M.I.A. Settles Down (for Now) After a Lifetime of Upheavals
The past year has been a big one for M.I.A., although, in truth, every year has been a big one for her, starting long before Maya Arulpragasam took on her stage moniker and started making music. When she was only 6 months old, her family relocated from London back to their native Sri Lanka and, after that, they lived the nomadic life of refugees while her father fought in a political insurgency group on the Tamil side of the Sri Lankan Civil War. Estranged from her father, M.I.A.'s family fled to India, then back to England.
M.I.A. discovered electronic music and began creating the mash-up of hip-hop, grime and baile funk that would become her trademark. Her first album, 'Arular,' became something an Internet sensation and made M.I.A. an instant underground celebrity. In 2008, a year after releasing her second album, 'Kala,' the song 'Paper Planes' became a ubiquitous summer hit propelled by its prominent use in the trailer for the film 'Pineapple Express' (and then, later, in 'Slumdog Millionaire').
M.I.A. now stands at a crossroads: She could dive deeper into the mainstream or she could continue to make music that is -- on the surface -- too abrasive for anywhere but dance clubs. The thing is, no matter where she goes next, she doesn't want it to be contrived. M.I.A. recently sat down with Spinner to tell us exactly where she's at right now, even if the actual cross streets are still unknown. In the process, she reveals details regarding her new album, the effect of motherhood on her career and what it's like to finally be settled in a place long enough to unpack.
Was Michael Jackson a big influence on you growing up?
Yes, of course. He's the only music that we had in Sri Lanka in terms of Western music. For my generation, anyway. The only tapes that made it to Sri Lanka were Michael Jackson. That was it. That was all we had. The whole village listened to Michael Jackson, they made bootleg tapes, tape to tape, for each other, and that's kinda all we had for years, like from when 'Thriller' came out until the time we left.
Did you also get to see his dancing and his videos, or did you just get to hear the music?
I got to see it in a very wonderful way because people in Bollywood were referencing it, so they had all these films come out where everybody was kind of dancing like Michael Jackson. It influenced the fashion; every boy in Sri Lanka wore Michael Jackson outfits. It's like everyone had the Michael Jackson hairstyle and the pants, but it was really hot so they wore flip-flops instead of the socks and the shoes. But it influenced the culture in so many ways because a ton of people looked like that. There were loads of boys and kids that could relate to that look. So, yeah, I think he really caught on. That was kind of when I was getting to see some of the stuff on TV. There was only about one TV in the whole village. You felt it anyway. You listen to Michael Jackson's music and without even seeing him dance, it makes you dance.
As you were talking about the fashion and Michael's influence on culture, it occurred to me that there's some kind of parallel to your own career. There are little girls everywhere who dress like M.I.A. now. And with Michael, it wasn't just the music but it was also the dancing and the fashion and a certain style -- it seems like you may have been influenced by all of that.
When I was a teenager, when I got into hip-hop and stuff like that, it made a difference that I had something to do other than just listen to the music. I think that's how youth culture works. Also, just as a person, a lot of stuff when I was just making music, the style or the clothes I was wearing or whatever I was doing, and the artwork -- it was kind of in retaliation to what was going on before. And in England, everyone wears beige and so it was like a reaction to growing up there. And I'm sure that in the future there will be a reaction to our loads of colors, and it will go back to being beige or something. But that's how it works. And I think at the time that I came out and I put music out and the way that I was dressing, a lot of other people felt the same way. Or kids in the underground scene felt like that, so they sort of picked up on it.
I loved your set at Coachella this year, but it seemed like you weren't as comfortable playing on the main stage as you were in the dance tent the year before. Is that accurate?
Honestly, it's like when Daft Punk played .. .Daft Punk have got way more music than I have and time in music than me and they still played the same Sahara Tent that I played in 2008. I think it just has to do with dance music. I just always counted my stuff as dance music. And what happened between Coachella 2008 and 2009 is that 'Paper Planes' had gone mainstream and people started seeing me as an "artist" as opposed to a "dance act." It's really weird. 'Kala' got to, like, Number One on the electronic charts or something and I just processed it always like that -- I make electronic music. And it was really weird because then I was in this other realm where I had, like, 50,000 people, but it didn't feel like being in a club. And maybe in my head and who I am as an artist, I needed to digest that and I felt like I just wasn't ready to turn the main stage into a big club.
I would've much rather moved the main stage into the tent. But when I had it in the tent, there was just so much chaos. And you know it's not like I planned it; that's just how it was. People were climbing up the rafters and people couldn't fit in and stuff. And there was like a huge reaction to that and a reaction against Coachella about that. Loads of people wrote in saying "You should've put M.I.A. on the main stage. Why did you put her in the tent?"
Coachella was right after your appearances at the big awards shows, and a lot more people knew who you were than the year before. You even mentioned it during the set and said something about wanting to go back to the tent next time.
I just was really honest, like, don't you think shows in tents are better? That's how I grew up. I used to go to raves and stuff. And when I go to festivals, I watch big bands on the main stage like the Verve, or if I was at Glastonbury I would've seen Blur on the main stage. But in terms of a dance act, when I go to see the Prodigy or Chemical Brothers or Daft Punk or whatever, I want to see them in a tent because that's when you're going to like feel like dancing and it's all contained and the heat and the sweat of the people -- it all adds to the atmosphere.
On that note, do you think that 'Paper Planes' changed the trajectory of your career in a way that you weren't anticipating? Once it became a hit, you entered the mainstream even if you're not actually mainstream.
I remember when I made 'Arular,' I had those 'Paper Planes' sides to me, but the kids wanted dance music. And when I made 'Kala,' I remember going to an Apple Store and I was trying to get my computer fixed. There was a guy who didn't know who I was, but I had an M.I.A. sticker on my laptop and he said, "Oh, you listen to M.I.A?" and I went, "Yeah." And he goes, "The first album is so much better because it was dancey and the second album wasn't." So I was just like, "All right. Well, I didn't mind it. I thought it was all right." But his opinion reflected ... like, you know, I was interested in hearing it because that's kind of how some people felt -- like I was more like "that." It depends on what happens on my next album.
You formed a boutique label, N.E.E.T., with Interscope Records and have taken Rye Rye under your wing. You now have the opportunity to work with younger artists who might be making the kind of music you'd want to listen to. Do you feel some urge to give these artists a break or give them support?
Yeah, I think there's definitely room for that -- to just encourage fun. I think you're always going to have an industry way of doing it and then there's just going to be a bunch of people out there making music. I come from that side of it where it is just more independently grown, and I think that now that I have the opportunity with Interscope to put forward new artists, it would be good to link those two things. I just feel like a bridge. And if artists want help, or for me to be that bridge for them to get heard, then that's cool. I'm here. It's kind of weird because I don't want to become a boring label exec or whatever, but at the same time it's kind of important for me to also surround myself with people who make music in my life.
Can we talk a little bit more about your new album? Do you think it's going to surprise anybody in terms of the direction or does it fall in a linear path with all the music you've made so far?
I'm just kind of exploring everything. I think on 'Kala' I was outside in the world and I was just out there everywhere and never really sort of had anywhere to put my bags down and I was sleeping on people's couches and traveling the whole time. I was practically living in an airport. And I think that's the way it's changed; the process has changed. I can't travel that much because I have my baby, but I haven't ever worked like this before ... and I kind of knew that that would help.
In order to make music, I kind of have to feel some sort of hardship. I've always found it easier to create when you're just sort of left on your own to deal with your own s--- and your own mess and your own whatever. And I think having a baby makes me a lot more focused in terms of time. Before, if I had a year to make music, then I know that I have to do it this time in a shorter space of time. And if I got to spend 24 hours in the studio last time and sleep in it and be in it and eat in it and whatever, now I know that that's not possible because I have to have my baby down there.
You said 'Kala' was recorded when you were practically living in airports. I know it's not even a fair comparison, but before you toured as an artist, you always moved around a lot and got displaced and were forced to travel ...
This is the first time in my life that I've been settled. This is the first time that I've had anywhere and I've had my stuff. For the first time, I'm listening to demo tapes that I recorded in 2003. And it's really interesting to hear that; I haven't even had contact with these tapes for ages. So it's weird listening to all of those tapes because it's like my past has been erased. But that is what it's like when you're a refugee. Every time you get to a level and you move on to the next stage, the past just gets deleted. It's really strange. But that's how my life has been always.
When I left Sri Lanka, the town got deleted and my schools got deleted and where I lived in India got deleted. They built a Bollywood studio on top of this area where I lived. And then my work that I did in school or my work that I've done with my music and stuff -- it's like I don't have any of that s--- anymore. So at every phase, I have to start from scratch and build it. Which also reflects why I don't have a manager and I don't have a team and I don't have anyone, because I'm rebuilding everything from scratch again. You have to pick up your own paintbrush and start your own artwork. It's interesting and it's good for me because you have to keep the process changing all the time, just for me to stay interested in it. I think if I was going to just keep repeating stuff, it would feel like a job and not feel like I'm making art. For me, it's important to just renew things all the time and keep it recycled.
You've had so many places where you've resided but not for long, and as you just said, so much of your past has been deleted. What does the word "home" mean to you now?
I don't know. I think -- 'home'' -- I'm still working it out. I don't think I'm mature enough to have worked all that out. Maybe my definition of home is going to be that it's not a place but it's a bunch of people. But I'm not sure ... I think I'll still keep moving. Now that I have a baby, I have to think about where he goes and where he's getting educated, what schools he's going to go to, and I want to keep it open and keep him traveling so he's just meeting everybody and learning about life from the horse's mouth and not like living it out through an X-Box or a PlayStation.