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Ready to pounce with her 'Jaguar' project, Victoria Monét is feeling herself as Apple Music's Up Next artist in February, the stars are just the beginning for this enchantress.

It’s Valentine’s Day in Los Angeles, and Victoria Monét is starting her morning with someone she loves: herself. The 26-year-old singer and songwriter is hitting the gym with her personal trainer Omar Bolden, a former NFL star who was part of the Denver Broncos team that won the Super Bowl in 2016. You need that sort of scarily top-level fitness when you’ve got the schedule Monét has: already a Grammy-nominated songwriter after co-writing the global hit “7 Rings” with her longtime collaborator Ariana Grande, she’s currently preparing to release her own solo project Jaguar this spring. “I’m starting off V Day right with some self love!” she bubbles excitedly post-workout. “It’s hard to keep track of everything when you travel. I just got home last night so I was excited to get back in the gym.”


I’ve never heard anyone so enthusiastic about being put through their paces by a professional football player, but then Monét has always been uncommonly driven. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on 1 May 1993, she doesn’t remember a time when there wasn’t a wide variety of music playing in her house. Her mother exposed her to everything from Mariah Carey to dancehall star Buju Banton, and the jazz of Nat King Cole. “Maybe that’s why I feel like my musical taste is all over the place,” she says. “I like Tame Impala all the way to Sade. When I make music it’s like everything put together. You can hear a little bit of Mary Poppins mixed with trap.”


Her whole family is musical. Her grandfather played bass and saxophone, while her grandmother sang opera. “She used to sing ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ to me to wake me up in the mornings,” remembers Monét. “It seemed like a natural form of expression from a really young age. It’s in our blood.”


Her family moved to Sacramento, in northern California, when Monét was three, and it was there that she made her debut as a singer and dancer—at the local church. “When I was 11 or 12 my mom put me in the choir,” she says. “It’s a particular style, praise dancing, but then after church I was definitely into hip hop, so I was living in two worlds.”


Although choir music and hip hop may seem poles apart, Monét says she understood even from an early age that there was a commonality to the different musical worlds she was inhabiting. “A lot of times with church music, you can hear the pain that my people have gone through,” she says. “Negro spirituals come from a painful place, and a church place, and a hopeful place. That transfers into jazz and then to R&B and soul. It all kind of comes from that feeling. We turned it around into a bunch of different things.”


A natural shyness meant that Monét initially felt more comfortable as a dancer or part of a choir than as a solo singer, but even as a teenager she had begun writing her own songs and dreaming of being a star in her own right. “I always wanted to be an artist but it felt like such a far stretch,” she says. “I would say it, but really I was more confident in being able to background dance for somebody. I hoped that would lead to something, like the J.Lo story, like: ‘If I background dance for this person and then sing for them somehow, maybe they’ll ask me to the studio!’”

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That plan was accelerated when she received an unexpected email from the superproducer Rodney Jerkins, better known as Darkchild,the man behind timeless hits like Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine” and Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay”. He had heard Monét’s early songs on MySpace and invited her to Los Angeles to become part of a girl group he was forming: Purple Reign. The group landed a dream record deal with Motown, but would later be quietly dropped from the label. Undeterred, and displaying the drive that has defined her career, Monét saw an opportunity to make her name as a songwriter for hire.


“I told Rodney that I would love to write, but it was kind of laughed out of the room because we were just random girls who had been plucked from our cities specifically to harmonise and sing and get a record deal,” she says. “It was kind of a: ‘stay in your lane’ thing. Then one day he let me write, so I’d stay late in the night exercising my pen after the group was done with our rehearsals. I’m thankful for that chance because I ended up getting my first placement, “I Hate That You Love Me” with Diddy and Dirty Money. It confirmed that, okay, while the girl group thing was amazing, I could also write for other people.”


After selling that first song to Diddy in 2010, Monét followed up with a string of songwriting credits on tracks like “Memories Back Then” by T.I., B.o.B and Kendrick Lamar and “Everlasting Love” by Fifth Harmony and “You Wouldn’t Understand” by Nas. She was starting to build her name as a songwriter, and had few expectations when she initially ended up in a room with a then little-known Nickelodeon actress named Ariana Grande.


“I didn’t know who she was, actually,” says Monét with a laugh. “I was too old at this point to watch Nickelodeon, so I didn’t really know her. I wasn’t even necessarily supposed to be in that session. I was working with a guy named Tommy Brown, and he always used to bring me to every session because we were a writing team. At first, I just knew that I really loved her voice. I heard her warm up before she went into the booth, and by the way, that’s something that a lot of people don’t do. That let me know how serious she was, and how talented.”


In that first session they tried to write a few songs together, but it was actually an older song of Monét’s that Grande connected with. “There was a song I had already written called “Honeymoon Avenue” that she ended up liking, but it wasn’t what we did in that session,” remembers Monét. “I did it in the studio before even meeting her and she was like: ‘I love this so much’.”


“Honeymoon Avenue” would become the opening song on Grande’s 2013 debut album Yours Truly. Another Monét composition, “Daydreamin’”, also made the cut, the start of a fruitful partnership. Monét has written songs for every subsequent Grande album, but it was her work on Thank U, Next that really caught worldwide attention. “Honestly, within the world of Ariana I always felt like I was the underdog of her projects,” says Monét. “We would work together all the time, and we would make amazing music, but we never had the single that the label would push the most. She would have these massive pop songs that sounded amazing, and then I was doing more of the R&B side of the songs with her.”


That all changed thanks to the songs “Thank U, Next” and “7 Rings”. “That felt like an underdog win for me and Tommy,” says Monét. “We’ve always wanted our songs to be the label’s favourite, and to hear them on the radio, and be able to say that we made a big difference. Those songs were that, as well as, I think, some of our best work with her. The most honest and the most vulnerable, in a way. It just seemed like the perfect time and songs and alignment. The celebrations were especially special for us with those songs because of the amount of years that preceded it. We were so proud. We saw it as a sign that we can really do this. It’s not like we didn’t think we could before, but it’s nice to have that validation.”


Monét is now taking that extra confidence into her own solo career. “It feels like my songwriting overshadowed my artistry, at a point, because I was doing so well at it,” she says. “Now I feel I’m getting back to the roots of it all, what the little girl in me wanted to do, because she always wanted to perform. She wanted to be on stage, travel, inspire and tell her part of the story. My idols are people like Smokey Robinson and The-Dream, people who’ve had really beautiful careers as artists but are also able to take the pen and express someone else’s dreams and aspirations as well.”

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She announced her return as a solo artist in October last year with “Ass Like That”, a song about exercise and body-positivity which was inspired by working with the same personal trainer she’s just spent the morning with. “Omar has great energy and he’s a great coach and friend,” says Monét. “When I started working with him, I had so many ideas about what I wanted to be able to do on stage, in terms of stamina and my body goals. Then when I went into the studio this song just popped out like popcorn. I wanted to have a workout anthem for people, and to drop it before the New Year 2020 so people had it ahead of their New Year’s Resolutions!”


If the deep-rooted funk of “Ass Like That” was Monét’s New Year anthem, then sex jam “Moment”, released in February, is her Valentine’s Day soundtrack. She modestly claims she can barely remember writing it. “It almost feels like an out of body experience!” she says. “I don’t remember much about recording it, or thinking of the lyrics, I just remember pacing around the studio. Then I remember listening back to it and thinking: ‘Okay, well, I don’t know what happened but this feels really good!’ I think it’s a song that feels very mature for me. It seems serious, and grown, and just a vibe.”


The two songs will both feature on Jaguar, a solo project that will be released in spring and which Monét says will be the most personal music of her life to date. “The title track, ‘Jaguar’ is one of my favourite songs,” she says. “It’s going to make you want to rollerskate around, or do a dance like the electric slide! It’s that vibe. It’s not too on-the-nose disco. It’s not like I’m trying to straight up be Donna Summer, but it definitely feels like retro-future. I hope that when people hear it their ears prick up, like when a dog hears a high-pitched note and they tilt their head. That’s the reaction I want! It feels pretty special to me. There’s a horn section in it too, so it feels kind of celebratory, like you would hear it at Mardi Gras, or if a band played at halftime at a football game. It has that good energy, but it’s also very sensual.”


Monét says she started writing about the jaguar without considering the animal too deeply, but the more she learned about it the more she related. “This whole project is about the jaguar finally finding the right moment to pounce,” she explains. “Jaguars are camouflaged a lot of the time, they’re hidden but they’re there. They’re trying to hunt and get exactly what it is that they’re looking for. I’m trying to be more assertive with everything that I want to do, but also do it with grace and sex appeal. I think about the jaguar’s shoulders, the way their bones move through their back when they’re walking. They seem so focused but graceful. It’s a beautiful beast, and that’s what I want my music to encompass. When I wrote the song I didn’t realise that I felt exactly like that. I thought to myself: ‘Why did I even write about the jaguar?’ Then I looked it up and I was like: ‘Wow! Oh, because it’s me.’”

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