Pop megastar Lady Gaga is back with a genre-hopping album to surprise even the most ardent fans – and it’s all thanks to spiritual guidance from her deceased aunt. Dan Stubbs hears how ‘Joanne’ helped heal long-held family rifts and brought Gaga back from the brink
On September 9, Lady Gaga hopped onto the stage at London’s Moth Club, a sweaty Hackney venue with gold-painted walls and a shimmering Quality-Street-wrapper stage curtain. Wearing a grey jersey crop top and silver shorts, she debuted ‘Perfect Illusion’, the rocky new single from her new album ‘Joanne’, which is out today. On it, Gaga does country, rock, disco, pop and all points in between. There’s a duet with Florence Welch that sounds like Elton John’s ‘Bennie And The Jets’, a love song dedicated to John Wayne and a weirdo pop track with Beck in which all the lyrics seem to be thin euphemisms for masturbation. On the cover: Lady Gaga in side profile, hardly any make-up. It’s a face that should be recognisable but somehow isn’t.
For the people crammed into Moth Club it must have felt like an alien encounter – seeing a true, untouchable superstar in the flesh in a club that looks like Del Boy Trotter’s boudoir. But that’s key to the ‘Joanne’ experience. While it’s an album that heads in many directions, all of them are populist and accessible – fodder for the jukebox in a your local dive bar, or to soundtrack your hot dogs during next year’s Super Bowl half-time show. Gaga’s back and she wants to go for a beer with you. Except, she insists, it’s not that cynical.
“None of the records I make are ever a deliberate construction – they’re always an expression of who I am at the time and where I am in my life,” she says, on the phone from an “undisclosed location” in the desert. “My intention was to, you know, connect with people that would not normally connect with someone like me.”
Interesting phrase, because what, exactly, is Lady Gaga like? On her 2008 debut, things were simple: she sang about ‘The Fame’ and became famous as a result – monstrously, massively famous, with 15 million albums sold and a 203-date arena spectacular tour that grossed more than $200m. Off the back of that, second album ‘Born This Way’ celebrated individuality and ramped up the Gaga-ness to the point where one edition depicted her as a part-human, part-motorbike hybrid. Then came 2013’s high concept third album ‘ArtPop’, the artist as an art object. Its singles failed to chime and its conceit tested listeners, preaching more to her hardcore of Little Monsters – the faithful fan group who refer to her as ‘Mother Monster’ and look up to her as their guru.
Gaga sidesteps the notion that the album misfired (“I felt, to be honest, more connected to my fans than ever doing ‘ArtPop’ – especially during the [ArtRave] tour,” she insists), but she admits that all was not rosy. Soon after its release, she contemplated quitting music for good. Or, rather, quitting the fame game.
“I was just having a really depressed time in my life where I wasn’t able to see my own ability or my own talent,” she says. “And when you lose grasp of those sorts of things, you can just spiral. But you know, to the world ‘quitting music’ means one thing and to me it means another. I meant giving up putting out music, as opposed to just doing it for myself, which is what makes me really and truly happy.
“When you become famous or you become a star, there’s all these other things that begin to happen, and you have to work the system – especially in the music industry today, which is so different. You’re dealing with this streaming war and it’s an absolute nightmare to witness as an artist because it’s not about music and it’s all about business – and that’s just not who I am at all. At the end of the day, who I really and truly am is a little girl who loved to play the piano.
“So once you start putting that little girl into the system, she starts to get kind of… well, why am I doing this? What I want for my fans and for the world, for anyone who feels pain, is to lean into that pain and embrace it as much as they can and begin the healing process.” So that’s what she did.
For Gaga, the healing process seemed to involve wearing as many masks as possible, spinning existing strands of her art into bigger projects that challenged fans further. In 2014, Gaga the jazzer released the ‘Cheek To Cheek’ album with crooner Tony Bennett. In 2015, Gaga the Broadway kid performed a medley of The Sound Of Music songs at the Oscars. That autumn, Gaga the actress took on a recurring role in TV’s American Horror Story, for which she won a Golden Globe. Her last high-profile public appearance was at February’s Grammy Awards, where she turned in a heartfelt but divisive tribute to the late David Bowie. Bowie’s son, film director Duncan Jones, called it “mentally confused” on Twitter.
“I really did not want to do it when they first called me because it was so soon after [Bowie’s death] and I felt very uncomfortable, but I did my very best to put together something that I hoped would be the showstopper of the night,” she says now. Did Jones’ comments hurt? “Yeah. It did. It did hurt,” she says slowly. “But what are you going to do? I can’t… it’s his father, you know?”
A fair question, amid all the ch-ch-changes, was this: where had the fun, outrageous, bulletproof popstar gone? And today, Gaga credits the late Joanne Germanotta for pulling her out of that “spiral” and bringing that person back.
Joanne was Gaga’s aunt, who died of the autoimmune disease lupus eight years before Gaga was born. The singer takes one of her names – Stefani Joanne Angelina – from her dad’s sister, and feels she lives on in her.
“I’ve had faith my whole life that there was someone looking out for me, a spirit guide, a soul guide,” she says. “An angel hovering somewhere, who was going to help lead the way.”
Embracing the idea that her aunt was looking out for her led Gaga to delve into her relationship with her father.
“I think I’ve realised that for many years I felt it my responsibility to heal him, but in truth it’s maybe not my responsibility at all,” she says. “I never understood the rage and anger of my father, but understanding his loss of his sister in Joanne, this helped me understand more where his pain came from – and where my pain came from, because it came from him. I am who I am because of my family and I carried a lot of shame for a long time about being rebellious. But what I’ve realised is that the toughness in me is something that comes from what came before me, and everything my family and their family before them went through.”
It might, I suggest, surprise people to hear she feels shameful about anything. Gaga proudly stands against bullying and intolerance – her charitable Born This Way Foundation works for that cause – but she also stands for an overbearing confidence in the self. You don’t just pull a meat dress out of your wardrobe of an evening.
“Well, I say [shame] because I’m a Catholic,” she says. “Even in the Bible, it says that if you sing you’re a harlot. These sorts of things get ingrained in you at a young age. So as I grew up and was the way that I was – very different, very unique – whether it was people at school making fun of me or my father telling me that I was defiant or a ‘bad girl’, those things stay with you and they creep back in when the loop of negativity comes back into your life.”
The teenage Gaga, she says, was “a real Jersey girl” – crop tops, voluminous hair, plenty of make-up. “I was a fun young woman who was looking for herself, but growing up in an Italian-American household doing things like that, it’s not taken very well.”
It’s a feeling that continued when she started performing, but it began in puberty. “Growing up, somehow there was a shame in your womanhood, like as soon as you get breasts or as soon as you look like a woman – this can create conflict in the house,” she says.
A sense of looking back at Gaga’s past is ever-present in ‘Joanne’. The track ‘Diamond Heart’ tells the story of a girl working as a go-go dancer to make ends meet, lyrically the kind of broken American dream Bruce Springsteen sings about. That girl, Gaga confirms, is her. “It’s completely autobiographical,” she says. “When I moved downtown [New York] at 17 I became a go-go dancer. I remember looking at the men and thinking to myself: ‘Lay it on me. I know that you think you know what I am, but the truth is I may not be perfect – yeah, Dad! – and I might not be flawless – Dad! World! – but I have a diamond heart. I have a good and strong spirit within me.’ Life is a dog fight for a lot of people. When you find the pitbull within yourself, that’s Joanne.”
For an album fuelled by the complexities of the father-daughter relationship, Gaga’s commune of ‘Joanne’ collaborators makes for interesting reading. She assembled a kind of hipster-rock biker gang – comprising crooning lothario Father John Misty, totemic Queens Of The Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, pop oddball Beck, ‘Sorry’ songwriter Bloodpop, Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker and mega-voiced Brit Florence Welch – and took them off to the California desert to work with super-producer Mark Ronson. It sounds, it must be said, a very male environment.
“It was a lot of dudes, but what’s great is there was a boys’ club and they let me in it. To embrace me as a musician was such a healing moment for me in my life – to not be treated as just any other pop star.”
That, really, is key: Gaga is not just any other pop star, and ‘Joanne’ is not just any album. At the point of writing, four days before its release, the record is still totally under wraps to all but us privileged few who’ve been permitted to listen to it on an iPod in the offices of her label Polydor. But ‘Perfect Illusion’ – which is already out – hasn’t been the comeback smash you might expect, peaking at Number 12 in the UK and Number 15 in the US. Outside of the Little Monster faithful, some are questioning whether Gaga still has it. Gaga’s not to be shaken.
“Opinions are like assholes; everybody has one,” she says. “Definitely I did not make this album with the opinion of the world being thrust at me constantly through the toilet of the internet. I used the opinions of Mark Ronson and my collaborators – and my own opinion. Because I have to trust my own opinion. Not to sound arrogant, because I truly don’t believe I’m an arrogant person, but after selling 80 million records, you gotta kinda go: ‘OK, why the f**k right now would I throw in the towel and worry what everybody thinks of me?’”
She has a point. But you suspect there’s one other opinion she wanted: that of her father, who inspired so much of the project. So does he like it?
“I’ll never forget it,” she says. “We were mastering the album in New York and my father was going, ‘You know, my god, MY GOD, you’ve made a lot of great records but this one, this one is REALLY a great record!’ So my father loves it. But he’s my dad, so…”
That’s the new Gaga then; more likely to be found in New York’s Joanne Trattoria, the restaurant she runs with her family, than in the club; more likely to wear denim shorts than a dress made of Kermits. Is it the true Gaga or a ‘Perfect Illusion’? Happily, we may never really know.