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The Rolling Stone Interview: Madonna

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Let's discuss your new album. How do you think it reflects your musical development?

I don't really know. I just do what I do. It's not calculated. Although, in the past, my records tended to be a reflection of current influences. This album is more about past musical influences. The songs "Keep It Together" and "Express Yourself," for instance, are sort of my tributes to Sly and the Family Stone, "Oh Father" is my tribute to Simon and Garfunkel, whom I loved. Also, the overall emotional context of the album is drawn from what I was going through when I was growing up – and I'm still growing up.

Does the preponderance of Madonna clones blaring from the radio bother you? Who comes closest to the real thing?

When it first started happening, I kind of got pissed off. You know, if you create a sound, then you want to have dibs on it. But then I felt flattered. But it is confusing sometimes, because I'll hear a song on the radio and for a second I'll think it's me. It's uncanny sometimes. There's one girl in particular, a girl named Alisha, who's had a couple of songs that ripped off the chord progressions of some of my songs. And her voice sounds so much like mine when I sing in a higher register. I was shocked! She's definitely one who stunned me. I think a lot of the imitators are black.

Do you ever feel black?

Oh, yes, all the time. That's a silly thing to say though, isn't it? When I was a little girl, I wished I was black. All my girlfriends were black. I was living in Pontiac, Michigan, and I was definitely the minority in the neighborhood. White people were scarce there. All of my friends were black, and all the music I listened to was black. I was incredibly jealous of all my black girlfriends because they could have braids in their hair that stuck up everywhere. So I would go through this incredible ordeal of putting wire in my hair and braiding it so that I could make my hair stick up. I used to make cornrows and everything. But if being black is synonymous with having soul, then, yes, I feel that I am. Whose voice blow you away?

Ella Fizgerald has and incredible voice. She's the greatest. Joni Mitchell. Patsy Cline, Chaka Khan – I love her voice! I love all the old soul singers – Marvin Gaye, Frankie Lymon, Sam Cooke. I like really smooth voice like Belafonte and Mathis. My father had all their records Then there are the gravelly voices – Joe Cocker. Tom Waits. And Prince – Prince has an incredible voice.

You wrote and performed "Love Song" with Prince on your album. How did the colaboration come about?

Well, we've been friends for years and admirters of each other's work. So we'd always talked about getting together to write. And, in fact, there was a moment last year when we were possibly going to write a musical together. I went to his studio in Minesota and worked on some stuff, just to get the feel of what it would be like to collaborare. Because it's a very intimate thing to write a song together. I can't write with everybody. I've tried with a lot of people, and it doesn't always work.

Prince and I didn't really finish anything, though. We started a bunch of stuff, then we would go on to the next thing. We just tried to start as many things as we could. We worked for a few days; then I had to leave to do some other things. I decided that I didn't want to do a musical with him at that time.

Meanwhile, I went and did Speed-the-Plow on Broadway. He came to see the play and brought me a rough mix of one of the songs we'd worked on. I thought it was just fabulous. I'd sort of forgotten about it. So I called him up and said I loved it and that, after I was finished with the play, I wanted to get together with him and work on it for my album. As it turned out, we did it in a very funny way. We sent tapes to each other back and forth between L.A. and Minesota. Then we would talk on the phone, and he would play stuff for me over the line. I loved working that way.

What surpnses you about him? For instance, what does be smell like?

He does smell good! I'm really aware of people's smells. I love fragrances and perfumes. Ever since I've known Prince, I've attached a smell to him, which is lavendet, and I don't know why. He reeks of it And I'm sure he would probably disagree with me. He's very privare, you know, and very shy. He's great when you get to know him. Charming and funny, in his own way. More than anything, he really comes alive when he's working

Since he is the preeniment pop spintualist did the two of you have any discussions about religion?

We never talk about religion or politics. But "Love Song" does have a spirituality about it, the kind that exists between two people. It's really about that push and pull of a relationship. The back and forth: I love you, I hate you. I want you, get away from me. You build me up and tear me down. That constant rubbing.

You dedicated the album to you mother, who taught you to pray. When do you pray?

Constantly. I pray when I'm in trouble or when I'm happy. When I feel any sort of extreme. I pray when I feel so great that I'll think I need to check in with myself and recognize how good life is. I know that sounds silly. But when it seems there's so much bullshit around, it's important to just remind myself of the things I have to be grateful for. On the other hand, when I'm feeling really bad or sad, I pray to try to reassure myself. It's all kind of a rationalization. I can't describe the way I pray. It has nothing to do with religion.

You've forsaken your Catholicism?

Once you're a Catholic, you're always a Catholic – in terms of your feelings of guilt and remorse and whether you've sinned or not. Sometimes I'm wracked with guilt when I needn't be, and that, to me, is left over from my Catholic upbringing. Because in Catholicism you are born a sinner and you are a sinner all of your life. No matter how you try to get away from it, the sin is within you all the time.

Would you raise a child a Catholic?

No, I don't think so. That's a tough question. I don't know what sort of information I would pass on to them in terms of God. Catholicism is not a soothing religion. It's a painful religion. We're all gluttons for punishment.

You're using the song "Like a Prayer" in your Pepsi commercial. You're not going to call it "Like a Pepsi," are you?

Well, I wouldn't put Pepsi in any of my songs. Pepsi is Pepsi, and I'm me.

But why do the commercial? You don't need the dough, do you?

No, but I do consider it a challenge to make a commercial that has some sort of artistic value. I like the challenge of merging art and commerce. As far as I'm concerned, making a video is also a commercial. The Pepsi spot is a great and different way to expose the record. Record companies just don't have the money to finance that kind of publicity. As it is, the music will be playing in the background, and the can of Pepsi is positioned very subliminally. The camera pans by it, so it's not a hard-sell commercial.

Do you ever think you missed your era in this town? I can imagine you running Hollywood as the Bombshell Queen of the Forties and Fifties.

How do you know I'm not running it right now [laughs richly]? But, yes, I do in a way feel it would have been great in those days. Hollywood was so different then. The studio system really nurtured and cared for you in a way it doesn't now. On the other hand, your life was not your own. Now you have more individual freedom, but you don't have anyone looking out for your career the way they did then.

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

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