Dancing on the Edge
With a will of iron and a heart of glass, she rose from New York’s post-punk art/club scene with lucid visions of the music she had to make. Thirteen albums in, Madonna and her key collaborators open up about the musical decisions and lyrical confessions that have taken her from Pontiac, Michigan to The World, always on the cutting edge of pop. “It’s been really intense… complicated,” she tells Tom Doyle.
It’s 1982, and under the lights at Danceteria, 30 West 21st Street, New York City, Madonna Louise Ciccone is lost in music. Inside this four-storey nightlife haven, the soundtrack is as eclectic as the club-goers who surround her: misfits and outsiders drawn together to dance to everything from James Brown to PiL, Grace jones to The pop group, Afrika Bambaataa’s Planet Rock to Arthur Russell/Dinosaur L’s Go Bang.
Bargirls serving up drinks include Nigerian-Brit Helen Folusade Adu – soon to find fame as Sade – and outre performance artist Karen Finley. Teenage members of the Beastie Boys, working as bus boys, charge around emptying ashtrays and wiping down tables. Ciccone’s newfound friend Keith Haring, who by day paints murals featuring kinetic, colourful figures, works in the cloakroom at night. Her soon-to-be paramour Jean-Michel Basquiat furtively inks his “SAMO” tag on the club walls. Madonna’s own, characteristically provocative tag is “Boy Toy”.
“New York was a;ove with everything amazing,” she marvels today. “That’s what the time had to offer. I was surrounded by great artists.”
It is here, in this hive of creative thought and activity, that Madonna’s musical vision first sparks in her mind. Up to the point, there have been dabblings in bands (The Breakfast Club, Emmy) and five-month sojourn in Paris in 1979 at the invitation of two Belgian record producers working with French disco singer Patrick Hernandez, But these experiences, though educational, have amounted to little more than frustration. Now, on the dancefloor, studying club music almost as a science, finally she can see a clear way forward.
“All my friends were DJs,” she says, “so I wanted my records to sound like what I wanted to dance to, I would go to clubs and I would listen to what would make me dance, y’know? And then I would go back and I would work on my music. I mean, I was influenced by Debbie Harry, Talking Heads, The B-52’s. Whatever was getting played at the time. So to me the line was very blurred between what I was working on and what I was dancing to.”
One night, Madonna approached Danceteria DJ Mark Kamins with a cassette of a demo track of hers called Everybody, a synthy connection with a Tom Tom Club bounce, tapped with her lyrics call-to-dance. Kamins listens to the tape at home and, impressed, the next night at the club gives it a spin.
“I was in the DJ booth,” Madonna recalls, as that famous grin lights up her face at the memory. “I thought it was marvellous (laughs).”
“It was the first time this dancer-turned-singer-turned-producer had witnessed her music having a physical effect upon a crowd. “Just to be able to make people dance with your music,” she thrills. “That was a very magical moment.”
Six streets north, five blocks west, 32 years later. Everything and, in some ways, nothing has changed for Madonna. Her business remains taking the sounds of the dancefloor onto the radio and into the charts. In the control room at Jungle City Studios, a surprisingly bijou facility whose previous occupants include Beyonce, Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, she sits between the enormo speakers, wearing a ’40-ish rose-patterned tea dress, sipping a glass of champagne and listening to playbacks of tracks from her 13th album, Rebel Heart. The volume is slammingly loud.
“Yeah,” she smiles, mock-coyly. “It’s phat volume. Must be played loud. Not parental advisory. I like to feel like I’m getting kicked in the stomack when I play music or when I make music.”
If so, MOJO wonders, how’s her hearing these days? “My hearing’s actually very good. Hm-mm. Strangely enough.”
A rough version of Rebel Heart’s confessional acoustic-guitars-over-beats title track has leaked in the past few days, though Madonna appears to be taking it in relatively good spirits. “D’you wanna hear the real version?” she asks. Less than a week later, however, when another 10 work-in-progress songs are bafflingly distributed, she’ll fumingly decry it as “artistic rape”, leading to an official iTunes pre-order release of six tracks. Then, on Christmas Day, another 14 unfinished selections will appear online.
It’s easy to see why Madonna is enraged by this creepy violation. As much as she always openly craved stardom, she’s retained the typical over-sensibility of the songwriter, artist and producer, and tonight, airing her new songs to outsider ear for the first time, she’s almost tentative. MOJO hears two versions of her return single, Living For Love – the first stripped down and harking back to deep house 1989-style, the second more layered with EDM synth figures. Asked by the singer which we prefer we choose the first and receive a hug as reward. “That’s my favourite too,” she beams. “It’s cool as f*ck.”
Credit lists for recent Madonna albums typically feature a cast of the hottest producers du jour – Rebel Heart boasts contributions from Diplo, Kanye West and Avicii – leading perhaps to the impression that they’re merely a fashionable pick’n’mix of names to prop up her “brand”. But talk to anyone involved with Madonna’s music, past to present, and they will tell you a different story. The singer is very much sleeves-rolled-up, working long hours in the studio, with a clear musical direction in her head. Rebel Heart, recorded in New York, London and Los Angeles, has been nine months in the making, the longest and most intensive of any Madonna album sessions.
“I can’t remember every record-making experience,” she says. “It feels like there’s been too many of them. But this has been really, really intense… complicated. Just because there are so many people involved. It’s like a train that keeps picking up people. And every time someone gets on the train, they add another flavour. Then I have to step back and see, OK, how does this all fit into the big picture? Do it does seem endless.”
There are currently 36 tracks in various stages of completion. She winces when considering how she’s going to edit them down: “I’m dreading that moment.” The 14 songs played to MOJO fall into two thematic camps: heartache and vulnerability (Joan Of Arc, Ghosttown) and f*ck you defiance (B*tch, I’m Madonna, Unapologetic B*tch), while others combine these conflicting emotions (Heartbreak City, Wash All Over Me).
Madonna herself falters slightly when trying to describe the new songs. “I feel like… they seem to be a manifestation of two sides of me that are quite… I don’t know… that show themselves very clearly in my songwriting.”
Which are… provocateur? “Mm yeah.”
And wearing your heart on your sleeve?
“Yeah. Romantic. And renegade.”
In the electro/country hybrid of Devil Pray, meanwhile, the singer turns out a lyric which seems distinctly anti-drugs, declaring them to be a dangerous illusion. “I mean, I’m not saying to people, “Don’t do drugs,”” Madonna insists. “I’m saying that they’re a trick and that you need to be careful.” In the song, she lists various substances including ecstasy, weed and even solvents. It’s quite a thing to bear Madonna singing about sniffing glue.
“(Hoots and claps hands) Yeah. Actually, it’s a come back…”
You’ve admitted you were never a natural drug taker?
“No. My nature is to want to be in control of the situation. Not out of control.”
But did you ever experience a musical epiphany while chemically altered?
“I wouldn’t say I had musical epiphanies. I would say probably I just had… life epiphanies where everything seems better than it is (laughs). But my problem is I don’t have the stamina to take drugs. I feel terrible afterwards. I’m destroyed for days and days. I can’t do anything and I don’t want that inconvenience in my life. So I don’t feel it’s worth the price you have to pay. That’s me.”
After the smooth, comes the rough…
“Yeah. Even when I was younger and in my twenties, trying this and that… I mean, I never really did that many drugs. I’m too big of a pussy. Also, I’m a dancer and I don’t want to destroy my body. I want to feel physically good. So it never came natural to me to get out of my brains or get to high that I couldn’t get out of bed for three days. And that’s what happened to me if I did anything.”
Best drug experience though? “I have to say the best experience I’ve ever had was when I had to take morphine in a hospital (laughs), when I had two caesareans. Oh and also I fell off a horse [in 20050 and broke 10 bones and I got morphine then too, and well, that’s just a wonderful feeling. But then after 24 hours, the nurses stop giving it to you and the pain comes crashing back in. So that’s probably the nicest thing I’ve ever experienced drug-wise. That was doctor’s orders… but I could see how people would get addicted to heroin. Deadly.”
In many ways, Rebel Heart, is the definitive title for a Madonna album, since mutiny seems to be woven in her DNA. In conversation with MOJO, she will be generally sharp, funny and friendly. Then, for no obvious reason, out of the clear blue sky looms a black cloud of challenging attitude. This first appears when we ask her why she thinks she has always felt a strong urge to rebel…
“(Long tetchy pause) Why do I have such strong urge? Because that’s part of being an artist and being a human being. But I’ve always been that way, even before I started writing songs. I’ve always been the person that said to my father, But why do I have to do that? But why is that a rule? But why do the girls need to do this and the boys have to do that? Why do the women have to cover their head in church and the men not? Why do I have to wear a dress and they get to wear pants? Why why why why why? And my father used to always say, “Why do you always have to ask questions?” And I said… But why not? So… I don’t know. As a human being, we’re here to ask questions.”
Just as suddenly as it blew in, the storm breaks and Madonna smiles again. “Rebelliousness, I think, is mandatory for all creative people,” she reasons, “And if you’re not rebellious in some way, shape or form in your work, then I don’t really know why you’re doing it.”
Casting her mind back down the years, Madonna says she can’t pinpoint the one specific moment when she realized she wanted to be a musician. It’s 24 hours after the playback, and she sits in a lounge at Jungle City Studios, dressed in a black jumper and matching short flared skirt, wearing black leather Chanel fingerless gloves personalized with an M, chewing on a vine of red liquorice and thinking about the past.
It was 1978 when she first arrived in New York from her native Michigan, filled with hurt and defiance and determination, baggage from her namesake mother’s death from breast cancer when Madonna was only five and a turbulent subsequent relationship with her father Tony. Living in a dumpy apartment on the sketchy Lower East Side, with designs on becoming a professional dancer, a new friend, Angie Smith, asked her to form a band.
“She was a ballerina and she played bass and was obsessed with The Rolling Stones,” Madonna remember, “I said, I don’t play any instruments. And she was like, “Well you could be the singer” and I was like, But I don’t really sing. We kind of got together and threw some ideas around. It was really the whole idea of punk and you don’t really have to play an instrument. It was just the idea and the attitude.”
In ’79 came the Paris trip. In New York, Madonna had auditioned for the producers of Patrick “Born To Be Alive” Hernandez’s disco revue based in the French capital. Jean Vanloo and Jean-Claude Pellerin saw in her something of the nascent star and invited her to Europe hoping to put her in a studio with Giorgio Moroder. But the 20-year-old Ciccone still felt uncomfortable with the idea of making her own music.
“They were, like, throwing everything at me,” she says. “But I didn’t feel like I had a point of view yet. So I innately rejected it. That gave me the idea that I could make music and yet I didn’t feel like I’d earned the position to make music. Because I didn’t play an instrument and I didn’t write any songs.”
Returning to New York, Madonna hooked up with Smit and bothers Dan and Ed Gilroy in The Breakfast Club, where she initially took the role of drummer before, perhaps inevitably, working her way to the front of the stage. Soon, she jumped ship and formed Emmy with a friend from Michigan, Steve Bray. Demos of both bands now floating around online reveal a young Madonna in thrall to the vogue sounds of the time – ska, Blondie, The Pretenders – but still to find her own voice.
What did she learn from being in a band? That she really wanted to be a solo artist?
“No,” she stresses. ” Being part of a band teaches you about musicality. There’s no better way to understand about arrangements. How to create a song, how to perform. I mean I’m so lucky that I had all of these years playing in bands as an unknown musician, as an unknown singer, to figure out what I wanted to do and and how I wanted to do it. To me, those early days were so essential to building me as an artist.”
Growing more creatively sure-footed, together with Bray, Madonna created her first solo tracks. Danceteria’s Mark Kamins took the tapes to Seymour Stein of Sire Records, who signed Madonna to a two-single deal. Then, when Everybody and its successor Burning Up became dancefloor hits, Stein bought further into Madonna, resulting in the making of her eponymous debut album, released in 1983. But it was a far from painless process.
Sire matched her with producer Reggie Lucas (Roberta Flack, Phyllis Hyman), but she felt the results of their work were too cluttered sonically. In a move spotlighting her chutzpah, Madonna insisted on finishing the album with her then-boyfriend, John “Jellybean” Benitez, paring back the production to make it more modern and sharply-defined. MOJO points out that it took Kate Bush three albums before she seized control of her music from her producers and record company, but here was Madonna doing it with her debut. For an unknown, that must have been hard?
“Well, I didn’t think about whether it was hard or not,” she says, a touch prickly again. “I just knew what I wanted to sound like.”
Similarly, even when put together with Nile Rodgers for follow-up album Like A Virgin (1984), and effectively backed by Chic, Madonna was never intimidated by them. I’m a very cheeky girl, I guess.”
Irrepressibly spirited, but perhaps yet to secure a firm stylistic foothold, Madonna met her first (and arguably greatest) creative soulmate in 1985 when Patrick Leonard, fresh from helming the band on The Jacksons’ Victory tour, was hired as MD for her inaugural live jaunt, the Virgin tour. Mutually sensing a connection, the pair began writing and producing songs.
“We’re both a Michigan kids,” notes Leonard today, “and part of it was just a work ethic. Sort of blue-collarish in a way. Any good collaborative team is usually a yin and yang and I think we were that.”
Working knee-to-knee in Leonard’s tiny studio in Los Angeles, the two began crafting the songs for what would become 1986’s True Blue. “I always try to find recording studios that are cut off from everything,” says Madonna. “Tucked away, not too fancy. I like working like that with people, one-on-one, without interruptions.”
“In the grandiose rooms you don’t focus on music,” notes Leonard. “It’s possible that we were more recused because there was literally only room for she and I and [engineer/mixer] Michael Verdick when we made True Blue.”
Looking back, Madonna recognizes there was a real spark between her and Leonard. “He encouraged me as a songwriter,” she says. “He encouraged me to dig deep and explore areas of my emotional life that I probably hadn’t really gotten into yet.”
A creative breakthrough came with Live To Tell, written for the soundtrack of Madonna’s then-husband Sean Penn’s crime family drama At Close Range. A mysterious and highly emotional ballad which spoke of murky childhood secrets, it revealed a new gravitas to Madonna’s writing. “Pat had a dark side to him,” she says, “and so that kind of brought out my dark side.”
“Yeah, that’s very fair,” Leonard laughs. “Especially right around that time. I was pretty dark.”
“It was kind of inspired by the movie,” Madonna explains, “and family secrets and the things that make you who you are, but you don’t necessarily want to share. Mix that in with my own childhood and my own growing up and all of that. My real experiences get mixed in with things that I imagine.”
The song added weight to Madonna’s imperial phase, when she was primarily gaining notoriety as a troublemaker, with a sense of hits mainly written by outside songwriters. various hoo-hahs surrounded her key singles from the period – Like A Virgin (brazen sexual provocation), Material Girl (wanton greed), Papa Don’t Preach (take your pick from pro-teenage pregnancy or, at the other extreme, anti-abortion lobbying). Surprisingly, Madonna insists she didn’t see the controversies coming.
“No, she says, shaking her head. “Because I grew up immersed in literature and poetry and humour and irony and I just assumed everyone had the same sense of irony I did. Of course, I was wrong. I didn’t get that people wouldn’t understand the duality of things. That you could say you were something you clearly weren’t and people would get the joke. But no. They didn’t Literalists. Literalists have plagued me all my life (smiles). Death to the literalists…”
You seriously never thought, This might be misinterpreted!
“No. (Firmly) I’m telling you, no. I had no idea.”
Great pop music should stir sh*t up though, shouldn’t it?
“Yeah. Maybe I just unconsciously choose things that are gonna stir sh*t up without really knowing that it’s gonna stir sh*t up. Honestly, I don’t know, I wasn’t sitting there in my laboratory of sh*tstirring, going, “Ooh this is gonna fuck with people.” No… that’s just my nature. So it just seemed normal.”
“I don’t think there was any sort of intentional thing going on there to upset people,” says Patrick Leonard. “I never felt that from her. None of this was like, ‘Let’s manipulate people’s feelings and emotions.”
Next she’ll be telling us that her Like A Prayer single (1989) didn’t firmly and knowingly poke a stick at the Catholic church…
“Oh, but the Catholic church needs to have a stick poked at it, for God sakes,” she exclaims. “Doesn’t it? On the other hand, I love going to a beautiful Catholic church and hearing the mass in Latin and smelling the incense and the whole pomp and circumstance and drama of it all. It’s beautiful, it’s hypocrisy. But we have to poke at our institutions. If you can’t poke at institutions, then you might as well just live in a fascist state. (Brightly) Which is what we’re living in now. Yay! Woo!”
MOJO tells Madonna that the week before we’d pulled out our old vinyl copy of the Like A Prayer album and that, 25 years on, it still bears the scent of patchouli it was originally imprinted with. The fact visibly tickles her.
“That’s funny. Wow. Terrible, terrible perfume. Urgh… I can’t stand it.”
Wait a minute… you don’t even like patchouli? “I don’t any more. It’s a tree hugger’s smell.”
Fittingly, from its hippyfied, bare-bellied, pearls-and-jeans cover imagery to its confessional lyrics, Like A Prayer was a shift into more adult territory – from Promise To Try, the unbearably sad missive to the grieving little girl that she was in the wake of her mother’s death, to Oh Father, the accusatory, if forgiving, open letter to her dad. It seemed Madonna had a point to prove: specifically that she could make a grown-up record. Not so, apparently.
“No… again,” she maintains. “You really have me pegged as a person who consciously tries to do things that I don’t consciously try to do. It just happened. You just have to leave yourself open to things and then you reflect where you are in your life. And that’s what art is. That’s what creation is. So I guess that’s the mood that I was in at the time.”
Come the early ’90s, Madonna’s image became even more brazenly sexualized, cementing her tabloid notoriety and overshadowing her records, the languid breakbeats of 1992’s Erotica and the nu-R&B swing of 1994’s Bedtime Stories. There would be a four-year gap between the latter and 1998’s more complex and soul-bearing Ray Of Light, featuring the psychedelic electronic treatments of producer William Orbit. Much had changed in Madonna’s life in the intervening years, with the birth of her daughter Lourdes in 1996, and her embracing of Kabbalah.
“I started studying Kabbalah when I was pregnant with my daughter, so I guess they’re connected,” she muses.
Did these two new aspects of her life change her as an artist?
“Well, it made me become more conscious of my choices, my decisions, what I wanted to say how it affected people, stuff like that. I feel like it made me become a more responsible person. I mean there are aspects of Kabbalah that I still don’t understand. But I would have to devote my life to studying it all the time and then I wouldn’t be the person that I am. But I certainly have relied on it and it has informed me as a mother, as an artist, in many ways/ Pushed me into the direction of asking more questions. (Smiles) Thou doth not protest too much.”
Ray Of Light returned Madonna to the confessional booth, with Drowned World / Substitute For Love revealing her regrets about now-suffocating celebrity and the lyric of the astonishing Mer Girl depicting a nightmarish flight from her home down into the earth of her mother’s grave. Does she ever write these things then have second thoughts about unveiling them in public? “Uhm-uhm,” she shrugs. “I like to say things that other people don’t wanna say. Trying to give voice to feelings I have that possibly other people can relate to.”
Ray Of Light and Like A Prayer are acclaimed as the high watermarks of her album catalogue. Does she pay attention to what the critics say, whether good or bad? “I don’t pay attention,” she offers, breezily. “I try not to pay too much attention to what people say about anything I do because in 10 minutes everything can change. One person thinks this is your best work, and at the end of the day, it’s just your work. And some of it really is transcendent and some of it isn’t.”
When not personally revealing, Madonna’s best records often sound like the very definition of modernity. This was the path she was to follow, as she returned to club sounds with Music in 2000 and American Life in 2003. But it was during her time living in England that she found her Pat Leonard in Stuart Price, aka Jacques Lu Cont, who embedded in madonna World as her live musical director, on 2003’s Re-Invention tour. Recalling her early days working with DJs in small New York studios and her years bunkered with Leonard in LA, Madonna chose to make 2005’s Confessions On A Dance Floor in the studio loft room of price’s tiny flat in Maida Vale, London. It was, she remembers, a touch wistfully, a liberating experience.
“I loved that place,” she says. “It was small and intimate, far away from everything. There was one tiny little window where you could see the sky. It was just me and Stuart and his mixing board and instruments and no one could get to us. We were in our own little world.”
But still, it’s surprising to find someone in your position making a record in some English dude’s loft. “Why? What does somebody in my position do?”
Well, it’s not something you’d imagine a big star doing. “Oh, that’s all rubbish. Rubbish rubbish rubbish.”
From then to now, Madonna has cleaved very much to dance music, in different shades, from the Timbaland and Neptunes-assisted R&B of Hard Candy (2008) to the heavy EDM flavours of MDNA (2012). What is the ongoing allure of the club culture?
“Just the feeling of the tribal, the community,” she enthuses. “Y’know, people coming together in a room. That bass booming, people dancing, moving in unison. There’s something really primal about it and inexplicable. I think it’s in our nature to want to do that. To want to join together and move to a beat. Drumming is ancient. And people dancing together as a community to drums. We’ve been doing that since the evolution of man.”
In looking for collaborators, these days Madonna seeks out the mavericks, which explains Kanye West’s presence on Illuminati and Wash All Over Me on Rebel Heart. “I like that he likes to push the envelope,” she says. “He hears music in a different and unique way. I think Diplo’s the same. I like people who think outside the box, ‘cos they take a song I’ve written that’s quite straightforward and pop and deconstruct it. Rip it apart and turn it into something else.”
At the tail end of 2014, musically schizophrenic funster Ariel Pink prompted something of a social media fuss when he claimed he’d been asked to work with Madonna to bring something “edgy” to her sessions, saying he thought her career was on a “downward slide”.
“He’s a crazy person,” she retorts. “I never met him. I never considered working with him. I don’t know where he got that idea. It’s possible that somebody brought his name along with a million other names to me as people to write with. But I never stopped at his name, considered him and then said no.”
You’re not even aware of his music then? “No. Sorry (laughs).”
Two of the more unusual co-conspirators on Rebel heart are Dahi and Blood Diamonds, two LA-based producers who paired up for tracks on the album. Madonna discovered the former through his work with rapper Kendrick Lamur; the latter is a 23-year-old-purveyor of dreamlike electronica. “I find them to be complex and interesting and unusual,” says Madonna. “They’re really good, really clever.”
For their part, both were impressed by how involved Madonna is as a producer. “She said, like, ‘I want this to sound like it was made in New York in 1988,'” notes Dahi. “Everything we did represented a different time or experience.”
“She’s definitely the captain of her own ship,” says Blood Diamonds, “She would sit on a drum stool, a foot or two from me, and we’d go through claps or bass sounds. She has such a clear vision and that’s the reason she is who she is.”
Madonna in 2015 is striving to be a cutting-edge and, yes, provocative as ever. It’s now 10pm on this Thursday night and there’s every chance this evening’s recording session will stretch until 4am. At 56, and with arguably little left to prove to herself or anyone else, she remains a workaholic, grafting through to the wee small hours, even if in some ways she’d rather stick to a more sociable schedule.
“I don’t prefer working at night,” she admits, as she prepares to return to the control room. “I have kids, so I have to get up in the morning whether I work late or not. But then I go back to sleep and that’s the problem. ‘Cos I wake up late and then it’s a horrible cycle.”
More than a lingering desire for high-level fame – which she could maintain with less swear – or an urge to compete, it seems to be an enduring passion for music that drives Madonna on. She’s a fan of Adele, Sam Smith and especially Beyonce (“I think she’s an artist”), and sometimes hears a song that she dearly wishes she’s written herself. The last one was James Blake’s sparse and emotive rendition of Feist’s Limit To Your Love. “So amazing,” she swoons.
As a music enthusiast, she has no wish to discuss the shrinking fortunes of the record industry. “It’ll just turn into a funeral dirge,” she groans, before getting punchy again. “However marginalized and pushed down we might be, we will rise up! And music is something that we need as human beings, so how can we stop making it?”
Madonna now shares a manager, Guy Oseary, with U2. Would she ever follow her stablemates’ lead and give an album away?
“Um, it’s not that I wouldn’t give an album away. But I would give people the choice to ask me if they could have it (laughs). I respect their decision, but that’s not what I’d choose to do.”
So if Guy had come to you with that idea, you would’ve said no?
“(Nods) I said, Guy, what should I do? Stand in front of Walmart’s and strum my guitar with a hat on? Please! Buy my record!”
That’s your story’s next chapter? Madonna: The Busking Years?
“Yeah,” she grins, “Look for me in a subway.”
Madonna fronts Chic, makes a splash, as recalled by Nile Rodgers
“I’d grown up around big stars and had just come off working with Diana Ross and David Bowie on Let’s Dance. So I was used to charismatic people. When Madonna came to my apartment to talk about working on Like A Virgin she was this new girl singer whose debut has sold in the thousands and I was the big-time record producer. But after we talked I thought: This could be the most special person I’ve ever met in my life. She was brilliant and focused. After she played me demos she flat out told me: “If you don’t love these songs, we can’t work together.”
Madonna had conceived the whole of Like A Virgin in her head. I didn’t need to ask her questions about the impact of songs like Material Girl and Dress You Up because she was already there in her mind. I wasn’t sure about Like A Virgin as the lead single. She sat me down and said: ‘Nile, to a young girl losing your virginity is a big deal.’ She tapped into the hearts and minds of female youth culture. Madonna was their spokesperson.
Like A Virgin ended up being the last great Chic record; it’s Chic but with Madonna as our lead singer. If you look at the credits it’s clear she was working in my camp: it was my studio, my singer, my musicians, my engineer. I told her, if my band, with its pretty great rhythm section, plays these, no one will sound like you. She was convinced.
I thought I’d be her producer for life, the George Martin to her Beatles. But a contract dispute and the fact my girlfriend didn’t get on with Sean Penn conspired against us.”
Patrick Leonard on the emergence of Madonna: The Serious Artist
“When we started, it was her first tour [The Virgin Tour, 1985] and essentially she was open about not having done it before. I found her dead serious, but quite easy to work with. We started doing some writing during that tour, working on Love Makes The World Go Round [from True Blue, 1986], but I don’t know that there’s ever a plan. Y’know, there were questions about lyrics along the way and I always just said, Go for it and make it as real as possible. There’s no such thing as too real here.
My feelings when we were making Like A Prayer is we pretty much knew that the whole world was gonna hear this record and we should make a great record. But we still did the same thing of writing the songs relatively quickly. Oftentimes those songs weren’t resung. My agenda at the time was to try to make it as live as possible. We bumped the heads on that issue a lot. No one else was making records like that at that time with that much live performance. On Oh Father, I’m pretty sure that the record button got hit, like, four times. That’s all. But it was always a bit of celebration because it was so easy to find something cool.”
Stuart Price helmed Confessions On A Dance Floor, Madonna’s ’05 return to core values
“I did a remix for [Music and American Life producer] Mirwais in 2001 and when Madonna was looking for a live keyboard player he recommended me. I ended up playing on her Drowned World tour and working on some material for American Life, but it didn’t get used. I wanted her to sound like ‘Autechre with Madonna vocals’ and she wanted to be ‘Che Guevara with a busted-up acoustic guitar’.
Still, by the end of her next tour, Re-Invention, we started working on the music for a movie she was making with Luc Besson [Hello Suckers]. There was a ‘disco’ section in the film and the song we wrote came together really quickly. The writing was on the wall and it morphed into Confessions On A Dance Floor.
Confessions… made subliminal reference to her earliest records. While we were recording in my small studio loft, she’d talk about Mark Kamins spinning a reel-to-reel of what they’d just worked on when he’d DJ and having the windows open in Jellybean’s apartment and taxi sounds ending up in the background of Into The Groove. The album connected the girl who made these records to the spiritual mother that she’d become.
I think she enjoys working with DJs because she recognizes the framework: a little songwriting naivety mixed with focus on the simple hook, Madonna is all about making large, very digestible records. I think we were a good match musically. As a DJ I saw what would work at the clubs while as a performer Madonna was connected to dance music on a physical level, understanding what it takes to make people want to move.”
After the generic Hard Candy, Martin Solveig helped Madonna recharge on MDNA.
“She’d heard my songs Hello and Boys & Girls and saw qualities she wanted on MDNA: positive, happy songs that you could dance to. Madonna is extremely good at finding the middle point between herself and her producer and turning that into her own thing.
The overall vision around the album was creating tracks that would fit into the subsequent live show. I think from day one she had the movie of the show in her mind and if the songs we worked on fit that concept so much the better.
We did six or seven tracks and, by today’s standards, our studio collaboration was old school. Now it’s about people who have never met e-mailing different tracks to each other. MDNA was organic in comparison. It felt like we were two halves of the same band. The first track we worked on was Give Me All your Luvin’. I’d demoed it for her in a complete form but the first day I met her she told me: ‘I like this song but if we’re going to do it together we’re going to re-do it together too.’ We took everything out of the demo she didn’t like: the snare drum, the vocal and from that skeleton track we built a new song. Another track, Beautiful Killer, came out of our shared love of the French new wave film Le Samourai starring Alain Delon. When it came to the vocals I made her re-record the same part 20 or 25 times because the songs were a little out of her range. She didn’t enjoy it and nicknamed me ‘The Tyrant’! Which was funny – she has an english sense of humour – because I’m the exact opposite of a tyrant. She said I was the sweetest producer she’d ever worked with. Probably too sweet.”
Thomas Wesley Pentz – aka Diplo – on pushing the envelope, Madonna style
“I hadn’t really listened to her recent album but I knew her classic material. We wrote a lot of things – like, seven, eight songs together. She said, ‘Give me something crazy,’ and that’s when we made B*tch I’m Madonna. It’s just so weird and different. It’s hard to write a record like that from scratch. For me, when I produce records, I write demos and I remake them with different sounds and make them more crazy. But that started out a crazy record. She was just into it.
Her work ethic is crazy and also she’s a mother. I have a child too and we connected on that level. It was cool to see someone have that level of being a serious woman. Like, she’s a mother, and the same time she’s writing an album. I don’t think she sleeps.
Living For Love ended up being the fifteenth version of the song until it got perfect. There’s that level of pride in the music. She doesn’t have to do anything else really. But she does. It’s like, she’s already sold billions of records and she’s still treating this one as if it’s her first record. But she is Madonna and she is really there to make music and that’s the only thing she’s there to do.
Tracks of her years:
1. Into The Groove (Sire single, 1985) : Madonna’s visceral attachement to the dancefloor made exhortational art
Long singled out as the main justification for Madonna’s acting career, screwball thriller Desperately Seeking Susan is closely bonded with its soundtrack hit. If Susan Seidelman’s film catapitalised on its star’s natural charms (“an indolent, trampy goddess,” said Pauline Kael), Into The Groove also encapsulated Madonna’s big-city, club-kid sexuality. Less coyly titillating than Like A Virgin yet still a world away from the explicit show-and-tell of the Sex book and Erotica album, the single’s disco insistence hints at sultry yet ungroomed New York bohemia. Scenes from the film were shot in Danceteria, and Into The Groove’s synth lines seem to reach for the atmosphere of the club where Madonna played her first show, promising music as revelation, dancing as freedom.
Written on an Avenue B fire escape while watching “a gorgeous Puerto Rican boy” opposite – the perfect Madonna back story – it combines that Rear Window-style voyeurism (“at night I lock the doors where no one else can see”) with a hungry desire for contact: “Tonight, I wanna dance with someone else.” She would strip away that mystique in the ’90s, but on Into The Groove she’s the kind of free-spirit who might well use a public toilet’s hand-dryer to dry her armpits; and a potent advocate for the dancefloor that made her.
2. Live To Tell (from true Blue, 1986) : Epic, bruised, mysterious – Madonna parlays childhood pain into her first tour de force
Before Live To Tell, Madonna had ambition, style and brace of hits but not the mystique or emotional weight necessary for the staying power she craved. Enter new musical director Patrick Leonard with a dramatic instrumental he had composed, unsuccessfully, for teen drama, Fire With Fire. Leonard’s shadowy grandeur elicited from Madonna the first glimpse of the complicated woman she was rather than the bulletproof icon she aspired to be.
Live To Tell allows Madonna to slow down and be vulnerable, especially when it almost stops halfway through dwindling to a hold-your-breath synth drone before her unexpected confession, “If I ran away. I’d never have the strength to go very far.” But her lyric isn’t exactly confessional, it’s a promise of candour postponed, revealing only that she has something to reveal, veiling the figures of her dead mother and disapproving father in the teasing language of secrets and lies. Towering over both the album (True Blue) and movie (At Close Range) that featured it, and startling in concert (in 2006 she controversially sang it from a mirrored crucifix). Live To Tell exposed a side of Madonna that she’s perhaps not explored enough: strong enough to admit weakness, confortable with mystery and uncertainty, magnificently alone.
3. Mer Girl (from Ray Of Light, 1998) : A ghostly psychodrama in which the bereaved daughter becomes the Immaterial Girl
From the eerie, glitchy opening to its devastating closing lines – “I smelled her burning flesh / Her rotting bones / Her decay…” Mer Girl is a stunning collision of Madonna’s personal history and musical inspiration. Digging deep into childhood grief and the memory of her mother, she harnesses producer William Orbit to build a trancelike elegy out of electronic chill and silence. In an scenario in which she is buried alive, the singer realises that by choosing fame she has in fact been running away from the terror of her mother’s death.
When Madonna first met Orbit in the ’90s she had just given birth to her daughter and was transformed by motherhood, exploring spiritual themes and taking creative risks. Orbit helped push her another step further, culminating in this unprecedentedly raw, emotional performance – a fitting end to the epic Ray Of Light album, already home to Frozen’s witchy soundscape of hardcore breaks and Egyptian melody and the apocalyptic Drowned World / Substitute For Love. The album won four Grammys, and re-established Madonna’s musical credibility – the perfect storm.
4. What It Feels Like For A Girl (from Music, 2000) : Pointy-bra feminism wrapped in “sexual gothic strangeness”
Like a one-woman enigma particle or a particularly fascinating species of moth, Madonna fulled a thousand academic thesis in the ’90s, though few could agree as to whether her fondness for talking about sex and gender constituted bold, third wave feminism or just a winning combination of brassneck and great abs. By the turn of the millennium she had entered her more genteel ‘English’ phase, married director Guy Ritchie and was pregnant with their son Rocco while recording Music, from where the song comes.
British producer Guy Sigsworth sent her a rough sketch of the gently trancey track complete with a sample of Charlotte Gainsbourg from the film of The Cement Garden, dressing her younger brother as a girl, to the distaste of their older brother. It’s sexual gothic strangeness (“Secretly you’d love to know what it’s like, wouldn’t you?” asks Gainsbourg) and evisceration of double standards (“For a boy to look like a girl is degrading / ‘Cos you think that being a girl is degrading”) was right up Madonna’s street, but rather than ironic re-reappropriation or hence rejection there’s a heartfelt sadness to this mother of a then four year old daughter’s account of the way young girls grow up sublimated by gender expectation. “When you open up your mouth to speak / Could you be a little weak?”
5. Hung Up (from Confessions On A Dance Floor, 2005) : Madonna reboots disco, shows the way for Daft Punk et al
Following underwhelming response to 2003’s American Life, madonna sought a rebrenchment of values. In her case back to basics meant New York at the height of Danceteria, when a new $10 pill called ecstasy mutated the beat into a soft, synthetic pulse. But for Madonna’s flashback to restore her to supremacy, it would also need to work as state-of-the-art pop in 2005. Once those conditions had been laid down, only one collaborator was up to the job, Stuart Price (aka Jacques Lu Cont from Les Rhythmes Digitales) knew where Madonna had come from and where she needed to go.
Early in the sessions for Confessions On A Dance Floor, Price “borrowed” the “tick tock” vocal/clock combo that ushered in his remix of Gwen Stefani’s What You’re Waiting For and grafted in into a lyrics that Madonna had written. But Hung Up’s stumbling block was the sample of Abba’s Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight) that sat at the very centre of the song.With just one exception (The Fugees’ Rumble In The Jungle), Abba had never consented to the use of a sample.
In the event, a handwritten letter from Madonna and an agreement cede 50 per cent of the royalties of Hung Up sealed the deal.
Presumably, the Abba guys were impressed. Relocated to the chorus of Madonna’s song, the semple is better integrated than its original home. Together with a sublime vocal of unsated longing, Hung Up proved that there was a way to celebrate disco’s past while sounding utterly contemporary. Daft Punk were listening.