Fittingly, from its hippyfied, bare-bellied, pearls-and-jeans cover imagery to its confessional lyrics, Like A Prayer was a shift into more adult territory – from Promise To Try, the unbearably sad missive to the grieving little girl that she was in the wake of her mother’s death, to Oh Father, the accusatory, if forgiving, open letter to her dad. It seemed Madonna had a point to prove: specifically that she could make a grown-up record. Not so, apparently.
“No… again,” she maintains. “You really have me pegged as a person who consciously tries to do things that I don’t consciously try to do. It just happened. You just have to leave yourself open to things and then you reflect where you are in your life. And that’s what art is. That’s what creation is. So I guess that’s the mood that I was in at the time.”
Come the early ’90s, Madonna’s image became even more brazenly sexualized, cementing her tabloid notoriety and overshadowing her records, the languid breakbeats of 1992’s Erotica and the nu-R&B swing of 1994’s Bedtime Stories. There would be a four-year gap between the latter and 1998’s more complex and soul-bearing Ray Of Light, featuring the psychedelic electronic treatments of producer William Orbit. Much had changed in Madonna’s life in the intervening years, with the birth of her daughter Lourdes in 1996, and her embracing of Kabbalah.
“I started studying Kabbalah when I was pregnant with my daughter, so I guess they’re connected,” she muses.
Did these two new aspects of her life change her as an artist?
“Well, it made me become more conscious of my choices, my decisions, what I wanted to say how it affected people, stuff like that. I feel like it made me become a more responsible person. I mean there are aspects of Kabbalah that I still don’t understand. But I would have to devote my life to studying it all the time and then I wouldn’t be the person that I am. But I certainly have relied on it and it has informed me as a mother, as an artist, in many ways/ Pushed me into the direction of asking more questions. (Smiles) Thou doth not protest too much.”
Ray Of Light returned Madonna to the confessional booth, with Drowned World / Substitute For Love revealing her regrets about now-suffocating celebrity and the lyric of the astonishing Mer Girl depicting a nightmarish flight from her home down into the earth of her mother’s grave. Does she ever write these things then have second thoughts about unveiling them in public? “Uhm-uhm,” she shrugs. “I like to say things that other people don’t wanna say. Trying to give voice to feelings I have that possibly other people can relate to.”
Ray Of Light and Like A Prayer are acclaimed as the high watermarks of her album catalogue. Does she pay attention to what the critics say, whether good or bad? “I don’t pay attention,” she offers, breezily. “I try not to pay too much attention to what people say about anything I do because in 10 minutes everything can change. One person thinks this is your best work, and at the end of the day, it’s just your work. And some of it really is transcendent and some of it isn’t.”
When not personally revealing, Madonna’s best records often sound like the very definition of modernity. This was the path she was to follow, as she returned to club sounds with Music in 2000 and American Life in 2003. But it was during her time living in England that she found her Pat Leonard in Stuart Price, aka Jacques Lu Cont, who embedded in madonna World as her live musical director, on 2003’s Re-Invention tour. Recalling her early days working with DJs in small New York studios and her years bunkered with Leonard in LA, Madonna chose to make 2005’s Confessions On A Dance Floor in the studio loft room of price’s tiny flat in Maida Vale, London. It was, she remembers, a touch wistfully, a liberating experience.
“I loved that place,” she says. “It was small and intimate, far away from everything. There was one tiny little window where you could see the sky. It was just me and Stuart and his mixing board and instruments and no one could get to us. We were in our own little world.”
But still, it’s surprising to find someone in your position making a record in some English dude’s loft. “Why? What does somebody in my position do?”
Well, it’s not something you’d imagine a big star doing. “Oh, that’s all rubbish. Rubbish rubbish rubbish.”
From then to now, Madonna has cleaved very much to dance music, in different shades, from the Timbaland and Neptunes-assisted R&B of Hard Candy (2008) to the heavy EDM flavours of MDNA (2012). What is the ongoing allure of the club culture?
“Just the feeling of the tribal, the community,” she enthuses. “Y’know, people coming together in a room. That bass booming, people dancing, moving in unison. There’s something really primal about it and inexplicable. I think it’s in our nature to want to do that. To want to join together and move to a beat. Drumming is ancient. And people dancing together as a community to drums. We’ve been doing that since the evolution of man.”