Madonna, Only More So

Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

If you’ve thought that Madonna has often seemed petulant and self-indulgent in her rise from sex goddess to media mogul, you’re not alone. She thinks so too.

One reason her new “Ray of Light” is the most satisfying album of her career is that it reflects the soul-searching of a woman who is at a point in her life where she can look at herself with surprising candor and perspective (review, Page 88).

In both her singing and writing on the album, which is due in stores Tuesday from Warner Bros. Records in association with her own Maverick Records, Madonna expresses herself so convincingly that you don’t feel you are listening merely to the latest career reinvention of a master pop strategist.

“I traded fame for love, without a second thought . . . ,” she sings in the opening lines of the album. “And now I find I’ve changed my mind.”


In an interview, Madonna, 39, says that several experiences contributed to the tone of the album, which speaks about the importance of finding and nurturing love. But one factor stands out for the star of the film “Evita”: her 16-month-old daughter, Lourdes Maria. “I feel like I’m starting my life all over in some ways,” she says. “My daughter’s birth was like a rebirth for me.”

Madonna has no plans to marry the child’s father, personal trainer Carlos Leon, and is unsure whether she wants ever to marry anyone again. Her three-year marriage to actor Sean Penn ended in divorce in 1989. She would, however, like to have another child.

In the interview, Madonna talks about her music, her image and her baby.

Question: How much richer has your baby made your life?


Answer: It’s infinitely richer. Every day, I’m so excited to wake up in the morning and see her.

Q: Do you have a nickname for her?

A: Sure, Lola. . . .

Q: And, does Lola get whatever Lola wants?


A: Nope [laughs]. I do spoil her, but I have my boundaries. If she had her way, she’d be eating candy all day. She loves candy. She doesn’t like playing with toys, but she loves taking the top off of every writing implement in my house and drawing all over the walls. Unfortunately, all of my friends do spoil her when they come around. But what can you do?

Q: What do you think the baby will mean in terms of your career ambition?

A: You have different priorities. . . . When my publicist says you have to do this and this, I go, ‘No. I don’t,’ where I once would have done it all. Now, I’ll say, ‘Cut everything in half.’

Q: How do you think that’ll translate in terms of future albums and films and tours?


A: It means I’m going to really have to pick and choose the things I do. My managers want me to go on tour for a year, but I just had to throw my head back and laugh because there’s no way I’m going to do it. My lifestyle has changed, immensely. Where I’m going to be and how much time I am with [the baby] is always going to come into the picture before I make any decision.

Q: Let’s talk about the record. Do you feel critics have been guilty of reviewing your image at times rather than your music or acting?

A: Absolutely. I think that for many years now people have been consumed with me--choices I’ve made personally versus my artistic contributions. It’s like people act as if I’m the first one who tried to use image in rock ‘n’ roll. When is it new for people to create a strong image? What about Mick Jagger? Prince? And you can go on and on. Besides, I [feel that] 50% of that image is what I put into it and the rest is what others put into it.

Q: Your voice sounds truer on the new album than I remember from the earlier records. Do you think there’s a difference?


A: Yes. For one thing, there was the training that I did for “Evita.” I started working with a vocal coach and I suddenly discovered that I was only using half of my voice. Until then, I had pretty much accepted that I had a very limited range, which is fine. Anita O’Day and Edith Piaf had very limited ranges, too, and I am a big fan. So, I figured I’d make do with the best I had.

But then I realized I had to make some adjustments to sing those Andrew Lloyd Webber songs. I needed to increase my range. I did a lot of work with an incredible coach and on top of that I’ve been practicing yoga very seriously for a little over a year and I believe that helped my voice and affected my singing.

Q: What about the album’s themes? They seem more personal than before. Are they or are you just expressing yourself better as a singer?

A: I feel it’s probably a combination of the two. I’ve written lyrics that were quite personal before, certainly in the “Like a Prayer” album, and even stuff on “Bedtime Stories” felt very personal. But perhaps I was in a much more vulnerable place when I was recording this album and because I feel I’ve done a lot of growing and evolving spiritually and emotionally.


Q: Is there a reason you were more vulnerable?

A: First of all, it was after doing “Evita,” which was really a challenging, emotionally exhausting, soul-searching couple of years for me. It also kind of gave me time off from being me.

Q: You mean you were thinking about the role and the woman herself?

A: Exactly, and I got to view myself in a more objective way, and also I got pregnant, and the whole idea of giving birth and being responsible for another life put me in a different place, a place I’d never been before.


I think I’m slowly shedding my layers, and where other people have been obsessed with the idea that I am always reinventing myself, I’d rather think that I’m slowly revealing myself, my true nature. It feels to me like I’m just getting closer to the core of who I really am.

Q: What did you like and what did you want to change when you looked at yourself?

A: I realized that for years and years I’ve been having a really great time and fulfilling my dreams. I’ve been traveling the world and meeting really great people, making art, being creative. But I also was being incredibly rebellious, working through my own sexual repression, growing up with a really strict father and a Catholic background and everything. I was basically hurling myself headfirst into anything and everything, . . . being very consumed by my ego and by my own selfish desires.

I got to a point where I went, “OK, I’ve been incredibly petulant, incredibly self-indulgent, incredibly naive.” But I needed to do all of those things to get where I am now, and where I am now I’m very happy with. I don’t have any regrets, even though there are moments when I go, ‘Oh, God, I can’t believe I said that or did that’ or whatever. But you know what? I have to love that person too. She brought me here.


Q: The final element of the album is the overall sound, the slight techno touches. Why did you have British dance producer William Orbit produce your album?

A: I’ve always been interested in electronica, techno, trip-hop, that kind of music. The thing that bothered me about a lot of that music, though, was it seemed devoid of emotion. There wasn’t a lot that felt personal. So I wanted to take my feelings and marry them to something that is traditionally not considered very emotional or personal.

Q: Didn’t you approach some other techno or dance producers and get turned down?

A: I went through Tricky and Goldie and Prodigy, who is even on Maverick, and they all basically turned their elitist noses at me and said, ‘Oh, we can’t work with you. You’re a big pop star.’ [Maverick executive Guy Oseary] suggested William, who had done some remixes of my records, and he sent over some stuff he had been working on and it was absolutely the direction I wanted to go.


Q: What about “Different World,” the album’s opening song, where you talk about trading love for fame?

A: It absolutely addresses my relationship with fame. . . . The song is all about me coming to terms with it and understanding what place it has in my life.

Q: The song seems to be saying the price you paid for fame was too high, that you needed to balance your life. Is that correct?

A: Yes, essentially. Fame is a great substitute for feeling approval, for feeling love, and it does give you a certain kind of fulfillment. But at the end of the day, it’s not what love is, so you do get very distracted by it and you end up not taking care of things that you need to take care of. So, you do need to balance.


Q: It seems that maintaining a long-term relationship has been difficult for you. Is that because of your busy lifestyle or something deeper in your nature?

A: I think it is a combination. Probably I’ve had a real fear of intimacy growing up without [one] parent [her mother died when Madonna was 6]; not wanting to be hurt, not wanting to be left again by someone who loves me. So, I built up a wall. Getting people to love me in a mass way was a much safer thing to do. But on top of that, I’m sure other people have a very [strange] view of my lifestyle.

People probably look at me and think, “Oh God, she can have whatever she wants. She lives in a really fast-paced way. She’s probably independent. She doesn’t need anyone.” It adds up to a pretty frightening place for most people to want to step into.

Q: How about your film career? How pleased were you with the “Evita” experience?


A: Very pleased. It was very fulfilling on every level. In the end, it was great being able to learn to sing that score, and it was great working with [director] Alan Parker and [actors] Jonathan Pryce and Antonio Banderas. It was also great learning about this incredible woman.

Q: Is there any way you can compare the movie world and the music world, both from a creative and business standpoint?

A: It’s not very different from a creative point of view because it is all about finding your truth in those moments, whether you are singing or acting. But as a singer, I am the architect. It’s much more hands-on. I have an idea. I write songs. I go into the studio and it’s pretty much instant gratification.

When you make a movie, it’s just a huge bureaucracy because movies cost so much money. Millions of people get involved, and pretty soon the creative idea gets tramped on and watered down or filtered through a huge system. Just imagine [a process where you preview] a movie for an audience and let them tell you how to change the ending. You let people give it scores and then you work your movie around what they think. Could you imagine if people did that with their records?


I love the art form, but working in film can be a disheartening experience. Just from my own experience, at least five or six films I was going to do have fallen apart just since I’ve done “Evita.” They couldn’t raise enough money for it or the actors dropped out.

Q: What film are you doing next?

A: I’m supposed to be doing a movie called “Recycle Hazel.” It’s a true story, set in the South, very Tennessee Williams-esque. It’s a beautifully written story. We are trying to find a director right now. It’s going to be for Mad Guy [the film company she runs with Oseary]. After that, I plan to go on tour, which will take me to the end of the year. Then I’ll do [the film] “Chicago” with Goldie Hawn and director Nicholas Hynter.

Q: Did you see the line in Vanity Fair where someone called you and Courtney Love the Joan Crawford and Bette Davis of today?


A: Yes, and I thought it was stupid. You know Crawford and Davis had this serious rivalry. People love pitting strong females against each other. Besides, at the end of the day, which one is supposed to be who?

Q: Finally, what about the future? Do you think you ever want to get married again?

A: Marriage? I don’t know what I really think about marriage. I’m a bit confused on that issue.

Q: But more children?


A: Oh, yes, I would love to have a brother or sister for Lola. I don’t know when, but it’ll happen. . . . There’s a song on the album called “Nothing Really Matters,” and it was very much inspired by my daughter. It’s just about realizing that when the day is done the most important thing is loving people and sharing love, so of course I want more of that love in my life.