Pitchfork: Yes, actually. I mean, you never know…
M: Totally. That’s to be expected.
Pitchfork: This is your 13th studio album. Do you tend to go into the making of a record with a sense of what you want the record to be, or does that reveal itself as things unfold?
M: Generally I start by choosing producers to work with, which determines the direction the overall sound is going to go in. But this time around, my goal from the very beginning was just to write good songs that don’t require any production to be felt or understood. I wanted to be able to sit in a room with a guitar and play the song from beginning to end and have it be as impactful as if you heard the studio version with all the bells and whistles. In the beginning I was writing songs with Avicii, whom everyone associates with EDM, but I worked with his team of writers and everything was very simple—vocals and piano, vocals and guitar. It almost had a folk feeling to it.
It wasn’t until I got about halfway through the album that I started thinking about sounds, and that’s where Diplo came in. He started adding these monster beats and punch-you-in-the-stomach bass sounds and 808s like you’ve never heard before, and that pushed me in a certain direction. Then I looked at the songs I had that still didn’t have producers and started asking around for people I thought it would be fun to work with.
I wanted to work with a hip-hop producer, but not a conventional hip-hop producer, and DJ Dahi had worked on a Kendrick Lamar record that I really liked. Then [Diplo] brought Blood Diamonds into the picture, and I’d never heard of him before. It was like a train that started moving: Along the way, new people would get on while other people would get off for a while only to return again later. So not only was I the primary songwriter, but I was also the schedule keeper trying to manage the comings and goings of crazy DJs who all have ADD. [laughs]
Pitchfork: When I was listening to the record I started to make a division between the “party” songs and the “personal” songs—the party versus the personal…
M: Party versus funeral. [laughs]
Pitchfork: I found myself much more drawn to the personal songs.
M: Which song in particular?
Pitchfork: “Joan of Arc”, for example. Maybe it’s just because…
M: You feel like a martyred saint? [laughs]
Pitchfork: I was gonna say because I’m a 40-something gay dude—same thing. I was just drawn to the songs that seem to deal with getting older, making sense of things.
M: I can understand that.
Pitchfork: You’ve never been afraid to put yourself out there in terms of talking about provocative topics like sex or religion, but is it somehow scarier to talk about your personal, intimate feelings?
M: Hm. I think “scary” is probably the wrong word. You just have to be ready. You know, I just don’t ever want to sound like a victim, or like a person that is feeling sorry for themselves. However, I did want to share some aspects of my life experiences that were painful that I think people can relate to—especially in this age of social media where people can hide behind the Internet to say a lot of disparaging, hateful, discriminatory things to other people. It’s not that people got crazier or more hateful, it’s just that now people have the courage to say stuff without any fear. As much good as it does, social media can also encourage stupidity and degradation.
Do you know [‘60s poet] Anne Sexton? I worship her. She came up in a tough time, and she definitely wasn’t encouraged to be a poet or to speak her mind or reveal anything personal. When I made Truth or Dare, I got so much shit from people for everything, for allowing cameras to follow me around all the time. Can you imagine, in this day and age?
Pitchfork: Now everyone has a camera following them at all times.
M: When that movie came out I was constantly referencing this Anne Sexton poem called “For John, Who Begs Me Not to Enquire Further”. She was given so much shit for being too personal in her work, but that poem is her way of saying, “Look, I don’t know how to do anything else.” That poem always gave me solace, especially at a time when everyone told me I was being crazy.
Pitchfork: I’ve talked to pop artists, like Miley or Sky Ferreira, who have clearly benefited from the doors that you opened during your career. But I’m always amazed by how many of the same battles you fought are still being fought by women in the music industry, whether it’s the shaming women receive from talking about their sexuality, or the lengths that critics will go to in order to not give women credit for their own work.
M: Sexism; you can’t be sexy and intelligent. It’s not allowed. Nothing has changed. I mean, it’s fine if you just wanna go out there and twerk, but the landscape is limited. If you try to embody too many different human aspects in your work, or if you have too many references, people get confused. I see a lot of people getting really pissed off at Miley because she kind of just acts like a dude—but if she were a dude, no one would say anything.
Pitchfork: The language people use is fascinating. For example, when people talk about your knack for collaborating with people at just the right time, it’s almost always described as “vampiric” or “calculated”. But if you were a man, they would just describe it is as “savvy.”
M: Oh yes. But if I were a man… oh, if I were a man. [laughs]
Pitchfork: “Veni Vidi Vici”—the new track with Nas—is also one of the most self-referential things you’ve recorded. How did that come to be?
M: Diplo was like, “You’ve had such a long career, you’ve been around so many decades, you should kind of do a rap—but not really rap—and talk about all of the things that you’ve done.” So I was like, “OK, good idea! I’ll try that.” Then I wanted to have a guest on the song, and I’ve always been a fan of Nas. I feel like he’s had a super interesting journey. Obviously, we have very different backgrounds—I’m from Michigan and he’s from Queens—but he’s survived a lot, too. I also just love the sound of his voice.
He was incredibly gracious when I asked him to do it. He just turned up one day all by himself—no bodyguards, no assistants, nothing—and listened to the track before saying, “Yes, I’m in. I’ll do it.” And now we’re friends and I really like him. He also came up at a time when I felt like rap music was peaking, back when the bulk of rappers were still talking about their real lives and reflecting on what was going on in society.