Gather round! Madonna has something to tell you. Prepare for a full briefing on global conflict, life after death and Mini Cooper.
Madonna arrives on time, looking as inconspicuous as the most famous woman in the world can. She is dressed down in chocolate brown and charcoal, with a tweed cap pulled low down over her eyes.
“Hi, I’m Madonna,” she says, as she squeezes, with some inelegance, into our corner booth. Heads do not turn as readily as they might, thanks to her newly brunette hair.
“You must feel at home in this weather,” she laughs. A Pacific storm is currently whipping through Los Angeles. The suggestion that she might be missing the wet British winter provokes no response.
We are at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo lounge, just down the road from the mansion Madonna purchased from the actress Diana Keaton for a reputed £3.5 million. Though Jack Nicholson and Steven Spielberg regularly dine here, Madonna’s arrival causes a stir. A waiter instantly flutters to her side, and she orders a camomile tea with honey in a polite but brisk way, deterring him from any small talk. Across the hall, the house pianist stops playing for a couple of minutes to peer over behind a vast potted plant.
“Are you staying here?” she asks me as the waiter retreats. “You’re not? Where are you?”
She looks sympathetic at the response.
“Oh that place is a pisshole. You poor thing.”
Despite her low-key attire and her fleeting sympathy, Madonna exudes an intimidating confidence. She is most definitely nor four months pregnant, as one UK magazine recently speculated (the matter has been referred to the Press Complaints Commission). She isn’t wearing any make-up. There are faint lines around her eyes and her mouth, but at 44 she remains strikingly beautiful, despite a slightly reddened nose. She’s been suffering from a cold for the past week and each sentence is punctuated with a dainty sniff, her index finger held beneath her nose too prevent any unseemly expulsions.
The accent is a hybrid of American, plummy Brit and, alarmingly broad cockney. At one point she actually says “Cor blimey!” Madonna leaves you in no doubt as to who’s the boss: try to interrupt her and she continues talking; a subject is closed by a firm suggestion that we move on.
Since last October Madonna has been in Los Angeles working on her new album, American Life. Like 2000’s Music, it has been co-produced with Mirwais Ahmadzaï. Advance word suggested that this would be Madonna’s religious record. More specifically, it would have a Hebrew title and document her enthusiastic adherence to Kabbalah, a strand of Judaism which dates back to the Middle Ages. In reality, American Life is “a reflection of my state of mind and a view of the world right now”.
The last music she released was Die Another Day, the heaving Bond theme which was met with muted response last year. It is included on American Life, but is far from representative of her new material. A far better indication of her what’s in store is the title track – and lead single -which crams a thumping techno rhythm, liquid keyboard lines, an acoustic chorus and a bizarre Madonna rap. Part club anthem, part rock confessional, it’s a confident step on from Music.
The remainder of American Life follows a similar path. Beneath Mirwais’s beats and lush orchestrations there are 11 conventional rock songs, each one filled with drama, darkness and surprises (a gospel choir arrives out of nowhere to propel the dreamy ballad Nothing Fails to a rousing climax; the stripped-down Nobody Knows Me erupts in a barrage of electronic effects.
“We set out to put the two worlds of acoustic and electronic music together,” says Madonna. “It is another step on, but I’ve never wanted to repeat myself. I don’t ever want to repeat myself or make the same record twice. Yuck!”