The whole album sounded so “live” with real instruments. It didn’t sound computery or programmy, and I think that was surprising to a lot of people. Was there a focus to make it have more of a “live” sound?
I’ve always had that agenda, at least it was then. I’ve actually kind of cooled on it a bit, because I’m not sure it matters that much when people don’t actually understand A) what they’re listening to or B) even how to play in an ensemble unless they’re 60-years old like I am. It’s not something people really do very well anymore.
It was one of those things I was always on my soap box saying “let’s get real musicians in.” And I think also that we had done the tour or even a couple tours I think at that point, and I was musical director on those tours, so we had the experience of working with live players. We had a couple players that were part of the flock that we knew we could bring in, and my studio is very well set up. It wasn’t in any way painful. It was fun and easy.
It was kind of a process of getting the songs written, and the demos recorded, which was just you know, me, by myself making the demos and her singing. And then replacing the drum machines and the percussion with real people and getting background singers in and having guitar players come in and do parts. Most of the bass on the record is synth-based. Most of it is me playing bass. But on a couple things, there’s bass players added. Like “Like a Prayer’s” Guy Pratt and me. I think “Express Yourself” is Randy Jackson playing bass.
Was there something unique or special about including backup singers Donna De Lory and Niki Haris on the album? They also had worked with Madonna a lot on her previous tours. Was there something special about their sound that blended well with hers?
Yeah, it was. When we were putting the [“Who’s That Girl”] tour together, I found Donna [because she] sang the demo for “Open Your Heart” and that’s how her voice came to me. She sounded similar to Madonna, so, well, let’s get her in to sing something, because it’s going to blend really nice.
And Niki was somebody that someone recommended. . . She might have even just auditioned cold, I really don’t recall. But they were chosen from many many many people. And we worked on the road together. It was just natural.
“Dear Jessie” was inspired by your daughter, Jessie, who was a toddler at the time. What does your daughter think of the song now?
They hung out a bit, and she remembers a lot of that, even though she was very little. It wasn’t arbitrary — it was like they were kind of buddies. Jessie was on tour with us when she was just a baby. We have a lot of photos of them together in the studio. My daughter is 28 now and she’s actually working for me as a writer and she’s just an amazing human being.
I think Jessie feels like that’s an interesting thing that she has out there, but I don’t think she considers it her legacy (laughs).
No, no, I didn’t mean it like that! It’s kind of a fun curiosity to have this song that was written about and inspired by you.
Every once in a while it comes up. Somebody will send her something, or say, “You’re the Jessie?” And she thinks it’s funny. It’s sweet. It was really sweet of Madonna to do that. Even that little video that they used — that animated video in the U.K. — was an animation based on a photo of Jessie. It doesn’t look anything like Jessie to me. But they wanted a photo of her for the video.
When you and Madonna worked together, she would mostly do the lyrics and you would bring in the music. Was there overlap where you would suggest ideas for different lyrics, or she would suggest a change in the music?
To my recollection‚ the norm was that I would go in the morning — you know, I’d get to the studio very early, 8 o’clock, 7 o’clock sometimes. I had a gym in the studio, I used to work out there. So by 8 o’clock or so, I was working. I like to start really early in the day. She would come in about 11 and I would have the musical idea on whatever piece of gear I was using. I think it was just a Yamaha sequencer or something at the time. Or we might have been up like to an MPC 60 or something like that.
I would just put the track, the chord changes, some kind of drum beat, bass line — something simple — and say, “here’s the idea, here’s what I have for the day.” She would listen, then we would talk a little bit. Oftentimes I’d say, “here’s the verse, and here’s the chorus,” and she’d say, “no, it’s the other way around, switch ’em.” So I’d switch ’em. This thing is an hour old, it’s not etched in stone.
Then she would just start writing. She’d start writing lyrics and oftentimes there was an implied melody. She would start with that and deviate from it. Or if there was nothing but a chord change, she’d make up a melody. But, a lot of the time in my writing there’s a melody implied or I even have something in mind. But she certainly doesn’t need that.
She would write the lyrics in an hour, the same amount of time it took me to write the music (laughs). And then she’d sing it. We’d do some harmonies, she’d sing some harmony parts, and usually by three or four in the afternoon, she was gone.
That’s how “Like a Prayer” was written, and then the next day we wrote “Cherish,” and then the next day we wrote “Dear Jessie.” And that’s how it was. We wrote the album in less than two weeks.