Just as suddenly as it blew in, the storm breaks and Madonna smiles again. “Rebelliousness, I think, is mandatory for all creative people,” she reasons, “And if you’re not rebellious in some way, shape or form in your work, then I don’t really know why you’re doing it.”
Casting her mind back down the years, Madonna says she can’t pinpoint the one specific moment when she realized she wanted to be a musician. It’s 24 hours after the playback, and she sits in a lounge at Jungle City Studios, dressed in a black jumper and matching short flared skirt, wearing black leather Chanel fingerless gloves personalized with an M, chewing on a vine of red liquorice and thinking about the past.
It was 1978 when she first arrived in New York from her native Michigan, filled with hurt and defiance and determination, baggage from her namesake mother’s death from breast cancer when Madonna was only five and a turbulent subsequent relationship with her father Tony. Living in a dumpy apartment on the sketchy Lower East Side, with designs on becoming a professional dancer, a new friend, Angie Smith, asked her to form a band.
“She was a ballerina and she played bass and was obsessed with The Rolling Stones,” Madonna remember, “I said, I don’t play any instruments. And she was like, “Well you could be the singer” and I was like, But I don’t really sing. We kind of got together and threw some ideas around. It was really the whole idea of punk and you don’t really have to play an instrument. It was just the idea and the attitude.”
In ’79 came the Paris trip. In New York, Madonna had auditioned for the producers of Patrick “Born To Be Alive” Hernandez’s disco revue based in the French capital. Jean Vanloo and Jean-Claude Pellerin saw in her something of the nascent star and invited her to Europe hoping to put her in a studio with Giorgio Moroder. But the 20-year-old Ciccone still felt uncomfortable with the idea of making her own music.
“They were, like, throwing everything at me,” she says. “But I didn’t feel like I had a point of view yet. So I innately rejected it. That gave me the idea that I could make music and yet I didn’t feel like I’d earned the position to make music. Because I didn’t play an instrument and I didn’t write any songs.”
Returning to New York, Madonna hooked up with Smit and bothers Dan and Ed Gilroy in The Breakfast Club, where she initially took the role of drummer before, perhaps inevitably, working her way to the front of the stage. Soon, she jumped ship and formed Emmy with a friend from Michigan, Steve Bray. Demos of both bands now floating around online reveal a young Madonna in thrall to the vogue sounds of the time – ska, Blondie, The Pretenders – but still to find her own voice.
What did she learn from being in a band? That she really wanted to be a solo artist?
“No,” she stresses. ” Being part of a band teaches you about musicality. There’s no better way to understand about arrangements. How to create a song, how to perform. I mean I’m so lucky that I had all of these years playing in bands as an unknown musician, as an unknown singer, to figure out what I wanted to do and and how I wanted to do it. To me, those early days were so essential to building me as an artist.”
Growing more creatively sure-footed, together with Bray, Madonna created her first solo tracks. Danceteria’s Mark Kamins took the tapes to Seymour Stein of Sire Records, who signed Madonna to a two-single deal. Then, when Everybody and its successor Burning Up became dancefloor hits, Stein bought further into Madonna, resulting in the making of her eponymous debut album, released in 1983. But it was a far from painless process.
Sire matched her with producer Reggie Lucas (Roberta Flack, Phyllis Hyman), but she felt the results of their work were too cluttered sonically. In a move spotlighting her chutzpah, Madonna insisted on finishing the album with her then-boyfriend, John “Jellybean” Benitez, paring back the production to make it more modern and sharply-defined. MOJO points out that it took Kate Bush three albums before she seized control of her music from her producers and record company, but here was Madonna doing it with her debut. For an unknown, that must have been hard?
“Well, I didn’t think about whether it was hard or not,” she says, a touch prickly again. “I just knew what I wanted to sound like.”
Similarly, even when put together with Nile Rodgers for follow-up album Like A Virgin (1984), and effectively backed by Chic, Madonna was never intimidated by them. I’m a very cheeky girl, I guess.”
Irrepressibly spirited, but perhaps yet to secure a firm stylistic foothold, Madonna met her first (and arguably greatest) creative soulmate in 1985 when Patrick Leonard, fresh from helming the band on The Jacksons’ Victory tour, was hired as MD for her inaugural live jaunt, the Virgin tour. Mutually sensing a connection, the pair began writing and producing songs.
“We’re both a Michigan kids,” notes Leonard today, “and part of it was just a work ethic. Sort of blue-collarish in a way. Any good collaborative team is usually a yin and yang and I think we were that.”
Working knee-to-knee in Leonard’s tiny studio in Los Angeles, the two began crafting the songs for what would become 1986’s True Blue. “I always try to find recording studios that are cut off from everything,” says Madonna. “Tucked away, not too fancy. I like working like that with people, one-on-one, without interruptions.”