The first time I was in the same room as Lady Gaga, she was dressed as a sofa. It was 2014, and she was in flowing, fluffy white, hosting a talk in Texas. It was hard to work out where singer ended and upholstery began. Every movement looked tricky. This was the Artpop phase, her third album, labelled a flop even though it sold 2.5m copies. The whole era seemed like effort, but, 2½ years later, thousands of miles away, she enters London’s gloomiest room and blends in with its shadows.
Her outfit today is off-duty car mechanic at a late-1960s rockers’ night: dark jeans and a striped black and brown shirt — sleeves rolled up, showing off her tattoos — blonde hair, roots showing, tied back tight. For a woman who once stagedived wearing a fishnet top with stars over her nipples, this is less stripped, more stripped back.
You seem, I suggest, less adorned. “Adorned,” she replies quietly, but smiling. “That’s a good way of putting it.” After Artpop, Gaga made a jazz record with Tony Bennett with opening lines, by Cole Porter, that felt deliberate: “In olden days a glimpse of stocking/Was looked on as something shocking/ Now, heaven knows, anything goes.” It is applicable now, a sense that, once you have a Wikipedia page for your meat dress, where do you go?
“To be frank,” she says with an edge, to suggest she really means it, “I would just prefer to go through this album cycle and talk about my music. That’d be great. It becomes about everything else, and that was what I [once] wanted. But if I wear a black T-shirt and black pants every day, [people] might listen to what I write. All the outfits, fashion and art pieces over the years made sense to me. They didn’t make sense to other people...”
She pauses, laughs, continues. “But I always got it. It was an expression, not a hiding. This time, my style just stayed naturally at how I’ve been in the studio. I started vehemently saying, ‘Get these clothes out! I’m not wearing this! I’m not wearing heels!’ And some of that, too, is because I’ve been in the studio with boys. You can’t make music with a bunch of boys who are staring at a lobster on your head. They are going to get distracted.”
The new album is called Joanne, and the “boys” include Mark Ronson, Beck and the modish, Randy Newman-like songwriter Father John Misty. Both the title and the personnel inform an aesthetic. She says she is a hipster from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, so these artists fit her better than many would expect. Indie, musically organic, they hail from very different clubs from her previous collaborators R Kelly and Beyoncé; cheaper ones with more spilt whisky. Gaga’s career was founded on the dance tunes Paparazzi, Poker Face and, the pop song of the decade, Bad Romance. Although, on Born This Way (2011), her sound widened to melodies not unlike the Killers meeting Elton John, she has, by and large, been disco fun. Those boys of hers? Pretty much anything but.
Sir Elton, a mentor of sorts, claims this album is her Tapestry. Shorn of energetic weirdness, concentrating on American country tradition, backed by her superb voice, that’s a mad pitch that sounds more likely the more you hear of it.
Gaga is 30 this year and wants to appeal to everyone, specifically those who thought an oversexed, androgynous loudmouth from snooty Manhattan would never write a song that related to them. Even more specifically, she wants to appeal to “this woman in middle America with hair pulled back, no make-up and jewellery heirlooms from her family, a sweatshirt you’d buy at the drugstore, a kid in one hand, pinot grigio in the other, two kids running around, you don’t know if she’s married. But she’s at my show, crying her eyes out because she feels I’m speaking for her.”
It is the woman behind Joanne, however, who most informs this new approach, inspiring Gaga to dress as if she shops in Gap and putting a focus on lyrics, not latex. Any image is planned, extravagant or not, but in a room where the only distraction is the candle, a type you’d find in a mid-range spa, some things are harder to fake. Gaga starts to cry. Not tears to wet her cheeks, but to fill eyes, make her words wobble and cause me to doubt that the public ever really knew who she was.
While waiting for her to get some rest from a visit to Britain that began with breakfast radio and later included an early-hours visit to a drag club, I chatted to her dad, Joe. We talked treadmills, the dawn of wi-fi, and he mimicked cradling a baby, shushing her to sleep. They are a close family, but only later, talking to his daughter, did I twig how delicate they are now.
Joanne was Joe’s sister. She gave her niece a middle name (Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta is on Gaga’s birth certificate), while inspiring a tattoo, “12/18/1974”, the date Joanne died, 11 years before Gaga was born. Eastern philosophy is never a subject to bring up in a pop interview, but Gaga talks of Joanne in a way that suggests she has reincarnation sites bookmarked. Joanne, an artist, died at 19; Gaga dropped out of college to become an artist at 19. She has even signed posts on Instagram “Love, Joanne xoxo”.
It’s pushing 8pm when we talk about the record. Outside, her fans — known as Little Monsters — huddle from the pouring rain under scaffolding, wearing sodden shoes. They are the most devoted around, but are in for a surprise. On Joanne’s title track, she is, pretty much, singing a classy acoustic ballad about her dead aunt. It’s a long way from the lyrics on Artpop: “Uranus! Don’t you know my ass is famous?”
“It’s based on my father’s relationship with his sister,” Gaga says of the record’s title. When Joe cries about his sister, “he sits there, and tears stream down his face”. He doesn’t even move, she says. “My whole life, I never understood why my father was so sad, drank so much or was wild. I thought it was my fault, and it was painful for the family. I’d witness year after year that feeling of loss within my father and grandparents. There’s something so powerful and deep to lose a child.”
Gaga says doctors wanted to amputate Joanne’s hands, but her grandmother wouldn’t let them. She had problems with them caused by lupus, the disease that killed her, but the family said she was a poet and a writer so had to keep them with her. “Then,” the singer says, “[my grandmother] said she went into the waiting room and prayed that God take her child.”
Nothing is conceptual any more, Gaga says of her new output. “You could ask me something personal about each song. I’m not sure I’d go into detail about it, but Joanne gave me strength to live the rest of the life she didn’t get to have. Calling it Joanne is... I guess, I think, if I can heal one person, maybe I can heal two, five, 10 million. If I could just heal my dad, then maybe [I] might heal someone else.”
If this all sounds a bit sad, some mood levels down from one interview in which Gaga took the press to Berlin sex clubs, there are patches of lightness. She’s good company, smart and enthusiastic in a shoulder-shrugging New York way. Next year, she has her first lead in a big film, Bradley Cooper’s redo of the Judy Garland vehicle A Star Is Born, with Gaga as the rising singer, Cooper as the ageing actor. I suggest she could do another remake in 30 years, with her as a fading star. There is a silence. “Oh God,” she replies finally. “Oh my. Can we just work on tomorrow? Stop scheduling my future!” When I ask if she is nervous about sniffy film critics, she fixes with me a wry look and says everybody has opinions, before adding, with devilish relish: “I am sure you can find opinions about yourself on the internet...”
So she is funny and, despite the new look, still eccentric. At three points, she sings to me. I can’t look her in the eye during those renditions, which seem to last as long as The Iliad, because it is odd when Lady Gaga sits knee-to-knee and sings for you, and the only way to dodge awkwardness is to gawp at the lacing on your shoes. Yet for a few bars of a duet she has recorded with Florence Welch (“Hey girl, hey girl, we can make it easy if we lift each other!”), that is what I do, while she taps the table as a convenient drum.
“The song is about women supporting one another,” she says, while I slowly raise my head. “Many women, no matter their race, colour, religion, go through the same issues with men, bodies, minds. A lot of women shut down, as they don’t feel heard. It ain’t easy. I know it is pulling me apart. Is it pulling you apart?” I thought that was rhetorical, but a pause suggests otherwise, so I nod. “This is about an unconditional love women should have for each other.” A feminism that doesn’t in-fight? “Yeah. It is quite simple. I’d like women to hear the song and, when they walk into a bar and see a girl they’ve never met, they just go, ‘Hey girl!’ And that means, I know. We’re in this bar, and these men are foolish, but I got you...”
Yet I wonder, who’s still got her? Gaga has sold nearly 30m albums. She was pop’s most interesting star at the turn of the decade, and won six Grammys. Yet when it comes to peers right now, she is below Beyoncé and Taylor Swift in the public gaze. She would fill smaller rooms than Ed Sheeran, but controversy still follows her. If you don’t fit a mould, there’s more to pick at, and, since our meeting, Gaga has been mocked for a back-to-basics dive-bar tour, sponsored by Bud Light and accused of paying $5m to buy next year’s prestigious Super Bowl slot, while facing a so-so reaction to her comeback single, Perfect Illusion. Some claim she wrote it about her ex, Taylor Kinney, but it is actually about the internet. None of this is what anybody expects, so they react. Just wait until they hear Joanne.
Isn’t this the point? Gaga is the last big misfit, and her eyes water again at a mention of David Bowie. She performed a scatter-gun tribute to him at the Grammys and says, of a man whose obituaries invariably mentioned her: “I was always moved by his ability to be comforted by his absurdity.” It’s a bold stance for a woman who once turned up on German television dressed in Kermit the Frogs, but it makes sense and is appealing in an industry full of Sam Smiths.
“It’s why I’ve been so defiant about people commenting on my performances, as that was always the point,” she says. “The point was to bemuse. But then you go to the rest of Bowie, and you see he was even more brilliant as a musician than as someone we remember for his fantastic magical presence.”
Everything Gaga does tries to mean more than first appears. She has talked of being inspired by Andy Warhol, but she’s really more MC Escher. You glaze over at the image, as it looks as if it is just showing off — but when you take it in, you twig that the artist has unexpected depth. She has always stood for tolerance, even speaking against her Catholic roots, yet lives in a world that’s far less tolerant than when she set out. The opening line on the gorgeous, melancholy album closer, Angel Down, is “I confess I am lost”, before the song asks: “Where are our leaders?” The whole point of Born This Way was its call for acceptance so, as a sworn Hillary Clinton supporter, in an election close to choosing the other guy, is she defeated or, at least, discouraged?
“No, I wouldn’t say I’m discouraged,” she says. “I would just say I’m older and in a strong state of reality, trying, with statements about positivity and love, to speak in a way that is not too naive, perhaps, in a way where people who live in this world can relate to what I’m saying, as opposed to feeling it’s la-di-da... It’s about using words and allowing the pain I feel to exist on the record, and not to hide it with anything. I’ll say that. My mother cried when I started recording [this]. I asked ‘What’s wrong?’, and she said, ‘There’s so much pain in your voice now.’”
We hug at the end, and she is tiny. Someone who carried the world on her shoulders for a while, but now feels them sag. (That final song also includes the line, “Angel down, why do people just stand around?”) For an artist aware of a rise in anti-liberalism in her country and beyond, she knows it’s completely the wrong time to bring out a pop album existing in a club bubble and full of optimistic bangers. This new look of hers is deliberately American, but the America that wears stetsons, hates Manhattan, listens to Garth Brooks and votes Donald Trump. She is from a world they hate, but is now making a style of music they love. She is, loftily, trying to bridge the divide.
“I believe everybody has a Joanne in their life,” she says of an album she claims has universal appeal. “Everybody has someone they’ve either lost or is a pending loss. My best friend has stage 4 cancer...” She sings again. “Seven years ago, I said you’d make it.” She clicks her fingers and I tap my toes. “On the pinot, pinot grigio girls pour your heart out/Watch your blues turn gold.” We sway. I need a glass of wine. She links that song, too, to her aunt.
“In this world, we’re all trying to keep up, put a perfect image out of who we are,” she says, more Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta than we have seen before. “But the most happy and authentic I ever feel is when I am who I was as a child.”
She walks off slowly into the night. I think of Interview with the Vampire. Partly because it’s dark and she’s pale. Also, the candles, and she pops on sunglasses. But mostly because there is so much here to get your teeth into.
Joanne is out on Friday