“Bullied and beaten up”, she soldiers on, self-rebooting at 60, still thinking out loud, still finding new ways to dance, with unexpected interventions from Bowie, The Beast and Baba O’Riley. “I have to share this with the world,” declares Madonna.
Interview by Danny Eccleston
Madonna is tired and hungry. Tired because it’s past 11pm and she’s just polished off two mob-handed round-table interviews with journalists from Japan and continental Europe, plus intimate tete-a-tetes with two other UK publications, having only arrived in London this afternoon. Hungry, because she missed her dinner.
Huddled on a sofa in a voluminous black jacket, Marilyn-blonde, sniffling slightly, one of the planet’s top five most famous living people wears a black eye-patch with a big silver X over her left eye. Offered two bags of crisps — one posh root vegetable-style; the other common-or-garden spud-based — she tears open the latter and gets stuck in, encouraging MOJO not to wait ’til she’s clone. “Don’t mind the crunching,” she crunches.
The occasion of our encounter is the pending release of Madonna’s 14th studio album, entitled Madame X. Like many of her best, it’s infatuated with rhythm — gorging on a buffet of world beats encountered in and around Lisbon, her home for the past 18 months. With some singing in Portuguese, and a co-starring role for Colombian reggaeton star Maluma on lead-off track Medellin, it’s a typical failure to second-guess her audience, and the fruit of a familiar quest for new information to garnish her favourite song-writing topic: Madonna.
“From the beginning, she was hungry to learn,” says Nile Rodgers, who produced Madonna’s first US Number 1 album, 1984’s Like A Virgin, “and she always wanted world domination.” Curiosity and drive were, indeed, much in evidence from the moment Madonna Louise Ciccone swopped Bay City, Michigan for late-’70s New York, as was the rough-and-ready write —combined with ’50s movie star self-packaging and edgy, performance-art ‘acting out’ — she brought to her first decade in mainstream pop.
In the ’90s, Madonna’s compulsion to reveal and provoke invited controversy: the Like A Prayer video that outraged the Vatican; the mid-strength smut of her Sex book and Erotica albums… Subsequent long-players — notably 1998’s Ray Of Light, 2003’s American Life and 2015’s Rebel Heart — have expounded on what it’s like to be Madonna: taking low blows for choices in her personal life (the two pored-over marriages; her recent adoption of four children from poverty-stricken, AIDS-ravaged Malawi) and responding to her critics, in her songs, as reflexively as a Morrissey or Jack White.
Unsurprisingly then, there’s a glint of wariness in the star’s one visible blue-green eye — and it’s unclear, sometimes, if a line of questioning has caused offence or she’s just messing with you. But the cloudy intervals are offset by outbreaks of playfulness and her genuine relish when she gets into a topic — say, the evidence for a historical Joan of Arc, or the nuances of North African rhythm styles — that she’s up on.
Music is not always the main topic in a Madonna interview, but music is, unsurprisingly, the subject on which she’s most engaging and — if perhaps inadvertently — revealing…
How do you know it’s time to make an album? Is it like a spider sense? Or are there suddenly a load of ideas, and you have to use them or lose them?
Sometimes that happens. But it has definitely not happened in the last… three records. Honestly, the last couple of albums, I’ve made them reluctantly. Both times I was trying to do something else – to get a film made. That happened on this record too. I moved to Lisbon because I wanted my son [David Banda] to be able to attend a soccer academy, and I was trying to raise money for a film, and then I got bored waiting and then I ended up making a record. So it just kind of happened. It wasn’t like a… burning thing that I had. But then other times, I did have lots of ideas stirring inside of me and I did have a burning desire.
So which were the albums that just had to be made?
Ray Of Light. That would be one. Like A Prayer. But my life was simpler then. Like A Prayer – I was married to Sean [Penn]. I had no children and my life was very simple. Ray Of Light, I had my daughter, but again, I didn’t have such a complicated life. Now my life is complicated.
But is there an extra focus that comes with the time restraints?
Well, because time is so limited and precious, you do have to be laser-focused and not waste any time. Because you’re juggling, you know? Taking care of six children, and they live in three different countries, and you’re doing other jobs and taking care of other people. And I do have other areas of interest, and film-making is one of them. And I’ve been working for years on a screenplay and I have another script that I’m supposed to direct. With this album, at first I was just playing around and experimenting, and then I was officially Making A Record. And when that happened, I did have to become very focused.