On May 29th, the inimitable and larger-than-life artist, Lady Gaga, released her sixth studio album, the 16-track epic, dance-infused, Chromatica (selling 274,000 copies in the first week). The record, which hit number-one on the U.S. Billboard 200, as well as the top spot on more than a dozen other charts, displays Gaga’s knack for bridging deep ideas with pop sensibilities. Gaga has the uncanny, almost superhuman ability to produce a song that can fill up a sweaty dance floor at 3 am with heart-pounding sound (see the new single, “Rain on Me”) while at the same time, if you examine her verses, she will have your heart welling up with emotion.
When Lady Gaga hops on the telephone, she immediately asks how you’re doing. She’s one of the biggest stars in the world but she’s equally as selfless in her comportment and conversation. When the conversation concludes, she asks you about your weekend, what you and your partner are doing. She congratulates you on an important recent family event. Truly, it’s remarkable her consideration. She is Lady Gaga, after all. The artist with billions of streams, handfuls of awards and enough acclaim to power a space shuttle.
But accolades and adulation are byproducts of what she’s about. Lady Gaga cares about art, expression, getting to the source or root of a feeling and expressing that emotion fully, thoroughly and in a way the most people on earth can connect with it. She’s ambitious but supremely sensitive. And together, the two make for a righteous, if not fragile combination. We caught up with the artist to ask how Chromatica came to fruition, what it was like collaborating with the accomplished producer BloodPop, what it was like working with Sir Elton John and why she decided to open the sizzling LP with an orchestral movement.
How did you decide to open Chromatica with an orchestral composition?
That’s something me and BloodPop talked about a lot. I have to say, I deeply love and respect BloodPop so much. He’s such a dear friend, co-writer and producer to me. Just a tremendous human being. He said, “How do you feel about potentially doing some interstitials for the record?” I hadn’t thought of it yet but I love composing a more classical style of music. Violins, things like that. String arrangements, horn arrangements. I did a lot of that for A Star Is Born soundtrack. So, I was very excited.
[Musician] Morgan [Kibby] began working on some things [in the studio] and we sat down together. Because this record is so personal to me, I started one instrument at a time and wrote the parts with her. We listened to it grow more and more. We explored it and it became a story. Truthfully, those interstitials could not be written or composed, I should say, until the rest of the record had congealed and become what, I believe to be, is a very loving homage to classic dance music.
When you’re going to start a new record, is it a concerted beginning like planting your flag now? Or do you have dribs and drabs along the way that tell you when to begin?
You know, it’s always different. Sometimes it will begin with a sort of emotional change inside of me. Or a transition in my life that I find significant and I will discover myself at the piano at any given moment. Or discover myself in front of a journal or a typewriter or singing into a tape recorder. But with this record, in particular, I made a deliberate decision to explore my relationship with BloodPop and explore what he saw in me as an artist. Because I was in a very dark place and he could see the color. That is Chromatica. When I could not see color, BloodPop could. By the end of it, I could see all the colors, which is why in the “Stupid Love” video, there’s such a color story. Because out of the darkness came so much color, so much light. For me, color is the warmth. Color is the warm hug. Color is the way we should see things.
So, we just started working. We started discovering together by working. But it was challenging at first because I was wrestling with myself in a lot of ways. But I wanted to practice my skills and I wanted to practice my art. I found it uniquely interesting that if I put my mind and my heart to it – that moment at the piano when I would write a lyric or a melody or cord progression with Blood. He’d be sitting on the floor and I’d be at the piano or he’d be in the control room and I’d be at the piano and he’d be sitting there at his computer ready to go and I just remember thinking to myself, “Well, he loves me and I can say whatever I’m feeling. I can play whatever I’m feeling.”
And that was the journey and for a couple years. We worked together on and off and then he assembled with me the squad. That is, the team that would build the rest of Chromatica.
What is your studio ecosystem like? Are there a lot of producers around? Do you like a minimal team? What is the layout like?
Well, it depends what I am working on. For A Star Is Born, on any given day I could have been alone in the studio with Ben Rice or I would be in the studio with lots of people. I loved working with, of course, Bradley [Cooper] on the music for the film. For Chromatica, though, it really began with BloodPop. And some days I would be with just Ben in the studio. Ben records my vocals but I have to give him credit for being a producer in his own right. He’s incredible. He produced “Shallow” with me.
We mostly worked from the Frank Zappa studio. It has a full live room and a full control room. Beautiful, huge echo chambers that are 100-feet high and beautiful acoustics. We wrote, gosh, I’d say 50 songs, 100 songs, I don’t even know anymore. We wrote so many songs. And then I wanted to write, like, 20 more. I thought Blood was going to throw me off the porch [Laughs]. But he didn’t. He understood that I wanted to “rinse” the record. That’s what I say. I call it rinsing. It’s like rinsing the songwriting. I wanted to make sure there was nothing left inside me for this one.
Then, one day, Blood said to me, “Okay, it’s time to leave the studio.” And I think what he meant really to say was, “It’s time for you to leave these things that are hurting you behind. It’s time to let go of them. Let’s finish at Jim Henson studio.” We went there. And everyone came together and – listen, my only rules that I have with everyone is that we all have to collaborate with each other, everyone has to listen to everything, everyone has to work together, I don’t like egos. I like collaboration. And I like the art to come first.
This, to me, is the heart of Chromatica. It was the ability for an artistic collective to operate in service of one thing only. And that is spreading color and kindness to the world. And how to make it better. And if it’s not better, go back. If I added too much, reverse the car. If there isn’t enough there, we have to amplify. If the record’s not right, rewrite the record. If the melody is not sitting right, rewrite the melody. If the lyric’s not coming out of my mouth in the right way, rewrite the lyrics – it’s a consonant now and not a vowel. It’s the minutia and the art of poetry and creativity in music. We all came together and we celebrated it. It brought me back to life in so many ways.
What was it like to work with Elton John on “Sine from Above”?
Oh, Elton’s family. It’s wonderful working with Elton. He had started [the song] first and then he sent it over and I listened to it and I loved it and then I finished it and I sent I back and I said, “Do you like it, do you like it?” He loved it. We decided to record it and it became so special. I love that song more than anything. I remember when we were finishing it, I was hard – I pressed on all the guys to make it like almost speed-core at the end. Just this sonic explosion. It was because I wanted to – I wanted this song to have a range, where it began in a very organic, melodic way and then it ended in some sort of cacophony. A cacophony that I’m now comfortable with. I think, you know, when you go through hard things, it’s not necessarily about those hard things begin over for you to be okay. I think it’s about you being okay with the hard things. It’s building resilience. “Sine From About” is so much about resilience.
The song, “Fun Tonight,” on Chromatica has this great sticky vocal hook that goes, “I’m feelin’ the way that I’m feelin’, I’m feelin’ with you!” When you come up with a melody like that, what comes next?
We cheered! We screamed! We sang it, recorded it. I like to actually sing into the microphone almost the entire time that we’re writing. I don’t like to not record things just in case I forget. But I do have a theory that if you forget it, it’s crap and you shouldn’t record it! [Laughs] So, that song in particular – that song, oh gosh I love that song. It’s almost impossible for me to listen to it, though. I think it’s one of the saddest songs on the album. I think it might be the saddest song on the record. Because I’m really singing to myself.
I was kind of incapable at certain moments of being happy for other people when they were having fun. And I would sit with myself and think, “I don’t care how many people I see dancing or smiling right now. I cannot have fun.” Then after I wrote the record, I listened back to it and I said, “I’m singing to myself.” You know, I said, “I’m feeling the way that I’m feeling with you / I stare at the girl in the mirror / she talks to me too.” That girl’s me, right? Then I said, “I can see it in your eyes,” which means my eyes! “I can see it in your eyes, which are looking for alright / I’m just sick of acting like I’m having fun tonight. I can see it in your face.” That means my face. I can see it in my face – “You don’t think you pull your weight.” I mean, that’s just the truth. I was very hard on myself. I hope that when people listen to that song and they relate to it that they know shaming yourself for feeling down is not helpful. It happens but it’s not helpful.
Because you’re just kicking yourself when you’re already down. You wouldn’t do that to a friend would you? If they were sad, you wouldn’t say, “Oh, you suck for being sad!” Right? You would give them a hug. You would cheer them on. I think that our biggest enemies are ourselves. I say that in “911” – my biggest enemy is me. I say mean things to myself in my head all the time. And I have to turn away and I remind myself that’s a “me” voice in my head. But that’s not the real me. The real me would never say that to anyone else. So, why on earth am I saying it to myself?