Lady Gaga's Chromatica team reveals the history and future of her new era
BloodPop, BURNS, Axwell, and more on how they helped make one of the most dynamic albums of 2020.
As the old cliché goes, it takes a village to raise a child. In Lady Gaga’s case, all it takes is one woman — and a small, loyal team of collaborators — to “cancel” earth before birthing an entirely new planet. Such is the story behind Chromatica, the 34-year-old’s latest chart-topping album, which sees Gaga embarking on a therapeutic journey of self-healing by returning to the house-inspired dance-pop vibes that launched her career. It's all set against the backdrop of the LP’s titular locale: a colorful, storm-ravaged fantasyland of rejuvenation.
“We didn't even have to have a conversation about it,” Chromatica executive producer BloodPop tells EW of the album’s creation, which was a deliberate turn from the country-tinged detour she took on 2016’s Joanne. “It felt right for her to revisit electronic elements, so we came straight out of the gates with pulsating synths and house rhythms.”
Between mid-2017 and early 2020, amid song leaks and demos slipped into cosmetics commercials ("The Haus Labs mix of 'Babylon' will be released, so don't stress," BloodPop promises) the pair expanded their scope by bringing in a crew of accomplished producers, songwriters, and internationally renowned artists — including Ariana Grande, BLACKPINK, and Elton John — to help shape their vision for a progressive dance album. Some of Gaga's collaborators — BloodPop, BURNS, Johannes Klahr, Axwell, and more — spoke to EW about how it all came together.
Though BloodPop co-produced all 11 tracks on the standard edition of Joanne, he hadn't committed to making Gaga's follow-up LP. That changed after he traveled to the Kansas City stop on the Joanne World Tour, where he played her a song called "Stupid Love," which he had previously workshopped with Max Martin. From there, Gaga and BloodPop began recording the album with a revolving door of producers including SOPHIE, Boys Noize, and BURNS.
BloodPop: After the Joanne tour and during/after the filming of A Star Is Born, we started working on demos at her home studio. Early on, we didn't have a hyper-clear vision. We were getting the ball rolling. We knew that “Stupid Love” felt good, and the other songs we were writing gave gloomy, hard, tearful days bright endings. The silver linings kept us pushing, and with songs like "Enigma," "Alice," and "Babylon" taking form, she saw the album coming together.
BURNS: Blood and I first met in late 2018, and it was in early 2019 when he asked if I'd be interested in helping on the project. He played me some of the rough demos and we discussed ideas for the direction.... Blood and Gaga were quite deep into the writing aspect, but the sound hadn’t fully been carved out yet.
BloodPop: We worked with SOPHIE very early on. [She was] the first collaborator of those sessions. Those days were fun. We set up six microphones and recorded [Gaga's] Lamborghini exhaust, and SOPHIE cut it up into samples. [Though they didn't make the album], we still plan to finish those songs and present something special within the Chromatica universe.
BURNS: [The early demos] had an underlying feeling of rejoice in the vocal delivery — even if some of it was a bit somber in subject matter. Gaga sung the demos with such power and conviction, almost like a release.
BloodPop: It was probably the demo for “Enigma” [that set the album in motion]. It was more about her vocal performance than anything, and how she wrapped around that track. It felt powerful…. It felt like a mix of Studio 54 and threads of all our favorite dance records. It evoked that fleeting, euphoric feeling that comes from good dance music.
The small group of collaborators soon brought in other dance music mavericks to beef up their vision, including Axwell and producer/songwriter Johannes Klahr.
BloodPop: Almost all of the songs were started with Gaga or Gaga and I on a piano or a very basic track. We would build the track up after a semblance of a song existed, and I would tune it up to the point I felt it had the right spirit. Then, we assessed the feeling of the music and invited collaborators based on their strengths to re-imagine the song or production. For example, we loved this record by Axwell which was being played in all the clubs at the time called "Nobody Else.” It had a punch and sonic energy we wanted in "Alice" and "Free Woman."
Axwell: The selling point was that I like Gaga, and I thought it was cool how they [were doing] full-on dance music. It wasn’t EDM-ish [pop], but old-school, retro house. That excited me, and these were great sounds at their foundation…. “Free Woman” was a super upbeat, genderless empowerment song. The retro sound they had at the beginning really got me going. I was picturing clubs in New York in the ‘90s when I heard it.
Johannes Klahr: I’ve been helping Axwell out with production [for years]. Since we did “Nobody Else” together, we naturally did this together.... “Free Woman” is a banging club record, but it’s more chill. We amplified the '80s and '90s sounds and added our flavor to see where we could take it but kept the soul. We're groove oriented; the bass needs to bang with the drums, and with Gaga’s lush vocals on top of that, we wanted to make the groove as nice and fluid as possible to make it authentically club.
Axwell: They were looking into house music history, and I play a little bit into that history.... The cool thing is they asked me for a reason. They knew what they wanted.
Johannes Klahr: We just did what we thought the track was already heading toward. If you look at Gaga’s first album, it has those elements already, but now it’s a bit more developed and scaled toward the club. Gaga has this special nerve that comes through when you put authentic dance underneath.
To enhance the album's retro-house sounds, BURNS, Axwell, and Klahr began using vintage techniques.
BURNS: We weren’t going for modern EDM, we were going for classic-feeling dance music. “Authentic” was a word I used a lot; it had to be familiar, but also fresh at the same time.
Johannes Klahr: We used this classic Korg M1 organ bass [for "Alice"] that’s used in all of those old-school house tracks, and it worked perfectly. It’s a harmonic bass, so it has a warm tone to it and fit with the vocals.
BURNS: I was conscious of trying to steer away from that polished, crisp sound you hear in a lot of current pop-EDM production. I wanted everything I was a part of to have character and a bit of grit to it.
Axwell also contributed an unfinished song he'd been toying with for six years. The bare-bones track, which would become "Sine From Above," had originally been written for Elton John with Ryan Tedder and Axwell's creative partner, Sebastian Ingrosso, back in 2014.
Axwell: It was burning a hole on my hard drive…. It wasn’t actually called “Sine From Above” at the beginning, it was just called “Elton John” because Elton John was singing on it. It was a more chilled out, piano, acoustic thing. You can still hear that in the verses, and [the final version has] the same chord progression.... It wasn’t the easiest thing to stay in touch with Elton, because he changes emails, addresses, and time zones. This was the perfect opportunity to get somewhere with the song, because I knew Gaga and Elton are good friends. I sent them the track and said, “It could be a perfect fit!” They liked it, vibed on it, and Gaga added her touch. Gaga didn’t have any problem getting ahold of Elton.
BURNS: Elton was on tour in Australia during the time. The deadline to finish everything was approaching, so we were against the clock.... We actually ended up recording it via Skype, with Elton in the studio over there and us in Hollywood.
Johannes Klahr: The drum and bass [ending] came along [after Axwell and I were finished], but it’s insane. That’s my favorite part. It goes ham.
BURNS: Originally, my first version had an "Amen"-style break beat throughout it, but in the end, we opted for a four-to-the-floor rhythm. At the last minute, Gaga thought there should be some kind of crazy, jarring outro. She mentioned speeding it up, so I figured why not bring back the "Amen" break, but in classic Jungle form.
Axwell wasn't the only one who revitalized past material. Madison Love wrote a track outside the Chromatica machine during an unrelated session with BloodPop, Rami Yacoub, and BURNS that would shape-shift into the BLACKPINK-assisted smash "Sour Candy." Meanwhile, BURNS resurfaced one of his earlier blueprints for what would become "Replay."
Madison Love: We started riffing on a chorus. We liked the title “Sour Candy." I thought we should write it like Sour Patch Kids in those commercials where they cut off people’s hair: They’re sour, then they’re sweet. That’s the wordplay I brought.... We wrote the chorus and I wrote a little verse for a [featured artist]. We were thinking BLACKPINK could be cool.... Blood brought it to Gaga and she was like, “I love this, I want to work on it.” She put her touch on it and transformed the song into her song. At the end she was like, “What about BLACKPINK on it?”
BURNS: I'd already begun working on the "Replay" instrumental outside of the Gaga project. Before I played it to Gaga and Blood, it was a sketch I had based around a sample from the Diana Ross record “It’s My House.” When BloodPop heard it, he suggested I rework it to fit a song they had started writing together called “Replay” …. It was the last song we finished for the album, I think.
Though “Sour Candy” is a deliberate bright spot on the album, it was essential for BloodPop and Gaga to retain the sadness brooding at Chromatica's core, particularly in exploring Gaga’s rapidly evolving relationship to fame (“Fun Tonight”) and her use of antipsychotic medication (“911”).
BloodPop: Weirdly enough, whenever [Gaga] was slipping down the rabbit hole of sadness, I said "You're the one who wanted to be a pop star." It would make her smile no matter what, and if I could make her smile, I could maybe make her laugh, and it's pretty hard to sink into the sadness trap when you're laughing.
[Medication] is not fun to talk about for most people, but it’s a very real part of modern life for those who need it. This was her truth and she wanted to write about it even though she knew it would be painful to "go there.” ["911"] hit me particularly hard as well because at the time I had to get on medication for OCD and depression for the first time in my life.
Also on deck was “Rain on Me,” which originated as a stark, solo acid-house demo that would blossom into an Ariana Grande duet.
BURNS: We all knew that “Rain on Me” had huge potential and was an incredible song, but the production didn’t fit with the overall sound. So, Blood had asked if I could try some stuff with it. I took the vocal and wanted to try some new movement of the chords and explored different progressions to see if it changed the mood. It was kind of subconscious that I started playing the bassline from “All This Love That I’m Givin'” by Gwen McCrae under the chorus, and that felt like another lightbulb moment. I remember Blood turning to me and smiling like we’d just cracked a code.
After the leaks, and with the album mostly finished, BloodPop and Gaga felt the project needed proper unification. So they turned to musician Morgan Kibby a.k.a. White Sea to polish Chromatica with orchestral interludes.
BloodPop: We had the whole album basically written, and something about it felt cinematic, especially “Alice,” “Sine From Above,” and “Enigma.” Gaga felt the album had distinct acts, such as the sharp right turn it takes when “911” kicks in. We knew we had to tie the album [together] when she was sorting through the track order, and we somehow ended on the interlude idea through that.
Morgan Kibby: The main theme we explored was light and darkness, the push and pull of her — and, by extension, our — universal human experience, which is beautifully four-dimensional.... BloodPop and I specifically referenced disco strings and horns in my initial demo phase, and I think that stuck as a cornerstone of inspiration when I worked with Gaga. The long string runs that start “Chromatica I,” aim to evoke the majesty and grandeur of disco goddesses Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor. There are also nods to classic scores from films like THX 1138 and Outland.
Kibby and Gaga spent two weeks on the interludes at the top of 2020, assembling a 26-person orchestra to record the pieces.
Morgan Kibby: “Chromatica III” started out as an arrangement under “Sine From Above.” When we soloed the strings, BloodPop had the instinct that it should live as a distinct moment, so it became our foundation for “Chromatica III.” After we parsed out part of the arrangement we all loved, he and Gaga, I believe, added the sounds of rain. The key piece of “III” for the strings was definitely the long note that sweeps and swells to honor the concept of a sine wave, and I think the additional production serves to highlight that idea.
And, yes, Kibby and Gaga love the way “Chromatica II” transitions into “911” as much as you do.
Morgan Kibby: “Chromatica II” was the final piece we composed, and at that point it was clear to Gaga that it should fall right before “911," which was already complete. I remember this moment in the studio so clearly, because she lit up, and without any words I flipped the keyboard around, pulled up the string sound she was envisioning, and she started to play this amazing marcato idea. From there, we massaged it, and I focused on the harmonies and dynamics to make sure it amped the energy up. Ultimately none of us had any idea people would embrace this small moment as such a highlight. It brings me so much joy that one of my favorite moments with her, personally, ended up being some of her fans’ favorites, musically.
Initially scheduled for release on April 10, Gaga was forced to postpone to May 29 in the wake of the global pandemic. But, as EW's Leah Greenblatt wrote in her review, Chromatica "offers a glitter-dusted escape from strange times." The album's creation process is also a testament to the ever-evolving nature of Chromatica as both a body of work and a thematic state of mind that reflects the varied tastes of the woman at its center.
Madison Love: At the end of the process, Gaga invited me to the studio to come listen to "Sour Candy." I met her and we started dancing. She had this whole choreographed dance she was doing for me. I was trying not to cry. It was one of those moments where I was like, "Oh my God I’m meeting her, and I helped co-write a song with her!".... I was kind of in awe when I heard it for the first time, because I hadn’t heard her full verse and how she ended it. I was more in shock when she first played it for me that I wasn’t even paying attention…. Afterward, they sent me a link and I listened to it in the car. [I remember thinking] "this is the Gaga that I love."
Johannes Klahr: I have so much respect for Gaga, so getting [to work with her] like that, I was panicking at first, like, “What the f— do we do?” But we calmed down and did our thing, and it turned out nice…. You do the work, and you don’t really hear the songs until they come out, and it’s up to her close team to put everything together for the final. It goes to mastering, and that can change how it sounds, sonically.... But I'm blown away by what they did.
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