Looking like a cross between a ’60s hippy and a ’90s waif, Madonna walks into the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel unnoticed. Wearing loose black pants, black cashmere sweater, minimal makeup and -most remarkable of all – near waistlength, unkempt reddish-blonde pre-Raphaelite hair. Although this new image is probably the least glamorous to date. Madonna, who turns 40 in August, looks much younger than her years. Her new album, Ray of Light is a more mellow, sophisticated sound than her previous work. Its 13 tracks are mainly upbeat dance-oriented songs with an ethereal touch. After speaking with Madonna today, one gets the impression that when she’s not in a lotus position chanting, she’s changing baby Lourdes’ [16 months old] nappies. This new, calm, mystical Madonna [who occasionally speaks with a faux British accent] is a little unsettling. Walking into the hotel suite where we’ve arranged to meet, she announces…
Madonna: Okay, now the rules are no stupid questions.
Anderson: Okay, I’ll try…
Madonna: I prefer to talk about my work although when I talk about it, it’s hard to describe some things.
Anderson: Can you describe the themes of the album?
Madonna: I would say that there’s a theme of rebirth, redemption, exploring mysticism and different kinds of spirituality, celebrating life, things like that.
Anderson: What else inspired you besides your daughter?
Madonna: Well, for the past couple of years I’ve been listening to a lot of world music, lots of Indian, North African music, things like that. And I started practicing yoga about a year ago which lead me to studying Sanskrit and chanting Sanskrit and so obviously I listen to a lot of Indian music as a result of that. And that really influenced the record too.
Anderson: Out of all the tracks on the album, which do you have the strongest feelings for?
Madonna: “Drowned World,” the first track, is a really important song to me.
Madonna: Because I feel like I reallv address the whole aspect of fame and my relationship with fame and the world’s relationship with fame and what it means to me.
Anderson: Did you have your mind set on what you wanted in the studio?
Madonna: More or less, I knew what I was going fortexturally. I’ve always loved William Orbit’s (Seal, Peter Gabriel, Human League, Depeche Mode) sound. I toyed with the idea of working with lots of people but in the end I went with William. I knew I was going to get a sort of trancy, ambient quality but I didn’t realise that we were going to end up using so much guitar. That was a pleasant surprise because I haven’t used it much in my music in the past.
Anderson: You once said that you thought the press and the audience have punished you.
Madonna: Yeah but that’s the old me. [Smiles]
Anderson: So you are not being punished any more?
Madonna: No, I used to think of myself as a victim and whenever bad things happened I’d think, oh, people are doing these things to me! But everything that happened to me, I attracted to me and I brought it on myself and I am the master of my own fate.
Anderson: Your inspirations of late have come out of the UK. There’s a general consensus that the UK is where it’s at now.
Madonna: Yeah, well, it’s cyclical. I think where things are happening changes things in the world. It’s in New York and the next thing you know it’s in Paris and right now everything that’s happening that’s cutting edge is coming out of London. I don’t know why but a lot of it has to do with government and economics and what’s happening politically and a lot of it has to do with… I think in general, Britain has been responsible for a lot of musical revolutions and I think that there’s a really big emphasis put on creativity in England, much more so there than for instance America. Making money and being successful is paramount in America and I think in London, there’s a competitiveness in London about being creative. That frees people to take more chances and trv new things.
Anderson: Speaking of Britain, The Spice Girls regard you as their inspiration.How do you feel about being the original Spice Girl?
Madonna: Thank you. [Laughs] I’m flattered. And yes, I am the, first Spice Girl [Laughs] girl power and all that…
Anderson: You’re renowned for changing your image with each album. Do you have someone help you make those kinds of decisions?
Madonna: You mean shopping for me? No. I’m changing and growing as a person. Fashion is changing and growing so I just – I’m open to the possibilities. I’ve never had anyone create a look for me, I’m much too headstrong for that. I go to fashion shows, I read magazines, I look at art, I listen to music. Everything I do is influenced by pop culture and history and stuff like that.
Anderson: How do you look back on the 1980s now?
Madonna: I look and I say, wow – what a very young, innocent, naive little girl, but I also see that I was having a good time, and I’m proud of myself.
Anderson: Where you are and given your age and all your achievements, what drives you?
Madonna: Hunger for knowledge. A desire to be adventurous, to learn things, to grow, that’s it. Curiosity.
Anderson: When you’re writing or recording your music do you put less pressure on yourself now in terms of having to come up with a hit?
Madonna: I just put pressure on myself to be true to myself. To really push myself. Especially concerning this album I think I really took more changes making this record than any other record where I haven’t gone in with a really set idea of exactly what I wanted the music to sound like. I allowed myself to be in a much more experimental mode and so to get into that place, you can’t really be very concerned about whether you’re going to have a hit or not because that stops the creative flow. So maybe I would say that I’m less concerned.
Anderson: Sting said that yoga was good for his sex life.
Madonna: Do you think that that’s true? I think I’d have to agree with that!
Anderson: What was your role at school: nerd, jock, bully or wimp?
Madonna: Nerd, probably. I worked very hard at school.
Anderson: What is your best quality?
Madonna: I’m loyal to those who are loyal to me.
Anderson: And your worst?
Madonna: I’m working on it. I used to be an incredibly judgmental person: meet somebody – snap, snap – write them off, rather than trying to figure out where they’re coming from.
Anderson: What made you ambitious?
Madonna: I came from a small town in the middle of nowhere without any particular education and no special training in anything. It wasn’t really about ambition: I just wanted to go out into the world. I wanted a little adventure.
Anderson: Is image all about hair?
Madonna: Only if it’s clean.
Anderson: Your record label Maverick has Alanis Morissette and Meshell Ndegeocello on the roster. what were your first impressions of Morissette?.
Madonna: The thing that blew me away was how self-possessed she was for someone her age. She had a knowingness and intelligence, and I was completely in awe of it.
Anderson: Ndegecello says she is quitting the business to become a preacher. Your thoughts?
Madonna: That’s just Meshell being provocative. She gets pissed off and she says stuff. She really hates the business side of the business.
Anderson: What do you think of your 1992 Sex book in 1998?
Madonna: I think it’s funny.
Anderson: Was it meant to be funny back then?
Madonna: Yeah, it was meant in a very tongue-in-cheek way. I meant to poke a hole in the whole idea of sexuality. What I predicted would happen, happened: everyone went out and bought the book, it sold out, then everyone slagged it off, which to me is an absolute reflection of public attitudes towards sex in America. It did what I intended to do. All I ever wanted to do in my honesty about sexuality, in my portrayal of sexuality, was to try to make people feel less ashamed about it. Just be comfortable about who you are.
Anderson: And what was the motivation behind your lesbian phase?
Madonna: My motivation wasn’t lesbianism per se, but just gay sexuality, period. It really grosses me out that people are so freaked out about the concept of two men kissing. It’s like: what’s the big deal? The motivation was to take gay culture from the dark, dark under-aspect of life and bring it to the mainstream. It just seems weird to me that gay culture, in our society, is annexed off.
Anderson: I’m going to fire off the titles of some of your albums, and I want you to tell me the first thing that comes to mind. Madonna, your debut album?
Madonna: Baby. [Laughs]
Anderson: Like A Virgin?
Anderson: True Blue?
Anderson: Like A Prayer?
Anderson: Bedtime Stories?
Anderson: Ray of Light?
Anderson: Your new album really seems to be saying goodbye to a chapter and, in many ways, a persona. Are you doing a Ziggy Stardust and killing the old Madonna off?
Madonna: Yes, to a certain extent. I’m not saying goodbye or saying I made a mistake or have a regret or anything like that. I have changed. And yes, this is a new chapter.