"Wow, free tea!"giggles Madonna, dunking her own bag as the flustered room service waiter exits without proffering the bill. "Well, we'd better make the most of it."
This is Madonna, but not quite as we know her. She is 39. Her hands are knuckly and useful, as they appeared in close up on the cover of Like a Prayer. Her orange hair has the straggly, expensively unwashed look favoured by Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, et al. Her attire, loose fitting drapes - orange again - exposing about five inches of trim abdomen, wouldn't look out of place lolloping up and down Oxford St. irritating a tambourine and handing out pamphlets. The famaed upperlip beauty spot has disappeared, perhaps surgically. Ther eis a startling sense of unfamiliarity about her - that is, until she begins to move. When she moves, suddenly she is quite definitely Madonna.
As she tucks into the tea, we remark upon the absence of security, entourage even. "I drive myself in LA,"she puffs. "It's the one of the reasons I like living here." Emboldened, we proffer the pudding (the writer had gone on previosly about getting a Christmas pudding over through the US customs from UK) "I love Christmas pudding,"she coos, maybe just being polite. Whatever, polite is good. Polite is frankly, a relief.
Is Los Angeles a necessary evil? The place in the world where you feel least bothered?
M: Unfortunately. It's the dullest town, therefore there isn't much going on, therefore there aren't a lot of paparazzi hanging about. It's the one place I totally get left alone in. There's so many people who work in the industry here, it's not shocking to see famous people about, going shopping.
You've been in London a lot over the last copule of years. Does it swing?
I've been there recently, and for ten days it was incredible. I thought after the Princess Diana thing it would be so great and that I was going to be left alone so I rented a house in Chelsea. Then I found out that it wasn't that they were leaving me alone, they just didn't know where I was. And when they found out and the fans found out, then... then it was a nightmare. Then I wished I was in a hotel, because at least in a hotel you're so high that you can't hear them on the streeet. I would love to live in London but I don't think I could handle the whole press thing. It's pretty intense. It's more intense even than New York, where the attention kinda comes and goes. In London it's every day.
There was a Brief feeling after the death of Princess DI that it would stop. That it would change. Did you believe it would change?
Yeah. Do I think it has? No. Not at all.
Coming out of filming Evita straight into that - the tragic ironies must have been overwhelming. An iconic woman vocally mistrusted by pockets of the society she lived in, and yet inspiring this enourmous popular...
M: Fandom! Following! Yes, there are a lot of interesting parallels. On thte one hand there seemed to be so many people against Princess Diana, outraged by her behaviour and constantly needling her, but when she died, how astonishing was that, the revelation of how truly loved she was by some? Which just goes to show you that meanness is a lot louder than kindness. You know what I mean? Because there really were a lot of people that loved her and supported her. It's just thtat the people who didn't screamed the loudest. So that's what you kinda got swept up in if you were reading the presss and stuff.
It caused a big debate about the British character. After being told for years, not least by Americans, that we were tight-arsed and very bad at...
M: Expressing yourselves. Yes. Well, I mean no. I don't think that at all. I know some really unhinged English people. But London's great now - I'm good friends w/ Stella McCartney.
The first words on the record are "I traded fame f or love/ without a second thought" You seem very ambivalent about fame and its cost. You're not sure whether it's been worth it or not.
The ambivilance is true. I'm not going to sit here and say, Oh God, being famous is the worst thing thtat ever happened to me, but on thehh other hand,, it's a real cross to bear, the real thorn in my side. I wouldn't trade my life for anything - i've been blessed with so much, I've had so many privileges - but being famous, it's like the agony and the ecstacy. You get to meet people and have experiences that no one else gets to have. On thte other hand,, you don't have anonymity. What I am very clear about is the place it's had in my life and certainly \, at the beginning of my career, what it sort of took the place of. At the end of the day, though, I'm not gonna stomp all over it and say., This is shit, but I think i have a much better perspective on it all than I've ever had. I realise and I've been realising this for years, that the approval, the headlines of being swept up and being popular and loved by people in universal ways is absolutely no substiute for truly being loved. But if you have to have a subsitute, it's about the best there is.
There's the line,"Had so many lovers/ Who settled for the thrill of basking in my spotlight." Was thtat a depressing realisation? Did they really have much of a choice?
Well it's not to say that they were only attracted to me for that, but I realise that that was a big part of it. Power is a great aphrodisiac and celebrity is a great aphrodisiac.
Do you feel disappointed in those people?
No. Not at all.
You once said rejection is the great aphrodisiac.
That too, haha!!
You need a lot of aphrodisiacs.
M: I think everyone does. I'm speaking for everybody. I maen, rejection- doesn't everybody want the thing they can't have? For fleeting moments of madness, that's all you want, and then you wake up, pull yourself together and yoo move on with your life.
Is the conviction that you'll never findi a ... well, a soul mate, a haunting one?
It has been. When you think about what I do and the kind of life I lead and the fact that I'm famous, I don't think it's a lifestyle that's very attractive to people, unless they like the iddea of attracting attention, unless they're really superficial. You find yourself in a strange position. I come with a lot of baggage and it takes a strong, courages person to have a relationshiop w/ me. I have those moments when it seems impossible. The moments of thinking, Oh Forget it.
The song NOTHING REALLY MATTERS must be about LOURDES. Are you trying to say that this is the first love of your life that has no side to it?
It has no side. She doesn't know about me being famous. She hasn't got a clue. And it's completely unconditional love, which I've never known because I grew up without a mother. I mean I did have my father, but I think thtat the love that you get from a mother is quite different. It's had a huge impact on me, as I suppose it has on everyone ewho has children. Bbut definitely, when you have children you have to step outside of yourselsf. You can't sit around feeling sorry for yourself or feeling like you're a victim in any way, shape or form. You really look at life efrom a totally differnt perspective.
How is she coming along?
She kisses everything. She kisses dogs, she kisses strange people on the playground. She says "dog" a lot, and "No". She's very good at saying no.
You seemed to name eher in the hope that she'd be some sort of healing influence.
Absolutely. A healing influence on my life. Lourdes was a place that my mother had a connection to. People were always sending her holy water from there. She always wanted to go there but never did.
Madonna, as we have come to think we know her, puts up barriers even as she sultrily beckons. Remarkably, Ray of Light blows all t hat out of the water. MerGirl endds the album, but was oneo of the 1st things recorded for it, a one-take vocal whispered quietly while William Orbit's portentous track bubbles delicately about her. Madonna mourns her mother and depicts herself fleeing headlong from her past. "I ran to the cemetery,"she intones."and held my breath. And about your death." Bingo, and at last, real intimacy.
"She stepped out of the vocal booth, and everybody was rooted to the spot,"recalls Orbit. "It was just one of those moments. REally spooky."
Q: Have you done analysis?
DO you still do it?
Do you find it more or less helpful than before?
I go back and forth. Sometimes I think there's nothing new I'm going to figure out. Or that we're retreading the same old territory and i'll get fed up. And then a lighgt bulb bwill turn on about something and i'll have an epiphany. I don't always go. I just go when I think i need to.
Is it not tremendously expensive?
It is in this town. Lawyers and shrinks. I'm'' in the wrong business.
What's your earliest memory?
(what seems an interminable pause - 29 seconds) I've got loads of memorieees from childhood, but I'm not sure which came first... Falling asleep between my parents in a bed... Stepping in a can of paint when my father was painting the fence... Sticking my finger in a cigarette lighter to see if it really was was hot like my father told me.
Is that what you've been doing ever since - sticking your hand into a flame to see if it's hot?
(truefully) Yes...But I have a very vivid memory of that, I remember my father kept on saying, Look that's really hot. See how red it is? So don't put your finger in it. I was thinking, But how do I know if it's really hot if I don't put my finger in it? So I did and I got absolutely no sympathy. Nothing's changed, ha ha!
What's the most hurtful thing that's ever been written about you?
Oh God. I'm sure there's plenty of things that I don't know about. (long pause, she places her arms awkwardly between knees) I suppose the worst thing was people accusing me of having a baby for attention. That was pretty ridiculous. I phase it out.
There was the speculation that Carlos Leon had been chosen as some sort of spunk donor.
M: (coldly) Rather than my lover, yes. Thought hat was probably more hurtful to him than to me. They're keen, with me, to ignore the possibilitly that it might have something to do witih lovve or feeling and make it all seeeem planned or manipulated or calculated, which is a notion that a lot of people seem to have about me. But falling in love or rhaving a baby, I'd have thought that was one of the more basic human things that anyone can relate to, and some people didn't even want to let me have that. But that's okay because I have my beautiful baby and they don't.
And Carlos hasn't been paid off to stay away?
Absolutely not. He's with her right now. She's absolutely daddy's little girl.
Are you ever embarassed by old album covers?
They're a map of my life. But I do lok at old photographs of myself and think, Someone should have arrested me, someone should have stopped me from doing my hair that way.
What was your cruellest fashion error?
All errors are cruel. They're all great and they're all crap. Everyone's down on the 80s right now, but I thought the 80s was fabulous and I'm sure Boy George would agree w/ me.
It was quite an unpretentious decade, in the sense that its pretensions were completely transparent. To hear some people tlak, all it was was plastic music for a cocaine addled generation.
M: (cracks up) Oh yeah! And what's going on now? Nothing's changed. Right now everyon'es into the 70s, revisiting the 70s whether it's in muusic or movies and fashion. When we get further away from the 80s, we'll do the same thing. It'll be celebrated and analysed and perhaps appreciated.
You were drumming in the Breakfast Club in 79, in New York. Did you used to go to Studio 54?
Oooh, that's centuries ago, but what a cool era, what a cool club. The people there.. I came in at the end of it so i missed Andy Warhol, Sterling Saint-Jacques, Liza Minnelli. For me, the Danceteria and the Mudd Clbu were coming into their own.
There's a sense in a lot of your music of the dancefloor being a magical place.
The dancefloor was quite a magical place for me. I started doff wanting to be a dancer, so that had a lot to do with it. The freedom that I always feel when I'm dancing, that feeling of inhabiting your body, letting yourself go, expressing yourself through music. I always have thought of it as a magical place..even if you're not taking ecstacy.
Though people will take ecstacy to Ray of Light.
But ecstacy's been around for a hundred years. It was around when I was going to clubs. What's the big deal?
No. It's still a big deal. In Britain, ecstacy didn't really happen until 1987, 88, and it changed everything.
M: (regards Q as if studying Primitive Man) You guys are still taking ecstacy! Not special K? Cos ketamine is the big drug over here now. You're in the K Hole, swimming out of your body, and don't imagine you're gonna get up in the morning. I think the whole record would sound great on drugs. It'll makeyou feel like you're in the K Hole. It whips you into a frenzy. I took some mixes to Liquid in Miami and the DJs were just going mad for it. You can definitely imagine what it would be like to be high and listening to it. But I have to get there on my own. (Cod-angelic) I have a child now, I can't do that sort of thing.
The In Bed W. Madonna film turned out to be the definitive piece of negative publicity, but no one had gambled like that before. There seemed to be no fear rof appearing...
Q: ...and all those things. You didn't care who saw it.
M: But what's the point of making a documenetary if you're not going to show those sides? Then it wouldn't be a documentary, right? Let's face it, the life of a ... of a, whatever you wanna call me... on the road you've got to see all of that. It's a real slice of life. It's of an era, of a time, and it's true of the insanity of performing and the insanity of travelling with this bunch of dysfunctional people. Even in a movie, how can you be sympathetic towards a fictional character if u don't see their warts?
That's an awful lot of warts, though.
I don't think there were that many. I look at that movie and I think, My God how petulant was I? And Oh God, what a brat! But I'm not horrified by it. That's where I was and I've grown up a lot since.
Who are the Madonna fans now?
I haven't a clue.
What are the best Madonna records?
Like a Prayer is pretty much up there. And I really like Bedtime Stories. I don't think a lot of people "Got" that record.
It was better than Erotica. You hobbled yourself there, trying to make a concept album.
Absolutetly. I bit off more than I could chew. BS had better songs though the feel was similar. (affects the chat show simper) But this record is my favourite record of all.
Madonna's current favouritet words are "mystic" and "spiritual". From the hare krishna garb to her current listening - dominated by Talvin Singh's Anokha club compilation Soundz of the Asian Underground - she is looking East, w ith a beats-enhanced Sanskrit prayer, Shanti/Ashtangi, taking pride of place on Ray of Light. Like the title track, and the churning, underwater Skin, it wouuldn't sound out of place booming out of bulging speakers at London's Little Goa, Return to the Source. Instructively, she intends to perform a smattering of club dates in the States and Europe later this year.
IS it best with religion to spread your bets?
Absolutely. I do believe that all paths lead to God. It's a sham ethat we end up having religious wars because so many of the messages are the same. The whole idea of karma and "do unto others" it's all the same, it really is.
Q: There's a prevalence of water images on this record: Swim, Mer Girl, Drowned World.
M: Well water is a very healing element, as you know.
M: Well there's water in birth and dthere's water in baptism and dwhen you go into the bath or the ocean there's a feeling of cleansing, a feeling of starting all over again. Bbbeing new, being healed. That's sort of what's going on in my life and I'm exploring that element in my songwriting.
Swim's all about redemption but why are you so concerned with it? Have you been that bad?
Well it's not just about me. It's imploring others to seek redemption too. Because it's definitely a response to what's going on in the world as well.
(with heavy sarcasm) You mean besides Galliano's next collection? Well, let's see. Lots of things concern me. I suppose the main thing is people's obsession with negativity. People are so bitter and envious of other people doing well. People used to talk t o one another and be a lot more resourceful and creative. Bbut television and computers, the instant society we live in, has taken that ability away from most people. There are too many people resigned to their lot in life.
Why are you thinking this way now?
Well, maybe the same horrible horrors have always been happening in the world. Maybe I'm just paying more attention. It jusuut seems to me that there's more extreme behaviour as we approach the year 2000. People seem to be divided into two camps - between people that are searching for something to anchor them spiritually, people who are trying to evolve their own consciousness and figure out the bigger meaning for life, rather than, OK, I'm here to make lots of money and have a good time and that's it. On the other hand, I feel like I'm always reading about teenagers killing themselves or parents killing their children.
Have you ever known black despair?
Puh-lease! I'm the Queen of Despair! Read the lyrics to my songs! I felt despair many times in my life, but I have very good survival mechanisms. No matter how bad it gets there's' something that stops me seeing life as completely hopelesss. I still indulge myself in lots of melancholy.
How do you get over that?
Sometimes I write. I spend time with people that I know will get me out of it. My daughter, or friends that will tell me what a wanker I'm being.
Can you imagine how dark it must have been for Michael Hutchence?
I know, I thought about that too. I don't know what the real stotry is. It's just so tragic, so tragic, I can't imagine getting to that place. I've tried to imagine, but I can't. It's like trying to imagine what death is, you can't. If you have child I would think, no matter what, you could try and hang on for them. But I don't know, I wasn't in his shoes.
Two weeks later, a london flat, and Sheffield Wednesday are murdering Newcastle on Match of the Day. The phone rings. "It's Madonna,"barks Madonna. A rain break in shooting for the video of Frozen, one of Ray of Light's lowering ballads (bearing the unmistakable primary-coloured imprint of Madonna's longtime co-songwriter Pat Leonard and an enormous gothici string score courtesy arranger du jour Craig Armstrong), has occasioned the call. Along with Nothing Really Matters and Power of Goodbye, Frozen is Madonna fans' Madonna, testament to her "reining in" of William Orbit's more tangential instincts. "He'll tell you I'm a task master,"predicts Madonna. "that I like to crack the whip."
For his part, Orbit is impressed by his new boss's musical control-taking and recording wisdom. "She kept on telling me,Don't gild the lily. And the other thing she'd say,"he adds ruefully,"just as I was ready to crawl home exhausted was,' You can sleep when you're dead.' "
"In the studio she's'' totally sleeves-rolled-up. You think of her as a performer, a pop icon, this force of entertainment. You don't perceive Madonna as a great producer, that's' exactly what she is."
What Madonna describes as the more "tripped out, ambient shit" from the Orbit sessions will emerge on a future "remix odyssey" record, putatively titled Veronicia Electronica.
Q: Are you pissed off by the assumption that your producers do most of the work? Or copme to that, that Maverick is a plaything that you have little day to day involvement with?
M: I don't think about it very much. You know, the people that know, know, and that's' all that matters. The Prodigy know, and everyone who comes to my label knows and everyone who works on my records knows what's going on. The people that make assumptions like that are being chauvinistic. (smirks) I'm quite used to people saying things that aren't entirely accurate.
Your singing used to be criticised as Squeaky. No one coucld say that about this record.
I found my voice in doing Evita, because I had to study extensively with a vocal coach. And I found range, and parts of my voice that I never knew I had. I'd only been using *this* much of it. It's a good find, by the way.
Do you still drum? Do u see a kit set up in a studio and think i'll have a go?
I have secret desires to. I've accidentally walked in on a band playing like a Holiday Inn or something and thought, I can play better drums than that. One of these days. If I go on tour and we're doing rehearsals, you can believe I'll be sitting behind the drums when everyone's gone and there's someone sweeping the floor.
Is it a reflection of the way you've changed or the way that everyone else has changed, that no one's horrified by you anymore? Madonna reveals part of own body stock, that wouldn't make many headlines these days.
(grins) I don't think there's anything left to reveal, is there?
Maybe not but yuo don't have to. You won.
I guess I won. If in the middle of all of that chaos some positive message got out, then I won. But it's not terribly much fun, being a rebel or being a pioneer, I have to say, because you become a target for everyone's fears. You have to be incredibly resilient and there were times when I wished that I hadn't been so outspoken, because it was so exhausting to constantly have to defend myself. Looking back on it, it was a great education for me and iti was very liberating for me, because when you're not popular in any se nse of the word and everyone seems to have turned on you, you kind of have a freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want, because you don't have to please anyone. Let's face it, all the stuff I've been going on about for years, people have learned to accept it. Nowadays, it doesn't sound so outrageous, that's how we are, every decade we become more open to ideas. Homosexuality is no longer a debate in pop culture, but even ten years ago it was considered terribly outrageous. We've come a long way. But I've changed too, so it's both.
So you believe in progress, despite the evidence?
M: (huffily) Of course I believe in progress. Thats why we're here - to transform ourselves and other people. Iti's the nature of our species to progress.
You seem to be pretty happy with where you are. Are there any ambitions that still niggle at you?
I'd like to learn how to paint. I love painting and I'm always in awe of people that can do it. People say I should just do it, but I think, No because what If i suck? I'd be so disappointed.
"Madonna's on this journey,"relects Orbit,"and if you're smart you'll get on board for the ride. But it doesn't matter if you do or you don't because she's going to get there anyway."
And in case you were wondering, she ate the Christmas pudding.