Tuesday, February 1, 2005

'Are you lesbian?' 'No, I'm making music.'
Here's a little tip for the kids. If you're going to be interviewing Miss M.I.A., be sure to tell your editor you're going to need at least a half dozen pages to squeeze in all the good stuff. If your editor finds this unreasonable, get a blog and just reprint everything there. That way, everybody wins.

So. Today we talked to the delightful Maya Arulpragasam. The 800 word version of our encounter appears in tomorrow's National Post. If you'd rather just read a couple thousand of her words without ours getting in the way, this post is for you. Laughs have been edited out. But they were frequent. And wonderful.

This will be far too long. And, for the uninterested, boring. Apologies.

On handling the hype:
Hopefully, you know, it’s not going to last forever. I must be the only
person who’s like, thank god this is going to end soon... When I went to Germany I felt that. I went to Puerto Rico to do a show and then I went to Philly and then New York. And I did that in about two days. And then I had to fly to Hamburg and then Berlin. And it all happened in about five days. Then I was like, ‘I physically can’t handle it.’ I thought, I’m just going to disintegrate.

On the audience in Germany:
It’s not even like English. [But] Germans get it. And they’re really into it and stuff. I was thinking, ‘Do they even know what my lyrics are?’ But they kinda do. They just feel like it doesn’t even matter. I get that impression from them. As long as it’s real. When I do music I want to make sure that there’s [something] there for anyone and everyone. So that’s fine that they only pick up on that. The journalists pick up on the lyrics and stuff, but my cousins in Germany call me up and they go, ‘You video’s on in Burger King.’ And I know that whoever’s playing it is not really into the lyrics.

On the controversy with MTV:
I’m thinking still. I have to do it by today or tomorrow. It’s just, I don’t know, I’m going to wait until they get bored of asking me. Then I’ll tell them something. They’re going to play the video. And they said that they’ll let everything slide as long as they have a statement. Otherwise, they’ll have to cut sentences out of the song. But I feel like I shouldn’t have to compromise at all. And they should know that.

On her shoutout to the PLO:
I was thinking, the Wu-Tang Clan said it all the time — I’ve heard it in Method Man songs. And no one even bats an eyelid. So why is it more heavy when it comes from me? It’s kinda interesting. Because I think the image — what I am and the body that I’m in — is totally different to what Method Man looks like. And it’s probably more scary coming from him than me. But, it’s amazing innit? Which is what I want to show — I am the scary thing right now. It’s really mad. It’s just kinda like, I wouldn’t really say it too much, but I just kinda want to be there — offer myself to be there as whatever it is, so people can learn it as it happens.

On her political lyrics:
Really, that’s not what I’m about. The things that I started speaking up for weren’t necessarily, like, huge political subjects, which is what it’s turned into it because my lyrics are taken at such face value. But underneath I use political references or words to reflect everything — whether you’re poor, whether you’re from the street, whether you can’t pay the bills, whether you’re just the underdog all the time. And I think those lyrics can be applied to any of those things.

What I try to do is that it could appeal on any level. Sunshowers is obviously about it. But why wouldn’t I write something like that? You know what I mean? This acts like as an evil dividing the world into good and evil, makes me fall into the evil — so, excuse me, I’ve just spent 30 grand on my education, living in England and I’m paying rent and surviving everyday like everybody else, I don’t need the extra stigma attached to my bloody head. So of course I’m going to write about it. It’s like becoming the new gangsta culture. You know what I mean? We’ve heard rappers go on about it for so long and they’re not stigmatized anymore — in fact they’re driving around in Bentley’s. And, you know, my brother living in Wimbledon right now gets his photo taken around to all the shops by the police, going, ‘Do you know what this kid is up to? Because we seem him everyday and he looks really dodgy.’ And my brother’s just some random kid, totally exactly the same interests as any other average 23-year-old — into cars and girls and trying to survive and he’s got a job. But because he looks slightly Muslim — because, you know, he walks around wanting to make a statement too, I guess — the police take his photo around the cornershops. And you just think, ‘That’s amazing.’ That shit just never would have happened. When it’s affecting a Sri Lankan family, then you think, ‘Man, imagine if you’re an Islamic teenager growing up.’ That must be really intense.

The state of the world cont'd:
As soon as you start segragating people and making them into this other, then they’ll feel it and then they’ll respond and become it. Because human beings do pick up stuff like that. The general atmosphere on the planet right now is this unknown bunch of people are brewing and making bombs in the basement and it’s all going to kick off. And we’re sort of creating it with the hysteria. So then you have to get the other person’s opinions out there to balance things out so they don’t feel shat on. You know what I mean?

That’s kind of what I was thinking at the time. I really felt like I needed to know what I wanted to tell my kids — if being good was striking twice as hard...

I was like, shit, I’m giving up on my life. I dunno what to tell myself anymore. I’m so confused. So I was like, when I have a kid I’m going to lay down some laws and teach it some stuff. My mum brought me up going, ‘Ah Ghandi, he’s such a non-violent man. You turn the other cheek, huh. If somebody hits you, you just turn the other cheek, like Jesus Christ.’ So when people treat you bad, you just think, that’s cool, that’s fine. That’s their judgment, that’s their call. And you get on with it. And then now it seems like what President Bush is teaching us is if somebody steps to you, you just kill him. Don’t even ask any questions. Just take him out. He’s the biggest bloody 50 Cent he is.

On where her music fits:
You know, I’ve never been one to... all my life, everything I’ve been to or whatever I’ve done, it’s always been like that. I just don’t think it will change for me. The journalists and the critics are really good, but I’m still not accepted in a lot of genres musically. And that’s kind of what really, really is the battle. Getting people that understand it, is one thing. But getting people within it to get it is really, really difficult. Music became really segraegated and boxed and dutta, dutta, da... Then people started creating within those boxes and they’ve found formulas that work and they’re sticking to it like hell because it’s the livelihood for so many people. And when you come up and when you question all that, you’re not going to be seen as something great. I know that’s going to be the battle for me. I don’t know, we’ll see. Cos I feel like my career has just been upside down — like I’ve started at the top and I have to trickle down to the chicken shop. Whereas most people start selling at the chicken shop and work their way up to getting recognized. Everything’s just been so weird that I don’t really know what’s going on — where the hell my battle is, but I’m assuming it’s down on the chicken shop because it’s the last place for me to get to.

On her first stumbles into music:
I’m learning as I go along. When I started it was more like... I was tone deaf, everybody knew it, even when mates sit around and sing-along to songs, they’d get me to sit out of those games because they were like, ‘We don’t recognize anything you hum.’ When Peaches and Gonzales on tour and they said, ‘Have a go on the casio’... I used to be really shy and stuff. It wasn’t like, ‘Yeah, let me have a go’ it was like, ‘No please, no don’t do this to me.’ And they were like, ‘No, give me your finger and just press that button.’ And it was so wrong... and I don’t know how it happened, it’s really weird and it’s really freaky... but, yeah, I’m doing it. And I didn’t really think. The first thing I thought is, ‘Oh my god, you make noise and all you have to do is make come out at the right time over the beat.’ Like, it was that simple for me.

Now I’m just getting to know the pitch and the melody, but before when people used to go, ‘One, two, free, four’... I used to go, ‘What are they counting?’ And I couldn’t even get my head around the concept of a count-in and a bar. But that’s as far as I thought about music. And the rest is just me trying to make sense of, like.... me.

No. I just think I can’t really sing. And there’s a part of me that will never aspire to be a proper singer doing record gymnastics. I just hate that. And then, you know, sometimes I think I can rap, sometimes I think I can’t. But however it comes out, it’s just, you know... I don’t know... it’s really weird... I just can’t believe that people like what I do. I can’t. So I don’t know what to say about it.

I started learning that every kid I met who wanted to be a singer and who wanted to be a musician — this is a huge generalized statement, but... when I started writing the songs... I wrote M.I.A. first and then I wrote Galang and I just had the lyrics and the melody and then I wrote it over a beat... Initially I was like Look, I’ve written these songs. I don’t have the confidence and I’ll never do this because I have a real short attention span and I can’t remember my lyrics and stuff. So I was like, ‘Is there anyway we could find someone to sing these?’ So then for like two months that was the journey that I had. My first step into music was finding someone else to do it. And every girl I came across, if she was a black girl she wanted to sound like Aretha Franklin and Beyonce. And all the white girls they either wanted to sing proper indie stuff or sing like, well, you know... And it’s kind of finding somebody that was them in it was so difficult that in the end I just thought, maybe there’s something in this. Maybe it’s just the act of being confident with what you are. And that was quite an important thing just for people to see. Because we’re losing it in music because everything is becoming so generic. And even the kids that I know that strive not to make generic music, in a mad way, make it.

On getting yourself an education:
Education is just so important. I think especially if you are the other, then it’s always good for you to know what people think about you. So you have to kind of learn the language. That’s what it is. I think ultimately that’s kind of what made me end up in this position is that because nobody really cared what I was, I got to learn what they were. No matter what genre or community or whatever I went through. When I was doing all the artwork for Elastica and hanging out, I got to learn what their thing was. But they wouldn’t let me play dancehall and hip-hop in their dressing room or anything like that. Because it seemed like those kinda kids were really narrow-minded, musically, they had their own encylcopedia of what you should know if you’re in an indie band. But it didn’t go outside the manual. And that’s what makes the stale music. Because everybody’s got that manual. It’s that guerilla book of filmmaking, you know what I mean? And 80 million people have it, it’s the number one best seller — well, you’re not a guerilla anymore, are you? That’s kinda the thing that I was thinking. Them being narrow-minded about what I had to bring, made me learn. In terms of education, I went to an institute. But you can get it anywhere. The point is, it’s just important.

On that chicken shop thing:
Before it was the chicken shop, it used to be the nursing home for your grandma. That’s what I told XL when I signed to them. ‘I want to be played in the nursing home’... It’s not going to happen.

On boxes:
I don’t have to go in a box. And besides, I haven’t been boxed yet and I got to like it. So they can’t box me now. I found my thing and I’ve started the battle. And I have had people giving me a hard time about it and the fact that at the time radio stations and record shops — the fact that they even questioned what I was doing, I just hope that they realize that they’re stomping out creativity and they are totally part of that weird machinery. And I’m going to fight for it now.

At every point there has been something that could have made me compromise. But because — this is the only reason and the only thing that my life has been good for is priming me against things like that. I wouldn’t wish some of the shit upon anyone, but then you just go, ‘Actually, why the hell am I going to back down to blah-blah and blah-blah notion?’ It just doesn’t matter. Because none of this shit really, really, really matters. Like all these boxes that people put themselves in and how much they beat themselves up about stuff and dutta, dutta, da — it doesn’t really matter to me. And it’s like, in the beginning in England, the Indian radio stations wouldn’t put Galang on because I didn’t have an Indian intro. And they wanted me to re-record it and put a Hindi intro to it. And I was like, ‘No, I’m not going to do that. Why would you even get me to do that when the whole point is that I want to be someone on the inside. It’s obvious why I am. It’s obvious I care about where I came from. It’s obvious I’m fucking brown. I don’t have to say it again and again, underline it and talk to the people within the circle when it is about getting it out there. None of them are doing anything that actually gets out and is confident. If they’re really confident about what they’re doing, why don’t they go out? But they don’t. And when you do, they just go, ‘Oh my gosh, she thinks it’s white.’ That internal racism thing is bullshit because everybody suffers by that kind of thinking. Which is why education is important, it opens you up and makes you open minded. I want to be part of that. If I’m going to be the one who’s going to be burnt at the stake, I want to do it. I want to do it in public so everybody can see exactly what our values on this planet today is. It just needed someone brave. And I was just in a point in my life where I had nothing. So I had nothing to lose. That’s kind of where I got my confidence from. It wasn’t like I was going to lose my face, I didn’t have one. It wasn’t like I was going to lose my money, I didn’t have any.

On her visit to Toronto with Peaches:
It was really positive. Everybody was so encouraging. And I just never felt that anywhere else. It felt like there was some new thing happening, new blood that was just like ‘Fuck it! Everything goes!’... It was interesting. It just seemed like things were getting ripped to sheds and put back together in Canada more than any other cities I went to.

And, finally, on her mum:
My mum was still getting me applications from the bank. ‘Mia, you’ve got to get a job. This is too much. No one’s going to marry you.’ And then last month the Sri Lankan newspapers wrote about it and they did like two big pages and they really embraced it and put, ‘We have to support this girl.’ And then when my mum read that she rang me and was like, ‘Oh, you’re actually doing something.’

Every year my mum learns one new English word and it opens up a whole world. So last year she learnt the word, ‘lesbian.’ Because I didn’t have a job and I wasn’t married, she got a phone call saying, ‘Maybe your daughter’s a lesbian.’ So she learnt the word and then she used it on me. And she was like, ‘Are you lesbian?’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m making music. And things are really intense for me right now. I just don’t want to take time out to marry this like fat guy in Sri Lanka with a moustache just right about now.’ And then this year, it’s been ‘underground.’ But she didn’t know ‘underground,’ she thought it was ‘underworld.’ So she rang me up and she was like, ‘My friends in church think you’re underworld, now what is this?’ I was like, this is what happens when you sign to XL.

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