Her latest studio album due, Madonna sits with Billboard to discuss its content and controversy and more.
Madonna is among your busier superstars.
On Nov. 15, Warner Bros. will release her latest studio album, "Confessions on a Dance Floor," an upbeat, disco-savvy set that may bring her back to the touring stage.
Ever the businesswoman, she partnered with Motorola to premiere "Hung Up," the new album's lead single via a commercial for a mobile phone. She has also finally made her catalog legally available digitally through Apple's iTunes music store. And she's been working on a documentary, "I'm Going To Tell You a Secret."
Madonna being Madonna, controversy tends to follow much of what she does, with the latest being the branding of a "Confessions" song as a blasphemous tribute to a 16th century Kabbalist for which she should expect "punishment from the heavens."
Additionally, the sometime actress and wife of filmmaker Guy Richie, wants to direct.
On an October afternoon in a suite in New York's Essex House hotel, Madonna discusses all that and more with Billboard. Ready. Set. Go...
It seems you've found a perfect match in Stuart Price, who produced the bulk of the album. What does he bring to Madonna's table?
He's hysterical and a real character. He has that dry English humor and he's not obviously emotional about things and typically not too expressive. He's a bit shy, a bit held back. But once you get to know him he's not like that. Now, I'm the opposite. So, we work really well together.
Was the recording process a give-and-take situation?
Absolutely. I love him because he's a tireless workhorse. He's willing to stay up all night working on stuff. Because he does a lot of DJing, he's used to staying up till six in the morning. It allowed me to work on other things at the same time. We wrote a lot of songs together on the road last year.
The bulk of the album was recorded in his home studio, right?
We did a lot of recording at his house. I'd come by in the morning and Stuart would answer the door in his stocking feet -- as he'd been up all night. I'd bring him a cup of coffee and say, "Stuart, your house is a mess, there's no food in the cupboard." Then I'd call someone from my house to bring food over for him. And then we'd work all day. We're very much the odd couple.
You've worked and collaborated with many people. As you've toured with Stuart, did anything surprise you about working with him in the studio environment?
It was more relaxed because we've toured together. We've also been in many rehearsal situations together. We've been on planes, trains and automobiles together. And stuck in hotels. He's like my brother. I feel very comfortable with him. Usually, I work with people in the studio and we have a slightly more formal relationship. That's not how it is with Stuart and me.
I interviewed Stuart during the recent Billboard Dance Music Summit. During our chat, he mentioned that you wanted the new album to start at 120 beats-per-minute and only go up...
It's true. I wanted a record with no ballads. I wanted there to be no breaks, with one song segueing into the next -- just like in a disco.
Was this "Madonna the DJ" at work?
It was. But the thing is, whenever I make records, I often like the remixes better than the original versions. So I thought, screw that. I'm going to start from that perspective. I want to hear all these songs in a club. I approached the album from more of a DJ's point of view, but Stuart is a DJ. That really influenced the vibe -- the dance aspect -- of the record.
The album has a definite retro feel. It could've been so easy for someone like you, who came out of the '80s, to simply make an '80s-sounding record—like numerous others have recently done. But you didn't. Instead, you reference the past, but push the sound forward.
Our intention was to give a nod and a wink to people like Giorgio Moroder and the Bee Gees. Stuart and I didn't want to remake the past, but make it into something new.
Was any of this a reaction to "American Life?"
I wouldn't say it was a reaction. But I was in a very angry mood when I wrote that record. I was very upset with what was going on in the world -- America going to war with Iraq. [Producer] Mirwais is also very political, seriously cerebral and intellectual. All we did was sit around, talking politics all the time. So, that couldn't help but find its way into the music. I think there's an angry aspect to the music that directly reflects my feelings at the time.
But because I got a lot of that out on that record and because I was working on my documentary ["I'm Going to Tell You a Secret"], which is also very political, I think I needed a release from the seriousness of it all.
I was running back and forth, literally, from the editing room with [the documentary's director] Jonas Akerlund to working with Stuart, who was also mixing the music in the film. We were together, non-stop, all of us.
Cutting 350 hours of film down to two hours. There are a lot of serious aspects to the movie. I needed a release. When I would go to Stuart's, and we'd go up to his loft, it was like, "Honey, I want to dance." I wanted to be happy, silly and buoyant. I wanted to lift myself and others up with this record.
So, yes, the new album was a reaction to all the other stuff I was doing, which was very serious in nature. I hope that doesn't imply that I wanted to make a superficial record, because it's not. I want people to smile when they hear this record. I wanted it to put a smile on my face, too.
I like how the album follows the musical arc of a DJ's nightly set. The album starts out light and happy-go-lucky and becomes more intense as it goes on, becoming more and more personal -—confessional, if you will.
That's exactly it. I was only hinting early on, but then I tell it like it is. It's like, now that I have your attention, I have a few things to tell you.
Controversy always seems to surround you. This time, you have the ire of rabbis who are rather upset with the album track, "Isaac." What's going on?
You do appreciate the absurdity of a group of rabbis in Israel claiming that I'm being blasphemous about someone when they haven't heard the record, right? And then, everyone in the media runs with it as if it's the truth. And that's a little weird.
But what's even weirder is that the song is not about Isaac Lurier, as the rabbis claim. It's named after Yitzhak Sinwani, who's singing in Yemenite on the track. I couldn't think of a title for the song. So I called it "Isaac" [the English translation of "Yitzhak"]. It's interesting how their minds work, those naughty rabbis.
What exactly is he singing about?
He's saying, "If all of the doors of all of the generous peoples' homes are closed to you, the gates of heaven will always be open." The words are about 1,000 years old.
How did he become a part of the album?
He's an old friend of mine. He's never made a record. He comes from generations of beautiful singers. Stuart and I asked him to come into the studio one day. We said, "We're just going to record you. We don't know what we're going to do with it." He's flawless. One take, no bad notes. He doesn't even need a microphone. We took one of the songs he did and I said to Stuart, "Let's sample these bits. We'll create a chorus and then I'll write lyrics around it." That's how we constructed it.
I toyed with the idea of calling the song "Fear of Flying," because it's about letting go and people who are afraid to fly obviously have control issues. We all have fears in many areas of our lives. Some people can't commit to relationships. The song is about tackling all of that. "Will you sacrifice your comfort? Make your way in a foreign land?" In other words, will you go outside of your comfort zone?
When you're in the studio, behind the mixing boards, what's going on in your head when it comes to special effects and vocal processing?
I'm playing with the idea of the post-modern world that we live in. The technological world we live in. I'm trying to find the soulfulness in technology and playing with that. I would prefer to not have back-up singers. I would rather take my own voice and layer it and change it and put affects on it so it sounds like a lot of different tones and timbres.
The album's lead single, "Hung Up," was first heard in a TV spot for Motorola's iTunes-enhanced ROKR mobile phone.
I still haven't received my ROKR phone, by the way. I mean, where is it? See, they said they were going to give me a phone when I did the commercial and I didn't get it yet. Where is my ROKR phone? [laughs]
As I was saying, the song appeared in a TV ad. And you're partnered with other brands to help spread the word about the new album. How important is brand marketing for an artist in today's music landscape?
I'm a businesswoman. The music industry has changed. There's a lot of competition, and the market is glutted with new releases -- and new 'thises and thats.' You must join forces with other brands and corporations. You're an idiot if you don't.
Any truth to the rumor that there might be a Madonna pink Nano in the future?
I wish there would be. That would be cool. I like that.
You have a new relationship with Apple. For the first time, you are permitting your songs to be sold through the iTunes Music Store. Why now?
It's all about royalties -— how much they're getting and how much we're getting. It was just a crap deal then. It's safe to say it's better now.
MTV cameras were following you around yesterday for its mtvU series, "Stand In." You actually surprised film and media students at Hunter College. What was it like being a "stand-in" professor?
The experience was amazing. I want to do more of it. I loved it. The students didn't know I was coming. They thought it was just going to be Jonas. They seemed shocked to see me there.
I stood at the podium and talked to them for a while. Then I answered some questions. They had a lot of good questions -- a lot of good technological questions. It confirmed for me that there are a lot of kids out there who want to know more, who want to be inspired, who aren't satisfied with being couch potatoes that think like robots. It was inspiring to hear what they had to say, to hear their comments, their concerns for what's going on in the world. They earnestly wanted to know what they could do to help.
What's the possibility of a "Confessions" tour -- and what would it entail?
I'm currently exploring the possibility. If I go on tour, it would be next summer. And it would be all out disco, with lots of disco balls. I would focus on dance music and the new record. I already did the older stuff on my Re-Invention tour.
Any interest in starting a label again?
No. Too much work. I don't want to be the CEO of anything.
What about film work. Any roles on the horizon?
I want to direct a film. I'm currently looking at things, checking stuff out. I had a great experience working on "I'm Going to Tell You a Secret." I was much more involved than on any other film I've made. From every aspect -- pre-production and filming to film stock and cameras used to editing and post-production -- I loved it.
I worked on it with Jonas, so his input was important and vital. So was the input from my investors. Everyone had a say. Sometimes we disagreed vehemently. And sometimes I'd come around to their way of thinking after stomping my feet and saying, "Absolutely not, I'm not changing that. That's the worst idea I ever heard in my life." Then two weeks later, I'd be like, "You know, this isn't such a bad idea."
Making a film is a lot harder than making a record. In addition to more people being involved in the process, there's also the visual element -- all the grading, color timing, off- and on-lining and special effects. Oy vey.
You once said that you were tired of making videos. Is that still the case?
I still am. At this point, I'd rather be directing it. But it's difficult to star in and direct something. Between hair and make-up -- it's not like I wake up looking like this, with my hair permanently pressed.
What music are you listening to these days?
I love the new Goldfrapp record. It's my main record. And I listen to a lot of movie soundtracks. Have you heard the soundtrack to "2046" [from director Kar Wai Wong, soundtrack released by Virgin France]? I can't stop playing it.