At the age of 49, Madonna continues her journey of staying remarkably relevant despite our notions of how a middle-age woman in the public spotlight should behave. We’re incredulous at her refusal to start fading away and amazed that her star seems to shine as brightly as it always has.
Faced with a commitment to produce one final album for Warner Brothers, her record label of 25 years (she’ll be working with a new company from here-on), she chose to embrace a trio of young superstar collaborators – Justin Timberlake, Pharrell Williams, Kanye West – and, of course, the iconic producer Timbaland.
Some see this foray into a more ‘urban’ sound as a contrived and cynical ploy to ensure chart success in the R&B/Hip-Hop obsessed US market, but for Madonna it seems to be just another new creative avenue to explore.
With the final result, the anticipated Hard Candy, about to be released around the world, Madonna spoke to Steve Hochman about working with her new collaborators and why she’ll never choose to play it safe.
It’s a fun record. Was it as much fun to do it? Sounds like you had a blast.
Yeah. It wasn’t done in one long stretch of time. It was very broken up ’cause the people that I work with, Pharrell, Justin Timberlake and Timbaland, are all very busy. They work with lots of different artists. They’re on tour. They’re in movies… So they were very hard to schedule. So I ended up doing the album in sort of two week stints. It took much longer than I usually take to make a record just ’cause there was so much space in between.
With all the things that you’re doing these days, I would think you’d be hard to schedule as well.
Well, I suppose my scheduling factored into it but, of course, my perspective is that they were difficult and I wasn’t. (Laughs) I think it was hard for all of us to make our schedules coordinate and that was the biggest challenge. When we actually got in the studio and stated making music, it was actually quite simple.
You have so much going on now with films, and the album and various other things. Is music still the foundation, the central part of your creative existence?
Hmm… Is it the central part of my creative existence? I mean, the thing about me is, in terms of creativity, the first place that I started expressing myself as an artist was through dance, and that’s completely and utterly connected to music. So for me, becoming a songwriter and a singer and a performer was a perfect segue from dancing. And I think that even when I get involved in film projects, I always think of them in a very musical way. Music inspires me to write a scene. So, I feel like music is still very much an integral part of every aspect of my creativity.
You couldn’t imagine just going a long time without making music?
No, no. I’m always gonna wanna write music and I just feel like music speaks to people in a way that no other art form can. And it is, in my opinion, the most accessible art form. So, yeah, you could say it’s my first love. Yes. (Laughs)
Each time you make an album it seems to have a new facet, a new, territory that you’re going into. With this one, was there a clear idea at the beginning before you started as to what you wanted to say?
When I made the decision to work with Pharrell and Justin and Timbaland, it was really just a matter of I loved their records. And after I made Confessions On A Dance Floor, I was scratching my head, thinking, well, what do I want to do next? And so I asked myself, well, whose music do I love right now? Who am I listening to? What records am I buying? What am I excited about right now musically? And it was those three. So I thought, well, why don’t I work with them? And I did.
How did that that come about, the process?
Well, I looked their phone numbers up in the phone book. (Laughs) No, well, you know, that’s where managers come in. Actually Justin and Timbaland approached me, and I think Pharrell did as well. But I think they just were at first just saying like “we would love to just do one song with you” kind of thing. And I thought, well, why just do one song? Let’s do the whole record together.
What was the first thing you did together?
The first song I wrote with Pharrell was Candy Shop. That’s the first song that we wrote together. And the first song that I wrote with Justin and, and Timbaland was Miles Away.
Was it clear from the start that this was what you wanted?
Yeah. I mean, it’s not my normal way of working because I don’t usually work with other artists who are also performers. I’m used to being the diva in the room and the person I am with is much more of a support system for me. So I had to adjust to, you know, sharing diva space. Which was fun and, you know, sometimes there were fireworks, but it made for something interesting because everybody was very opinionated.
Go ahead and tell us. Who was the biggest diva?
Who was the biggest diva? I’m not gonna tell you. (Laughs) I think we all, depending on the week, we all won that sweepstake.
Is there a song that you think is the central one around which the album revolves?
Um, well, to a certain extent I think the first single, Four Minutes To Save The World, is kind of the axis with which the rest of the album rotates off of because there’s a sense of urgency to it. And there’s a sense of seriousness about it, but at the same time, there’s a sense of fun and levity. So I think you get that through the whole record.
Let’s talk about that song. I mean, you mentioned the sense of urgency…
Yes, you know, if you’re paying attention to what’s going on in the world and what’s going on in the Middle East, what’s going on with the election, what’s going on with the environment, there’s just so much chaos and turmoil everywhere. And all signs point to ‘everybody better wake up and start paying attention to the world around them’ and ‘what are you gonna do about it?’ Are you gonna be a part of the problem or a part of the solution?
Are there songs of the past that you feel have inspired you in that way?
Yeah, I think John Lennon’s song, Imagine, is a perfect example of a song that’s, first of all, it’s just a great record. It’s a great song, but the lyrics are genius and timeless and, you know, they work just as well when he wrote it as they do now.
I’m sure people read into your songs trying to get…
Everyone does. I mean, and that’s really what art’s all about. One person looks at a painting and they think it’s about one thing. And somebody else thinks it’s about something else. One person watches a movie and gets one thing out of it. Another person gets something else. And that goes for music too. And, in a way, you don’t want to tell people exactly what you were thinking or what you think the music is about or the story’s about because people should be able to tune into their personal frequency and let it resonate the way that it does for them.
So did you have to adapt the way you work at all? I mean, in terms of writing and things like that?
One thing that surprised me about all of these guys, Pharrell, Justin, Kanye, is that, you know, I’m a very anal person and I write everything down in a very str