M.I.A. steps from art underground to media spotlight
NEW YORK (Billboard) - During "Space," the dreamy future-shock ballad that closes her upcoming third album, M.I.A. repeatedly coos, "My lines are down/You can't call me," over a gently percolating beat that sounds like a Sega Genesis practicing its pillow talk. It's just one of the many observations on our data-drenched Infotainment Age that crop up throughout "/\/\ /\ Y /\," a more-or-less self-titled effort from the 34-year-old Sri Lankan native, born Maya Arulpragasam.
Yet in a recent telephone interview with Billboard, the lyric is taking on another, more literal meaning, as M.I.A. travels on a Eurostar train from Brussels to London during a hectic round of European promotion. Namely, her cell phone keeps dropping the call whenever her train enters a tunnel. When the line goes dead for the fourth time, it's tempting to wonder if M.I.A. has perhaps hung up on purpose.
After all, she'd just been asked about the massive attention paid to journalist Lynn Hirschberg's less-than-fawning cover profile of her in the New York Times Magazine in May, and to M.I.A.'s responses. Maybe she's tired of discussing the story's focus on her supposed radical chic: a comfortable, even posh personal life allegedly at odds with her firebrand art and politics. Maybe she's fed up with talking about why she tweeted Hirschberg's cell phone number, or later posted a covert recording of one of her and Hirschberg's conversations. Maybe she's sick of the term "Trufflegate" (so coined after Hirschberg made hay out of M.I.A. ordering truffle-oil-flavored French fries) and figures that simply avoiding the topic might help it die a speedy death.
But the fact is, M.I.A. is forthright in addressing the media cause celebre. Does she regret doing the Times story?
"Not really," she replies. "I kind of knew what it was going to be.
"I said, 'F--- the New York Times,'" she continues, referring to a series of tweets earlier this year in which she objected to the newspaper's coverage of the conflict in Sri Lanka between Sinhalese and Tamil factions. (Although M.I.A.'s mother moved herself and her children to London when M.I.A. was young, the artist's father remained in war-torn Sri Lanka, taking part in various Tamil opposition efforts.) "Of course they weren't going to be like, 'Hi! How you doing? We love you!'"
Whatever else it demonstrated, the Truffle Kerfuffle made it clear that at some point between the 2007 release of her second album, "Kala," and this spring, M.I.A. underwent an unlikely transformation from underground phenom to Very Big Deal.
TAKING A STAND
"She's trying to do politics and she's trying to do art," Los Angeles Times pop critic Ann Powers says. "And she doesn't want to compromise or keep silent. That worked for the Clash, but that was a certain time and a certain place. And it partly worked for them because they were a band, and we're used to seeing guys be confrontational. If it works for her, I think she's even more important than we thought."
"I always forget that she has this sort of celebrity side to her," says Rusko, one of M.I.A.'s principal collaborators on her new album. "On a Tuesday night me and (longtime M.I.A. producer) Switch can go down and lurk around at (Los Angeles nightspot) Cinespace, and it's pretty chill. Maya can't do that -- she's in that next realm now."
The shift is one she's still coming to grips with. "It's weird that I can make a joke and it becomes so controversial and people want to write about it," she says over the muffled squawk of a Eurostar conductor's announcement. "Some thing I say really flippantly gets this full-on rampage of stuff happening. It's amazing to me that people will do that."
M.I.A. has always had a high press profile, but in the past most of the attention was focused on her music, which between "Kala" and her 2005 debut, "Arular," has notched combined sales of more than 719,000 albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan. "Paper Planes," her breakthrough single off "Kala," reached No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, earned a 2009 Grammy Award nomination for record of the year and has sold 3 million copies. "In one way it's not their fault that they don't have music to write about," she says of the countless pop-culture pundits who've weighed in on Trufflegate, "because I haven't put a record out."
Until now, that is: Due July 13 in the United States on the singer's own N.E.E.T. Recordings imprint through Interscope, "/\/\ /\ Y /\" is sure to steer at least part of the conversation regarding M.I.A. back to her music. It's at once her most accessible and most experimental album, defined as much by the sweet synth-pop melodies of "XXXO" as by the juddering electro-punk beats of "Born Free."
"If you're an M.I.A. fan and you buy a new M.I.A. record," Rusko says, "you want to hear something you've never heard before. This record gives you that."
Work on the 12-track set took place mostly in Los Angeles, where M.I.A. settled in early 2009 with her fiance, Ben Bronfman (son of Warner Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr.) and their young son, Ikhyd. Her collaborators included many of the musicians M.I.A. has been partnering with for years, such as Diplo, Switch and Blaqstarr; Rusko, the latest addition to the crew, is signed to Diplo's label Mad Decent.
"We really don't have any kind of formula," Switch says. "All the records come around by watching something on YouTube and an idea comes, or by going out to the clubs or something. We basically just mess around till something makes us excited enough for her to jump on the mic. We'll have her run on the track for 10 or 15 minutes, then I'll come and edit the bits and bobs she likes together. Then we'll flip it, reverse it, turn it backward and build a song from there."
"Maya is very careful about who she works with," says Mark Williams, who signed M.I.A. to Interscope and worked in an A&R capacity on both "Kala" and "/\/\ /\ Y /\." (Williams is no longer with the label, but Interscope Geffen A&M Records chairman Jimmy Iovine asked him to assist M.I.A. on the new album.) "There's a comfort zone and a familiarity in the creative experience that she gets from working with Diplo and Switch. Even though there have been documented tensions at times" -- Diplo, a former boyfriend, made several seemingly critical remarks about M.I.A. in the New York Times Magazine piece -- "all sides agree that it's productive. They know where she's at, but at the same time they push each other."
"Kala" contained one track produced by Timbaland, and given her cool-kid cachet and the mainstream exposure she earned performing alongside Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and T.I. at the 2009 Grammy Awards, it seems reasonable to assume that M.I.A. could have landed collaborations with any number of high-profile beatmakers for "/\/\ /\ Y /\." The very notion elicits a sigh audible from Europe.
"I didn't want my work to be like a bar graph of, 'How many new producers can she afford?'" M.I.A. says. "That's not how I measured it." Retaining a connection to her first two albums was more important. "If you have all three, then it makes sense that they came from the same person. And I didn't want it to be like, 'Then she met blah-blah!'"
In any event, she adds, "the song that everybody liked off 'Kala' ("Paper Planes") wasn't made by one of those producers. So I don't know why we're constantly second-guessing that, because it's unpredictable -- especially with me. You have to be honest with your art and then hope for the best. I can have any producer on my album that's from that world, but it doesn't really mean anything. You're just going to get a diluted version of me."
BEST OF TIMES, WORST OF TIMES
"/\/\ /\ Y /\" certainly doesn't deliver a diluted version of M.I.A.; if anything, it emphasizes the contradictions at the heart of who she is, with lush love songs jostling against scrappy political rants. M.I.A. says she's not sure it's her responsibility as an artist to resolve those paradoxes. "That's what I was trying to work out: whether the future is something you level out or if you describe the extremes more."
As she was writing and recording, "it really seemed like my world was getting smaller and closing in around me at the same time that things were changing so fast. I couldn't keep up with it. It was the best year for me because my son was born and the worst year for me seeing so many Tamil people being killed. And then it was the best year for me because I found someone to settle down with, then the worst year because I couldn't leave (due to visa restrictions) and my mum couldn't come and see me. My album came out like that because that's how it was."
M.I.A. says touring will play a more prominent role in the "/\/\ /\ Y /\" campaign than it has for previous albums. "This time around I'm slightly more prepared," she says. "It just seems more solid. Last time, because I had visa issues, I didn't prepare myself enough."
She'll debut her new live show at a pair of festivals presented by Los Angeles-based Hard Events: Hard LA on July 17 and Hard NYC on July 24. "I've been trying to book her for one of my shows since I started doing this," Hard chief Gary Richards says. "She's definitely at the center of what's cool in our universe." Both concerts will also feature performances by two acts signed to N.E.E.T.: young Baltimore MC Rye Rye and New York noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells.
M.I.A. is also scheduled to play England's Big Chill and Underage festivals this summer, while an extensive North American tour is tentatively set to launch in September.
M.I.A. has plans to expand N.E.E.T. as well, from a record label into what she describes as "a creative collective" complete with photographers and visual artists. After Sleigh Bells' "Treats," which was released May 11, N.E.E.T. will issue Rye Rye's debut, "Go! Pop! Bang!," later this year. "M.I.A. was there with me every day from when I started recording my album to when I finished," Rye Rye says. "She was pregnant then, but each day she'd come to the studio to lay the direction and add sounds into songs."
If all of that seems like an overflowing workload, M.I.A. doesn't disagree. "It is difficult to juggle everything," she admits, her train approaching the Channel Tunnel. "But luckily we have the Internet, and I can stay connected and on top of it."
"She knows all of this is a massive undertaking, but this is who she's chosen to be," says M.I.A.'s publicist, Jennie Boddy, who's now managing her client's career as well. "It's just part of her makeup." Boddy laughs. "Who's the hardest-working person in show business? James Brown? Well, Maya might be gunning for his title."
(Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters)
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