Becky Johnson: [laughs] This is a quote from a Rolling Stone interview you gave. “I like to create a different character for each album I do.” What motivates you to change your image or to create a new character?
Madonna: Well, I sort of get into certain kinds of moods. And then all the songs I write come out of that mood. I don’t say to myself, Now I’m going to be in that mood. It just happens.
Becky Johnson: Does the music change as a result of your changing the mood?
Madonna: Yes, I would say that.
Becky Johnson: How? Can you give me an example?
Madonna: Well, listen to a song like “Like a Virgin,” and then listen to “Live to Tell.” There’s a different mood in each one. They’re the same person, but it’s just my desire to focus on something different because of a mood I’m in. All the changes in my so-called image are just different facets f me. It’s a matter of what you choose to focus on and how deeply you want to go into it. It’s a matter of being specific, I guess.
Becky Johnson: Does it annoy you that the press has devoted more attention to your image than to your music?
Madonna: It used to annoy me, but now it doesn’t anymore. Because somehow I feel that, as much as people complain and moan and groan and criticize me, they’re affected by me. I’ve touched a nerve in them somehow.
Becky Johnson: In your new album, Like a Prayer, it seems to me there’s no character at play; it’s the most revealing, self-exposed thing you’ve done, and you’ve addressed very personal issues.
Madonna: Yeah, well, that’s the kind of mood I was in. And I have to say – even though I said I didn’t want to talk about Sean – that he was extremely influential in encouraging me to reveal that side of myself.
Becky Johnson: It’s also much more experimental musically.
Madonna: Yeah, it is. I didn’t have the censors on me in terms of emotions or music. I did take a lot more chances with this one, but obviously success gives you the confidence to do those things.
Becky Johnson: How do you develop a song?
Madonna: All different ways. Sometimes, the music is sort of there, already written by either Pat Leonard or Stephen Bray. They give it to me and it inspires or insinuates a lyric or feeling. Then I write out the words in a free form, and we change the music to fit the form. Other times I’ll start out with lyrics, or I’ll have written a poem and I’ll want to put that to music. Then I end up changing the words a little bit to make them more musical. Sometimes I’ll hear the melody in my head. I don’t write music and I don’t read music, so I’ll go to Pat Leonard, who is an extremely talented musician, and I’ll sing it to him and make him play it, making chords out of it. Then I write the words to the song.
Becky Johnson: Do you write the lyrics yourself? Or do your collaborators help?
Madonna: I write all the lyrics myself.
Becky Johnson: Steve Bray said that one of the things that made this new album so different was the fact that you worked with live musicians in the studio.
Madonna: Well, I’ve worked with live musicians before, but this is the first time they were all together in one room, and we did most of the basic tracks with a band playing right there. I sang with them too, and we ended up keeping a lot of those vocals. It made it different, because obviously when the musicians are playing with you, you respond differently from when the track is already done, and you’re by yourself with the headphones on, overdubbing things.
This approach was more integral to the music. I mean, we had every intention of going back and fixing the vocals, but then we’d listen to them and say, “Why? They’re fine.” They were a lot more emotional and spontaneous when I did them with the musicians. It’s probably because I didn’t feel the pressure of knowing that this was going to be the final vocal. So I decided not to go back and clean them up. There are weird sounds that your throat makes when you sing: p’s are popped, and s’s are hissed, things like that. Just strange sounds that come out of your throat, and I didn’t fix them. I didn’t see why I should. Because I think those sounds are emotions too.
Becky Johnson: Did you work out the idea for the album in advance, or did it slowly evolve in the studio?
Madonna: I wrote a lot of songs for the album, and then I went through a process of editing what I was going to keep or not. I feel that there is something that links all the songs together, a common theme having to do with Catholicism, family, relationships, things like that. I had written a lot of other songs, but I didn’t feel they went with the theme, so I cast them aside.
Becky Johnson: How would you say you’ve mature as an artist with this record?
Madonna: Well, my first couple of albums I would say came from the little girl in me, who is interested only in having people like me, in being entertaining and charming and frivolous and sweet. And this new one is the adult side of me, which is concerned with being brutally honest.
Becky Johnson: Do you think acting and making music are very similar? Do they require you to use the same aspects of your personality?
Madonna: Yeah. Definitely. I used to think they were different, because I felt with music you could be more revealing. I felt music was more of a personal statement, and acting was more about being someone else. But now I realize that acting is really about being yourself too. It’s about being true to yourself, about being honest, and so is music. In music you can choose to be a certain kind of character, if you wish, but you use your experience to fill that character’s shoes. So I think they are very similar.