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Madonna Interview : Smash Hits

Neil: When did you start singing?

Madonna: When I was at school and at church I sang in choirs, and musical theatre and stuff in high school — you know, My Fair Lady and The Sound Of Music — and then I came to New York. And when I came to New York in the beginning I was aiming to be a professional dancer. I was 17 then.
I didn’t know anyone when I came here to New York. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got there. I just knew.

Neil: What had made you realise you were good enough to be a professional singer/dancer?

Madonna: Well, I always knew I was good enough because I always got lead roles in everything when I was going to high school so I thought I might as well go and try it in the big time, so that’s what I did. I always had an idea that I wanted to be a performer and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to dance or sing or be an actress or what. I just started concentrating on dancing because i was much more of a discipline. I’ve never really studied voice — that just came naturally to me; dancing gave me a focus. I had to really work at it. But then, when I got to New York I was dancing in companies for a while; it just wasn’t satisfying enough. I like modern dance companies but there are so few good companies and so many dancers competing with each other and you just worked your ass off for nothing. I was like going to musical theatres and telling them I could dunce and I could sing because I wanted to use my voice.
That led to interest in music and learning how to play musical instruments. I play guitar and keyboards. My first instrument I learned, actually, was the drums. I was a drummer in a band culled The Breakfast Club. It was these two guys called Eddie and Danny Gilroy, and they were these crazy brothers who lived in a synagogue in Queens (an area in New York). They took the whole place over and had a whole musical studio with every instrument and Danny was my boyfriend. He went to work every day and I lived there for a year and I taught myself, and they helped me too, how to play instruments. So I went from dancing every day to doing that.

Neil: Was there anyone you aspired to be like?

Madonna: Well, when I was younger I really liked girl singers like Lulu and those kind of innocent, angelic voices, Marianne Faithfull and that kind of stuff, plus Diana Ross and all the girl groups of the ’60s like the Motown girl groups. Then when I got older my idols shifted ‘cos there weren’t really any female singers I could aspire to be like. From then on I went through an “I want to be like Michael Jackson” phase. I can do everything he can do only I’m a girl! I still idolise him above any performer. He transcends almost every level, appeals to everyone.

Neil: Is that what you want to do?

Madonna: Yeah.

Neil: Anyway, what happened to the band in the synagogue?

Madonna: Eventually the more music I understood and played, the more songs I wrote. The more songs I wrote, the more I wanted to be the front person of the band, not just playing drums. I was an excellent drummer. I was really strong and I had all this dance training so I had all this energy. I used to dance eight hours a day and then I quit so then I used to practise drums for four hours a day. Drove everybody mad! They were always afraid that I was going to steal the attention from the band ‘cos there were two guys at the front and I was the only girl with three guys. So I thought, “I’m going to front my own band” and I did. I was front person playing guitar with a band called Emmy — that was my nickname in the other band. Then I fell out with my manager and I didn’t have a rehearsal studio and I didn’t have any musicians because my manager paid them. I lost everything. All I could do was get a demo tape together to get a record deal. I started working with this guy, Steve Bray, who I knew from Detroit. He’s a real musical wizard, plays all instruments, understands music theory. He helped me write songs and put all the songs on tape. He was good at getting keys for studios after midnight because he was a musician for a lot of people. We’d sneak in and make demo tapes. The first demo tape I made was the one with “Everybody” on. After I made the demo tape I started going to clubs because I thought “I don’t know anything about the music business.”

Neil: How were you earning a living?

Madonna: I wasn’t really. I was living on the street, in a manner of speaking (laughs). Those were the days when those things didn’t bother me, wearing the same clothes for three weeks. Steve had a studio where he rehearsed with bands and I lived in the studio. That’s where I slept at night. So I started going to clubs, because I knew that people hung out in the DJ booths of clubs. Mainly the Danceteria. This guy, Mark Kamins was DJing and he started flirting with me, telling me how we had all this music in common and I was talking about this music in a more interesting way. He asked to hear a tape of my music and the next day he played it over the speakers before the club opened and he said “God, this is good — I’m going to get you a record deal.” He took me round to record companies and Sire offered me the best deal right away. So I made a 12″ single for them, “Everybody”, and all the other stuff happened after that.

Neil: When did you start using dancers?

Madonna: When I started doing track dates. The whole concept of track dates was completely new to me ‘cos I’d always been used to playing in bands and then, when the record got big, all those discotheques said “Well, come and do track dates.” You just come and sing live over the music and you get paid thousands of dollars which didn’t make sense because I got paid nothing when I was in a band. So I said “That’s great, but I should make something more visual out of it.” With my dance training I thought “Why not make a dance scenario out of it?”