With “Hung Up” at number one and her new album also set to storm to the top of the charts, Madonna has taken back her crown as the undisputed queen of pop. Simon Garfield talks to her about her faith, her family and her ever-changing image. And she explains why, at 47, she has returned to her disco roots
“Have you brought three machines?” asks Madonna as I get out my tape recorder.
“In case they don’t work.”
In fact, there is recording equipment everywhere. Madonna is sitting on a stool in her producer’s tiny home studio in West Kilburn, London, her feet resting by cables, her hands within reach of the keyboards and guitars and microphones that made her new album. She can also touch Stuart Price, the English producer who converted his loft into this studio a few years ago with the money he got from a publishing deal. He says that the walls are so thin that Madonna’s new record may accidentally contain the sound of a neighbour weeping.
Price is 28, 19 years younger than Madonna. They started working together four years ago, when Madonna was looking for a keyboard player for a world tour and heard the DJ/remixing work Price conducted under the names Jacques Lu Cont and Les Rythmes Digitales. He then became her musical director, rearranging studio tracks for live performances, and they wrote a song together, called “X-Static Process”, that appeared on her last album. “Writing is a very intimate thing,” Madonna says, “especially when you write lyrics and sing them in front of someone for the first time. It’s like a really embarrassing situation. To me, singing is almost like crying, and you have to really know someone before you can start crying in front of them.” She looks at her collaborator. “Before now I just didn’t feel that I knew you well enough. I wasn”t 100 per cent confident in your songwriting skills, if I may be so honest.”
Stuart Price: And you were right.
Madonna: I liked this space, but I didn’t think you were ready. The amount that You’ve grown from that record to this one is huge. But I only intended to write a few songs with you. I intended to do the bulk of the record with Mirwais [Ahmadzai, the producer of her last two albums Music and American Life], and then it turned out to go in the other direction, because the first song resonated so monstrously.
Stuart Price: “Hung Up”.
Madonna: And that song made up my mind in which musical direction to go in. Until then I had done an entire soundtrack to a musical called Hello Suckers, and that didn’t pan out because I decided I didn’t want to do it. Then I decided to write a musical with Luc Besson, with him doing the screenplay. So I started a whole new chunk of songs, and then I read the script and I hated it, and I thought, “That’s crap, let’s scrap that”. And then I was exhausted. We finished the tour, and my record company was like, “You owe us an album”, and I was, “I don’t have any more ideas, I’m tapped out”. So I came over here to work experimentally, and because that song turned out so great, I said, “OK, that’s it, I’m making all dance music”.
She is wearing a black suit with pinstripes, and pointy black leather boots. Her hair is parted in the centre and straight, but the next day it will be made to look like Farrah Fawcett for her video for “Hung Up”. People asked me afterwards whether I liked her, and I really liked her. She was in a great mood and laughed a lot. Some of the time she performed stretching exercises with her hands, which she said was an attempt to get back into shape after her recent riding accident.
Madonna: The entire time I was recording the album I was also editing a documentary film that I’ve just finished, and that was a very painful… It’s called I’m Going to Tell You a Secret and it’s not a conventional documentary. It’s cinematic, it’s like a journal. I was flying to Stockholm every other week to work on the edit, then coming back here, and it was very difficult, taking 350 hours of film and putting it into two hours. I was so wiped out by it.
Stuart Price: So working on the record came to be a respite.
Madonna: It was the antidote for the stress of that film. It was, “I want to dance, I want to feel free, buoyant, happy, placated”, and so I’m going to come up to this little white room with lots of cables and I’m going to do that.
Interviewer: The new record sounds modern, but there’s a lot of your early years in the New York clubs that have gone into it. That dance floor hitting you when you were… how old?
Madonna: God, 20, 21. Yes, my original impulse was to make music in the first place. I used to go to this club in New York, Danceteria, and I kept bringing my demos to the DJ, so all music for me begins with the DJ taking my first record, “Everybody”, and thinking it’s good enough to play to everyone to dance to.
When I first moved to New York I wanted to be a dancer, I danced professionally for years, living a hand-to-mouth existence. I never tapped into nightlife, all I knew was dancers, we went to bed early and got up early and went to free concerts at the Lincoln Center and Shakespeare in the Park. Then I met this guy, as one does, and he brought me to a nightclub and I was like, “Wow”.
It was called Pete’s Place. In one room was John Lurie and the Lounge Lizards and all these guys who looked like Forties movie stars, and all the girls looked like Fifties movie stars and had perfect eyeliner, and I was like wearing my dance clothes, and I brought a book with me, just in case I got bored. It was an F Scott Fitzgerald book. I thought, “You never know…”. And that was my introduction to dance music. I thought, “Oh my God, are there other places like this?” I didn’t know you could just walk into a club and start dancing by yourself. I thought someone had to ask you.