MIA Interviewed: “If Drake Started At The Bottom, I Started In The Abyss” (NME November 2013 Cover Feature)

This week marks 10 years since pop provocateur MIA burst on the scene with ‘Arular’ – her brilliant, beguiling debut album. With rumours of new music on the horizon, revisit her career-spanning interview with NME’s Kevin EG Perry from November 2013, fresh from a Super Bowl controversy that seemed to sum up the star’s button-pushing personality…

“Brown girl, brown girl, turn your shit down”, raps MIA midway through her new record ‘Matangi’. “Let you into Super Bowl, you try to steal Madonna’s crown”. It’s a reminder, if you needed one, of what happened when she overshadowed Madge’s main event by giving the finger to 114 million Americans innocently tuned in to watch two teams of 300-pound bull elephants beat the living hell out of one another in the name of God, advertising and the American Dream. The NFL, playing the shocked ingénue, are trying to lay a $1.5million fine on MIA for her act of rebellion.

The first time I meet the world’s pre-eminent pop agitator, whose friends call her Maya, she’s in a photo studio in Hackney, east London. She is wearing a jumper covered in raised middle fingers. There’s another on her beanie. In front of NME’s photographer, she looks straight down the lens and sticks both her middle fingers up. She might be trying to tell us something.

The $1.5million question is whether she even really wants Madonna’s crown. Every time the stage seems set for her to cash in her chips, smile for the cameras and ascend to the throne, she’ll be dragged away by a devilish current that makes her release shock-tactic videos like Romain Gavras’ film for ‘Born Free’, full of ginger children being rounded up and shot. Or else she’ll decide to hole up with WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange to exchange outlaw conspiracy theories about governments committing murder in cold blood and spying on their own people. These have a habit of turning out to be true.

“Everyone on a daily basis tells me I could be Madonna if I shut up,” she says with a grin. She does an impression of a cigar-chomping pop impresario telling her he can make her a star: “When I get offstage, promoters and big people in the industry come back and they always go: ‘Oh, Maya, you could be Madonna! Or you could be Johnny Rotten! We don’t know! It’s a thin line!’”

She flashes her teeth.

“I’m like: ‘I’m Matangi, bitches! I’m both.’”

Up on the roof of the studio after the photo shoot, the 38-year-old – whose well-worn passport reads Mathangi Arulpragasam – has changed into an oversized T-shirt bearing a kitsch Hindu print. She stands five-foot-five in flat shoes, but her presence is immediate. Maybe it’s that she’s talking 16 to the dozen. She riffs like Wikipedia incarnate, following ideas down rabbit holes like a kid with a short attention span who’s just discovered hyperlinks. She laughs a lot. It’s a conspiratorial laugh, as if you’ve just caught her doing something she shouldn’t be and she’s trusting you not to call the police. Right now she’s curled over a laptop, pulling up Google Images to illustrate how she stumbled across the ideas that would inform ‘Matangi’, her fourth album. The one the record label didn’t get. The one they delayed and delayed because Maya hadn’t delivered what they expected.

They wanted something on-trend. Dubsteppy. She gave them Matangi, Hindu goddess of music and learning. When Maya started researching the deity she shares a name with, give or take an ‘h’, she soon realised she’d found her kind of Tantric goddess. “Matangi is a bit wild and crazy,” she explains. She reads straight from Wikipedia: “‘Matangi represents the power of the spoken word as an expression of thoughts and the mind.’ I feel like what I’m doing is not even new. It already exists. Some dude or woman 5,000 years ago already came up with this story about the things that are important to me. It wasn’t enough to make music just to ‘get back in the game’.
I wanted to tell this story.”

Maya reels off a whole list of coincidences and parallels between herself and Matangi. The goddess represents Hinduism’s “64 arts”, which are called ‘Kala’, the same as Maya’s mum’s name and her second album. Her mantra is ‘Aim’, MIA backwards. Fittingly and inevitably, when she meditates, Matangi places her hands together with – you guessed it – both her middle fingers raised. I ask Maya outright about the Super Bowl incident and it’s her turn to play naive. She suggests she was referencing the meditation pose she’s just demonstrated, but the look in her eye says she knew the exact location of the fuse she was lighting.

Not every link Matangi threw up was a positive one. Maya wanted to know more about her “gem-studded throne”, so she plugged the phrase into Google Images. The very first result shows Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa – who has been implicated in the killing of civilians and captured Tamil Tiger fighters during the country’s civil war; allegations he denies – being presented with just such a bejewelled seat. “I tried to get away from politics on this record,” says Maya. “And I definitely tried to get away from Rajapaksa, but he’s the first thing that comes up!”

Stop. Go back. Having spent years carving out a role for herself as pop’s politically active social conscience and lining up alongside radicals like Assange, why is she trying to get away from politics? Mostly it sounds like a fear of repeating herself. “You could never culturally make a record like ‘Arular’ or ‘Kala’ again,” she says. “I feel shit when I go and talk about ‘Here’s a fucking slum in Africa.’ I talked about these places and said: ‘Hey, there’s positivity and we still like partying even though we’re getting fucked up by all these other things.’ But if you trace those third-world problems to the root, it’s a dude in a suit in a boring office. Why am I gonna talk about him for?”

There’s a line on ‘Matangi’ where Maya raps: “We started from the bottom but Drake gets all the credit”. She nods: “He does, doesn’t he? If his is the bottom, mine is the abyss.” To understand where MIA started from, and why she hates Rajapaksa so much, you have to stare into the abyss of the Sri Lankan civil war.

Maya was born in Hounslow, west London, in July 1975. When she was just six months old, her father, Arul, decided to move the family back to Sri Lanka to join the fight for an independent Tamil state in the north of the country. He had heard too many tales of his fellow Tamil Hindus being oppressed and killed by the Buddhist Sinhalese-majority government. Arul, who adopted the nom de guerre Arular, has been called a terrorist and linked by press reports to the Tamil Tigers, but was in fact a founding member of another group, the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students (EROS). He wasn’t around much when she was young, and even when he was, she had been told he was her uncle so she wouldn’t accidentally give away his location. Maya hasn’t seen him since 2011, and can’t say which continent he might be on.

Life in Sri Lanka was hard. Maya remembers being six years old and still waiting for her two front teeth to appear. “My dad yanked my baby tooth out on a bus,” she explains. “Maybe he was a bit aggressive and it wasn’t ready to come out. They didn’t grow for three years, that’s why they’re massive. They took me to a dentist, but in Sri Lanka they use a grain of rice still in the shell to cut the gum. I would just have to sit there while a woman cut my gums open.”

The situation for the Tamil population has only worsened during Maya’s lifetime. It has been claimed that up to 40,000 mostly Tamil civilians were killed in 2009 while inside what Rajapaksa’s government called, with Orwellian misdirection, ‘No Fire Zones’. This month, that same government will host the UK’s foreign secretary William Hague for a cosy meeting about the future of the Commonwealth. Maya is often characterised as being overly keen to get on her soapbox about Sri Lanka, but wouldn’t any of us do the same?

She’s had to wait for the world to catch up with her fury. Having been accused of “glamorising terrorism” by former producer and boyfriend Diplo, she says she felt vindicated by Callum Macrae’s documentary No Fire Zone, which investigates Rajapaksa’s alleged human rights abuses and was broadcast on Channel 4 last year. “I actually want to screen that film to Diplo,” she says. “I’d like to project it onto his house. This is part of the reason why I can’t really talk about politics on this record in a very direct way, because it just blew my mind how shit it was and how obvious it is these days. It’s so in your face it’s embarrassing.”

As for her friendship with Assange, she calls him “one of the smartest people I know” and sees a kindred link between WikiLeaks and Matangi. “Matangi fights for truth. It was just nice to know him because I guess he fights for the same shit.”

Assange played a small part in the creation of ‘Matangi’. He named the first song, ‘Karmageddon’, she explains, and also helped in the creation of ‘AtTENTion’ by downloading “every possible English word in the library of the internet that had the word ‘tent’ in it. He got me, like, 5,000 words and I had to write a song. I only used about 40.”
Many of Assange’s other high-profile supporters have turned against him following his failure to face rape allegations in Sweden.“It’s difficult, isn’t it?” Maya says. “That’s kind of how they get you these days. It’s your character. They don’t actually assassinate you like they used to in the ’70s. It’s not necessary these days.”

Maya’s mum Kala moved her three children first to Chennai in India and then back to London in 1986, where they were housed as refugees in the Phipps Bridge Estate in south London. Maya grew into a tearaway teenager who would steal from London’s most expensive department stores, something she delighted in telling Versace when she was invited to collaborate with them recently. “It was the only thing I could steal,” she says with relish. “You couldn’t nick it at normal high-street stores because the security was insane. Every teenage person thinks about nicking it at the high-street stores. I would go to the top, top, top store, which is Harvey Nichols, because their security was so lax. I used to just go in there and pretend I was lost, then walk out with Versace jeans. I was the best-dressed poor person in the world.”

She talked her way into Central Saint Martins, where she studied fine art, film, and video. On the day she graduated in 2000, she got a phone call to say that her cousin Janna had gone missing in action in Sri Lanka. Her search for him inspired the name ‘MIA’. She met Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, an early fan of her art, who promptly asked Maya to design the cover for their second album ‘The Menace’ and direct the video for ‘Mad Dog God Dam’. The pair became flatmates. While on tour as Elastica’s photographer, Maya was encouraged by Frischmann – and Peaches – to work with a Roland MC-505, which she used to write her first single, ‘Galang’, in 2002.

Her debut ‘Arular’ was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2005, but it’s 2008’s ‘Paper Planes’, from the follow-up ‘Kala’, that made her a worldwide star – and earned her an Oscar nomination by its inclusion in Slumdog Millionaire. Many expected a pop crossover from 2010’s ‘///Y/’. An industrial-sounding concept album about who controls the internet, it was met with utter bafflement. Maya shrugs when I ask if she was disappointed. “‘Maya’ is a confusing concept,” she says. “It’s an illusion. It’s about exactly what I said it was about: truth and lies. The fact that it had a confused reception is good. It was meant to. It wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about me capitalising on my mainstream credibility. It was more important to be consistent with making a body of work.”

She wrestled with fame: “I used to put myself through shit, going: ‘Why can’t I just be normal? Why can’t I just do it? Why can’t I sell out? Why can’t I record that song and record that hook about partying in Las Vegas? I wished I could do it, but I couldn’t. Now I’m happy I can’t. I’m untouchable in the sense that I will always find something else to do. I’ll find inspiration. That’s more important to me.”

At the same time the critics were scratching their heads over ‘///Y/’ and trying to undermine MIA by pointing out any hole in her logic, Maya herself was more concerned with her home life. She was separating from her billionaire fiancé Benjamin Bronfman, the father of her son Ikhyd, with whom she had lived in palatial one-percenter luxury in LA. “In a way it helped because I was going through the break-up,” she says. “All my day-to-day problems were dealing with that and with my child, so I wasn’t paying attention to the press.”

Maya has been living back in the UK since 2011, and had to fight a protracted legal battle to ensure she could return here from the USA with her son. “I’m really proud of the fact that I had to go to court to come to England, and I want English people to know that,” she says. “It was worth fighting for.”

The next time I meet MIA we’re backstage at Mexico City’s Corona Capital festival in mid-October. She’s in a green parka and “Thai bride shoes” that she picked up earlier in the day at one of the city’s many flea markets. Tonight is one of just a handful of dates she has scheduled worldwide ahead of the release of ‘Matangi’. Don’t expect a full world tour.

“I try to limit it. I have a child, you know. I was already tour-shy. Now when I do shows it’s very controlled. I have a life. I enjoy playing live, but I get so into it that it takes me a few days to come out. To give that energy every night is really hard, especially when you make high-energy music. It’s a lot to fucking give.”

She looks surprised when I remind her ‘Matangi’ is about to be released. “Oh my god, yeah,” she murmurs. “It’s been two years in the making and I’m never going to listen to it again.”

Why not?

“’Cos I always do that. I never listen to my records. Once I’ve made it then I never listen to it. When you’re making it you listen to it all the time. But when I’ve made it and it’s done and I hand it in, then I don’t listen to it. You listen to it all the time in the car. Whichever car you’re in. You have to listen to it in your headphones, on the laptop, in your mate’s car, in your mum’s car, at the local shopping centre… but once it’s out there then it’s other people’s. It’s not yours.”

How does she feel now, about to hand this music over to the world? She looks deep in thought. “I don’t know how I feel,” she says finally. “Until a few days ago nobody who had worked on the record had heard the other songs. They didn’t have a copy of it. Nobody had played it. Everyone was just in a state of weird limbo. Now they’ve heard it everyone’s like: ‘Oh, it’s really cool. It’s incredible. You should be really happy. Blah, blah, blah.’ But they say that all the time!”

I laugh and tell her she’s being ungracious.

“I know, I know. I just like making instant albums. The time this one took wasn’t nice.”

Suddenly her mood brightens and she breaks into a toothy smile. “I’m definitely going to make a mixtape. If the albums are like planets, then the mixtapes are like little moons. I think the full-length ‘Matangi’ mixtape is going to be good. I love doing that. It takes me 48 hours. I go in the studio. I just do it. I don’t care about anyone else. I don’t call anyone. I don’t ask anyone for anything. I don’t have to sit and communicate to a producer. I just make it and put it out and it’s done. I’m looking forward to that. I can make a record in a day. In fact, that’s how I thrive. When someone says, ‘You’ve got 24 hours: make a record’, I can do it, but one thing I can’t take is having a long drawn-out process.”

Is she under contract for her next record, I wonder?

“I am, but only under MIA…” she says coyly.

On the last day of 2010, in between ‘///Y/’ and ‘Matangi’, Maya released the free ‘Vicki Leekx’ mixtape, which spawned one of her biggest hits, ‘Bad Girls’, now also on ‘Matangi’. Would she do something like that again? “Maybe I’ll become Matangi and just do it. Matangi’s concept of music was before it was monetised. It’s very difficult to exist within the monetised parameters of music. I could do a Brian Eno-style Matangi record that would just be sounds: ‘Boing, ping, bong’. Get into the ambient frequencies. I’m sure Interscope aren’t going to want that record. I’m sure they’d much rather have MIA records than Matangi records. Anyone that wants to sign Matangi on a small indie label, I’m here, available, free.”

MIA’s show that night lives up to her ‘high energy’ promise, closer to a rave than the rehearsed inanity of a pop concert. “I’m called Matangi,” Maya announces before a performance that doesn’t let the sweat-soaked audience catch its breath. It’s an exhilarating set that showcases how, unlike Madonna’s constant attention-seeking reinventions, the MIA back catalogue stands as a coherent art performance. She’s carved out a unique place for herself: a refugee who has taken over the apparatus of mainstream pop to smuggle Eastern philosophy and radical thought into the cultural ether.

Steve Loveridge, who studied with Maya at Saint Martins and who has been working on a documentary about her life, calls her a “complicated person to work with and a hard taskmaster”. Earlier this year he quit, saying he’d “rather die” than finish the film. Now it’s back on, although Maya jokes that they’re still looking for the right conclusion: “I’m scared he’s going to have me killed just to create a good ending!”

On the flight home I’m still trying to find the perfect way to describe Maya. Johnny Rotten stealing Madonna’s crown. An art-school-educated refugee who overlaps the personal and political more than any other contemporary musician. When I land, my phone buzzes. An email I’ve been waiting for. It’s Julian Assange. He sends a suggestion from inside the bunker: “She’s the world’s loudest and finest rapping and dancing megaphone for the truth.”