'Rebel Heart': Madonna Reveals the Story Behind Six Surprise Songs

In her first Q&A about the surprise launch of her 13th album, the Queen of Pop opens up about working with Nicki and Kanye and who's really in the Illuminati

By
Madonna
Madonna Mert Alas and Marcus Piggot

For the past year, Madonna has been updating fans on the progress of her 13th studio album through Instagram posts picturing collaborators (Nicki Minaj, Avicii, Diplo) and inspirations (children in Malawi, Miley Cyrus, placards reading "I need more money and power and less shit from you people"). But last week her creative process was interrupted by the leak of 13 songs she characterized as "unfinished demos." Faced with a potential calamity, her team made a quick decision: finish and release six of the tracks immediately on iTunes and set a firm early-March 2015 release date for the full LP, titled Rebel Heart.

The day after the tracks hit iTunes, Madonna was Number One on the digital music service's charts in 41 countries — everywhere from the U.S. and Israel to Russia and the Philippines. And she gave her first interview about the surprise launch to Rolling Stone:

It's safe to presume you've had a busy couple of days?
Oh my goodness. So busy. Let's talk about something good.

The album focuses on two themes: listening to your heart and being a rebel. When you sat down to write, were you guided by these ideas above any musical plans?
I never sit down and consciously think I want to write a song about a subject. Music leads me to ideas and to where I want to go emotionally. When I first started, I was writing with Avicii's team of writers and they were separated into two different groups. One of them had a much more upbeat approach to songwriting, sonically speaking, and the other team chose darker chords. The music leads me – so I get lost in the sound of the music, and that creates a kind of emotional palate. I found as I would look back at my songs and witness what I had written, I was coming from two very distinct places. That happened organically, not planned out, and I was observing, "Oh, these are two very strong sides of me that I need to express."

"The way we're going to change the world or ultimately feel joy is through unity."

So decisions about who you trust to guide you, musically, are clearly quite crucial.
Yeah. And sometimes in the writing phase of the music, there are some people who I really felt a connection to, just as human beings, and felt they understood me as a songwriter and a person, so those people were easier for me to write with. Writing songs, you have to be vulnerable, you have to not be afraid to express yourself and to say things or share. It's almost like writing your diary in front of somebody and reading it out loud. Some people made me feel comfortable and I felt connected to them and other people seemed very strange to me. It was almost like an acting exercise, you know, just putting myself in a room and letting ideas flow even if I didn't feel so connected to the people.

"Living for Love" is a pretty triumphant breakup song.
It's a breakup song. [Laughs]

But it's not a mopey breakup song.
The thing is, lots of people write about being in love and being happy or they write about having a broken heart and being inconsolable. But nobody writes about having a broken heart and being hopeful and triumphant afterwards. So I thought, how can I do this? I didn't want to share the sentiment of being a victim. This scenario devastated me, but it just made me stronger.

The track marries a classic house-y vibe with some of Diplo's very synthetic sounds. Did you encourage him to push it a little bit?
Oh, I don't ever have to encourage Diplo to push anything. In fact, I have to encourage him to tone things down sometimes. He's a turn-up man. In fact, I think "Living for Love" is probably one of his more mellow productions. 

"Devil Pray" is at risk of being misunderstood as a song encouraging or condemning drugs, but it's more about a search for spirituality, correct?
I don't think when people are experimenting with drugs they're actually consciously saying to themselves, I want to get closer to God. I think it's a primal thing, a more inexplicable thing that happens where I think the feeling people have when they're high is plugging into the universe and appreciating things or seeing details that they otherwise may have missed, or feeling a certain kind of euphoric joy. Ultimately those feelings never last, because the drugs wear off and then there's the aftereffect. Whenever you synthetically make yourself feel euphoria there's going to be the crash. I'm certainly not judging people who take drugs or saying "don't do drugs," however, I'm saying you can do all of these things to connect to a higher level, but ultimately you're going to be lost. People who are getting high are instinctively also trying to connect to a higher level of consciousness, but are doing it in a way that will not sustain them.

There's also a message of seeking spirituality via togetherness and not being isolated.
Yeah, and that's another subtle message of the song, and you really do have to pay attention to the lyrics, and I hope people do over time. The way we're going to change the world, or the way we're going to ultimately feel joy, is through unity. I'm certainly not encouraging religious behavior; when I say people are thinking in a religious way, I think they're thinking about rules and dogma and laws that separate. When I say spirituality, I mean a consciousness that has an understanding that we are all in this together, that we are all one. We have to find a way to feel joy and to bring joy to the world together. That ultimately is with consciousness, not drugs.

We're at a critical moment — a weird and scary time — that doesn't seem far from the fallen world of "Ghosttown."
Yes, we are, and that song is kind of looking at the world in a way, seeing civilization collapse around us, for lack of a better word. And at the end of the day, if we run out of oil and we don't have electricity and we don't have all the modern conveniences, and we have no phones and computers, all we're going to have is each other, is humans. And that song's about recognizing that.

"I know who the real Illuminati are, and I know where that word comes from."

Still, it's a comforting song, it's not a frightful or fearful song.
No. Again, hopeful. Looking at the destruction and seeing hope. And that's what a lot of my songs are about on this record.

If "Living for Love" is the inspiring breakup song, "Unapologetic Bitch" is the "fuck you."
Yeah. [Laughs] But it's like, fuck you, I'm going to have fun. You think you're going to ruin my life and you think that it's over for me, but guess what? It's not. Life goes on.

Diplo, who produced that track, plays an interesting role in music right now, traveling the world collecting sounds and helping other cultures make sense of them. How did you two relate?
You know when you meet somebody and you work with them and you recognize that you both look at life the same way? I'm one of those people, I travel the world also and I engage in other cultures, and I absorb and see the beauty in other culture from many different perspectives — through art, through literature, through music — and reference a lot of those things that inspire me through my work. And I think Diplo does the same thing. So we recognized kindred spirits. When we got together, he didn't know that side of me and I didn't know that side of him, so again, not a discussion that we had per se, just more about hey, check this out? Did you hear this? Listen to this track. Do you like this group? Playing each other music that we loved and just recognizing we both enjoyed a lot of the same things, and then just getting to work.

How does an idea for "Illuminati" come together when you're working with Kanye West?
"Illuminati " was a song I'd written back in March or April. People are always using the word Illuminati but they're always referencing it in an incorrect way. People often accuse me of being a member of the Illuminati and I think in today's pop culture the Illuminati is perceived as a group of powerful, successful people who are working behind the scenes to control the universe. Not people with consciousness, not people who are enlightened. So people were accusing me of being a member of the Illuminati, and I kept going, wait – so first I had to figure out what that meant.

Do you Google these things, because it's quite amusing.
Yeah. But the thing is, I know who the real Illuminati are, and I know where that word comes from. The real Illuminati were a group of scientists, artists, philosophers, writers, who came about in what is referred to as the Age of Enlightenment, after the Dark Ages, when there was no writing and no art and no creativity and no spirituality, and life was really at a standstill. And right after that, everything flourished. So we had people like Shakespeare and Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo and Isaac Newton, and all these great minds and great thinkers, and they were called Illuminati.

Because they were illuminating consciousness.
Yes, to go to the root of the word, they were illuminating people. It had nothing to do with money and power. Of course they were powerful, because they influenced people. But their goal was to inspire and enlighten. So when people refer to me as a member of the Illuminati, I always want to say thank you. Thank you for putting me in that category. But before I can say thank you, I feel like I had to write a song about what I believe the Illuminati to be, and what it isn't.

When I played a lot of my songs that were unproduced for Kanye, that song resonated with him. He loved the melody, and he was actually jumping up and down on the soundboard. He literally stood on top of the mixing board — we were worried he was going to hit his head on the ceiling, but he didn't. He ended up being very excited about that track, and then he added his spin to it, musically, and I love it. To me, he elevated the lyrics with the music. It's like a siren, alerting people.

When you work with Nicki Minaj on a track like "Bitch I'm Madonna," do you give her guidance or let her go wherever she desires?
Whenever we work together she always sits with me and listens to the song, and says "tell me what this song is about to you." She's very methodical in her thinking. We talk about it, she writes down words that I say describing what the song's about and the sentiment that I'd like her to get out there, and then she goes away and she works on it. She writes it, she comes back. She does a version of it, we talk about it. It's a back and forth until she gets it right. It's a total collaboration.

You said you wanted every song on this album to stand on its own without production, to be able to strip down each track to its acoustic root and still have it work. Was that something you'd thought about on past albums?
No, I didn't. A lot of times I just thought about sounds. Or I want to make a dance record, or I want to write a ballad. This time I really thought — this is all part of my Armageddon thinking right now — the world is changing and for me, it's like, OK, what does it all come down to at the end of the day? It comes down to the songs.

If you're alone at the end of the world, can you just perform the songs?
Yes. If it's just me and the guitar, can I still do it? All the songs, I needed to be able to break them down on the most simple level and be able to impart what I have to say with my voice and a guitar.

Have you started thinking about reinventing these songs for tour?
I'm thinking about it. Right now, the deadline of getting this music out for iTunes was a 50-yard dash.

The songs went Number One in 41 countries – that's got to feel good. And demonstrate true fans are still willing to pay for the music.
Yeah. They're extremely [loyal] and I'm really super grateful for that.

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