How the world’s biggest star was rescued by the dance music’s finest.
A soggy morning on an average street in West London. A dump of autumnal leaves sticks to the steps of the doorway of an otherwise unremarkable house. Around us the world battles to work through the grimneess as an imitating drizzle begins to fall and the doorbell sounds out the house’s owner.
This definitely isn’t LA. And it’s definitely not the Hamptons. Hell this isn’t even London’s impossibly posh Chelsea. For the best part of this year though, a living legend has wiaited on these steps, as wide-eyed passers-by stare in disbelief. Through the hallway, up the stepladder, and into the cramped attic, conversion is the studio that’s spawned the album that’s reinventing music’s most reinvented woman over again. At the corner is one of dance music’s most innovative producers and gifted DJs. A skinny, effervescently friendly guy from Reading called Stuart.
Under a batch of pseudonyms like Jacqes Lu Cont, Paper Faces, Thin White Duke, Les Rhythmes Digitales and Zoot Woman, Stuart’s been behind some of dance musics biggest moves and shakes. As plain old Stuart Price he’s conjured an album out of a pop music icon that could eclipse the sales of her LPs of her quarter-of-a-century-long career.
Madonna’s last album, ‘American Life’, limped out of the charts so lamely the critics figured her for a has-been. On her new album ‘Confessions On A Dancefloor’ she goes back to her dancefloor roots to coin one more pop dance gem. At 47, for the once chart-dominating erotic rebel and sex kitten (now mum and Kabbatah convert) this could be Madonna’s last chance to convince us of her sex icon status. It could even be the last album she dominates the charts with.
When you can work with any producer in the world, choosing a 28 year-old dance music nut from Reading is a nervy decision — especially on such a make-or-break album — but Madonna is certain she’s got the right man.
“Stuart is the perfect counterpoint to me because I make dance music and he’s a classically trained musician, who happens to be a DJ with excellent taste.” she told Mixmag. “The combination of our respective skills make for, in my opinion, the perfect music to make people get up and dance.”
‘Confessions..’ is unashamedly pop, but produced with a dancefloor in mind. Spliced together amid the mess and piles of records and machines in Stuart’s tiny studio it’s a return to her younger days, blagging DJ mates into recording her demos. Right now though, we’re sat on Stuart’s white couch sandwiched between a triangle of vintage synths to find out just what life’s really like inside the eye of the Madonna hurricane.
What’s your first memory of Madonna?
“I wasn’t really a fan when I was growing up. I was aware of her but the pop music I loved was stuff like The Pet Shop Boys and Erasure. Those were the people who made me go and get my first keyboard. My parents were both pianists and they taught me the musical bit but didn’t like the pop side of things. Madonna didn’t have any relevance to my life growing up.”
Have you ever told her that?
“Yeah, she knows. There was a point that I did start listening to her, roundabout ‘Justify My Love’ when it became obvious she was using these good producers and coming up with unique music.”
What do the world’s biggest pop star’s friends call her?
“Some people call her M but I just call her Madonna. Making the album was a very relaxed process. Normally she’d get round to mine around 3pm. At this time making a cup of tea is about the only thing I’ve managed to get done. Madonna on the other hand has been up all morning having meetings with her publishers, publicists and accountant, so by the time she gets to mine it’s like the end of her day. She hasn’t got time to waste so you get used to working fast You don’t f*ck around.”
Do you still have a double-take reality check where you think, “Shit I’m working with Madonna!”?
“People forget we’ve actually been working together for five years now so it doesn’t faze me at. It never fazed me in the beginning either.”
How come you ended up making the album in your bedroom and not in some flash studio?
“It wasn’t really anyone’s idea. More just that we wanted to experiment with ideas and seeing as I do all my other music here it made sense for her to come over. But once we started working here we didn’t feel the need to go anywhere else, so we just stuck with it. She likes the vocal sound here and I like being able to get up in the night and have everything there, much to my neighbour’s amusement I’m sure! When you work out of your flat you’re less concerned about the money you have to spend on a studio, and more relaxed because you don’t feel silly messing around with ideas in front of people you don’t know. Most dance records that I like aren’t made in commercial studios. Theyre made in rooms like this, by someone with a little bit of equipment but the desire to get something they like out of it, and that mentality was an important part of the process. Don’t get me wrong, we went to LA for the final mix but that gives you some objectivity that things sound good outside of the world you know. It was the same when I was taking rough mixes out and DJing with them. You know within the first 10 seconds if the mix is right and the first 20 if the track is good at all.”
It must have shocked your neighbours when they spotted Madonna on your doorstep?
“The guy next door says. [adopts an African accent] Was that Madonna going into your house yesterday?, I said, ‘No its just my friend.’ “Nice car,” he said, and I said, ‘She really does well for herself. They haven’t quite cottoned on.”
When’s the last time you hit a club together?
“A few days ago. I was paying this dub in New York called MisShapes. It’s a bit like Trash or Nag Nag Nag and full of 300 screaming young gay kids, so when Madonna turned up the place was bedlam. You could feel the floorboards going. It was so crazy the security said Thanks for but don’t ever come again!”
Did she perform?
“Yes, but there was no band – just her singing and dancing and me on the decks. She asked if she could DJ at one point. She got behind the decks and I started showing her which channel was which. She looked at me and said, ‘I know how to DJ’.”
Can she go to a club anymore without getting mobbed?
“The poor girl can’t go out and be the anonymous girl she once was in New York. When she first moved to New York in the early 80s she used to take a book along to a club and read it until the night was getting good, then dance with all these weird and wonderful gay characters. It was in that she saw what she liked about dance music.”
Is there any part of that early Madonna in the Madonna of today?
“What we’re doing now is what she was doing at the start of her career. She said, ‘I used to hang around the DJs long enough to force them to make records for me’, so nothing’s changed there. When you hear her old records there’s no bullshit. On ‘Into The Groove’, if you solo the vocals you can hear the cars going by outside in Manhattan. These records weren’t manufactured pop records, She was literally going around a DJ’s house and saying ‘What’s the best music you’ve got?’ and singing over it”
We’ve been fed so many different image changes throughout her career. Which one is the real Madonna?
“She’s an extreme intellectual and a very deep thinker. That’s why her career has taken all these different turns. People want to find fault with her for that but I think you can’t knock her for being so honest in what she does. She’s very genuine.”
Is she the Kabbalah obsessive the papers make her out to be?
“To that I’d say. what’s the difference between someone saying ‘It’s seven o’clock on Friday night and I have to go to the Kabbalah centre’ and someone else saying it’s seven o’clock and I’m going home to watch Lost?”
Is she a religious bore?
“She’s not particularly religious. She’s the first person to have said, ‘I’m a student of Kabbalah, not a follower of Kabbalah’ and from my point of view I don’t know what the big fuss is about. She’s just interested in something that helps her life.”
What’s she like to work with in the studio?
“She’s the greatest hands-off producer ever. Most people think producers should be pressing the buttons but she doesn’t pretend to do any of that. She sits on the couch and listens to it and tells you when you’re not being very good.”
I’ll bet she doesn’t mince her words…
“When something’s not sounding good she’ll say, ‘That’s rubbish, that’s rubbish and that’s rubbish’ and you’ll be like, ‘I know, I’m not trying to be rubbish!’. In terms of being a songwriter, she has this thing where she can turn the microphone on, open her mouth and one of those melodies comes out and you go ‘Blimey! That’s how you’ve done it!”
Is she an easy person to disagree with?
“Yes She can take disagreement but a good collaborator is someone who tells you when something’s not good. It’s the same for me – when she’s telling me that my keyboard parts are stupid I have to say to her, ‘Your melodies are not very good’. If you sit there being a ‘yes’ man all day you’re going to end up with a bad record.”
So does she have a lot of ‘yes’ men around her?
“A lot of people interact with Madonna to further their own career and I find that quite crass. On a positive note, you see people who’ve become really inspired by being around her. Her enthusiasm is infectious.”
Does she have an English sense of humour?
“Yes, she has a very English sense of humour. We spent the whole of rehearsal for the last tour quoting every line from The Office. When we were at Live 8 I went up to her and said. ‘Quick, look! There’s Ricky Gervais over there’ so we ran over and she went ‘Ricky, Ricky, Ricky, we just wanted to come say we know all your lines, we’ve seen all your shows and we thnk you’re really funny. He turned around and said, ‘Sorry, what’s your name?’.”
What went through your head when you went on stage at Live 8?
“My experience went exactly like this:’Shit shit. shit, shit, yeeeeeeeeeeeeah! Phew!’. It was brilliant. A worldwide audience of about 400 million is as big as you’re ever going to do, but the day before it was turning into a tragedy – everything was going wrong. Everyone was shitting themselves, but when that stage finally revolved around it was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever had.”
Being around her must have introduced you to the LA celebrity circuit. Do you find that scene tedious?
“The glamour side of DJing has no relevance to me. When DJs are more about who they’re hanging out with, who they’re shagging and what champagne they’re drinking, to me that’s the beast of dance music. I hate driving around Ibiza seeing DJs posing on billboards. It makes me cringe because that means it’s become more about them and less about the people. The reason I like dance music – without wanting to sound too pretentious – is because it is people’s music. A nightclub is only as good as the vibe inside it. The DJ is supposed to be making that vibe, not flying into the club flanked by security.”
In her 40s – author , songstress, actress, filmmaker – Madonna has influence and reach that may be global, but her base for family and friends is focused on and English country estate. Hamish Bowles talks to this ever-evolving force about her film and book, and the pleasures of commitment.
“Who would have thunk it?” says Madonna with a laugh. “The last thing I thought I would do is marry some laddish, shooting, pubgoing nature lover – and the last thing he thought he was going to do was marry some cheeky girl from the Midwest who doesn’t take no for an answer!”
In the warm ivory sanctuary of her office in her ambassadorial Georgian town house in London, Madonna is on the latest turn of the roller coaster that is her thrilling, adventuresome, and fecund life. The room, its walls expensively craquelure’d to resemble fractured eggshells, its pale taffeta curtains billowing in the chill English breeze, is more Hollywood boudoir than office. Propped against the fireplace, newly arrived from her rambling Wallace Neff-designed twenties hacienda in Los Angeles, sits Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkey; Madonna wanted to enjoy it privately for a few days before it is sent off to Tate Modern as one of the stars of their blockbuster Kahlo retrospective. On the mantel, nestling between a brace of glamorous Francis Picabia portraits, is Kahlo’s traumatic My Birth. “She’s a bit shocking, that one,” says Madonna, who clearly does not shy from unsettling images. Elsewhere in this room is Helmut Newton’s photograph of a perfectly groomed glamazon with a large gun in her mouth, and on an art tour of the house, Madonna points out the photographer Collier Schorr’s life-size portrait of a beautiful flaxen-haired boy in Hitler Youth costume. “People don’t know what to think when they come here and see this photograph,” she tells me. “I’ll let them be… confused.” Does Madonna, who presented the prestigious Turner Prize at the Tate in December 2001 (where she introduced herself as Mrs. Guy Ritchie), collect Brit Art, too? “I have a Francis Bacon,” she says coyly. “Does that count?”
Speaking in carefully modulated tones, dressed with faux-bourgeois sobriety (this afternoon in Issa’s prim satin blouse with a print of flying ducks, black Kate Hepburn pants, and Marc Jacobs teal lizard shoes), a flotilla of charming, noiseless assistants close at hand and a courtly husband making polite but distracted small talk, she has the air of an Edwardian dollar princess – the moneyed American belles who were married off to impecunious British nobles in the golden age – and the fragile beauty and substantial real estate to match. But no one understands metamorphosis better than Madonna; she even named her 2004 tour “Re-Invention.” That tour is the subject of Madonna’s documentary I’m Going to Tell You a Secret, directed by Jonas Akerlund and to be released later this year. In some ways the new movie is a pendant to 1991’s Truth or Dare, which a mellower Madonna now admits “in some ways is hard for me to watch. I was a very selfish person. You go through periods of your life where the world does revolve around you, but you can’t live your whole life that way. On the other hand, I kind of admire my spunk and directness!”
The new movie “starts with the struggle of a dancer trying to get into a show” and ends with Madonna’s controversial trip to Israel (to visit Rachel’s tomb as part of a Kabbalah experience) and a sweetly naive vision of peace in our time expressed in footage of a Palestinian and an Israeli boy walking together in friendship. “If I’m going to take people through a journey of my life, they are going to see all my journeys, and I hope they will also be moved by it,” she explains.
“The feeling in Israel is like no other place,” says Madonna. In Jerusalem she had “a sense of really going back in time… that I was being pulled into something. I felt very comfortable there. It’s weird; on the one hand it’s a very desperate place that could erupt at any time… it’s also very special – that’s why everyone wants to claim ownership of it. It’s not one of those places that beckon everybody, [but] I’m a bit of an excitement junkie.”
Aside from Jerusalem and its attendant dangers, Madonna’s movie takes you on an adventure to some of the key cities of her tour, Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, Dublin, and Paris among them – a giddy round of athleticism and lightning costume changes. For these cinematically inspired costumes, Madonna collaborated for the first time with Christian Lacroix, creating the armorial embroidered corsets that she adored. Meanwhile Karl Lagerfeld designed exquisite Weimar Kabaret-ish costumes (these ultimately proved too fragile to attach Madonna’s monitoring system to. “I was really bummed out because I loved what he did,” she says. “But I still have them – they might show up somewhere!”). Her friend Stella McCartney designed the “Savile Row three-piece-suit number.”
It was McCartney who created Madonna’s 2000 wedding dress. “You wanna see it?” she asks conspiratorially, struggling with a vast ivory vellum tome filled with the pictures the world’s media didn’t get to see: “No one’s seen these pictures except my closest friends.” For the record, McCartney produced a remarkably classical dress of ivory duchesse satin, with an hourglass eighteenth-century corset bodice (“a real boob squisher!” laughs Madonna) and an acreage of crinoline skirts dramatically billowing into an endless train. The nineteenth-century lace veil was found in an antiques market and secured with Grace Kelly’s Cartier tiara. Mr. Ritchie wore a kilt. “You can’t get married in Scotland and not wear a kilt,” says Madonna, who later put kilted pipers in her show. “It’s like, ‘Don’t show me things – you never know what’s gonna show up in one of my shows!'” laughs Madonna. “But I love to work that way.”
Since her marriage brought her here, Madonna has become England’s latest national treasure; the nation even has its own pet name for her – Madge – a parallel honor to the satirical weekly Private Eye’s anointing Queen Elizabeth “Brenda.” “I did hate it when they first started calling me that,” Madonna confides, “and then a friend told me that it was short for ‘Your Majesty,’ so I was ‘OK. I like it!’ Well, anyway,” she adds, “they’re stuck with me!”
It was not always a love affair. Madonna’s first trip to London in 1982, with her friend, dancer Martin Burgoyne, was financed by their bartending jobs at New York’s East Village bar Lucky Strike. “We used to rob the cash register blind!” she says matter-of-factly. When they had saved enough to hit London, “we went out to some nightclubs, and I met Boy George in the [Vivienne Westwood] World’s End stuff. He was just this force to be reckoned with, and I was very intimidated,” Madonna remembers. “He was really mean to me… he’s still mean to me!” Nevertheless, Madonna “found the whole thing quite heady. I couldn’t believe how seriously everybody took their looks and fashion and stuff – it was all very exciting and, yes, influential to a certain extent.”
But by the time Madonna returned a year later, she was riding the crest of her first success, and her relationship with the country unraveled. “Once I became famous I couldn’t stand London, because the press was so horrible to me,” she explains. “I didn’t understand the whole mentality of the tabloids; I thought, God, they’re so vicious. And this place was really different 20 years ago. Everything was closed up. The streets were dead on Sundays. There were no good restaurants. It was a very, very, very different place, and I had absolutely no inkling that I would have the life I have here [now].”
Since she met Guy Ritchie, the “scope of my world has changed,” she continues. “At the time, I didn’t see the funny side of it, but now I love England and want to be here and not in America. I see England as my home. And I now know how to ride. I know how to shoot. I know how to fish. I could be a connoisseur of ales if I wanted to – I never used to like the stuff, but when you’re married to Guy Ritchie you spend a lot of time in pubs, and I learned to like it!” Of her marriage she says, “The whole point of being in a relationship and having children is that you learn to love… unconditionally. That’s the best contribution to making the world a better place. It’s so nice sometimes just to go into my children’s bedrooms and listen to them breathe. It has forced me to get out of myself.”
It was Trudie Styler who played cupid when Madonna was invited for tea to her Jacobean mansion in Wiltshire. Here she remembers the “long, sweeping staircase… [where] all of her children were lined up – like the von Trapp family! I went down the line meeting them all, and then at the end of the line was Guy.” Madonna was stopped dead in her tracks by the strapping 30-year-old auteur of the nouvelle vague gangster movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, an eye-popping directorial debut. (This, together with his sometime Mockney accent – think Michael Caine in Alfie – belies a respectably patrician past. Ritchie cherishes fond boyhood memories of Loton Park, his stepfather Sir Michael Leighton’s estate, on the Welsh borders, where he developed his passion for hunting and fishing.) Of this first electric meeting Madonna admits simply, “My whole life flashed before me. It did.”
Madonna never set out to become a classic British lady of the manor, however, until fate intervened when she was introduced to Hugo Vickers, Cecil Beaton’s suave biographer, through a mutual friend in 1998. They discussed his Beaton books, including one charting the improbable romance of Beaton and Greta Garbo (“good and juicy,” says Madonna). They maintained an E-mail relationship, and sometime later Vickers sent one asking whether Madonna remembered Beaton’s beloved house, which was now for sale. Madonna told Guy, who, as she says, “has always wanted to live in the countryside. He’s the country person – not me. He loves nature and animals.” And so, imagining that it might provide an amusing day’s jaunt, but with no intention of buying anything, they arranged a visit.
Ashcombe, however, casts a very potent spell. Nearby are the Druidical worship sites of Avebury and Stonehenge; there is a Celtic burial ground hidden in one of Ashcombe’s deep, romantic coombes. “That part of the world has something very mystical about it,” says Madonna. “there was a reason that those druids dragged those stones [there]! That part of the world’s got some kind of pull for both of us.”
The house sits in a landscape of almost unimaginable beauty, cradled in the warm embrace of its own green valley, dramatic hills rising steeply on all sides but parting ahead to reveal distant fields. Cecil Beaton would recall that he was “almost numbed by my first encounter with the house. It was as if I had been touched on the head by some magic wand.”
Madonna and Guy were similarly entranced. They sat beneath the immemorial ilex trees that shade the house; Madonna photographed Guy there, fringed by wild grasses, and the ethereal result now sits on her office desk. “We just fell in love with it,” Madonna explains. “In the summertime it’s the most beautiful place in the world.” The memory of their day at Ashcombe “just stayed with us, haunted us for a really long time,” she remembers. Eventually they could resist its lure no longer, and Ashcombe was theirs.
Although the estate embraces more than 1,000 acres of roiling hills and valleys, nothing remains of Ashcombe House itself, a stately mansion built in 1686 but dismantled for its brick and stone two centuries later. Half the elegant stable block (converted into a studio by Beaton) and a cozy dairy house remained. Beaton’s frivolous decorating at Ashcombe was legendary, and he willfully ignored the building’s honest farmhouse integrity. The carousel bed that the neo-romantic artist Rex Whistler had made for him is long gone, but the splendid Palladian stone door surround that he designed is still in place, deftly transforming the house from cottage to mansion.
By the time the Ritchies arrived, the house was “kind of in ruins. There was a kitchen the size of a shoebox, and the top floor was just an attic full of rats and mice.” They created a labyrinth of romantic attic bedrooms, and an extension that mirrors the elegance of the stable block. While it suggests an eighteenth-century orangery, or a French pavilion, it contains a cavernous space that serves as kitchen, informal dining room, and living room in the modern family vernacular.
“To me, Ashcombe is a reflection of me and my husband in many ways because it reflects our willingness to make a commitment,” says Madonna. “Not necessarily to each other but to the idea of having a home somewhere, instead of living like gypsies.” The house also offers physical testament to the couple’s improbable union. Here, classic England meets pampered Hollywood; a place where cozy kilim-covered sofas, family silver, and sporting prints meet silky oyster-colored carpet, state-of-the-art sound systems, and luxuriant hothouse flowers. Where Cecil Beaton’s brilliantly dust-jacketed diaries jostle the 22 volumes of the Zohar, the couple’s Kabbalah reading material, on the bookshelves.
Cecil Beaton loved the place with “blind devotion.” When Beaton’s fifteen-year lease expired and he was evicted to make way for the landlord’s son, he wrote an elegiac book to assuage his great loss, a postwar requiem for the giddy, carefree thirties, the years of dressing-up, of masquerade and artifice. “We played; we laughed a lot; we fell in love,” he wrote. For Beaton, the place was “essentially an artist’s abode,” and he invited the great creative talents and stylemakers of the day to share his Eden: the writer H. G. Wells, and artists Salvador Dali, Augustus John, Christian Berard, and Graham Sutherland. They were joined by the period’s flamboyant style mavens, the Marchesa Casati, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Mona Harrison Williams, and Diana Vreeland among them.
When Madonna’s in residence she plays “lots of guitar; I go for lots of long walks, ride my bike. It’s a very physical place, a place for adventure. You can choose to go there to work in a very undistracted way and a very contemplative way, or you can go there and get lost in the environment. I always feel really melancholic when I’m driving away. I think if you’re a photographer, if you’re a painter, if you’re a writer it’s the perfect place to be,” says Madonna. “You feel protected because you’re sunk into that valley, and as far as the eye can see you can’t see another house. It’s a kind of buffer against the world.” Currently, Madonna is busy working on her new album (“basically all dance music”) with collaborator Stuart Price, which she hopes to release by the end of the year. She is also in the planning stages of a tour for summer 2006 and writing children’s morality tales. Her latest contribution to the world of children’s literature, Lotsa de Casha (Callaway), in which the richest man in the world loses everything but gains a friend (“There’s more to life than fame and fortune – something much more deep and profound,” says Madonna), follows The English Roses, her first foray into writing for children, itself the first of eight planned volumes; “The English Roses are going to take over the world!” Madonna says, laughing. Madonna’s own engaging children – Lourdes (Lola), eight, who has the preternatural grace and poise of a girl who takes her ballet lessons very seriously, and Rocco, four, a mischievous doppelganger for his dad – have “never watched television,” says their mum crisply. “They’re fine. I don’t think they miss it… my daughter is a voracious reader, and I’m very pleased about that.”
“Do you actually read the newspapers here?” Madonna queries later. “What does one read here? I don’t read newspapers. We don’t read magazines… and no television. At the end of the day they’re all noise.”
The Ritchies have more fun creating their own amusements. To celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary, Madonna set out “to re-create a Cecil Beaton weekend of folly. I invited all my friends, and we all had to put on a show, so to speak. It was so much fun – we moved all the furniture around in the Studio, and we created a stage and we put red velvet curtains up. Gwyneth and Stella and Chris composed a song together, which was brilliant – a spoof on American Life, only they called it American Wife. Gwyneth did fantastic rap and Stella sang background vocals and, well, Chris played the piano. Tracey Emin [the anarchic British artist] and Zoe Manzi [the beauteous art consultant] wrote a poem and took turns reciting stanzas from it. Sting played the lute, and Trudie read some sonnet. David Collins [the droll interior designer] sang ‘Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Ritchie’ [after Noel Coward’s “Mrs. Worthington,” an acid admonition to a relentless stage mother and her talentless child] – and my daughter was in it as well, playing the little girl!”
For the Guy Ritchies’ contribution, Madonna tracked down a copy of the mock Restoration play The Town Wench or Chastity Rewarded that British film producer John Sutro had composed for Beaton’s celebrated fete champetre of 1937, and performed a scene from it. “It’s really funny – and so bawdy,” laughs Madonna. For Madonna, Ashcombe is “one of those places that are very conducive to bringing a group of people down. I’d love to do it more, but it’s unbelievably complicated for my friends to each have a free weekend on the same weekend!”
For Truth or Dare’s director, Alek Keshishian, what Madonna “really has is confidence in pulling off whatever she decides to wear – it’s a childlike confidence, like playing dress-up in the attic.” While still antic, Madonna’s relationship with fashion has evolved. “I connect to fashion when I need to collaborate with somebody on something. I do love people like Galliano and Gaultier and Olivier [Theyskens]. I do think they’re real artists. I’d go to them. You can draw a line between craftsmanship and artistry and just facade. We live in a culture and a society that’s obsessed with the surface of things. I’ve worked with all those photographers; I know how much they like to retouch!”
Madonna’s interest in her clothes and her costumes over the years is perhaps more curatorial these days. A team of experts is working on cataloging and conserving the extensive collection, currently stored in an L.A. warehouse. “I’ve kept everything,” says Madonna. “The ‘Like a Virgin’ dress. Pieces that Gaultier had made from the Blonde Ambition tour. All the costumes from all of my shows, all the dancers’ costumes, everyone’s costumes.” She has ruthlessly destroyed all the duplicate and triplicate costumes (“Because we didn’t want anything to end up on the internet. When you don’t want anyone else to have it… you burn it”). “My goal is a traveling exhibit, like the Jackie Kennedy show,” she says. “Not just costumes but video imagery and film and interviews and concert footage, so it’s a multimedia kind of journey that you go on.”
Today, her various closets are brimming with country clothes instead of the designer extravaganzas of yore. Even her urban wardrobe, heavy on Prada, Miu Miu, and McCartney, often has a rustic brogue. “Lots of tweeds and lots of caps and sensible walking shoes – it’s hopeless to walk around that estate with a pair of heels!” says Madonna. “I don’t shoot anymore, but I had a lot of suits made for it.” The estate is run as a highly successful shoot – one of the top five in Britain. Pheasants and partridges emerge from every copse and thicket, tottering lazily by; a brazen cock pheasant will even join Madonna’s beloved chickens scrambling for the feed scattered over the stableyard’s cobblestones.
After the madness of her public life, Ashcombe provides the perfect refuge; “it’s like a big vortex; it sucks me in,” says Madonna, who comes to dread the moment “when you leave that bowl of comfort and you go back into the big bad world. And it’s just so teeming with life,” she adds. “There’s a pigeon that keeps flying back – for years now, like a carrier pigeon. He keeps showing up in our backyard.” Madonna has been thinking about this homesick bird, for later in our conversation she says, “maybe that’s Cecil Beaton? He did show up timely for the Vogue shoot, I have to say! I’m sure Cecil’d be very happy to know that I lived in his house. He probably does know.”
She may be sporting Gaultier and Givenchy — as well as her first fine fragrance, Truth or Dare — on her upcoming tour, but Madonna hopes there’s one thing she won’t be wearing as she travels the globe to promote her new album: injuries.
The MDNA tour, in support of her 12th studio album — currently challenged in the charts — is requiring some physically intense moves. At Macy’s Herald Square on Thursday night, making an appearance in support of her scent, Madonna was nursing what she called “a big old cut” on her leg. Motioning to her black lace Dolce & Gabbana dress, she laughed, “I take these clothes off, and I’m covered in bruises. It’s very sexy.” Why? Wait and see, she said, but promised it will be intense.
The tour kicks off in Tel Aviv on May 20, wending its way around the Middle East and Europe before the first North American date, Aug. 28 in Philadelphia. South American dates are expected to be revealed soon. “It’s crunch time for me getting my show ready, so after this I have to go back to the dungeon,” she told WWD during an interview after the Macy’s appearance. “I call it the dungeon, where we work. In a room with no light. It’s kind of our factory, but I have a lot of work to do.”
As for the show’s couture, “I worship and adore [Jean Paul Gaultier]. He’s creating one of my costumes, and kind of godfathering the costumes for a section of my show, with all my dancers. I’m really happy he’s doing it, because he’s such a genius. And I’ll probably wear something that Riccardo [Tisci] from Givenchy makes. But the rest of it is going to be what my costume designer Arianne Phillips creates with me.”
If her Super Bowl XLVI costumes — which included a glittery Egyptian caftan, fanciful Philip Treacy headpieces and a priest’s robes — are any barometer, those MDNA costumes will get people talking. Madonna called the Super Bowl show “one of my most favorite and most treasured performing experiences, for sure. That was amazing.” But next time she may opt for flats instead of heels: “The dance that LMFAO does, the shuffle, was really hard to do in heels. I have to say, I would prefer to do the shuffle in sneakers. If you want to drop it like it’s hot, it’s good to wear flats, because then your booty gets really close to the floor, but then there are things you can do in heels that you can’t do in sneakers.”
Madonna’s fingerprint goes on anything that bears her name. “I don’t take the job of creating anything — whether it’s fragrance, or beauty products, or clothes — lightly, and I need a lot of time to do stuff. I don’t like it when other people create for me.”
That was definitely true when it came to her debut scent.
“The time was right,” she said of partnering with Coty Prestige. “I’ve been working off and on on various fragrances over the years, and [have been] approached by a lot of companies and have tried to create fragrances. They were always abandoned projects. I’ve always loved perfume; it’s always been a big part of my life. But every time I tried to create the scent I was looking for, it never reached the stage where I thought it was good enough or I was told that the ingredients would be impossible to re-create in a mass way. Then I’d say, ‘let’s try and do a synthetic version,’ and it never smelled as good as I wanted it to. And if I’m not going to wear it, I’m not going to sell it. So, I finally was able to create, with my partners [MG Icon and Coty], a fragrance that I could stand behind. We tested a lot of things over the past few years, and [Lourdes “Lola” Leon, her 15-year-old daughter] has told me what she likes. She is a very opinionated young lady, and she likes this perfume.”
She had her late mother, also named Madonna, in mind when creating the scent, too. Her mother, she recalled, wore Fracas. “I wanted to create a fragrance that would remind me of her.”
She shrugged off the brewing controversy about the sexy TV campaign for Truth or Dare, a black-and-white spot that features her writhing in lingerie — and reportedly censored by ABC. “I don’t understand. It was perfectly innocent,” she said with an arch look. “I just touch my cleavage once or something. I think it’s dreamy and sensual, and I think it perfectly conveys the feeling I’m trying to evoke with the perfume. It’s a perfume for a woman.”
With her Material Girl line, also for Macy’s, Madonna has dabbled in body sprays and nail polishes, and would like to extend her Truth or Dare fragrance franchise with Coty Prestige into additional categories. But first up are lingerie and footwear under the Truth or Dare name: “Once again, time-consuming. I want it to be good. [More beauty categories are] something I’d like to develop, but I need to get past all of my other responsibilities and commitments like my tour. So, sometime in the future, yeah.”
She has a second fragrance, a companion to Truth or Dare, in the works; it is due out “sometime next year. I think it would be good to do a men’s fragrance, as well,” said Madonna. “My daughter thinks so. She wants to wear it. She likes to wear men’s cologne — don’t ask me why.” If she does do one, “I love musk and amber and woody kind of fragrances on men. I love the smell of whiskey — we should make a men’s cologne that smells like whiskey. I can’t drink it, it’s too strong, but it smells amazing — a really good old whiskey.”
Before heading upstairs to speak to WWD, Madonna answered a handful of preselected questions for the first 300 people who had purchased a $151 gift set of her new fragrance. “That was fun — I like talking to my fans,” she said later. “They’re real. I can play with them and have a laugh.”
And laugh she did at some of the queries, especially when one fan asked, “Are you planning on coming to a gay nightclub for this album?” Madonna shot back: “Are you inviting me? The thing is, I’m really busy rehearsing and I’m so tired at the end of every day that the only thing I could do would be to hang out. Would that be OK? Have a cocktail? Get a little tipsy?”
A Brazilian fan asked what Madonna would do if she could change the world. “Let’s start with the way everyone smells….That’s the frivolous answer. But if I could change the world? I would like to live in a world where there is no prejudice, where people have the freedom to be who they are, to believe what they want to believe in. That would be a good start.” An Israeli fan asked, “How was your seder?” Madonna, who practices Kabbalah and took the Jewish name Esther, answered, “Long.”
Yet another fan asked if she could sign his arm so he could get a tattoo. “Are you kidding me?” she asked. When he replied that he’d been a fan since 1982, she obliged. “He’s stuck with me forever.”
She also told the crowd she wants to learn to snowboard. “I learned to ski this year and that was the most thrilling experience, and my children got really good at snowboarding and I was really jealous of them, so that’s my next goal in life. I want to learn how to snowboard. I hope there are no paparazzi there to catch me falling on my ass every two seconds.”
A 12-year-old asked her what she’s afraid of. “Not being in control. Not knowing what lies ahead. And also, meeting people who are ignorant and prejudiced and judgmental.”
But the question she said she found the strangest was “What are you addicted to?” The crowd, as one, shouted, “LOVE!”
She made it through the wilderness, all right. And she’s remained at the center of global pop culture ever since. The mother of reinvention talks about her art, her husbands and her early years as “an ego-driven nutcase.”
It doesn’t really matter whether you buy the transformation of the world’s onetime reigning sex kitten — okay, lioness — into a New Age Mother Theresa determined to bring a ray of light into your spiritually parched life. It doesn’t matter at all.
Because she believes it ardently for all of us.
Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone Ritchie simply has more conviction than you do. Much more. She practically reeks of it. It’s in the way she enters a room, in the way she exits, in the rather regal pronouncements that pepper her conversation, and most of all, it’s in her seeming immunity to criticism — something she’s had a surfeit of since she and her husband of two years, director Guy Ritchie, released their movie Swept Away last fall.
Madonna, clad in black pants, a leopard-print and flower-strewn black top, a greenish fuzzy fur jacket, stilettos and a crocheted black beret, may have left the house today sans makeup, but she is more than adequately shielded by her own psychic armor, as thick and dense as concrete. Call it what you will — centeredness, smugness or egomania — but don’t think for a second you’ll pierce it. It’s the quality that let’s Madonna be Madonna, that defines her as a star, perhaps the biggest star who ever lived, and that compels us — more than 20 years after her first single, “Everybody,” became an underground dance club hit — to still be sitting around talking about her.
No doubt her forthcoming album, American Life, to be released this month, will lead to another round of Madonna-musing. An introspective tour de force, less melodic or pop than Music or Ray of Light, the record is both darkly self-reflective and socially engaged. Indeed, rumors about the album’s political stance began to circulate before anyone had heard a note: Matt Drudge reported that the “American Life” video, directed by Jonas Akerlund, “may be the most shocking antiwar, anti-Bush statement yet to come from the show business industry.” (In the video, she plays a fatigue-clad glam superhero who tosses a grenade on a fashion runway, among other things.)
Madonna’s response: “Who’s Matt Drudge? He’s on the Internet? Never believe anything you read on the Internet. I don’t want to comment on idiotic people making assumptions.”
She had to postpone our interview one day owing to a cold, and now, after a visit to Beverly Hills fave Joseph Sugarman, M.D., the 44-year-old pop diva (a proud devotee of Ashtanga yoga, numerous trainers and a macrobiotic diet) is, uncharacteristically enough, fending off a wicked cough and a case of the sniffles. Still, like the indomitable force she is, she’s shown up to do her job.
As for the other big item of recent speculation — that the return to her natural dark brown hair color just might signal that another baby is on the way — she rolls her eyes. “Do I look pregnant to you?” she asks, sitting on a couch at the Beverly Hills office of Maverick Records, the label she started with Warner Bros. 11 years ago. “I am a brunette after all, and I just like to match my pubic hair sometimes,” she adds with a laugh. “People who have nothing better to do than talk about my hair color have no lives.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Madonna seemed thrilled to have people talking about the color of her hair. And the color of her pubic hair, for that matter. Not anymore. “Let’s talk about serious issues,” she begs.
“I just saw Michael Moore’s one-man show in Camden Town [in London],” she continues, ” and I loved him for it. It was so amazing and revolutionary. He basically was saying we’re all in the ‘comfortable class’ — and we can’t be f*cked to do anything about ‘what’s happening over there [in Iraq],’ because we don’t believe it will make a difference. And of course that isn’t true. Michael Moore is one person, and he’s making a difference. Afterward, I felt like, ‘Okay, I’m ready to go! I’m starting a revolution by myself!’ I felt so inspired.”
Despite being a mother of two, with several mansions and a record label to worry about — in addition to sessions at West Hollywood’s Kabbalah Learning Center several nights a week to pursue her ongoing studies in Jewish mysticism — Madonna remains, she insists, a rebel.
“Because what is a rebel? It’s someone who thinks outside the box — someone who doesn’t subscribe to any program. Besides, I think the Kabbalah is very punk rock. It teaches you that you are responsible for everything. We don’t realize there’s a bigger system at work. Everything that comes to you is for a reason. And I think that’s really revolutionary, because we are not trained to think that in our society.”
Another of Kabbalah’s lessons, she adds, is the power of words — and the negative energy of gossip. And no one seems to have more gossip swirling around her than Madonna. “If we truly believed,” she says, “that every act of denigrating somebody is a small form of murder — the negative energy you create by talking badly about somebody — we’d never do it again. Because all anybody does anymore is slag everybody off. That’s American life. That’s our media. And isn’t it important to speak up against?”
Some speculated it was precisely this sort of negative energy that Madonna was seeking to avoid when she skipped the Golden Globe Awards, where her theme song from the James Bond movie Die Another Day was nominated for Best Song. Elton john, who was to have been seated next to her, claimed she begged off to avoid running into him after he publicly called the song “the worst Bond tune of all time.”
Madonna sighs upon being asked about this. “Every once in a while,” she admits, “you do get caught up in that — Oh, they said about me? You feel that twinge. But then I snap out of it and think, Oh who gives a shit? That’s when I’m reminded I need to stay focused on my spiritual studies.”
The real reason she didn’t go to the Golden Globes? “I wanted to hang out with my kids,” she says. “On my list of priorities, it wasn’t that important. I have a hard time with awards shows. We spend far too much time making popularity contests, and not enough time caring about each other. They’re just dumb. They’re just fashion shows and ratings for TV, and they don’t mean anything.”
Boldly pressing forward through a veritable asteroid belt of negative energy, we speed-chat through the rest of recent Madonna rumors.
On prepping a movie musical: “Yes, I’m working on a musical project. It’s already been written and it’s totally original. The director and I have put together a creative team, and we’re working on getting financing right now.”
On why she giggled upon meeting Queen Elizabeth at the premiere of Die Another Day: “Well, there’s nothing to say, really. I met the Queen.”
On whether she spent the last week of photographer Herb Ritts’ life at his bedside: “Yes. He was a friend. That’s what friends are for. Herb was a good egg. He didn’t want people to know he was sick — he didn’t want them to feel sorry for him. He just got on with his life. He was a very shy guy and didn’t do the fabulous thing. Like a lot of other photographers who shall go unnamed.”
On supposedly hating London: “I’ve already said this — I love London. And I live there a good part of the year.”
On the debacle of Swept Away: “My husband and I set out to make a small movie, with not a lot of people involved, about power and politics within male-female relationships. People wanted it to fail before it came out. And people wrote bad things about it that permeated people’s consciousness. And that’s how it goes. Would I work with him again? Sure.”
On Frida, the biopic she’d once hoped to star in. “I didn’t like it. Not at all. I think Salma Hayek did a great job, but I still think ultimately the soul of Frida Kahlo nobody knows. The movie doesn’t even scratch the surface of who she was and what she went through.”
As she nears 50, Madonna’s narrative is shifting. Yes, there’s another new super-pop album, Hard Candy, with Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams. But there’s also Filth and Wisdom, the feature film she’s co-written, produced, and directed, and I Am Because We Are, her documentary on Malawi, the AIDS-ravaged country where she controversially adopted her third child. Whisked to L.A. for an intense prep session, followed by an almost two-hour interview, Rich Cohen explores the evolution of the Madonna myth as she harnesses her image-making genius to a cause, a philosophy, and the search for her true self.
The world is a series of rooms, which are arranged like concentric circles, or rooms within rooms, joined by courtyards and antechambers, and in the room at the center of all those rooms Madonna sits alone, in a white dress, dreaming of Africa.
To reach her, you must wait for a sign. When it comes, if you are pure of heart, you begin to move toward Madonna, and move fast. One moment you are in Connecticut, wondering if it will snow, the next moment you are swept up by a force greater than yourself. You’re in a car on the highway, flashing past sleepy towns, moving closer and closer to the center, which you approach deftly and humbly, in the manner of a pilgrim. Like a pilgrim, you set off before first light. Like a pilgrim, you remove your shoes–to pass through security at the airport. Like a pilgrim, you read and reread sacred texts: profiles and reviews, the first published in the early 1980s, the most recent published just a second ago, which constitute a kind of record, the good news, the Gospel of Madonna.
Taken together, these chronicle the career of Madonna, each different, but each telling the same story, which is so established and archetypal it verges on folklore: the girl from suburban Detroit, which can stand for anywhere other than here: the early years in Eden, memories of which Madonna describes as “grainy and beautiful,” when her mother was young and alive; then tragedy, the wound that never heals, the death of her mother from breast cancer when Madonna was six; empty days plagued by tormented dreams. “You’re aware of a sense of loss, and feel a sense of abandonment,” site told me. “Children always think they did something wrong when their parents disappear.” Then her father’s second marriage, the stepmother, the drudgery, because she was the oldest girl in a house filled with eight children and so was pressed into adult service, cleaning and wiping and changing, when she was still a child herself; secrets and desires, her life before the mirror, which has followed her everywhere; high school, where she was beautiful. but punky and strange. “I didn’t fit into the popular group,” she said. “I wasn’t a hippie or a stoner, so I ended up being the weirdo. I was interested in classical ballet and music, and the kids were quite mean if you were different. I was one of those people that people were mean to. When that happened, instead of being a doormat, I decided to emphasize my differences. I didn’t shave my legs. I had hair growing under my arms. I refused to wear makeup, or fit the ideal of what a conventionally pretty girl would look like. So of course I was tortured even more, and that further validated my superiority, and helped me to survive and say, ‘I’m getting out of here, and everyone is a heathen in this school–you don’t even know who Mahler is!'” She found refuge in dance class and went on to the University of Michigan to study dance, but for just a year, because then she was gone to New York.
Because this is mythology, a short struggle was followed by a quick ascent to stardom. When was it? Nineteen eighty-two? Nineteen eighty-four? The birth of the music video? “Borderline”? And just like that, every girl in every school is Madonna Ciccone, with her shitty magnificence and lacy driving gloves and bare midriff and spangles. Here is my favorite quote–it’s an editor at Billboard talking to Jay Cocks in 1985 for Time: “Cyndi Lauper will be around a long time. Madonna will be out of the business in six months.”
I felt the presence of Madonna as soon as I landed at LAX. It was as if she had been there a moment ago, and, in fact, while waiting for my luggage, I scanned a copy of the New York Post and came upon a picture taken the day before which showed Madonna, having come through customs, holding her two-and-a-half-year-old son, David, whom site had adopted in Malawi in 2006, the cameras an inch from her face. “The paparazzi are out of control,” she would later say. “I haven’t been to Los Angeles in quite a while, and I don’t watch television here or in England, and I was told there’s now a television show where the paparazzi are the stars of the show–is that true? That they film each other doing paparazzi jobs? Which gives them more fuel. I usually found that type kept their distance–they definitely do in England, because it’s illegal to photograph children. But that’s not how it is here. They get this close, and don’t care how much they scare your children. Being famous has changed a lot, because now there’s so many outlets, between magazines, TV shows, and the Internet, for people to stalk and follow you. We created the monster.”
I was rushed to Century City frosts the airport, to the towering, new office building of CAA, the talent agency that represents Madonna, and seated in an empty screening room, which was spooky in the same way an empty church is spooky. The lights went down, and for 90 minutes I watched a documentary Madonna has written and produced, I Am Because We Are, whirls is African folk wisdom that means something like “It takes a village.” It too is about community–about identity and how it’s rooted in place. The movie sings of Malawi, a landlocked little nation in sub-Saharan Africa, ravaged by AIDS, filled with orphans– a world without adults that has become, in her middle years, the great cause of Madonna’s life. With this movie, it seems, site hopes not only to raise awareness but also to explain her own obsession with the motherless children of Africa.
It opens with Madonna walking in a crowd of Africans. Then her voice, which is the voice of the upper Midwest painted in Oxford glaze: “People always ask me why I chose Malawi. And I tell them, I didn’t. It chose me. I got a phone call from a woman named Victoria Keelan. She was born and raised in Malawi. She told me that there were over one million children orphaned by AIDS. Site said there weren’t enough orphanages. And that the children were everywhere. Living on the streets. Sleeping under bridges. Hiding in abandoned buildings. Being abducted, kidnapped, raped. Site said it was a state of emergency. Site sounded exhausted and on the verge of tears. I asked her how I could help. She said, You’re a person with resources. People pay attention to what you say and do. I felt embarrassed. I told her I didn’t know where Malawi was. Site told me to look it up on a map, and then she hung up on me. I decided to investigate, and I ended up finding out much more than I bargained for, about Malawi, about myself, about humanity.”
To date, Madonna has adopted just the one child from Malawi. David, who has joined Madonna’s other children, 11-year-old Lourdes and 7-year-old Rocco, in a town house in London. It was the birth of Lourdes, in 1996, that put Madonna on the road that ended in Malawi. “If you have children, you know you’re responsible for somebody,” she explained. “You realize you are being imitated; your belief systems and priorities have a direct influence on these children, who are like flowers in a garden. So you start to second-guess everything you value, and the suffering of other children becomes much more intolerable.”
If anyone ever won a lottery, it’s this child, David. who one moment was living in poverty in Africa and the next had been down to a palace in the great frozen North. You see him in the film, bowlegged and stocky in the endearing way of the destitute man-child, looking adult, wizened. It’s no mystery why Madonna picked David. Look at him, he’s adorable. It was this adoption–the fact that Madonna went into an orphanage of AIDS-infected children and somehow came out with a child who did not have AIDS and is not an orphan–that set off the furor, especially in the British press, that the movie seems meant to address. Laws had been brushed aside, the request expedited. As if the dynamic of colonialism or First World/Third World were being played out between this one superstar and this one child. Then David’s father, Yohane Banda, turned up. He told reporters he had placed his son in the orphanage only temporarily, and let him be adopted at the urging of authorities. “The government people told me it would be a good thing for the country,” he told The Christian Science Monitor “They said he would come back educated and be able to help us.”
What a strange life for David, being carried off to London — like Pocahontas, the beautiful Indian girl found in wild America — because, as Conrad wrote of London, “this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.” Like Pocahontas, who marveled at the brick buildings and endless streets and was shown off and feted, but still lonely, because the Empire has everything but what is most important — a kind of purity or righteous connection to the land. “Africa is not doing great,” Madonna told me, “but. on the other hand, how much have they contributed to the destruction of the world? Nothing compared to what we have, and we have everything.” In other words, Madonna brings this boy into her house and gives him everything, but gets something in return: a living totem of life as it was lived before machines.
After the movie, I was brought to the office of Madonna’s manager, where I sat in a boardroom and listened to Madonna’s new record (Hard Candy) on an iPod. It was a long day. The morning flight. the articles, the movie, the record. then the interview. It was like being brainwashed. Like being dropped in a vat of Madonna. But it’s how they wanted it — how I was purified and prepared. Like they do in the cults. Make sure the mark is softened before he sits with the eminence. As Madonna herself told me, “I just wanted you to know where my head is at.”
Madonna made the record with Justin Timberlake, who co-wrote five of the songs and sings on four, Pharrell Williams, and the producer Timbaland. “I didn’t have any idea what kind of music I wanted to make,” Madonna told me. “I just knew I wanted to collaborate with Pharrell and Justin. I needed to be inspired and thought, Well, who’s making records I like? So I went, ‘I like that guy and I like that guy.’ It’s not like we hit it off right away. Writing is very intimate. You have to be vulnerable and it’s hard to do that with strangers. I had ups and downs before everybody got comfortable, but I grew very fond of Pharrell and Justin.”
Many of the songs are hybrids, traditional Madonna super-pop, workout tunes giving way to white hip-hop, Justin Timberlake showering cascades of rhyme. I was listening to the music, and it’s at record I think Madonna fans will like. because it’s filled with songs you can imagine blasting from the room where they hold spinning class, but I kept thinking about Britney Spears. I mean, here is Madonna, singing with Justin, whose very public breakup with Britney marked the moment the pop tart began her battle with the furies. And, of course, I was also thinking of those MTV Video Music Awards in which Britney, already well on her way to madness, frenched Madonna. In light of this record. and all that’s happened, I wondered if, in the course of that kiss, Madonna somehow extracted Britney’s south from her body, or implanted the crazy chip. When I began to ask Madonna about Britney–specifically in relation to the paparazzi–she stopped me (before I even said Britney’s name) with a raised hand, saying, “Yes, I know. I know exactly what you’re going to say. It’s very painful. Which leads us back to our question: When you think about the way people treat each other in Africa, about witchcraft and people inflicting cruelty and pain on each other, then come back here and, you know, people taking pictures of people when they’re in their homes, being taken to hospitals, or suffering, and selling them, getting energy from them, that’s a terrible infliction of cruelty. So who’s worse off? You know what I mean?”
I took notes as I listened to Hard Candy. There area dozen songs. Now and then, I took a break. Now and then, my mind drifted. Now and then, Liz Rosenberg, Madonna’s longtime publicist, who wore heavy glasses with dark frames, came in to see how I was doing. Later, when I looked over my notes, I found just a few bits worth preserving:
– Madonna is turning. 50 in August.
– Madonna made her fortune selling sex — what will she sell when the thought of sex with Madonna seems like a fetish?
What if there were just the songs — no videos, no movies, no concerts. How would we judge Madonna?
– How closely does the movie career of Madonna parallel the movie career of Elvis?
(With the first film being the only one that matters.)
– First you sit alone in at screening room. watching Madonna among Africans, then you sit alone in at boardroom, hearing Madonna with rappers.
– To reach Madonna, you must pass through many rooms.
– The lyrics to her song “Candy Shop”:
I’ll be your one stop
Candy shop …
Have some more …
My sugar is raw
Sticky and sweet
This is a big moment for Madonna. There is the documentary and the record, but also a dramatic film, Filth and Wisdom,
which she co-wrote, produced, and directed. Madonna’s debut as an auteur The movie, which started as a short and grew into at feature, will be released on iTunes, which, depending how you see the world, is a desperate such or a bold gesture. Its first showing was at the Berlin Film Festival, where it received some snotty reviews (much mocked was a press release in which the names of two of Madonna’s heroes, Godard and Pasolini. were misspelled) and some positive. “Madonna has done herself proud,” James Christopher wrote in The Times of London. “Her film has an artistic ambition that has simply bypassed her husband, the film director Guy Ritchie. She captures that wonderfully accidental nature of luck when people’s lives intersect for a whole swathe of unlikely but cherishable reasons. Alt manesque would be stretching the compliment too far, but Filth and Wisdom shows Madonna has real potential as a director.”
“I’ve been inspired by films since I started dancing, and I’m married to a filmmaker, and I think it was one of my secret desires, but I was afraid to just say, ‘I want to be a director,’ ” she told me. “Butt then one day I said. O.K., stop dreaming and do it. But I didn’t want to do it the Hollywood way, and talk through agents. I decided it all had to be generated by me, so I wrote it.”
She then said, “It was my film school.”
Filth and Wisdom stars Eugene Htitz, the Ukrainian lead singer of the downtown New York gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello, whose vocal style is somewhere between Joe Strummer and Borat. Hutz is lanky and wears an elaborate mustache, and is so charismatic he holds the movie together, almost, while it follows a half-dozen people around London as they search for truth.
“I feel this film was seriously influenced by Godard,” Madonna said. “He’s the one filmmaker I was always inspired by, but I have a lot of other filmmakers I was inspired by, all dead Europeans. I went to the University of Michigan for one year, and fortunately they had a foreign-film cinema, and I discovered it, and I thought I died and went to heaven. I discovered Fellini and Visconti and Pasolini and De Sica and Bunuel.”
The movie is organized around Madonna’s philosophical notions, beliefs she has taken from Kabbalah, which is a Hebrew word for the teaching. Kabbalists believe there were two revelations on Mount Sinai: what God told Moses to write on the tablets, and a secret teaching, what the Infinite whispered to the Finite, which was then passed from father to son. Most celebrity religions, which is what Kabbalah became in L.A., offer distinct levels of understanding – one for the masses, another for the elite – which echoes the existing celebrity worldview: outside or inside, onstage or plunged into darkness. For Madonna, Kabbalah, as taught at the Kabbalah Centre, had the advantage of seeming to reinforce what she already felt to be true: there is no good and evil, no right and wrong. All such distinctions are artificial. “Ultimately everything’s good,” she told me. “Even bad is good, because bad is there to help you resist it. You need to have that resistance to be good, and, let’s face it, the worst things that happen are always the best things that happen. If you look back at your life and say, Well, what did you learn? What happened that changed your life, that made you strong, that made you grow, it’s always things you perceived as bad.
“So is there bad?”
What’s Madonna’s genius?
It’s not her work as a singer, nor as a songwriter, nor as a director, certainly not as an actor, nor as a maker of videos, even if that’s what Norman Mailer said in 1994 in his Esquire interview with Madonna: “She not only made the best music videos of them all, but they transcended personality. She was the premier artist of the music video, and it might be the only new popular art form in American life.”
In the end, Madonna will be remembered as a minter of images. Think back on her career. It’s not songs you remember, or not primarily, nor films, nor videos; it’s the scenes or little tableaux. Madonna is the Joseph Cornell of pop music. You recall her career as a series of lit boxes, face cards in a marked deck: Madonna as a street urchin, in spangles; Madonna as Marilyn, in satin; Madonna as a deflowered virgin, writhing onstage in a wedding dress; Madonna as Saint Francis of Assisi, covered in icons and weeping for fragile things; Madonna on the Cross, like Jesus, but better, because did Jesus ever come down from the Cross to sing a song?
Fashioning images: images that riff on Scripture, images that riff on junk culture, images that riff on other images – that’s been her genius. If you go back and consider her career – because Madonna is one of the stars of the age so presumably tells a story greater than her own, about her people or time – you will see there has been nothing but images, spun off one after another, like souls flying off the mighty wheel. Beautiful artifice, puzzles, surfaces, masks. So you decide that only the first Madonna was real, the sexy round-faced girl in lacy gloves, but when you go back and look, you see this Madonna too was borrowed – as she borrowed from Marilyn, as she borrowed from Evita. It came from the downtown dance joints and club kids, the last of the 70s punk and art scenes. (In the early 80s, Madonna dated the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat.) So you decide that only Madonna before Madonna was real, the girl whose mother died, who let hair grow on her legs, who pestered her father to send her to dance class, then lit out. But when you go back and really look, the details seem so vague and generic that that too dissolves. It’s like a tub filled with suds, and you search and search but never find the naked lady. I think Madonna is aware of this, which, in part, explains her interest in Kabbalah, which is a search for timeless things, for depth. She is hunting for what might be salvaged, for what will remain when she is 65, when she is 70. For a pop star, there are, in a way, two deaths – or maybe more: maybe a pop star dies again and again.
Iinterviewed Madonna for almost two hours. Liz Rosenberg took me in. We went down a nondescript hall, made two turns, went through a door, and here, finally, was the room at the center of the maze. Madonna sat bolt upright on a leather couch. She wore a white dress – at least, that’s what I think she was wearing. She was stunningly beautiful. I mean, you’ve seen this person only on TV or in movies, in two dimensions, now here she is. What’s more, when I was in high school, I dated so many girls because they looked like Madonna that I had the feeling I had slipped off my chains and made my way out of Plato’s cave and was seeing the real thing at last.
Madonna’s hair was blond and pulled back from her face, which was porcelain and perfect in the way of Grace Kelly in Rear Window, when she moves in to kiss Jimmy Stewart, who is sweaty. Something clean in a dirty world. I turned on my tape recorder. Liz Rosenberg sat in the corner, working on her BlackBerry.
Madonna spoke of Africa: “If you’ve got one iota of compassion, you can’t ignore what’s going on. You have to figure out a way to be a part of the solution.”
Madonna spoke of New York, how it’s changed: “It’s not the exciting place it used to be. It still has great energy; I still put my finger in the socket. But it doesn’t feel alive, cracking with that synergy between the art world and music world and fashion world that was happening in the 80s. A lot of people died.”
She spoke of the music business: “Well, there’s one thing you can’t download and that’s a live performance. And I know how to put on a show, and enjoy performing, and I’ll always have that.”
She spoke of the long career: “Honestly, it’s not something I sit around ruminating about. Who is my role model and how long can I keep this going? I just move around and do different things and come back to music, try making films and come back to music, write children’s books and come back to music.”
She spoke of Guy Ritchie: “We make different kinds of movies. I don’t have the technical knowledge he has. He’s got a vision, and his films are very testosterone fueled. Mine are much more from a female point of view, and I can’t help but be autobiographical in everything I do.”
She spoke of having children, how it changes everything. I asked her to name her favorite children’s books. She said Winnie the Pooh, Pippi Longstocking, Horrid Henry. I told her I had never read Pippi Longstocking.
Madonna: Do you have a daughter?
Me: No, three sons.
[Madonna looks at me accusingly.]
Me: I didn’t choose it – it just happened. Madonna: Do you believe that? You think things just happen?
Me: I think that just happened.
Me: So who’s making the decision?
Madonna: You are, you and your missus.
Me: About what kind of kids we want?
Madonna: You chose it. Your soul chose it.
Me: No. Do you believe that? That my insides wanted boys?
Madonna: Unconsciously. Yes.
Me: I kind of like the idea, three sons – it’s like having a little army out in the woods.
Madonna: And all the work they can do, and you can teach them carpentry and then build houses for you in Old Greenwich, or wherever you live.
I asked Madonna about Kabbalah. She looked at me as if to gauge the nature of my interest, then spoke.
“A lot of people join the group, but don’t know why,” Madonna said. “I was raised a Catholic and was never encouraged to ask questions, or understand the deeper meanings or mystical implications of the New Testament or the history of Jesus, or the fact that he was Jewish, or anything, you know? So I rejected that, because who wants to go through life being told you do things because you do things? When I started going to classes and studying [Kabbalah], I did it out of curiosity. I was told it was the mystical interpretation of the Old Testament.”
She said Kabbalah is a philosophy, a way of understanding, lessons.
“Like what?” I asked.
She said, “One is that we are all responsible for our actions, our behavior, and our words, and we must take responsibility for everything we say and do. When you get your head wrapped around that, you can no longer think of life as a series of random events – you participate in life in a way you didn’t previously. I am the architect of my destiny. I am in charge. I bring that to me, or I push that away. You can no longer blame other people for things that happened to you.
“The other is that there is order in the universe, even though it looks like chaos. We separate the world into categories: this is good and this is bad. But life is set up to trick us. It’s a series of illusions we invest in. And ultimately those investments don’t serve our understanding, because physicality is always going to let you down, because physicality doesn’t last.”
She looked out the window. Los Angeles was there, the hills studded with houses, marbled by streets and ablaze in light, rising and falling, ending at the sea. It seemed to beckon in the way of those crystalline landscapes in old Flemish religious paintings, where Jerusalem looks just like, say, Holland, not because the painter was stupid, or untraveled, or did not know, but because, when you believe, every city is Jerusalem. “You have to get to a point where you care as little about getting smoke blown up your ass as you do when you become a whipping boy in the press,” Madonna said, “because ultimately they both add up to shit. You just have to keep doing your work, and hope and pray somebody’s dialing into your frequency.”
She then said, “If your joy is derived from what society thinks of you, you’re always going to be disappointed.”
For the past 20 years, Madonna has reigned as the mistress of reinvention — from pop star and actress, to wife and mother, and now her latest incarnation as children’s author. Here, in the most intimate interview of her career, the icon talks to Ginny Dougary.
If a novelist wished to alert his reader to his heroine’s earnest endeavor to become a humbler person and the obstructiveness of her own character in realizing that goal, he might well present us with a striking vignette in order to reveal the distance she has to travel. Let’s say Madonna were a fictional character – she has, on occasion, suggested that’s exactly what she is – and one’s intention was to convey the singer’s singular lack of self-awareness, it is doubtful whether a more vivid illustration could be invented than the one I witnessed at high summer in her Beverly Hills home.
I arrived at the appointed hour of 5pm at the security gates of her Spanish-style mansion, designed in 1926 by Wallace Neff, purveyor of palaces to the original Hollywood aristocracy. Madonna bought it from Diane Keaton in 2000, and by the end of the year she’ll be moving to a less “aesthetic”, more family-friendly home nearby. It’s dark and faintly oppressive inside with no breeze, no fans or air-conditioning. Within minutes, you can feel the energy draining out of you.
There’s disconcertingly familiar self-portrait of a mustachioed and turbaned Frida Kahlo staring at each visitor who walkes through the front door.
Turn left into a living-room, past half-a-dozen guitars on stands – one is a model of Bob Marley’s original, another had an intricate pattern of mother-of-pearl around the fretboard. Behind them, in the corner, is a baroque-style grand piano in pale wood.
A pair of french windows opens on to a modest oblong of lawn. Stepping back into the dark brows and caramel shadows of the room, to the right of the fireplace, you see a Picasso prong which is slipping down from its mount, and to the left another Frida Kahlo painting – the one Madonna said she loved so much that anyone who didn’t share her feelings could no longer be her friend. Husbands are clearly exempt – or, at least, this one is – since she later tells me that Guy Ritchie cannot stand it. But then, by the end of my time with Madonna, I have the distinct impression that the director of the headbutting gangland films, Lock, Stock… and Snatch, is a man of surprisingly delicate sensibilities.
The painting is of a woman, presumably dead because of the sheet which is pulled over her head a baby’s wizened face staring out between the splayed legs of the late mother. Next to them is a pool of blood. When I say to Alison, my interview’s well-meaning personal assistant, that the work is so much smaller and more muted than I expected, she says, “You know, it’s funny, that’s what a lot of people say about Madonna, when they first meet her, too.”
Beyond the door of the living-room, I see what one presumes are various employees come and go. Somewhere there is a woman speaking French and then a little girl – it is the singer’s first child, Lola, nearly seven – answers back as she walks down the stairs, looking like a perfect dark-skinned Degas, black hair pulled into a net, white tutu and leotard. Her mother is still nowhere to be seen.
Ten minutes later, a slight figure, not many inches higher than five feet, appears at the door, walks across the room and stops at the coffee table in front of me. She points to a neat stack of music next to a glossy book on Maria Callas and diamonds, boot-faced, to know who is responsible for the transgression of tidying up. Alison, the assistant, admits it was her and apologies, her boss berated her saying she was about to blame another member of her staff, and then fives a martyred sigh: “Ohhhh… I guess I’ll just have to sort it out later.”
So this is what it feels like to come face-to-face with the most famous woman in the world; one who has spent the past seven years in her Kabbalistic pursuit of infinite compassion and unconditional kindness. Actually, to be strictly accurate, at this stage it is not quite a case of face-to-face, since Madonna has yet to acknowledge my presence.
I boldly go over to introduce myself, only to be met by an intensely tepid response. Some years ago, an interviewee told me: “There are plenty of nice people in the world already. Why should I be one of them?” And that’s just the kind of line you can imagine the younger Madonna of Desperately Seeking Susan, with her studied air of nonchalant truculence, might have uttered. Back then her very charmlessness seemed to be part of her charm.
However, it’s one thing to epater le bourgoeis when you’re twentysomething, but it is neither cool nor classy – both of which Madonna aspires to be – for a grown-up woman in her forties to humiliate a member of her staff in front of a stranger. And for that matter. It’s pretty poor display of manners to the stranger, too.
The difficulty of getting into bed with Madonna, so to speak, is that she might already have got out of it the wrong side. Certainly, after our inauspicious start, proceedings for a while looked as though they were unlikely to go any more smoothly. Being a boring sticker for accuracy, I always make sure I’ve got my subjects’ ages right before embarking on the bigger stuff. “My age?” Madonna reacted as though it was, truly, the most flabbergasting thing she’d ever heard. “That’s a strange question.” (Coming up 44, she tells me; but since she was born in August 1958, according to Who’s Who and half-a-dozen other respectable reference books, I guess the extra year must have slipped her mind.)
She then let me know precisely where she stood on interviewing technique: “Here’s what I don’t like to do in interviews, I’ll just tell you right away. Usually people waste a lot of time asking if thousands of things are true or not true. In the end, it doesn’t even matter. That’s why when you asked my age, it’s, like, who cares? Who cares about that because, you know, the inaccuracy is always louder than the accuracy.”
When I have finished checking her children’s ages, their mother laughs impatiently and makes an attempt at crushing irony: “Do you know how much I weigh?” Do you want to tell me? “No.”
People normally ask how much you earn but I’m not going to. “I don’t even know.” But you’d know if people were messing up? “Yeah.” That would be annoying, right? “I always like it when they mess up and say that I’ve earned more than I earn. ‘You’re a BILLionaire.’ Hm-hmmm, that sounds good,” she cocks her head as though considering her billionaire-ness. “Not true, but sounds good.”
The conversation does, fortunately, pick up. But even when her brain starts to engage, there is something peculiarly awkward about Madonna’s body language. I might have put it down to the torpid atmosphere, or a grumpy mood, were it not for seeing her recent appearance on television with Jonathan Ross. There were no trace of cigar-chewing peroxide brashness of the Madonna whom the chat-show host had interviewed a decade previously – around the time of her Sex book, Erotica single, In Bed with Madonna documentary (aka Truth Or Dare) and movie, featuring S&M scenes, Body of Evidence.
That woman appeared as languorously at ease in her skin as a car, whereas this one was coiled and fidgety and complained about hating her looks. On the night, I attributed the change to the star’s adaptation to the English way of life (along with her taste for real ale and the Mini Cooper), where self-deprecation, rather than ebullient self-confidence, is the most effective way to go native. In other words, the likeliest explanation was that it was merely latest, although arguably oddest, in a long line of Madonna acts.
But here, in front of me, her fingers flutter around her mouth, she keeps placing her pale hand on her neck, as though attempting to strangle herself (now come on Madonna, the interview’s not that bad); she clutches a cushion, like a security blanket, to her stomach; this amalgam of twitchiness is so disquieting, I am moved to ask Madonna if she’s feeling OK and she says she’s tired, having struggled to read music and play the guitar all afternoon.
I’ve always loved the way Madonna puts herself together, from her plump-bellied cropped-Lycra multi bangled arrival in the mid-Eighties to her Pre-Raphaelite post-motherhood dreamy ringlets on Ray of Light in 1998 to her most recent hipster jeans and Kylie tribute T-shirt. but then, until we met – or, to be precie, until the unpleasant aftermath of our meeting . i’d been a Madonna fan for most of the past 20 years.
She seems to have taken fashion notes from the very young black American rapper Eve for her look today. It’s hotchpotch of styles: Barrow Boy, Great Gatsby, harlem, Shanghai Lil. Her sooty hair on American Life has reverted to her favored blonde, scraped back in a short ponytail beneath a herringbone flat cap. Her blue tweedy trousers are gaucho three-quarter-length flares with splits at either side and sit low on her hips; they should be ghastly nut they suit her. She’s sporting some sort of Seventies shirt and cardigan and Chinese embroidered slippers on her feet. She wears no make-up, and at times, particularly when her inner lip stops curling, she has a striking, although slightly drawn, beauty.
I note the red string bracelet which marks her as a Kabbalah follower and which – according to Yehuda Berg, the son of Rav Berg, popularizer of the ancient Jewish text – “is worn on the left wrist, the receiving side of the body and soul, sealing protective angry within while intercepting negative influences that exist…”
Madonna and I settle into an enjoyable bitch about L.A. before moving on to how the pop star has learnt to make an accommodation with the pitfalls of celebritydom; her take on the latter, which partly accounts for her distaste with the former, is evident from the message of her most recent single, Hollywood. She says the family only comes to Beverly Hills because of work, and right now Richie is working on financing his new film: “I’m trying not to complain too much but I am crossing the days off the calendar.” One can assume that the director is having a bit of a tough time after the fiasco of his last movie, Swept Away, starring the wife, coupled with with the challenge that his new Kabbalah-inspired script must present to the money-men of Hollywood.
I ask her whether she thinks the Brits are chuffed that she’s chosen to live on our side of the pond. “I try not to concern myself too much with what people think of me in America or England,” she says, quite reasonably, “because if you feel flattered when people are happy that you’re in their country, then you get hurt when they say unkind things, too. So I just try to remain immune to it all.”
When Madonna first became famous, she says, now breaking into her arch, sing-song voice, a peculiar hybrid of Kristin Scott Thomas and Loyd Grossman: “I did mistake it for love and approval. Of course. Everyone does, I think at the beginning.” I press her to elaborate on and, at last, she begins to unbend. “For me it meant a lot of things because I grew up without a mother (her mother, after whom the singer was named, died of cancer at the age of 30 when her daughter was only five), and with a father who was loving but quite emotionally detached in his way. I mean he did the best that he could. I had eight brothers and sisters (two of whom were the offspring of his second marriage to the woman who had been the family’s housekeeper) and I felt very awkward and out of place in school. Not popular, not attractive, not special in any way; and I was longing for love and approval from someone.
“And I started dancing and my dancing is what brought me to New York and that’s what brought me to music and that’s what brought me to career that I have. But it wasn’t until I became successful that I felt like I filled up my emptiness; “OK, I am… am…somebody,” she stammers, “I…am…am special. I do mean something.” And of course that’s complete rubbish because none of that means that you’re special; none of that means that you’re loved.
“I made the mistake of thinking that people really loved me. But loving a pop star is so extremely conditional and we all know that real love isn’t, so…”
Her career nadir came in the early Nineties, when there was something of a Madonna backlash: too much fetishistic imagery (the toe-sucking, the orgies, the silver-toothed dominatrix of Sex and Erotica), saying “f***” 13 times on the Late Show with David Letterman, making a public exhibition of herself with the lesbian comedian Sandra Bernhard (still one her favored shock tactics; on stage at last month’s MTV Awards, in a new interpretation of Like A Virgin, she French-kissed Britney Spears, 21, and Christina Aguilera, 22). the residual memory of her married years with Sean Penn couldn’t have helped either: his insistence that his wife be addressed as Madam on various film sets, his beating up of photographers, their combined obnoxiousness prompting them to be dubbed The Poison Penns (which, Madonna, true to her f***-off form, then appropriated to sign the couple’s Christmas cards).
It is her view that although the early Nineties was an “extremely hostile” time for her, it’s always been a roller-coaster of “liking me, not liking me, loving me, hating me… and so after a while you figure out that your true value and worth has nothing to do with public approval”.
If anyone’s a “Je ne regrette rien” person. I say, it must be you… “C’est vrai,” Madonna responds perkily. “and I’m not apologizing in any shape or form (for those Sex years). That’s where my head was at the time, I was interested in pushing buttons and being rebellious and being mischievous and trying to bend the rules. You know, I can’t even begin to tell you the things I was trying to do, but I was trying to do a lot of things. There was a lot of irony in the Sex book and I am poking fun at a lot of things and I am being kind of silly and adolescent and I am being very ‘F*** you, if a man can do it, I can do it.”
“I was also kicking off my own issues of sexuality and sexual repression that I was raised with. (Madonna must be one of the most notorious lapsen Catholics, having personally angered the Pope with her conflation of religious and sexual imagery.) A lot of it came from a good place but I’m not sure how altruistic it was. I mean, what was the point of it? Was I really trying to help people? Was I really trying to liberate people? Or was I just being an exhibitionist and basking in the glory of being a diva and being able to do whatever I wanted, I think that probably was mostly what it was.”
Well, I begin… but she hasn’t finished soul-searching: “You know, my consciousness was not on a very high level then. I think it was, ‘What am I gonna get out of this? How much money will I make? How much attention will I get?’ It was very self-involved and that’s kind of where I was then. I didn’t have any other, I didn’t have… my influenced at the time were people who were pretty much encouraging me to behave that way.”
It’s a long time since I saw the text and the photographs Madonna and I are discussing (her publisher, Callaway, apparently wasn’t able to find a copy of it), but at the time my impression was that it was an entirely legitimate exercise for the singer push the boundaries of sexual exploration. Other artists in other mediums had long been making their own forays into these fields; it’s just that she was the first female pop icon to go so far.
“There was that,” she agrees. “You know, I’d grown up with female role models like Frida Kahlo and Martha Graham and Anne Sexton – because they dared to be different, because they took the road less traveled. They were my inspirations and I got energy from them. I felt like I came from a very bland and repressed background and, you know, I’ll be damned if I’m gonna be that.”
She admired Kahlo, she says, because “She dressed like a man and she had mustache and managed to be glamorous. She smoked cigars and she drank whiskey and she competed in the art world and there weren’t any other woman at the time who were at the same level.”
(Madonna reputedly owns 18 Kahlo paintings and one of her purchases was the highest price paid for a female artist. As a result of the patronage, Kahlo has now eclipsed her husband, Diego Rivera, as the costliest painter to come out of Mexico.)
“And Anne Sexton’s poetry inspired me because she was very confessional… when I was making Truth or Dare, she was my muse in many ways because people kept saying, ‘People don’t want to know about how you feel’, and yet the women I responded to most all made their own self-portraits in a way.
“And Martha Graham did something incredibly scandalous which is she took the corsets off dancers and the pointe shoes and the bras. She liberated them and she had black women dancing with white women and she crossed all kinds of boundaries and she pushed buttons,” Madonna says and, when she is excited like this her enthusiasm is infectious. What a shame she doesn’t get off her high horse and let herself go more often.
“And all her pieces were based on Greek mythology and she would turn them around and she would be playing the male role,” she continues, “and they were very sexually provocative and powerful and they were about women dominating men. So I’m inspired by all that… and I don’t really know how it came to me, but in my own world – pop music – I wanted to do those same kind of things.”
Her final word on the Sex years is that she was trying to keep a theme going by immersing herself in all the different mediums: “But it makes perfect sense to me now how everyone would feel completely inundated and hit over the head by it. I mean, I have an extremely different point of view about sex now than I did then. But I needed to go through it, even if it’s means that I’ve come full circle.”
This is an interesting comment since it implies that Madonna has returned to the strict values of her upbringing; something to which we return towards the end of the interview. I ask her how she feels – apropos of some of the more graphically intimate shots in the book – about Lola seeing her in that way. It is clear when she does one of her clipped “Hm-hmmms” that Madam doesn’t much care for the question. “Well, I know she will one day.” she offers.
When I ask her whether she goes out of her way to protect her daughter from seeing those sort of images – and, alas, she only “artistically” snogged britney and Christina after we met – she says, again sounding like the voice of reason: “I protect her from sex full stop. She’s not aware of sexuality nor should she be. You know, we’ve sort of had little conversations about where babies come from but sex is not, and shouldn’t be, part of her repertoire right now.”
Nevertheless, I say, it will inevitably be strange for a daughter to see her mother in those poses, surely? “When she’s seven, yeah. But, maybe, when she’s 16 – not. I’d explain that’s me putting on a show. I’m playing a character, it’s not really me. I’m being an actress…”
We move on to the new book, which is just about as far removed from the old one as it is possible to be. The English Roses is the first of five children’s books written by Madonna, each loosely based on a different Kabbalah morality tale. The first one, certainly, is a delightful small object of desire, and one that every little girl I know would adore. It is gorgeously illustrated, in a sort of Madeleine meets David Hockney style, by Jeffrey Fulvimari. And it has a solid but unthumping message about why you shouldn’t be envious of others, make assumptions based on appearances, and ostracize people who seem different to you. Although I must say, to mention Madonna in the same breath as Roald Dahl and Raymond Briggs, as the Puffin MD does, brings new meaning to the word “puffery”.
I like the voice of the narrator which is appealingly bossy.
After we have introduced to the gang of four girls, the eponymous Roses, we meet the beautiful and nice but sad and lonely Binah. So why won’t the Roses invite Binah around for a cup of tea is she’s wonderful? Because they were a little bit jealous: “Well, maybe more than a little. haven’t you ever been green with envy? Or felt like you were about to explode if you didn’t get what somebody else had? If you say, “No”, you are telling a big fat fib and I am going to tell your mother. Now, stop interrupting me.”
The Roses’ Damascene moment comes when they are whisked off in the night by their fairy godmother, another splendidly no-nonsense character with a penchant for pumpernickel, and taken to Binah’s home incognito. There they discover the girl that they envied so much working like Cinderella in the kitchen, while upstairs in her frugal bedroom, next to her bed, there is a photograph of her beautiful mother who died long ago, The story, of course, has a happy ending and makes clear that it is definitely uncool to be unkind.
The death of your mother, so young, is likely to cast a long shadow over your whole life. On Ray of Light, the lyrics of Mer Girl could hardly express this more plainly: “I ran from my house… from my mother who haunts me / Even though she’s gone… I ran to the cemetery / And held my breath / And thought about your death… And I smelt her burning flesh / Her rotting bones / Her Decay / I ran and I ran / I’m still running today.”
One can see how writing stories for children might reconnect you to the time when your own mother read stories to you; perhaps it signals the completing of another circle in Madonna’s life. When she played Evita, Madonna tells me that she inevitably drew on the connection between her character’s early death through cancer and her mother’s. As for the parallels between Binah’s motherlessness, down to the photograph the singer keeps on her bedside table, and her own: “Well, yes, I did put that in because that’s my own personal experience and I needed to come up with things for her character where kids would stop and go, ‘Wow! What would that be like?'” It was reading at bedtime for her own daughter – her impatience with the traditional “princess” stories, the lack of spiritual instruction in most contemporary children’s fiction – that galvanized Madonna into doing it for herself.
“You know, the women in Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty or Snow White are really passive. They don’t move the plot along at all. They just show up, they’re beautiful, they get snapped by the prices, the princes tell them they want to marry them and then they go off and live happily ever after. And I thought, ‘Well, what’s a girl supposed to get out of this? That’s such a load of crap,'” Madonna harrumphs magnificently. “I’d read to the end and I’d say to Lola, ‘Wait a minute, nobody asked her what she wanted!’ and ‘Don’t you think it’s silly that she doesn’t say she loves him?’ And Lola would say (child humoring parent voice), “Yeah, Mum, that’s really silly.’ You know, it was always, ‘If you’re pretty, you get this; if you’re pretty, you get that.'”
Madonna says that Lola played a large part in this first book, in particular. The English Roses actually exist and are, in fact, named after Lola’s English friends and classmates – Nicole, Amy, Charlotte and Grace – at her French-speaking London school, the Lycee. It was Lola’s teacher who referred to the four girls thus (although the story, it should perhaps be stressed, is not about them): “And I though, ‘The English Roses,’ that’s funny. And I was already writing some of the other stories and I really wanted to write one about girls for girls about jealousy and envy and always wishing that you had something that somebody else had.
“But my daughter is also, to a certain extent, a little bit of Binah as well because in school often children can be quite mean and ostracize her because I’m her mother. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes, you know, everyone thinks, ‘She’s got everything, so we won’t pay attention to her.'” And then again, “She can think that people like her, that they only talk to her because she’s… so sometimes I feel like she needs to be bigger than she is. That she needs to be really fabulous so that she can get the same kind of attention she sees from people when they respond to me.”
Most children of the mega-famous face that conundrum, I suggest, taking the example of Paloma Picasso and the struggle she had defininf herself as her own person: “Well, I certainly don’t intend to ignore my children in the way Pablo did.”
It’s not the press – Hallelujah! – which worries Madonna vis-a-vis the emotional well-being other children, so much as their classmates’ parents. “Whatever it’s here in Los Angeles or in London, the kids are constantly bringing in magazines like OK! or Heat and coming up to my daughter and saying, ‘Look, Lola! There’s a picture of your mum! And there’s a picture of you! and I just… I just don’t know why people let their kids go to school with that crap. I don’t understand it, and I don’t want her to be thinking about it.”
When Madonna had mentioned that she had been isolated and friendless at school it did strike me as odd. Possibly because if I think of how I’ve admired her, it’s closer to the feeling I last had at school – nothing so obvious as a crush – but the way in which when you’ve just entered your teens, there are certain girls in the sixth form who dazzle with their difference, their rebelliousness, and they are nearly always leaders of the pack, rather than packless.
It’s always surprising, even given the sadness of loosing your mother, to hear that her home life in Bay City, Michigan, was not a happy one. She describes scenes of her father, Tony Ciccone, sitting in the hallway telling stories about talking vegetables while all her older and younger brothers and sisters drifted off to sleep… which sounds positively Waltonsesque in its tribal cosiness. But she has also written, rather less cosily, about her stepmother regularly presenting her with a wooden spoon with which she would later be spanked.
There were no books back at home but a number of teachers encouraged her reading habits: “They’re all dead now,” she sais, rattling off their names, “but they were amazing human beings, I adored them and I think they could see that I didn’t feel quite right about my peer group, so they were ecouraging me to be an artist and to be different – ‘It’s OK, you know.’ They were always giving me books to read. Some people think of home as their escape from school but – because I loved my teachers – school was my escape from home. I was looking for a mother figure, if you know what I mean.”
So by the time she was in her early teens, Madonna – daughter of a blue-collar worker who rose through the ranks to become a well-paid defence engineer with General Dynamics – had read Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor, although she is less fluent talking about them or their books than she is about any of her female role models. She particularly loved J.D. Salinger: “His characters were so eccentric and self-possessed and unusual, kind of. I really admired them and saw myself as them.” When she goes on to say that she also identified with Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar, I look alarmed and she actually laughs: “Haaaaa-ha. No, I’m not gonna off myself.”
Although Madonna is unguarded about how she was always looking for a mother figure, when I mention that her first manager Camille Barbone, noted something similar – the singer starts rolling her eyes. “I’ll have none of her armchair psychiatry,” she snorts derisively.
She’s equally dismissive about her former lover Warren Beatty and his devastating line, “She doesn’t want to live off camera, let alone talk,” which he had the brass (or balls) to make about Madonna while appearing in her documentary. “That wasn’t devastating, by the way,” she corrects me. “Not for me. And all I have to say is ‘Listen to the pot call the kettle black’,” this delivered with an exquisitely airy languor. “I mean, you know, if Warren Beatty didn’t want to be in my movie, he could have not signed a release form and not been on camera either. So… we’ll humor that remark.”
And just for the record: “I may have been more open about my personal life before I was married and had children, but did the public know everything about me? Absolutely not.”
When I was swotting up on Madonna before our meeting, I was struck by a comment she’d made quite early on in her career along the lines that if her mother had been around, she’s sure she would have grown up to have better manners. It made me wonder whether that abrasive quality she has was, in part, a consequence of being brought up in one of those domineering Italian-American families where the male rules… without the mediating influence of a strong, loving woman around.
I ask her to what extent she thinks her character was defined by her mother dying so young. “I think I’m less defined by it now than I was when I was younger because I have children,” she says, “and I have a family of my own and I don’t have this aching, yearning, longing feeling. I always think mothers must gave daughters a sense of themselves. Like, if you can look at your mother, you can watch her grow and change and mature and everything. It must give you an idea of who you could be. And I don’t know, I think I might have had… I know this will sound shocking, but I think I would probably have had more natural confidence if I’d had a mother.”
At times like this, committing Madonna’s words to the page – without any editorial intervention – gives one the oddest sense of being responsible for creating a sort of lie, or at least, a false impression, since she comes across so much more sympathetically in print than she did, to be frank, in person. She can be bright and thoughtful and amusing. But, more often than not, sitting there in that dark room, there was a striking dissonance between what she came out with, which was often heartfelt and articulate and the atmosphere aound her as she did so: her reined-in posture; her cool gaze; her tight clipped way of talking; the air she had of defying you not to take her seriously. And in the flesh, of course, you do not separate one from the other. She is also prone to being tiresome defensive – barking at you like a bully to define exactly what you mean by each question, if she doesn’t like the gist of it – which is liable to make even the most generously disposed interviewer feel edgy. And, at the end of the day, for someone who prides herself on being so smart, that’s pretty dumb way to behave.
The interview takes a turn for the worse, unfortunately, when I take the suggestion that we should perhaps talk a bit about the Kabbalah (pronounced kab-a-lah with equal stress), which she has been studying for seven years. “Yes, let’s talk about the most important thing,” she replies, then proceeds to do so far many minutes.
Fragmentation, a bad thing to be avoided, is a buzz word which she uses a lot: “The philosophy of the Kabbalah is that there is no fragmentation. We are all one… so do I think I am better than this person, do I think I am less than this person?…” When I interrupt her with a question, she snaps: “Look, this is really important to me because obviously it defines almost everything that I am. And it is a struggle for me because I live in a world and work in a world this is about popularity and who’s better-looking and who’s not, who’s richer and who’s not, who’s at the top of the list and who’s at the bottom of the list. So to come to this place in my life and realize that I have a responsibility to bring people together and to help people realise there is no such thing as fragmentation, but then to keep working in a world that is basically completely defined by that in the ultimate challenge for me.”
There is an awful lot more of this, and I don’t intend to impose it on the reader… although when I ask Madonna whether she’s finished after a particularly long burst, she says, “No.” You don’t feel you’ve finished? I ask anxiously. “No, I’ve never finished talking about the Kabbalah.” Well, that could be her sense of humor, on the other hand it could be what she really means.
We start talking about 9/11 and she says that her business manager was killed in the attack. And then she says that since she believes in personal and global karma, “It’s only a matter of time, when people are negative, and the majority of people are, for us to open things up to an entity, for people like Osama bin Laden or Hitler. So the fact that they can do the evil deeds that they do, eventually that’s our respondibility. We created it. We created an opening with our desire to ‘receive for only ourselves’ mentality. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have compassion – because I was personally affected by it – but it’s not about being a victim. It’s not about saying, ‘Oh, God, that’s so horrible, we were hurt, we were attacked, those horrible people.'”
What hooked Ritchie, a commited Darwinist, was the Kabbalah’s scientific thrust. “It’s challenging. It’s like a physics lesson, the bridge between science and spirituality. (I’m intrigued to read that the list of figures the Kabbalah is said to have influenced include Pythagoras, Plato, Newton, Shakespeare and Jung.) And, sure, Guy was cynical about it at the beginning,” she says. “When I first met him he was taking the wind out of the sails of Christianity, and saying it was a load of bulwarks.”
Bulwarks? “Sorry, it rubs off on me,” Bulwarks? “I don’t say it with the right accent?” No, you say ‘bulwarks’ when it should be ‘bullocks’, sorry, anyway… “That’s OK.” Anyway… “Bar-lax? Bullocks?… BOLL-OCKS!” Yes, yes, that’s it!
“So I was studying and I’d say. ‘Come to a class with me,” and people do those things for people they love. And to make a long story short, my husband took a very long time before he would actually start saying, ‘I study Kabbalah’ because I think he would actually start saying. ‘I study Kabbalah’ because I think he was kind of emberrassed and he doesn’t want to subscribe to anything that’s preceived as being religious, whic it’s not, and he wanted to be his own person, and a lot of hhis Jewish friends were saying, ‘What are you studying that for? It’s like a kind of provate sect of Judaism’ – and whatever. But the bottom line is that it’s very scientific and that’s what appeals to Guy.”
I ask her whether she considers that she’s bossy. “Oh yes, definitely. Sometimes. Not always, My husband’s bossy, too. We take turns bossing each other around.” Do you have a lot of rows? “Yeah, but we don’t fight as much as we used to.” So is it the kabbalah that’s made you all lovely and calm and serene? “I would hardly define us as calm and serene. But I would say that’s a lot of it. ‘Cos a lot of what we used to fight about is really stuff based on out ego and taking things personally; and when you really take it down to the root of what’s really bothering you, you relise it’s pretty ridiculous. So it’s easier for us to take wind out of each other’s sails… ‘What yre you doing that for?’ ‘You know, you’re just reacting – that’s not you,'” she slips back into her sing-song voice, “‘that’s your eee-go.'”
It’s not about who takes the rubbish out, I suppose? “No. But I have accepted that my husband’s a snob and I’m the one who tidies up.” Are you anally retentively tidy? “Yes, I am. Guilty as charged. And I do stand like a headmistress when my husband comes into the bathroom and dumps his clothes on the floor and I stand there (she points to the floor) and go, ‘Ahem!'”
Does he call you Madonna? “No, he doesn’t. Ever.” He must call you something, I imagine. “He calls me ‘wife’ – ‘Wife, where are you?’ Or ‘wiff’. And he calls me Missus. And if he ever does call me madonna, I say, ‘Did you call me Madonna?’ (with amazement) It’s usually when we’re having a discussion and he forgets that I’m his wiff, and he actually says my name, and I go, ‘What-a-a-t? Say that again, it’s nice.’ So does he say, ?Hey, wiff, have you seen my socks?” “Yes. He calls me Mum sometimes, too.” Oh God! How awful, I say, shocked, you’ve got to stop him doing that immediately – and she giggles, very engagingly, as though realising that she’s admitted something quite dreadful.
She’s romantic, she says, very sentimental, very affectionate and, yes, “I enjoy sex”. She didn’t do any of the pre-maternal body-prep work for the birth of Rocco that I underwent, and looks a bit appalled when I bring it up – but then Americans, even when they’re Madonna can be awfully prudish. “I left my husband out of all that stuff,” she says. Oooh, I say, intrigued, are you one of those French-ey women who believe in mystique or marriage and never letting your husband catch sight of you shaving your legs? “Yes.” Are you, really? “Uh-huh.” Well, good for you. She laughs quite nicely.
I say that it’s interesting how different her two husbands have been from her lovers; the latter tending to be dark and Latino, with Valentino good looks – “Well, they were chosen for the wrong reason. Clearly,” she says, ome eyebrow shooting up – and the latter who are more, well, less fine-featured and very – “Macho”, Madonna helps. And of course, Penn and Ritchie both had successful careers of their own, so were financially independent, unlike most of the boyfriends. I say that she probably wouldn’t have been able to beat marrying someonme she didn’t consider her equal. “I guess that’s true and I guess the other relationships – I don’t want to diminish them,” she says, mindful perhaps of Lola’s father. carlos Leon, her former trainer, “but I probably wasn’t really interested in having a terribly serious relationship or a relationship where I was going to be challenged, so I made decisions based on how they looked more than – What do we have in common? Will he intellectually stimulate me?”
As we are talking, Rocco, three, his flaxen hair gleaming on the brightness outside, is being pushed by a tricycle along the drive by his nanny. I think I glimpse his father, Guy Ritchie – back view in a T-shirt – and Madonna mentions that he has probably just come back from fishing, his new passion. (Along with the shooting, presumably, on their Wiltshire estate of Ashcombe House which was once rented by Cecil Beaton.) Becoming a parent has definiutely brought out some traditional values in Madonna. Both television and swearing are banned: “If anyone swears (which includes saying ‘shut up’, ‘stupid’ and ‘the hate word’) they have to put money into a pot, and I have had to put a few quarters into that pot,” she says, mock-ruefully. “My kids are like the swearing police.”
Has motherhood put a distance between her and her old partying friends? “Not really,” she says. “If anything has put a difference between me and my friends it’s that I’m on a spiritual passage and they’re not. Because now I look at life differently, and I can’t stand being around people who whinge and act like victims.”
Where things really go wrong is when I make the mistake of mentioning the Andrew Morton biography. She is talking about visiting children in a tertminal cancer ward: “And you just think, ‘How can I ever complain about anything again? I’m so lucky; I’m so blessed,’ and you spend the next couple of weeks feeling really luck, and then it goes away.” Oh I say, I didn’t know that you made those visits until I read the Morton book. Now, I’m no particular fan of the writer, but – as I pointed out – unlike some of her other trashy biographies, there was at least an attempt made by him to extricate the myths from the reality.
She now turns to me and asks in a very nasty tone of voice indeed: “Don’t you want to ask me any more questions aboute the book? Which is why I’m doing the interview.” And I suppose I must have given her a look, because then she says, ?Or did I say enough about the book? “The children’s book.” Is there anything else you feel you wanted to say about it? “I guess not.”
This seems the right time to ask Madonna why she felt it necessary to lend her iconographic status to the Gap, by appearing in their automn advertising campaign. Her Kabbalah shtick about how “We are all one” and global unity and lack of fragmentation, sits pretty oddly with a multinational company which has been very publicly accused of allowing sweatshops practices in its Third World factories. Since Madonna doesn’t not read newspapers, she tells me, and we know she doesn’t watch television, she obviously cannot be expected to evaluate whether or not such a partnership is a responsible or not. But doesn’t she have any friends or employees who are more aware of what’s going on in the world ?
She chooses not to discuss the ad campaign, in which she and Missy Elliott get into the groove of corduroy – (a Gap spokesperson tells me that her fee of $10 million in the press has been “greatly exaggerated”) – but focuses on the children’s book deal instead. “Well, they’re helping me, so I did it for different reasons than you think, because they’re selling the children’s books in their store, and all the money is going to the Spirituality for Kids Foundation, so that’s why I did it. It’s not for me. I didn’t get paid for it.
And then, she says: “But that said, there’s exploitation going on in every part of the world and God only knows who has suffered for any of the clothes I’m wearing: the hat I’m wearing or the shoes I wear or…” But shouldn’t that be a concern which has an absolute bearing on her kabbalistic way of thinking? She doesn’t seem to hear me: “I hear that people who grow coffee beans don’t get paid very good wages and they’re treated really badly but I don’t wanna stop drinking coffee, so…” But surely, I ask, there’s Fair Trade coffee, if you’re really serious about thinking globally…? “Yes but one has to educated about these things and I didn’t know.”
We did manage, and this must be partly to Madonna’s credit, to get back on to an even keel after this. She was quite funny on the legendary “imbued with healing through meditation” Kabbalah water she drinks: “I’m not gonna sell it but it works for me, and it has gotten rid of my husband’s verrucas and he’ll tell anybody his boring verrucas story.” And, I never felt more bonded with her – on a basic woman-to-woman level- than when she explained why she was trying to have another child. She said: “The last two times I’ve been pregnant I’ve been sort of basket case wondering – Do I want to stay in this relationship? Am I gonna get married? Is this a good thing? What am I going to do? Now, of course, it’s very different. “But because of my exercising and this, that and the other. I’ve kids of screwed up my cyyle a bit and I’m going to the doctors to make sure I’m OK to have a baby. So wish me luck.” And, of course, with all my heart, I do.
Lola appears at the door – with mother hardly ever calls her Lourdes – and Madonna asks me if I would like to meet the quintessential girl. She introduces us impeccably and is absolutely lovely with her daughter, plying her with questions: “Who was your teacher today? Was it Katherine? Is she nice? Are you tired? Are you in a funny mood? Are you really hungry?” And all I can say is I’ve rarely seen a face so suffused with tenderness.
Lola I look at her mum’s book together and she picks out her favorite pages and then Madonna signs it for me – against express instructions from her publisher – and she does some autographs for my kids, and then she takes off to sort out Lola’s supper – hand in hand with her daughter – and waves goodbye, saying she’ll take me to Kabbalah meeting as her guest next time she’s in London. “Bye, Madonna.” “Bye, Ginny.”
I leave for the airport feeling that she had been hard work, and occasionally tricksy, but that between the two of us we had managed to get a revealing, truthful portrait of one of the most public figures of our time, one who – despite her all-too-human flaws – was seriously trying to get her life on balanced footing. Good for Madonna, I thought.
What followed was any journalist’s idea of a nightmare. The very next day the rumbles started, with complaints about “tabloid” questions. This escalated into a full-blown inquiry with her people threatening to stop dealings with The Times unless they had full approval and control of the interview; something that had never been discussed at any point. The number of people representing the pop star seemed to multiply; her personal publicist in America, her personal publicist in Britain, her published in the US, her published in the UK, her publishers’ publicists, and super-agent Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie. The discussions went on for four weeks and were eventually resolved, with the result that this interview is appearing as it was intended, without any interference.
Flicking through Yehuda Berg’s new Kabbalah book, The 72 Names of God, I was struck by one meditation: “You bring forth the powers of observation to see the truth,,, and the courage to handle it!”
Three years shy of 50, Madonna – mother of two, devoted wife, Kabbalist, children’s author and pop icon – has lost none of her ability to startle.”I like to wake people up,” she says quietly, as she sips a glass of iced tea at Home House, the private London club where she has entertained friends Demi Moore and Gwyneth Paltrow. I’m Gonna Tell You a Secret, her documentary of 2004’s Re:Invention tour, which airs on Channel 4 next month is bound to make us sit up, as is her new album, Confessions on a Dance Floor.
The queen of all that is mad, bad and most deliberately dangerous to know has always set out to destabilise the status quo. “If I had an aim,” she says, “it was to show that you could be sexy and have a brain. It was always going to be a wake-up call.”
In black tracksuit and baseball cap, she is direct, relaxed, curious, quick-witted and occasionally ironic, with a sexually charged charisma. Her hair is unfussily arranged under her cap and the makeup is minimal. She is small (5ft 41in), even delicate, which makes all the more remarkable the stadium scenes where she has 30,000 fans eating out of her hand.
At a party she can seem almost invisible: no diva-like entrance or sparkling, show-off outfits. She is modest and, in fact, easy to miss – until she turns her attention to you. Her private life is a million miles from showbiz pizzazz. At home she likes it cosy: snuggling up on a sofa with a book, chatting to friends.
The bio-doc – which shows her merrily swigging a pint in a pub with her husband, Guy Ritchie, swearing and laughing at blue jokes – is very Madonna. She doesn’t do conformity or convention: “Life is a paradox and I’m not a saint,” she says. “I don’t claim to be righteous or anything.”
The film (cut from 350 hours to just under two) is the most revealing take on her life ever. “I married Guy for all the wrong reasons,” she declares provocatively at one point. It starts with a voiceover reciting a doom-laden warning from the Book of Revelation that the material world will be our undoing. That’s right – a spiritual health warning from the Material Girl. Kabbalah is to Madonna what the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was to the Beatles. “I have a huge ego,” she says. “I needed to change. Knowing is the beginning.”
Material Girl was, she says, never meant to be taken at face value. “Somehow people have always missed my sense of irony. Irony’s not big in America. I have never been a material girl.
“I don’t need to drive around in flash cars and I don’t need to show off. I’m perfectly happy to go for walks every day for a month at my house in the countryside. That doesn’t mean I can’t have expensive tastes, like nice sheets on my bed, or enjoy architecture and pictures. But I do know what makes for a healthy balance in life.”
The biggest change in her life has been Ritchie. Asking to be introduced as Mrs Ritchie when she presented the Turner prize in 2001 was no playful conceit – her personal letterhead says Mrs Ritchie. Marriage is a big deal for her, which brings us to that “marrying for the wrong reasons” comment. “I just meant I went into the marriage saying, “He’s fantastically talented, very witty, very smart. He’s going to make me laugh and look good because he’s so successful and, of course, he’s gorgeous, sexy and handsome”.
“But none of those things mean anything after you’ve been sharing a life together for a few years and you’re dealing with raising children and scheduling and finances. You have to go back to what is the point of this marriage. You go to school to learn how to learn and I think marriage is about learning to learn as well. Diane Sawyer (the US television journalist) once said to me that a good marriage is a contest of generosity – I thought that was a good thing to say.”
She is adamant that marriage is far better than just living together. “When you live with someone you don’t really respect the union completely. There isn’t the same sense of responsibility. You can leave whenever you like.”
Was committing to marriage scary? “No, I wasn’t scared at all, not the first or the second time. That is the domain of men,” she retorts. Of her marriage to Sean Penn she says: “I just wasn’t ready to be married before. I was completely obsessed with my career and not ready to be generous in any shape or form.”
In a cameo appearance in his wife’s film, Ritchie comes across as very much his own man. He is unshaven, classless, comfortable with himself and “the missus”. They banter away sweetly. “Aren’t you going to wish me luck?” she asks just before she goes on stage. “Go on, bird, fly,” he says. He is very, very normal, very English – he likes to sing old English country ballads with friends over a pint or three in his local – and this stands in contrast to the craziness of a pop tour.
Both are self-educated. “It’s what I was attracted to in Guy because, like me, he is hungry for knowledge,” says Madonna. “When I first met him he was reading voraciously. His thing was Darwinism and the evolution of the species and we would get into these philosophical debates about Christianity versus atheism and Darwinism versus Genesis. I had never had these conversations with anyone before. And I found them thrilling.”
Juggling life as mother, wife, singer, dancer and writer – as well as the CEO of Madonna Inc – is tough. “I get frustrated. I think I can manage my day and fit it all in. But it gets to eight o’clock and I go, “Shit, I promised I would read to the kids”. The thing I have sacrificed here is a social life. I don’t go out much. If I want to do my job, pay attention to my children and have a relationship with my husband, I don’t have time to go out with my friends. If it wasn’t for e-mail, I would fall deeply out of touch with everybody.”
But family overrides everything for Madonna: “Everyone needs to be stopped in their tracks by parenthood and marriage, otherwise you are just selfish satellites spinning in space.”
Madonna’s early days in New York were fraught with the tensions of poverty and potential failure. “I remember having very little money and starving and budgeting myself, alternating between being able to buy a packet of peanuts and a container of yoghurt one day, and a large bag of cheese popcorn and a container of cranberry juice the next. That was my diet. But I refused to accept that anything but success would happen.”
And if it had all failed? “That was not an option. I was not going back to Michigan, no matter what. I’m not going to depend on anybody, no matter what.”
Madonna was just five when she lost her mother to cancer. “I remember her death and everything about it,” she says. “I remember not really understanding what it meant but accepting that she was never going to come back. I remember being so frustrated at not having the words to express my feeling of loss.
“My dad had to deal with so many things and we kind of got farmed out to people’s houses. I went down the street and lived with this family for a while. This poor woman had to put up with my rages and tantrums and I was told to put on this dress and I was so angry I ripped it off. The woman had a daughter in a wheelchair with cerebral palsy who I thought was luckier than me because she had a mum.
“I no longer feel sorry for myself. But I look at my daughter or son and think, “Oh my God, that was how old I was when my mother left”.”
She is tender but tough with Lourdes and Rocco: “I’m pretty strict about their diet. I have a macrobiotic chef. We don’t eat dairy, there are treats once in a while but they generally don’t have sugar.” Coca-Cola? “No sodas, no Coca-Cola – disgusting! No video games, nothing that I would perceive as a mindless timewaster.
“My daughter is a voracious reader and I know it’s because she doesn’t watch TV. She came home from school quite crestfallen the other day. She said, “Guess what my new name at school is?’ Everyone had to fall into a category and she was the bookworm. I said it was a compliment. And she said, “But it means I’m a nerd and a geek.’ I said she would change her mind in a few years.”
Home is definitely England (despite the vitriolic press that Ritchie’s latest film Revolver received) and she loves being here with her diamond-geezer husband. She has taken to English traditions such as shooting. But, although pheasants are still reared at her home, Ashcombe, she has put her Purdey to rest.
“That all changed when a bird dropped in front of me that I’d shot. It wasn’t dead. Blood was gushing out of its mouth and it was struggling up this hill and I thought, “Oh God, I did that. I am not a vegetarian and I understand animals die for my meals. I respect that. But I just couldn’t do it any more. I haven’t shot since.”
Madonna is used to people saying that everything she does is connected to Kabbalah. “I find it frustrating because my life is always interpreted through a filter of misinformation.” So what’s the truth about her changing her name to Esther? “I didn’t. I took on another name. Nobody calls me by my Hebrew name, Esther. How it works is that everyone calls me M.
“That’s how it has always been and always will be, but names have energy. From a spiritual point of view, I wanted to attach myself to a name that had a lot of strength. I was named after my mother, Madonna, but my name means something else in the Catholic church. I was reading about all the women in the Old Testament and I thought Queen Esther was an amazing figure.”
So did you become Madonna Esther? “No. It is completely metaphysical. Nobody calls me that name. When I was confirmed I took on the extra name Veronica. In the Catholic faith you align yourself with someone. I took on the name Veronica because she was the one who wiped the face of Jesus on his way to being crucified. I just liked her chutzpah because she walked out in front of this crowd and he was sweating and crying and she took the cloth and helped him. It was a beautiful symbol of compassion.”
Madonna mixes the sacred and the profane like nobody else. Just a few minutes earlier we had been discussing her swearing and why she uses the F-word: “Because it just feels so good to scream it out loud, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. And I just love how much it irritates everyone.”
With that, Guy’s missus is off, into the streets where a drizzle is falling. “Come on, who needs an umbrella?” she says. “Let’s just get wet.” And, with her two super-smart assistants, she disappears.
Confessions on a Dance Floor is released by Maverick on November 15. I’m Gonna Tell You a Secret is on Channel 4 on December 1
Madonna shows Dan Cairns all too clearly who is in control — of her life, her astonishing 27-year career, and their meeting
The British nerve centre for Madonna Inc is to be found in two adjoining townhouses in central London. The buildings are a home for the singer and her four children when they are in this country, plus offices and a personal gym. From the outside, the six-storey edifices are standard-issue London mansions — that is, way beyond the standards most of us are accustomed to. There is something impregnable about such streets: an air of discreet luxury pervades them. Litter seems not to blow or rattle down their immaculate expanses; no chewing gum or urgently expelled kebab encrusts their gleaming paving stones. You might glance up at Madonna’s perfect residential pair and admire their symmetry, the cleanness of their architectural lines. But you would be more likely, unless you were a lurking paparazzo, not even to notice them; they are merely two houses in a long, wide street of the things. Anonymous, ordered, well maintained and with a touch of class. Madonna wouldn’t have it any other way. “Where do you live?” she asks when we meet later. Dalston, I say. The name doesn’t register. Stoke Newington, I add as a pointer. “That’s not even in London,” she scoffs. And it isn’t, to be fair. Or not in this London, at any rate.
The evening before I walk down her street and ring the doorbell, I visit another imposing building near the singer’s home. A few days earlier, a leaflet had been thrust into my hand. “It’s a Sign: it read, and considering that it went on to invite the bearer to an introductory talk on kabbalah at the centre Madonna bought for the organisation six years ago, it seemed just that. The lecture offered an hour-long precis of what cynics would dismiss as woolly mumbo jumbo. One per cent of each of us is concerned with our corporal beings; concentrate on the remaining 99%, the speaker suggests, and we locate the key to a spiritually nourishing life. There is, however, an impression of calm, wellbeing, even complacency. And Madonna, as even a cursory knowledge of her questing, controversy-courting 27-year career will attest, needs calm. Because the opposite of calm, of control, is? “Chaos: she says later. “Pain, suffering.”
We are meeting to discuss Celebration, the two-disc, 36-track greatest-hits collection that marks Madonna’s final cons tractual obligation to her record label before she skips off into the $120m embrace of Live Nation, the American con-r! cert promoters. Conditions have been imposed: no questions it about adoption, about her divorce, about her love life, her faith; discussion is to be confined to her music. Refereeing ithe joust is the singer’s longtime American publicist, a fonni- x dable, don’t-mess-with-me powerhouse named Liz Rosenberg, whose manner, if not appearance, puts one instantly B and inescapably in mind of the character of Roz, the giant (1, snail in the film Monsters Inc, with her catch phrase: “I’m B watching you, Wazowski. Always watching.” She has worked for the singer pretty much from the moment, in 1982, when Madonna was first handed the keys to the candy store of stardom. “By the way,” Madonna says at one point, “my dream was always to work in a candy store. It was because of my obsession with candy; I don’t have it any more, now that my teeth are all rotten. I did go to a university for a year, as shocking as that might sound to people, and there was a candy shop that I used to go to all the time, an old-fashioned one where all the candy was in these big glass jars. I used to go in there and look at all the candy and think, `God, it would be really cool to work in here; I could have candy whenever I wanted.’ So I did want the keys to the candy store, but I had different keys: Confectionery’s loss, pop’s gain.
In Life with My Sister Madonna, Christopher Ciccone’s bitchy and embittered memoir, the singer’s brother recounts how every single minute of his sister’s day is planned and accounted for. Today, however, that schedule has gone awry. Seconds before I am due at her front door, a call comes through advising me to delay by 15 minutes. Which I duly do, only to be parked in the reception hall for a further quarter of an hour. It gives me a chance to take a look around. As I wait, Madonna appears briefly before descending to the basement, from winch various sounds drift up: a peal of throaty laughter; a burst of her new single; and the noise of a vacuum cleaner. Is she catching up on housework, geed up by one of her own songs on the stereo and skipping round, Dyson in hand? Unlikely, but it’s an appealing image. In the hall where I wait, a painting by the 17th-century Dutch baroque artist Gerrit Dou hangs on one of the walls, which are covered with blue brushed velvet. On another wall, a pair of circular canvases show a troupe of pierrots, rope-dancing. Scented Christian Dior candles fill the air in a space so dimly lit, it seems both slightly theatrical and quasi-religious. A huge telephone with multiple extensions bears labels such as M study, M dressing room, M bathroom, Laundry, Music Room, Kitchen, Mews. The picture is one of great wealth combined with logistical and organisational rigour. Discipline, control, precision. And that’s the definition of me?” Madonna says later, finishing my out-loud train of thought. “Yeah, but I don’t even think, when people write that, that they really believe it. I just think people are tapping into a zeitgeist and repeating things they’ve heard other people say; and it makes good copy.”
Our encounter finally gets under way in Madonna’s study, an all-grey room with a Frida Kahlo painting above the huge art-deco desk, glass shelves bearing art books and family photographs, and two semi-facing armchairs, on which we sit. In the flesh, in black trousers and a sleeveless shirt, the 51-year-old is tiny, even in heels, and pretty, her face somehow more animated and readable than you expect, her features forming into butter-wouldn’t-melt or knowingly ironic expressions as she talks. Her accent is noticeably clipped, with a Queen’s English clarity, a result of the amount of time she began to spend in this country following her marriage to Guy Ritchie. For a good 10 minutes, her discomfort is visible, a hand covering her face as she answers. And when, during this initial awkwardness, I lean into the space between us to emphasise a point, I sense without any room for doubt that I have crossed an invisible line.
You begin to understand why people are so in awe of her: you wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of one of her frosty glares. Does that mean, I ask at one point, that we have stopped treating her as a mere mortal? “A lot of people are just really confused by me,” she says. “They don’t know what to think of me, so they try to compartmentalise me or diminish me. Maybe they just feel unsafe. But any time you have an overtly emotional or irrational, negative reaction to something, you’re fearing something that it’s bringing up in you.” She pauses and looks over at Rosenberg. “Let’s all call our shrinks right now and have that discussion. Liz?”
When, last year, an American magazine writer profiled Madonna and wrote “Think back on her career. It’s not songs you remember, or not primarily”, you knew what he meant. Videos, film roles, marriages, haircuts, children, charity work: all carry visual freight that has often seemed to overshadow Madonna’s original claim to fame. But doesn’t Celebration, I suggest, indicate that the songs figured in there somewhere, too? That writer, Rosenberg barks suddenly from behind the desk, “is an arsehole”. “Those are harsh words,” Madonna chides, unable to suppress a laugh. “I don’t know, I guess it depends on what side of the fence you’re on. Some people don’t appreciate my music, so they’re not going to think of me as a musician or songwriter. They like to think of me as a sort of cultural phenomenon.” So people listen to her songs and react visually, more than emotionally or musically? “Right — ‘That’s when she had the cone bra on’, ‘That’s the burning-crosses song. That kind of stuff. I suppose that’s partly my fault.” And when we sift through the milestones of her career, we look for, what? Motivation, irony? “Manipulation, provocation: she says.
Another commentator wrote that Madonna’s “ability to absorb and incorporate knowledge keeps her one step ahead”. Certainly, her instincts about music, fashion and future cultural trends have proved uncanny. But doesn’t this concentration on her skill for assimilation overlook what she herself does with that knowledge? “Well, yeah,” she replies. “We can all take in information. It’s how we regurgitate it that makes us different. Right?” And might concentrating on the absorption remove her own subsequent input from the equation? “Well, it’s an undermining thing to do, isn’t it?” She laughs. “Isn’t that the point of the exercise?”
I ask her about her early days in New York in the late 1970s, where she arrived, penniless and a university dropout, to pursue a career as a dancer. And where she earned a reputation as a stop-at-nothing, manipulative, sexually promiscuous wannabe, discarding managers, bandmates and boyfriends on a whim.
Five years of hard graft, thrift, ruthlessness and opportunism paid off when she signed a record contract in 1982. But they also marked her, indelibly, as an artist; indeed, from the way she talks about the period, you get the sense that, no matter the rumoured L300m fortune, the art collection, the toy boy, the record-breaking tours (her most recent, Sticky & Sweet, grossed a staggering $408m), there is a part of Madonna that is still motivated by the cross-fertilisation and experimentalism of early-1980s New York.
Physically, she left it long ago. Artistically, she’s still there, in her own imagination at least: zooming around taking on influences and collaborators, draining them dry, moving on, a cultural magpie. The budgets, and the headlines, have got bigger; the spirit, she argues, remains. “The city will never be the same,” she says. “It was an amazing time, an amazing convergence of pop culture and art. To think I used to have dinner on a regular basis with Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. That was like an everyday thing. It
was a much more informative part of my life than most of the parts people choose to focus on. I got to do gigs at places like CBGB before I got put underneath the microscope, and that was helpful to me, as an artist, and also to give me a sense of confidence about myself — regardless of the subsequent beatings I would take.”
Madonna contra mundum? It’s a condition you find in many artists, a willed psychological state that pumps them up before they rescale the heights with each successive album or tour. The affirmation of album sales — Madonna is the most successful female recording artist of all time — cannot shake such people from a sense of victimhood, of being misunderstood or under-appreciated. Possibly, this is rooted in the belief that what they create is ineffably trivial. That might explain why some, especially the intellectually curious (or insecure), dabble in a multitude of other arts disciplines or gather around them the appurtenances of cultural refinement and significance. (How revealing, after all, is that “I did go to a university fora year, as shocking as that might sound to people”?)
Madonna is surely better placed than most to resist such doubts. Her recent releases may have been patchy — you’d need to go back to 1998, and Ray of Light, to find her last bona-fide classic — but Celebration offers indisputable affirmation of her pop genius. Vogue, Cherish, Into the Groove, Borderline, Like a Prayer, Material Girl, Frozen: the hits rattle by, potent reminders of what we — and Madonna, too — have lost by drowning in the froth of celebrity, rather than being swept along by the music. “The song comes first,” Madonna agrees. “And all of those other things that people remember, the imagistic things, are secondary, or certainly not as important.” She wants us, she implies, to get back to the music. But surely she doesn’t care, by now, what people think? “I do too,” she zaps back. “But I think I’ve become pretty good at sussing out when people’s opinions of my work are coming from what they think of me personally. You just have to do your thing and then let it go out into the world. The rest, you’re not in control. So there goes that theory that I’m a control freak. I can make all the music, do all the shows that I want, make all the films I want, but I can’t control people’s reactions — at all. They’re going to think what they want to think, and feel what they want to feel. I can only control myself —and sometimes I can’t do that very well” Her reputation for ruthlessness is, she argues, confused with simple self-discipline, although she concedes: “Sometimes I will stop at nothing.”
Again, it was New York that fine-tooled that drive into the unstoppable force it still is today. “That was when I knew,” she says, “that that’s what I was going to do — be a singer and a songwriter and an entertainer, and I don’t care if I have to starve, and live in a room with five guys, and wash in a sink; this is what I’m going to do. And because I lived a pretty dismal life and I didn’t care, well, if you’re living a dismal life and you don’t care and you’re enjoying it, then that must be proof that you’ve committed to something.”
The 36 songs on Celebration document the succession of skilfully selected producers and writers —John “Jellybean” Benitez, Steve Bray, Pat Leonard, William Orbit, Mirwais, Stuart Price — Madonna has worked with during her career. Other collaborations — with Prince, with Michael Jackson — either went off like a damp squib or failed entirely. Of the Jackson collaboration, she says: “We spent a chunk of time together, and became friends, but it never happened. I wrote a bunch of words and presented them to him, and he didn’t want to go want to be provocative. And I said, `Well, why come to me?’ I mean, that’s like asking Quentin Tarantino to not put any violence in his films. I felt like he was too inhibited, too shy. Well, I’m shy too. When you’re writing with somebody, you immediately become shy, because, unless you’re already good friends, you can’t be honest and say, ‘That’s the shittest thing I’ve ever heard: You’re afraid to say that you don’t like something because you don’t want to hurt their feelings, or you’re afraid your ideas are shit; and if you reveal those cards, they’re not going to want to work with you.” Surely any musician in the world, I think, would kill to work with her. But of course that’s not the point. Madonna needs to want to work with them. It’s never the other way around.
“The first thing that came into my head,” she continues, referring now to Jackson’s death, “was the word ‘abandoned. I feel like we all abandoned him and put him in a box and labelled him as a strange person. And it used to pain me to see people go write such horrible things about him, accuse him of being a child molester, and all these things that nobody had any proof of — because, you know, I’ve had plenty of things I’ve been accused of. When I adopted David, I was accused of kidnapping him, for God’s sakes; and it’s very hurtful, and people love to jump on bandwagons. The lynch-mob mentality is pretty scary.”
As Madonna said in her tribute to Jackson at last week’s MTV awards, she lost her mother at six, and he lost his childhood. Both engaged in a long search for something to fill those gaps. Madonna is still looking, but alive. Something armoured her on that journey that was missing in Jackson. What advice would she give to her 24-year-old self, about to release her first single and blast into the limelight? “Don’t take it personally,” she answers without a pause.
Listening back to the tape later, I’m struck by how un-uptight she sounds, but also how tired. Perhaps that’s because she still had a few shows left before her world tour finally wound up. But there is, in her voice, the beginning of a sense f weariness, even as she recites self-motivating mantras such as: “I’m still curious and still hungry. I want more knowledge, I want more information, I want more experience.” Her enthusiasm for London, for music, for success, is both audible and visible, especially when she laughs, which she does often. But there are moments when you can’t help but wonder if she doesn’t dream of jumping off the carousel. And, however circumscribed the line of questioning, it is nothing like as controlled as Madonna’s candour, which seems nonetheless designed to brook neither argument nor deeper inquiry. She is open to an extent, but determinedly crease-free.
A growl from Rosenberg indicates that my time is up. And with that, Madonna looks at the watch hanging from a chain around her neck, rises from her chair and says, “Ooh, bathtime.” And is gone. Off to a room that doubtless has its own telephone extension. In a pristine household where everything runs (almost) like clockwork. You look back at the career Celebration marks, at how much could have gone so horribly wrong, and suddenly that craving for order, for security, for predictability, begins to make a lot of sense. Perhaps that’s what it’s all been about, at heart. “Pain, suffering,” she called it. At a young age, Madonna resolved not to experience that again. How much of her has succeeded in that avoidance strategy, only she can know. But that’s probably the only percentage that counts.
It’s Thursday night at the smartest party in town and we are sitting over a drink talking about kids; Madonna, Demi and me. Life has some surreal moments to offer and this is definitely one of them. We’re having to raise our voices above the hubbub of beautiful people, including Gwyneth Paltrow and the fashion designers Donatella Versace and Valentino, gathered upstairs at Home House, a private club.
We are all here to celebrate — if that’s the right word — the launch of Becoming Like God, a book about the teachings of Kabbalah, an obscure offshoot of Judaism. Madonna is wearing the red string bracelet that denotes adherents next to a big, diamond-studded watch.
Demi Moore, a fellow Kabbalah-ist, is officially hosting the evening but it is really Madonna’s night. The former Material Girl has approved the venue, the guest list and the admission of a single journalist — me — to witness the wonders of ersatz spiritualism.
Kabbalah is regarded by some as worryingly near to a cult and earlier this year the chief rabbi’s office issued a statement distancing it from mainstream Judaism. A member of Rabbi Sacks’s cabinet said that there was “a great deal of unease about (Kabbalah’s) methods and the pressure brought to bear on those they view as being vulnerable and as possible sources of income”.
There have been similar warnings about other sects, but doubts about Kabbalah have been tempered in the public mind by the enthusiastic endorsement of glitzy celebrities. Fervent followers include Roseanne Barr and Elizabeth Taylor. Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger also had a flirtation with Kabbalah and hosted a fundraising dinner in London four years ago.
The book outlining Kabbalah’s theories seems more flaky than sinister, full of psychobabble about “transformative sharing” and getting rid of your “ego nature”. Certain sections are printed IN SHOCKING PINK CAPITAL LETTERS for emphasis, giving it a disturbing resemblance to the letters that journalists routinely receive from crazies in coloured, usually green, ink.
Rabbi Michael Berg, its author, is a pleasant chubby man wearing a little black beret. When I tell him that I find the design very arresting, he has the grace to look sheepish. “Oh, the pink was Madonna’s idea,” he says.
Madonna, who recently announced that she wanted to be known by her spiritual name Esther (although everyone on Thursday night continued to refer to her as Madonna), first got involved nine years ago. She was far from the needy, emotionally damaged wreck who we usually think of as finding refuge in obscure religions.
“I was what you would call at the top of my world,” she says. “I’d won a Golden Globe for Evita, I was pregnant, I had fame, I had fortune, everything that you would perceive a person would want in life. But I’m sure everyone’s had that out-of-body experience where you say to yourself — and it might happen at 28 or 38 or 68 — why am I here? Why am I inside of this body? What am I doing? And I was hearing that question a lot.”
A girl she bumped into at a party told her that she had been studying Kabbalah. “I love taking classes,” says Madonna. “I learn languages, I go to dance class, I love the idea of being in school. So I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll try this’. I went to a class and, yes, there was a man standing at the front who looked like a rabbi but what he was saying was amazing.
“I felt so inspired when I left the room. One thing Kabbalah teaches you is that your true potential in the world has nothing to do with selling records or making money or being popular, it has to do with what you are doing to help. What are you doing to make the world a better place?” The Kabbalah centre in Los Angeles was founded by Rabbi Rav Berg, father to both Michael Berg and the modern Kabbalah movement. Kabbalah, Hebrew for “received tradition”, is based around the Zohar, or Book of Splendour, a 2,000-year-old book in 23 volumes written in Aramaic.
Berg formulated a simple, practical version of Kabbalah that promises “fulfilment in every aspect of your life: relationships, business, health and more”. It was Kabbalah’s lucky day when Madonna arrived at the centre. Her huge popularity turned a little-known movement into a global brand. It now has 56 centres around the world and its website gets 150,000 hits a month.
Adherents can buy Kabbalah merchandise, from the L25 bracelets to bottles of specially blessed mineral water (very effective, apparently, in treating Madonna’s husband Guy Ritchie’s verrucas). It is just this sort of thing that raises hackles, but Madonna dismisses the criticisms with an imperious wave: “You know, I’ve been dealing with cynicism all my life.”
So we shouldn’t be worried about the allegations of money-making? “Slowly, slowly catchee monkey,” she says mysteriously. “The fact of the matter is that people are criticising Kabbalah because it’s pushing a button. They are paying attention because it is rankling people’s nerves.”
Madonna has a reputation for being tricksy but this evening she is in her element, working the room and urging her American friends to vote for John Kerry (“If you vote for Bush you’re not becoming like God”). She looks amazing in a very fitted and very expensive light tweed skirt and dark roll-necked top.
Anyone else in that outfit would look like Princess Anne, but tiny Madonna has a glow about her that transcends her outfit. At 46 her skin is flawless, her eyes heavily made-up, her hair glossy and expertly tinted. She has been a superstar for 20 years, selling more than 250m records and reinventing herself over and over again, from the crop-topped ingenue of Holiday, one of her early hits, to the sophisticated rerun of Like a Virgin on MTV last year.
She had a brief and tempestuous marriage to the actor Sean Penn and a daughter Lourdes, nicknamed Lola, by Carlos Leon, her personal trainer, before marrying Ritchie four years ago. The bluntly spoken British director of the films Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch has been a steadying influence.
He teases her — something her staff would never dare to do — calling her “Wiff” or “the Missus”. Their son Rocco is three. I am impressed by her adoration for her children and her conviction, even if what she says is sometimes startling. During the evening it transpires that Michael Berg has a child with Down’s syndrome. She explains how Kabbalah sees it.
“Nobody looks at Joshua as somebody who got a bad deal. Kabbalistically, everything that happens to you is a blessing,” she says. “You hit the jackpot and win a million dollars or you break your leg skiing or you’re born with disabilities . . . it’s all about perception. We perceive having Down’s syndrome as a bad thing but if you go past the physicality of it and what it looks like and how we expect people to behave, we deal with everything at the soul level.
“There are some who say that children born with learning disabilities or who are born blind or deaf are people — if you believe in reincarnation — who have come into this world in their last correction, so to speak, and they choose to be born into this physical body which cannot communicate in the normal way. It’s perceived as quite an elevated position so we don’t look at him with pity, we’re not sorry for the parents, we don’t think they’ ve been cursed and nor do they, which is an amazing environment to be in.You can be a celebrity or you can be a person with Down’s syndrome, that’s not relevant.”
But at least part of the need for spiritual fulfilment must be as an antidote to the madness of fame? “There’s a need to be beautiful and successful, yes, but that is not just reserved for celebrities,” she says. “That pressure to be beautiful, to be successful, to be rich, to be thin, to be popular, it’s everyone’s pressure. If it wasn’t everyone’s pressure we wouldn’t have depression, we wouldn’t have anorexia.
“We live in a society that judges everyone on a completely superficial level. So it’s not just the celebrities of the world who have to contend with the constant anxious feeling that you have to perform, to rise to meet some common denominator of what we consider to be beautiful or acceptable.”
She is reported to have given $22m to fund a Kabbalah school in New York under the so-called Spirituality for Kids programme, with which she has become involved. She says it’s not that much but the figure must be substantial: a building to house more than 300 children is being converted.
In Los Angeles, where a school is already up and running, children from problem families — and often their relatives, too — are bussed in and given Kabbalah therapy. Her daughter attended after-school classes there last year and Kabbalah heavily emphasises passing on mother-to-daughter wisdom. “She is learning that she’s responsible for things. That she’s not a victim, that things don’t just happen to her by accident,” says Madonna.
“For example, there’s a girl in her school that she’s always fighting with. I don’t know why they’re fighting but there’s some kind of jealousy thing going on. She’s eight, it’s normal. They’re constantly squabbling and this has been going on for months and it’s driving me bonkers.
“I said, Lola, you have to make friends with her, do you understand? She said, ‘But mummy it’s not my fault, I didn’t start it.’ I said, you know what, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes even when you don’t think you’re wrong, you have to say you’re sorry because when you say ‘I’m sorry’ the dam bursts, everything changes.
“So last week she came running home from school and said, ‘Mummy, I did it, I did it and it worked. I said I was sorry and she said she was sorry and we made up and now we’re friends.’ So it’s teaching her that even if you’re caught in a situation and it feels like a stalemate you still have the power to change things . . . and saying sorry is actually a powerful position to be in, not a vulnerable or weak one.”
To anyone with children this does not sound like Hebrew mysticism, just plain common sense. And her mix of the mystical and the prosaic seems to leave Madonna’s friends cold, too; although happy to drink her champagne, at the end of the evening the stack of books by the exit remains almost untouched.
Days after her 51st birthday, pop’s reigning queen reflects on three decades of provocation, scandal and monster hits. by Austin Scaggs
Outside Madonna’s London home, which sits on a quaint street in the Marylebone neighborhood, hangs a sign that reads Someone famous may have thought once about living here. Today, that
someone is on break from the last leg of her Sticky & Sweet Tour, and the house is buzzing with activity. In the basement, film editors are piecing together two new music videos. In the dimly lit foyer, with deep-blue walls and an old-master painting of a carnival in Venice, other staff mill about: an assistant, a construction worker, a maid and Madonna’s trainer, who is irritated about an unbecoming tabloid photo showing Madonna with sinewy arms. “I get hundreds of e-mails from people around the world who want that body,” the trainer complains. But in Madonna’s world, after 27 years of scandal and provocation, one unflattering pic is barely a blip on the radar. In the past three decades, Madonna has sold over 200 million records (more than any other female artist by far); her Sticky & Sweet Tour is officially the highest-grossing tour ever by a solo artist, raking in $408 million.
Just a few days before our first interview, 80,000 fans in Warsaw sang “Happy Birthday” to her. Madonna, who turned 51, fought back tears and told them, “I love my job. This is the best birthday present ever.”
During two extensive interviews, which continued inside a palatial hotel suite in Budapest, Madonna – an artist who rarely looks back – delved deep into her unmatched musical legacy. Growing up in a Detroit suburb, Madonna had her world rocked at age six by the death of her mother. Always an extrovert, Madonna performed for the first time in a junior high talent show, slathered in body paint. She defied her strict father by dropping out of the University of Michigan, where she was studying dance, and moved to New York in 1978, eking out a living as a nude model while performing at clubs like CBGB. Her debut album, 1983’s Madonna, featured the hits “Holiday” and “Lucky Star,” and she skyrocketed to fame a year later on the strength ofLike a Virgin – and her panty-baring performance at MTV’s Video Music Awards.
A quarter-century later, Madonna continues to reinvent herself. She just released Celebration, a two-disc greatest-hits package featuring 36 singles (dating back to “Everybody,” from October 1982) and two new songs, including “Revolver,” a collaboration with Lil Wayne. It kicks off with her 2005 hit “Hung Up.” “Because it’s a badass song,” Madonna explains – but also because it’s her biggest global single ever, topping the charts in 45 countries.
When Madonna appears this morning, her face is flushed from a workout, and she’s wearing a black top with a heart pattern and a kabbalah string on her left wrist. She’s wearing no makeup, and her voice has just a faint trace of the British accent she’s adopted over the past decade. Since her divorce last year from director Guy Ritchie, she’s moved back to New York, where she bought a massive town house on the Upper East Side. Twenty years ago, she seemed incapable of not blabbing about, say, the intimate details of her doomed marriage to Sean Penn. But now she’s a little more cautious, careful to clarify the exact parameters of my questions and to calibrate her responses -she attributes this caution in part to kabbalah. “I don’t think I was cruel, mean or heartless in the past, but back then I could gossip or speak badly about people, or say things without thinking what the consequences would be,” she says. “[Kabbalah] has changed my way of looking at life, so naturally it will change the way I think about life: not thinking like a victim, taking responsibility for my actions and my words.”
But what does one call her? Madonna? Ms. Ciccone? Madge? “Everyone I know calls me M,” she says. ” ‘Madge’ is a press thing in England. I heard two versions of where it came from. One is that Madge is an English colloquialism, like a name that would suit a housewife, which is the opposite of who I am. The other is that it’s short for ‘majesty.’ I like that one better.”
You grew up in Pontiac, outside Detroit, where some of yourfirst musical influences came from going to parties and barbecues in your largely African-American neighborhood. What do you remember?
Motown was everywhere. Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross and the Jackson 5, that’s what I grew up on. But when I was in high school we moved to a suburb that was predominantly middle-class and white. There weren’t any more house parties, there wasn’t music blaring from the house next door. I felt estranged, and that’s when I created my own world. That’s when I decided I’d be a professional dancer. I became more of an introvert, and I’d sneak out of the house and go to concerts. I was aware of the power of music at that point, not that I could articulate it to anyone.
What were the first shows you saw?
My first concert was David Bowie at Cobo Hall [in Detroit] when I was 15. He had mime artists with him. It was amazing. I wish I could have seen him as Ziggy Stardust. My second show was Elton John, and my third was Bob Marley. Not bad, right?
Not bad at all. Did you drink at the shows?
When I was in high school? No way. I was a geek. I didn’t really have a drink until I got divorced the first time [from Sean Penn], when I was 30.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about Bowie as an influence.
Because everyone thinks I was born in a disco. My older brothers were in the basement listening to the Who and the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” the Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”
You performed “Baba O’Riley” at a talent show in seventh grade.
I had my girlfriends paint my body with fluorescent hearts and flowers. I wore a pair of shorts and a midriff top, and I just went mad. I had a strobe light and black light. I’m sure everyone thought I was insane. It was my first time onstage. That was the beginning of my provocative performances, I guess. I just went for it. No girls would talk to me after that, and the boys looked at me weird.
Do you still consider yourselfa geek?
I say stuff like “oopsie-daisy.” Growing up, I didn’t feel cool, I didn’t fit into any crowd. “Geek” is not a word anyone uses to describe me, though, except perhaps [Confessions on a Dance Floor producer] Stuart Price, who once said, “You know, you’re a nerd at heart, nobody knows it.” I took it as a compliment. I’m silly and geeky and nerdy and not cool.
You moved to New York after dropping out of the University of Michigan to become a dancer. How did you transition from dancing to singing?
It was just a question of circumstance. Because I was a dancer, I started going to auditions for musical theater, which forced me to sing. Most of the people auditioning were much more professional than I was – they brought sheet music, and they’d give it to the piano player, and I would just wing it and sing songs I knew from the radio, like an Aretha Franklin song or some other ridiculous embarrassment.
By 1979, you were living in Queens with Dan and Ed Gilroy, who had a band called the Breakfast Club, which you ended up joining. Around that time, you wrote your first song.
It was called “Tell the Truth.” It was maybe four chords, but there were verses and a bridge and a chorus, and it was a religious experience. I had decided that if I was going to be a singer, I had to earn it. I had to learn how to play an instrument. We were living in an abandoned synagogue in Queens, and in return for music lessons I modeled for Dan, who was a painter. I was his muse, and he taught me how to play power chords. While they were off at their day jobs, I’d play drums. I learned by listening to Elvis Costello records. Then one day, I wrote a song, and the words just came out of me. I was like, “Who’s writing this?” When their drummer quit, I got to be the drummer, and one night at CBGB I begged them to let me sing a song and play guitar. That microphone position was looking more and more inviting.
In 1982, you were signed to Sire Records on the strength of demos that included “Everybody,” which went on to become your first single. When was the first time you heard yourself on the radio?
I was living on the Upper West Side, 99th and Riverside, and at about 7:00 at night I had the radio on in my bedroom, on [New York disco station] KTU, and I heard “Everybody.” I said, “Oh, my God, that’s me coming out of that box.” It was an amazing feeling.
Did you call your dad?
I don’t think I called my dad. I don’t think he would have been very impressed.
How did you celebrate?
At that time I was hanging around with a lot of graffiti artists, Futura 2000, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Jean-Michel introduced me to Andy Warhol. I remember we were all at a Japanese restaurant on Second Avenue and Seventh Street, where Keith had done a bunch of drawings on the walls, and Jean-Michel was telling me how jealous he was of me being on the radio. Because he thought that I had a more accessible form of art, and more people would be exposed to it. Andy told him to stop complaining.
Haring, who died in 1990 of AIDS, and Basquiat, who died of a drug overdose in 1988, were the defining artists of their generation. How did you meet them?
I was introduced to Keith by a roommate, but I had already seen his work on the streets, subways and buildings. Then we started hanging out at [legendary New York nightclubs] Danceteria and Mudd Club and the Roxy. The Rock Steady crew was there. We’d dance, we’d watch break-dancing crews there and on the street.
Did you do graffiti?
Walls, subways, sidewalks …
What was your tag?
No shit! Who came up with Boy Toy?
It could have been Futura. He’s clever. He painted the whole inside of my bedroom on 99th, which my landlord was not happy about. We had a little gang -[actress] Debi Mazar was part of it. We called ourselves the Webo Girls – like huevos, girls with balls.
Do you own paintings by Warhol, Haring or Basquiat?
I have a few of each. Keith and Andy did four pieces for me as a wedding present when I married Sean. They’re pictures of me from the cover of The New York Post when all the nude photographs of me came out in Playboy and Penthouse. The headline says I’M NOT ASHAMED. So they took all these Post covers and painted over them. They’re in my house in L.A. – a signpost, a watershed moment. I also have a leather jacket that Keith Haring painted on that I would never give up.
Since the beginning of your career, the transformation of your image has been the only constant. Between your first two albums, 1983’s “Madonna” and 1984’s “Like a Virgin,” you went through your first major reinvention, from a punky brunette club girl into a blonde in a wedding dress. Where did that come from?
I don’t know. I guess the music I started to write had more of a seductive quality, and I unconsciously morphed into that. It also had to do with the fact that I was doing more photo shoots. I was being styled and dressed. Before that, I was doing everything myself. I had no makeup artist, I was taking my dance tights and tying them around my head and throwing a few rosaries around my neck. After that, it was [photographer] Steven Meisel, and fashion people putting me in corsets. I think people put a lot of emphasis on the whole reinvention of my image, and it’s always been a lot less calculated than people think. It’s just evolution and what I’m interested in, the books I read or movies or clothes that I see. Just call me Zelig. Wasn’t that the Woody Allen movie where he took on the personality of whoever he’s talking to? I think it’s boring to stay the same. A girl likes to change her look.
When you were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, there was a video montage of your career. When you took the stage, you made a joke about “all my bad hairstyles.” Which Madonna fashion era do you look back on with the most disdain?
I think it was the purple-lipstick/fluorescent-green-sweater combo. So many of those hairstyles. It’s OK, it was the Eighties. It was a bad-hairstyle era, let’s face it.
On the flip side, is there a time you look back on when you say, “F*ck, I was pretty hot.”
Like I’m going to admit to that! And be annihilated for the next 10 years for it? I’m not answering that one.
There’s the famous story of you performing at Radio City Music Hall in 1985, when the whole audience was filled with Madonna clones. But that first tour, the Virgin Tour, began in Seattle and worked its way across the country. Was it Madonna-mania from the beginning?
That whole tour was crazy, because I went from playing CBGB and the Mudd Club to playing sports arenas. I played a small theater in Seattle, and girls had flap skirts on and tights cut off below their knees and lace gloves and rosaries and bows in their hair and big hoop earrings. I was like, “This is insane!” After Seattle, all of the shows were moved to arenas. I’ve never done a bus tour. Everyone says they’re really fun.
You didn’t write ‘Material Girl” or “Like a Virgin.” What were your first impressions after you heard those demos?
I liked them both because they were ironic and provocative at the same time but also unlike me. I am not a materialistic person, and I certainly wasn’t a virgin, and, by the way, how can you be like a virgin? I liked the play on words, I thought they were clever. They’re so geeky, they’re cool.
I feel lucky to be able to afford a Frida Kahlo [painting] or live in a nice house, but I know that I can live without it. I’m resourceful, and if I ended up in a log cabin in the middle of the forest, that would work too. These things are not mandatory for my happiness. That’s what I meant by “I’m not a materialistic person.”
Did you have the sense that those two songs would become such huge hits?
No. They just resonated with me. I’ve never been a good judge of what things are going to be huge or not. The songs that I think are the most retarded songs I’ve written, like “Cherish” and “Sorry,” a pretty big hit off my last album, end up being the biggest hits. “Into the Groove” is another song I feel retarded singing, but everybody seems to like it.
That’s because “Into the Groove” has an amazing bass line.
Yeah. Thank you, Stephen Bray. [Bray, an ex-boyfriend of Madonna’s from Michigan, co-wrote and produced many of her biggest Eighties hits.] It always starts with the bass line and the beat. You build it from the ground up. Like on “Holiday,” “Hung Up,” “Music.” I think it has to do with being a dancer, because it’s all about the bass line when you’re a dancer. You have to feel it in the center of your gravity.
How do you respond to criticism? When the nude photos appeared in “Playboy” and “Penthouse,” for instance, you were totally defiant.
That was the first time I was aware of saying “F*ck you” with my attitude. You’re trying to put me down because of this? I’m not going to let public opinion dictate my own feelings about myself. I’m not going to apologize for anything I’ve done.
Your former manager Freddy DeMann thought your career was over after the “Like a Virgin” performance at the 1984 VMAs. Were you concerned afterward?
He was white as a ghost. He was very disappointed in me, because I was rolling around on the floor, my dress went up, and you could see my underpants. What was I thinking? “I dropped my shoe, I don’t know how to get it and put it back on, and I am going down on the ground.” It was a lot of things. It was scary and fun, and I didn’t know what it meant for my future. A million things were going through my head.
It wasn’t just your performances that were provocative. You didn’t write “Papa Don’t Preach,” but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else singing it. Why did that song speak to you?
It just fit right in with my own personal zeitgeist of standing up to male authorities, whether it’s the pope or the Catholic Church or my father and his conservative, patriarchal ways.
What was the fallout?
There have been so many fallouts, they all get confused. But for “Papa Don’t Preach,” there were so many opinions – that’s why I thought it was so great. Is she for “schma-smortion,” as they say in Knocked Up? Is she against abortion?
Any ideas you’ve had that you haven’t gone through with because they seemed too extreme?
I did a photo shoot with Steven Klein for my last album cover, and I painted my face black, except for red lips and white eyes. It was a play on words. Have you ever heard of the Black Madonna? It has layers of meaning, and for a minute, I thought it would be a fun title for my record. Then I thought, “Twenty-five percent of the world might get this, probably less. It’s not worth it.” It happens all the time, because my references are usually off the Richter scale. That’s why I have people like Guy [Oseary, her manager] in my life who look at me and go, “No, you are not doing that.”
A lot of fans consider “Live to Tell,” from your 1986 album “True Blue,” to be your defining song. What do you remember about writing it?
Sometimes when I’m writing songs, I’m just channeling. I could say that “Live to Tell” was about my childhood, my relationship with my parents, my father and my stepmother. But maybe not. It could be about something in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel or a story that I heard once. It’s true, but it’s not necessarily autobiographical. I could say the same thing about “La Isla Bonita.” I don’t know where that came from.
Are you telling me you never dreamt of San Pedro?
I don’t know where San Pedro is. At that point, I wasn’t a person who went on holidays to beautiful islands. I may have been on the way to the studio and seen an exit ramp for San Pedro.
How did you come to write “Vogue”?
I wrote it when I was making Dick Tracy. After we shot the movie, [then-boyfriend] Warren Beatty asked me if I could write a song that would fit my character’s point of view, that she could have conjured up. She was obsessed with speakeasies and movie stars and things like that. The idea for the lyrics came through that request. Coincidentally, I was going to Sound Factory and checking out these dancers who were all doing this new style of dancing called vogueing. And Shep Pettibone, who co-produced “Vogue” with me, used to DJ there. That’s how it grew together.
What has been the biggest challenge of your career?
Working on Evita with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It’s a whole different singing sensibility. I had to seriously work with a vocal coach to sing with strength and conviction. A lot of the stuff was recorded live, and I was in the recording studio with strange producers and writers, a huge orchestra and huge shoes to fill. The first song they wanted me to record was “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” which is the hardest song. I think I almost started crying. I felt very intimidated. Halfway through the recording sessions, I started to relax.
In 1998, you returned after a four-year break with “Ray of Light,” working with British electronica artist William Orbit. Why him?
After Evita I had a baby. Getting out of the world of pop music and pop culture for a while, I came back to it feeling very hungry, very curious, looking for something new. During that time I’d been listening to William Orbit’s Strange Cargo records. He’s very eccentric, he lives in his own world. I’d been away for so long that when I got into the studio with him, I felt like I’d been shot out of a cannon. I had so many ideas, and Ray of Light reflects that.
Most of your albums have been collaborations with under-the-radar producers like Orbit, Mirwais [2000’s `Music”] and Stuart Price [2005’s “Confessions on a Dance Floor”]. But for 2008’s “Hard Candy,” you turned to proven hitmakers like Timbaland, Justin Timberlake and Pharrell Williams. What was your thinking?
I always go, “OK, who’s making music that I like right now?” I really, genuinely like the music of Timbaland and Justin. Justin is a brilliant songwriter. I mean, “What Goes Around . . . Comes Around”? Brilliant. I thought it would be a challenge to work with him.
Has anyone ever turned down an offer to work with you?
Sure. Or it’s “I don’t have time.” I wanted to work with Eminem. I don’t think he wanted to work with me. [Smiles] Maybe he’s shy.
In 1996, you had your first child, Lourdes. Since then, your family has grown with Rocco, whom you had with Guy Ritchie, and David and Mercy, whom you adopted from orphanages in Malawi. Do your kids have favorite Madonna songs?
Definitely. Lourdes likes all my old songs. She’s really into the Eighties, from the way she dresses to the music she listens to. Rocco likes anything that I did with Timbaland. Basically, he’s a hip-hop and electronic boy. David’s favorite song is “Ha Isla,” that’s what he calls it. He’s my biggest fan. Everybody says that when he watches the show, he stays frozen from beginning to end, and he studies everything, and he knows every dance step. [Smiles] He’s not jaded like my older children.
You and Lourdes, who is now 12, went to a Lady Gaga show together in New York. Do the two of you go to a lot of shows?
We’ve just started. We like the same music. I think Lady Gaga is great. When we saw her, I actually felt a kind of recognition. I thought, “She’s got something.” There’s something quirky about her. She’s fearless and funny, and when she spoke to the audience, she sounded intelligent and clever. She’s unique.
Can you sense an artist’s ambition?
Yes. There’s people like Justin Timberlake, who’s really good-looking and laid-back. He’s sort of a Cary Grant. I love him, I love working with him, but I don’t recognize myself in him. But I can see myself in Lady Gaga. In the early part of my career, for sure. When I saw her, she didn’t have a lot of money for her production, she’s got holes in her fishnets, and there’s mistakes everywhere. It was kind of a mess, but I can see that she’s got that It factor. It’s nice to see that at a raw stage.
Another artist you admire is Sting. What do you talk about with him?
I would consider Sting my friend, but I’m more friends with his wife, Trudie. He’s an incredible musician who plays 50 different instruments, and I’m always a little intimidated by him. I always think he looks down on me. Not down on me, but I’m just a pop star. He’s a real musician. We don’t talk about music that much when we get together. He’s usually sitting in the corner, playing chess or playing some 16-stringed instrument that I don’t even know the name of.
Last year, you and Guy Ritchie got divorced…
You don’t have to lower your voice when you say that. It’s not a bad word. I thought we were talking about music, though. If you can connect the idea of divorce to music, I’ll talk to you about it.
Then let’s talk about the lyrics to “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You,” from “Hard Candy”: “I should just walk away/Over and over, I keep on coming back for more.”
What can you say? It was a challenging year. I think work saved me, and I’m very grateful that I had work to do. I may have thrown myself off a building. Life is an adjustment. It’s different. My sons aren’t with me right now, they’re with their father, and I’m not very comfortable with the idea of my children not living together. There are pros and cons, but I feel good now.
What do you love about having kids from three different countries?
The more diverse the world you live in, the more open you are. My two youngest children are from Africa, which has opened my eyes and given me a new perspective on the world. My house is like a Benetton ad. I have French nannies, my security guards are Israeli, I have assistants from Argentina and Puerto Rico as well as a Japanese assistant and chef, and B another chef from Italy. It’s wonderful, I love it. I wouldn’t have it any other way. My life is a cacophony of different languages and music.
I was at the show last night in Budapest. I was struck by how none of the songs you performed were in their original arrangements.
Even my new songs, I have to reinvent them, or after a couple of months, I’ll just get sick of them. When you reinvent them, you have to sit for days with the musical director and your band. Inevitably, you end up sampling someone, and you have to get permission, and pay more money. People have told me, “You could just go out there and play guitar and sing your songs like Paul McCartney,” but I’d be too bored. Most of the joy of the shows is the magic of creating them – the theater. I’m a perfectionist. I like hard work. I like to sweat.
Clearly. You sang “Into the Groove” while jumping rope.
I always have to do something really impossible during my shows, and that’s my really impossible moment. It’s very hard to sing and dance at the same time, that’s why most people that dance don’t sing, or at least not very well.
In “I’m Going to Tell You a Secret,” the documentary from your Re-invention Tour, you’re all iced up like a basketball player after the shows.
I come home and sit in an ice bath for 10 minutes. It’s really painful when you get in, but it feels so good afterward. I’m an athlete. My ankles get taped before the shows, and I have treatments and physical therapists. It’s from years and years of abuse, dancing in high heels, which is not great on your knees. All dancers have injuries, but we just deal with them. We get acupuncture and therapy, and just keep going.
When you look into the audience, what do you pick up on?
Sometimes it’s just a look of pure enthusiasm. I was in Munich the other night, and this dad was in the front row with his daughter on his shoulders, and she was completely enraptured, smiling from ear to ear. Or two guys with their shirts off, covered in tattoos of me. Those are my go-to guys.
When fans in Warsaw sang “Happy Birthday” a few days ago, you choked up.
When people in the audience start to cry, it has a contagious effect. Crying is complicated, because when you’re crying, you don’t sing well, because it chokes up your throat. But over the course of this tour, a lot of emotional things have happened. Obama was elected right before we went onstage [in San Diego]. We were saying our prayers before the show, and I had tears streaming down my face, and I said, “I feel like I’m living a dream.” I got down and kissed the ground. I feel like crying about it right now.
You once told ROLLING STONE, “There are times when I’ve thought if I’d known [fame] was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have tried so hard. If it ever gets to be too much, or I feel like I’m being overscrutinized, then I won’t do it.” What are your thoughts on fame these days?
It’s worth it if you can understand it’s a means to an end. My work has allowed me to do things that have nothing to do with music. To know that my experiences in Africa have changed people’s lives for the better, to see their lives change before my eyes… how can I not feel positive about that? I’m not always positive, I can assure you. Yesterday I woke up on the wrong side of the bed. It’s a good thing the interview is today.
Supergrumpy. When I’m sleep-deprived, I’m not very fun. But, you know, every day I take a moment to be aware, to have a sense of consciousness about how my words and actions affect people. I do it when I wake up in the morning and when I go to bed. “What am I going to do with my day? What did I do with my day?”
Most of the time, you’re satisfied?
Sometimes I am, sometimes I fail miserably and think I do nothing but wreak havoc and cause chaos. But I’m a human being. I just have to make mistakes, then forgive myself afterward.
It begins with the words “nice boots.” Those are the first words Madonna says to me when we meet. The next words are “I approve,” letting me know that we are now in her world, where a strict code of standards and practices applies.
But this is not the Madonna moment. She is just, in her own way, being fun and friendly.
The Madonna moment comes two hours later, when she changes into knee-high silver boots for a television performance.
As she walks past, she looks down her nose at me and says, “Who’s got the better boots now?”
This is a Madonna moment.
One can’t help but wonder sometimes how this boy-crazy outcast from Michigan ended up selling some 250 million records worldwide. But watch her closely for a while, and that answer will come in a Madonna moment, when, despite the ego-shedding lessons of Kabbalah, her competitive nature emerges.
She is probably a good person at heart. And if not, she’s at least struggling to be good. But there’s a tripwire in her head, and when it’s crossed, you understand that it’s no accident she became one of the most famous women in the world and has retained that title for more than twenty years.
There are Madonna moments in her tour documentaries, when she refers to herself as “the boss” and “the queen” when talking with her crew and dancers. And there was a golden Madonna moment on Late Night With David Letterman in October, when Letterman offered her the smaller of two horses to ride. Mistake.
“I don’t want a tiny one,” she snapped. “I want a big one. I want the prettiest one. Well.! want the best horse.”
Madonna moments arc not bad things. They are the telltale signs of a woman who believes she deserves the best the world has to offer – the best boots, the best horse, the best career, the best stage show, the best seat on the plane. For the most part, thanks to her confidence, intelligence and single-minded work ethic, she’s gotten it.
That is, until she had her first experience with mortality a few months ago. In a well-reported incident, Madonna attempted to ride an unfamiliar horse at Ashcombe, the eighteenth-century estate in western England that she shares with her husband, director Guy Ritchie. She fell from the horse, breaking eight of her bones. It was the first time she’d ever broken a bone and a wake-up call to her own vulnerability.
“It was the most painful thing that ever happened to me in my life, but it was a great learning experience,” she says. She is sitting on a private plane that is taking off from a Royal Air Force base south of London. Its destination is Germany, where the members of Green Day will soon experience a Madonna moment of their own.
Madonna version 2005 is a woman in flux. She is part spiritualist, part narcissist; part provocative sex symbol, part children’s-book author; part artist, part mother; and, thanks to her new aerobi-disco look, she is part retro, part futuristic. She doesn’t even live in one place; she spends most of her time in London and has homes in New York and Los Angeles. She is a contradiction. And she will always be one. This is because her true genius is a facility for learning. She is a quick study. One of the only things consistent about her career is her ability to absorb and incorporate knowledge at an alarming rate, allowing her to stay one step ahead of critics, competitors, fans and trends. Some accuse her of being pretentious since she started speaking in a Britishtinged accent, but rather than being an affectation, it is simply further evidence of her adaptability and spongelike nature. Before I leave her presence, she will actually count on her fingers the things she’s learned from me. I’ve served my purpose.
Her new album, Confessions on a Dance Floor, integrates the lessons she learned from her previous album, American Life. Perhaps her most poorly received album (unjustly so), this was Madonna restyled as a pop-culture Che Guevara and anti-materialist girl, brooding about her life and the culture she’s part of. It is her folk album. Confessions on a Dance Floor is the antithesis.
If American Life was for the head, Confessions is for the feet. It is pure groove. It is her equivalent of a mash-up album. It takes snippets from forty years of dance music (Giorgio Moroder, Tom Tom Club, Abba, Pet Shop Boys, Stardust, the Jacksons), mixes in snatches from her own back catalog (“Like a Prayer,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” “Die Another Day”) and filters it all through club-cool electronics in a nonstop mix. At the helm is Stuart Price, who in addition to being the musical director on Madonna’s last two tours is an English DJ, remixer and recording artist (known as Les Rhythmes Digitales) who is equal parts Beck and Daft Punk.
Even in a form-concealing black sweat shirt, Madonna looks thin and fragile. At forty-seven, she cuts a more spartan and elegant figure than the navel-bearing, crucifix-dangling, hair-moussing Madonna who burst into t he national pop consciousness in 1983. She is now Esther, Madge, Lady Madonna with children at her feet, or, as her staff calls her, simply M.
“Do you want to see where the bone broke?” Madonna asks as we talk about her horse tumble.
She pulls her sweat shirt aside and proudly displays the battle scar: a collarbone that, at its midsection, disconnects and juts up into the skin.
“She’s broken hers, too,” Madonna says, gesturing to Shavawn, her former nanny and current stylist. Shavawn is helping her massage the bone with some sort of vibrating machine that Madonna says has helped it heal faster. “She’s the person who made me get on the polo horse.”
“I didn’t make her,” Shavawn protests. “She did,” Madonna insists. “It’s her fault.”
“I didn’t,” Shavawn repeats.
“Because she was the person who instigated it, she had to be my caretaker,” Madonna continues. “She slept in the room next to me the whole time.”
“You’re guilting her out,” 1 protest in Shavawn’s defense. Even though Shavawn is laughing, inside she must feel bad. Who wants to be responsible for breaking their boss’s bones? That is, assuming they like their boss, which Shavawn clearly does.
“I don’t have to,” Madonna says. “She guilted herself out.”
Suddenly, Madonna sounds a lot like my Jewish mother.
It is at this point that I notice the carryon bags that both Madonna and her manager have brought on the airplane – they are both filled with popcorn. I make a note to ask about it later, when we’re not on the subject of medical emergencies.
Despite being taken to the hospital, Madonna says that the day after the accident, she decided to take a helicopter to Paris for her birthday. Hopped up on morphine, she felt little pain.
“I’m a lot of fun on morphine,” Madonna says with a laugh. “At least I think 1 am.” She pauses and looks at Shavawn for confirmation. “But I’m not fun on Vicodin.”
Her manager, Angela Becker, who is also sitting On the plane along with Madonna’s hair and makeup team, clarifies. “Do you know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?” she asks. “I’ve never seen a transformation like that in my entire life.”
“I only tried Vicodin once,” Madonna says. “I was in a lot of pain, and everyone kept telling me to try Vicodin. But they kept saying. ‘Be careful. It’s so amazing. You’re going lo get addicted.’ So I called five people to get advice before I took it, and they all told me 1 was going to love it.”
“She went on a walk with me,” Shavawn blurts, as she packs up the bone machine. “And it was really scary.”
“Drugs have a weird effect on me,” Madonna continues. “They do the opposite with me. I just, chewed the entire inside of my mouth. 1 bitched at everybody. And I was in more pain. It was the worst experience of my life. So I’m happy to say that none of my pharmaceuticals – and I had a plethora of them given to me -influenced me.”
Madonna’s lack of interest in drugs is another reason for her success: The biggest career killer is the mixture of a person who’s very confident in her judgments with drugs that impair those judgments.
“I just like the idea of pills,” she says as she stretches her legs on the wall of the cabin. “I like to collect them but not actually take them. When 1 fell off my horse, 1 got tons of stuff: Demerol and Vicodin and Xanax and Valium and OxyContin, which is supposed to be like heroin. And I’m quite scared to take them. I’m a control freak.”
Just the other day, Madonna was in Portugal, where she obsessively rehearsed the first live performance of her undeniably catchy electropop single “Hung Up” thirty times for the MTV Europe Music Awards. The result: She not only stole the show but, nearing fifty and wearing a leotard, still managed to be the best-looking woman on the stage that night.
For Madonna, whose stage productions have become as career-defining as her albums, the next projeel is to start planning a tour for the new year. “I want to make people feel like they’re inside a disco ball,” she says, beginning a show description that in part sounds like a non-ironic version of Ua’s Popmarl. “I want to explore the idea of making the dancers more personalities in the show and having their stories come out. And we want to devise a sound system that’s surround-sound, because the standard system in a sports arena is crap for people watching, and it’s crap for people onstage.”
“Confessions On A Dance Floor” began as a musical film. The French director Luc Besson, best known for The Fifth Element, was writing a screenplay about a woman on her deathbed looking back on the life she thought she had lived but, due to senility and amnesia, didn’t actually experience. Madonna, who was set to star in it and write the music, began working with Stuart Price, Pat Leonard and Mirwais on songs spanning the last century of popular music.
“I had to write music from the Twenties, big-band stuff from the Forties, Sixties folk music a la Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez, punk, and music from now, which is where ‘Hung Up’ came from,” she explains. “I made my own research book, and I had tons of reference material. But when I finally got the script, it was 300 pages long. And I was really not happy with it. It wasn’t what I wanted it to be. It just wasn’t.”
The disappointment still lingers in her voice. Like most successful people, Madonna is not a quitter. Though she may not get back on the horse that threw her, she will definitely get back on a different horse. (Which is exactly what she did that morning, when, against the advice of her handlers, she went horseback riding for the first time since the accident.) So though she didn’t like the script, she refused to abandon the material she’d written.
“After so much work, I was kind of devastated,” she says. “But I loved the song ‘Hung Up.’ So I thought, ‘Let’s just keep writing in this direction and see what happens.'”
The CD was recorded in Price’s tworoom apartment in the Maida Vale neighborhood of West London. “The studio is a tiny room with a roof that comes down really low,” Price tells me. “I mean, 1 can’t stand up in there. She can, because she’s a little shorter than me. And the equipment there is my old keyboards and an old mixing desk. Most studios cost thousands of dollars a day. My apartment costs the price of a good cup of tea a day. My African neighbors used to come out and say, ‘Is that Madonna going in your apartment?’ and I’d say, ‘No, it’s just a friend.'”
Confessions may be the first time in her career that Madonna has looked backward. As the lights of Frankfurt beckon in the dusk outside the window, she reminisces. “| Confessions I brought back the time I was recording my first record, with Steve Bray. We worked in a very casual way in his apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan] with these street sounds coming in through the windows being recorded and not giving a shit. In a recording studio, you always sing in isolation. And 1 hate that. I hate being cut off from everybody. I hate that I can’t hear what they’re saying | in the control room until they press the talk-back button.
“To me, recording this album was like going back. It was so liberating. I want to be in the shit holes. I want to be in a small place with no furniture. 1 want to keep it the way it was when I started, sitting on the floor and scribbling in my notebook. work best under those circumstances.”
Working with Price, Madonna often found herself thinking about her early days in the New York club scene. Acting on the advice of her hometown mentor, a dance teacher named Christopher Flynn, she dropped out of the University of Michigan and moved to Manhattan in 1977 with no friends, no money and no real-world experience. All she had with her was brunet ambition. She used to carry books around all the time because “you never know when you’re gomg to get stuck in a room or on the subway with nothing to do. And 1 hate wasting time.”
And so it was that she found herself at her first New York club, Pete’s Place. “It was kind of like a restaurant-bar-disco, and everybody was so f*cking cool,” she recalls. “The guys all had Forties suits on and porkpie hats. And the. women were so glamorous. They all had red lipstick and black eyeliner and high heels. And I felt so dull. Because. 1 was kind of embarrassed, I just sat in my corner and read my book. It was an F. Scott Fitzgerald book, Jazz Age Stories. I was like, ‘OK, I don’t fit in. I don’t know what to do with myself. I’m not dressed appropriately. There’s nothing cool about me. I’m going to go read a book.'”
What’s interesting about this story – besides thai if you had happened to be at Pete’s Place that night and decided to talk to a mousy girl reading a book alone, you might have gotten a chance to date Madonna – is her fear of being dull as a motivation for her protean career.
The plane lands on a private airfield in Frankfurt, where two helicopters are waiting for Madonna and her crew: a large helicopter and a small one. Guess which one Madonna climbs into?
A big blue illuminated M appears on the ground, letting us know we have reached our destination: the nearby city of Mannheim, where local record-label reps have somehow convinced Madonna, Green Day, Shakira and Carlos Santana that the best way into the hearts and minds of the German people is to appear on the longstanding television show Wetten Dass…? (in English, Wanna Bet…?), which tonight involves four guys wagering that they can stuff ten full drum kits into an SUV in four minutes.
While Madonna and dancers are waiting backstage to rehearse “Hung Up,” the topic of body language comes up. “I find it very disconcerting to talk to people who don’t look you in the eye,” she says. “I don’t know what to do. It freaks me out. Or when they shake your hand and hold on to it too long.”
When I mention that you can always tell when someone’s lying by looking for tells in their speech, body language and eye contact, she says she wants to learn this skill for business negotiations. So I demonstrate by asking her to tell me three things she’s done that day and to make one of them a lie.
Her answers: “I worked out.”
“I had sex.”
“I ate a tuna-fish sandwich.”
Despite rumors to the contrary. Madonna is not a good liar. When I point out which statement isn’t true, she cracks up and throws her legs into the air. “We have to learn this,” she squeals to her manager. For readers who need closure, let’s take a moment to wrap up some loose ends: The four guys actually win the bet about the drum sets and the SUV. Madonna took the large helicopter. The popcorn was for a snack, though neither Madonna nor her manager actually ate any. And the lie was that she ate a tuna-fish sandwich. Good for her. It means she had sex today, which brings us to the subject of her marriage.
Her relationship with Ritchie, whom she originally met at a dinner party at Sting and Trudie Styler’s house, is one the themes of her new and surprisingly personal tour documentary, I’m Going Tell Ton a Secret. In it, Ritchie is depicted missing concerts he’s promised to attend, boring her to tears while he sings drinking songs with his buddies and slapping ass nearly every time he walks past.
What do you thinly are the three most important things in a relationship?
The ability to listen, resilience and a sense of humor.
How did you feel your relationship came off in the movie?
I think it came off as peculiar. Not a typical relationship. A lot of macho men see the movie and like Guy’s character, because he doesn’t give me any special treatment. I think we come off as a couple that has that has a genuine and deep connection. He is always there for me, but he’s not impressed.
But you were pissed at him a few times in the movie.
I feel like we are sort of The Honeymooners, only I’m the Jackie Gleason character. Obviously, he irritates me on a significant basis, as everyone’s significant other does.
He often seemed to not care about your feelings or what was important to you.
Yeah, like when he was singing in the pub all night, and I had a show the next day and wanted to go home. Well, he’s a human being. It’s hard for him. He was pretty much there for a lot of my tour, but it’s hard for a guy to be traipsing around the world with a girl. No one wants to be anybody’s trailer bitch. It’s easier for girls to do that than guys. I think Gwyneth [Paltrow] is having an easier time going on the road with Chris Martin. You have to be a pretty evolved man to go on the road with me and not for a moment have this glimpse of yourself as someone who’s lost their identity.
Maybe, on some level, you both enjoy the power battles that take place in your relationship. Tou challenge each other.
Yeah. Ha ha ha ha ha ha.
This question is answered not with words but with an evil cackle. It is the coulaugh of a vixen, and Madonna uses it often – six sharp has – when she is laughing at the flaws that she loves about herself. For example, the next time I hear the evil cackle is after the sentence “Being monogamous is revolutionary – at least it is for me. Ha ha ha ha ha ha.”
The other man in Madonna’s documentary is her father, Tony Ciccone, a longtime Republican, a practicing Catholic and seventy-two-year-old Michigan vineyard owner who, on camera, wanders through his daughter’s world unaffected by the circus around him. This is the man from whom Madonna inherited her workaholic tendencies.
“My dad sent me an e-mail after he watched the movie,” Madonna says. “And at the end of it, he wrote, ‘In spite of our differences – I don’t agree with everything that you say – I’m very proud of you.’ That’s the only time my father’s ever said that. I mean, he’s only liked certain things I’ve done: my last tour, Evita, DicTracy and a couple of my ballads. That’s about it.”
She shakes her head and flutters the fake lashes her makeup artist has put on her. “It’s terrible,” she says, sighing. “All my life I’ve been going out of my way to get my father’s approval. And he’s never been impressed.”
With half a dozen dancers, three choreographers, her longtime publicist Liz Rosenberg and a retinue of Warner Bros. executives in tow, Madonna heads to the stage to rehearse “HungUp.”Though she’s just performed the song perfectly in Portugal, she insists on rehearsing it three times until the lighting and choreography cues are perfect.
In the Eighties and early Nineties, it often seemed as if Madonna went out of her way to be controversial – from the burning crosses of the “Like a Prayer” video to the graphic depictions of bondage, homosexuality and, um, hang gliding in her Sex book. Yet now that she’s settled into adult life as a mother of two with a spiritual bent, she’s under more scrutiny than ever. (Though she proudly boasts that she recently received a letter from Dr. Spock’s wife defending her child-rearing techniques, which include not letting her kids watch TV and teaching them to be bilingual.)
“It’s funny that I’ve supposedly made my career out of being controversial, so now even my child-rearing and my spiritual life are freaking people out,” Madonna responds. “It just goes to show.” She pauses and smiles. The lines in her face deepen, making her appear not older but more cerebral. “I don’t know what it goes to show:” She grows silent and thinks a little more. Her eyes squint, her aquiline lips purse and then, suddenly, her face goes smooth again. “It just goes to show that people are not comfortable with what’s not familiar,” she finally announces, triumphant.
Madonna pulls off her black sweat shirt, revealing a white tank top cut low in the back, exposing the back of a nude-colored bra. Though she looks great on camera, in person she seems overly thin.
One of the subjects Madonna has received the most flak about lately is her status as a Kabbalist. Technically, Kabbalah is a mystical branch of Judaism. But in the modern sense of the word, it’s the non-denominational teachings of an organization called the Kabbalah Centre. Founded by Philip Berg in the early Seventies, the Kabbalah Centre is chiefly a self-help institution that has taken a mystical branch of Judaism and cleaned, simplified and reworked it for mass consumption in an era of over estimulated materialists looking for spiritual and psychological peace of mind. Until recently, the Kabbalah Centre and its books and courses were looked at as benignly as, say, Wayne Dyer or Deepak Chopra. Madonna describes it not as a religion but as a philosophy.
More recently, however, the Kabbalah Centre has been under attack for its fundraising methods and for the statements and qualifications of some of its leaders, among other issues. As a result, the bad publicity has trickled down to Madonna, who has donated millions of dollars to the Centre.
While the Kabbalah Centre remains a far cry from the much more controversial Church of Scientology, Madonna does have empathy for Tom Cruise right now. “We’re both in the take-a-lot-of-shit club together,” she says. “I don’t really know what Scientology is, and because I don’t know, I’m not in a position to have an opinion about it. But I don’t think anybody else knows either, either. They need to shut the f*ck up.
Despite the strong language, there is no anger or hostility in her voice, only the strength of conviction nixed with the weakness of a persecution complex: “It’s like, why doesn’t anybody give Christians shit? I don’t get it. It’s really scary. When you think about it, there’s corruption in all organizations. Once things get big. there are always bad apples. Look at all the corruption and deception involved with the Vatican and the Catholic Church. It’s crazy. If I became a born-again Christian, people in America would be way more comfortable with it.”
Considering her penchant for learning, Madonna’s interest in Kabbalah makes sense. In most of her courses, she is learning about a complex and fascinating subject: herself. And changing oneself at a deep identity level is a difficult, timeconsuming, constantly challenging task. It is, for Madonna, a narcissistic exercise in not being a narcissist.
“As corny as it sounds,” she says, “if I didn’t have some kind of spiritual belief system, if I couldn’t find a way to make sense out of the chaos in the world around me – not my personal chaos, but the chaos in the world -1 would be a very depressed person.”
Like pop artists from Green Day to Moby, Madonna has been outspoken in her antipathy to the Bush administration. When Bush won the 2004 election, for example, she spiraled. “I was just frigging devastated,” she recalls. “It was a real sad day. I don’t get how people can have all these facts and still turn away from them.”
Her current theory is that Americans voted for Bush because he made them feel safe. But all that, she acknowledges, has changed since the government’s slow, inefficient response to the flooding of New Orleans. “9/11 was too ambiguous,” she says. “You couldn’t prove how the government was somehow in on the deal. There were too many arguments against it. You could say, ‘Oh, that’s just Michael Moore,’ ‘Oh, that’s just hearsay.’ New Orleans was undeniable irresponsibility.”
Madonna suits up in a puffy silver disco jacket and her superior silver boots, and bounds off to the soundstage. After the performance, in which Madonna and company lip-sync, air-guitar and dance their hearts out for a listless studio audience, Madonna sits on a couch in her dressing room, surrounded on adjacent couches by the members of Green Day.
Madonna has a funny way of relating to strangers. She will ask you questions – lots of questions. She will pay attention closely and ask good follow-up questions, yet you will get the uncomfortable feeling that she isn’t so much listening as she is allowing you to speak. And so long as you are interesting or able to offer something she wants to learn, she will keep allowing you to talk.
“Do you have any kids?” she asks Green Day.
“Have you ever seen Napoleon Dynamite?”
“What do you do for fun?”
To the last, Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong replies that the only dance he knows is the “drunken-sailor dance.”
“What’s that?” Madonna asks.
He stands up and demonstrates by slouching forward, letting his arms dangle at his sides and swaying drunkenly from side to side. When a string of drool begins dangling out of his mouth, Madonna lets him know that she gets the point.
“Have you ever noticed how the places that pay you the most are the least fun to play, like Las Vegas?” she asks.
The questions continue.
The answers are witty.
A good time is had by all.
Then Madonna decides that it’s time to fly back to London.
“Green Day are going to have to leave before you,” one of the show’s producers informs her.
“Why?” she asks. ‘We were supposed to leave first.”
“Their cars are here, and yours are waiting elsewhere because you stayed backstage longer t h a n you said you would,” the producer explains.
Madonna is flustered. She doesn’t like the fact that Green Day are leaving first.
“Well, I’ll just fly back with them,” she says.
“But they’re taking a car to Frankfurt.”
“Oh,” Madonna says, suddenly relieved.
Her status as queen has been restored. ‘We’re in a helicopter.”
Green Day have just experienced a Madonna moment.
An hour later, on the flight back to London, the subject of Armstrong’s drunkensailor dance comes up. Madonna recalls the one and only time she ever got so drunk that she threw up. Everyone then discusses the theory that when people are drunk, their true personalities – the side of themselves that they repress – often come out. That’s why some people become angry and mean when they drink, while others become free and fun-loving.
“How am I when I’m drunk?” Madonna asks.
“You’re kind of the same,” Price, her producer, says.
“You’re mellow,” Shavawn says.
“Yeah, you’re less worried and preoccupied,” Becker, her manager, adds.
“So the real me is less worried,” she proclaims. She sinks into her seat, and her lips part in a wide, toothy smile. “The real me likes living in the moment,” she concludes.
This is not a Madonna moment. It is just a moment.
Inspired by motherhood, Hinduism, yoga and a “dwindling” English dance producer, the world’s most successful female singer set about reinventing herself. Armed with a “gaffer-taped” Atari and with her baby daughter manning the mixing desk, Madonna made Ray Of Light.
The mid-’90s showered material girl Madonna with a string of life-changing experiences, from the birth of her daughter to an awakening of interest in Eastern mysticism. Then, in May 1997, following the Evita soundtrack, she started work on an album that would reflect those changes, sell in truckloads and help create a new Madonna.
Astold to Johnny Black
14 October 1996
Madonna gives birth to a baby girl, Lourdes, in Los Angeles.
Madonna: That was a big catalyst for me. It took me on a search for answers to questions I’d never asked myself before.
William Orbit: Long before we started working on the album, Madonna was going through changes. I think she was heading in the direction we eventually took anyway.
Madonna: I started studying the Kabbalah, which is a Jewish mystical interpretation of the Old Testament. I also found myself becoming very interested in Hinduism and yoga, and for the first time in a long time, I was able to step outside myself and see the world from a different perspective.
William Orbit: Madonna was itchy to make a change. and I came along at the right time. It bothers me when the press say, ‘William Orbit revived her dwindling career.’ It’s so not the case. If anything, she revived my dwindling career.
1 February 1997
The soundtrack to the film Evita reaches Number 1 In the UK.
William Orbit: Another important contributing factor to how Ray Of Light turned out was the Evita record which helped her grow as a singer, because she’d taken voice lessans.
Madonna: There was a whole piece of my voice I wasn’t using. And I was going to make the most of it.
Madonna begins the writing process with various collaborators.
Madonna: I wrote with everybody — William, Pat Leonard, Rick Howes. I even wrote some tracks with Babyface but they never made it onto the album.
Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds: We came up with a couple of songs we liked before she changed her idea about the album’s direction.
Madonna’s Maverick Records partner Guy Oseary rings William Orbit.
William Orbit: Guy rang and suggested I send some topes to her. I didn’t take it very seriously, so I didn’t send anything. Then he rang again, so I sent a DAT with 13 tracks on it.
Madonna: I was a huge fan of William’s earlier records, Strange Cargo 1 and 2 and all that. I also loved all the remixes he did for me and I was interested in fusing a kind of futuristic sound but also using lots of Indian and Moroccan influences and things like that, and I wanted it to sound old and new at the same time.
12 May 1997
William Orbit: Five days later, sitting in my garden, I got a call from Madonna. She said she was working on my tracks and would I like to come out and meet up with her. They sent me a plane ticket and off I went.
Early June 1997
Madonna and William Orbit meet in New York.
William Orbit: It was a day of sun and showers, and I remember I got drenched just as I arrived at her apartment block.
Madonna: William showed up with his plastic bag full of tapes… he arrived at my door looking like a drowned rat. He looked really fragile. He was very humble and unassuming and endearing, like a little boy. As soon as I met him, I liked him.
William Orbit: Her living-room hi-fi wasn’t working, so we adjourned to her gymnasium with another hi-fi. She played me the stuff she’d written with Babyface and Pat Leonard, and I’m sitting thinking, “These tracks sound very slick. What can I contribute?”
We spent the next week at the Hit Factory getting my backing tracks up in stereo, and she sang what she’d worked out, and it was clear that something was happening. At the end of that week, she said, “Would you work on my record?” and I said. I’d love to.”
Work begins at Larrabee North Studio, Universal City, LA.
William Orbit: The first day, I was in paralysis because I was used to going off and being left to get on with it, but she said, “I’m not the kind of girl that leaves the guy to get on with it. Get used to it.” It took me a while to get used to someone looking over my shoulder.
Larrabee was a real state-of-the-art studio. I’d never even worked on an automated desk before. It wasn’t so much a learning curve as a learning cliff. I realised right away that my equipment was really superannuated, like my old Atari 1040, held together with gaffer tape. It caught fire twice on the sessions.
One minor hazard was that Lola (Lourdes) would come in every day and, like any toddler, she’d make a beeline for the knobs and buttons. We’d look away and the whole sound had changed. We had to keep an eye on her.
There weren’t a lot cf musicians around. Mostly it was just me, Madonna, Pat McCarthy, who was a briliant engineer, and a tape-op called Matt. On Ray Of Light every guitar you hear is me. On a lot of tracks I did everything.
Most of the tracks pre-existed, so Madonna would work on vocals and lyrics at home, or driving around in her car. It’s Important to point out that I wasn’t the only producer working on the LP. Patrick Leonard did some great work…
Madonna: As a classically trained musician, Patrick brought a whole other element to the mix, particularly his string arrangements…
William Orbit: About a third of the way through, I thought I was going to get fired. Madonna was used to working with super-slick producers, whereas I’m very lateral which she saw as being disorganised.
I went to her house to playback Power Of Goodbye. We’d taken the wrong DAT with us and she was not amused. I ended up saying “Gimme a week and I’ll turn this one round”.
I virtually lived in the studio for that week, and from then on, it was great. She became confident that I knew what I was doing.
15 July 1997
Gianni Versace is shot dead outside his home in Miami Beach, Florida.
William Orbit: We were recording Swim on the day Versace was murdered. Madonna was very friendly with him and his sister, Donatella, who was in the street, distraught, on her cellphone to Madonna. But she did the vocal, which is probably why it has such an emotional impact.
Madonna: Ray Of Light (the track) is a mystical look at the universe and how small we are…
Christine Leach: My uncle, Clive Muldoon, and his partner, Dave Curtiss wrote a song in the 70s called Sepheryn, which became Ray Of Light. I’d been working with William one fateful night in 1996, in London. and he played me a backing track that fitted so well with the lyric to Sepheran that I just started singing it.
William Orbit: It was excellent, and I said so. I thought she’d written it, and she didn’t say she hadn’t. So that was among the tracks on the original DAT I sent to Madonna.
Christine Leach: Later, I was sent a cassette in the post, of Madonna’s version of the track and I nearly fainted. She must have loved the track – even her ad libs are the same as mine.
William Orbit: The final track, Mer Girl was another crucial point for me. I was very proud of it, but there was outside pressure to change it, and she just said, “No, It’s a piece of art. Don’t touch it.” I thought “I’m in good hards here.” I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about the music being trampled on by A&R interventions.
Madonna: It’s a song about dealing with death. There’s the obvious thing about my mother’s death but also Princess Diana’s and Versace’s death. There seemed to be so much death actually around the time that I had written it.
3 March 1998
Ray Of Light is released.
Dave Curtiss: I didn’t even know Ray Of Light had been recorded. A friend heard about it on the radio and told me. I was a bit annoyed at first because Madonna wanted 30 per cent just for changing a couple of lines, but then I realised that 15 per cent of millions is a lot better than 100 per cent of nothing. I did very well out of it. It’s been a life-changing experience. I’d say I’m financially secure for at least the next five to 10 years as a result of 15 per cent of one track by Madonna.