Q Magazine (May 2008)
The great and the good came by the truckload to put a question to her – Michael Stipe, Russell Brand, Kaiser Chiefs, Girls Aloud and many more. She, in turn, gave one and all a good seeing to.
On Madonna’s new album, Hard Candy, there’s a song called She’s Not Me. In it she admonishes a former partner for taking up with someone new "She might cook you breakfast and love you in the shower," says the singer of the interloper who’s "started reading my books" and "dressing like me". But, as Madonna reminds us over six-plus minutes of ’8os-style dance-funk, "She’s not me and she never will be!" What’s more, "She doesn’t have my name!"
"That was actually Pharrell’s [Williams, one of Hard Candy's producers] line," says Madonna, arranging herself on a banquette in her Hollywood home, bare feet tucked beneath her. "I agreed to it. That’s my follow-up to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive."
The notion there’s another human being on Planet Earth who might be mistaken for Madonna is, frankly, an unlikely one. Hard Candy, her 11th album, features a dozen dancefloor anthems produced by a cannily chosen array of collaborators, among them Kanye West, Britney Spears hitmaker Danja and men-of-the-moment Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. Its closest relation is Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, but at no point could Hard Candy be the work of anyone else.
Q hears the album at Madonna’s London home then meets its author at her Los Angeles pad a few days later. We are under instructions to discuss neither, though hopefully we’re not risking death by 12-bore shotgun to report that good taste, fine art and dark wood characterise both. And in LA there’s an enormous doormat emblazoned: "RITCHIE".
Today, the world’s most famous woman is wearing dark silk trousers and a navy knitted cardigan. Her left wrist twinkles with a Cartier watch the size of an ashtray. She offers the most robust of handshakes. She possesses impeccable diction, though when we alight at a question that doesn’t take her fancy – which is often – her left eyebrow arches upwards, as if repelled in alarm. At some point an assistant spirits a trademark Vente Soy Lane into her hand, though the nearest Starbucks is miles away. She looks nothing like someone six months shy of their 50th birthday.
It’s Oscar night in LA, though Madonna isn’t going, choosing instead to throw an after-party with her manager, something that had been reported as a stand-in for the traditional Vanity Fair magazine bash knocked offline by the writers’ strike, but is surely at least part-conceived in the knowledge her own directorial debut Filth And Wisdom, starring her friend Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello, is premiering just around the corner.
"Just wearing a fantastic dress and having lots of great jewellery – that’s my part of the planning," she advises. "[Suddenly steely] And making sure there are no photographers."
So it’s on with Cash For Questions. In place of the traditional readers’ enquiries, this afternoon’s are submitted by notable names from the worlds of music and the arts. As we shall see, that hardly means Madonna is more predisposed to suffering fools gladly.
"The first one’s from Michael Stipe?" she says. "Yikes. OK. Hit me."
Michael Stipe [R.E.M.] : My question is multilayered. What is your most underrated quality? Off the new record, name your favourite two songs…
M: [Interrupting] Well, that’s two questions. Let’s start with just the one. What’s my most underrated quality? [Thinks]I don’t really know what people underrate me on. Everyone thinks that I work hard and I’m disciplined, right? [Thinks again] It’s hard for people to answer that about themselves, you know? Because your version of yourself is never everyone else’s. You could think someone doesn’t value something about themselves and they do… [Suddenly] That I’m shy! Can be shy, yeah. And nervous. About things. And people will never think that of me. Shyness should be regarded a quality? Yes. It can be read as arrogance.
(Still reading Stipe’s question)…And your two favourite songs off the new record?
My favourite two songs are… [thinks]Candy Shop and Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You. I love Candy Shop cos it’s cheeky and fun and it’s the first thing I wrote with Pharrell, and I feel it sort of represents the sassy side of me; the fun, sassy side of me. And I just love the way it sounds. And I love candy! Um… and Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You I just love lyrically. I like the subject matter. The idea that you’re so clever even the Devil wouldn’t recognise you. You know what I mean?
Michael Stipe [R.E.M.] : In your catalogue, what are the three songs you’re most proud of?
[Perturbed] Oh, he’s got more than two? This reminds me of a press conference when people stand up and they [say they] have one question and then they ask you five. And you’re, like, "Now I don’t remember the first." [14 seconds of silence; sighs] Oh, I really don’t like those kind of questions. [Emphatically] It depends on what day it is. Shall we move on?
Russell Brand : Like David Bowie and Jesus, you are a master of reincarnation. Do you ever worry that you may accidentally reincarnate as something unpopular? Or, worse, evil?
Am I familiar with Russell Brand? No. Is that a crime? [Q explains] He’s got big hair? Oh — I think he introduced me at something. Yeah. Yeah. He introduced me at Live… Earth? Live Earth? Yeah. So I met him there.
He seems the kind of person who would ask a cheeky question and I probably wouldn’t want to answer it. So first of all, I wasn’t aware that Jesus reincarnated himself. I think I’d rather use the word "reinvention". Cos "reincarnate" implies an end of your life and the beginning of another life, right? I’m sure I’ve taken on personas or versions of myself, or whatever, and opinions that are not very popular — I’ve done that already. Some people don’t subscribe to them. But "evil" is a bit strong. Strange question. [Q suggests that looking back over Madonna's various images, it's hard to think of any disasters, Madonna agrees] Yes, they all worked. That’s all part of me. You have to embrace it all. Do I think they would have worked at any time in my career? Well, I think time is an illusion. So is space. So is motion. The physical world is ephemeral. Just ask a physicist. Go and Google [American theoretical physicist] Michio Kaku and see what he says about time. Does that mean we’re around forever? Our souls are. It’s very cool.
Neil Tennant [Pet Shop Boys] : When I interviewed you for Star Hits (US version of Smash Hits magazine in 1983], you travelled to the interview on the subway. When was the last time you used public transport? You also said you had a hangover from [producer] Jellybean’s party the night before. When was your last hangover?
OK, I don’t remember the last time I used public transport. The last time I was on the subway was shooting my Hung Up video. We did ride around on the train, so that was two years ago in London. I have ridden the underground [as a passenger] but not for years. When I first came to London… But that was [mock theatrical] centuries ago. That was last century, anyway.
And the last time I had a hangover… probably after my birthday. What did I do? I had a Gypsy-inspired theme party at my house in the countryside [at Ashcombe in Wiltshire] What was I drinking? What wasn’t I drinking! I started off with Krug Rose champagne and then I graduated to a few lemon drops, and then after I had some fantastic Bordeaux for dinner, and then I think I may have had some sort of Château Margaux 1982. Yeah. That’s a hangover.
The next question is from Elvis Costello: I know you play guitar but I read in your Performing Songwriter magazine interview that you learned to play the drums from listening to (Costello’s long-time drummer) Pete Thomas on Pump It Up…
[Interrupting; as if this is the world's oldest news] Yes, I learned to play drums listening to Elvis Costello records.
…Do you still have a kit and, if so, are you secretly tempted to do sessions under an assumed name?
I don’t have a kit. But whenever I see a drumkit I always want to sit on it and bang away. And every time I do I’m reminded about how much good it does you to practise [laughs]. Good therapy? Yes. It’s a very visceral instrument to play. And it makes sense to go from being a dancer to a drummer because it requires rhythm and coordination. You’re playing one time with your foot and one time with your left hand and one time with your right hand, so it’s very physical. To me it was a good segue between dancing, being a musician and singing.
Tom Clarke [The Enemy] : I think you’re amazing: your career is older than we are. Have you got any advice on how to
stand the test of time?
Do I know The Enemy? [Shakes head] Are they an English band? [An explanation follows] So the question is: what’s my advice? [Thinks] Don’t take yourself too seriously. That’s one piece of advice I could give him; them. Because when you take yourself too seriously, I don’t know, you just… it’s hard to last. It’s good to have a sense of humour about things. It’s good to have a sense of irony. And not to take it too seriously. Then you can ride the ups and downs. And read lots of books. Do I think The Enemy will be around in 26 years’ time? I have no idea.
Dame Shirley Bassey : As a singer, one has to do a certain amount of exercise to keep the voice, but why do you work out so much?
Because my body is an important instrument as well as my voice. Does working out really help with singing? Yeah, absolutely. Using your diaphragm properly is connected to having good posture. Good posture, good health: it’s all connected. Your body’s one organism. [Appalled] You can’t separate it. If you’re not in good health your vocal cords will suffer. Everything suffers.
Johnny Marr : If you didn’t have to be diplomatic, or to worry about what anyone was going to think of you, what would you really say about fame?
Ha! Well, I can tell you the truth and still not worry about being diplomatic. Fame is a by-product. Fame is something that should happen because you do work that speaks to people and people want to know about your work. Unfortunately the personality of people has taken over from the work and the artistry and it’s this thing now that stands on its own. I don’t think one should ever aspire to being famous. [Thinks] I don’t know. I don’t really have a comment on it because there’s lots of famous people. But ifyou’re just known for being famous… it’s just too ephemeral. It’s like a flavour of ice cream. It’s not very memorable.
Nick Hodgson [Kaiser Chiefs] :I’ve met you. We had a good time. We had little nicknames for each other. Mine was "N", yours was "M". Do you remember me?
No. I’m sorry. Where did he meet me? Did he specify? [Thinks] It’s possible. I’m not going to rule it out. But I don’t remember it.
Ian Brown : I fully support you adopting David Banda from Malawi in 2006. I think it’s beautiful. How do you feel about the criticism you received for it?
[Sarcastically] I loved every minute of it. [Biggest laugh of the afternoon] Oh, but it was all rubbish! Who wants to be criticised for saving someone’s life? The criticism went on a bit? Yeah. It did. That’s a stupid question. [Q ventures it's a bit late to be complaining about stupid questions] Just ask me good ones. That was an obvious one.
Margaret Hodge [Culture Minister] : If you were Music Minister, what would be the first thing you would do to help young music artists?
Culture Minister of what? [Q explains] Oh. [Thinks] I would make it so that musicians – young musicians, aspiring musicians – wouldn’t have to pay the [London] congestion charge. Or pay taxes. They would be exempt from those kind of things; so they’d have more money to do other things. Will Ken Livingstone get my vote? No. The traffic in London is worse than ever. Now all Red Ken wants is roadworks going on everywhere. Don’t use the Tube; can’t use the roads? No. I’ll just have to walk, I guess. But I think all aspiring artists need help and the assistance of someone to recognise their talent. But you also have to help yourself and have a bit of "You’re on your own, mate." You’ve got to make it happen for yourself. And if people do recognise your talent and see you really striving then generally someone does end up coming to your rescue.
Murdoc Niccals [Gorillaz] : Hello you, cheekychops. Just wondering, have you shown Mr Guy Ritchie any of that footage me and you shot when we got together after the Grammys? And, second, what does he make of my snazzy er… ‘directorial’ style?
Um, yeah, he was, um… what’s the word? (Pretends to search for a specific phrase] Well impressed. And a little bit jealous. Yeah.
Kate Nash : What are you going to conquer next, Madonna?
Hopefully my ego. How will I know when I’ve succeeded? When I stop caring what anyone thinks of me.
Lovefoxxx [CSS] : How much control do you have over all the different aspects of your shows? Or do you just pay someone millions of bucks to do that for you?
Well, I have a lot of control. But that said I also collaborate with people who are really good at what they do. So I think I have the best lighting director, and I work with the best choreographers, with fantastic musicians and the best costume designers, so I’m very involved with every element in my show. And I do have the final say on everything. But also other people have their input. In fact I need that. You didn’t imagine I just turned up? No.
Deborah Harry [Blondie] : What motivates you in life?
The word "no". [Laughs!]
KTTunstall : Do you still feel 18 or was there a moment you felt you had become a woman?
Sometimes I feel 18. Sometimes I feel 13. A point when I felt I had become a woman? Probably when I had a baby [her first child, Lourdes, was born in 1996] But most of the time I definitely don’t act older than a teenager. And that’s a good thing.
Russell T Davies [Doctor Who producer] : When did you last go to the supermarket?
I went to the supermarket a couple of months ago. Just a local… one of those… are they Kwik Marts? What did I buy? Marshmallows. [Laughs] For toasting? Yeah, my son wanted them.
Sarah Harding [Girls Aloud] : What’s the most ridiculous story you’ve heard about yourself?
[22 seconds of silence] The thing is, I’ve heard so many that none stick out in my head. I don’t read newspapers, so I’m a little bit out of the zeitgeist of the rumours about me. Where do I get my news from? Well, I go to the internet and I get the basic headlines about what’s going on in the world. I don’t really like to read any newspapers or magazines because mixed in with the news there’s lots of gossip, so you want to avoid that. Honestly, I don’t even think about it enough, or pay attention enough, to even know how to respond to that question.
Simon Le Bon : Why did you call yourself Esther?
Why did I call myself Esther? [Clarifying] Why did I take on that as a spiritual name? Um, well… tell him to read The Book Of Esther [in the Old Testament] And then he’ll know. Esther means "concealed". What do I think of the name "Simon Le Bon"? Er, well, Simon comes from the name Shimon. Shimon was one of the sons of Jacob. So he’s got a Biblical name, too. [Laughs]
Alex James : Old Spots or Tamworths?
What? [Q explains they're pedigree pig breeds] I don’t understand why anyone would ask that. I don’t… I don’t like pigs. I’m not drawn to them as an animal. I don’t eat them. I like horses. I like Irish Draught horses or Irish Sport horses the best. Why? Cos they’re lovely to ride. They go fast [laughs] Do different horses have different temperaments? Oh yes. The grumpiest is a pregnant mare. [Laughs]
Noel Fielding [The Mighty Boosh] : Would you like to be able to turn yourself into a hawk? If so, when would it come in useful?
[Jumpily] A hawk? [Silence] No. I wouldn’t want to be a hawk. I wouldn’t want to be a pig either. Weird questions. [Q notes that hawks are regarded for their excellent eyesight and high avian IQ] Well, intelligence and amazing eyesight always come in handy [laughs] Would I like to transform myself into any animal? No. [Considers this] I wouldn’t mind being a horse. Yeah, I’d like to be a racehorse. Yeah. And of course I’d have to win. That goes without saying.
Kate Pierson [The B-52s] :In your experience, who is more expert at "tipping the velvet" – men or women?
I don’t think it comes down to "men" or "women". l just think that there are "better men" and "better women".
Pete Wentz [Fall Out Boy] : What’s it like to be the world’s biggest gay icon and not be gay?
How does he know I’m not gay? No, I’m just kidding. It feels great. If it’s true. Why do I think that might be? Because since the very beginning of my career I’ve always promoted freedom of expression and embracing the idea of being different. Independence of thought; fighting any kind of oppression. And also: I’m a diva. I think "queer nation" and "diva" just go together. The diva in them recognised the diva in me. All my banging dancefloor tunes? Well, yes. That goes without saying
Natasha Khan [Bat For Lashes] : I’m just about to move to New York to make my second album and I know that you moved to New York at the beginning of your career. I’d like to ask what were the hardest things and the greatest lessons you learned at that time?
Well, the greatest things are also the hardest things, aren’t they? It’s kind of one and the same question. Well, I think going to New York… New York was very different in the early ’8os to what it is right now It was much scarier then. It’s a hard city to get by on your own if you don’t know people, you don’t have connections and you don’t have any cash. So it really tests you. Do you really believe in yourself? Do you really want this? Are you willing to go through fire for it? It was fun, too. Hard but fun. Is it true I survived on a popcorn diet? That’s true. Has it put me off it for life? No, no. I still love popcorn.
Mark Ronson : What’s your favourite Woody Allen film?
Hmm… My favourite Woody Allen film? Annie Hall? I always like the movies that he and Diane Keaton are in together. I just like their relationship, actually. [Q starts to suggest Annie Hall's New York backdrop might appeal] No! Erase, erase, erase. Broadway Danny Rose. Is that the right title? It is? I hope so. If I can’t remember the names of Woody Allen’s movies, then I’m retarded. I hope Woody Allen doesn’t take offence.
Kim Gordon [Sonic Youth] : How do you find time to spend with your kids? I’m a mother, so I know it’s a tricky balance.
Mmm-hmmm. There’s a lot of choreography going on. I just have to eke out the time. One day I don’t see my kids very much and the next day I make sure I do. You look at your calendar and you go, "OK, this day’s crazy. But, OK, this day I’m going to take my daughter to ballet. And the next day I’m going to be gone all day. So the day after I’m going to make sure I’m around for dinner and bathtime." And hopefully my husband can fill in when I’m not around and we can all sort of juggle together. But it takes lots of planning. Do my kids approve of the new album? Yeah. My daughter’s favourite songs are Candy Shop and Miles Away. And my son loves 4 Minutes. That’s his favourite.
Katie Melua : Do you think you have to be provocative and stand out in order to be as successful as you have been in a male-dominated world?
I don’t think male domination has anything to do with it. I think if you tell the truth or you want to tell the truth or you want to be opinionated, ultimately you’re going to end up perceived as being provocative. Inevitably, if you are opinionated you will eventually offend someone because we live in a very opinionated world. I do think the trailblazers, the revolutionaries of the world, the people who make their mark on the world – whether they’re political leaders, philosophers or world leaders or artists or whatever – have all offended somebody or been provocative in some way. Plus, yeah, it’s fun to be provocative. Is gender a red herring? I don’t think it’s relevant. Lots of people would say that Martin Luther King was provocative. Or that John Lennon was provocative. Or that Gandhi was provocative. Or Jesus. They’re all men. So do I think the world is male-dominated? I don’t know. I think chicks rule the world in many respects. [Q has no further questions] That’s it? Oh. Well, we ended on a good note.
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