M.I.A.’s Outsider Art

M.I.A.’s Outsider Art
Over the phone from London, England, M.I.A. seems a little bowled over by the realisation that her globetrotting life became a mirror image of her debut album. "The sound, the ideas, the philosophy, what I was trying to communicate on Arular I actually physically became by the end of it,” she explains. "The lines between life imitating art and art imitating life were blurred as hell to me at that point.”

A London-born Sri Lankan Tamil, Mathangi "Maya” Arulpragasam’s breakthrough Arular was a global soundclash that laid school yard rhyming and political radicalism onto a skittering bed of electro, hip-hop dancehall, grime and baile funk. The album’s multiculturalism suggested it was a product of travelling, but according to M.I.A., "most of Arular was made in London in a bedroom.”

In making her much-anticipated second album, Kala, M.I.A. switched environments to shape her richly diversified sound. From Liberia to India and Trinidad to Baltimore (as well at her homes in Brooklyn and London), the album tells many stories through vivid blasts like the sub-bass and didgeridoo-assisted "Mango Pickle Down River” (featuring rhymes by the adolescent Aussie crew the Wilcannia Mob) and the storm of Indian temple drums on lead single "Boyz.” For M.I.A., it was both a way of venting her frustrations and finding a new sound. Although she’s no stranger to travelling, trekking the world wasn’t her original plan for this album. After moving to Brooklyn while she was on the road, upon returning she was refused entry to the U.S. for reasons still unknown. "I think the sound of Kala and the nature of the album grew out of me not being able to get back home. I kept getting denied the visa, so I chose to go to another place, 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 I’d made from everywhere else.”

Kala unfolds like an international smorgasbord; each song is the product of its birthplace, with a wide range of flavours. "On this one the sound is a bit dabbling,” she explains. "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. I wanted to draw certain aspects from Indian music that people hadn’t heard before. 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.”

Along with co-producer/travelling companion Switch, M.I.A. put her ear into her surroundings and came up with an array of new sounds, like bamboo stick house beats. "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. And then when we matched my stick beat with his house beat we came up with ‘Bamboo Banga.’”

The 30-year-old’s nomadic life produced the sound of the album, but as far as its theme goes, Kala stands in philosophical contrast to her debut. Named and inspired by her mother, Kala juxtaposes the masculinity of Arular, which she has admitted was heavily inspired by her father Arul, a militant in the Tamil Tigers. "As a woman I just really respect what my mum did: she sacrificed her life to save three children, and it really was about 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.”

Using her mother as a muse helped her realise that she has unprecedented opportunities. "Arular brought me choices that my mum didn’t have, and that’s really what set me apart,” she acknowledges. But at the same time, M.I.A. still feels it’s a game of survival. "I felt that as a person I’ve always been about survival. That’s all my work has ever been about. So when I got a record deal and I was this ‘cool chick’ who was coming out hard, I just thought I’d really like to take some time to deal with how I’ve been for all of these years.”

Being the "cool chick” she’s often portrayed as also contributed to another challenge: becoming more than just a "female” artist. Just recently she defended her accomplishments to popular music site Pitchfork, whom she feels often portray her as a product of male producers. "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,” she says. "And so as a girl I thought, ‘Wow, I’m 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.”

Kala is her opportunity to set the record straight. While names like Switch, Diplo, Timbaland and Blaqstarr all contribute, this is M.I.A.’s moment to prove herself as both a gifted artist and producer absent any gender issues. "On this one, realistically I thought I was facing the fact that I have all of these opportunities to become whatever I want,” she explains. "And at the same time men are really intimidated by that. It’s not very common, what I am.”

Truer words have never been spoken — M.I.A. is far from common. So much so that while attempting to incorporate a Baltimore club banger into her record, bass-rumbling producer extraordinaire Blaqstarr changed lanes completely. "It’s interesting because he’s the ‘clubbiest’ person on that record, and when I went there I made the only ballad on the record. I went into the Baltimore club lab and came out with a ballad.”

To M.I.A. the sound of Kala is "feeling like a total outsider.” She recognises where she lies in the industry, but seems determined to change it. Summing up her experience with this record, she indicates, "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 can’t because I’m a fucking threat to homeland security and I’m in Liberia, and I’m working with 30 temple drummers in India who’ve never had a woman talk to them or tell them what to do especially when it came to music. So it was real problems like that I was dealing with.”

Click here to read the entire transcript of Cam Lindsay's interview with M.I.A.