Interview: M.I.A.

M.I.A. twists up 30 years of life and tries to spin them positive. On parenting, smartphone and finding spirituality through Google.

October 18, 2013


Last week at New York's Greenwich Hotel, M.I.A. hosted a parade of reporters. My turn came at the middle of the day; Arulpragasam, now 38, had already finished off a pot of tea. Her manicure, flawless gel in hologram glitter and gold, was grown out a quarter inch: "This is really good if you've got kids," she said. As we spoke about the relatively serene spirt of her upcoming LP (up for preorder now), smartphones and the many roles women play, she scooped crystals of raw sugar into her mouth with her almond-shaped pointer nail. Talking broadly about her entire career and the ancient story that jumpstarted this bumpy album cycle, she was neither concise nor clumsy. She had clearly practiced this story before—the one where she finds spirituality on Google—but it wasn't unconvincing.

Your son Ikhyd is now at and age where he’s beginning to interface with technology and entering school. What do you hope his relationship with the internet will be like? That’s a bit confusing. I always tell him, “Mummy didn’t have a toy until mummy came to England, for 10 years mummy played with stones and sticks and a dead bird.” He’d go to school and tell everyone: “Mummy had a dead bird for a toy.” He’s four, he’s on the phones, he knows how to put my password in and download the apps. He’s better than me on the games. Really, it’s just about making neurological pathways, right? You know those old square toys where you move tiles around to make pictures? I used to have loads, and how he plays with these apps really reminds me of those. We had something physical and he has a phone, but I think it makes the same thing happen in the brain. You can problem solve using stones, you can problem solve by getting lost and walking around a city, you can problem solve by going on an app. So it doesn’t scare me that he has an app, but it’s important to make sure he builds enough pathways and doesn’t keep going in circles.

Now that Ikhyd’s four, and you've been separated from his father for over a year, have you found new love? Well, I have two men in my life, and they’re both really demanding. But yeah apart from that, in terms of love, I think this is the happiest I’ve been, ever. The combination of both men is just like, swimming in marshmallows. One is Ikhyd. He’s a very loving person. Parenting is difficult in terms of logistics, but on the whole it’s pretty amazing. I’m used to being an independent mum because that’s the example I’ve had.

Who’s the other demanding man? Your co-parent, Ben Bronfman? No. I just had a horrible custody battle, so I’m trying to forgive Ben for that. It’s not nice for kids to go through. It’s annoying: when people want to hurt me, they use my child. Men don’t have that. Nobody tries to hurt a man through his kids.

Matangi, the title of your new album, is your namesake and also a Hindu goddess of music and learning. What have you learned over the years that you’ve applied here? I wrote three albums and then everybody was like, Ok, that’s the cutoff point. That’s the trilogy. I thought that too: That’s it, I had a three album deal with XL I done it, see you later. At that time, it was interesting to come back and find a whole new meaning in what I’d already written. Arular was representative of my dad and really direct, the style is just, Dance. The second album [Kala] was my most creatively don’t-give-a-fuck album. I was in hotel rooms and made music with people I bumped into. It was about the act of being creative with nothing, and that’s why it was my mum, because that’s what my mum taught me: survival through creativity, not having shit and making it on the fly. By the time I got to making /\/\/\Y/\, which was supposed to represent me, I was really confused about the future. I’d become so many things: I was engaged and I was a mum and I was a success, which I wasn’t used to. My family was banned from America, so I couldn’t have any any help in the first year of my baby’s life. At the same time, the financial crash happened, everybody was monetizing their business for the new era. The concept of the future was really weird: Hey, look at us, we’re so evolved, because we’ve got smartphone. But what we did with the smartphone wasn’t interesting to me.

In Hinduism, the concept of Maya is about illusion: separating truth from lies. There are people that can tell what’s what, people that can overcome lies; there are people that don’t get it. Maya works like a tunnel, not a destination. All the images associated with that album were like a tunnel. The thing you get to after the tunnel, that’s what Matangi was to me. A space to bring all the discussions I started with the last three albums and park them. /\/\/\Y/\’s driving through the corridor; Matangi is the parking place. It was about taking everything first 30-something years and put it into a different frame, recontextualizing it in my brain for the next 30 years of my life. So if Matangi was the last record that I made, then I’d be happy with it. I lived and connected the dots then got to this place, and whatever happens in this bit, it just is what it is.

"I wanted to make another way for women to exist that wasn’t competing with Miley Cyrus."

Above: M.I.A. models her collection for VERSUS VERSACE.

Do you plan to make another album for a major label after this one? In 2011 and 2012 the concept was to be royal. It was about luxury, ruling, Watch the Throne, Game of Thrones. Everybody was a queen; everybody’s Twitter symbol was linked to the Egyptian pyramids. So it was not easy, in 2011 and 2012, to come to a label with this ugly, kind of wishy-washy spirituality thing. I was really kind of embarrassed to tell them: It’s about this Indian goddess. They were like, Fuck, she’s turning into Sting, she’s doing Ashtanga yoga. But I wasn't meditating. I wasn’t smoking weed. Matangi is not about: Everyone is a goddess inside, and they have to find themselves. I just found spirituality on Google, which I hate.

What do you mean, found spirituality through Google? I Googled green, and Matangi popped up. When I typed in Matangi, it was me and then her on the two top links. Hers was like: She’s got four arms and carried a sword because she fights for truth, but like lives in the ghetto and in the hood and has intoxicated eyes, which kind of sounds like she smokes weed. I was like, Wow, she sounds pretty cool. I sort of stopped thinking about my own life and I started thinking about hers, and spent time in India, going to universities and temples, looking for things that I could figure out, about women. I never knew anything about spirituality. My mum’s a Christian, my dad’s a Christian, my grandparents are Christians. But I always used to think that my addiction to beats or my drum sounds came from waking up next to temples every morning. Coming back after so many years I was like, Oh my god, what does that mean, do I have to become a Hindu or something? But I don’t have to do that. I just had to go to a story that’s 5000 years old to find inspiration.

What about her story inspired you? She was a gangster, she was from the hood, but she was a goddess and hangs out in the jungle. Loads of things about her weren’t like the roles in spirituality that we’re used to in the West, that you’re either a whore like Mary Magdalene, or a Virgin Mary and conceive a child without having sex. Those two roles were not an option for me. In Hinduism, they’ve got women who are into time-bending quantum physics.” There’s a goddess for the between when you’re bored and you do something nice. There’s a goddess that represents the bit where you stare at the wall, like, What the fuck am I gonna do for the next six months? How am I gonna make money for the next two years? There’s a goddess for when you hit depression, and you know your boyfriend has died or something. That level of sadness, there’s a goddess for that. I became interested in all the multi-faceted ways a woman can exist, what the options for being a woman are. I don’t want to make it sound like: Matangi is about women. But I wanted to make another way for women to exist that wasn’t competing with Miley Cyrus—who can be more slutty—or to present it as: I’m this completely clean person. The ten goddesses in Hinduism, at least five of them are depicted sitting on a dude or having sex. But it wasn’t this “Don’t you want me?” or “Buy my record” thing. Matangi is more like, reproduction, feminine power and celebrating life.

When symbols and concepts come from the East to the West, they’re often turned into something negative. A swastika in Hinduism means like good luck, in the West it means something negative. Matangi is green, in Hinduism that stands for intellect, knowledge. The only thing that I can think of that’s green in the West is being a zombie, witches and money. If I was a teacher at a university, I would really study how that spin happens—maybe it’s not so definite that something that starts positive ends up negative stays that way. Maybe there’s a way to twist that back up and make it positive again. You’re never gonna change how symbols exist in societies, they’re so interwoven into what we look at every day. But maybe you can see them differently in your mind and change how you digest it.

What happened to the documentary you made with Steve Loveridge, which your label seems to have pulled back on? It's coming. It’s not connected to the album, so it’ll just come out when it comes out. It’s not in my hands—it’s Steve’s baby and not mine. Footage that is really special to me he just does not give a shit about, and scenes that I would never use, because my hair was really bad, will be the things that he’s really into. I haven’t seen what he’s doing now, because I’ll be too cringy, but I trust him to get on with it. He put the trailer on the internet—it’s nice he saw people supported that, because for two years we only showed it to industry people and they were like, ummmmmmm, Beyoncé, it’s not really that sellable.

In the movie's leaked trailer, you say, "I could be a genius. I could be a cheat. It's a thin line and I'm fucking with it." What do you mean by that? The stuff you get credited for is how genius you are at cheating. When I first started, making videos for 100 pounds, people didn’t say, “Great, you’re making music.” It was like, “Oh, you’re doing music now? Fake it till you make it, you must be faking it.” Even Wes, Diplo, used to say that. He’d be like, “This is like JAY Z, we’re gonna follow his philosophy of fake it till you make it.” That wasn’t my fucking concept, it was the concept of America at the time, that everybody loved. They set me up on my musical journey already feeling like a cheat. I constantly overpaid people because I felt guilty, like I was cheating and none of it belonged to me. It was nice, when I found Matangi, cause it was like, Wow, I can make all this shit, it suddenly makes sense.

Interview: M.I.A.