"The image gets in the way," she answers, when asked why people don’t generally think of her as a songwriter. It’s an image she’s worked hard to establish in people’s minds, taking her from the Midwest to Manhattan and presently to a home high in Hollywood’s highest hills. As we speak, Madonna is more than famous: she’s gone from the musical to the mythic while still alive, as much a part of our collective awareness as were Marilyn Monroe, John Kennedy or the Beatles in their day.
It hasn’t happened by accident. She’s wise to the notion that it takes more than talent and charisma to shoot a star beyond all others into this pantheon; it takes controversy. "People are asleep," she said, "and you’ve got to do what you can to wake them up." She has awakened more than her share of sleepers in a variety of ways, from dancing before burning crosses and sporting stigmata on her hands in the video of "Like a Prayer" to visually fusing, in her "Open Your Heart" video, the madonna/whore dynamic inherent in all images since her first appearance wearing lingerie and crucifixes.
As soon as one controversy begins to fade, she launches a new one: As the "Like a Prayer" video started to shed its shock value, she released a video for "Express Yourself" in which she expressed herself nude and in chains. But what a lot of people still don’t understand about her is that beyond this rainbow of shifting images and calculated controversies is a serious songwriter who writes or co-writes the majority of her own material, from first singles like "Lucky Star," which she wrote alone, to "Like a Prayer," written with the enormously gifted Patrick Leonard. (Leonard, along with her old friend from Detroit, Stephen Bray, are her main collaborators.)
I spoke to Madonna on a typically bright Angelino afternoon; she was on break from the making of Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. She seemed openly relieved to be asked questions about her songwriting as opposed to the usual ones about her recently broken marriage, and remembered clearly the exhilaration she experienced writing her first song.
Madonna: I don’t remember the name of my first song but I do remember the feeling that I had when I wrote it. And it just came out of me. I don’t know how. It was like somebody possessed me. It was like I wanted to run out in the street and go, "I wrote a song! I WROTE A SONG! I DID IT!" You know what I mean? I was so proud of myself. (laughs) And then after that, they just kind of gushed out of me. Because I always wrote poetry in free-form verse and kept journals and stuff, but to be able to put it to music, that was a whole different thing.
Interviewer: How old were you then?
Madonna: About twenty-one.
Interviewer: It’s interesting to learn you have written so many of your own songs. I don’t think people realize that you’re a songwriter as well as everything else you do–
Madonna: You mean they don’t realize I’m a songwriter as well as a slut? (laughs) It’s the image that gets in the way. What am I supposed to do? The information is on the label. If they don’t read it, that’s not my problem. I’m not going to put a sticker on the outside of the album that says, "Listen–I wrote these songs!" You know, they pay attention to what they want to pay attention to.
Interviewer: This album, Like a Prayer, seems to be the most honest album you’ve done. Do you agree?
Madonna: I didn’t try to candycoat anything or make it more palatable for mass consumption, I guess. I wrote what I felt.
Interviewer: Have you candycoated things in the past?
Madonna: It’s not that I candycoated it. I just chose to write in a certain vein. It’s like anything–it’s like movies: There are brutally honest, frightening movies and there are really slick, commercial films, and I like both of them as long as they’re well made.
Interviewer: In the past, were you writing more about a character than about yourself?
Madonna: A side of myself. And a character. I’m constantly inventing scenarios that are a combination of something I know and something I imagine. But it’s just a side of myself that I chose to show. I definitely have that slick, glamorous, manufactured side that I feel very comfortable with showing to the public. But there’s the other side to me, too.
Interviewer: Is it harder, in songs to reveal you inner self?
Madonna: No, it’s not harder. In the past I wrote a lot of songs like that, but I felt they were too honest or too frightening or too scary and I decided not to record them. It just seemed like the time was right at this point. Because this was what was coming out of me.
Interviewer: When you say, "what’s coming out" of you, do you mean that you’re the kind of songwriter who is always working at it, or do you wait for inspiration?
Madonna: I wait for inspiration. I set out to record an album and that was my state of mind at the time.
Interviewer: How does your writing process work? I know that many of your songs were written with Pat Leonard. You’ve mentioned that sometimes you’ll come up with a melody and bring it to him and let him figure it out–
Madonna: Yes. In my very retarded fashion I will sing it to him. Or hum the melody line to him, and he will put it into a chord progression and we’ll come up with the song that way.
Interviewer: These are melodies that just pop into your head?
Madonna: Yeah. And I start singing them just from my head. Or if I think of a lyric, like a hook or a line, I’ll just put it to a melody and he’ll bang it out on the piano for me.
Interviewer: You must have a great working relationship to be able to connect with him at that stage of the process.
Madonna: We have a very good working relationship because we both come from the Midwest, and we both worked our butts off to get where we are. But, you know, he’s the one who studied music. He knows how to read music, how to write music. I don’t know any of that. I’m completely instinctual and he’s completely intellectual. So it’s a really good combination.
Interviewer: Does he every give you a finished melody to write words to?
Madonna: Yes, he does. But inevitably we fashion it to me. I don’t think he’s ever written a melody that I just took and said, "Okay, that’s finished, I’ll just slap some words on it." It always needs to be worked.
Interviewer: One of my favorite songs on the album that you two wrote is "Oh Father."
Madonna: Isn’t that great?
Interviewer: It’s beautiful. And it’s one of those songs that has a near perfect marriage of words and music.
Madonna: That’s the great thing about Pat. I mean, Pat puts together these really strange chord progressions and these really great time signatures, and I’ll listen to it and I won’t even think about it. I’ll just put it on, and I’ll just keep playing it over and over again; it’s like free association. I’ll start singing words to it and making them fit. I don’t thing of structure. I don’t think of first chorus, first bridge.
Interviewer: Did you come up with the melody for "Oh Father"?
Madonna: No, no, Pat thought of that melody.
Interviewer: It’s interesting that you were free-associating on that song and yet the words are so specific and thematic–
Madonna: Yeah, well, we definitely plugged into each other. I know, because I’ve tried to work with a lot of people. It’s really a relationship. It’s a relationship that works. There’s definitely a chemistry.
Interviewer: You mentioned how melodies will pop into your head. Do you have any idea where those ideas originate? Do you feel that they come from beyond you?
Madonna: (laughs) I’m such a sponge; and I love so many different kinds of music, and I’ve listened to so many different kinds of music all my life, it’s really… You know how you just keep memories in the back of your head all the time? I’m sure it’s everything that I’ve ever heard. And then it comes out in my own bastardized fashion. What I am is what I’ve digested throughout my life. What comes out of me. I don’t think it’s beyond, I just think it’s all stored up.
Interviewer: Have you every experienced writer’s block?
Madonna: Sometimes, yeah. Oh yeah, definitely. And when that happens, you just have to stop and go out or something. Go to a movie.
Interviewer: Some writers say that when nothing is flowing, they stay there anyway and try to force it–
Madonna: I do that, too. Sometimes me and Pat will sit through it. We’ll say, "Let’s write a crappy song today." But then there are times when you just have to let it alone. And go get some inspiration. Ultimately, you can’t force it. But there is a certain amount of discipline required. When I have to write an album, I sit down and say, "This is it." I sit down and write the album. I give myself a block of time. But every once in a while, it’s really tough.
Interviewer: Do you have any technique for staying in shape creatively?
Madonna: Yeah, just living. Just experiencing life, being really open and observant.
Interviewer: Is it tough for you, being one of the most famous people in the world, to stay open and observant?
Madonna: You can be open and observant in any situation. I mean, in a work situation, watching people on a set of a movie or whatever. I mean, humanity is everywhere. There are endless possibilities of ways to absorb the information.
Interviewer: You and Prince wrote "Love Song" together, which is a wonderful song. Did you and he work together or did he give you a track?
Madonna: No, he didn’t give me a track. We sat down and just started fooling around. We had a lot of fun. What happened is that he played the drums and I played the synthesizer and we came up with the original melody line; I just, off the top of my head, started singing lyrics into the microphone. And then he overdubbed some guitar stuff and made a loop of it and sent it to me, and then I just started adding sections to it and singing parts to it. And then I sent it back to him, and he’d sing a part to it and add another instrument and send it back to me…it was like this sentence that turned into a paragraph that turned into a little miniseries. So it was great. It was a completely different way to work. And because of our schedules and everything, and he was in Minnesota and he likes to work there and I like to work here. So we kind of sent it back and forth. He’s great. He’s a real interesting…unique talent.
Interviewer: And it was an easy connection from the beginning for the two of you?
Madonna: Yeah, it was. We started out being real admirers of each other’s work. And, you know, we’re already successful so we didn’t have to prove anything to each other. We were on the same level. And I don’t think he’s had that same opportunity with other people that he’s worked with. Because generally he tends to dominate everything.
Interviewer: "Act of Contrition," the closing track of Like a Prayer, has backwards masking and other mysterious elements. Did he have anything to do with that one as well? The credits only say, "Produced by the powers that be."
Madonna: Yeah, he did. He played guitar on it. He also played guitar on "Keep it Together."
Interviewer: I noticed on "Act of Contrition" that you have the choir from "Like a Prayer" reversed on that.
Madonna: Yeah, we turned the tape and played everything backwards.
Interviewer: Your idea?
Madonna: Yeah. And then, of course, the whole thing, the saying of the prayer (on "Act of Contrition") and everything, that was totally conceived of in the studio, in the control room. Pat put out a microphone, and I just started fooling around; and that was free-form, too. Whatever was on my head. It’s totally unedited.
Interviewer: You, Prince and Michael Jackson were all born in the same year, 1958–
Madonna: I know. Isn’t that weird? And I think Michael’s birthday is right near mine, in August…there are so many Leos in my life. I’m August 16.
Interviewer: The three of you have had such an enormous effect on popular music. Yet recently it seems that both Prince’s and Michael Jackson’s connection with the world has weakened while yours has strengthened and become more intimate and personal. Do you feel that?
Madonna: Yes. I think because I stay in touch with the world, and I think that Michael Jackson and Prince have really isolated themselves. And they live very isolated lives. There’s so much fearfulness and so much inhibition that comes with when you become a celebrity and you’re in the public eye all the time; I think you really have to fight that temptation to go into hiding and surround yourself with people who protect you and keep life out from you. I don’t want to live that way. I don’t want to crawl into a hole. I don’t want to go around with six bodyguards, you know?
Interviewer: You don’t wear disguises or anything?
Madonna: No, no. I go running everyday in my neighborhood. People bother me all the time, but it’s important for me to stay in touch with–it sounds cliched–with the street. I go to movie theaters. I can’t deal with separating myself that way. I didn’t struggle my way out of Michigan so I could crawl into a hole.
Interviewer: Both you and Prince have concentrated in your work on the separation in our lives between sexuality and religion. Has this been a conscious attempt in your life, to connect these two forces?
Madonna: Yes, absolutely. And I think that’s the problem in relationships. That’s why everyone has affairs and they cheat on their wives or their husbands. People separate things. They have someone they idolize, and then they idolize them so much that they put them on a pedestal and see them as so virginal and holy that they can’t have fun with them. And then they have to find people to have fun with and get low-down and dirty. They don’t let the id in themselves come out, know what I mean? I think you have to put the two together with people. You have to let both of them surface. And it has so much to do with being honest with yourself and the people you’re with. Say, "This is me and this is what I want."
Interviewer: Your song "Like a Prayer" deals with this subject. Do you recall how that one was born?
Madonna: I don’t know! It just…came out of my head. Pat had the chord changes for the verse and the chorus. We hadn’t written the bridge yet. I really wanted to do something really gospel oriented and a capella, with virtually no instrumentation, just my voice and an organ. So we started fooling around with the song, and we’d take away all the instrumentation so that my voice was naked. Then we came up with the bridge together, and we had the idea to have a choir. In almost everything I do with Pat, if it’s uptempo, there’s a Latin rhythm or feeling to it. It’s really strange.
Interviewer: Does he bring that to it or do you?
Madonna: (Pause) We both do. It’s like, we don’t know, we’re possessed. We both think that we were Latin in another life.
Interviewer: That’s interesting, because you’ve done both "Spanish Eyes" on this album and "La Isla"–
Madonna: "La Isla Bonita." I know! I have no idea! It just happens.
Interviewer: You have the Italian in you this lifetime–
Madonna: Yeah, but Pat is about as white-bread as they come. I love Spanish music. I love that group Gipsy Kings. They’re so great. And I love Spanish singing. I’m very influenced by Spanish music. When I lived in New York for so many years I was constantly listening to salsa and merengue. I mean, that stuff was constantly blaring out of everybody’s radio on the street.
Interviewer: You were talking of having only your voice and organ on "Like a Prayer." I love the beginning of "Promise to Try," which is just you and an acoustic piano.
Madonna: Yeah, isn’t it pretty.
Interviewer: Yeah. That song and "Oh Father" seem to be companion songs.
Madonna: They are. Yeah, they absolutely are.
Interviewer: Did you write them at the same time?
Madonna: No. We did "Promise to Try" first. Pat and I. Once again, he just sat down and started playing. And I started singing. And we built it from there. We’d start stuff and we’d come back to it. With "Oh Father" he wrote the tracks, and I was doing the play in New York (Speed the Plow). He came to New York and I was in a very, very dark state of mind. We got together in this really dingy, awful little studio in the garment district in New York. It was grotesquely dirty and cramped, and that’s what came out of me.
Interviewer: The song "Cherish" is incredibly joyous. Were you in a happy mood when you wrote it?
Madonna: I was actually. It was before I went to New York. Absolutely. It was right before I left.
Interviewer: Was "Promise to Try" written for the little girl in you?
Madonna: (Softly) Yes. It was…yes, it was. I mean, it’s not just one thing. It’s my father talking to me, it’s me talking to me…and "Oh Father" is not just me dealing with my father. It’s me dealing with all authority figures in my life.
Interviewer: Does that include God as well? You say, "Oh Father, I have sinned."
Interviewer: In that song you also say, "I lay down next to your boots and I prayed…" Which kind of reminds of me of Tom Waits. Are you an admirer of Waits’s work?
Madonna: Oh, I love Tom Waits. I’ve always loved him. He’s great. He’s a great performer. I love watching him.
Interviewer: What other songwriters do you enjoy listening to?
Madonna: Prince. He never ceases to amaze me. I’ve heard all the tracks off of his next album that he hasn’t released yet and they’re incredible. Stephen Sondheim, who I worked with for Dick Tracy. I never really appreciated his stuff because I didn’t pay that much attention to them (his songs). And having to learn his songs, which are unbelievably complex. I just have the utmost respect and admiration for him. An incredible songwriter. Incredible.
Interviewer: Complex musically and lyrically?
Madonna: Oh, yes. There’s not one thing that repeats itself. It’s just unbelievable. When I first got them, I sat down next to him and he played them for me, and I was just dumbfounded. And then, forget about making them my own, just to learn to sing them–the rhythmic changes and the melodic changes–it was really tough. I had to go to my vocal coach and get an accompanist to slow everything down for me. I could hardly hear the notes, you know what I mean? So it was a real challenge. And they definitely grew on me.
Interviewer: So you eventually mastered them?
Madonna: I think so. When we ended up recording them, I think Stephen was very pleased.
Interviewer: You’re an actress, a dancer, a singer and a songwriter. Can you say what the most powerful art form in your life is?
Madonna: God, it’s tough. I like visual arts. I’d have to say music even though I love movies and dramatic arts. Music is the most accessible art form. And I think everybody relates to music. It is completely universal and therefore the most powerful for me, too.
Interviewer: Do you have a favorite song of your own?
Madonna: (Pause) No, I don’t like to say that. It’s like having ten children and saying I have a favorite child. It’s not fair.
Interviewer: You wrote "Lucky Star" alone. Did you write it on guitar?
Madonna: No, I wrote in on synthesizer.
Interviewer: Yeah? You say you’re not a musician and yet you play guitar and keyboards.
Madonna: I know, but I’m lazy and I don’t practice because I’ve gotten involved with so many other things in my life, and I just had to make a sacrifice. Of course, Stephen Sondheim encourages me to start playing the piano again. Maybe I will.
Interviewer: Do you remember hearing "Like a Virgin" for the first time?
Madonna: I though it was sick. I thought it was sick and perverted and that’s why I liked it.
Interviewer: And that appealed to you?
Madonna: Yeah! Sick and perverted always appeals to me.
Interviewer: And it sounded like a song you could pull off well?
Madonna:Yeah. Because there were so many innuendos in it. I thought, "This is great. This will really screw with people."
Interviewer: You like that, when people get upset?
Madonna: Yeah, controversy. I thrive on it.
Interviewer: You’ve certainly generated a lot of it. After "Like a Virgin" there was "Papa Don’t Preach" and, of course all the controversy surrounding your video for "Like a Prayer."
Madonna: It’s not really that I thrive on it. It’s that I think it’s necessary. I think art should be controversial. I think it should make people think. About what they do believe in and what they don’t believe in, and if they don’t believe in it, that’s good too. I mean, everything is just kind of opium for the masses. It puts people in a trance. I think it’s good to hit people over the head with this stuff and make them question their own beliefs.
Interviewer: Is is hard to get an album scented with patchouli?
Madonna: (laughs) Yes, it is. I had to work hard for that.