote before XL. It was initially produced by another guy. XL liked it and wanted to do his version. I was excited because it’s one of the closest songs to my life. I thought it’d be way different from everything else on the new album, but he was into it.
I like that. It stood out for that reason.
A lot of people have said they liked it actually.
Also it’s got a lot of words.
It’s got a lot of words because I felt a lot of ways when I wrote it.
What was happening?
What was happening is something that continues happening. When people, they don’t know you and they speculate on what you’re doing and how you might be doing it and with whom you’re doing it.
By that do you mean sex?
I mean sex, where you live, how do you make money, where do you spend it? I’m pretty private so when people don’t know that’s when they start to wonder or come up with their own ideas. It was—for lack of a better word—liberating to put that into a song and get it out without spilling too much. So ‘I got a secret and guess what? I’m not going to tell you but I’m going to sing about it. And still you won’t know but I’m telling you how I feel.’ It’s for people judging who I’m hanging out with, what kind of music I do, how I’m living. From family to friends—just stop. Let me live and let you live. That’s how that song was born. I’m glad it’s on the album. I didn’t see it coming.
Have you figured out how to fully play the album live? It’s an interesting thing about funk shows. Maybe they happen in tighter spaces but performers use minimal instruments.
You’re right about that. We have not been able to play it with a full band live. That would be spectacular. We have played with these guys the South Bay All-Stars. This was before the album dropped but we had a full band, drummer, lead guitar, bass guitar, XL on keys, myself singing. ‘Secret’ is crazy live. The energy was skin-crawling when I got to do that song with a full live band. We’ve done a few songs live here and there but the opportunity doesn’t always present itself in the places we go. In the meantime we have a new guy—David Z—playing keys with us along with XL. Then we have the backing track but I always give the vocals live. It’s a must. Or I would just quit.
Right—because what’s the point?
I know, but people are doing that. And it’s like … fine. But me, personally, I got to sing it out. Whatever’s gotta come out, it’s gonna come out. You’re gonna hear it coming from me.
What’s your dream?
When I’m 89 I want to still be singing, even if it’s a little ditty on a cruise ship or Las Vegas. If I can still sing songs from Yes No Maybe and future people can shake a shoulder to it. All I want in life is to be able to live and not worry about anything but singing, the mortgage, the dog, my family. I don’t need more than I know what to do with. But I want to sing for a complete living for a complete lifetime. When that happens I will be complete.
What’s your writing process? Does XL give you music and then you write lyrics?
The majority of the time it’s like that but I come to him with lyrics and melodies sometimes and he builds tracks around them.
Why do you make so many love songs?
Because I love LOVE. I’m in love with love. Most women probably are. I’m really infatuated with it. Wanting to see what the total outcome of it can be is my dream.
When a song puts love on a pedestal, do you think that kind of love is real? Or is that just a fairytale?
I think it exists. It has not been heavily discovered by most people. But I do still believe it exists. Once I figured out about love and relationships in real life—not just some like ‘ooh, a boyfriend’—I realized that people are supposed to feel this way. It’s supposed to be for real. It’s not just a fairytale, like a movie you can watch and maybe dream about it but it’s not real. I really believe in it. And until it happens, which I believe it will, I will always look for it to come to me.
How close have you been to that?
I think I’ve been close. I think I’ll know when I’m there. I think it’s tangible. It’s better to believe that. When I see people who have been together 20 or 30 years and then it’s over, that’s alright to me because the two of them have lived a lifetime together—gone through all of the emotions. If it gets to a point where that’s it, I can’t be upset about that. I look forward to doing time with someone, whether it lasts forever or not. After that take me to Vegas, take me on a cruise, I’ll be that old lady just cruisin’. And then when he’s 72 and has a 40-year-old new wife, that will be fine too. I’ll treat her like a daughter. HA! But yeah—I want to love and experience love on the level of which I can’t even imagine.
If you’re not experiencing that kind of love, are you definitely with the wrong person?
I’ve been with a lot of not-the-right-persons. I haven’t had ten boyfriends but I’ve always been somebody’s girlfriend since I was 16. There’s only one time where I thought I might get married. It didn’t happen but it was the first time I felt like I had looked into the sky and imagined us married with kids. But it wasn’t the time for me. I wouldn’t be here having this conversation or making my album if it had happened right then. I’ve always planned my life to be an older mature mother where I’m not looking to get out and get going: ‘Mom, can you watch the baby because I wanna go out.’ I never wanted to be that girl. I strategically planned to not be—excuse me—a baby’s mama. I don’t mind for those that do. I have known a lot of friends with kids and they’re not married and the kids are great but I just made a choice that it wasn’t for me.
You only have one life and it’s okay to decide how you want it to go.
Eventually I want someone to take care of and we take care of each other and say ‘Hey, where’s my BenGay…’
Then they rub it on your butt for you.
Rub it on my butt until I fall asleep.
I’m not sure that’s where BenGay goes, actually.
I don’t care. Just rub it on my butt. Even if it’s my foot that’s hurting.
So the album is about love in so many ways.
Yes. The album is Yes No Maybe because it’s the uncertainty of love but still believing in it. That’s why a lot of the songs talk about it. It’s scary though. You don’t want to fall in love with the wrong person. That’s a waste of time.
But sometimes you don’t know if you’re wasting your time while it’s happening.
That’s where ‘NO’ comes in, but it’s too late because you already did it. And then you realize too late: ‘Now it’s no, huh?’ But Yes No Maybe is not a title that means ‘that’s it, nevermind, forget it.’ There’s hope. I sing of hope and I sing of love, past love, and what I think might be love right now. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.
It’s all carried off with confidence, which makes the songs uplifting. It’s like you’re not sure about the guy but you’re sure about yourself.
Oh, you’re good. That’s exactly what that is.
Which is why people compare your music to 1980s upbeat funky R&B jams. Those songs about being a self-assured woman who knows she’s attractive but she wants to find love—she wants to find it on the dance floor tonight while the DJ is playing. Don’t you think that’s what makes those songs last? Because the feeling is really good?
Yes, that feeling is real! I may interpret it differently in 2014 but I like the way they said it then. I connect to the language. I felt it then and I feel it right now. That’s why those songs have lasted. They’re saying it in this way that makes you want to, I don’t know …
Put on your lipstick and go! Go get it whatever it is!
It’s making me cry what you’re saying. It’s true. Just go, yes, with your lipstick on! They said it how they really meant it and the sophistication of that whole thing turned me on as a youth and growing into a young woman because I am always about getting my point across in the most non-abrasive way. Saying, ‘This is how I feel about it but I don’t need to knock you down with my words.’ Words are serious. You’ve got to choose them in a certain way. Whether I’m hurting or don’t like how I’m being treated, or if I love the way I’m being treated and everything’s great. In my writing style I don’t want to knock anybody down or make anybody uncomfortable. I have a particular way of describing it that I like. It’s strategic but I’m very much real about it. I feel this way and I’m this person that lives this way beyond the song in real life.
‘I Don’t Want To Get Used To It’ seems like it sums up the Yes No Maybe theme and this attitude we’re talking about.
That’s a prime example. It’s a real song about a real person. We were having fun. It was great. He was picking me up, taking me out. But because of the kind of person he was, I didn’t want to get used to this going out and chillin’ because at any moment it could snap off and he would be gone. We weren’t together. We were ‘hanging out.’ I was scared of the inevitable but at the same time, it was so much fun and I wanted to keep doing it. It was too much fun and too temporary. I couldn’t look into the sky and see it as something real but I was starting to like him too much. I cut it off.
That choice is harder than it seems.
It was hard, and we can go back to where ‘Secret’ began. I decided early in life what I wouldn’t become … but people expect you to be something ‘by now’—by now you should be married, by now you should have children.
Fuck ‘by now.’
That’s what I said. But then speculation was born from my decision. It was hard to live with, but after I got over the fear of what somebody thought of me or what I should have by now, I wrote ‘Secret.’ At first I was like, ‘Maybe I should be married, maybe I should already have some kids, maybe I should have someone shack up in my house and drive my car everyday and I don’t know where they are, sure.’ No. I can’t do that. So I never did. But a lot of people I know did that, and they couldn’t do what they wanted to do for themselves.
You can’t give up all yourself to be a mom or wife until you’ve fulfilled what you think you need to do or found someone who supports you in doing it.
There, you’ve said it. I want those things. I love those things. But I have a plan and I’m sticking to it. I’m not going to do something because somebody thinks its time. Being a young black woman, those expectations in our culture reaches a pivotal point. ‘She still ain’t got no babies. She still ain’t got no real man.’ I’m like, ‘I could do that for you. I could pop out a baby. But I don’t want it like that.’ I want to try it when I want to try it, down the line. I want to get married and then have kids, not the other way around. Some people think you should be doing it any way possible, unmarried or with the first person interested in you.
There’s cultural standards, family standards. Each one has prescribed ideas about what a woman should be doing at a certain part of her life. Don’t you think it’s crazy there’s more people in the world than the ones you already know? And every one of them has some thing going on—some rules or ideals they’re juggling to determine what to do?
There’s a different perspective.
Think of people in Russia!
I forgot about them! They exist!
Or in the highlands of Guatemala.
If I run into one of those guys, I’m not going to be surprised by what they’re doing. There’s so many people that we don’t even know! We’re just so into our things and our immediate world. Maybe I’m living like there’s a whole lot going on. Don’t focus so much on what your friends that you’ve known forever are doing if it’s different. Don’t worry about it. Because guess what? There’s somebody you don’t know doing something crazy as hell somewhere.
Somewhere, some guy might be giving birth to a giraffe on a waterfall, I don’t know.
Out his butt! With BenGay all over it. And the giraffe comes out with baby bangs. So why do you care what I’m doing!
What do these views say about you?
I think they make me an individual making her own choices. I don’t have any problem with choices other people make. It’s been a problem for me that people were having problems with the choices I make. I don’t think that’s necessarily feminist. I’m making my life for me. It means I’m living like I know about the guy with the giraffe baby. Everybody’s got their own to choose. If you don’t hurt anybody, it’s not hurting anything. People don’t realize they hurt you by the things they think you should be doing. It doesn’t hurt so much anymore, but when I run into people from the old days, it’s like they are disappointed in you. Like you’ve failed in some way. Their whole spirit has been dropped beneath them and got pierced.
It’s probably also that they had to build a way of seeing what they’ve done as right and what they should be doing. That changes their outlook.
Girl, I have to close my eyes for a minute and take that in. You just said something there. And you’re right. And maybe they’re acting that way because of what you said. But then again should I feel bad about not being in that position? I would never make someone feel bad for their life.
On a lighter note, I wish you hadn’t told me the story about your stepmom at church before we started recording.
Can I tell you the story about telling you the story?
You said that whatever city your family visits, they always go to church.
They come from New Orleans. I come from Los Angeles and we end up meeting in frikkin Florida in Orlando, where all the tourists are. My stepmother always has to go to every Catholic church wherever she’s at. She’s a Catholic woman from New Orleans, after all. We went to the ‘Disney’ church—in this Disney area where all the Disney people go. It was so whimsical—the entire neighborhood was Disney. There were twiddling birds. It was manicured, and the church was all grand. We walk into church and we’re the only black people there. Plus, how we grew up, you wore a dress to church and here half the people were in casual clothes. So the church is full, and these three black women in their finest just walk right to the front. It was my stepmom and my sister, and myself a few steps behind them. I stopped at like the fourth row from the front, but they just kept on walking, over the threshold, and sat down with the choir. The people scooted down for me, and I’m looking at my family, thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re sitting with the choir!’ My stepmother kept trying to shoo me over to them. I could not believe it. Every time the choir stood up to sing, she stood up and sang the songs loud as if she knew them. People could not keep their eyes off this woman that walked right in and sat with the choir like she belonged there. My sister, she was just looking so sad in her eyes. But she wasn’t about to leave my stepmom there alone. So they sang with the choir, took communion, oh boy. We leave church and my stepmom acts like nothing even happened. We’re like the Griswolds.