Madonna is hot. The city of Los Angeles is baking in a late-July heat wave, and the very pregnant pop icon’s home does not yet have air conditioning.
"I feel like a walking furnace," she says with a weary giggle. "None of my friends will come over and stand in front of the fans with me."
Save for the wilting temperature, the venerable artist is in high spirits. She’s weeks away from giving birth – in more ways than one. And while delivering "Music," her first studio collection since 1998’s lauded "Ray Of Light," is not nearly as monumental as the imminence of her second child, it’s a source of formidable pride and joy for Madonna.
"It’s always a little nerve-racking for me right before I share my work with the world," she says. "But that emotion is usually followed by a sense of accomplishment in doing the best job I can. With this new album, I feel like I’ve completed what I’ve set out to do – and that’s a good, fulfilling feeling."
And she says her goal for the project, due Sept. 19 on her Warner Bros.-distributed Maverick label, was to "explode."
"Everything in life moves in cycles," she says. "There’s a period when you’re quiet, and there’s a period when you explode. In the time leading up to "Ray Of Light,’ I was in a quiet space – making lots of discoveries and going through lots of changes. It was an introspective, questioning time. Then, almost without warning, I felt like I needed to explode. I didn’t feel the need to be so introspective. I felt like dancing. And that’s reflected in these songs."
If "Ray Of Light" was intentionally soul-searching and cathartic, then "Music" revels in the bliss that follows. Much of the material is bright and uplifting – and in the artist’s words, "sometimes downright silly." Case in point, the buoyant "Impressive Instant," in which she gleefully rants lines like "I like to singy, singy, singy, like a bird on a wingy, wingy, wingy" with childlike abandon amid a vibrant, celebratory swirl of electronic keyboard riffs and thumpy dance beats.
"We were working on that song, and I thought, "Oh, ***CENSORED*** it, let’s just have fun,’ " she says with a laugh. "Life would be such a drag if it was deep and probing all the time."
Not that "Music" doesn’t have its serious moments. After a relentlessly upbeat three-song opening that Madonna designed to "make you feel like you’re taking off on a rocket," the set occasionally darts into "mildly melancholic" areas. Among the most notable moments is "I Deserve It," which will give critics with a penchant for reading between the lines a field day, thanks to lyrics like "This guy has cried for me, and I have cried for him… All of the pain was worth it."
Equally striking is "What It Feels Like For A Girl," the project’s second single, a sage commentary on womanhood that should give the Britney Spears/Christina Aguilera generation of teenage female listeners a little food for thought – and that’s as far as she’s willing to go in terms of that audience. While Madonna admits that she would welcome the positive attention of that group, she refuses to be "something I’m not. I’m not a teenager anymore, and I won’t pretend to be one to sell records. How ridiculous would that be?"
And yet "Music" is decidedly steeped in youth culture – the one that emanates from the street. Like "Ray Of Light," this set is drenched with the flavor of the underground club scene, with a continued emphasis on electronica.
The twist is that Madonna digs deeper into cutting-edge territory this time around by enlisting (in addition to "Ray Of Light" co-hort William Orbit, who adds his distinctive touch to three "Music" cuts) the collaborative input of such credible club figures as Guy Sigsworth, Mark "Spike" Stent, Talvin Singh, and Mirwais – whose mainstream star is on the rise as a result of his connection with the artist. He’s the latest in a lengthening list of relatively unknown producers and writers who have earned instant cachet thanks to being tapped by Madonna.
"I’m always searching for something new and edgy and undiscovered," she says, noting that she found Mirwais via a demo submitted to Maverick honcho Guy Oseary. "I love to work with the weirdos that no one knows about – the people who have raw talent and who are making music unlike anyone else out there."
Initially, she says, she was "perfectly happy to work with William again. But this opportunity came along, and I had to take it. Also, after "Ray Of Light,’ everyone and his brother was working with him. I realized that I had to move on. I don’t want my records to sound like everyone else’s. That’s boring."
Life in the studio with Mirwais, with whom Madonna eventually wrote and produced six tunes for "Music," was anything but boring. For starters, there was one minor problem to overcome: The Frenchman speaks little English.
"The first couple of days we were recording, I wanted to rip my hair out," Madonna recalls with a giggle. "It didn’t seem like there was any way for us to communicate. His manager had to come in and translate everything at first."
But as the two got to know each other better – and thanks to the tiny bit of French Madonna speaks – the vibe in the studio relaxed. "The more we got to know each other, the better his English got," she says, still laughing. "I thought, "Well, isn’t that curious?’ Ultimately, I think he was nervous. That first week was murder. But I knew we would eventually click. I was intent on making it work, because I truly believe that this man’s a genius."
It was her unyielding respect for Mirwais that opened her mind to the idea of revealing her voice in a new way on "Music." "On all of the tracks, except for the few when it’s treated with a vocoder for distortion, the vocals have no effects. They’re bone dry."
She says Mirwais "tricked her" into the idea.
"The first time we cut vocals, my headphones had a little reverb, but there was none on the board when they recorded me. At first, I was mildly freaked out. It sounded so raw. But then I got into the intimacy of how the vocal was presented. In fact, I got into it to the point where I insisted that there be no effects on my vocals anywhere on the album, regardless of the producer."
She says that only Mirwais could have inspired her to "be so open and vulnerable. I’ve grown to trust him implicitly. He’s so incredibly smart and visionary. I listen to his stuff, and I think, "This is the future of sound.’ "
But is the world at large ready for the future of sound? At a time when there’s scant deviation from the teen-pop, jangle-rock, and hip-hop that dominate the charts, the stark, often minimalist electronic-dance flavor of "Music" may wash over some listeners like ice-cold water – whether it will be refreshing or startling remains to be seen.
"I can’t lie; I care about whether or not this record sells a little or a lot," Madonna says. "Aside from selfish reasons – all artists want their work to be heard and appreciated – I want to bring this sound to a wide audience."
She continues, "The world is in the doldrums musically. It’s scary. No one’s doing anything interesting or daring, with the exception of the occasional artist who is unique and who manages to sneak into consciousness. It’s all so generic and homogenized. If this record happens, it might mean that people are ready for something different."
And they just might be. Interest in the single "Music" has been so strong that it has begun getting airplay a week in advance of the label’s planned Tuesday (1) shipment.
"It sounds phenomenal," says Paul "Cubby" Bryant, music director at WHTZ (Z-100) New York. "It’s getting amazing phones. But it’s not really a surprise. Madonna keeps evolving. She keeps your attention because she’s always changing. You never know what to expect from her."
Retailers are equally enthusiastic. "The truth is that she’s never out of the spotlight, and people can never get enough of her," says Eric Keil, VP of Compact Disc World, a nine-store chain based in South Plainfield, N.J. "I’m sure this new record is going to do extremely well."
To Caresse Henry, Madonna’s manager, there was never any doubt that there would be immediate interest in "Music."
"There’s a need for this record in the marketplace." "It’s fresh and unique without being inaccessible," she says. "I truly believe that this is her finest album to date."
Because the artist is so close to delivering her second child, Henry says, the project’s marketing plan will unfold gradually.
"She’s currently doing things like radio drops and station IDs, but she’s on somewhat of a break until after the baby comes," Henry says. "She’s also done quite a bit of long-lead press, and she’s done a video for the single."
The clip, directed by Jonas Akerlund, who helmed the award-winning video for "Ray Of Light," features actress Debi Mazar, longtime Madonna backing singer Nikki Harris, and English comedian Ali G. in a racy girls’ night out on the town – replete with an amusing animated interlude.
The single also benefits from a plethora of dance remixes, provided by Groove Armada, Deep Dish, Victor Calderone, Hex Hector, and Tracy Young. Each remixer was hand-picked by Madonna, who says, "The club vibe of this record is crucial to me. I love to hear my records on the radio, but it’s more important to me that my records get played in the clubs. That’s where I got my start, and that’s where I will probably always feel most at home."
To that end, the artist will preside over a lavish club event in Los Angeles to celebrate the release of "Music." Similar events are being considered for other key markets. According to Henry, the Los Angeles bash will likely be Webcast over the new site madonnamusic.com, which is due to launch in early August.
Actually, Henry says that the Internet will be a key component in the marketing of "Music." In addition to tentative plans to do a chat in August, Madonna will strive to heighten her visibility online.
"This is such an efficient and safe way for her to connect with her fans," Henry says. "We’re working to create a forum in which she can just jump online and post messages and answer fan mail."
Madonna’s enthusiasm for the Internet may surprise some, given that a rough mix of the single "Music" was leaked in May via Napster – a move that some have accused her of doing herself.
"Oh, please!" she shrieks at the suggestion. "If I was going to leak my record, I would’ve put a better mix of it out there. I practically had a nervous breakdown when the track got out there. I wasn’t even finished with the record when it happened. I was wiggin’ out. I still kinda am. I don’t want my whole album to be leaked. I don’t care if you’re my 83-year-old grandmother, you’re not getting my record before I’m ready for you to have it."
That said, the artist sees the potential for the positive evolution of music online. "I like the idea of trading information on the Net . . . that you can sample bits and pieces and get sounds and ideas for songs. But to have a whole album online, and then say that it’s your right to have it for free, is bullshit. I mean, pay for my record, thank you very much."
With that, Madonna takes a deep breath and ponders the future. Before the year is done, she plans to sharpen her stage chops with surprise club dates in New York, Los Angeles, and London, "which is my favorite thing to do. The electricity of jumping onstage in a club is so intoxicating." She promises that the dates will be a prelude to a long-delayed full-scale concert tour – her first in seven years.
"You need a minute to make things just right," she says, explaining the delay. "I can’t just go out there half-assed. It has to be right. I’ll spend a lot of the first part of 2001 preparing for it."
Slated for a summer launch, the trek is not likely to include material from before her 1992 opus, "Erotica." "But you never know," she says, laughing at the notion of dragging out her "Like A Virgin"-era wedding dress. "Maybe I’ll make one of my boy dancers do it."