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On her way to dinner in Dubai last week, Lady Gaga asked her driver to pull over for better phone reception to answer questions about "Cheek to Cheek," her new duet album with Tony Bennett. Taking a break from her "artRave: The ARTPOP Ball" tour, Lady Gaga, 28, views the duet project as personal redemption after wearying of the pop-music business. She spoke openly about how Mr. Bennett helped her rediscover herself and why jazz is so important. Edited from an interview:
How did Tony Bennett help you on your new duet album, "Cheek to Cheek?"
Tony encouraged me to let my sadness come through in my voice. When I started singing with him, I was going through a very hard time, emotionally. I was so down that when I'd sing, I'd begin to cry. You can't sing that way. It chokes you up. Tony taught me how to just breathe. You can still cry while you're singing, but you maintain your breath control and you're able to soar through it.
I was sobbing during my solo recording of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life," but I was able to sing it because Tony said, "You can do this, you've got this." When I was 14 in high school, my teacher gave it to me to sing because he thought I had the right vocal range. But I didn't understand what the lyrics meant. So I looked up Billy Strayhorn and then became obsessed with Duke Ellington. Now I know exactly what the song is about. I know the lonely women he wrote about in the song. I'm one of those women.
Why were you so down?
The pop industry is like a tabloid now. There's just no integrity and it's extremely controlled and manufactured. There's a lot of farce and not a lot of authenticity. So for me, singing the Songbook was freedom. Tony doesn't think I'm crazy. He thinks I'm old school. He really understands me. He helped me make it through one of the hardest times in my life so far. There are a lot of sharks in the pop-music industry. I was kind of damaged and faced all these challenges behind the scenes with people betraying me, and things like that. I became dissatisfied with the business. I'm so much more satisfied with music now. I said to myself, "I don't need to be a commercial singer anymore. I can just sing at a bar downtown and I'd be so much happier."
Jazz has a nasty reputation for not paying the bills. Are you fine with that?
Paying the bills is overrated. At the end of the day, the bills can't be a metaphor for your heart. I've made a lot of money doing what I do. I feel very blessed for all of the wonders. But there's no wonder, no money, no luxury, no jewel or diamond more sparkling than how I feel when I'm feeling impassioned and in the moment on stage singing with Tony.
Which female jazz singer do you listen to most?
Ella [Fitzgerald]. I've been listening to her since I was a little baby girl. There's something about the way she phrases. She's very conversational and I feel she's singing directly to me. Ella is the best. She's like a fortress of wisdom. I box when I listen to Ella. It's a good way to stay in shape, and her rhythm and swing are that strong.
Aren't Songbook standards a little confining and formulaic for an artist like you?
No way. It's actually like painting with watercolors. You just let the jazz improvisation bleed. And it's more beautiful than pop today. I think about John Coltrane and Charlie Parker —I'm such a massive jazz fan. This album actually felt more rebellious for me than pop.
What's so special about jazz?
Jazz is almost like meditation. You have to go into a state where you're highly sensitive about what everybody's doing, how they're improvising and how they're maneuvering so that you can slither through like a serpent. Also, with jazz, all of the players are important. It's not about just one star in front of the stage. With Tony, we still put art in front, and jazz made me feel free. I can do this album because I'm an artist. When you're an artist, the wider your palette, the more joy you have.
Did recording the new album put you in a different frame of mind?
Yes, I feel happier. I was starting to think there was no elegance left in this industry, no charm. I thought there was no gravity, no authenticity. And then I worked with Tony. When I walked into the studio, everyone stood up for me and he was always dressed so beautifully and told me I looked lovely. I've never been treated that way. It was Tony's kindness that made all that jaded, aggravated and cynical part of me that had grown over the years dissipate. Now there's just beautiful.
How did you master the swing thing?
I don't know that I'm the master of anything. But I think that when you begin to master jazz, you feel excited. Learning the Songbook, it's almost like technique. Knowing all the words and how songs were written, you internalize it. Then the music becomes like this rigid metronome, with boundaries. But when you sing, you leave the metronome in the corner. You know it's there but you kind of swing around it. Improvising still allows you to do justice to what the composer wrote and it allows the music to grow and stay interesting.
So you're leveraging the structure of Songbook standards?
Everyone has done the same songs differently over the years. For me, I didn't want to imitate anyone on the album. I didn't want to try and redo other versions or phrase the same way as other singers. I wouldn't be doing justice to what jazz is all about. The whole point is to bring it forward. I'm myself with Tony. I don't try to be someone else, like Lady Jazz. He knows me deeper than anyone I've worked with. This album isn't Broadway. We might be singing Rodgers and Hart, but there isn't a curtain in the chorus. This is jazz. It has to be sung in a particular way and the only way to do it was by giving Tony all of me. I'm just so happy he opened his arms and accepted it.
Did you find the real you during the recording process?
I did. But you know who I found? I found the Italian girl who was 18 years old and was ready for anything. I found the fighter. I found her again. In this business, you go through all these obstacles and challenges and become like a hardened shell. I had to break through all of that to be able to be authentic when I was singing. Sometimes you have to dig really deep.
Some may think your interest in jazz is just a fling, that it's just a phase. True?
Not at all. I'm planning to release one jazz album a year. I think I will continue to do that forever. I enjoy it so much. I want to spread it to all of my fans.