Published Aug 21, 2007Cam Lindsay had the pleasure to speak with M.I.A. from her pad in London to discuss the trials and tribulations of recording her new album, Kala.
So where are you at the moment?
Im in London.
Im calling from Toronto.
I was nearly going to move to Canada. I was going to do some gigs in Canada along the border, because I couldnt get into the U.S. to do gigs. I was thinking Id just move to Toronto and play shows in Niagara Falls.
Are you serious about that?
Well, I think Im getting a [U.S.] visa now, but I will be coming to Canada next month.
Wed love to have you here.
I do have family there in Canada, so
You played one of your first gigs here in Toronto, at the Drake Hotel, which I was lucky to see.
Aww, when I was a wee, teeny musician! That was my first gig ever! Like ever. Once I did two songs at a party, but the Toronto show was my first gig ever.
So, I finally got to hear the new album today
Well, I loved it, obviously. And Im not just saying that because Im talking to you right this second.
What else are you gonna tell me? Yknow what I mean! Go on
It didnt take long to hit me that its a pretty different listen from Arular. Were you looking to change your sound intentionally or were you just naturally progressing?
I kind of just lived day by day because there was no point in me making plans things never happen like that. I think the sound of it and the nature of the album grew out of me not being able to get back home, yknow? When I did that Toronto show at the Drake, I moved out of my apartment in London and started touring, and then I didnt go home for like another year and half or something. So, I packed all of my stuff in London and shipped it to New York and then went on the road. By the time I got off and tried to get back into Brooklyn where all of my stuff was, I couldnt get in. So, it was literally me having to do a 360 and go, "Okay, start life from scratch.
So you became a nomad?
I did become more nomadic than the sound that Arular had; the sound, the ideas, the philosophy, what I was trying to communicate on Arular I actually physically became by the end of it, which was kind of weird because it was something I was before I wrote Arular. The lines between life imitating art and art imitating life were blurred as hell to me at that point.
Kala is still very much a global record. Was all of that travelling that you did because you couldnt get into Brooklyn? What took you to places like the Caribbean and Asia?
Yeah, I really just wanted to go and kill time. Initially I was really angry about all of that and I didnt want to stay in London and make the record because most of Arular was made in London in a bedroom, yknow. But it was my personality and my life before that that dictated what I was talking about. On this one the sound is a bit dabbling. I went to revisit all of these places that were familiar to me, like in India I went back to the village I lived in when I was six years old. "Jimmy is a song that I used to do dance routines to at parties and stuff, to earn money when I was six. And I kept getting denied the visa, so Id go back to London and ask, "Can I get in now? and theyd say, "No. So, I chose to go to another place, then go back to London and ask, "Can I get in now? and theyd say, "No. And so on. By the end of it, by the time I got in, and I was let in for a month, I already had eight or nine songs that Id made from everywhere else.
Was it the music from those places or the people and surroundings that inspired you?
I went to different places for different reasons. The reason why I went back to Chennai [India], other than the fact that I lived there when I was younger, was this sound that you could get from there. I wanted to draw certain aspects from Indian music that people hadnt heard before. Like it wasnt in Bollywood songs or Bhangra music, so I went to all of the old Tamil folk music that I knew from having lived in Sri Lanka for ten years and I used to wake up to it every morning because the temples used to play the drums. So I went and drew from what I knew, I wanted to go and record temple drums because when I was a kid it was the sound that I heard every day, and it is kind of what gave me the sense of rhythm.
You worked with various producers for the record, so did they travel with you or did you just come back with ideas and work them out in the studio?
I took Switch everywhere with me he did the majority of the album along with me. For Timbaland I went to him, and the same with Blaqstarr, obviously, because hes never left Baltimore
Did he produce "Bamboo Banga?
No, that was me and Switch. Blaqstarr did "The Turn and this other track called "What I Got, which isnt on there. I think its on the bonus LP on Japan.
The reason why I asked was because "Bamboo Banga sounds a little inspired by Baltimore club?
Do you think so? I think its really house-y. The idea came from bamboo stick dancing. We were trying to see if we could make a beat from the idea that if you had a bunch of people playing the sticks on the floor, so we have the "dun-dun-ja-ja, "dun-dun-ja-ja, "dun-dun-ja-ja, and then Dave had this house beat going at the same time. And then when we matched my stick beat with his house beat we came up with "Bamboo Banga.
Okay, keep in mind that Ive only heard the album once, so that thought could change for me I had to go over to your labels office to hear it. There is high security on your record!
I know there is. I dont even think Ive heard it.
So I guess Im one up on you then.
Yeah, I guess I dont even know what songs youre talking about then. [Laughs.]
To my ears, Kala feels like a real club record. Was that on your mind when you were writing it? Were you doing a lot of clubbing at the time?
[Laughs.] In those places? No.
Yeah, I guess not!
Its interesting because when I recorded with Blaqstarr, hes the "clubbiest person on that record. But when I went there I made the only ballad on the record, yknow? I went into the Baltimore club lab and came out with a ballad, and I was like, "I think the albums on the right track. So I didnt really know what I was going to end up with. It was very interesting, because when Blaqstarr records he has to have the heat up to 200 degrees, so I was sweating like hell. And you have to sit in the dark because he has to make the room feel like a club, so its all sweaty and dingy. He puts the music up really loud, its just crazy. Thats as close as I came to it being in a club.
What can you tell me about Afrikan Boy and the Wilcannia Mob? Theyre relative unknowns.
Afrikan Boy is a kid from Nigeria whos living in London right now. Hes the first MC that I heard that sounded like a new tribe of MCs coming from the city. I thought he had what it took to throw something out there that was different. The first song I heard from him was called "One Day I Went to Lidl and Lidl is the cheapest, ghetto immigrant supermarket, and its about him shoplifting there. I was really amused by it because its my mums favourite shop, Lidl, and its not a good look to be shopping there. It seemed like he was really comfortable expressing himself as a real immigrant; hes humorous and from a different place than just a grime MC.
The Wilcannia Mob had that song ["Mango Pickle Down River] out a couple years ago. It was done as a social outreach project where this guy Morganics approached these aboriginal kids and he just helps kids learn how to make music. I really liked the song, so I decided to put it on the album. Originally I was gonna put it on the mix-tape, but people love it so much that it ended up on the album. I just love it because you never, ever hear the aboriginal voice on a record.
When I went to your labels office, one of the execs told me he played Kala for a 12-year-old boy who said it was the greatest thing he ever heard
Im wondering, do you have an ambition to reach younger audiences like that boy?
Hmm I just dont know what youd achieve by being a pop star today. I dont know what a pop star is in the purest sense. I think it doesnt exist anymore. Im not really sure what it is, especially for a woman its difficult because its so determined what a female pop star is. It doesnt matter what kind of a twist you have on it. If you become a pop star, really, what are you gonna be?
How about Gwen Stefani? You toured with her, so how do you rate her as a pop star?
I mean yeah, shes a pop star but I think Im driven by different things, which I can get to in different ways. I wouldnt just do it for the sake of becoming famous; you have to have something good in your music if youre gonna share it with that many people.
Its really weird. At the moment Im just working shit out for myself. Im just happy that its something that I can play in a club; that when I get a chance to talk to you, I can say, "Look, I dont know if theres a lot going on in being a frickin pop star. Know what I mean? I want to figure it out. Honestly, what could I possibly get from that? Where Im coming from? Its not really about fame. I think I bypassed that thought a long time ago. There are things that come with that which you cant control.
So you dont consider the level of notoriety you reached with Arular as any kind of fame?
I dont consider that as pop stardom because I still have stupid issues like immigration and shit, which is what is really interesting. Its like, I put out a piece of work like I did, in the space of one year in my life, and its cause and effect. You say stuff and you suffer the consequences. Its just an experiment. Like on this album its not really voicing my political opinion; on this one Im more political because it was me saying, "Okay, youre not going to let me in to access my work, access my belongings, my ideas, my scrapbooks, my notebooks, my gear I dont have access to my pictures, my clothes, nothing. I have one suitcase that I packed for one week because I thought I was coming to London to renew my visa and now I cant get back in. And Ive been on the road touring for a year and a half My head was in a really weird place, and all I wanted to do was go home, have a bath in the same bathtub for five days in a row because I hadnt experienced that. So I felt really angry, straight away, but then I thought Im actually not that angry because Im not committed or attached to my things and thats the whole point: Im not even attached to music. If this is going to stop me from making music then fine, Ill do something else. But I did carry on doing music because at the same time I felt people doubted whether I was musical or not, and whether it was a bunch of boys around me making all of this music and I was just a puppet. And so as a girl I thought, "Wow, Im totally alone. I have nobody in my band, I have no boys around me supporting me about what I have going on in my personal life. I cant get into my house. And I have no one around me to be the cushion for that fall. I was just out there, feeling like I was freefalling into the world. That really is what the sound of Kala is: feeling like a total outsider. I just am being made to be this hard girl, whether I like it or not. It would be amazing to just bounce around in flowery dresses and think about unicorns but I just cant because Im a fucking threat to homeland security and Im in Liberia, and Im working with 30 temple drummers in India, and trying to communicate. And theyve never had a woman talk to them or tell them what to do especially when it came to music. So it was just real problems like that which I was dealing with.
Youve said that this one is your feminine album, and that the first one was your masculine album. As well, this ones dedicated to your mother. Was that a reaction from how you have to prove yourself?
No, I think it was just interesting to be somebody that tested that idea out. I felt like on the one hand it was, "Here she is, this tough girl rapping about politics, all the things people said. But it wasnt like that. I felt that as a person Ive always been about survival. Thats all my work has ever been about. Ive always just needed to survive, but Ive never had any wants; Ive never had the luxury to think about what I want if I had stopped. So when it came to the point where I got a record deal and I was this "cool chick who was coming out hard, I just thought Id really like to take some time to deal with how Ive been for all of these years. Ever since I was a little kid it was like I had to swim and swim and just not drown. And I think when I got to a safer place then I turn around and what I had on my plate was a lot of choices. And thats what Arular brought me, and the record gave me choices that my mum didnt have, and thats really what set me apart. So I think as a woman I just thought my mum never had any of this stuff and I really respect what she did: she sacrificed her life to save three children, and it really was about survival and putting food on the table by working at the supermarket. My dad was out there doing "big idea stuff like saving the planet, and I think I needed to put myself through both of those experiences. And to me, on this one, realistically I thought I was facing the fact that I have all of these opportunities to become whatever I want, and at the same time men are really intimidated by that. Its not very common, what I am.
That side wasnt very obvious to me.
I just find it very confusing its not that I talk about these things in my work, but as a person thats what Im going through. Im here; I came from like a mud hut and it came to a point where I was sitting in Beverly Hills with Timbaland, Lil Jon and Pharrell sitting at a table in Jimmys [Iovine] house, and Ive got that opportunity - I can do whatever I want with it. It just felt like a surreal thing that I did in 15 years, learning the language, and then that really is what I wanted to achieve, dyou know what I mean? And I was like, "I dont know where I want to go from here. That was it. And then I turn around and the role that I have in music, it was a really hard one because Im not scared of shit, and I just wanted to deliver that in the best possible way. Yeah. I dont know if you understand that.
I feel like this album is a lot harder than Arular, and its darker and I think it is bigger. And I wanted to start it off by taking the piss because loads of people were thinking, "Its obvious shes going to go to America and become a pop star, and make a bigger, better, faster selling record. But there is no bigger, better, faster way of doing politics. There is no bigger, better way of talking about the shit that I talk about because all of the shit that I talk about is real life shit. And either you live it or you dont , and on this album thats all it is: I lived this album. Wherever it takes me, whatever happens. Loads of things went on, and I had the strength to keep going because I knew that I had something that my mum didnt have an opportunity. And I think thats why its more feminine.
Can we talk about something else?
Okay, how about I end with asking you about working with Three 6 Mafia. Did that end up happening?
Yes, but its not on the record though. I think I just caught them at the wrong moment. They had already moved to Beverly Hills, and were doing their show on MTV, or working with Paris Hilton. It was really not for me by the time I got there. Theyre amazing though, the funniest people that Ive ever met.