The new album has a very international soundworld. Is this a reflection of your life in Lisbon?
Well I’ve always loved the music of Cesaria Evora, which is a genre called morna – although I didn’t know that ’til I moved to Portugal and I heard lots of musicians playing it. The music of Cabo Verde is everywhere. And that particular style of playing guitar and that style of music was really where this album was born.
Then there’s a track called Come Alive that has a more north African feel…
Yes, that’s based on Moroccan Ganawa music. It uses these percussion instruments – the krakebs – that are really distinctive. There’s also a song I did with an artist named Kimi Djabate. It’s called Ciao Bella – it’s going to be a bonus track. He’s from Guinea-Bissau and he introduced me to a whole other sound, gumbe. And then there’s Dino D’Santiago who turned me onto this other genre of Cabo Verde music, funana. It was as if everywhere I went in Lisbon, every club I went to, every house party I went to, I was constantly being exposed to music I’d never heard before. And I was obviously inspired. It was a little bit like when I saw, you know, voguers or voguing for the first time and I was like, “Whoa, this is insane. I have to share this with the world.”
You’re back with Mirwais [the French electronica artist and producer of Madonna’s Music and American Life albums] after a while apart. What was it like getting back together again?
It was great. It was kind of like we spent just the right amount of time apart. He has a very intense personality and so do I. And we’re both very strongly opinionated. We hadn’t worked together for years but I was in Lisbon and I thought, Well, he’s not that far away and he’s interested in experiments. So I sent him some samples of Portuguese music – morna mostly, and some fado. And I said, “Does this inspire you and can we make something new out of it?” And he did – like, in a week (laughs).
What’s different or unique about the way you work with him?
He comes from a school of making a whole record with an artist, an album, a body of work – not just a track. And he doesn’t have any rules about how music should sound. But he’s also a technical wizard and he loves to experiment with sound and play with people’s voices. So I like that he breaks the rules and doesn’t think or hear in a conventional way. He’s also very philosophical, highly intellectual, very existential (laughs), loves to argue and debate about things, which sparks great ideas for songs. Super-political. So our work together ends up being political.
Dark Ballet is like your Bohemian Rhapsody: this mix of epic, episodic music and dramatic vocals. It sounds like you and Mirwais were egging each other on to do something extreme.
I wouldn’t say we were egging each other on. I think we were both just possessed, (faux-simper) possessed by the Holy Spirit of creativity. Dark Ballet is an amalgamation of a lot of different things, from Tchaikovsky to A Clockwork Orange to Joan of Arc. When you get to the vocoder section, it’s like Joan of Arc’s manifesto, where she says that she will not give in and she will not bow down to fear and she will not apologise for what she said and she is willing to die for what she believes in. Joan of Arc was the first freedom fighter that I was aware of. I can relate to her because I do fight for what I believe in. And when you fight for what you believe in, there’s always going to be a punishment waiting for you, sometimes big and sometimes small. But no, it wasn’t us egging each other on. It just happened. Mirwais played the piano solo and then I started thinking about Joan of Arc burning at the stake. I don’t know why -it just happened. And that’s how we inspire each other.
The track builds into this kind of apocalyptic frenzy: “The wind is beginning to howl…”
…and then I become the storyteller who’s telling a kind of Grimms fairy tale: (sinisterly) ‘They think we are not aware of their crimes…” It’s kind of like the way someone would tell a story on a radio show.
You use a lot of different voices on this album, even mike techniques to get different voices across. Is being a voice actor part of being a singer?
At the beginning of the song God Control, there’s this particular kind of contained aggression you muster…
Yes. I wanted to sing as if someone had wired my jaw shut and I wasn’t allowed to speak but I had to speak and I was coming from a very angry place.
Early in your career there was some criticism of your vocal range.
But the untutored thing allowed you to sing something like Papa Don’t Preach with an edge, like you might really fall apart…
Yes, but then I did Evita, and I had to go to a vocal coach. Alan Parker insisted and so did Andrew Lloyd Webber. And I learned how to use my voice, which was wonderful.