Lady Gaga’s stripped-down new album Joanne, out now, is all about getting in touch with your past. So it makes sense that for the latest stop on her Bud Light x Lady Gaga Dive Bar Tour in New York City on Thursday night, she took over a Greenwich Village bar she used to play as a teenager for an audience that included family members, close friends, and plenty of of die-hard fans. (Not to mention a few celebs—Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer were in attendance, as were Helen Mirren and Robert DeNiro.)
The intimate venue could hardly contain her, however. After performing a set of Joanne songs with collaborators Mark Ronson and Hillary Lindsey—you can watch a livestream of the event here—Gaga took to the roof of the venue after midnight to sing two more songs: the title track, about the death of her late aunt, and “Angel Down,” which was inspired by the death of Trayvon Martin. “The album is about having endurance and heart no matter how hard things get, and about being unafraid to really look into your heart and how you feel,” Gaga tells EW after the show. “You have to be willing to listen, and that goes for life and the album.” Below, the pop star breaks down her radical new sound, why she was always going to make an album like Joanne, and what she has in store for the Super Bowl.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Ringing in your new album by performing on a roof and dangling your feet off the edge feels appropriately climactic.
LADY GAGA: Oh man, that was so much fun. I’m just so happy, I can’t believe it. Me and Mark [Ronson] and BloodPop were just standing in the hallway for a few minutes staring at each other going, “Well, okay, um, I’ll see you tomorrow?” We have to get ready for SNL but it almost feels like we should go back into the studio and keep working. We’re really like a family.
Mark has said that during the making of this record, you were always talking about putting “that little Fame Monster hook in there.” Was that to make sure fans of your earlier dance-pop didn’t feel left behind with your new direction? What drove that instinct?
I don’t know, I guess that’s my style. As the years go on, you start to identify the things about yourself that are unique. And for me, I like to hold onto those things. When I was making Joanne, we really had no rules, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have the intention to see the music with the things that you love. I love a sugary sweet melody. I love a sugary sweet sound that has a message underneath it, or perhaps something darker or different. Joanne is not dark in the way that The Fame Monster was, but it’s dark in a different way. Not darkness as horror—it’s dark in the way that things can life be dark.
There’s a lot of attention right now on what’s different this era—no more meat dresses, no more flashy, high-concept performances. But has switching up your sound showed you more of what’s stayed the same? Do you have a stronger sense of what makes a Lady Gaga song now?
Yeah, absolutely. I do. It was amazing writing with Mark, BloodPop, Kevin Parker, Father John Misty, Josh Homme, Florence [Welch], Beck. I keep bringing them up because it was such a wonderful time. Everybody came from different musical perspectives, and we created exactly what I wanted to hear. And yet, at the same time, there were things I could not deny myself in the way I write songs. It was interesting for me to have them be as equally guided by my process and be so supportive of that. The music, yeah, it sounds completely different in a sonic way, but the heart of it is still my imagination.
I never would have guessed that a song you wrote with Beck, “Dancin’ in Circles,” would end up sounding like “Alejandro 2.0.”
You can’t believe it’s Beck!
It seems like that song was going to come out of you even if you had said, “I want to get as far away from my old material as possible.”
Yeah, I can’t even think that way. That’s when I’m terrible at making music—when I’m all worried about what other people want to hear. With Beck, we just went in there and jammed. I think we hung out for two hours, actually, before we even went in. We were just talking about life, laying there on the couch, looking out the window. The sun, I remember, it was around 3 p.m., and we just were having a lovely chat. I said, “Hey, do you want to go in there and grab a guitar? I have a nice Hummingbird, Mark gave it to me for my birthday. Her name is Amy—maybe you could play her?” I’ve got the Wurlitzer out, and Mark had all the mics set up. We went in there and just started writing. Before we knew it we were going, [singing] “Baby don’t cry, baby don’t cry! Dancin’ in circles, feels good to be lonely.”
You’ve shared the story of the album’s title track, which addresses your late aunt and how her death affected your family. How do the other songs on the album relate to that story?
The truth is, the album is about being tough. The album is about having endurance and heart no matter how hard things get, and about being unafraid to really look into your heart and how you feel. You have to be willing to listen, and that goes for life and the album. This is an album you really have to listen to. You’ve got to close your eyes and pay attention.
A few things about this record clicked while watching you, Mark, and Hillary play together just now at this Bud Light dive bar show. Do you feel like that’s the ideal setting for people to experience and understand Joanne?
Absolutely. I told everyone before we did this dive bar tour, if there are a lot of fans outside, you better figure out a way for me to do a second show or sing outside because it’s not cool, you know? My fans, I think [the reason] why they’re so wonderful and loyal and loving is that they know I will as always be as equal and loyal and loving to them. You want all those hardcore fans that can’t get in, that can’t get the tickets first, you want them to see it. It was so fun to sing from that roof. That was a dream come true. I think that’s my favorite performance I’ve ever had, singing on the roof on the edge of the awning.
You were literally on the edge of glory.
Yeah! That’s what I said when I came off. My father grabbed me by both of my arms and went, “Arrgghh!” He was so mad at me for lying on the edge. But it just was right and fun. And it wasn’t that small!
What headspace were you in when you first linked up with Mark. By that point, you had recorded a handful of tracks with [“Bad Romance” producer] RedOne. Did you already know that most of them weren’t what you were looking for on this album? Or were you still just experimenting?
I’ve known Mark Ronson for seven years. We met in New York many years ago. He wanted me to sing and write with him and Wale on a record called “Chillin.” I was happy to do it, but it wasn’t really my thing at the time, writing to tracks. I was like, “What is this? How am I going to do this?” And Sean Lennon just happened to be recording upstairs and came down, and I was like [long gasp]—so stoked to meet him. And not just because I’m a fan of his father, which is what I would assume you would think. Sean is actually an incredible musician and and a very, very accomplished pianist—his voicings are magnificent. I told him what a fan I was and that I got this tattoo [Gaga points to the peace sign on her left wrist] because of the “Imagine” memorial by his old house, near where I grew up. I just remember that was the beginning. I remember thinking these are my neighbors, this is where I belong—with New York musicians. You want to make friends with them and work. I just became famous very quickly and didn’t see Mark for many years. We bumped into each other in London a few times and hung out at parties and kept in touch over the years. Finally, at the Met Gala, he came over and said, “Are you ready to make that record like the one you wanted to make all those years ago when I first met you?” I said, “Yeah, I’m ready!” He said, “Okay, call me!”
A lot of people assume Joanne wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t made a jazz record with Tony Bennett, or that it was a reaction to your 2013 album, ARTPOP. [Gaga shakes her head no.] But it sounds like this album was always going to happen one day, no matter what came before it?
I remember sitting around with my buddy Breedlove, who’s a singer-songwriter in New York City and who’s been a friend for many years. I was playing him some music ideas, and I kept looking over at him. Because your friends that you love, you just want to play them the music and see what they think. I remember saying, “You know, I just want to sit at the piano and write songs at the piano and not do anything on a track right now.” He said to me, “Could you just please f—-ing make the record that everyone wants you to make?” And when he said everybody, what he meant was all of [my friends]. “Could you please make that record? Because you know you have to make it. You might as well just do it. So just f—-ing do it.” And when your friends that you’ve known for that long give you that kind of courage as an artist, that’s what it’s all about, really. I’m still really close with people I’ve known since I lived on Stanton and Clinton street. Very close. Like, call-them-when-I’m-sad close.
Have you thought about how you’ll balance new and old material during your Super Bowl halftime show next year? Usually it’s about the biggest, most iconic hits, but some lesser-known songs from Joanne could go over really well with that audience—or even win over people who think they don’t like your music. I sent “A-YO” to my dad because I thought that might be his entry point to Lady Gaga.
The thing is, I’m just going to put together the best show for the football fans, the ones that are watching at home. It’s October, by the time of the Super Bowl, a few months will have gone by, and maybe the dads will really love the music by then. And if they don’t, we’ll see. I’m not sure what songs we’ll play. We put things together in a very special way, I think, my creative friends and I. I would be happy to play new music during the Super Bowl, of course. But for me I just always want the show to be great. I think that these songs could reach a lot of people and bring other sons and fathers together. That was also my intention in a way, because this album brought me and my father closer together. It healed a lot of things between us. There was an understanding all of a sudden that he knows that I know who he is, and he knows why I am the way that I am. He’s taking care of me in a totally different way. I don’t know how to explain it. He’s grateful to me for understanding something about him. And the other way I around, I’m grateful to him for understanding something about me—that I love my family more than anything. He taught me that, and that’s important, and I wanted to write about it.
Bringing families together—that seems like something the Super Bowl can get behind.
What was so great was the NFL heard the record before it came out. They gave me that slot, really, off my album. I think—they asked to hear it, so I can only assume that meant, “We want to hear what’s coming up next.”