Gather round! Madonna has something to tell you. Prepare for a full briefing on global conflict, life after death and Mini Cooper.
Madonna arrives on time, looking as inconspicuous as the most famous woman in the world can. She is dressed down in chocolate brown and charcoal, with a tweed cap pulled low down over her eyes.
"Hi, I’m Madonna," she says, as she squeezes, with some inelegance, into our corner booth. Heads do not turn as readily as they might, thanks to her newly brunette hair.
"You must feel at home in this weather," she laughs. A Pacific storm is currently whipping through Los Angeles. The suggestion that she might be missing the wet British winter provokes no response.
We are at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s Polo lounge, just down the road from the mansion Madonna purchased from the actress Diana Keaton for a reputed £3.5 million. Though Jack Nicholson and Steven Spielberg regularly dine here, Madonna’s arrival causes a stir. A waiter instantly flutters to her side, and she orders a camomile tea with honey in a polite but brisk way, deterring him from any small talk. Across the hall, the house pianist stops playing for a couple of minutes to peer over behind a vast potted plant.
"Are you staying here?" she asks me as the waiter retreats. "You’re not? Where are you?"
She looks sympathetic at the response.
"Oh that place is a pisshole. You poor thing."
Despite her low-key attire and her fleeting sympathy, Madonna exudes an intimidating confidence. She is most definitely nor four months pregnant, as one UK magazine recently speculated (the matter has been referred to the Press Complaints Commission). She isn’t wearing any make-up. There are faint lines around her eyes and her mouth, but at 44 she remains strikingly beautiful, despite a slightly reddened nose. She’s been suffering from a cold for the past week and each sentence is punctuated with a dainty sniff, her index finger held beneath her nose too prevent any unseemly expulsions.
The accent is a hybrid of American, plummy Brit and, alarmingly broad cockney. At one point she actually says "Cor blimey!" Madonna leaves you in no doubt as to who’s the boss: try to interrupt her and she continues talking; a subject is closed by a firm suggestion that we move on.
Since last October Madonna has been in Los Angeles working on her new album, American Life. LIke 2000’s Music, it has been co-produced with Mirwais Ahmadzaï. Advance word suggested that this would be Madonna’s religious record. More specifically, it would have a Hebrew title and document her enthusiastic adherence to Kabbalah, a strand of Judaism which dates back to the Middle Ages. In reality, American Life is "a reflection of my state of mind and a view of the world right now".
The last music she released was Die Another Day, the heaving Bond theme which was met with muted response last year. It is included on American Life, but is far from representative of her new material. A far better indication of her what’s in store is the title track – and lead single -which crams a thumping techno rhythm, liquid keyboard lines, an acoustic chorus and a bizarre Madonna rap. Part club anthem, part rock confessional, it’s a confident step on from Music.
The remainder of American Life follows a similar path. Beneath Mirwais’s beats and lush orchestrations there are 11 conventional rock songs, each one filled with drama, darkness and surprises (a gospel choir arrives out of nowhere to propel the dreamy ballad Nothing Fails to a rousing climax; the stripped-down Nobody Knows Me erupts in a barrage of electronic effects.
"We set out to put the two worlds of acoustic and electronic music together," says Madonna. "It is another step on, but I’ve never wanted to repeat myself. I don’t ever want to repeat myself or make the same record twice. Yuck!"
There is the argument that some things in Madonna’s career shouldn’t have been attempted once. Seducing a black saint in the Like A Prayer video for example, or maybe giving a beer bottle a blow-job during the In Bed With Madonna film could be considered unwise moves. Then there was the lesbian-based tomfoolery with Sandra Bernhard, and a naked romp with a variety of men (Vanilla Ice), women (Naomi Campbell) and animals in her Sex book. On the plus side, the subsequent bored public response to these incidents highlighted the fact that people would much rather hear Madonna’s music then indulge in her extra-curricular whims.
Ever since she’s continually adapted herself and her music to the times (an observation she acknowledges by snoring and exclaiming "Boring!"). There have been occasions when she’s seemed a little too keen to keep in touch – recruiting Ali G for the Music video, for example, today insisting that The Office is "sickly funny" – but mostly it seems genuine. Crucially, she has been, or has appeared to be, her own driving force. She’s still interested in new music – current favourites include the new Massive Attack and Lemon Jelly albums – without co-opting any one thing wholesale. And while old hands like Tom Jones enlist Wyclef Jean’s production talents in gauche attempts to remain hip, Madonna has ensured Mirwais and Ray Of Light producer William Orbit have enhanced her rather than moulded her.
"Different things inspire me to write," says Madonna. "I could be having a guitar lesson and something will just come to me. Or Mirwais will send me over music-rough stuff that doesn’t have an arrangement basic chord progressions, American Life came about itself like that.
"The music has to jar my brain in terms of lyrics. Sometimes I write free verse. I have a journal and I note down ideas I get from newspapers and books."
Is it difficult to find collaborators who aren’t hopelessly intimidated by you?
"I don’t say to anyone, Are you intimidated by me?" She bristles. "Obviously, if you feel comfortable with me I can feel it. We can have a chat and a laugh, but I’ve never sat down with someone I wanted to work with and not got along with them. William Orbit was very nervous when I met him, dropping things all over the place, but I found that really endearing. I don’t dwell on it."
Madonna has been famous in an all-consuming way for 20 years. She has sold 140 million records. Her two singles compilations took in 32 tracks and still left a handful of hits. Her pointy bra fetched $23,850 at an online auction in 2001 and last year she reportedly earnt £36 million.
Do you know how much money you have in the bank?
"Not exactly. Move on."
With teen pop dominating the US charts, her influence now is arguably more prominent then it’s ever been. The likes of Pink, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears have notably followed her blueprint of success through naked ambition and hard work.
"I arrived at a different time," she says. "Before the time of Svengalis holding talent searches: finding a girl that looks right and can carry a tune, and then figuring a way to market her. I’m not saying those girls can’t grow into something, but I really don’t know where we’re going with the world. Everything’s so homogenised."
She is interrupted by the Polo lounge’s evening entertainment: a grim-faced young singer-songwriter. Madonna listens to the opening notes of his first song. "Everybody also wants to be Thom Yorke these days," she notes drily.
On American Life Madonna casts herself as being entirely at odds with her fame. On the clattering rap section which concludes the title track she serves up an itemised list of her payroll which runs to a lawyer, a personal assistant, an agent, a driver, a pilot, a chef, three nannies, five bodyguards, a trainer, a stylist, and a gardener. None of these, she claims complete her life. The notion that vast wealth doesn’t automatically lead to happiness is, of course, your average mega-rich celebrity’s habitual moan – it has yet to trouble any of them enough to call it a day and live an untroubled life of pastoral existence in somewhere like Vermont, however.
"I know it sounds clichéd," she says. "But I’ve had 20 years of fame and fortune, and I feel that I have a right to an opinion on what it is and what it isn’t. All everyone is obsessed about at the moment is being a celebrity. I’m saying that’s bullshit and who knows better than me? Before it happens you have all kinds of notions about how wonderful celebrity is and how much joy it’s going to bring you. Then you arrive…
"In America, more then any other place in the world, you have the freedom to be anything you want to be. Which is all well and good, but it only works if you have a value system and we seem not to have one anymore. It’s whatever it takes to get to the top, and that’s what you gotta do.
"It’s the allure of the beautiful life," she continues. "Look like this you’re gonna be happy. Drive this car you’re gonna be popular. Wear these clothes and people are gonna wanna ***CENSORED*** you. It’s a very powerful illusion and people are caught up in it, including myself. Or I was. "
With varying degrees of success Madonna continues to flirt with acting. Last year husband Guy Ritchie directed her in Swept Away, a remake of a 1974 Italian sex comedy. It was savaged by critics who reserved special venom for Madonna’s performance. A commercial flop in the US, it will go straight to video in the UK later this year.
"Everyone in England has slagged it off without having seen it. Isn’t that beautiful? Don’t you think that’s absurd? But I think the knives were going to come out for Guy anyway, even if he hadn’t ended up with me. He had too much success with his first two films. That’s how the media is: eventually they have to pull you down."
So why do you carry on?
"Because I enjoy acting it’s fun. I don’t give a shit about what people say about it or about my music."
But clearly you do.
"But you can’t let it influence the choices you make," she says, retrieving a crumpled and obviously well-used tissue from her jacket pocket. She carefully lifts it to her nose and blows, then has a quick look to see what she’s deposited before dropping I onto the table.
"You must be careful what you read," she admonishes. "Nothing is what it seems."
This is particularly true, she says, of the acres of newsprint devoted to what her and Ritchie get up to when they’re living in the UK. The Daily Mail, for one, ran a scathing portrait – courtesy of anonymous sources – of their life at Ashcombe House, the stately home in Wiltshire they bought in September 2001. According to the Mail, Madonna spent several thousand pounds trying, and failing, to learn how to shoot. She also had an unsavoury run with ramblers keen to exert the right to tromp over Ashcombe’s fields. "Get off my land!" responded Madonna. Allegedly.
&"I didn’t have a go at ramblers! Jesus Christ!" she groans. "I didn’t have a go at anybody. They’re pissed at me because I left England. To tell you the truth when we brought Ashcombe we did think, oh, there’s a path, people are going to be bothering us all the time. But no one did. I haven’t got anything bad to say about ramblers."
It was also reported that you suggested our climate was crap and our houses too damp.
"The irony of all that stuff coming out in the papers about supposedly slagging off England is that all I’ve done since we’ve been here is say, Let’s go back to England – it’s so boring here."
Do you ever want to take off and disappear?
"Me and Guy thought about it. But of course I’d never do it. I’m too responsible."
Look on the bright side, you could be Michael Jackson. "I haven’t seen that documentary [Living With Michael Jackson], but it sounds disgusting, like he [Martin Bashir] exploited a friendship. Publicly humiliating someone for your own gain will only come and haunt you. I can assure you, all these people will be sorry. God’s going to have his revenge."
When Madonna was six her mother died of breast cancer. She broaches the subject on Mother And Father, the most touchingly powerful track on American Life. "That song is a way of letting go of the sadness and moving on," she reflects. She claims she has been searching for a reason for her existence since her mother died.
"Most people ask it, but they don’t dwell on it. Don’t you really want to know why you’re here? Do you really think that life is just about being born, making lots of money, finding someone to have kids with, then dying?’
Are these thoughts accelerated the more you become aware of your own mortality? "I’ve always been aware of my own mortality. Because when I was growing up there was always a lot of death around me. My mother died, my uncle died, my grandfather died, all in a really short space of time. My father re-married and had a child with step-mother, and that child died.
"When I moved to New York in 1978, six men died in front of my eyes. I watched them take their last breath. I’ve always had that feeling of, What is the point of living and of life? Then you have children and you have so much love for them, and you think, Oh my God, if anything ever happened to them I’d kill myself. Not literally, God forbid. All these questions get thrown up and you’d have to be an idiot not to want answers."
And have you found any?
"I have the answer, yes. We’re here to share, to give, to love. When you die your physical body no longer exists, but your soul, and what you gave and how you loved goes with you.
"I believe in reincarnation and ultimately that we are all united. I’m sure that this is not the first life in this physical body and it won’t be the last. Is this freaking you out?" she asks.
No. Have you ever undergone hypnotism and regressed back to one of these past lives?
"No and I have no plans to either. Too much work to do."
Two Of Madonna’s favourite things are watching her son dance naked and sitting up until three in the morning with her husband "talking about life and stuff". Marriage and motherhood, she says, has made her happier than she’s ever been. Indeed, the centrepiece of the album is a tripytych of love songs to Ritchie – Nothing Fails, Intervention and X-Static Process.
The British tabloids have painted a less idyllic picture of the couple’s marriage. There have reports of arguments in restaurants and fights over who gets to furnish each of their homes. The inference being that it’s all destined to end in tears.
"The evil eye of envy hasn’t stopped," says Madonna. "The press don’t want me to be happily married and have a family. Real love requires a lot of work and sometimes there’s a lot of disappointment. But always there’s hope. If you rely love someone you’ll stick it out no matter what. "All those songs are a reflection of that feeling. I can have a horrible fight with my husband and be really pissed of at him, but it’ll never end on a bad note because ultimately I believe in true love and our relationship."
You said that Sean Penn was the love of your life during the In Bed With Madonna film. "But I hadn’t met Guy then, had I?" she says with a theatrical pout. "I felt I knew what love was when I married for the first time. That’s the other dream I’ve woken up out of. Love isn’t what you think it is either."
So how do you define love now?
"The idea of giving just for the sake of giving, and not getting anything in return, that’s what I’ve come to understand unconditional love as It’s no just a crush, it’s not something you can have fun with, it’s not simply feeling sexually attracted to someone or digging what they do talent-wise. It’s so much more than that.
Quite frankly, before I met Guy, I really had my head up my arse as far as relationships go. I wasn’t a very giving person. Having children, really falling in love, head and shoulders, it changes you. There’s no time for nonsense anymore. When I listen to nitwits going on about how [affects camp American luvvie voice] Oh my god, we’re so in love…I think, Yeah, right. Wait till you’ve been with them for four years."
Recently Madonna dreamt a Nazi party had seized control of America. There were curfews and food was rationed. Jews had to wear armbands, but Madonna was a resistance fighter. The final thing she remembers about her nightmare is having a clandestine meeting with her brother-in-law, the country singer Joe Henry. By happy coincidence she plays an uzi-toting resistance fighter in the video for the American Life single. Her people have been talking it up as a profound statement about the moral wrongs of the war on Iraq, but Madonna herself is more circumspect. "It is an anti-war statement, yes," she acknowledges, "but it’s not necessarily against this war. At any given moment there’s at least 30 wars going on in this world and I’m against all of them."
Her ex-husband has been less disingenuous about his feelings. In December he visited Iraq and wrote an open letter to President Bush in the Herald Tribune taking issue with his handling of the conflict. "Sean’s one if the few," she says. "Good for him. Most celebrities are keeping their heads down. Nobody wants to be unpopular. But then Americans, by and large are pretty ignorant of what’s going on in the world."
Madonna and her family – Guy Ritchie and children Lourdes, 7, and Rocco, 2 – have been in California for the past six months. Madonna insists they will be moving back to England soon. She is missing her Mini Cooper, which she bought from a garage on London’s Park Lane.
"I love my Mini Cooper," she says with a giggle. "I was too scared to drive a big car in London; the roads are so narrow and I’m always I’m going to hit people on both sides."
Life in Los Angeles, she says, is quiet. She’s been taking guitar lessons for the last two years and strums along to Neil Young, Radiohead, and The Smiths for fun. She is currently reading Hunter S. Thompson’s new book Kingdom Of Fear and a book about female body builders called Chemical Pink. Her ideal night is one spent at home with Guy, eating dinner and watching a movie.
"I haven been drunk since my birthday party on 16 August last year," she says. "I’m Miss Responsible: gotta get to bed, got work tomorrow, can’t drink too much. I’m very controlled about my alcohol consumption."
She says she’s equally disciplined with her children. Neither of them are allowed to watch TV, or the "poison box" as she calls it.
"I’m trying to stimulate them to think for themselves," she explains. "We give them books to read instead. My son doesn’t go to school yet, but I’m very conscious of what my daughter is exposed to. There are gong to be things that she’s going to ask for that she’s not going to get. If she wants a pair of Nike trainers I’m not going to make a stink about it, but she’s not having 10 pairs. She’s going to have to accept that."
You, of all people can’t tell her that she’s "not going out dressed like that" though, can you?
"Oh yes I can," she says, folding her arms across her chest. "I can and I do."
When was the last time you weren’t recognised?
"When I went to my daughter’s school the other day to pick her up. I haven’t been a brunette for long. Someone stopped me and went. Where’s her mother? They thought I was kidnapping her."
Looking at your life, would you have done things differently knowing then what you do now?
"Perhaps I wouldn’t have made so many mistakes. But to dwell on them is a waste of time. I know what I know, I move on. You get slapped enough and you realise that you’ve been a buffoon and an idiot."
She laughs loudly. "And I was a buffoon and an idiot till the age of 40!"
What one bit of advice would you give to her?
"Don’t take any of it personally."