Pop music's most vocal star traded drizzly London for the Golden State to record her latest album. She met The Red Bulletin to talk about Texan rave, motherhood and whether it's time to consider herself a musician.
Eric Stenman, a polite, bespectacled studio technician, sits calmly at the mixing desk in the main production room of Red Bull Studios in Los Angeles. Staring through the glass pane into the large empty recording space, you suspend your disbelief, he could be at the bridge of a starship looking out into the unknown. It's a place full of quiet potential. Screens glow, the odd digital console hums into life then dies back down. We sip coffee. We wait…
"Not many new studios of this caliber are being built because of the economic challenges the record industry faces," he explains. "If it was here just to make money it'd be kind of a losing battle. A lot of younger bands would never be able to afford this. It's a very modern facility that Red Bull uses to try and help people out early on…"
He's suddenly interrupted.
"…it's the goblin's belly!"
An unmistakably rowdy South London accent bursts the silence as M.I.A. and her assistant clatter through the double doors laughing over a totally unrelated conversation. Realizing they have company, she turns and extends a hand.
"Hello, I'm M.I.A."
Prior to that entrance, for a recording studio the silence was almost deafening. We sit among muted blue walls and brown leather couches in a windowless air-conditioned room. Outside, only a few feet, yet a world away, the mid-morning Los Angeles sun shimmers off billions of smog particles that both smother and illuminate the city like microscopic confetti.
From the outside, the multi-million dollar complex looks unremarkable enough -- part of an office building in a nondescript parking lot. Cars rush by on the freeway into Santa Monica, a beachside tapestry of stately art-deco cut together with 7-Elevens and shabby Mexican restaurants. Art-taco? Nearly. In Los Angeles, you can find your American hero on the walk of fame, but the subway train to Hollywood Boulevard speaks Spanish. yet this dusty frontier town pulls in talented outcasts like a sponge, somehow triumphantly succeeding in being the entertainment capital of the world.
Maya Arulpragasm, better known as M.I.A., is one of those outcasts. Dressed demurely today in black trousers and black shirt, the only hint of the riotous get up she's well-known for is a pair of oversized gold earrings and some white heels, which on anyone else, might look a bit lame.
"I'm only gonna buy clothes from Wal-Mart from now on," she says, taking a seat, "I'm rebelling against the rebellion, against the Lady Gagas. I'm gonna look so boring, but I'm appropriating it. Making it mine."
She smiles, like she's daring someone to call her out on it. But it's exactly the kind of about-face that fans should be used to.
Over the past five years, M.I.A. has developed from an abrasive outsider into an individual force at pop music's high table. Phrases like risk-taker and maverick are thrown about all too regularly these days. We all know Britney goes crazy sometimes and Lady Gaga's tabloid shtick can have construction workers choking on their sandwiches. But do those stars ever say anything that sticks in the throat past lunchtime? M.I.A. does, not only through her expansive musical vision, but purely by who she is.
Case in point, 'Born Free,' the dark and disturbing riot of a video that went viral after its May release and had nervous office workers around the world prematurely shutting their YouTube windows. The video was the first off her new album, the quixotically named /\/\/\Y/\, due to drop mid-July. It will the London-born, Sri-Lankan raised singer's third, following 2005's Arular and 2007's Kala. Both were defined by cut'n'paste mutated dance music that have borrowed and liberally pilfered musical styles from all over the world. It's mash-up party music created with fierce artistry.
You could describe it as an anything-goes sound, but that wouldn't account for the discerning taste and strict temperament of this former student of Central St. Martin's College of Art and Design in London. Along with regular musical collaborators Wes 'Diplo' Pentz and Dave 'Switch' Taylor, she's brought underexposed genres such as traditional Tamil music of her homeland and performers such as The Wilcannia Mob, a group of five Australian Aboriginals to the mainstream, all the time underpinned by the avant-garde dance and hip-hop music that unites her sound.
"I came from a visual background. The first two albums came around because I wanted a challenge myself and work with what I felt weakest at," says M.I.A. who, before music, was an accomplished artist whose provocative designs earned a nomination for the alternative Turner Prize in 2002.
"At the time Bush was in power, you couldn't say what you wanted to say. The mainstream was like super…no, hypersafe and boring. I was desperate for something else…like…"
She pauses, as if she's in deep thought. It's an unnerving trait. But normally something arrives on the other side so simple and fully formed that you wonder why you never saw it coming.
Download the special-edition June 2010 issue of The Red Bulletin to read the full M.I.A. feature and check out this month's issue featuring Clint Eastwood. M.I.A. will also be on the Hard Fest Tour poppin' off next week July 17.