Madonna: In her genes
From the May 2012 issue of Out In The City: MDNA, Madonna’s 12th studio album, has gone to number one in 18 countries – including the US and UK – and hit the top ten across the rest of the world. The queen of pop talks to Larry Flick about the creation of the album, the inspiration behind some of the songs, and why she still has plenty to say…
After nearly 30 years of making music, no one has come close to matching the impact of Madonna. Other artists may have come and gone, but none have sold anywhere near the 200 million albums she has sold. Already her 12th number one album in the UK (beating a previous record set by Elvis), MDNA sold 359,000 copies on its first week of release in the US, giving her the biggest opening week sales since Music in 2000. Produced chiefly in collaboration with Italy’s Benny Bennasi, France’s Martin Solveig and Britain’s William Orbit, alongside others, the album’s range of material has garnered Madonna some of the best reviews of her career. Unsurprisingly, she’s in the process of creating and rehearsing a mammoth world tour to promote the record, including a date in London’s Hyde Park.
Long-time fan Larry Flick talked to the star about her record and its creation…
LF: First of all, congratulations on this record! I have been following you from day one and this album may wind up being one of my favourites.
M: Ooh, that’s good to hear!
That’s really exciting, because I am a jaded old queen!
[Laughs] OK. If you say so!
Trust me, listening to these songs, I went from slouching in my chair to sitting up, very erect, going, “Oh my god!” The first thing I am wondering is: what did you want to say with this record? Where you were coming from?
Well, I had just finished making a film [2011’s W.E], which used a very different creative capacity. It was a very fulfilling experience, but at the same time, it was extremely draining. You live mostly in your head as a director, and you have all kinds of ideas, which one does when writing songs or putting a show together, but you don’t get to physically act them out in any way. Writing or singing a song, or performing a song, is so visceral in comparison.
Where I was coming from with this album mostly was: I felt like a caged animal. While I enjoyed the expression of filmmaking – and I am really proud of my film – I felt like I really wanted to get back to the basics of chugging my guitar and to the simplicity of raw emotions. Even when I was writing a song and playing on the guitar – or singing ‘I’m a Sinner’, for instance – it just felt so good. It felt so good to play a guitar and sing. I feel like I hadn’t done it years. Obviously, I had to get some things off my chest. So for me, where I was coming from was mostly like an animal getting let out of their cage, and wanting to express all kinds of emotions, not just one. All the stuff that life is made of.
It must have really good to go back to – not so much a comfort zone, but a place of complete control – because I think there is this misconception about directing a film where film is a director’s medium.
You’re utterly right, it’s a total collaboration.
It’s a producer’s medium, if anything.
You know, if an actor comes to the set and they’re not in a good mood, you spend all your time holding their hand, and try to coax a good performance out of them. Or your production designer goes down with a migraine... you have to decorate the set yourself. You’re actually out of control all day long, everyday, as long as the shoot goes.
And so making music puts you right back in the zone where a person who likes to be in charge of her destiny feels good?
You know, I hate to use the word “control” so much, because people bandy that word about with me when it comes to my creative life. Everyone says, “Oh you’re a control freak and you like to be in control.” Everything I do – even my songwriting – I’m collaborating at all times. I value input from people, and I want it. I can’t work on my own. I am not Prince or like artists who can go in and play every instrument, record a track and not hear from people. I need to hear what people think all the time. I like to have my road dog, my sidekick. I like the simplicity of songwriting, because, in the end it’s simple. You have a melody. You have some words. And you sing. That, hopefully, is coming from your heart or a million different emotions. Let’s say it’s more direct.
How did you decide on the folks you worked with on this record? They are very different. You have Benny [Benassi], the crazy Italian...
...who barely speaks a word of English!
I would love to know how you communicated with him.
Through his cousin!
That’s a little crazy and a little frustrating, isn’t it?
Yeah, it was at first. The first day, I wanted to rip my hair out. But when you are working with new people, you always have to find the common ground with them and then figure it out. I’ve worked with William Orbit before and something very magical happens when I work with William. I go to deep places. He is a tortured soul and he brings out the tortured soul in me. He is also extremely disorganised in his thinking. He is gonna hate me for saying this, but he is like a mad scientist. We will start working on the one song, and he will go “Oh my god! Oh my god! I’ve got the most amazing idea.” You’re thinking it’s the same song you’re working on, and so you say, “OK, I’m just gonna go to the bathroom, I’ll be right back.” You come back, and he’s working on a completely new song, which is also amazing. But you are like, “But dude, let’s go back to the other song.”
It’s very easy to get carried away with him because he is passionate about what he does. He is very articulate, but he is a mad scientist. He comes with his challenges, but I work with him in a very specific way. What comes out of our collaborations is very unique.
Then with Martin Solveig, he is very much like me in that he is extremely organised, extremely methodical. We share the same love of foreign films – mostly French and Italian, and mostly from the ‘50s and ‘60s. All the songs we did together we used films for metaphors, as kind of springboards. We are both mutually obsessed with Alain Delon, which is how the song ‘Beautiful Killer’ came about. A lot of people think of Martin Solveig as a DJ, but actually, he is a very talented musician. It was really easy to work with him. He accessed the ironic side of me: the love of language and the love of the rhythm of language; whereas William taps into, as I said before, the tortured soul. What comes out of both of those collaborations is quite different, but I think equally interesting.
I want to talk about my favourite songs from the record. ‘Gang Bang’... I don’t know who pissed you off, but to me, it’s like the ultimate...
It’s the ultimate revenge song.
It really is. There are so many layers.Listening, I thought, this person is a step away from ultimate, unbelievable sorrow, I love the whole imagery of dying for someone. I dated someone once who believed the ultimate profession of love...
…would be death.
Would be to die!
It’s very nihilistically romantic. The song is full of layers because on the one hand it sounds like I’m telling someone to go fuck themselves. On the other hand, it’s like I took on this character and the whole idea of telling somebody to drive, just to keep driving. And taking charge and calling a man a bitch. For a woman to call a man a bitch is, for me, the ultimate diss. But then there’s sorrow in it and there’s a broken heart in it and there’s humour.
To me, the flipside of that is the song ‘Superstar’…
It is totally the flipside.
Is it fair to interpret that song as the next level from ‘Little Star’ from Ray of Light?
Hmm... I wouldn’t have gone for that comparison, but I would say that it’s the antithesis of ‘Gang Bang’. It’s about finding a man you can look up to, and comparing them to archetypes that I obviously adore, like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, Bruce Lee, Abraham Lincoln. I name people who I look up to and admire, and they are superstars in my mind. And I compare the object of my affection to all of these people.
I think I reached for ‘Little Star’ because of your daughter’s voice on the song.
Ahh, I get it.
She sounds so lovely. Is it true that she’s going to tour with you?
She has an incredible voice but she’ll never admit it. She’s like, “Mom, just take my name off the record.” I said, “Too late!” [Laughs] She’s definitely going on tour with me. I have to keep my eye on her. She’s 15. But she hasn’t decided what she wants to do. This is how we roll. [Laughs] This is how a Libra rolls. They can never make up their minds. She plays the piano beautifully. She’s an incredible singer. But she’s going through that ‘I don’t anyone to look at me’ phase, so she might be doing hair and make-up or dressing people in the wardrobe department.
Let’s talk about the song “I Don’t Give A...”
[Laughs] You’re focusing on my angry songs...
They touch a chord in me...
I’m sure you can relate to them. I hope everyone can relate to these songs.
This heartbreaking passage... “I tried to be a good girl, I tried to be a wife, diminished myself, and I swallowed my light.” I lived that. I was in a relationship with a man I adored so that I found myself saying: “I don’t know who I am anymore. All I want to be is with you”… or... “all I want to be is who I think you want me to be”. That’s an interesting lyric for you to write.
[Pause] Well, yeah, I wrote it! [Laughs]
We out here in the world want you to be control. We want you to have the kind of the control that we’re not capable of. How does that kind of responsibility make you feel?
I think I have great leadership qualities, but I don’t think I’ll ever be as in-control as people believe I am or want me to be. After all, I’m a human being. The nature of falling in love is that you have to compromise. I talked about this a lot when I was promoting my film. A part of you has to go. A part of you has to die. I was reading a book called She. They were comparing the whole idea of being married, and the whole mythology of being married. The idea of walking down the aisle as a bride in some ancient times... it was considered a funeral march. In a primal way, you are giving yourself up to your other half.
And then you are giving up your life in a way, and your married life takes over. It’s an incredible amount of power to give someone. It’s a valid sacrifice to make. You just have to make sure you’re making it with the right person.
There’s still a lot of romance in your spirit about music, isn’t there?
Of course! How could there not be? How could you be a songwriter and not be romantic?
As we’re talking, I’m now thinking of another song that I love from the new album, ‘Falling Free.’ It’s the perfect coda to everything we hear on this album. After moments of yelling “Die, bitch!”...
…and all of the blaming and all of the “it’s your fault!”...
...and all of the purging. You still believe in love?
Isn’t that neat!
[Laughs] It’s amazing!
That’s a neat feeling... a feeling where the emotion is so palpable. When you take the image that people have of you as an artist versus what they’ll hear if they really listen, it’s sometimes quite different, isn’t it?
Do you think you’re still fighting to be heard properly after all these years?
I think I still have a lot to say, yes. I still get pissed off about things. And I still believe in love.
MDNA is out now. Madonna plays Hyde Park in London on Tuesday 17 July.
Posted: 6 May 2012