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“Mirwais on Music” : Keyboard

Madonna - Keyboard / February 2001

Madonna’s latest production partner tells all about the making of Music

Well, howdy, and welcome to Madonna’s hummin’ and strummin’, chart-toppin’ new pop masterpiece, Music. Don’t let the down-home title, acoustic guitar tracks, and Stetson on the cover fool you, pardner: This disc has a serious high-tech pedigree. Among the pop diva’s collaborators on her eighth solo album are dancefloor master William Orbit (whose work on her Ray of Light CD we illuminated in the July ’98 issue) and Guy Sigsworth (June ’96), keyboardist and programmer for Bj√∂rk and Goldie.

But Madonna’s main sidekick on this recording is largely a stranger here in the Wild West. Mirwais Ahmadzai made his first sonic mark on the French scene in the late ’70s with Taxi Girl, a punk/new wave venture that had a major deal with Virgin and an unfortunate penchant for self-destruction. Taxi Girl’s rhythm tracks were as frenetic as their vocals were lethargic, but Mirwais’s ever-so-slightly demented guitar parts hinted at the sonic mayhem in his future.

Following the demise of Taxi Girl in the mid-’80s, Mirwais formed Juliette et les Independants with his vocalist girlfriend. For the next ten years the duo cranked out highly melodic pop with an occasional curveball thrown in the form of an odd choice for a bass note here or a chord from left field there. His wild reputation preceded him into contract negotiations, though, and it took several years before they signed a deal with EMI.

Meanwhile, Mirwais focused his own musical energies on creating experimental, effect-drenched juxtapositions of guitar parts, sequenced lines, loops, and found sounds — recordings in which he quite clearly was taking the technology of the time a little farther than it had been intended to go. Though he insists he never had any commercial ambitions for the results of his experiments — he maintains that he still has no such primary goals for his music — his tracks nonetheless created quite a buzz on the European dance scene.

So how did he finance his musical think tank? By doing what any gear-curious, poverty-stricken player would do: produce and engineer other people’s music. Doing so kept his hands on new gear and gave him the opportunity to convince clients to try out his ideas — skills that would come in very handy with his biggest client ever.

After working and re-working several tracks over the course of a few years, Mirwais found his studio tinkerings coming to fruition in a deal with Sony. The first release was a single called “Disco Silence” that featured a rather racy video produced by his friend Stephan Sednaoui — best known in the States as the producer of several Madonna videos. “Disco Silence” and eight other moody yet danceable tracks were slated to be released on Mirwais’s solo debut for Sony, entitled Production.

While Mirwais was finishing up the new album in the fall of 1999, Sednaoui sent a copy of “Disco Silence” to Maverick records, Madonna’s label. A few days later, label head Guy Oseary asked for some additional material, and Mirwais obliged with several tracks in progress from Production. Then he got the phone call that changed his life.

First Time in the Big Time

How did Mirwais react to Madonna herself asking him to work with her? “I was relaxed about it,” he says matter-of-factly. “In my position as an unknown, you can imagine that it would be the chance of a lifetime. But I was relaxed, because I knew she was asking me to do what I do, she was interested in me for my own work, and not for my ability as a performer or for what I’d done for someone else’s songs. I knew that we would do very good music together. We were in tune, on the same wavelength.” Shortly thereafter, Mirwais found himself at London’s Sarm West Studios, face to face with Madonna.

“The first song we worked on together was ‘Impressive Instant,'” he says. “It was the most complete of the demo tracks I sent her. It was an instrumental, and it wasn’t supposed to be included on my own album. But she said that she had an idea for lyrics. When we got to London, I asked her to sing it for me.

“I was a surprised, of course, because it was new. But she improved my track! I was amazed. When you know your track well and it’s finished, you’re always afraid of what someone else can do to it. But I knew at the first listen that it was going to be cool.

“We realized soon that what she wanted was difficult for me to give her in the studio, with her there. I had to come back to Paris to work. And after one or two days, she agreed.