Strutting into Universal’s Manhattan headquarters on a bleak, frigid evening, Madonna looks like a naughty princess come to toss off some knowledge to the peons. It’s an image enhanced not only by her outfit — a form-fitting black blazer with arm poufs; a silver Chanel whistle, hanging low on a necklace; and aubergine-hued lace gloves topped with a diamond skull ring — but also the servant that trails in her wake, carrying an old-timey glass bottle with a black ribbon tied around the neck. It looks like a vessel from a cartoon — it might have smoke billowing out the top and the caption, “Drink to Grow Strong,” but it’s just good old tequila. “We’re playing a drinking game,” announces Madonna, plunking two shot glasses on a coffee table. “If you ask a stupid question, you have to drink a shot. But if you ask an amazing question, I have to drink a shot.” Pause for effect. “I’m the judge of stupid and good, though.”
Madonna never did take a shot, but we didn’t get drunk either. Instead, after unfolding herself on a white leather horseshoe-shaped couch, upon which the 56-year-old often stretched like a cat — the body, as always, is in tip-top shape, and her cool blue eyes never break their gaze — she engaged in a rapid-fire chat about sex, motherhood, religion and Rebel Heart (Live Nation/Interscope), her 13th studio album. A return to pop after 2012’s EDM-flavored MDNA (which has sold 539,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music), Rebel Heart features special guests Kanye West, Nicki Minaj, Nas and Mike Tyson, and producers like Diplo and Avicii. Its tracks are named after her lifelong obsessions, like “S.E.X.” and “Holy Water,” in which she whispers, “Yeezus loves my p—- best.” (Billboard tells her we misheard this as “Jesus loves my p—- best,” at which she dryly remarks, “Whole different context.”)
Madonna has been married twice, to actor Sean Penn and director Guy Ritchie, and is still focused on parenting her four children (Lourdes, 18; Rocco, 14; and Malawi-born David and Mercy James, both 9). But today she’s a free woman, living in New York and enjoying herself (she dated 26-year-old choreographer Timor Steffens last summer). Performing Rebel Heart’s lead single, “Living for Love,” at the Grammys, dressed as a sexy matador, is the fun part of her job; making the album was the hard work. “I felt like a schoolmarm,” she explains, referring to the large cast of contributors that she corralled. “Kanye, for instance, has excellent ideas, but it’s hard to get him to pay attention. So my job was to keep him focused. I was the mistress walking around with the clipboard going, ‘Guys, can you please — can you guys come back in the room? Let’s just finish the song. What do you mean you’re going to a photo shoot? What do you mean you have to go to a red carpet event? Get off your phone! Will you stop tweeting? Wait, we haven’t finished!’ “
You name-check some of your most famous songs — “Like a Virgin,” “Justify My Love,” “Ray of Light,” to cite just a few — on Rebel Heart’s “Veni Vidi Vici,” and you reference “Vogue” on the song “Holy Water.” Why quote your own work?
I reference many things in pop culture, and I’ve written so many songs and had such a long career, that I end up referencing myself, too. If I can rip anybody off, I can rip me off.
On the title track, you talk about shedding your skin and never looking back. Do you really have no regrets?
Everyone has regrets. I have regrets for the smaller things, which ultimately are the bigger things in life. For instance, I regret not being more grateful certain times in my life. I regret not being more compassionate. I regret not saying I’m sorry. I don’t have any career regrets. I have human-being regrets.
A lot of the songs on Rebel Heart feel incredibly intimate — more intimate than the Madonna who usually comes off like a superhero.
As I say in the song “Joan of Arc,” “even hearts made of steel can break down.” Even people we look up to have their moments where they are fragile, vulnerable, scared, fearful, not sure, hurt. You can’t be a superhero unless you have the other side.