Having delivered one of the defining albums of 2007, M.I.A is one of the most talked-about artists in pop today. Stuffed with politically informed dancefloor bangers, “Kala” is an album that simultaneously appeals to the cerebral and primal.
M.I.A. was born Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam in London to Sri Lankan parents. She was whisked off to her motherland at 6 months old, returning to England 10 years later as a refugee of the civil war.
In return for designing the sleeve to Elastica’s “The Menace” album in 2000, M.I.A. was presented with a Roland 505 sequencer, heralding her first steps into making music.
“Kala,” the followup to her hit debut “Arular,” was scheduled to be produced by hip-hop hitmaker Timbaland (of Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado fame), but visa issues forced M.I.A. down a different path. The result is an album recorded in at least seven different countries, dripping with exotic sounds, electronics and wonky raps.
The Japan Times braved a scratchy phone line to catch up with M.I.A. on the eve of her Japan tour.
Where are you now?
I’m in Sydney. It’s sunny and I’ve been working really hard, waking up at 7 in the morning every day. I went into a juvenile detention center, and I was helping girls to make music, making them believe that maybe they can help themselves. Altogether, there were like 15 girls from 13 to 20. They all just wanted to gangster-rap. They just wanted to be like, “F**k the police,” and I was like, “You can’t, it was made 20 years ago (by NWA), so come up with a new way of saying it. I’ll play some of it to you. (Plays track).
Was that totally from scratch?
It was them beatboxing and making noise. We used the doors shutting in the prison, we used the random noises the girls made to make the beat and then we made sure that all the girls got a go rapping on it.
With “Kala” it sounds as if you’ve grown more confident in your ability.
At first people were like, “Her fashion sense is really bad and her songs are terrible,” all those things, but it’s actually become part of underground culture and it’s doing really well, you know. As long as people remember that, yeah, you can be a Sri Lankan refugee and still be cool, I’ve done my bit for culture.
How has this album moved things on sonically?
Well, I think this album is more worked-on. I put more into it. But at the same time I was also really confused, because, you know, at the beginning I was supposed to work with Timbaland and I was supposed to have a really American-sounding album, and it ended up being the complete opposite. It’s a real outside-America album.
What kind of album would it have been if you’d gone with plan A?
I dunno; I would’ve tried to make music using American producers and stuff, but the effort you have to make is so much harder. I wish I was making music when hip-hop producers made real hip-hop, you know, 10 or 20 years ago. But right now there are a lot of businessmen in music. It’s like going to Coca-Cola and saying, “Hi, I’m interested in making a soft drink,” and them giving me five ideas about the perfect soft drink, and us using that formula. I kinda wanted to go to an old woman making lemonade and say, “Hi, I like your lemonade, and I think people should experience homegrown, handmade, real humans-squeezing-lemons kind of lemonade.” And that’s what I made.
But you did consider going down the Coca-Cola route.
I did that because I’m really open-minded. I can’t really knock Timbaland or say ‘no’ to him. (Making the track “Come Around” from Kala) was a real clash. When I went to meet Timbaland there was a little bit of friction, but I think that’s a good thing to have. In 2007, you can make a checkbook album, which means that you give power to rich people again. So somebody like Paris Hilton can make a record. It’s not about talent, it’s not about spirit, it’s not about having something to say, it’s not about being an outsider, a tortured soul, an artist. What is the point?
You named “Arular” after your father and “Kala” after your mother. What’ll happen with album No. 3?
I’m just trying to install some family stuff into people’s lives. I’m not even sure if I’m making a third one at this moment; I’m not really sure if I’m ready. I just have to figure out if I can achieve being somewhere for six months straight. I dream of that. I have not stopped since 2004, 2005. I gave up my apartment and started traveling. I went to India for like four weeks; that’s the longest time I ever spent in one location. So I just wanna go and see if I can still be human again, wash dishes and stuff.
And what do your parents think of your music?
My mum likes the “Jimmy” video; that’s the first time she saw me as a musician or a singer. She was like, “Oh, you look so pretty!” and that was it. Before she was saying, “Look, are you ready to get that job in the bank?” I think my dad’s just really confused by the whole thing. I haven’t had time to hang out and ask.
M.I.A. plays Nagoya Club Quattro (tel.  264-8211) on Oct. 5, 7 p.m.; Shinsaibashi Club Quattro, Osaka (tel.  6281-8181), Oct. 6, 7 p.m.; Shibuya Club Quattro, Oct. 8, 6 p.m.; Ebisu Liquid Room, Oct. 9 (7 p.m.). For Tokyo shows, call (03) 3462-6969. All tickets are ¥6,000.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.