From tea on unreleased songs ("Onion Girl" confirmed) to "I Wanna Be With You" shifting to "Dope," DJ White Shadow delves into Gaga's 2013 album

By Joey Nolfi
June 07, 2021 at 01:58 PM EDT
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Lady Gaga fans have rallied the cry for nearly a decade: "Justice for ARTPOP." Now, eight years after the fan-favorite album ruffled conservative feathers and made Gaga a borderline pop pariah for its bold themes and bonkers aesthetic, producer DJ White Shadow is spilling secrets of the album's gestation process.

Inspired by a recent petition calling for the release of previously unheard material from the ARTPOP sessions, the "Born This Way" and "Applause" hitmaker — who's currently working on new music for Pitbull — spoke to EW about the status of the long-rumored collection of B-sides known as ARTPOP: Act II, a collection of 40 shelved tracks he and Gaga worked on, along more behind-the-scenes stories of working with Gaga before her Rocket No. 9 blasted off for planet Chromatica last year.

DJ White Shadow and Lady Gaga
DJ White Shadow discusses 'ARTPOP: Act II.'
| Credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What is it like for you to see ARTPOP's resurgence eight years later?

DJ WHITE SHADOW: Everything is weird! We worked hard on that record and I'm glad it impacted people so much that they're still excited about it. Obviously, people talked about Born This Way and the impact it had on culture, and ARTPOP got stuck in a weird spot. There were a lot of things going on behind the scenes — management shifts for her.... the changing of the guard at Interscope, Jimmy Iovine was [leaving] and John Janick was coming in, and people weren't buying CDs anymore as much as they were streaming. It was wildly confusing. What a f---ed up time to drop a record. In the way that it gets pushed out, the numbers don't always reflect how it went down. That record was in upwards of 3 million in sales. It was a good-selling record, but when you're following [Born This Way selling] 6 million copies, you look like an asshole.

I remember hearing that the album's concept initially started out as one thing, and then it morphed into what was eventually released, so tell me about the early gestation days.

I don't think there was a "this is what we're going to do" [conversation]. After Born This Way was finished and turned in, I remember laying on the couch at my house, and I picked up the phone and it was [Gaga]. She was like, "I got the name for the next record. It's ARTPOP!" I just got done three days ago! That's when we started working on it. We cranked out "ARTPOP," the song, that was one of the first instrumentals I sent to her for the album. Then she met Zedd through Interscope, and we got back together and made a few more records, then Madeon came on. There were different people coming in and out…. we had many different versions. "MANiCURE" was the first single, then it was "Aura," then it was something else. "Applause" didn't end up being the first single until way later.

You said in 2017 you lost a best friend and manager because of the album, and then in your post earlier this year you said that "making music and delivering it the way ARTPOP was made and delivered was particularly difficult." What, specifically, were you referencing?

Everything was in a state of turmoil at the time…. Everybody was making guesses about how to get stuff out. It was a moving target. When "Applause" came out, it didn't go to No. 1 right away; "Born This Way' went to No. 1 right off the jump. I know it wasn't like an, "Oh s---, Macy's Day Parade" moment. We were all kind of freaked out.

You said it left you with trauma. How so?

I never wanted to make another record for the rest of my life once that was done. It was so bad. I was finished. I have a picture of me walking out of [recording studio] Record Plant after it was over, and I look so f---ing terrible. I look like I'm 150 years old. I slept in Record Plant for a month.

What got you back into it?

I did some good stuff [with other artists] and when A Star Is Born got started, she called. I watched Joanne happen. Mark Ronson is a friend of mine [but] I was happy to sit it out. We talked all the time. I went to watch stuff in the studio, I listened to the record, my brain wasn't into making stuff at that point. For A Star Is Born, I knew everything was more stable and a better foundation to build the house on.

Speaking of A Star Is Born, can we finally confirm that Detroit City, the "anonymous" producer of "The Cure," is you?

Yeah, of course! I go through various periods where I'm just kind of like a dummy or f---ing with people. We put out a couple records: "The Cure" and a Too $hort record, I did some records with Austin Mahone, Sage the Gemini; Detroit City did like 10 records! I struggle with my identity as a forward-facing person sometimes. I thought it'd be fun to make up a name and be a dick for minute.

Going back to ARTPOP, Gaga tweeted at the time that Act II was coming out, and later at SXSW she revealed that it was complete, but not ready for release. How close did you actually get to releasing it back then?

I think we made enough to do two records. It was probably on an idea list…. We probably talked about it. We had enough records to do it. I was happy to get that record out. I couldn't brush my teeth for a week after it was done, much less was I thinking about other songs…

As far as you were involved, Act II wasn't a concrete project formed with a track list or anything? People assume it was a project ready to go.

No. I want you take this with a grain of salt: It was a long time ago, and I don't work for Interscope. I'm not privy to the behind-the-scenes work, but, to my knowledge, there wasn't another record ready to release right away. It was either going to be enough records to be two records or enough for one, and it turned out to be one.

Of the many songs that were discussed, do you have a favorite from the Act II vault, then?

I hadn't listened to ARTPOP in three years before this all happened… I pulled my ARTPOP computer back out and listened to it, and there are 40 songs on there that are done or in the phases of being done. I listened to some of the tracks and honestly, it's good stuff. It still holds up. [But] it's not like, "This is a good song! Let's put it on the internet!" You have to send it to the whole factory.

Sonically, are these songs in line with what we hear on ARTPOP?

Yeah, very much. ARTPOP is kind of all over the place to begin with, so what really does fit? If I had a polka song that was on the record, you'd be like, "Oh, I get it." They're conceptually well thought out, cool ideas…. There were a lot of different sonic directions, so I don't know what surprises people anymore.

I think songs like "Tea" and "Onion Girl" are the two I've seen people talking about the most. Lyrically, what story did those songs tell?

It's tough for me to talk about lyrics. If her and I were sitting next to each other, I would totally talk about it. But I don't want to step on her like that. I can tell you that they're both good songs. There is a song called "Onion Girl."

There was also "I Wanna Be With You," which she performed at the iTunes festival and you co-wrote, morphing to become "Dope" on the album. What happened with that process — how and why did it go from performing that song publicly to it changing into a different song for the album release?

When we did the iTunes Festival, we hadn't gotten to the point where we were sitting in the studio finishing things completely. So, she wanted to make changes! At the end of the day, it's her art. If we're talking about a car, she comes up with the concept, she goes in and draws it, and I come in with a screwdriver and some wrenches and try and put the car together. Sometimes you have to take the car apart to put it back together the way she wants it, and that's all that is. That's a song that we had a version of, she liked it, and she wanted to do something different. It's not up to me to say no. I would never say no. Let's get this thing out the way she wants to get it together! At the end of the day, "Dope" was the song she wanted on the record, and it just started as something else. I see that happen 500 times, and you guys get to see it once. That's a microcosm of how albums work. You build one idea as A, and you don't go to Z, you go to AAA to five As to five Zs. I'm sure there were 12 iterations between "I Wanna Be With You" and "Dope" that we did.

People still ask: Do you know if the long-rumored "Venus" music video actually happened?

I don't know that! Because of the nature of the way of what I'm supposed to do on the chain, my part on the assembly line, I have nothing to do with the video thing. When they shot that video for "G.U.Y." and everybody from the Real Housewives was on it, I didn't find out about that until weeks after it was done. There's a super possibility that it did, but I have no idea. I do know that song is one of the songs that, when it's time to get pumped up, she's jamming it out.

You've played snippets of "Tea" on the road. Are there any other instrumentals you might've played on the road without telling people they're from the album or have any of these instrumentals snuck into other places — whether it's tour interludes or anywhere else?

No! I asked before I did that. Even if I make the instrumental and I play it for her and she thinks it's cool, out of respect for another human being, I'd always ask. I twisted it a little bit at the end to fit where it was supposed to fit in my personal set. I reproduced part of it.

There were also rumors that Azealia Banks and Rihanna collaborated on a song called "Ratchet." Was that real?

I don't have it, if she did. Sometimes that happens, where A&R from the label gives something to somebody, but, I don't have it, so I don't even know. I remember hearing the Azealia Banks stuff, but I don't have any of it either.

So, ARTPOP is eventually released, it endures, people love it, it recently soared up iTunes charts, and this petition came out with tens of thousands of signatures. How quickly after that did your conversations with Gaga kick up again, relating to the potential Act II release?

It's not like we take major hiatuses from talking to each other or that we only talk when there's music stuff. She was shooting [House of Gucci] when this happened. At the beginning I was like, "Oh s---, look at this petition!" And she was like, "Oh, cool." Neither one of us said anything for a couple of weeks. After it took off she was like, "Holy f---, what is this!?" Then we were both talking for a minute.

Did you talk with her about it after she got back from filming?

We haven't yet. I'm working on another crazy project right now. She got done with the Gucci thing and now I'm f----ing buried, so I'm trying to get back to L.A. in the middle of the month.

In your personal estimation, based on your early conversations, do you think there's real or renewed interest in releasing Act II?

I don't know. I always have an interest in working with her, and I won't speak for her…. I think there's an interest in doing stuff. We work well together. If we were to work together again, we would go over these old files. Would we call it ARTPOP: Act II? I don't know. Whatever she wants to call it, that's what we'll call it. When it comes down to making a record, it's my job to listen to her and take what's in her brain and make it into something she wants…. if she doesn't want to do it, I won't do it.

If she does want to do something, she'll be the first to say something. We're still very close, I love her very much, and I've never had any "f--- you" moments. Us not working isn't because we're mad at each other, we're both human beings and we have our own lives, doing s—-. There's nothing more in the world that I'd like to do than give everybody what they want, and I'm sure she feels the same. If everybody keeps asking for it, maybe it'll happen.

You stoked fan interest back in 2017 when, between albums, you said you couldn't wait for fans to meet "ARTPOP's little sister." Were those the Chromatica demos?

No, it wasn't the Chromatica demos. We worked on some stuff. We start stuff, we finish stuff, we put stuff away, we pick stuff back up, it's not a linear process. We stated working on stuff before Chromatica happened and we didn't finish it yet. We'll see what happens!

How did you feel when Gaga tweeted "I don't remember ARTPOP" a few years ago? That drove fans crazy!

Everybody gets analytical about every syllable! You're waiting on bated breath for stuff, I get it. Take everything with a grain of salt. People are filled with love and talent over here. She's smart and awesome about what she does, and cares deeply about everybody that cares about her! When it's time for something, it'll be time for something. I'm trying, she's trying, there's a lot of stuff she has to get done and stuff I have to get done. But, I promise, if the call is made and things start going, I'm sure she'll tell everybody when she wants to. She's the captain of the ship.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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