The release date of MIA's Kala draws nearer (or is already here for the unscrupulous), so it makes sense for us to put up our Editor-In-Chief Alex Wagner's interview with Maya from our current issue in which she dishes on the making of the album, among other things. It also makes sense for us to put up the new video for "Jimmy," the oddball, Bollydisco joint set to be the next single. You can also view the hi-res version here. And don't forget, Kala is available in physical/digital form on August 21st.
Photos from F47 by Liz Johnson Artur
Life in Exile
The nomad noise of MIA’s Kala
Interview by Alex Wagner
“Initially, I didn’t get formally rejected for a visa. They let me into the US for a bit—a couple of months. I was there to work with Timbaland, but then the visa ran out and I had to come back to the UK. I haven’t been able to get in [since]. So it wasn’t my own choice or actions that led me to become more worldly—I mean I live in the US. My apartment’s there. I don’t have any of my artwork, any of the songs that I’ve been working on. I don’t have my clothes. So everything [on Kala] is built out of wherever I’ve gone. I’ve had no choice but to make the record and become the thing that people always had me down for.
The thing about this album that I really want to stress is that I recorded 16 or 17 songs and all of them were going to go on the album at one point—now I’m cutting down five or something. Every song got written ages ago and they just got re-worked again and again and again. That was the whole process. I took all of the songs to India, then I took all of the songs to Trinidad, then I took all of the songs to Jamaica. Every song has a layer of some other country on it. It’s like making a big old marble cake with lots of different countries and influences. Then you slice it up and call each slice a song.
When I didn’t get into America, I really thought, ‘Okay, fine. I have five million other people to draw from.’ Obviously, the first place I could go back to was the place I knew best—which was Sri Lanka and India. Those were the ‘Bird Flu’ and the ‘Boyz’ drum sounds. I just wanted to go and learn and become more aware of musicality, I suppose. I know that in America at the time it was really disco-y and dance-y and minimal, more ass n’ titties. I wasn’t stupid—I knew that it was going to be a challenge and no one really wanted to hear something like that. Even in India they don’t want to hear shit like that because they want something really modern. I wanted to experiment with something organic. So I was like, Fuck it. I know I can do electronic music and make beats on a 505. Now I want to go and try something that’s weighty or older and traditional. It’s going to be a mission. It sounds so outsider, and that was going to be the hardest challenge for me—to go to America and say, Listen to this. It’s not Miami bass, but maybe it’s just as useful.
[When I went to India], I actually went to meet this composer called AR Rahman because there was this beat [he did that] I really liked. He’s done loads of shit for Hollywood and stuff like that—he’s like the Timbaland of India. In fact, Timbaland draws a lot from him. In the end I didn’t directly work with him, but I got to meet loads of musicians through him. Like the drummers—I was able to make my own shit happen with them.
Even in the beginning when I went over there, I thought, ‘Oh I’m just going to work with someone and get them to produce the song for me.’ But it turned out that [Rahman] was really busy and it was really weird to communicate my weird ideas to him. It just naturally ended up that he was like, ‘Take all of my musicians, and here’s my contacts. Do what you want to do with them.’ So it just became that I had more control. We started producing it, and then [UK producer] Switch came over and we began composing stuff. We started putting those things together with all the drummers and strings that I was having played.
When I did ‘Boyz,’ it was name-checking all these dance moves that come from Jamaica—I hoped the Jamaicans would get it. They meant so much to me at the time I was writing it. I went there to shoot the video, and they loved it! When I took it back there and played it to those people and showed them, ‘This is what I wrote when I thought about you,’ they got it. And that makes me feel like I don’t really care what happens with this album, and I don’t care if Interscope loves or hates me.
It was crazy because [initially] I had all the opportunities in America to do whatever I wanted. At that point, Interscope was like, ‘You can work with whoever you want!’ On the one hand I had access to lots of amazing American producers that I would have died to work with. And at the same time, I was able to dig out thieves with mullets and moustaches that live in a little village in India and never leave town. It was interesting to see if you could mix them both up. Or to even see what you’d get. Okay, here’s a beat from Bangladesh, and here’s a beat from a dude who has cows. What do you get? You already know Timbaland’s great. But I also know that it’s very easy to acquire a checkbook album.
When I went into the studio [in the States], I didn’t know what it was—there was just something in my being that wouldn’t do it. It is about creativity, but I didn’t want my album to be like that. I wanted it to evolve into some sort of journey, or something that I learned from. I wasn’t coming into the game like that anyway, like a puppet pop singer—like, With the right beats, I’m going to be Gwen Stefani! I think it was really difficult for everyone because everyone expected me and Timbaland to really hit it off. He’s amazing, and we did. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m home.’ I was at his studio in Virginia—it’s just amazing. You had your own chef! But at that point I already had like eight, nine songs that were more complicated.
‘Bird Flu’ was such an Indian thing, experience, the whole project. There’s a film that goes with it. There’s a video. We made clothes and made the music. So many people were involved with it and it’s a different part of the Indian culture that I don’t think people have seen before. I was over there and reading the papers and [they were] talking about China and India becoming this superpower; musically, it was very interesting to me. ‘Bird Flu’ uses so many layers—the most amount of layered, complicated drum loops. It just went with that week when India floated the market, all this sort of musical program-like stuff. Right now, when we use ProTools and Logic and make a 4/4 beat, it’s done with Western-made software where we make music [in accordance with those] scales. In India, they have like 79 scales. So when they make this software and these programs [in India], it’s going to be really chaotic. It’s going to go crazy for a little bit. And it’s not that they’re doing it consciously, it’s just how intricate music is there. It’s like 2000-year-old mathematics.
[As far as the percussion on ‘Bird Flu’], there’s this one drum called the urmi that I really wanted to use on my album because no one uses it in anything. Even the Indians don’t really use it that much. It’s like a spoke drum that you have at temples; they use it in this kind of music called ganna. It’s a village thing, and I wanted to use it because it sounds like a bass. That’s the same drum in ‘Boyz’ too—the whole drum pattern on ‘Bird Flu’ and ‘Boyz’ is made around that drum. It’s a real traditional, old thing, so I had to ship in all these drummers that come from villages that play this folk music. I had a conductor, because we had like 30 drummers in one room recording for ‘Bird Flu.’ It was so intense trying to get everyone to play together. When you have really simple beats, they don’t know how to do it: we tried to get them to do a 4/4 beat, and it would take hours trying to figure it out. They just couldn’t drum like that. But if you asked them to do this really complicated, sophisticated, crazy thing, then they could be amazing.
I worked on it with Wesley [Pentz, bka Diplo]. I think ‘Paper Planes’ is Wes’ idea, and Dave [Taylor, bka Switch] worked on it. We worked on it in London to get the sound of it right. But the idea was Wes’, with the Clash ‘Straight to Hell’ sample. [As far as the vocals], that’s how I sing. Most the time when I go into the studio to sing, I get really bored. If I’m going to sing then I’m going to have to sing a bit weird. But with that one I just woke up and just sang the whole song in one go. It was in the morning and I wasn’t thinking too much. I hadn’t brushed my teeth.
[The sample of the gun reloading and then the cash register ringing] was a joke. I was having this stupid visa problem and I didn’t know what it was, aside from them thinking that I might to fly a plane into the Trade Center—which is the only reason that they would put me through this. I actually recorded that in Brooklyn, in Bed-Stuy. I was thinking about living there, waking up every morning—it’s such an African neighborhood. I was going to get patties at my local and just thinking that really the worst thing that anyone can say [to someone these days] is some shit like: ”What I wanna do is come and get your money.” People don’t really feel like immigrants or refugees contribute to culture in any way. That they’re just leeches that suck from whatever. So in the song I say All I wanna do is [sound of gun shooting and reloading, cash register opening] and take your money. I did it in sound effects. It’s up to you how you want to interpret. America is so obsessed with money, I’m sure they’ll get it.
Trinidad gave me the most [musical influence]. India gave me parts, but Trinidad gave me the inspiration to put it together. I put ‘Boyz’ together there, using all the parts from India. I did ‘Big Branch’ there, I did ‘World Town’ there. I did quite a lot of songs in Trinidad, the meat of all these songs. I thought it was really nice to go from India—which is a real traditional, old-school country—to a newer version of something like that. Trinidad is halfway between Jamaica and India. It was nice to see a new Indian approach to life—like Indian people going Jamaican, and the music that comes out is something totally different and weird. There’s something that’s so approachable about Trinidad and then something that’s so dark—people don’t really know that. When I was there, it was 50-50, all the time.
We also recorded parts of ‘World Town’ in India, with this weird instrument that comes from the temple music that I used to wake up to when I was a kid. When I was in Sri Lanka, every six o’clock the temple opens and that’s the instrument they played. It’s called a p.p. for short. I wanted to use that, ’cause no one knows what it is.
After I did ‘World Town,’ I was trying to find this producer, Znobia, and that’s why that whole trip [to Africa was planned]. I got my Angola visa and I had time to make this trip, and then last minute, like two days before, I had to cancel [because Znobia got into an accident]. Then this group called up and said, ‘Do you want to go to Liberia instead?’ It was a TV project about child soldiers. The subject matter was something I was really interested in. At the same time, Liberia is a devastated place. They probably need [the help] more than anyone else on the planet right now. So I went to Liberia and played ‘World Town’ to these African kids. We were going to organize this street party, trying to shoot something for the song. They were all like, ‘You’re going to shoot this here?’ They went crazy! They loved the track. Then I felt really good about it. When I wrote that song I felt like such an outsider. This was a personal, weird thing—I hoped [it would] translate, and it does, and it did.
I don’t really play any instruments, but I know my beats. When it comes to this game, especially production and beats, it’s all boys. It’s all fucking boys. I felt like I could be as good as some of them, and that was the challenge for me—to be strong about it. It was nice working with Switch, because initially I took him on to India as an engineer. I was like, ‘This is what I want to do, this is what the beat’s going to sound like, this is how we’re going to do this. All you have to do is put it through Logic for me cause I don’t technically know how to use a computer. Just do this for me and it’s all going to be cool.’ That’s how it started and we got on so well. When you have ideas, you can’t really have such a straightforward, clean-cut thing. If you’re jumping in, if you have ideas, do it and we’ll just split all the songs. That’s how we worked in the end. It’s not that he produced all the beats 100 percent, but we split it 50-50.
It’s different [than working with Diplo] because, obviously, we were involved personally. It’s definitely difficult to make that happen, to have a discussion: Wes is Wes. You can’t be a girl around Wes and be like ‘Yo, I need you to do this.’ He’s going to have ego issues. Wes could have done the whole album if he wanted to, but there was too much ego involved. It was just too difficult.
Me and Dave recorded ‘Big Branch’ initially in Trinidad. Then Wes came to Bequia, a different island. We worked on the beat there a little bit more—we were already working on the hook and everything in Trinidad before he came. I tried that song over three different beats, and I liked Wes’ one the best. It seemed more appropriate.
The sounds on the intro, I got from [Carilla?]. It’s chanting when they pull fishing boats into the water. It [began as] a photo in my head first. The idea for the song was that you have the bottom deck of a boat: two hundred people getting smuggled in boat, coming over as refugees. If they banged that beat on the side of a boat, what would it sound like? That’s why it’s all echo-y and submarine-y. It was refugees coming over on a boat, and we tried to get that out in music.”