After speaking with Lady Gaga over the phone for nearly half an hour last weekend while she tours in Europe, I gathered she is an old soul. Exactly why she and her 88-year-old music counterpart, Tony Bennett, perform so well together on their new jazz album, "Cheek To Cheek."
She expressed to me time and time again how happy she is, and it makes sense. She's in more control of her music, her image and her body now than ever before. Becoming a pop super star came at a price, and right now she's unwilling to sacrifice.
I asked how she was doing.
“I am doing so great! I am so happy, I’m on the road still promoting 'ARTPOP' with the ARTRAVE. It’s been fantastic every night. We’ve been playing sold out shows all over the world, and the crowd’s been wild. The party is just really unlike any other show we’ve done before. Me making art out of the mess of my life during that time and turning it into these colorful, beautiful, psychedelic dreams... many fans feel very connected to it. It’s been very nursing to my soul.”
Gaga’s referring to her relentless exposure as an emerging artist and the toll it took on her. She continues…
“On top of it, I’m singing with Tony Bennett on ‘Cheek To Cheek.’ Every single day is a new surprise, a new blessing. I’m happier than ever.”
Then, to my surprise, Gaga asked me how I was doing. I was taken aback – it’s the first time an artist took any interest in me. Well, shit! Here goes… I said I had a week full of ups and downs, but talking to her was the highlight.
“Well, good! I’m glad I could help make your roller coaster go up.”
Her spirit was contagious, and I appreciated it. Gaga did, too. She knows performing jazz with a music icon like Tony Bennett was a dream of hers before getting discovered in the downtown New York scene with her, as she put it, “glam-rocky” songs.
“When I moved to Los Angeles, the music became much more dance-focused because the publishers were really excited about this young, quirky New York song-writer who was making these sort of electro-clash influence dance songs. Once ‘Just Dance’ took off, I didn’t do anything but put my head down and get to work, and I never looked back. After many years of doing that, I began to really burn out. I mentioned many times to people around me how I needed to slow down, how I needed more time to be creative, to spend more time and focus honing in my craft, build myself as a vocalist, continuing to study as a musician. You don’t just learn about music in the beginning and then you’re set for life. You’re constantly learning. I was feeling as though I couldn’t continue to grow because I was just on this endless moneymaking machine.”
It’s kind of unfair to say Gaga’s transitioning from pop music to jazz. Actually, it’s the other way around.
“What’s been so wonderful with ‘Cheek To Cheek’ is I get to return to my roots. I started singing jazz when I was 13. This has given me some time to… not put a halt on my pop career, because I’m still promoting “ARTPOP” with the ARTRAVE, but to be able to spend some time just singing, my full body, no choreography, recording an album with no auto-tune. Just musicians playing at the same time while we press record. Singing with the legendary Tony Bennett has been a humbling experience for me.”
Humbling is speaking to one of the biggest artists in the world – and it's not for nothing. Gaga has a mission: to introduce the original form of pop music into the lives of young people (I’m nearly her age. Told you: old soul).
“I’m very happy to talk to you on BreatheHeavy.com because this is a pop website, and I really want to express to all of the young people that visit your site that jazz once was the pop music of America. These are the most famous pop songs in the whole world. They have been done over and over and over again. I appreciate you taking this time for the interview because I really want to expose young fans as much as I can to jazz. It is something that healed my soul at a young age, and I hope they love it as much as I do.”
She mentioned jazz music was healing, and I could relate. The ups and downs I told Gaga about earlier dealt with heartache, and her performance of “Bang Bang” helped me understand it. I began to vent.
“Bang bang. My baby shot me down.”
“It means so much to me… thank you for sharing that story with me. An interesting backstory for “Bang Bang” is that my ex-boyfriend, Luc Carl, was also the best friend of Brian Newman (the trumpet player who she plays that song with). We haven’t seen or spoken to [Luc] in almost two years, so that performance is extremely emotional for us. It was a romance, a goodbye… extremely painful. I think that’s what makes the performance very honest. You have his ex-girlfriend and his ex-best friend playing to one another, and there was something that was quite heart wrenching about it for both of us.”
It was then I realized we both shared a part of ourselves. A part few are privy of – who now are. She continued opening up, this time about “Lush Life,” which she says is autobiographical.
“I have not shied away from being honest about struggling with needing to drink or taking drugs since I was a young 19-year-old girl. I have found my sobriety through my relationship with Tony Bennett, because he helped me to heal through singing these songs. I could probably get through ‘Lush Life’ when we were singing it, but he just told me to breathe and allow the story to come through in the music. That way, you can no longer beat yourself up about your weaknesses. Your weaknesses become your triumphs.”
Another song that touched me on the album is “Sophisticated Lady,” Tony Bennett’s answer to “Lush Life.”
“It’s my favorite to listen to on the album because, in a strange way, every lyric is him letting me know that he really understands me.”
I asked if she’s worried she’ll lose her “sobriety” when she begins to focus more on pop music again.
“No, not at all! I think it’s a daily struggle for anyone that has gone through this sort of thing. And, I’m not entirely sober. I am practicing meditation and self-control. I am very focused on my career. I feel like it’s ‘The Fame’ all over again. I have that hunger in my belly, especially since this is a new genre for me. It’s almost like it’s putting out my first record. I want to make Tony so proud, and I certainly will continue to write pop songs. I consider jazz to be pop."
"Fear not! It is not the music that controls my expression of my solitude. It is me, and I feel very happy with my loneliness. My solitude is something that strengthens my art. I’ve embraced it. I feel very liberated, very happy. Like a tiger let out of the cage, or a bird flying for the first time, in a long time. Maybe like the Phoenix. My wings aren’t broken anymore."
This rebirth was years in the making, but I sensed it’s something she only recently realized.
“I’ve worked hard towards this moment, and I think it’s an important message to tell my fans: even if you’re going through a dark time… don’t ever give up. You can always make your way back to the other end of that circle and find your happiness again.”
While Gaga admits she’s focused on performing and promoting “Cheek To Cheek,” she is “always writing music.” I asked her about the rumors swirling the Internet earlier this year claiming she and fellow pop legend Britney Spears recorded a song together.
“We’ve discussed it. I think Britney is a lovely girl, but there’s nothing in the works at the moment.”
The vastness of the World Wide Web may cause some musicians a headache, but for Gaga, it is an important tool. She’s one of the most followed, liked, and shared people on the planet. These numbers, however, don’t translate to success. She feels her music’s impact is what defines a victory.
“I think success comes in a lot of different forms. Chart success is incredible, and when it happens… my gosh… it’s life changing for the artist. It’s a humbling experience. I feel a tremendous sense of gratitude for the tremendous record sales I’ve had over the years. But when an album doesn’t sell as much I think that the success is in its influence. I’ve been very excited to see that ‘ARTPOP’ has influenced other things. That sense of creative freedom – that was more important to me then anything. It’s always about the message. No matter what happens I’m happy with the outcome because I feel blessed to have a career at all. I feel happy that I have a voice in the world, and happy I get to make music every day and be with my fans.”
Speaking of her fans… what does Mother Monster want to tell the Little Monsters?
Paws up and read aloud:
“I want to thank [my fans] for their loyalty and devotion, for their open mind, for sharing creativity and talent and inspiring me by staying by my side through all the ups and downs and supporting me as I take a turn into jazz. I feel gratitude for that every day. A big I love you to them and I wish everyone on your site, Gaga fans and non-Gaga fans, a lot of happiness and peace. I wish for this industry to be old school with the happiness I’ve been feeling with Tony Bennett; a lot of class and elegance and a dash of charm.”
Gaga finished up, saying:
“Who’s to say when the next jazz record is out, but just know this won’t be my last. I’ll see you soon. Chin up, and whoever broke your heart… fuck it.”