“I don’t like to dwell in the past, but it seemed like the right time to do so,” she said. “After three decades one has to look back. Because there’s a lot of times I just stop and think, ‘Wow.’ I’m thinking about all the people that I’ve known, that I’ve worked with, that I’ve been friends with, that I’ve collaborated with, from Basquiat to Michael Jackson to Tupac Shakur. I survived and they didn’t. And it’s bittersweet for me to think about that. It just seemed like a time where I wanted to stop and look back. It’s kind of like survivor guilt. How did I make it and they didn’t?”
Another song, the ballad “Joan of Arc,” confesses that Madonna isn’t impervious to the countless put-downs she has sustained through the years. “I’ve always admired the story of Joan of Arc and what she symbolizes, her conviction,” she said. “I’m not quite there yet. Everyone does think of me as impenetrable and/or superhuman, and maybe that’s the way it goes if you’ve lasted for more than three decades. But of course that’s not the truth, and I guess I was trying to express that.”
The album had been in the making for a year and a half. When she started it, Madonna had simply wanted to take some time to write. “In this business I’m in, you can start to feel like a gerbil on a wheel,” she said. “People expect things from you. And I expect things from me. Since I was a teenager, I’ve never not been in some creative state, like in the act of making up dances, or writing songs, or whatever. I felt really drained.”
She decided to split her time between the “Impossible Lives” screenplay and songwriting. Her manager, Guy Oseary, suggested that she work with Avicii, the 25-year-old Swedish producer who has had worldwide hits with songs like “Wake Me Up,” and his songwriting team.
Madonna has made her best albums collaborating primarily with one producer at a time — William Orbit on “Ray of Light,” Nile Rodgers on “Like a Virgin,” Patrick Leonard on “Like a Prayer.” But the Avicii connection led into the increasingly prevalent 21st-century pop methodology of multiple collaborators working and reworking songs for maximum sizzle: Kanye West; Diplo, who has worked with M.I.A. and Skrillex; Ariel Rechtshaid, who has worked with Usher, Haim and Vampire Weekend; DJ Dahi, who has worked with Drake and Kendrick Lamar, and more.
“I didn’t know exactly what I signed on for, so a simple process became a very complex process,” Madonna said. “Everyone I worked with is tremendously talented, there’s no question about it. It’s just that everybody I worked with has also agreed to work with 5,000 other people. I just had to get in where I could fit in.”
But Madonna insisted on collaborating in what she called her “old-fashioned” way — not handing off tracks to be polished for later approval, but shaping them in person. “I never leave the room,” she said. “Sometimes I think that makes them mad. Like, ‘Don’t you have to go to the bathroom? Don’t you have somewhere to go? Don’t you want to go make some calls?’ ”
Toby Gad, a producer who has also written with Beyoncé, worked on 14 songs with Madonna; seven, including “Joan of Arc” and “Living for Love,” reached the album. “The first week she was quite intimidating,” he said. “It was like a test phase. You have to criticize, but you can’t really offend. But she also likes honest, harsh critics to say things as they are. It worked out really well and she got sweeter and sweeter.”
“Rebel Heart” may well be Madonna’s most diverse album, encompassing the gospel-charged “Living for Love,” the taunting “Bitch I’m Madonna,” ballads like “Ghosttown” and “Heartbreak City,” the sultry come-on of “Best Night,” the reggae of “Unapologetic Bitch” and the playful “Body Shop,” with its automotive double-entendres backed by the plink of a sitar. Songs also mutate as they go, style-hopping between verse and chorus. Mr. West’s productions mingle his sparse, abrasive rhythm tracks with catchy choruses. “That’s me,” Madonna said, smiling. “That’s where I come in. It’s an interesting marriage of both of our aesthetics.” She and Mr. West have also written a song for his next album, she said.
At 56, Madonna is undaunted by a pop market obsessed with youth. “I don’t think artists think about their age when they are creating, do they?” she said. “I only think about it when other people bring it up or try to limit me by saying, ‘You are this age and so dot dot dot.’ ”
Her response, as always, is perseverance. “Because I’ve been marginalized as a female in a male-dominated world, and we’re in a sexist industry or a sexist world, I’ve always had to push against something or resist against something,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been relaxed, if you know what I’m saying. So because I’ve never been relaxed, I’m not going, oh, it used to be so easy. For me, it’s always been hard from Day 1.”
© New York Times