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“Erotica Diaries” by Shep Pettibone : Icon Magazine

Madonna - Icon / 1992

I remember when Madonna and I first started working together on Erotica. We were listening in my home studio to one of the first songs and I turned to her and said It’s great, but it’s no Vogue. She told me that not every song could be Vogue – not every cut could emerge as the top-selling record of all time. She was right, but I pressed my case anyway: I guess I’m always trying to out-top myself, I told her, the next thing should be bigger than the last. Madonna just turned and looked me straight in the eye. It had been a long time since I’d been star-struck by her, but she was glowing differently now. Shep, she began, no matter how fierce something is, you can’t ever do the same thing twice. She sat down to record the final vocals on Erotica and looked out onto the terrace and into the New York City night. Ever, she repeated.

The Erotica Diary (July-August 1991)

I wanted to start writing again. The last project I had worked on with Madonna was The Immaculate Collection but that was just a month and a half of working with that QSound stuff. I knew I could do something great after Vogue and Rescue Me so I just started putting tracks together with my assistant, Tony Shimkin. I wanted to have a few songs for Madonna to listen to when I went out to Chicago, were she was filming A League Of Their Own. I had no idea that she was planning to do an album at that time, but then again, neither did she. I arrived in Chicago on July 8th and gave Madonna a cassette. I told her to give it a listen and tell me what she thought. She said she’d listen to it in the car, in the trailer, wherever she could. A few days later, I heard back from her. Madonna liked all the songs – three out of three. I decided to work on a few more.

Usually, when I sit down to write, it isn’t as if I have a specific person in mind for any one song. By the time I get to a certain place in the music, it begins to mold itself an identity and I think, Hey, this person would like that. At the time, Cathy Dennis, Taylor Dayne, or Madonna were the primary inspirations for a variety of songs.

The Erotica Diary (October-November 1991)

Madonna returned to New York and we began to work on demos in my apartment. It’s cool working at home. It’s convenient, cozy and there’s no studio time ticking by. Plus, if you wake up in the middle of the night and have an idea, you just go upstairs, turn on the equipment, and go. Our schedule was kind of sporadic in the beginning. I’d work with her for a week and then she’d go off to work with Steve Meisel on her book (Sex) for two weeks. Occasionally, Madonna would meet with Andre Betts, her co-producer on Justify My Love. While she was away, I would spend time coming up with other tracks or work on Cathy Dennis and Taylor Dayne material. At this point, I wasn’t working on any remixes – just writing.

Deeper and Deeper, Erotica, Rain and Thief of Hearts made up the first batch of songs we worked on together. I did the music and she wrote the words. Sometimes I’d give her some ideas lyrically and she’d go: Oh, that’s good, or That sucks. I remember when I gave her some ideas lyrically for Vogue and she said, very curtly, That’s what I do. Essentially, her songs are her stories. They’re the things she wants to say.

I did everything upstairs in my home studio: keyboards, bass lines, and vocals. Depending on the mood I was in, I chose from an Oberheim OB8, Korg M3, or a Roland D-50. On the sampling side, the Akai S1000 was our prime workhorse. We used it to sample snake charms for Words and Kool & The Gang horns for Erotica.

When it came time to record demos, we laid down a track of SMPTE on the last track of my 8-track Tascam 388 Studio 8 reel-to-reel, which has dbx. Usually we’d put the track down on tracks 1 and 2 in a stereo mix, and then bring Madonna’s vocals in on 3 through 7 – a lead, a double lead, the harmonies, and the background parts. Ninety-eight percent of the time, the vocals recorded in my apartment were the keeper vocals, the ones you hear on the album. It took about two or three days to write a song from beginning to end. Still, sometimes even after they were done we’d want to change the flow of the song and ask the song a few questions: Where should the chorus hit? Should it be a double chorus? Sometimes Madonna would call me in the middle of the night and say Shep, I think the chorus should go like this, or I hate this verse, fix the bass line. Deeper and Deeper was one of those songs she always had a problem with. The middle of the song wasn’t working. We tried different bridges and changes, but nothing worked. In the end, Madonna wanted the middle of the song to have a flamenco guitar strumming big-time. I didn’t like the idea of taking a Philly house song and putting La Isla Bonita in the middle of it. But that’s what she wanted, so that’s what she got.