“Bullied and beaten up”, Madonna soldiers on, still self-rebooting, still thinking out loud, still finding new ways to dance, with unexpected interventions from Bowie, The Beast and Baba O’Riley. In 2019 she sat down with MOJO’s Danny Eccleston to reveal all…
Madonna is tired and hungry. Tired because it’s past 11pm and she’s just polished off two mob-handed round-table interviews with journalists from Japan and continental Europe, plus intimate tête-à-têtes with two other UK publications, having only arrived in London this afternoon. Hungry, because she missed her dinner.
Huddled on a sofa in a voluminous black jacket, Marilyn-blonde, sniffling slightly, one of the planet’s top five most famous living people wears a black eye-patch with a big silver X over her left eye. Offered two bags of crisps – one posh root vegetable-style; the other common-or-garden spud-based – she tears open the latter and gets stuck in, encouraging MOJO not to wait ’til she’s done. “Don’t mind the crunching,” she crunches.
The occasion of our encounter is the pending release of Madonna’s 14th studio album, entitled Madame X. Like many of her best, it’s infatuated with rhythm – gorging on a buffet of world beats encountered in and around Lisbon, her home for the past 18 months. With some singing in Portuguese, and a co-starring role for Colombian reggaetón star Maluma on lead-off track Medellín, it’s a typical failure to second-guess her audience, and the fruit of a familiar quest for new information to garnish her favourite song-writing topic: Madonna.
“From the beginning, she was hungry to learn,” says Nile Rodgers, who produced Madonna’s first US Number 1 album, 1984’s Like A Virgin, “and she always wanted world domination.” Curiosity and drive were, indeed, much in evidence from the moment Madonna Louise Ciccone swopped Bay City, Michigan for late-’70s New York, as was the rough-and-ready verité – combined with ’50s movie star self-packaging and edgy,
performance-art ‘acting out’ – she brought to her first decade in mainstream pop.
In the ’90s, Madonna’s compulsion to reveal and provoke invited controversy: the Like A Prayer video that outraged the Vatican; the mid-strength smut of her Sex book and Erotica albums… Subsequent long-players – notably 1998’s Ray Of Light, 2003’s American Life and 2015’s Rebel Heart – have expounded on what it’s like to be Madonna: taking low blows for choices in her personal life (the two pored-over marriages; her recent adoption of four children from poverty-stricken, AIDS-ravaged Malawi) and responding to her critics, in her songs, as reflexively as a Morrissey or Jack White.
Unsurprisingly then, there’s a glint of wariness in the star’s one visible blue-green eye – and it’s unclear, sometimes, if a line of questioning has caused offence or she’s just messing with you. But the cloudy intervals are offset by outbreaks of playfulness and her genuine relish when she gets into a topic – say, the evidence for a historical Joan of Arc, or the nuances of North African rhythm styles – that she’s up on.
Music is not always the main topic in a Madonna interview, but music is, unsurprisingly, the subject on which
she’s most engaging and – if perhaps inadvertently – revealing…
How do you know it’s time to make an album? Is it like a spider sense? Or are there suddenly a load of ideas, and you have to use them or lose them?
Sometimes that happens. But it has definitely not happened in the last… three records. Honestly, the last couple of albums, I’ve made them reluctantly. Both times I was trying to do something else – to get a film made. That happened on this record too. I moved to Lisbon because I wanted my son [David Banda] to be able to attend a soccer academy, and I was trying to raise money for a film, and then I got bored waiting and then I ended up making a record. So it just kind of happened. It wasn’t like a… burning thing that I had. But then other times, I did have lots of ideas stirring inside of me and I did have a burning desire.
So which were the albums that just had to be made?
Ray Of Light. That would be one. Like A Prayer. But my life was simpler then. Like A Prayer –
I was married to Sean [Penn]. I had no children and my life was very simple. Ray Of Light,
I had my daughter, but again, I didn’t have such a complicated life. Now my life is complicated.
But is there an extra focus that comes with the time restraints?
Well, because time is so limited and precious, you do have to be laser-focused and not waste any time. Because you’re juggling, you know? Taking care of six children, and they live in three different countries, and you’re doing other jobs and taking care of other people. And I do have other areas of interest, and film-making is one of them. And I’ve been working for years on a screenplay and I have another script that I’m supposed to direct. With this album, at first I was just playing around and experimenting, and then I was officially Making A Record. And when that happened, I did have to become very focused.
The new album has a very international soundworld. Is this a reflection of your life in Lisbon?
Well I’ve always loved the music of Cesaria Evora, which is a genre called morna – although I didn’t know that ’til I moved to Portugal and I heard lots of musicians playing it. The music of Cabo Verde is everywhere.
And that particular style of playing guitar and that style of music was really where this album was born.
“In Lisbon, every club I went to, I was constantly being exposed to music I’d never heard before.”
Then there’s a track called Come Alive that has a more north African feel…
Yes, that’s based on Moroccan Ganawa music. It uses these percussion instruments – the krakebs – that are really distinctive. There’s also a song I did with an artist named Kimi Djabaté. It’s called Ciao Bella – it’s going to be a bonus track. He’s from Guinea-Bissau and he introduced me to a whole other sound, gumbé. And then there’s Dino D’Santiago who turned me onto this other genre of Cabo Verde music, funaná. It was as if everywhere I went in Lisbon, every club I went to, every house party I went to, I was constantly being exposed to music I’d never heard before. And I was obviously inspired. It was a little bit like when I saw, you know, voguers or voguing for the first time and I was like, “Whoa, this is insane. I have to share this with the world.”
You’re back with Mirwais [the French electronica artist and producer of Madonna’s Music and American Life albums] after a while apart. What was it like getting back together again?
It was great. It was kind of like we spent just the right amount of time apart. He has a very intense personality and so do I. And we’re both very strongly opinionated. We hadn’t worked together for years but I was in Lisbon and I thought, Well, he’s not that far away and he’s interested in experiments. So I sent him some samples of Portuguese music – morna mostly, and some fado. And I said, “Does this inspire you and can we make something new out of it?” And he did – like, in a week (laughs).
What’s different or unique about the way you work with him?
He comes from a school of making a whole record with an artist, an album, a body of work – not just a track. And he doesn’t have any rules about how music should sound. But he’s also a technical wizard and he loves to experiment with sound and play with people’s voices. So I like that he breaks the rules and doesn’t think or hear in a conventional way. He’s also very philosophical, highly intellectual, very existential (laughs), loves to argue and debate about things, which sparks great ideas for songs. Super-political. So our work together ends up being political.
Dark Ballet is like your Bohemian Rhapsody: this mix of epic, episodic music and dramatic vocals. It sounds like you and Mirwais were egging each other on to do something extreme.
I wouldn’t say we were egging each other on. I think we were both just possessed, (faux-simper) possessed by the Holy Spirit of creativity. Dark Ballet is an amalgamation of a lot of different things, from Tchaikovsky to
A Clockwork Orange to Joan of Arc. When you get to the vocoder section, it’s like Joan of Arc’s manifesto, where she says that she will not give in and she will not bow down to fear and she will not apologise for what she said and she is willing to die for what she believes in. Joan of Arc was the first freedom fighter that I was aware of. I can relate to her because I do fight for what I believe in. And when you fight for what you believe in, there’s always going to be a punishment waiting for you, sometimes big and sometimes small. But no, it wasn’t us egging each other on. It just happened. Mirwais played the piano solo and then I started thinking about Joan of Arc burning at the stake. I don’t know why – it just happened. And that’s how we inspire each other.The track builds into this kind of apocalyptic frenzy: “The wind is beginning to howl…" and then I become the storyteller who’s telling a kind of Grimms fairy tale: (sinisterly) “They think we are not aware of their crimes…” It’s kind of like the way someone would tell a story on a radio show.
You use a lot of different voices on this album, even mike techniques to get different voices across. Is being a voice actor part of being a singer?
At the beginning of the song God Control, there’s this particular kind of contained aggression you muster…
Yes. I wanted to sing as if someone had wired my jaw shut and I wasn’t allowed to speak but I had to speak and I was coming from a very angry place.
Early in your career there was some criticism of your vocal range.
But the untutored thing allowed you to sing something like Papa Don’t Preach with an edge, like you might really fall apart…
Yes, but then I did Evita, and I had to go to a vocal coach. Alan Parker insisted and so did Andrew Lloyd Webber. And I learned how to use my voice, which was wonderful.
But was that intimidating at first?
So intimidating. I mean, singing Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina in front of those guys? With an orchestra? Live?
‘Learning’ to sing, were you ever worried about losing the ‘me’-ness?
No, I never thought of that. I was… I like to be a student. I like to go to classes. I like to study. I was happy to go and I have a great vocal coach. Your vocal cords are muscles, so you do need to learn how to take care of yourself. Partying is not a big part of taking care of your vocal cords. So you end up being the most boring person on the road.
What’s the first piece of music you heard that really moved you?
Oh… (long pause) I grew up listening to Edith Piaf, listening to Nina Simone… Those singers really moved me. So did David Bowie… Then studying dance and listening to classical music and studying at the Martha Graham school and hearing all the composers that she worked with. I mean, I don’t know. I had a lot of musical influences growing up. My older brothers were really into jazz when I was growing up, so I heard a lot of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and I can be really moved by all of those people.
You seem to have had a real connection with David Bowie.
He changed my life.
You saw him play at Cobo Hall in Detroit. You were 15…
It was the first concert I ever went to. I remember just being frozen. Rigid. Like, staring up at this creature thinking, Oh my God, he’s everything. He’s male and female and beautiful and elegant and poetic and funny and ironic and (pauses, tearing up slightly) other-worldly. And I recognised myself in him somehow and he gave me license to dream a different future for myself.
You recently posted something on your Instagram, a film of him talking about how artists are obliged to not play to the gallery.
Yes. That’s a philosophy that’s important to me that I connect to and believe in.
You inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame …
Did I? Oh! (momentarily flustered) Well, to be connected with him in any way is an honour. I watched his documentary recently, just to be reminded about what a genius he was. So brilliant, so amazing. So fearless. He tried on so many things. He just went down so many roads and tried so many different genres of music too. And he really went for it and he was fearless. He didn’t care what people thought. I love that about him.
How did you feel about your own Hall of Fame induction in 2008? That it was about time?
No. No. I don’t know about awards and things like that. They’re overrated.
Is it true that the first musical performance you ever did was of The Who’s Baba O’Riley? The mind boggles…
Ha! Yes. I did a dance. I choreographed a dance and made the light show and painted fluorescent designs all over my body. It was a scandal in my school. Yup. Got me into a lot of trouble. That was the beginning.
“I did a dance to Baba O’Riley. I made the light show and painted my body. It was a scandal in my school.”
Dark Ballet’s apocalyptic vibe reminded me that you actually started shows on the Reinvention tour  reading from the Book Of Revelations. That was an extraordinary thing to lay on an audience.
I just think it’s a really strong text. And it’s a text that a lot of people know and it poses kind of an important question: Who will fight against The Beast? And who is The Beast? And I just love the words. It’s scary and poetic and beautiful and powerful. And that coupled with the visual imagery that I did with [fashion photographer] Steven Klein, this sort of… collapsed red queen persona – I don’t know if you remember that? – they sort of went together.
There was an opening film with a snarling wolf, and fire, and you on a bed, kind of spasming. It was…
…performance art. Strange. Disturbing (chuckles). Yes. I suppose it served to get the audience’s attention, to get them to focus, to get them out of their worlds, their everyday worlds that they’re living in and say, OK, now this is theatre, and it’s my show and you’re going to be my captive audience for the next two hours. Let the games begin!
How much are you thinking about the tour when you’re making a record?
Not so much. I mean, occasionally it will drift through my mind: How would I perform this? But honestly, mostly I do things one step at a time. A lot of songs I’ve created in the studio, I find them almost impossible to recreate live. So I don’t think about how I’m going to do it live – maybe I should a bit more! Like, for instance, Maluma is not going on tour with me. So let’s face it, that wasn’t really thinking things through, was it? He’s got his own career.
How much effort do you put into reinventing old songs on-stage? Over the years, you’ve played True Blue with a ukulele, Hung Up with heavy metal guitar. Are there songs that resist reinvention?
I could say that about Holiday right now. I mean there are some songs I’m just so sick of performing. And then a couple of years go by, and I can do it again. So it depends. They kind of come and goes in waves – which
songs makes me ill. (Mock hysterical) “I don’t want to hear that song again! Don’t ask me to sing that song!”
Do you worry at your music? Or do you know quite quickly if a track will work or not?
I have my moments. But there are also songs when I’m never satisfied. Sometimes there is that, you know, ‘Aha!’ moment and you can say, “OK, we’re done.” Also, you can’t just keep indulging yourself or there’s no end to it. Especially when you work with Mirwais – he will keep working on a track ’til it’s… 2050,
so I have to say, “We’re done!” He’s got more stamina than me when it comes to working
on music. I want to end the song and move on to the next song, but he’s perfectly happy to keep working on that other song. Yeah, that same song.
Yet some producers you’ve kind of worn out, haven’t you?
I beg your pardon?
Well, William Orbit once told me…
Oh gosh! Well, he’d say that about anyone! Everyone wears William out!
You told him he could sleep when he was dead.
Because he always wanted to take naps! He was always sleeping on the couch! It upset me. And, yes, I did give him a hard time about it. I did tell him that.
And you gave Justin Timberlake vitamin B12 shots…
Well, yes, because he had really bad flu and I didn’t want to miss any days of work. So I said, “You’re coming to work and I’m going to give you a B12 shot. So pull your pants down.” I’m very good at giving injections. (Smiles) I think I was a nurse in another life.
It’s a cliché to talk about ‘End Times’, but a lot of things about the world right now seem to encourage it. Madame X sways between pessimism and hope. Is that how you are too?
Yes, yes. Because I’m a human being, a thinking human being, and sometimes it does look pretty dark and then sometimes I think, You know what, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. There is hope for the human race. Civilisation as we know it will not collapse after all… But then there are other days when crazy stuff happens and you’re like, Nowhere is safe. Nothing is safe. Nothing will surprise me. You can’t rely on anybody or anything and no one has a moral compass. So yes – End Of Days…
God Control is about US gun laws. What would you like to see enacted?
(Sternly) I would like guns to be illegal in America and I feel very strongly about that. And I think that what’s happening right now in America is just crazy. We have a President who’s consumed with building a wall between America and Mexico because he’s concerned for our safety, but he doesn’t seem to be concerned about how easy it is to buy a gun at a Walmart. An automatic weapon can be purchased in three days, if you are 18 and you have a driver’s licence and no criminal record. That’s really scary. He should be paying attention to that and not walls. I feel extremely passionate about this subject and I want to speak out about it. So I’m doing that in God Control. Some people say, “But why a disco song?” Because shootings happen in discos! Nowhere is safe any more – places where we used to go to dance and escape and have fun… or pray, or go to school… No public gathering is safe. But I was struck, specifically, by the paradox of: go to have fun/go to get shot. I was thinking about Studio 54, because I caught the end of that wave – I moved to New York in 1979 so that was the last year that Studio 54 was sort of in existence before [co-founders] Ian [Schrager] and Steve [Rubell] got arrested. And so, just the idea that those kinds of places, that used to bring people together, are no longer safe, is a really scary thought to me. And sad. People feel like gods when they have guns in their hands.
There’s a song called Extreme Occident – another bonus track – that’s very much about your journey through fame. You sing an odd thing in it: “The thing that hurt me most was that I wasn’t lost.” Why ‘wasn’t’?
I’m saying that I’d been told I was lost, that I was confused and I didn’t really know what I was talking about. I paid for the things I said and did and spoke out against or fought for, and I listened to too many people telling me that I was wrong or that I should be quiet, that I should go away or that I didn’t know what I was talking about, or that I was making the wrong decisions. Too many voices of too many people convincing me that I was ‘lost’. And then I realised I wasn’t. So that hurt me because I realised I had wasted so much energy beating up on myself for no reason when I should have just listened to my voice and believed in myself.
It was a slow-dawning realisation?
Yes. It’s taken me years to realise that.
Twenty-one years ago when we last sat in a room together, you said to me that it hadn’t been much fun being a rebel.
Ha! Well, nothing’s changed.
But have you learned new tactics for survival in the public eye?
It’s not fun being bullied and beaten up on. It’s never fun being the outspoken person, but you know, I walk in the footsteps of giants. People who changed history and made the world a better place and fought for change all say the same thing: that they had to be willing to be unpopular and willing to speak up, even though everyone said, “Don’t do it, you might get in trouble”; “Don’t do it, you might get hurt.” “Don’t do it. It’s a mistake.” But then like Martin Luther King said, you know, “If I don’t do it, I’ll never forgive myself – I might as well just toss it in right now.” And that’s how I feel.
You also told me 21 years ago that you remember your father telling you not to put your finger in a flame…
(Amused) A cigarette lighter, yes…
But you had to do it. Because otherwise you wouldn’t really know…
…that it would burn me. Yep. And it did. Ha! That’s me. Still sticking my finger in the cigarette lighter. But hopefully for better reasons.