Interview by Alan Light
Lady Gaga’s new album, ‘Joanne,’ is more of a personal album than her prior efforts. In this interview, she discusses how her own family relationships have informed the lyrics, and how the music was shaped with the help of some of the biggest names in contemporary rock music. And while she explains that she’s put the elaborate costumes of her past incarnations in the closet for now, that closet door isn’t locked. She’s just letting you look behind the illusion… for now.
Why did you choose “Perfect Illusion” to lead the album off?
Everybody loved “Perfect Illusion” as the first song to put out for this record, but it’s not necessarily indicative of every song or the sound of the album. Every song on the record is totally different, it has its own story, and they’re all autobiographical to my life.
You said the song is one piece of an autobiographical story.
Well, that song in particular is about a failed relationship, whether it’s somebody you’re dating, or a friend, or someone that is maybe a family member.
Me and Kevin Parker from Tame Impala, who I wrote this song with, and Mark Ronson and BloodPop, we also talked about how the public views me as this sort of “perfect illusion,” and that it hinders my ability to have a human connection with them. So what does that mean also for the relationships we’re trying to make happen today?
So it’s a song not only about being upset that a relationship is over, but also a song about being upset and confused that it’s so hard to find a real relationship, and to find a real connection, because we’re living in a social media storm right now where there’s so many augmented, filtered perfect illusions around us, that we can’t figure out what’s authentic and what isn’t.
You mentioned your collaborators. What did they each bring? What did Mark and Kevin and BloodPop and Josh [Homme of Queens of the Stone Age] and all these guys bring in to these sessions?
Well, “Perfect Illusion” in particular was really Kevin’s brainchild. He came in with the idea for a song called “Illusion” with a melody and chorus and some lyric ideas, and we changed the song. And we sat down, me, him and Mark, with a piano and microphone and a guitar and a bass, and we kinda just broke through it section by section and changed each lyric and melody to fit me and what I’m trying to say, restructured the chorus to be about something that I could relate to and that I felt was important to say.
For example, “What kind of illusion?” I said. “What’s the illusion that infuriates us all the most? What’s that word that, as soon as I say it, everyone’s gonna understand exactly what we mean? Oh, yeah, that thing where I’m so intoxicated by someone I think they’re perfect, and that it’s perfect, but then it just fades, and it’s not, and that self-anger that we have.”
Josh Homme played guitar on that record, and on a lot of songs on the album, and BloodPop just has this massive talent for taking sounds and sampling them in new and different ways, and his production and watching him work is just incredible. And Mark Ronson, I can’t say enough about him. He’s a total genius and he executive-produced the whole record and worked with me on every single song.
What I’d say about the collaborators on the album, including Beck, as well as Florence Welch, we spent hours in the studio working together. So this was not [a situation where] someone made a track and sent it over, and someone recorded vocals or that we did things over email or we never met. This album was all done where we all kind of just became one another, you know?
Did you come in with a target, with a goal for where this record was going to go?
It’s really something that’s organic that happens over time. None of us went in going, “Okay, this is what the sound is gonna be.” We just went in wanting to write classic songs and then produced them and arranged them the way that we feel is both timeless as well as modern and futuristic and exciting.
We are a team, a real team. The best gift that all those guys gave me was treating me just as an equal in terms of musicianship, as well as being my friends and giving me a place to hang out where I feel like it’s where I belong.
I belong in the studio playing music. I don’t belong on red carpets. I don’t know that people really know that about me, because of probably my outfits and what I’ve worn in the past. But that’s just what I wanted to do then.
That’s what I was going to ask. Your projects are not just the music, it’s also the videos, and the look, and it’s all part of one package. How do you feel this image fits into what it is you’re trying to put across with this record?
Well, you know what? I just really didn’t wanna change. And what happened was we kind of got ready to do the album packaging, and create all the imagery and the marketing for the record, and I didn’t want to change anything. I just wanted to wear a cool version of what I was wearing in the studio that I felt comfortable in, and I really want to put the music in the front for this album.
It’s not that I don’t love fashion anymore. I love fashion. I just really want people to focus on the music. So I just feel good wearing this and just singing my a– off.
You worked with Florence, with Beck, with Father John Misty as well. These are guys from a different world than what we usually think of as your world. How did you end up connecting with these guys, and what do they bring to what you’re doing?
Well, Beck is one of my biggest idols, so working with him was just a total brain-numbing experience. We wrote a song together [“Dancin’ in Circles”] that I love so much, it’s really fun. So that collaboration was just a no-brainer to me. He’s easily the most innovative artist for me that I grew up listening to.
What they all have in common is that they’re all talented, and they’re all great songwriters, and they’re all really authentic and loving and have good vibes. So every day in the studio was just wonderful and happy, and they brought to the table so many wonderful ideas and really tried to get to know me as a woman, and help me to navigate my creativity after so many years of my life changing… and figure out how to make a personal album, when my life got so crazy.
So it was nice to kind of erase my fame and just go in the studio and make a record about being a girl in America right now.
What surprised you the most on this record, either about what you were able to get to or any of these songs that went someplace that you really didn’t anticipate?
I didn’t anticipate how deep it was gonna run in terms of emotionally, and then I also didn’t anticipate that it would also have songs are fun and bombastic and different, brave, exciting.
You get used to hearing people tell you what they want from you, and they ask, “Are you gonna do a stripped-down album?” “Are you gonna be at the piano?” “Are you gonna do something like this?” And this is not me saying, “Oh, this is the real me. The whole time it’s been costumes and now here I am.” This is just me at thirty, right now where I am in my life and in my career. And I didn’t expect for the album to be as personal but still dynamic and fun as it is.
And I have my team of guys that I worked with it on, and Florence, to thank for that, because it just became something that’s really special to me. I really love it. I’m really very proud of it.
Over the summer, you did a really fascinating set at the Democratic National Convention. How do you feel these songs speak to where the world is right now?
Well, I think we’re all witnessing a perfect illusion on one side. And on the other side we have some reality and some hard-working American sentiment. That’s what I would say.
There’s definitely some politics in the songs, but not in a very direct way. I would say it’s more in the way that I write about family, and write about my relationships with men, and how I feel that I can connect more now than ever with people that I never could have before, because they would’ve thought, “I would never have anything in common with her. I’m nothing like her, she’s nothing like me. She’s”…whatever perfect illusion they thought I am.
I kept seeing [in my mind] this girl in the middle of a field at one of my shows in an amphitheater in Middle America.
She’s all the way in the back, hair [pulled] back, no makeup, a Kmart sweatshirt on, rolled up jeans, heirloom jewelry on, nothing too expensive at all, kid in one hand, pinot grigio in the other, two kids running around, not married, doesn’t have a boyfriend. Maybe he left her, maybe he didn’t; maybe she wants him to leave, maybe he won’t. And she’s just listening to every word I’m singing with her hands up, and she’s just crying, and she can’t believe that I understand her, because she never thought I could.
And that’s the political side of the record for me: how can I get people that don’t think they have anything in common to understand that what we have in common is how we’ve all suffered, our human experiences, our family experiences, our trauma, our pain? This is where we connect. So I think if I can connect with that girl, then that girl can connect with someone else that’s like me, and other people can connect. And this is, I guess, sort of the point of the whole record.
Is there a challenge, since you’ve been famous since you were young, to still be able to tap into that woman, to be able to meet those people where they live? Is there filtering you need to go through to get there?
Well, I drew upon my father’s sister, Joanne, who is sort of the center and the pillar of our family. She died when she was very young, and none of us knew her but my dad and my grandma, obviously. Her death scarred our family in a particular way that changed the way that my father was, which changed the way that I was, which changed the way my sister is, which changed the way my mom is.
And I dug deep into that place where you start to think about your ancestry and being a human being on the earth, and how can I understand my dad better? How can I understand my mom better? How can I understand my grandmother better? And in doing those things, I was able to realize that my family, and my toughness, and who I am, that’s still all intact, and that’s still all there, and I can just erase the famous part and stay in the story, and the truth of my family history, and who I am.
I hope people will hear that and know that I went inside on the record, and I want other people to maybe try to go inside too, instead of going out to try to find happiness, going in and going deeper. It’s really fulfilling. It really, really helped me.