Interview: M.I.A.

By , Jan 1 2009
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miamain

Having spent the last year travelling and recording around the world, this summer M.I.A returns with Kala, a remarkable new album that meshes together sounds and stories from India, Trinidad, Africa, Australia, America and London. “I always want to do things differently,” says 31-year-old Maya Arulpragasam.

Like its predecessor, 2005’s Arular, the new M.I.A album again draws on a broad sonic palette, featuring production from Switch, Diplo, Timbaland, Baltimore’s DJ Blaqstarr and the self-confessed “grafter” herself. You’ll have probably already heard ‘Bird Flu’, ‘XR2’ and new single ‘Boyz’, but none prepare you for just how wild and different the rest of the album is; Kala encompasses the Bollywood-disco of ‘Jimmy’ and futuristic B-more and rave-influenced cuts like ‘$20’ and the phenomenal, Blur-sampling ‘Paper Planes’.

Though you may have read otherwise, Kala is as politically charged as her previous output: tracks bristle with provocative and cleverly cut-up lyrics about immigration, war and life on the hustle as a first generation third-world kid. Named after her mother, Maya claims her new album, “is also about being a woman in the world and finding your own place within it”, and within the music industry in particular – without surrendering your integrity. Despite these weighty themes, it’s a lot of fun to listen to (for a full track by track review, scroll to the bottom of this page).

We talked about the making of her new LP, sleeping with cockroaches, working with Timbaland, mashing-up classical Indian string players with B-more beats and why “hip-hop is the new Rod Stewart”…

You’ve been in Jamaica recently filming the video for ‘Boyz’. Tell us more…

“The song calls out all the dance moves from Jamaica. I wanted to make a video with just boys in it, 100 boys…we wanted to flip-it, make something that didn’t have girls ‘shakin’ their booties’ for once. I had so much fun doing it, going to the dances and scouting the boys…I arrived in Jamaica at about 10’o’clock at night and by four in the morning I was at this Dutty Friday party, and Beenie Man was there (see picture, right). He took my song and put it on for like 45 minutes, just pulled it up again and again and again, and was screaming…all the dancers just went crazy, so we decided to have auditions the next day, and said ‘anybody who wants to come, come’.”

When did you first start recording the album?

“February 2006, in India. I was there for a couple of weeks…just me and my brother. I had none of my stuff, none of my demos, none of my equipment, nothing. Wherever I go, I build the set-up and the team from scratch, it takes a while to feel people out, to find things that work for me.”

Did you go to India to work with anyone in particular?

“I went there to meet this one producer called A.R. Rahman. He’s basically the Timbaland of India and he’s amazing…he’s a genius. But when I got there I met this other kid who I hired as a pro-tools operator, who brought me into the younger scene of India, kids who were up for new music, that wanted to drive the whole thing forward. In India you don’t have music charts, everything is so connected to the film industry. 99% of the outlet for music is in the movies. The only western music that the kids have to go on, that they try to replicate or imitate, what they think is cool, is like 10 years behind. They’re still living off jungle and stuff, and just about getting garage. So…when I was over there I started hanging out with them, and introduced them to Baltimore club and other stuff.”

Were you in Bombay at this time?

“No, I was in Chennai – it’s the centre of the Tamil film industry. I then met all the musicians – the drummers, the string players. Then I built the songs there – like ‘Bird Flu’, and a couple of others that I left off the album that’ll come out as bonus tracks.”

Did they know who you were in India?

“The big producers knew who I was…but a strings player from some village is not gonna know who I am.”

How did these classical musicians warm to your ideas?

“For ‘Bird Flu’ and ‘Boyz’ and some of the drums on ‘Hustle’, I had these drummers from this crazy traditional village, they play at temples and stuff…we had them come in – you’re talking, like, 25 guys in a room, and they’ve all got different pitches of drums. Initially I was just going for the sound. I thought, ‘let’s just get what they can play naturally and then fuck with it later’, because it was so difficult for them: I asked them to play a 4/4 beat and they just couldn’t. It took me two hours just to get “boom boom chat, ber boom boom chat, boom boom chat, ber boom boom chat” out of them, because they’re so used to free-styling and letting one beat drop into another beat into another beat.”

How long were you there?

“I went there for 2 or 3 weeks just to meet everybody. Then I went back there for 2 months to record.”

Have you played your mum the album?

“No…she hasn’t heard it yet. She’s just happy about it being called ‘Kala’ though.”

Why did you choose to name the album after her?

“Because I named the last one after my dad and I thought it was fair. And also…it was like a representation for me of where I was at right now. When I made Arular I was really, really out there in the world – not physically but mentally, I wanted to be dealing with issues and stuff that happen to you, and ideas that were bigger than my life at the time. And to try to talk about politics and issues that other people didn’t want to deal with. I knew that I was sticking my neck on the line, I knew that people were gonna give me a hard time for it. I knew I was gonna get in shit over my music, that was the whole point. I was like, ‘yeah, I’m gonna make this statement’, I’m gonna make songs that are confusing or that are ambiguous, or waging issues that other people don’t want to discuss in songs. Everything about it was new – how I made the album, the sound of it. I knew I was going out there on a limb. But on this one it was really about me coming to terms with all my life…all my life I grew up thinking that I didn’t want to end up in a situation how my mum ended up: being a single parent and having three children, and trying to bring them up with no money…the ambitious side of me comes from that, y’know. When I went into making the second album I really didn’t want to become really ambitious and courageous and stuff because I didn’t know how to be a ‘boss lady’ y’know…women who make music have to cross a certain line and it’s really difficult after a certain point. I was thinking about all these things and the situation for my mum is quite a common one for a lot of women, and that’s what I wanted to talk about when I first wanted to start writing this album – I wanted it to be about the state of someone like that, today. Does that make sense?

Yeah. Though when you actually listen to the album it sounds as political as ever, and global rather than personal, though maybe that is personal to you…

“I started off the album with those intentions, but this is what happened…for the first month I was in India and was surrounded by these Indian women, which I why I was thinking about it. Where we shot the ‘Bird Flu’ video…it was really close to the refugee camp where all the Sri Lankan’s get off the boat in India in the south, just outside Chennai. I went to this press office from 1986 or something, and found all these pictures of the refugees and stuff. I didn’t find pictures of us but I found pictures of my dad…it was weird to see that, and to go back there as a person who could have kind of whatever I wanted in India. I could stay in a nice place if I wanted to, I could stay in a shit place if I wanted to. I could get work done with whomever I wanted. I was meeting amazing musicians. I felt like I could have any job I wanted. But the last time I lived in India as a kid was totally different…it was the hardest part of my life, when we lived there for a year-and-a-half: people were dying of typhoid, we were drinking loads of contaminated water, we had no medicine, I had no hair and scabs all over my head. To go back there and dig out those photos was amazing. I wanted to talk about women and everything just because if everything I’m doing is just setting myself up to be this independent mum with three children then I wanted to work it out…then I had so many issues with my visa and stuff that the album just became more worldly – out of my life, not my mum’s, just where I was at, at this time. Just because I was going through all this political shit, the visa shit, and then having to travel…then I got to go to Africa.”

Tell us about the visa problems?

“I waited so long to get back into the U.S. to work with Timbaland and stuff…he waited for me for a long, long time. Fate dictated it the way it went…I made the whole album on such a whim, I had no access to any of my work…”

Before making this album you lived in America…

“Yeah, but I hadn’t spent any time there because I was on the road…I got an apartment but that’s all I did…I had my stuff there…I was on the road touring.”

You originally intend to get Timbaland to produce the album, right?

“Yeah. He came and met me last summer, but it was so difficult for me to co-ordinate anything from my side. In the end, I’d started recording drummers and music in India and then I went to Trinidad and Africa and the shape of my album was becoming something else. Eight months into me recording, I already had 10 songs. That’s when I got the (work) visa (to enter America). The week before I was with Liberian kids, trying to understand their culture, then I was in Virginia with my own personal chef in a 5-star hotel. It was so mad. I was with Timbaland, who I know is a legend, and I love him, and have always wanted to work with him…but by the time I got there I was just too far-gone in my own worldly sound.”

I don’t suppose there was much chance of getting Timbaland to fly to Africa?

“I tried, I was like ‘please, come to Africa. We’ll go to Angola and record it there. I’ll find you a house with a helicopter pad, you’ll be safe’. He was like ‘no, no, no…I’ll come to India.’ I was like ‘shit, I’ve been to India twice already…I ain’t going back there right now’.”

At which stage did Switch get involved?

“Dave met me in Trinidad first…so I already had certain drums and then strings and stuff that I’d recorded. We started putting stuff together there, ‘Boys’ came together there…’Hustle’, ‘World Town’, we had this other song called ‘Far Far’, and ‘Big Branch’, which aren’t on the album yet. We did most of the work in Trinidad.”


Why Trinidad?

“What I learnt from India was real traditional stuff…there’s a really strong sense of spirituality there that you can’t quite explain. Trinidad is the opposite – but it’s still a part of me…it’s full of modern crazy Indians who are mash-up with dancehall, waking up at seven in the morning, getting drunk. It’s like the new Indian culture mixed with Jamaican culture.”

One of the album tracks, ‘Down River’, features aboriginal kids rapping – tell us about your trip to Australia?

“It’s really weird when I did the Big Day Out Tour, in January (2006), we ended up meeting some aboriginal kids in Adelaide, so we took them to my show…and we made them watch The Stooges. I hung out with them all-day long. To me, there’s something about them that reminded me of Sri Lankan people…it was the first time I realised how difficult it is for aboriginal people in Australia. Even to get them into the Big Day Out after party, me and my brother practically had to get into a fight with people to get them in…just the amount of segregation between black and white Australia is really crazy. I met this guy called Morganics, who’s this white guy (hip-hop producer) who’s a social worker, and he originally made that track as a social work project that he set up in the bushes with these kids who come from a really hard part of Australia. I think two of boys are in now in a juvenile detention centre. It’s really difficult for certain groups in Australia…because I got to see them first hand, this sounded like the most perfect thing I’d ever heard and I really wanted to put it on the map.”

The boys on that record sound young…

“Yeah, they are. They recorded that song a few years ago, they sound a lot younger then than they would now all their voices have now broke…I wish I had time to go back to Australia and spend more time doing different things with the track. I wanted to make a video, a little film. But it’s a difficult thing to pull together because it’s un-chartered territory over there.”

Kids appear on various tracks on this album, singing choruses on several numbers, featuring on the video to ‘Bird Flu’, etc. Was that deliberate?

“Nah, they end up on it…it wasn’t deliberate at all. With every case, they were just ‘there’. Like Paulina, the girl on ‘Bird Flu’, she just playing outside when we were recording. I couldn’t keep her out of the studio. She turned up with all her cousins. She’s gonna be a star…kids just think they so know it all these days. It’s just really cute to hang out with them and find out what’s going on in their lives.”

One of your album tracks, ‘Hustle’, features Afrikan Boy – had you heard his track ‘One Day I Went to Lidl’?

“Yeah…I loved it. He’s like the thing that I’ve been talking about and always wanted to happen that wasn’t happening in London when I put out ‘Arular’; some other weird shit that’s not grime, the future of things. And I think he is the future of that sort of hood voice…it’s inner city London but also back in a shed in Africa, it’s a mash-up of those two things. There are so many modern groups of kids like that…it’s amazing that ‘Lidl’ even happened and he did it the way he did. I didn’t even know him then, but I thought ‘that’s a kid doing something different’.”

Is that what you’re always looking out for – something different?

“Yeah…I think that’s exactly what I meant, and that’s what I am. He’s still really pure at it, and I’m more visual than he is. He’s exactly what that thing is…I’m not talking about, ‘oh, I’m Sri Lankan, de der der der…’ it’s just first generation, coming from somewhere else, and trying to fit in, and being into music – without having to talk about only hip-hop urban issues.”

Like you, he wasn’t a part of a particular scene…

“Yeah, he’s not…he’s really different. And it’s amazing because he’s talking about ‘yeah, my mum and dad want me to be accountant…’ You’re never gonna hear grime kids say that, even on hip-hop records. But that is the reality. I totally get it. My mum said exactly the same thing…even if you’re dirt poor and have had the shittiest education, your mum still has the hopes and dreams that you’re gonna end up a doctor or accountant, it’s exactly the same for Nigerians and for Somalians. To be able to talk about immigration and stuff on a record, to be is so fresh – getting to hear about something you wouldn’t do otherwise. Shoplifting in Lidl is so spot-on…when Lidl happened to England, I think my mum nearly died of palpations, because it was her favourite shop. She was like, ‘oh mi god, this shop is amazing – it’s so cheap!’ Lidl is a refugee icon…ha ha.”

Another new track, ‘Jimmy’, is a Bollywood disco number, and definitely your most commercially appealing track yet…

“It’s a cover. My mum used to hire me out when I was a kid. During the war you couldn’t really buy shit in the shops. We used to go buy milk from our next-door neighbours. At that time, when we used to go to parties, I used to dance my head off. So people started hiring me out to be party buffer, my mum started doing that during the war. I used to get paid in food. ‘Jimmy’ was my track that I used to do my routine to. I had a little tape recorder, and a cloak and a cardboard cut out guitar, and that was my joint. If you go to a Sri Lankan party they put chairs all around the edges of the wall, it’s really crazy, and clear this space in the middle, but then they all sit in this square and eat, but nobody dances. I used to go in and put the tape recorder in the middle and do this dance routine and get everybody dancing.”

Did you tap into your childhood, and your memories of growing up, for inspiration for the rest of the album?

“The ideas of the other tracks are related to my life…with ‘Bamboo Banger’ that’s vaguely related because it has a chorus from a Tamil song, but only because I was around it a lot more. I knew it was a sound that I could bring across that no one else would. If I wasn’t making this music, and bringing across a Tamil chorus, I don’t really expect anyone else to. That’s why I felt brave enough to do stuff like that. But other tracks, like ‘Paper Planes’ is totally me being in Baltimore and working with Blaqstarr – it’s inspired by being in Baltimore, and everyone being on the grind, on the hustle.”

Kala sounds bigger, sonically at least, than Arular…

“I wasn’t consciously aiming for a bigger sound. If you take a piece of work, and you take it around the world, and you layer it with all your experiences and the experiences of people that come across it …if you live your work then hopefully it translates and people can pick up on it. You can a get way bigger sound in the studio if you pay a grand a minute and work in the hit factory. You could do that, and all producers in America do. But I’m proud that I made it room in India with cockroaches and stuff…”

How much of the album did you produce?

“A lot more than Arular…I think that’s also why lyrically I let it go anywhere, because my head was always more in the production this time. I think this album is a lot more contained than ‘Arular’. Before I was making music every day at home. Whereas with Kala I had ideas but went and recruited people to do it. I employed drummers rather than do it myself on a 505.”

Wasn’t that also because you had a bigger budget?

“Yeah…if you had $100,000 how would you spend it? I knew I was never gonna be able to do the things certain other artists do. But then I can create a whole new way of doing it. Which I think is way more interesting. I thought, ‘Fuck it – I’m gonna go ‘round the world, and put people on the map that had never seen a map, and put sounds out there that people wouldn’t hear otherwise’. If people hate my album now that’s fine, ‘cause when they put it on in 20 years time they might get it.”

Are you more confident as a singer now?

“No, not really. But I’m definitely more confident as an artist.”

Were there any other collaborations that didn’t make it onto the LP?

“Yeah, a track I was working on with thee Six Mafia didn’t make it…and one with Dangerhands, and Samir Debonair. Loads of things didn’t happen because I was having visa issues, but they’ll probably work out in the future.”

The music industry still has narrow parameters for women to operate in…do you think that’s changing?

“I was saying to my friend the other day, I really feel like I’m in the post-Interscope era. And they said, ‘yeah, that’s why they signed you…they knew that was gonna happen.’ I had the option to have all of that shit, they offered me that female role – I could’ve been rolling in a Bentley looking glamorous. But I just couldn’t, ‘cos there’s just not many people going to be tough enough to stick their head out. Even if it’s wrong or right, the point is you’ve just knocked down a couple of extra walls and made something else happen. There’s got to be something in being true to yourself.”

Do you think the UK’s flirtation with global sounds is a fad or the beginning of a more long-term dialogue?

“I think it’s gonna be long term, though it depends on how the West contain it, ‘cause they have the power to do so. The media can portray cultures as segregated, but culture is becoming more global. There’s just so much going on amongst the other 5 billion people on the planet that’s not discussed. Like…in Angola, in Kudoro music, they have mute rappers, who are totally in rhythm and key, but they’re mute. When I went to Timbaland that’s what I was playing him, I was like, ‘this shit is happening in Angola – they don’t give a fuck about well produced Timbaland or Pharrell tracks that are made for like a million dollars’. It’s that progressive in the ghetto in Africa. These kids have got AK47s and running around having to defend themselves against rebel groups, and then they come into the studio and make shit like this – that reflects the chaos of their life. To me, you have to allow for all those experiences. If you go to Africa, in every nook and cranny, all you get is 50 Cent, 24/7. Kids are wearing 50 Cent T-shits, and trying to sound like that…if their access to music from the West is the same as ours then why can’t we flip it now and again and have access to what they’re doing and what they’re listening to?”

Do you think that most American hip-hop has lost that raw edge?

“Yep, because it’s a business. When I first moved to Brooklyn I spent a day looking for apartments. Before I’d even secured one, on that day I met every kid selling me beats…I ended up in six different houses. Kids were dealing beats instead of drugs. People had so much advice, and gave me so many lectures about how much of a grind it was, and how much of a business it is. Loads of people, especially rappers and producers, that I’ve worked it say to me, ‘Maya make sure two things don’t happen to you: 1. You fall in the love 2. You have babies: because that fucks up the game’. It’s just so industrial. I was like, ‘wow, you guys have really turned this shit into a proper business’. And when I met all these people giving me beats, the random kids were business kids. It’s not creativity coming out of necessity but business coming out of necessity. That’s what hip-hop was becoming. When hip-hop came out, white people were the ones rolling in big cars, with ladies and panthers on a leash…it was like Rod Stewart or whatever. Then the pendulum swings to some kid in the hood, wearing shorts stood next to a speaker by the lamppost, making music. Now hip-hop is Rod Stewart. The pendulum isn’t now gonna swing back to some kid on the street by the speaker in America, it’s gonna swing to somewhere in Africa, or China. Because that’s what we haven’t heard yet.”

Much like Arular, your new album is politicised, but this time around you have to listen more carefully to the lyrics to hear it…

“I know…that’s the weirdest thing. I know that about my record, and kinda know that about me…’cos it’s like that with my artwork and everything that I’m doing, that I’ve decided that that’s what I am. Everything exists in layers, culturally, visually, information wise, it’s just one big layering process. I couldn’t get away from that. Every song is like that. It’s not like I recorded one song in India, and one song here, and one song there. That could’ve been a really contrived, and probably quite easy, way of doing it. I wish I could’ve stuck to it. But it didn’t end up like that; every song has been made in every single country. It’s got New York, Virginia, Baltimore, America and England, but at the same time those songs were also worked in India and Trinidad and Africa. It’s like one big marble cake that you cut and slice.”

Do you think people are more willing to embrace a political record now than they were a few years ago?

“It doesn’t matter…the thing is, you have to reflect your life. I have to be true to that – I can’t take certain things away. I do have a political background. I’m only in England, learning this language and building a life in this society, because of political reasons. Why would I deny that? I don’t think this album is as political as ‘Arular’, but that’s because I decided that me even having a chance, round two, and being able to make music and being able to be who I am, is political enough. The fact that I can mash-up my auntie in a hut in Sri Lanka with Timbaland and then be in a flat with Lil Jon watching Spiderman 3 is political enough for me…I’m kinda happy to quit there.”

Sean Bidder

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