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Author Podcast: Lucy O'Brien

abstract:It is always a delight to speak with authors in the UK. BookBuffet caught up with Lucy O'Brien, who hails from London. Lucy is the author of several female rock biographies and female rock historical bestsellers. Her latest is the groundbreaking biography of pop icon Madonna. The Material Girl turns fifty in 2008 and in anticipation, Lucy has produced a thorough, sensitive, and illuminating treatise that will help demystify the woman who has made history as the most successful female singer to date.


December 12, 2007
— &tag&creative

Author Interview: Lucy O'Brien

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Read Along with the Transcript

PART I:Growing up and playing in a Punk band

PART II:A career writing about female rock personalities

PART III:Capturing Madonna: the most popular female pop star in history

PART I: BB: This is Paula Shackleton Podcasting for Today I am speaking with acclaimed music critic, academic, and bestselling author Lucy O’Brien, who joins us from her home in London. Lucy has a new ground-breaking biography on Madonna called Madonna: Like an Icon, published by Harper Collins. To order in the UK, click here.

Lucy, I was looking for a picture of you on the web to include with our feature article and flipping to the back book jacket flap of Madonna: Like an Icon where your photo is — I have to say it is not what I expected! You’re a classic English beauty and, ye gads, no nose rings, no visible tattoos or spiky Goth hairdo?

LO: [laughs] Why, thank you, that's a really nice thing for you to say.

BB: Let’s talk about your upbringing and evolution into writing about the music industry. I’ve read that that you grew up in Southhampton, England, and attended convent school where you started your own all-female punk band called The Catholic Girls, which your parents apparently forced you to quit in order to focus on your "A" levels for University. You became the school newspaper editor at Leeds University [which interestingly is where J.R.R. Tolkien was faculty 1920-25 and Mark Knopfler graduated in English '76] and went on to write for The Guardian and The Independent, and music magazines MOJO and Q Magazine. How do you go from being a rebellious feminist punk rocker to where you are today?

LO: I just want to say that there's a little bit of inaccurate information on Wikipedia, because I left the band of my own accord to go to Leeds University. I loved making music, but at the same time I wanted to get on and write and I just combined the things I was interested in — music and feminism. I was the music editor for the Leeds University newspaper and ended up writing for New Musical Express (NME).

BB: Your first bestselling biography was of the British soul legend Dusty Springfield, published by Sidgwick and Jackson in 1989, and then you followed that with your biography Annie Lennox: Sweet Dreams Are Made of This, published by St. Martin's Press in 1993, and now you're an established rockumentary commentator. Can you tell us how you approach the work, how you capture the artist — not just the musical process but their relative contributions to the industry, their lives, how you tie all the details together?

LO: With each book I start first of all with the music. I only write about people that I find very compelling, that I can't get out of my head . . . With Madonna, at the very beginning I called her a "pop bimbo," but then she got more and more interesting as time went on. In Desperately Seeking Susan it struck me that she was more sub-culture than I'd realized. She's a "woman-identified woman" with a strong feminist message, and that's what I was interested in.

I wanted to first and foremost get a sense of Madonna as a woman, as a flesh-and-blood person, because too often she's written about as if she's an enigma that's just an image. But she has motivations and ways of doing things, and I wanted to find out how she actually made her music, how she got her live shows together, who she collaborated with and how she collaborated with them — how much of it was her ideas and how much other people's ideas. I talked to musicians, dancers, choreographers that she's worked with over the years.

I like to do quite long interviews and get people to open up. People were really quite candid about her, and I think they liked the approach I was taking, really wanting to go into her motivations as an artist. Too often, in Madonna's case, people have been more interested in her sex life or the more sensational aspects of her personal life, and a lot of people were suspicious about that, so it was very important to get people's trust and let them know I wasn't trying to do a "kiss and tell" type of biography.

BB:I’ve been telling people about your book and some ask, “Is it an approved biography?” What should I say?

LO: It's a fine balancing act. I had a very positive meeting with Liz Rosenberg, who was her press person at Warner in New York; I outlined my approach to the book and I think in principle she liked the approach I was taking.

From that I thought about whether to get Madonna to endorse or authorize the book. But then I thought, this is my book — it's not an autobiography, it's my thoughts and I've already written in some detail on other women artists, and I felt I wanted to carry on and be able to be objective and present my point of view in a respectful and compassionate way — but my view nonetheless.

What was interesting, though, was that I didn't feel that there were doors shut in my face and I did manage to get to quite a few different prople and talk to a lot of people who were fairly open. So the answer to the question "Is it authorized?" is no, not authorized, but at the same time not the "kiss and tell" unauthorized bio.

BB: The material girl turns fifty next year, a milestone that causes anyone to pause and take stock of one's accomplishments and stumbling points with a view to the future. So your book comes at a perfect time to reflect on her life and how she has shaped pop culture. Your book is divided into three sections: Book One: Baptism, Book Two: Confession, and Book Three: Absolution. Give us a brief synopsis of these if you will – a sort of fast forward through the book. I want to talk about the transformative – some say chamelion like nature of Madonna and how that has contributed to her mystery and success, but it would be best to start by talking about Madonna’s childhood and formative years — I was so fascinated by this.

LO: The first part was her early childhood, her time in New York, her dance degree. The middle part, as you might have guessed, is from Like a Prayer onwards where she's become a global superstar. She's done a sex book, and it's almost like she's hit a brick wall — personally, and in terms of her career.

In Book Three I called the sex chapter "Fallen Angel" because it's almost as if she pushed it too far and she had to repent in a sort of Catholic philosophy way. Then she pulled back and calmed down, she became a mother, and in lots of ways I think we've forgiven her.

BB: It would be good to begin with her formative years: born in 1958, daughter of an Italian-immigrant father and French-Canadian immigrant mother, both very strong Catholics. Can you talk about her early years and the death of her mother and how you think it has affected her?

LO: Her mother died when Madonna was five, and I think she felt that intense abandonment and her father was working long hours. She was the oldest girl in a family of 8 children, her father married again, and she didn't get on with her stepmom. So I think that life was really quite bleak and not particularly joyful.

It wasn't surprising that she looked to Hollywood and music and the stage — it was like there was an enormous gap in her life, and I think she discovered for herself that adulation and fame was one way to fill that gap. But, unfortunately, it's a bit of a bottomless pit, something she was trying to fill for the rest of her life, but I think that's what drove her, that's what propelled her.

BB: Madonna has been criticized for her hard-driving, egocentric nature and her rough edges. But I think one of the things that is most fascinating about her is the creative process she uses which I’ll just read briefly from your book when you describe her collaboration with songwriter Rick Nowells on the Ray of Light album. “ Madonna would drive...” (Excerpt from book, p. 224)

LO: Yes, it's just amazing focus. That was the thing that came up time and time again talking to different musicians and producers. What was fascinating was that she could work really hard, really fast, and still come up with good material.

I wanted to identify what exactly are her strengths. She's great on melody. There was a producer who played me a demo that he'd written; it's the song "Nothing Fails" on the American Life album . . . the first version was a bit hokey, and then he played me the version he'd done with Madonna. All she'd done was change the melody line in a few places but it completely transformed the song and it made it into this wonderful pop song.

She's got this instinctive ear for melody, and she writes a lot of bass lines. She's a great musical arranger as well, and I had no idea how hands-on she is with the musicians in the studio — very specific instructions, she's totally aware of how everything's sounding around her.

Lots of people have criticized her and said she's not really a musician, but so many people countered that theory when I talked to them for the book. It's funny, I don't see her as someone like Joni Mitchell, creating out of thin air — she needs all these people around her. But what makes her so distinctive is the way she synthesizes it all, and a lot of lesser people would make a real mess out of that.

BB: Artistic collaborators aside, Madonna has gone through a long list of personal and romantic relationships and partnerships—both male and female. What do you think drives her passions and attractions toward people, and how do these inform the stabilities and influences in her creative life? Who was good for her and who was bad? Or is that too trite?

LO: She's definitely a people person, and loves to be loved, loves that creative spark and often fuses the two. She loves fusing work and play and so it's not surprising that a lot of her lovers are people that she's worked with as well, like Jellybean — he produced her song "Holiday" and that was perfect, it propelled her right into the stratosphere.

There are some people that have been good for her. Warren Beatty was very helpful at a particular point when she was really wanting to create an authoritative image for herself in Hollywood and she was in Dick Tracy. And I think Sean Penn, in the beginning, even though it ended disastrously, they really sparked off each other. It's interesting that they're both at the peak of their game now, and it could have been this amazing marriage, and it's just such a shame that it imploded. But they're two very driven people with very strong egos, and so I don't think it could have lasted, in a way.

And then there are partnerships that she's had with women, like with Sandra Bernhardt — that really fueled her humorous side. Those years around the sex book, she was getting into alternative cultures, and at that time she was spending more time with women than she was with men. This was after the breakup of her marriage with Sean Penn, and I think she was exploring all different sides to herself then.

She's said it's not just men; there have been women too. In the end, though, she was wanting a child and a family, and she really earned that, and that started to happen when she met Guy Ritchie. I think she met her match there, because he was someone driven like her, creative, he had his own career, so at that point they were a good match.

BB: What’s your favorite album?

LO: Gosh, it's difficult. I really love Like a Prayer, because that was the first time I thought, my goodness, this woman's a serious artist. She's not just someone who writes great dance pop songs. She'd really gone into herself and her songs were very autobiographical and quite raw. So it's a tossup between that and American Life , because, again, she's delving into her psyche and going through a bit of a mid-life crisis, and really reflecting on things, which I found quite fascinating.

BB: Madonna has lived in Detroit, New York, Los Angeles and now she's a mother and living in the UK with a lovely husband. Do you think that she’s found that balance between personal happiness and creative freedom?

LO: I suspect her life in the UK is a little more laid back. Sometimes she gets a bit frustrated: "Guy's got work at six o'clock." We like to have a life, you know, and there is a feeling that we work to live rather than live to work, and enjoy the finer things — food, nice wine, nice company. Of course, here in the UK it revolves a lot around music, concerts, gigs, clubbing.

She likes that life, and she likes going with Guy to the park, to the local restaurants. But at the same time, she has been looking at opportunities in New York, and there are rumors that she wants to move back to New York. It'll be quite an upheaval, though, with the kids, because they're both in really good schools here and quite settled. So maybe she would just have an apartment there to go and visit but keep her base here.

BB: What do you see coming down the pike for her?

She's been working on an album with Timbaland [Timbaland Music, and Timothy "Zedd" -Tim Mosely] who's the hot producer of the moment, and Justin Timberlake, who's kind of her male equivalent, I would say; he is a big star already and I think he's going to be a huge influence. That album's going to be hip hop inspired, and that's coming out in March. Then in the summer she's planning one of her big summer tours, culminating, I would think, in a massive 50th birthday celebration.

BB: Well, Lucy, this has been a fascinating talk about Madonna. I wanted to find out what's on the horizon for you before we go.

LO: Well, I've been working on a proposal for a book that combines a bit of mysticism and memoir and music, and that's as far as I'm going with it.

BB: Oh, sounds interesting.

LO: I think it'll work . . . I'm just working on that now.

BB: Well, I wanted to say thank you very much for joining me here and speaking to us about this fabulous book, Madonna: Like an Icon, published by Harper Collins. Are you planning any tours of North America?

LO: I would like to get over there, maybe next year for the paperback — that would be nice. Everyone in North America's been so fantastic and so appreciative of the book and really understands what I'm trying to do, and I'm touched, I'm really touched.

BB: Well, it was really insightful to me; I feel like I know Madonna so much better now, and I want to thank you for that.

LO: Thank you, it's been a pleasure.



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