It’s easy to see why Madonna is enraged by this creepy violation. As much as she always openly craved stardom, she’s retained the typical over-sensibility of the songwriter, artist and producer, and tonight, airing her new songs to outsider ear for the first time, she’s almost tentative. MOJO hears two versions of her return single, Living For Love – the first stripped down and harking back to deep house 1989-style, the second more layered with EDM synth figures. Asked by the singer which we prefer we choose the first and receive a hug as reward. “That’s my favourite too,” she beams. “It’s cool as f*ck.”
Credit lists for recent Madonna albums typically feature a cast of the hottest producers du jour – Rebel Heart boasts contributions from Diplo, Kanye West and Avicii – leading perhaps to the impression that they’re merely a fashionable pick’n’mix of names to prop up her “brand”. But talk to anyone involved with Madonna’s music, past to present, and they will tell you a different story. The singer is very much sleeves-rolled-up, working long hours in the studio, with a clear musical direction in her head. Rebel Heart, recorded in New York, London and Los Angeles, has been nine months in the making, the longest and most intensive of any Madonna album sessions.
“I can’t remember every record-making experience,” she says. “It feels like there’s been too many of them. But this has been really, really intense… complicated. Just because there are so many people involved. It’s like a train that keeps picking up people. And every time someone gets on the train, they add another flavour. Then I have to step back and see, OK, how does this all fit into the big picture? Do it does seem endless.”
There are currently 36 tracks in various stages of completion. She winces when considering how she’s going to edit them down: “I’m dreading that moment.” The 14 songs played to MOJO fall into two thematic camps: heartache and vulnerability (Joan Of Arc, Ghosttown) and f*ck you defiance (B*tch, I’m Madonna, Unapologetic B*tch), while others combine these conflicting emotions (Heartbreak City, Wash All Over Me).
Madonna herself falters slightly when trying to describe the new songs. “I feel like… they seem to be a manifestation of two sides of me that are quite… I don’t know… that show themselves very clearly in my songwriting.”
Which are… provocateur? “Mm yeah.”
And wearing your heart on your sleeve?
“Yeah. Romantic. And renegade.”
In the electro/country hybrid of Devil Pray, meanwhile, the singer turns out a lyric which seems distinctly anti-drugs, declaring them to be a dangerous illusion. “I mean, I’m not saying to people, “Don’t do drugs,”” Madonna insists. “I’m saying that they’re a trick and that you need to be careful.” In the song, she lists various substances including ecstasy, weed and even solvents. It’s quite a thing to bear Madonna singing about sniffing glue.
“(Hoots and claps hands) Yeah. Actually, it’s a come back…”
You’ve admitted you were never a natural drug taker?
“No. My nature is to want to be in control of the situation. Not out of control.”
But did you ever experience a musical epiphany while chemically altered?
“I wouldn’t say I had musical epiphanies. I would say probably I just had… life epiphanies where everything seems better than it is (laughs). But my problem is I don’t have the stamina to take drugs. I feel terrible afterwards. I’m destroyed for days and days. I can’t do anything and I don’t want that inconvenience in my life. So I don’t feel it’s worth the price you have to pay. That’s me.”
After the smooth, comes the rough…
“Yeah. Even when I was younger and in my twenties, trying this and that… I mean, I never really did that many drugs. I’m too big of a pussy. Also, I’m a dancer and I don’t want to destroy my body. I want to feel physically good. So it never came natural to me to get out of my brains or get to high that I couldn’t get out of bed for three days. And that’s what happened to me if I did anything.”
Best drug experience though? “I have to say the best experience I’ve ever had was when I had to take morphine in a hospital (laughs), when I had two caesareans. Oh and also I fell off a horse [in 20050 and broke 10 bones and I got morphine then too, and well, that’s just a wonderful feeling. But then after 24 hours, the nurses stop giving it to you and the pain comes crashing back in. So that’s probably the nicest thing I’ve ever experienced drug-wise. That was doctor’s orders… but I could see how people would get addicted to heroin. Deadly.”
In many ways, Rebel Heart, is the definitive title for a Madonna album, since mutiny seems to be woven in her DNA. In conversation with MOJO, she will be generally sharp, funny and friendly. Then, for no obvious reason, out of the clear blue sky looms a black cloud of challenging attitude. This first appears when we ask her why she thinks she has always felt a strong urge to rebel…
“(Long tetchy pause) Why do I have such strong urge? Because that’s part of being an artist and being a human being. But I’ve always been that way, even before I started writing songs. I’ve always been the person that said to my father, But why do I have to do that? But why is that a rule? But why do the girls need to do this and the boys have to do that? Why do the women have to cover their head in church and the men not? Why do I have to wear a dress and they get to wear pants? Why why why why why? And my father used to always say, “Why do you always have to ask questions?” And I said… But why not? So… I don’t know. As a human being, we’re here to ask questions.”