This article was originally published in the April 1998 issue of Worldmusicfests.
When a musician rooted in an underground sensibility achieves massive success, she has three options: She can stick to what she knows until the public grows bored and inspiration dries up; she can maintain her popularity by sucking up to the latest commercially guaranteed corny-ass formula; or she can leap into the aesthetic unknown, hoping that her instincts carry her and fans follow.
A naturally restless soul, Madonna couldn’t have selected option number one: She would have gone insane from the repetition. She could have — like plenty of her superstar peers — chosen option two. It would have been easy for the Material Girl to hook up with Puff Daddy, raid her old workout tapes for samples, employ some soon-to-be-shot-at rappers from street cred, and watch the Benjamins march on in. Madonna-meets-Puffy-meets-Ronco-disco-meets the Wu-Tang-Clan? You know the youth of America will be all over that shit.
As much as she’s perceived to be pop’s shrewdest businesswoman, Madonna has rarely taken he most direct route to the bank. Working deviance-phobic nerves with the queer boys and girls of her Sex Book was not exactly playing it safe. There has to be a surer way of getting paid than creating a decade and a half’s worth of gay nightlife soundtracks. She’s obviously made a few unpopular cinematic choices. So the only real option for the sole ’80s icon still thriving in the ’90s was to make the kind of record she puts on her boom box — a blend of haunted singer/songwriter introspection and beat-savvy electronic exotica that may not play in Topeka, if U2’s Pop is any indication.
In doing so, Madonna still pushes buttons. Just as she once sang that she wasn’t sorry for sharing her erotic fantasies, Madonna does not apologize for turning inward and employing the language she’s learned while journeying to the center of her still-firm chakras. On her new album, Ray Of Light, she sings about karma, quotes mystics, changes Sanskrit as she would in her yoga class, kisses emotionally stunted lovers good-bye, and croons a lullaby to daughter Lourdes as if her warble breathed butterfly kisses. Her brazen vulnerability is destined to be someone else’s touchy-feely-trendy hogwash: Madonna has not lost her ability to endear and annoy, and in its digitized, navel-gazing way, Ray Of Light is Madonna’s most radical, mask-free work.
The comparatively sexless tunes take their time to generate heat, but the sonic bacchanalia crafted by William Orbit (and, on four tracks, by Massive Attack associate Marius DeVries) is as propulsive as her newly bolstered vocal chops are controlled. Despite Ray Of Light’s aural hipness, Madonna asserts sincerity to the point of occasional — and affecting — awkwardness. When she sings to baby Lourdes, “You breathe new life into my broken heart,” she turns shamelessly sentimental syllable into the Worldmusicfestse-tingly stuff of which sweet pop dreams are made.
“If it looks like I just got out of bed,” Madonna announces as she arrives at her neighborhood coffee shop without a bodyguard, assistant, or publicist, “I did.” She’s dressed in a nondescript black knit shirt, black pants, and chipped black nail polish. Brown roots inches long lead to a tangled mess of brassy blond. At the end of the interview, Madonna politely refuses the reporter’s request for a snap-shot. “Maybe next time when I don’t look like and old sea-hag,” she suggests. Throughout the interview, she remains candid, but rarely does the club-queen who would be king lapse into her infamous dis-intensive talk-show persona. She even tried to be kind about Yanni. Sometimes, I miss the old Madonna.
Why make another album?
Why breathe? Because I love it. Because I love making music. It’s what I do.
When I got this assignment, I wondered, “What can I possibly ask Madonna that hasn’t been asked?” And then I thought, “Music! I’ll ask her about music!” So, for starters, how was making Ray Of Light different than making your other records?
Well, my daughter came to visit me every day in the studio so there were lots of baby interruptions; that’s new. Mostly, though, I look at more musical chances. I let William [Orbit] play Mad professor. He comes from a very experimental, cutting-edge sort of place — he’s not a trained musician, and I’m used to working with classically trained musicians — but I knew that’s where I wanted to go,so I took a lot more risks Oftentimes the creative process was frustrating because I wasn’t used to it; it took a lot longer than usual to make this record. But I realize now that I need that time to get where I was going.
What’s the songwriting process like between you and your collaborators?
Well, it happens differently every time. In William’s case, he would often given me tapes of snippets he was working on — eight-bar phrases, 16-bar phrases, stripped-down versions of what you hear on the record. And I’d listen to them over and over and it would just inspire lyrics. I’d start writing a little bit and then I’d go back to William say, “Okay, let’s expand on this musical idea.” And as we’d expand on this music, I’d expand on the lyrics. That was true for most everything except for the album’s last track, “Mer Girl.” I decided I would write a song to the music as given to me, and when William asked me if I wanted to do something with it, I said, “I want it just like it is, I want you to put the tape up right now and I’m gonna sing to it.” And did it in one take. For “Frozen,” a song wrote with Pat Leonard, I was obsessed with the movie The Sheltering Sky and the whole Moroccan/orchestral/superromantic/man-carrying-the-woman-he-loves-across-the-desert vibe. So I told Pat that I wanted something with a tribal feel, something really lush and romantic. When he started playing some music, I just turned the DAT on and started freeassociating and came up with the melody.
How has you approach to vocals changed with this album? You seem to be going for a more European approach to singing, almost operatic, less colloquial.
I studied with a vocal coach for Evita and I realized there was a whole piece of my voice I wasn’t using. Before, I just believe I had a really limited range and was going to make the most of it. Then I started studying with a coach. God bless her. My secret dream is to sing Italian at songs, so at the end of my lesson my teacher would let me sing Italian operetta. Maybe that affected me unconsciously.
Ray Of Light is a very soulful record, but it sounds nothing like contemporary soul, à la Mary J. Blige. Have your feelings about black culture and black music changed?
I don’t think that a lot of soul searching is going on in soul music these days, so in that respect it’s pretty disappointed and uninspiring. There are definitely artists whom I respect and admire, but for the most part R&B is not what it used to be.
Why do you think that is?
There seems to be a certain kind of formula that is getting over right now. No disrespect to Puff Daddy — he’s a real pioneer in a lot of ways — but constantly recycle other people’s music is not very inspiring. You’re just hearing things you’ve already heard before. It makes you want to sing along but you’re not really going to another place with it. As I was driving over here, I was listening to the radio and there was this Stevie Wonder song. Where is somebody who writes like that now? It’s so sad. I guess Babyface comes closest, but I consider his stuff more pop. I can’t think of anybody who’s as deep and as layered as Stevie Wonder. Instead we get the cartoon version of life: being powerful, rich, and having beautiful woman. I don’t think they’re setting out to push the envelope or take music to another level. It’s about intention.
How have your intentions changed in making music?
I feel a lot more aware of the influence and the impact I have on people. In the begenning of my career I just did whatever I wanted to and if it made me feel good, If it was fun, that was cool. Now I feel like everybody we do — the movies we make, the music, the stuff that’s on television — affects society in a potent way. I feel a sense of responsibility because my consciousness has been raised and I would like it impart the wisdom I have to others without being corny or preachy.
Do you feel you have been irresponsible before?
To a certain extent, yes. But I guess I’ll chalk that up to youth.
Was there anything in particular that you feel was irresponsible?
I was guilty of buying into this culture that thrives on ripping other people up, and I regret that, I truly do. People always think that they have to humiliate and denigrate others in order to make themselves appear stronger or better or smarter or cooler, but in the end it has the opposite effect. I’m much more aware now, and when you’re aware you have a responsibility.
How have you come to this awareness?
It’s just a process, a process of asking questions, making mistakes, and being hurt. My daughter has had a lot to do with it. Having a child and questioning my own mortality and feeling incredibly responsible for someone else’s life and being aware of how my behavior affects her — you have to step back and realize that we all affect each other.
You’re one of the few celebrities who’s grown up in public in a positive way.
Me and Michael Jackson [laughs]. Yeah, I guess I have. I look at pictures of myself 15 years ago or watch myself on television or read interviews and I think, “Who is that?” It’s like looking at your high-school graduation picture and you sit there and go, “What a geek! Why did I have my hair like that?”
So many of your contemporaries have hit the skids, and even great talents like Prince, Michael Jackson, George Michael, U2, and R.E.M. are not so selling huge numbers, are not getting the same respect they once did. You’re still selling records, still moving ahead creatively. Why is that?
Everybody you mentioned is extremely talented, so I don’t think it has to do with talent. It’s a tricky life we lead. You really have to find that place of caring but not caring what people think. Where you are desirous of things and you want to be successful and you want to make music that reaches people but you also can detach yourself from it. That’s really hard to do.
How have you managed to do that?
Well, getting the shit kicked out of me on a regular basis is a very humbling experience. From the very beginning of my career, people have been writing shit about me and saying, “She’s a one-hit wonder, she’ll disappear after a year.” Maybe that’s all been a good thing, because I’ve never felt like my shit didn’t stink.
You’ve created interesting work with all kinds of different people — from Babyface to William Orbit, from Shep Pettibone to Davis Foster — and I was wondering what you think you bring to the table?
Angst! [laughs] I don’t know, a certain vulnerability and a certain strength. I feel like everybody I work with, I push them to another level. When I work with people who seem uptight, I open them up. I try to get them to go off the beaten path, to improvise and throw the rules out the window. When I work with somebody who’s very chaotic and disorganized like William, then I have to opposite effect: I toe the line and become more focused. Crack the whip. William’s a genius, but he’s completely disorganized.
He told me that he wasn’t really used to being around people.
Exactly. It was a kind of a culture shock. We had lots of problems. Things went haywire and everyone got frustrated because we were working with samples and synth sounds and Pro Tools and not with Live misicians, and shit would keep breaking down and nobody would know how to fix it. We’d be sitting there relying on one machine, and I’d be thinking, “This is fucked.” So we had a lots of uphill battles. But we got through it.
It must have been a real challenge; here you were, coming off your voice lesson and Evita, and here’s William, who’s not known for working with voices at all.
But that’s the beauty of it. What I wanted was his sensibility, the textures, the really high-tech sounds. But William also works from a very melancholy place. I’ve been a big fan of his for years and I just knew our collaboration would be something beautiful.
How do you pick who you’re going to collaborate with? I’m sure you could have anyone you want.
Well I could, but I always go for the cook in the kitchen [laughs]. I like to work with people who take chances. Usually they’re undiscovered, because once people are successful they don’t like taking risks.
But you’ve worked with Patrick Leonard all along.
Yes, on songwriting, but no production. We write great songs together, but from the production point of view, the music that I listen to comes mostly from England and France, and there’s a certain European sensibility that I couldn’t have gotten from an American producer.
Why is that?
There’s a greater acceptance of cutting-edge things there. That goes for fashion, film, music. There is a real competitive thing going on in England about who can sell the most records, who can have the biggest box-office receipts. I’m much more inspired by the stuff coming out in Europe than i am out of America.
Bjork, Everything but the Girl, Trickly and Martine.
What about Bjork attracts you?
She’s incredibly brave and she’s got a real mischievous quality about her. I find her very compelling, really daring.
How about Everything but the Girl?
There’s a plaintive quality to Tracey Thorn’s voice that I really respond to. And that song, “Missing”? I know they’ve played the shit out of it and I ‘m over it and everything, but it was such a brilliant song.
Do you have any other current favorites?
I was into the Verve until “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was played on the radio every two seconds. Let’s see, there’s this new group called Air. Their album is fierce. I always respond to songs that have a bittersweetness to them, something haunted, but with a real visceral groove to it. Have you heard the Stereo MCs remix of the Tricky song “Makes Me Wanna Die”? That is the bomb. I like to put that on in my car and play it so loud that my car is vibrating and you can see the doors bending out.
Do you remember saying in an interview that techno equals death?
Do you still believe that?
To a certain extent. There was a type of techno I was listening to had a real emotional void. But I think it’s developed into something else and now there’s feeling and warmth to it. You can attach it to humanity and before I couldn’t. I couldn’t feel anything.
How do people like William Orbit or Marius DeVries bring warmth to a synthesizer or a machine?
They don’t; I do. They bring the cold, I bring the warmth [laughs].
Certain people are going to suggest that ever since you signed Prodigy to maverick you’ve turned into this electronica-head.
Veronica Electronica, thanx you very much. My alter ego [laughs].
What do you think of Goldie?
I tried to get him to work on one of the tracks from Ray Of Light. Nellee Hooper played a bunch of early demos for him and he fell in love with “To Have And Not To Hold.” We sent him the master tapes and he said he wanted to work on it by himself and then we never heard from him.
I love the way she sings. I’m attracted to the dark and she’s dark.
The Spice Girls?
I like them. I know I’m not supposed to. Every time someone says somethings bad about them, I say “Hey, wait a minute, I was a Spice girl once.”
How do you feel about New Age music?
It’s kind of like the way I feel about beige carpeting. It’s okay, but I don’t want it in my house.
Do you consider contemporary artists like Bjork and Everything but the Girl your peers?
Well, their music inspires me. Does that make someone my peer? I don’t know who my peers are, to tell you the truth. I know it’s not Garth Brooks [laughs]. I know I fall into the superstar category, but I don’t feel an affinity with any other music superstars. I’m too left-of-center. I’ll never have mainstream acceptance, never. I’ve had moments of it, fleeting moments, but I don’t think my sensibilities are palatable to the mainstream. I mean, I’m an unwed mother. I’ve kissed girls in public.
I was playing your back catalog, and it occurred to me that you’ve written some of your best records in the aftermath of painful relationship. Like A Prayer was post-Sean, Erotica was post-Warren. Is performing those songs more difficult than performing the frothier stuff?
No, it feels good. I mean, I feel sad when I’m doing it, but I’m reveling in the sadness. I’m a drama queen! Melancholy and sadness are great muck to roll around in.
One of the saddest songs on the album is “The Power of Goodbye.” Are you any better at breakups these days?
Oh no. I suck every time! I’m the worst. I don’t want to say good-bye to anyone. That’s so boring. Why can’t I have all of my lovers for the rest of my life?
Was Ray of Light made during your breakup?
Which one? [Laughs]
With Carlos Leon?
Part of it, yes. But there are songs on Ray of Light where I am talking about somebody who hurt me and it’s not about Carlos. I draw from my past and my present and things that haven’t even happened to me. But I’m sure they will.
How have your relationships with men changed over the years?
I think I’m a lot less selfish than I used to be. I’m more willing to say I’m sorry, to give in. Before, even if I knew that I fucked up or I was a shit, I still wouldn’t say it. I just couldn’t.
Do you still fall in love easily?
Yeah, it’s pathetic.
Do you think you make the same mistakes over and over?
That can be a scary thing to figure out.
Oh, well. Let’s not examine my personal life too much.
Well, this new album is so much more personal, so I want—
I think so, don’t you?
But my other albums were personal, too. Bedtime Stories was personal, believe me. Erotica was personal. Maybe I’m a better writer now. I hope so. I think on my last few records I’ve been operating from a place of anger and frustration and bitterness and feeling like a victim and being very defensive. I don’t feel that way right now.
Have you accepted the fact that you can’t create a lover as you would anything else in your life?
Well, actually, it’s all the same. The best creations are things that you allow to sort of be, that you accept, that you’re not afraid of, that you want to embrace. You can’t force a perfect lover any more than you could force a song or a poem.
Someone said to me that there’s a parallel between your album and Sandra Bernhard’s new one-woman show, that they both involve “aging careerist divas and their self-analytical dreams.”
We’re all aging, honey, is all I have to say. I have a career and I am analyzing myself, so I don’t consider it an insult. I’m just facing my life.
Are you seeing a therapist these days?
I am. Sure. But I would also say that reading Autobiography of a Yogi was just as influential as a week’s worth of shrink sessions.
With songs like “Shanti/Ashtangi” and “Sky Fits Heaven,” you’re being very up-front about your interest in Eastern spirituality. What’s your spiritual life like?
I feel that talking about it trivializes it. [Deep breath] I’ve been studying the Cabala, which is the mystical interpretation of the Torah. I’ve studied Buddhism and Hinduism and I’ve been practicing yoga and obviously I know a lot about Catholicism. There are indisputable truths that connect all of them, and I find that very comforting and kind. My spiritual journey is to be open to everything. Pay attention to what makes sense, be absorbed. For me, yoga is the closest thing to our real nature.
When did you turn to yoga?
When I gave birth to my daughter. I had a cesarean, and I couldn’t go back to working out the way I used to. A friend turned me on to yoga and I went through several teachers until I found the kind I like, Ashtanga yoga. When I first started, I couldn’t do any of the poses. I used to call the balancing positions “the humiliation positions.” I just kept falling and falling. Then little by little I got there, but as soon as you figure something out, there’s something a lot harder you’ve got to go to next. It’s actually a good metaphor for life.