Interview Magazine (April 2008)
MADONNA: Hi, Ingrid.
INGRID SISCHY: Hello, Madonna. It’s our seven-year anniversary. The last interview we did together for this magazine was in March 2001, of all things. We’ve spoken since, but our last on-the-record conversation for Interview was before the whole world changed.
MADONNA: Oh, goodness. That was ages ago. Well, I hope I’ve got something interesting to talk about since then. [laughs]
INGRID: Me too. [laughs] But seriously, thank you so much for doing this. I know you’re in the middle of a lot of things.
MADONNA: You’re welcome. I hear you’re leasing the magazine.
INGRID: I am.
MADONNA: What are you going to do? [The two of them chat for a while]
INGRID: I’d like to start by talking about your involvement with Malawi. The event and benefit you did with Gucci at the U.N. on February 6 was really something [raising roughly $5.5 million]. I was thinking about it while I listened to your new album [scheduled to be released on April 29, with no firm title as yet], and the urgency I heard on the record, especially the song “Four Minutes,” brought the evening back. It seemed to be a vivid example of where your head is now. The piece of the intensely towerful documentary, I Am Because We Ire, that you produced and was shown that ;light pretty much answers all the people who say the problems with AIDS in Africa are so overwhelming that nothing can help.
It’s the opposite, in fact. Every little bit helps. In the film [directed by Nathan Rissman] you say: “People always ask me why I chose Malawi. And I tell them I didn’t. It chose me.” Why did you decide to document your involvement?
MADONNA: It was that I found out about the situation there. And when I went there for the first time, I saw that I needed to document my journey. More specifically, I wanted to go on a journey with these children to find out for myself what was going to make a difference in their lives and document that. Was it just about giving them a roof over their heads? Was it just about giving them food and clothes? Was it just about giving them available and accessible RAV’s [antivirals]? Was it all of those things? Or was it about dealing with what was going on inside their heads and their hearts and tapping into their own sense of empowerment and resiliency? The more I went to Malawi and observed things, the more I realized that people are layered, so solving their problems is layered. The worst thing you can do to help a person is to just throw a bunch of stuff at them and run away.
INGRID: Right, and that’s never worked with Africa, or any place for that matter.
MADONNA: No. That doesn’t work with anybody.
INGRID: Tell us more about the film.
MADONNA: There were so many ways it could have turned out. We shot so much footage and we had so many stories to tell. And there were so many versions of the movie before we ended up with the version we now have. Some of the earlier versions were no chilling and heartbreaking that I think people felt paralyzed after watching it, and that’s the last thing I wanted to do. The other reason I wanted to make the movie–and it’s what I said at the fundraising event [at the U.N.]–is that people have become immune to the idea of raising awareness for something and getting involved. They can make a difference but you know, people are like, “Oh, there are so many problems in the world, what could I possibly do? We’re fucked. . . . Africa’s fucked. The environment’s fucked. Whatever.” People are bombarded with problems, and they’ve become paralyzed by them. So I wanted to offer simple solutions and to illustrate how simple things really do make a difference in a person’s life. It is easy for us to be involved with the solution.
INGRID: The film begins with a simple thing. A woman phones you. She says something like, “You’re a person with resources. People will pay attention to you. You can help.” You then say you felt embarrassed because you didn’t know where Malawi was. And she tells you to look it up on a map and hangs up.
MADONNA: Yeah. And then I went there.
INGRID: So that call happened before you adopted your son, David?
MADONNA: Oh, yeah. All those things happened way before that. Yeah, it was a long journey. And then after I went there, I brought eight teachers from Malawi to Los Angeles, put them through a teachers’ training course, and then brought them back to Malawi. At that point I started to meet the children and befriend them, which is how I met my son. It was a process of many journeys. All the teachers you see teaching in the movie are teachers who went through that training. Many of them have formed a network that looks after people now. I continue to stay in touch with them and they continue to teach psychosocial support to these kids and their parents. It’s amazing the difference it’s made, not only in the children’s lives but in the teachers’ as well.
INGRID: For outsiders, Africa’s always seemed to be a place that’s ungraspable. I remember when my family left South Africa because of apartheid. We moved to Scotland and my mother would go to the stores and ask them to boycott South African lobsters and oranges. The point back then was to put pressure on the economy so the government would have to end apartheid. The world always said it would never happen. But it did–and the leadership and inspiration of one man, Mandela, meant that the change could occur without a bloodbath. Human beings can do so much. And yet often when the subject of AIDS and Africa comes up, that same sentiment of “it will never end” pops up. Look at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic here and what people rallying around it accomplished in a few years. You and I had a lot of friends in common, like Keith Haring, who we lost. But remember that moment, about 25 years ago, when person after person was getting sick and there was no sense of the light at the end of the tunnel. Eventually it did come, and now unfortunately, the new HIV numbers are dire again in this country, too. But the point is that action helps. Of course, the scale of what we’re talking about in Africa is very different. But ultimately the stories connect. Does it feel to you as if it’s the same disease being fought in Africa as the one that changed all of our lives here in America?
MADONNA: [sighs] That’s an interesting question. I guess it’s all the same, because what does it mean–look at the word: “disease.” There was some kind of “dis-ease” here. And there’s some kind of “dis-ease” there. A big part of the AIDS pandemic in Africa is connected to poverty, because there, everything comes from poverty. It’s so eloquently illustrated in the movie by Mathews Chikaonda, the ex-minister of finance, who shows the inhumanity of man to man, what people will do to one another when they don’t have anything else–whether it’s cruelty, or not disclosing that they have a disease, or practicing witchcraft because they’ve come to the end of their rope and don’t have any other solution. There are people dropping like flies there, and they can’t explain it, so for them it must be witchcraft, because how else can you explain that everyone in your village has died? Obviously it’s because somebody put a spell on them. The thing about poverty is you connect the dots and it all leads back to that. Of course, poverty is a problem in America, too, but it’s not the same as in Africa–it’s a different kind of poverty.
INGRID: And such a different feeling.
MADONNA: That’s the other observation I made, because you could say, “Wow, things are really bad in Africa. It’s hopeless. It’s never going to change.” But you get really confused when you go there because there’s so much love and so much joy and such a sense of community–yet people are dropping like flies. And we are over here with access to every kind of medication, and an infrastructure, and people are educated, and everyone’s miserable. So you’re like, “Well, wait a minute. Who do we need to save?”
MADONNA: It’s all rather confusing. Ultimately we’re fighting the same disease, but it’s a question of consciousness and where your head is at. And for most people around the world, our heads are up our asses.
INGRID: At the beginning of the film there’s a moment when you say, “I ended up with much more than I bargained for–about Malawi, about myself, about humanity.” Can you elaborate?
MADONNA: Well, first of all, going there thinking I needed to save people and realizing I needed to save myself; that the world I come from is actually full of disease and full of despair and full of unhappiness. Who has it right and who has it wrong and where should I be focusing my energy? And realizing that I cannot, as a mother and as a human being, watch children dying who don’t need to die, or watch them so fering in a sort of intense way–the kinds of things that you witness in places like Malawi. But on the other hand, it’s helped me took back at myself, at my own life, my own commonity, my friends, the world I live in, and see how broken we are and how we’re all in the same boat–it just looks different.
INGRID: In the new album, with the song that says, “You’ve only got four minutes to save the world,” you have this other lyric, “Sometime I think what I need is a you intervention.”
MADONNA: Yeah, meaning, sometimes think you need to save me. In many ways going to Africa and having the experience had gave me such an incredible outlook and such an appreciation that I didn’t have before I kind of went through it when the whole AIDS thing first hit New York and I was watching my friends drop like flies. Suddenly you go “Oh, my God, life is precious and what are you complaining about? I’m alive.” But you forget. You just forget. We live very comfortable lives and, unfortunately, we have to have our noses rubbed in other people’s pain and suffering to realize how much we have and how much we have to be grateful for, and to tune into this frequency of appreciation. We have to do it on a regular basis.
INGRID: In 1982, ’83, ’84, in America and in Europe, AIDS changed all of our lives forever. We knew it. And yet it was going on everywhere else, too, of course. But many countries, even continents, were denying it. How terrible that it took so many decades for many people to become conscious of the situation in Africa. Tell me, how did you choose the director for your film?
MADONNA: He used to be my gardener [laughs]
INGRID: Really? So he knows what to do with seeds.
MADONNA: Yeah. His name is Nathan Rissmah, He’s a brilliant, lovely guy–one of those guys who came into my life and did every job. He was a runner, an intern, a gardener. He took care of my kids. He did everything, and he did it with humility. And everyone just grew to love him. And then he started doing these little movies of my children and sending them to me, and making films out of photographs and just being really creative. So one day I said, “I need somebody to document this,” and then I looked at him and I said, “And I think that person is you!” And he really stepped up to the plate. Another one of his many gifts is that everyone loves him, and he’s very good at winning people’s trust. He cares deeply about everybody in the film, and he’s spent a lot of time in Malawi, literally sleeping on the floors of people’s huts and waking up with chickens on his head. He really lived it and approached it with an open heart and so much gratitude. And I think that really comes through in the movie as well–the way he films people.
INGRID: Especially the kids.
MADONNA: Yes, and he gets their stories. People opened their hearts to him. I couldn’t have done that. I don’t have his simple approach. He did an amazing job.
INGRID: I also love the aesthetics of it–it’s almost like William Eggleston’s photographs of the American South, in terms of the lush palette.
MADONNA: Yeah, the way he captured the exterior, with the rolling hills and the trees-
INGRID: You can really smell Africa looking at it. And you’ve got some big shots in there, too–President Clinton, Desmond Tutu.
MADONNA: Jeffrey Sachs, Paul Farmer. They’re all amazing. I’m so lucky to have them in the movie.
INGRID: How did you do that? Did you just phone ‘em up?
MADONNA: I phoned them. I wrote copious letters. I met with them. I showed them the footage.
INGRID: You always were a letter writer.
MADONNA: Yes. Some people said “yes” more quickly than others. Some took a lot more coaxing and several dinners and-
INGRID: Did you have to do any benefits?
MADONNA: [laughs] No. No sexual favors either. [both laugh] But I had to be a producer and to convince people because they are like giants to me. They’re all really busy and everybody comes to them and asks them to say something in their documentary, so why should they do it for me? But I feel very blessed that they all agreed to it. And I think they all say something important. They all have a big part of their lives invested in Africa.
INGRID: Let’s talk about your youngest child, David. He is Malawian and–
MADONNA: Yes, and I promise you, he wouldn’t have lived if I hadn’t taken him. It’s not even a possibility.
INGRID: Your other two children have had the opportunity to be children, and as you were making this film, I’m sure you saw so many kids who never have had that chance– in the film you talk about kids being raped, kidnapped, beaten, kids having to function as parents for their little brothers and sisters because their mothers and fathers are dead. David’s reality began so differently from that of Lourdes and Rocco [Madonna's other children]. How does it affect them that their little brother comes from this place where kids don’t get to have a childhood?
MADONNA: I think it’s essential that they understand it and know it. The last time I went there, my daughter came with me. She spent several weeks working in the orphanages, particularly one with newborn children, and most of them were HIV-positive. She so came into her own and was so responsible and stayed for eight hours every day and worked tirelessly. I thought, Why am I babying her so much? She’s capable of so much more. We don’t let kids do anything. We think, Oh, they’re kids–they can’t take care of other kids; they can’t do this; they can’t do that. And after you go to Africa, you drop all that silliness.
INGRID: So many kids are the parents there.
MADONNA: Absolutely. It made me see how tough and resilient kids are and how little credit we give them for that. And it made me understand the importance of my children seeing and experiencing that on a regular basis, so that they understand they breathe rarified air, and that it’s their job to share what they have with other people.
LIZ ROSENBERG [Madonna’s publicist [shouting from the background] Okay, five minutes, ladies.
INGRID: No! She’s joking.
MADONNA: [to Liz] She said, “No, you’re joking.”
LIZ: [from the background] No, I’m not joking!
INGRID: No, no, we–tell her we haven’t started on the album! There’s no way!
MADONNA: [to Liz] It’s okay. [to Ingrid] Dor worry, she just left.
INGRID: There’s no way!
INGRID: To me, you have always stood for freedom: freedom of expression, freedom to do what you want, to dress the way you want, to sing what you want. The fight in Africa is less about the freedom to something and more one from something–the freedom from fear, the freedom from hunger. Has this affected your understanding of freedom?
MADONNA: [sighs] Well, I think freedom is funny word because when we think we’re free we’re not really. I think freedom is quite illuson. When you’re worrying about where your next meal is going to come from, you can’t afford 1 think about your attachments to physicality. You can’t start thinking about your ego. You’re just like, “I need some food. And I need a roof over my head. And I’m sick and I need medicine. When you’re in that position, you don’t have the luxury of thinking about the freedoms that we have, so that’s one kind of freedom. When you live in the world that we live in, and you have luxuries that we have and the privileges that that we have, you don’t have to worry about basic needs and you can start thinking about, What am I slave to? What am I trapped by? Am I really free? Just because I can get on a jet an fly wherever I want and I can afford this and I can afford that–is that real freedom? It’s like I said in my speech at the fundraiser, “What is being the best? What is real happiness?” When I stop caring what people think of me, I;ll be able t say, “Well, I’ve learned to care less, but I’m not totally free of it.” That’s freedom. When I sto thinking about myself all the time and put other people before me on a regular basis, that’s real freedom. When I can love unconditionally–and have conditions with everybody, whether it’s ny husband or my children or my friends or my co-workers-then that’s real freedom. So it’s something to strive for, but I’m not free.
INGRID: Your lack of freedom certainly doesn’t show in the new record. Let’s go back to the song “Four Minutes.” Justin Timberlake and Timbaland had something to do with it, right?
MADONNA: Yes, we worked together.
INGRID: The song feels like a ballad for the world, with a great big marching band. It’s a giant dance song.
MADONNA: Well, it’s kind of a funny paradox. is like we’re saying, “We’re running out of time. People, wake up. But, if we are going to save the world, can we please have a good time while we’re doing it?”
INGRID: [laughs] That’s great. And the video, I understand, plays with this idea of superheoes trying to save the world. It feels like it has irony, but it’s also really serious.
MADONNA: Yeah, it’s like a march. It’s a movemest, and we want to take everybody with us.
INGRID: This song will. I love the line “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” in the middle of it all. Did you have fun making it? It really feels like it.
MADONNA: I really enjoy writing with Justin. he’s a fun person to write with.
INGRID: Is this the first song you did with him?
MADONNA: No. We worked on other songs first. We kind of had psychoanalytic sessions whenever we wrote songs. We’d sit down and we’d start talking about situations. And then we’d start talking about issues or problems or relationships with people. That was the only way, because you know, writing together with somebody is very intimate. So we had to find a place to start talking about something we cared about, so we could get into writing about something we cared about. And that was fun, because he’s open and he’s got talent. He’s a songwriter. I haven’t worked with a lot of songwriters where I’m instantly connected and start riffing and playng with the rhythm of words. He’s as interested in the rhythm of words as the meaning of words.
INGRID: I love the tic-toc, tic-toc part.
MADONNA: I enjoyed that process with him.
LIZ: [in the background] Next question!
INGRID: Tell her we’ve only done one song. We gotta have four more questions.
MADONNA: [to Liz] She’s only asked one question about the record. She wants to ask four more questions.
LIZ: [in the background] Well, she gets one more.
MADONNA: [sighs] She’s very mean. [both laugh] So, go ahead, ask me another.
INGRID: Okay. Let’s go to “Give It to Me.” I picture the entire island of Ibiza dancing to that one.
MADONNA: Oh, really? Oh, good. I like the idea of everybody in Ibiza dancing to “Give It to Me.” [laughs]
INGRID: For me, it’s a real Madonna song.
MADONNA: It’s very anthemic. I basically wrote it so I could have a great time doing it in a stadium.
INGRID: The words are very autobiographical. “Got no boundaries, got no limits.”
MADONNA: “If there’s excitement, put me in it.”
INGRID: “Don’t stop me now.”
INGRID: “If it’s against the law, arrest me.”
MADONNA: [laughs] Yes, that’s me. It’s the provocative me. The boring, predictable me.
INGRID: One doesn’t hear people saying “arrest me” these days, I’ve got to tell you.
MADONNA: Not in pop culture, anyway.
INGRID: More often it’s about “Give me some money.”
MADONNA: It’s about playing it safe.
INGRID: Speaking of playing, is that you playing the guitar?
MADONNA: I wish. No.
INGRID: Not in any of it, because I thought in “Miles Away”–
MADONNA: On “Miles Away” I did play the guitar, but I got double-tracked by one of Timbaland’s musicians.
INGRID: Is “Miles Away” autobiographical?
MADONNA: Probably in many respects most of the songs are. But in more of an unconscious way. I don’t really think about telling personal stories when I’m writing music. It just comes. And then a lot of times, six months later, eight months later, I go, “Oh, that’s what I wrote that song about.” But that’s when I play the song for lots of people and they all go, “Oh, I can totally relate to that.” In “Miles Away” I’m tapping into the global consciousness of people who have intimacy problems.
INGRID: There’s a real sense in this record of the joy that comes from music and from dancing. Take “Heartbeat.” The pleasure of dancing all night is all over it.
MADONNA: To a certain extent it’s an homage to the beginning of my life as an artist. Everything always comes back to dance. And music. ‘Cause you can’t dance without music. But that is how I feel. In Africa, everybody dances and everybody plays music. There is something universal about it. There’s something freeing about it. There’s something unifying about it. When people are busy making music and dancing, they’re kind of too busy to hate and fight. Music is one of the great unifiers.
INGRID: Have you ever reached a point where you’ve said, “Fuck it. I’m not going to make another record”?
MADONNA: Oh, I say that after every record. And then I do another one.
INGRID: Do you feel good about this record?
MADONNA: I do, yeah.
LIZ: [in the background] Ingrid.
INGRID: Last one.
MADONNA: [to Liz] She says this is the last one.
INGRID: Last question. Back to the sense of urgency of the record. You hear it again in “Beat Goes On.”
MADONNA: [laughs] There was a big sense of urgency. Kanye [West] only had four hours. I had to finish it before he had to catch an airplane. [both laugh] But you know what? Right now, I’m operating in the mode of “live every day like it’s your last day.” So there’s a sense of urgency in everything I do.
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