“It’s kind of like the old me and the new me all mixed in together,” Madonna tells Billboard of her stunning new single “Living For Love.”
It’s a rather large understatement to say that it’s been a crazy couple of weeks for Madonna.
On Tuesday night, more than 10 of the singer’s unreleased demo recordings turned up on the Internet, causing the singer and her team to go into “overdrive” to combat the stolen leaks. (“I haven’t slept in a week,” she says.) The songs were from the sessions for her forthcoming 13th studio album, which at the time, had not been announced (and is still not finished).
To counter the leak, Madonna accelerated the release of new music: On Friday night (Dec. 19), she announced that her album, Rebel Heart, would be released on March 10, 2015 through Interscope Records, and six of its tracks would become immediately available to purchase. Among those tracks are the set’s lead single, the Diplo-produced soul-meets-house jam “Living For Love.” How far ahead of schedule was the release? The single wasn’t supposed to premiere until Feb. 14, 2015.
The album — which features a collaboration with Nicki Minaj — is also available to pre-order, and has topped the iTunes Store’s top albums tally in more than 40 countries, including the United States. She also dominated the real time Billboard + Twitter Trending 140 chart on Saturday night (Dec. 20), where two of the album’s songs (“Living For Love” and “Bitch, I’m Madonna”) were concurrently in the top three.
Billboard spoke to Madonna on Sunday morning via phone, to talk about her new album, its “chaotic” recording process, and how her day-to-day business has changed because of the leaks. She also discusses her fondness of Diplo (he’s a “badass”), a possible Grammy Awards performance, and how no one has ever called her an “Unapologetic Bitch.”
Billboard: How are you doing?
Madonna: I’m good. I’m good, I haven’t slept in a week, but I’m good.
I can only imagine the week that you’ve had so far.
Yeah. It’s been a very intense couple of weeks.
Are you OK right now? As OK as you can be considering what’s been happening?
Yeah. I mean, you know, I’m not happy that unreleased demos are out there in the world for people to hear, listen, judge, etcetera, etcetera. Once that happened we went into overdrive. A) Trying to figure out where the leaks were coming from, and then B) Trying to combat that with putting out finished music that people could focus on versus demos that were never meant for anyone to hear. So, that led to no sleep.
Did at any point you turn to someone and say “Bitch, I’m Madonna,” this shouldn’t be happening to me?
No. I said, “Shit, this is the age that we’re living in.” It’s crazy. I mean, look at what’s going on with Sony Pictures. It’s just the age that we’re living in. It’s crazy times. The Internet is as constructive and helpful in bringing to people together as it is in doing dangerous things and hurting people. It’s a double-edged sword.
Since you said that they were stolen, has it changed how you are operating your day-to-day business? Obviously, you’re trying to lock down more stuff, but I mean there’s only so much you can do, considering everything is so virtual. Has it changed your day-to-day business with recording the album and making music?
Well, we don’t put things up on servers anymore. Everything we work on, if we work on computers, we’re not on WiFi, we’re not on the Internet, we don’t work in a way where anybody can access the information. Hard drives of music are hand-carried to people. We don’t leave music laying around. We have photo shoots or video shoots, and everyone has to leave their phone at the door. I mean, unfortunately, it sucks, but that’s the way it is. That’s how leaks happen.
It’s so sucky.
It is! Because I want to go to photo shoots and play my music really loud and dance to it, and celebrate it, and I can’t.
We know crap leaks all the time, fine. But I mean, (this is) so much! You’re so meticulous about how you plan things months in advance… Like you had in your head, “Alright, this how we’re gonna roll out the single, this is how we’ll roll out the album.” And now, a huge wrench has been thrown into the proceedings. Has that pushed everything forward? Are you like, “Alright! Let’s start promoting the single now!”
Well, it’s thrown us all into overdrive. We’re having to think outside the box. Think on our feet. I didn’t plan to put my record out this way. I wanted to… plan everything in advance. Release the single, shoot a video, start talking about my record. And you know, prepare for the release of the entire album and have everything set up just so. I mean, that’s the kind of person I am. I think that’s the best way to do it. But we sort of were left with no choice.
But there’s still going to be a music video?
Of course! I will do all of those things that I’ve planned to do. It’s just, you know, people are now listening to six finished songs.
And they’re great songs, by the way.
(The release of the music) was a wonderful surprise. You’ve been able to take a bunch of lemons that had been thrown at you, and I guess make a lemon drop, or lemonade. I don’t know, take your pick.
Yeah. That’s the stupid cliché that me and (her manager) Guy Oseary have been using. We got a lemon and we made lemonade. Kind of works!
There has to be a silver lining somewhere. And, there you go. So let’s talk about the music. Did you think about releasing these six songs as an EP, and then doing another EP later? Or did you want to make sure that all of the songs stayed together as the full Rebel Heart album — as a piece of work?
Originally I wanted to put everything out together. I have an overabundance of songs, and actually, the reason I wanted to call the record Rebel Heart was because I felt like it explored two very distinct sides of my personality. The rebellious, renegade side of me, and the romantic side of me. In my mind, it was almost like I wanted to do a two-record set. So you get this chunk of songs, and that chunk of songs. That was my original goal. But then all the demos leaked and I can’t really go down that road anymore, so I put out (the six songs) first and then, I think a few more songs are going to come out during the time of the Grammys. Then the rest of the album will just come out together (in March), and they’ll just get my rebellious and romantic side all mixed in together.
You mention the Grammy Awards… I’m already picturing you on the Grammy Awards performing “Living For Love” with various guests…
…I’m picturing how that would be wonderful performed on the Grammy Awards, perhaps.
Yes, that would be wonderful. That’s possibly something that’s gonna happen. (Laughs.)
Can’t spill all the beans right now.
I want to talk about the album’s first single, “Living For Love,” specifically. We had Diplo on the cover of Billboard a few months ago. He was saying that (the song) had 20 different incarnations. Was he exaggerating by saying 20, or is that true?
Uhm… (long pause). 20 might be a little too high. But definitely more than 10. A lot of different versions. We knew we wanted to make a dance record. But you know, there’s so many different levels of dance music and even different categories of house music. So, it was really like, what’s the bass line gonna sound like? Is it gonna be really stripped down and sparse, or is it going to be loaded up? Is it gonna be Chicago house? Is it gonna be U.K. house? It’s like, all over the place. Is it gonna be a little bit of one vocal line? Is it gonna be a whole choir singing? So we were experimenting and trying out different things. They all sounded good, but at the end of the day, we wanted it to sound timeless, also. Not just something of the moment.
Is that MNEK on the track as well?
The thing is, we did do a version where MNEK is singing. The original song, when we first started writing it, was with a singer that Diplo works with all the time…who sounds like MNEK. So, there will be remixes with MNEK’s voice on it, but this particular one that’s out right now (does not have MNEK). And then there’s a female singer whose name is Annie…who sings with the (London Community Gospel Choir), and she also lended her voice to the record. And by the way, I’m a huge fan of MNEK.
I thought it Alicia Keys was singing on the song with you. But I was wrong, it’s not Alicia Keys.
Oh no, Alicia Keys isn’t singing on it, she’s playing piano on it.
Oh! Okay. Geez, good grief. It’s so hard to keep track.
I know! (Laughs.) Alicia plays the piano, and then the female voice is Annie… there are versions of “Living For Love” that MNEK is singing on, and those will be coming out, but just not yet.
It has that right balance of soul music meeting house music. It’s the right blend of the two, where you were able find the right balance, where it doesn’t sound jarring. It actually sounds like it’s meant to go together.
It’s kind of like the old me and the new me all mixed in together.
It’s all you! It’s all versions of you.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah!
Another new song, “Ghosttown,” is such a cool song. It’s so evocative. The lyrics are so beautiful. In my head, I’m picturing there’s a ghost town, it’s cold, there’s two souls, they’re the only people left. Was that a song that you wrote with Evan Bogart, Sean Douglas and Jason Evigan, or did it come to you already finished?…
…How did that song come together?
We all get into a room together. They start playing their chords and then we just start thinking about… When I write with people, we always try to come up with a theme. What do we want to write about? So this one is about the city after armageddon. The burnt out city, the crumbling buildings, the smoke that’s still lingering after the fire. You know what I mean? There’s only a few people left. How do we pick up the pieces and go on from here? Kind of dramatic. (Laughs.) But not entirely impossible at this stage of the game.
Yeah, well, at the rate things are going, who knows?
Exactly. One must be realistic and be prepared for anything.
One must be realistic. Because you know in a few years, we could all just be in some burnt out ghost town together.
Yes, exactly! And we’ll all be in our version of a “Ghosttown” or in a version of a “Ghosttown,” and at the end of the day, all we’re going to have left is each other. So that’s really what that song is about.
You can see a music video already in your head.
Yeah! For sure.
It reminds me of when “Gang Bang” (on MDNA) came out. It was so cinematic…
…you could see it. Let’s talk about “Unapologetic Bitch.” Did someone call you that at some point…
…and you’re like, “Let me make a response (record)?”
No one would ever call you that.
No, I’ve never heard anyone refer to me as that. That just came out of the ether.
When you were writing that in a writing session…
No, it’s kind of like an extension of… at the beginning of my career, when all the pictures of me came out in Playboy and everybody expected me to cower in shame. And I just said “I’m not ashamed. I have nothing to hide, and I’m not sorry.” So, it’s my version of “Je Ne Regrette Rien.”
Well, you have nothing to be apologetic about, obviously.
Well, certainly not in that circumstance. (Laughs.)
Yes, we all understand, there are different things that one should be apologetic for, but certain artistic decisions…
Absolutely. Yes, one should be apologetic in certain circumstances. But not in that circumstance.
You’ve worked with a lot of people on this record. We’ve been following you on Instagram all year. A zillion people.
There’s been a lot of cooks in the kitchen.
A lot of your albums tend to be (produced and written) with a core group of people. Was that hard when you have so many people (on the new album) to keep a through line?
Yes. Very hard. Very, very, very, very hard. It’s extremely challenging for me working with a lot of young DJs who never can stay in one city for more than five days. So we never got to finish things. And so then I’d start things with one group of people, and then I’d start something with somebody else, and then they’d have to leave town and the other person would come back. It’s a chaotic way to work. You get a lot of ideas, but there’s a lot of confusion. It was challenging to keep cohesion with the sound and the direction of the record with people coming and going in a revolving door of creativity. So, I was just the person standing there with a clipboard in the headlights, going “Ok!” (Laughs.) A little bit like a school teacher.
Diplo is super involved with the album, obviously. Is he sort of quasi-executive producing it…?
…is he involved on more than just the three songs (released so far)?
We did more than three songs. I wouldn’t say he was an executive producer, but he has a very strong voice in the record. We collaborated on a lot of music. You know, he heard other songs and gave his input on what he liked and what he didn’t like, but I wouldn’t call him an executive producer.
Then I won’t!
He’s a badass DJ who has great ideas.
Are you actually done writing and recording the album?
Uhm… I am done writing. I’m almost done recording. Almost done. Got just few more little tweaks to do. But first I had to get those six songs out.