Album review

A stripped, emotional Lady Gaga comes to life on new album Joanne

A teary-eyed Gaga discusses the new sound she delivers on her latest album, a project close to her heart and a departure from the electronic music that made her a star

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 October, 2016, 8:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 October, 2016, 8:00am

It’s 1.30am and Lady Gaga is on the brink of tears.

The pop star’s new album has been out for 90 minutes and she just celebrated by wrapping up two performances: first inside the New York city bar where she used to sing as an unsigned teenager, and then on top of the venue for all of her feverish fans screaming loudly outside.

A lot has happened to get to this moment: she dealt with the constant reminder of 2013’s Artpop not matching the success of her previous albums; she parted ways with her manager; and she announced she and her fiancé, actor Taylor Kinney, were taking a break.

Lady Gaga says new album a tribute to family roots

But since Artpop, she picked up her sixth Grammy for her jazz album with Tony Bennett; performed at the Oscars – twice – and earned a nomination for an original song; won a Golden Globe this year for her role in American Horror Story; and drew raves for her national anthem performance at this year’s Super Bowl.

Sitting inside her trailer parked outside a New York venue, Gaga is teary-eyed as she discusses the new sound she delivers on Joanne, a rock-pop-country adventure that’s a departure from the dance-flavoured electronic sound that made her a multi-platinum juggernaut.

“Yeah. I mean, I’ve changed a lot. I’ve healed a lot. I’ve healed a lot,” she says, pausing. “Period.

“But I” – she pauses again – “I feel like it would be so strange to hear my music, or hear anyone’s music really, and not hear the change. I change a lot and that’s just who I am. And I’m just going to keep [expletive] being that way, you know.

“The happiest that I am is when I’m just really truly being myself and I’ve always said that to my fans and guess what, they help me make that real,” she says.

Joanne, released last Friday, embarks on new territory as Gaga’s voice takes centre stage. “There’s no Auto-Tune on any of my vocals. Not one,” she says.

She started writing new material two years ago, and then at this year’s Super Bowl she gave Mark Ronson a demo of some songs (he performed Uptown Funk there with Bruno Mars).

“He said to me, ‘I know you can write great songs,’ [but] he said, ‘What do you have to write about? That’s what I want you to write’,” she recalls.

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The result is more emotional tracks compared to past hits, ranging in topics from her love life to her friend’s battle with cancer (the bonus track Grigio Girls) to her aunt Joanne, who died from lupus before Gaga was born (Joanne is also Gaga’s middle name). The closing track, Angel Down, is about Trayvon Martin.

“It was really hard,” she says of writing personal songs. “But it was the best thing I ever did going there, because once you go there, you can’t get darker than there ’cause you just got to look inside and whatever it is it is, and then you pick yourself up and keep going.”

Sinner’s Prayer sounds like it could be played in a Western with lyrics like “Hear my sinner’s prayer/I am what I am/And I don’t wanna break the heart of any other man but you”. Other songs have lyrics that could be about Gaga’s own relationship: Million Reasons is about a failing relationship, and on the first single, Perfect Illusion, she sings: “I still feel the blow/But at least now I know/It wasn’t love, it wasn’t love/It was a perfect illusion.”

“This album is about being tough,” she says. “My dad was tough, he lost his sister out of nowhere, you know. My grandma lost her daughter out of nowhere. My other grandma, she raised herself. I come from a long line of tough family [members] and … I wanted to write a record that reminded people that no matter what perfect illusion you have of me – right – that I’m probably a lot like you.”

The album features some respected musicians helping Gaga round out her sound, including frequent collaborator RedOne, Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, Beck, Florence Welch and Jeff Bhasker, who won producer of the year at this year’s Grammys. Ronson led the team as executive producer and co-wrote each song alongside Gaga.

“I’m not Calvin Harris or some mastermind of dance music at all, but I think, I just kind of obviously guess that the reason she asked me to work on this record with her was because she was probably looking to do something that was a departure from what she’s done,” says Ronson, who has produced Amy Winehouse, Mars and others.

Producer and DJ Mark Ronson puts own spin on his hit songs

“I enjoy like a really big pop song that’s about nothing as well – I DJ’d and played songs like that in the club for 22 years – but I think that as soon as I was aware that she sort of had so many stories to tell … that was going to be able to fill an album … it felt like a really great place to go,” he adds.

Some have not been accepting of the new sound: The New York Times says the album “fishes for inspiration” and The Chainsmokers and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys have dissed Perfect Illusion, which peaked at No 15 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.

“She’s earned the right to experiment and do things differently,” says John Janick, the president of Interscope Records, where Gaga debuted as a nascent dance singer in 2008. “It doesn’t sound like everything else on the radio, but we take that as challenge to say, ‘We want to shift culture. We want the world to move towards her and not move towards everybody else.”

Gaga has showcased the new songs in a small environment and she will perform the songs on an even bigger stage when she headlines the Super Bowl half-time show next year.

“I think it’s always a challenge honestly, album-to-album with me, because I’m always changing [and] I’ve never made an album that was like the one before it. So I don’t know if everyone’s waiting for me to do that, but it might be easier if everyone just got the memo,” she says.