The Blessed Madonna on Money, COVID, Dua Lipa, Songwriting, and Ponies in the Shit Pile

The Blessed Madonna on Money, COVID, Dua Lipa, Songwriting, and Ponies in the Shit Pile

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The Blessed Madonna has become a fairly omnipresent figure in dance music over the last decade; I was as shocked as anyone to hear hers and Fred Again's collaboration "We've Lost Dancing" at the end of 2022's Triangle of Sadness, it was one of a few cultural moments across the last five years that signaled her being on another level when it comes to DJs and public visibility. Her involvement in Dua Lipa's Studio 2054, which I wrote about for the New York Times back in 2021, was another such moment; in short, there's lots of reasons why I've been interested to talk to Marea for a minute now, and after the release of her latest single "Happier" and ahead of her album that should be coming later this year, I had a great time picking her brain and have her tell some stories during our conversation.

You've lived in London for eight years at this point, long enough to call it home. Do you feel like you've fully adjusted to the continental shift?It's definitely home. I've noticed that when I'm riding in cars, I know what neighborhood I'm in. For a long time, I would look up and not have any clue. You could've told me that I was five minutes from Hackney and I would've believed you. London is so big. For most of my adult life, I lived in Chicago, which is a very gridded city. It's one of the most perfectly planned cities in existence. If you know the intersection of the streets that you're at and where you need to go, you can get there if you learn the grid.

London, as I have often said, looks like a plate of spaghetti that's been dropped on the ground. It's an ancient city, so there are a lot of buildings that were built in a world where you're building cities before demolition. The first time I came here, the transport for the club was taking me to the airport—and, to me, he was driving in circles. I thought, this guy is taking the piss. There's no way. We made, like, seven left turns. But you can make seven left turns to get somewhere here. That is 100% normal.

Tell me about the new single and how it fits in to what you're planning for this year.
I don't think anybody is totally aware of how many records I've made over the last two years, but we keep a spreadsheet at my studio—it's almost 200 records, for myself and for other people. So there's a really deep well to draw from, and there are records people have brought to me and said, "I want to make this record and I want to finish it with you." So I've kind of slid into a role that I never really fully saw myself doing, which is doing more proper songwriting. That's a big shift for me.

In terms of what's coming, there's an album very much on the horizon. I actually finished it last night. It was a very long process, but I can't say too much about it right now, because it's likely to change—as things do, when you're working in a committee. But the biggest shift for me since COVID hit was sliding into the world of proper songwriting and real record-producing, not just making tracks. Suffice to say, that will continue, and I've loved that part of my life as much as I've loved any part of my life.

Tell me more about entering the realm of songwriting and record producing, especially compared to the art of "just making tracks."
There are a lot of complexities in terms of having an enormous amount of muscle to leverage in your direction, and it very much depends on who you're working with and who you can get into your room. People say you don't want to know how the sausage gets made—but I actually do want to know how the sausage gets made. I greet this part of the dark arts of pop music with open arms. I—maybe romantically—think about Carole King and the Brill Building, and people who were just cranking out things and working it 'til it worked.

I love more than anything to be in a room full of people trying to come up with a thing that is brilliant, and I love trying to understand pop music—and I don't think dance is separate from pop.  I mean, it can be, but it isn't by definition. Dance music is pop music, period—and then it spins out and becomes all kinds of other things, like techno. Even house music, those guys in the beginning, you look at the press shots of these guys from the early '80s and you can tell that these are 8x10 glossies. Darryl Pandy wanted to be famous. Jamie Principle wanted to be Depeche Mode.

So I don't have any pop shame, but there's a lot of people who do have pop shame, and think that there are some really bad ways to go about working in a world that straddles the underground and radio. I don't know if I've totally found my balance yet, but I'm getting closer to it. What I can tell you is, that thing that they say about 10,000 hours? Maybe make it 100,000, but that thing is for real. 

Since COVID, I just spent every second trying to understand how songs work. I'd diagram a record like "Landslide," or anything that I held to be self-evidently perfect—"You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)," all these very different kinds of records. I was trying to understand them by just looking at them, how they work and why they work. What is it about the engine of the narrative? What is it about the writing that connects with people on a structural and emotional level? Since 2021, that's what I've done for sometimes 12 hours a day.

You were part of Dua Lipa's Studio 2054. At the time, it was providing this re-creation of a club environment for people who couldn't go out at the time. Tell me about being a part of that, and what that was like.
Like everything else at that point in time, there was an absurdity that was inherent to the whole process. I don't even say that in a bad way—it was in a wonderful way. It was, at that point, the most absurd and incredible thing that had happened during COVID. My parents got to see me on TV, and they hadn't seen me in so long. My dad died shortly thereafter, and he watched it at home, and so did my mom, my stepdad, and all my cousins. I couldn't see them, but they could see me.

Other than my makeup lady and one or two people on my team, it was a very closed set. They built what they called at that time, a "biosecure bubble." We were all on super lockdown beforehand—all the dancers, everybody—and even then, you really weren't supposed to hug or touch people, but obviously people did. The whole thing had to unfold in real time, and it was done in two takes—and 90% of it was just the first take. It all just happened in real time—the costume changes and everything. It was a dry run for what would later become the Future Nostalgia tour. There were things in it that I very much recognized from the livestream. When I went to see the tour in the O2 arena later on, there was a Club Future Nostalgia part in it, which was so cool and amazing. No one told me it was going to happen, and I was just blown away by that.

My friend Gideon built the DJ booth for the livestream, and no detail was spared. Obviously, I wasn't really DJ'ing, but he even carefully put records into my record box that would be appropriate and thoughtful. The DJ booth was built with a six-foot distance between me and anyone else, because at the time I had not been very well for a while and I was on super duper lockdown myself. I was shielding, as they say. So he put extra space around me to make sure that nobody could touch me.

That said, one of the first people to touch me physically was Dua. It just happened. We hadn't seen each other before, there was no real rehearsal—a little bit, but not much, for me at least. I hadn't gone out of the house at all, because I'd been ill—I only left to go to the doctor. So to have the first person that touches you be Dua Lipa was very strange. We already knew each other and we'd been talking over text, but it was just a very surreal experience.

At the end, we had this little party where all the dancers came out and did their thing. To be honest, it was an agoraphobic explosion in my brain. Like a lot of people, it took me a long time to adjust to being in contact with others. It was wonderful and really scary, and the kind of thing that can only really happen once.

Tell me more about your pandemic experience.
It was a mixed bag. My therapist was saying how her clients that are normally nervous people—which, that's me—and people that have generalized anxiety disorder—which is fully, fully my steez—were so ready. It was like I'd been training for this moment my entire life. I'm married to a Ukrainian refugee who left in '78, and there's a joke that Ukrainians who left in the '70s and '80s have had bags packed since World War II. So we were both very deeply prepared, maybe in ways that normal people are not.

We immediately built like a long-term food pantry—we weren't hoarding, just ordering extra things online, basic stuff. I knew people did this just to have stuff, but we didn't know it was going to happen—but both of us come from a world where you do expect things to go wrong, so it's not really that surprising when they do. The really nice part was that my husband and I had never spent that much time together. For a lot of people, that went one of two ways. There were a lot of COVID divorces, but there's also a lot of COVID babies. Fortunately, my husband and I ended up with a COVID dog, and we're happier to be together than ever before, so that part of it was really beautiful for me.

I'm not happy that COVID happened, because of the gazillions of people who did not make it and many more who had their lives very damaged. There are still so many people that are suffering from long COVID and complications from it, and we have no idea what it'll be like for them. Is it a time bomb waiting to go off? Has it already gone off? There's a lot of people like my dad who didn't die from COVID—he died from not going to the doctor until it was too late.

For me, there was a very leveling experience with my friends and family. When somebody I'm related to asks me, "How was your day? What did you do?," my answer will be something they can't relate to, at all. "Well, I'm in Morocco or wherever." During COVID, I was having the same day as everybody else. We're all doing zoom stuff, we're all waiting to see when we can get a vaccine.

When my dad died, it was something where not only I'd experienced it, but they'd experienced it too. There was nothing unordinary about it, which made it easier and harder. You can't have a funeral, which was something other people were experiencing as well. It was one of the first times in my life that a lot of people were going through exactly what i was going through, and that part was relieving to me.

You mentioned earlier the agoraphobia that the pandemic brought on. Your job, obviously, involves quite a bit of crowd work at its essence—bringing large groups together. What was it like returning to that when things opened up again?
I was relieved, because first and foremost I was gonna run out of money. I don't care who you are—most people cannot afford to take a year and a half off work. I am the sole income provider in my house, and I also help take care of my family. I have parents who I support. That was not something I got any kind of relief from. I'm not complaining, because I was really lucky—but by the time we were getting into a year out from it, all of my savings that I'd built up by being a workaholic had gotten down to where I could see what the bottom would look like. At the beginning of COVID—for the first six months—I kept my tour manager on the payroll, on a reduced salary, because I didn't want him to lose his livelihood.

So that part of it was a relief, because I'm a total workaholic, and it's not because I love work— it's because I'm afraid of not being able to take care of people. I'm from eastern Kentucky. I come from one of the poorest parts of the United States. and that was the experience I had growing up. When you've been at the lowest-income-quality-of-life poverty level, the main thing you fear is not working.

The second that I stepped out into the world, I was a part of The First Dance— the NHS-sanctioned that was the first test party, where they studied airflow, crowds, and whether we could do this safely with testing and so forth. I'd already had one shot at that point—I got mine earlier than most people my age because I was quite ill—so we drove to Liverpool to avoid flying. I got to Liverpool, in this enormous hangar, and the first thing that happened when I was coming around the side of the stage near the crowed barrier was a stranger grabbing and hugging me.

I was like, "Oh," but I just hugged them back. I let myself do it. I was like, "Okay, you've had a vaccine, you can't live like this forever, you have to let go." And that's what I did. I played, and it all seemed like a blur. I drank too much bourbon—I mean, it was fine—but afterwards, in the trailer, Jayda G and I hugged each other, and then everybody got to hug each other, and then everybody just started crying immediately.

It was a gentle re-entry after that. I didn't really start going out until the summer, and the first year there was a lot of on-off-on-off, because things would open and it was like, "Nope, we're back down." We made it through to Christmastime and everything wasn't shutting down, even though it probably should've. I was gonna do a New Year's show, but COVID rates were through the roof, so I was just like, "Let's not."

2022 was when it really felt like it was game on, and I struggled. I had to hire a performance psychologist, I got a little bit of the yips, so I really struggled with that. Even now, I've found that I don't like crowds. I mean, I didn't love love love crowds before, but the agoraphobia has not completely gone away. I have to take medication for it. I was going to shows and, 20 minutes before I'd go on, I'd turn bright red and flush and throw up. But by the end of the year, I pulled it together.

Let's talk about what the financial realities of being a musician are like for you and others right now. What's different from pre-COVID? What's changed? What's worse? 
It's complicated, and I can only speak for myself. The people who are really getting slaughtered are the people halfway down the lineup on the poster. Those people are getting their butts kicked. That could be any of us. Nobody knows how long they get to spend at the point where you're you're not living in terror all the time. So I don't want to speak for anybody else. But on the whole, people are getting their fucking butts rocked. While I may be okay right now, I live in an ecosystem where it's like saying you're okay because global warming hasn't affected you yet. It will come for all of us eventually. And the system itself is very broken.

I'll give you an absurd experience that I can speak to myself: When COVID came, I had had the best year of my life professionally at that time. I had savings. I was taking care of my family. I was taking care of people who weren't my family. I was able to pay a real living wage to my tour manager, which, most large businesses don't want to give a single person a living wage. It felt like a real achievement that I could pay someone a salary—not an insane amount of money, but more money than I had ever made in an office.

Then, suddenly COVID comes and bam, it's over, it's gone, because I'm self-employed and I was the only employed person in my company—and I live in England, so I wasn't eligible for relief here. I was in this weird valley where, on paper, I made too much money to get any help. I think that was the story of many small business owners. Maybe it was one person who employed themselves, and the way that they structured their company meant that they weren't going to get any relief—something you never would have thought about, because you didn't have to before. So all that you have is what you have.

From the outside, people are going, "Oh, you're fine. Aren't you so happy to be on break? You don't have anything to worry about." Not quite! And then the taxes on 2019 are due, and they want all of the money—like, all of it, and they want it now, and you haven't made a dime in a year. You look at receipts and you're paying more taxes than Donald Trump. That doesn't feel right, but I also don't want to get in trouble, because my ability to stay here in London depends on me having all of my I's dotted and T's crossed financially with Her Majesty.

I don't want to say I wasn't the luckiest person in the world, because this is as good as it gets. I'm having the best experience that you can have, and at the end of it, I'm gonna start over from zero. And that is what happened. By the time I got back on the road, that last seven years of everything that I ever did outside of an office was gone. On the other hand, as a result of that time off, I was able to spend time producing here at home and making a record for Dua Lipa, which then turned into a record contract and things that I wouldn't have had time to do. I believe that every problem is actually a solution. That is not real, but that is how I have to think about things, especially in times of crisis.

My mom is the sweetest lady. She's a little librarian in Nashville's main library. She is a library goddess. She did all of her school when I was a little girl and was working in the college bookstore. We got evicted all the time and were couch surfing. Ramen noodles was what we lived on. She worked so hard to finish school and have a kid in Kentucky, which isn't the greatest place in some ways, especially for single moms.

She used to tell this fable about a little girl and her father who were very, very poor. They were driving their wagon into the middle of town to sell their last apple. Over by the corner of some store, there's a giant pile of manure for sale. The little girl jumps out of the wagon and dives into the pile of shit head first. Her poor father drags her out by her feet and she's covered in shit and flies. He says, "Why have you jumped head first into a pile of shit on this of all days?" And she says, "Daddy, with a pile of shit this big, there must be a pony somewhere." My whole life, my mom would always say, "Well, must be a pony." I tried to keep that attitude the whole way through, even in the most grim moments.

I'll say that, the coming out of it, we're seeing clubs closed left and right—clubs that were dependable. So I am keenly aware of which waters I swim in. Even though I have not been hit on the head as hard as a lot of people have, it does not mean that they aren't getting hit on the head. I couldn't be prouder to work in the industry that I do than I am now, because of what they did across the board just to survive and what they continue to do.

Smart Bar, my home club, has been open for over 40 years, and the way that they not only survived but thrived is just a credit to, to everybody that was there. There's a million versions of that story, and not all of them end happily. I fucking respect people who put it all on the line and who have kept it there—and I also respect people who said, "You know what, this isn't going to work for me anymore, I'm going to go be a social worker."

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Jamie Larson