Lady Gaga’s voice pipes in over the phone, instantly familiar — but this isn’t booming madwoman cackle of “Bad Romance,” or the fembotic rap of “Lovegame,” or even the sexy vampire drawl of her recent American Horror Story character, the Countess. Lady Gaga sounds… normal. Chipper, unguarded, girly, even a bit giggly. She sounds happy. “I know this is silly, but how do I address you?” I ask her, feeling foolish the moment the question leaves my mouth. “Do I call you Gaga? Stefani?”
She just chuckles gently for a moment, pauses, and then answers, a little quietly: “Call me Joanne.”
Joanne, of course, is the title of Gaga’s much-anticipated fifth album, out Oct. 21. Joanne is also Gaga’s middle name, and the name of her parents’ Italian restaurant in New York. But most importantly, Joanne was Gaga’s paternal aunt, who died of lupus at age 19. Lady Gaga, aka Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, wasn’t born until 12 years after her aunt’s passing on Dec. 18, 1974, a date that Gaga has tattooed on her arm. “What I know of Joanne is what she left behind, which was a lot of loss and a lot of tragedy in my family,” she says. (Earlier this year, during an emotional speech at the Producers Guild Awards, where she performed her Oscar-nominated rape survivors’ anthem “‘Til It Happens to You,” Gaga revealed that a college campus sexual assault “tormented [Joanne] so emotionally that it caused the lupus that she had to get so bad that she died.”) However, despite never knowing Joanne personally, Gaga was greatly affected by her aunt’s legacy, and when Gaga reached her own 19th birthday, “That’s when I really decided I was going to hit the ground hard — hit the [New York] dive bar scene and the club scene hard with my music and playing out as a songwriter. It was really Joanne, and that story of our family, and the toughness that made us who we are, that gave me the strength to go, ‘You know, I’m going to live the rest of my life in a way that she couldn’t.’”
Gaga says Joanne is “a return to my roots in a very strong way,” and not just because it’s a tribute to a beloved, much-missed family member. It also back to her above-mentioned early NYC days, when she was playing Open Mic nights and opening for the likes of glam/garage band Semi Precious Weapons on the Lower East Side. (“Which was silly fun, and probably some of the best memories I have in my life.”) This is evident in the propulsive stadium-rock riffage of Joanne’s lead single, “Perfect Illusion”– or in that song’s uncharacteristically simple music video, during which a free-spirited, head-banging, fist-pumping Gaga rocks out at a desert rave with hipster producer Mark Ronson and Kevin Parker of Aussie psych-rockers Tame Impala, wearing just denim cutoffs, combat boots, a messy high ponytail, and a ragged, underboob-flashing T-shirt. One especially astute YouTube commenter actually said of the video: “This isn’t Gaga. This is Stefani.”
Gaga (or Stefani, or Joanne) is even planning a “Bud Light + Lady Gaga Dive Bar Tour,” kicking off Oct. 5, for which she’ll eschew her usual massive arena productions for the sort of grubby, hole-in-the-wall venues where she got her start. “It’s not so much about taking it all off for the sake of it, like, ‘Here I am, I had all these costumes before and now I don’t!’” says Gaga, who assures that there will be “more costumes and lights and big shows” in her future. (One can assume that her just-announced halftime show performance at next year’s Super Bowl will be a very un-dive-bar-like spectacle.) “But to begin all of this, we’re going to wind back the clock — to the day I decided when I was 19 that I was going to go live the rest of the life that Joanne didn’t get to live.”
Clearly, this is not the over-the-top Gaga of ARTPOP — and for now, at least, that’s probably a good thing. While that 2013 album ultimately sold 2.5 million copies worldwide, it received mixed reviews, and while Gaga’s diehard fans, or “Little Monsters,” were supportive, many journalists were incredibly unkind — almost willing her to fail, dubbing the album ARTFLOP, and downright gleefully reporting on even the most minor setback in her personal or professional life at the time.
Gaga admits that this backlash was “hurtful at times… it doesn’t feel good when you put that much time and work and effort into things, and people make fun of them, or shame you for things you’ve created.” However, she adds: “The thing is, you’re not always going to make something that everybody likes. You can’t be in this for the business of people liking you. That would just not be even the right thing to do! To have such a big voice in the world and to only care about people liking you — what’s the point, really? When I’m making records, I’m never thinking, ‘How can I make this something that’s accepted?’”
ARTPOP’s promotional cycle also included a series of preposterous and misunderstood stunts, like a South By Southwest showcase that featured Gaga getting covered in rainbow barf by “vomit artist” Millie Brown, or an equally controversial Oval Office-themed American Music Awards performance in which Gaga played a Monica Lewinsky-like role alongside a presidential R. Kelly. Back then, some naysayers believed Gaga had at long last jumped the proverbial shark.
“You know, I do have to take responsibility that there’s an element of absurdity to a lot of what I’ve done in the past,” Gaga concedes. “The meat [dress] thing, and confusing people, that has been part of my thing. And I wouldn’t even say necessarily that now that’s entirely different. I think that people seeing me take everything off, it’s making them ask questions as well — but what I’m hoping for is for people to stop asking so many questions about ‘why?’ and just listen to the music.”
Following a career reboot via standout performances at the 2015 and 2016 Oscars (ofThe Sound of Music and “’Til It Happens to You,” respectively), a Grammy-winning duets album with Tony Bennett, and a stupendous “Star-Spangled Banner” tour de force at this year’s Super Bowl, Gaga now is more about the music than ever. Joanne in fact seems like the work of a indie-rock supergroup, featuring collaborations with Florence Welch (“Hey Girl”), Beck (“Dancing in Circles”), Father John Misty (“Sinner’s Prayer”), Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme, Grimes producer BloodPop, Parker, and Ronson. Gaga is even playing some guitar on this album, with Ronson’s encouragement.
Gaga’s giggliness becomes noticeably more audible over the phone line the more she talks about Joanne’s special guests. She says of her Beck collaboration: “It’s a really fun dance song. It’s a great record. We started in Malibu. We were just hanging out for the afternoon and I asked him if he wanted to go into the live room, which is where all the instruments are for recording. And we just went in and I sat at the piano. I believe he was playing a Hummingbird guitar that Mark gave me, and we just sat down and started to jam and we wrote the song. It’s a killer, killer record.” Of Parker, she raves, “I couldn’t wait to work with him. That was love at first sight when we all got together.” Of Homme, she says, “He spent so much time with us on the guitars and working on so many of these records… He’s amazing. I was up for days with him, working. We had the best time. I could listen to him play guitar for hours and hours and hours. He’s just tremendous.” And she calls Ronson “a tremendously brilliant talent. My favorite thing about the work that we did together on the album is just the way that he inspired me when I was singing. The vocals on the record are very honest. I love the way that he hears my voice.”
At this point in the conversation, Gaga gets so excited, she even starts reciting a few lines from her “Sinner’s Prayer” track with “fantastic poet” Father John Misty: “I’ve got a baby sister who looks just like me/And she wants nothing more than a man to please/Maybe she’s in too deep/Her love for him ain’t cheap/But it breaks just like a knockoff piece.”
“Sinner’s Prayer” definitely sounds like a song for the ladies — for the young Joannes of the world, if you will — and Gaga says she “wanted to speak to a female audience… I’m excited that when I walk down the street now and people see me, that they don’t just see the outfit and can’t wait to take a picture. I can’t wait to lock eyes with that woman that says, ‘Thank you for writing Joanne.’ That’s my goal. I want to know that she heard me in a deeper place.”
But Joanne, she stresses, is for everyone. “I really just want all those girls that have never really understood me before, or those boys that have never understood me before, to hear what I have to say about being me during this time in the world… I can try to speak to women, but I’m not trying to speak to these women in a way that they get all riled up and then they’re mad at their man. Or they’re mad at their girlfriend. Or they’re mad at their dad. You know? It’s the opposite. I want to speak to these women and I want the men sitting next to them to hear the songs and go, ‘Oh, I get it. I understand you now better, baby. I get you now, baby.’ Mark and I talked a lot about it: When speaking to women, when speaking to men, how could we make statements to women that men would understand and be a part of, and bring men and women closer, bring women closer?”
One Joanne track — with a seemingly unlikely collaborator, country songwriter Hillary Lindsey (Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel,” Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush”) — is an especially poignant “girls’ song” with universal appeal, and one tied to the overall, underlying theme of loss inspired by the album’s namesake. “’Grigio Girls’ is about me and my girlfriend getting together to drink Pinot grigio and cry without our friend Sonja[Dunham, Haus of Gaga’s managing director], because Sonja had cancer and we needed the time without her to cry about it, because we didn’t want to cry in front of her — because she was so strong, and she was keeping us so strong,” Gaga reveals, getting serious again. “It kind of started there, and then it turned into a song really about how girls get together to let it all go and pour our souls out. Then we started to play the song for guy friends — both gay and straight guys — and we just saw the look on their faces, like, ‘Oh, man, that’s so true. Now I get why my girl is like that.’ And then they were like, ‘Hey, why can’t I be a grigio girl, too?’ They want to be at the party, because the party is so inclusive. It’s a place where you can let it all out.”
So now Lady Gaga is letting it all out — at dive bar shows, in her music videos, and on her most personal album to date. “When I started writing [Joanne], I thought to myself, ‘How can I connect to other people now at this point in my career? Through my music? How can I go deeper?’ And the truth is, I wanted to do the things that made me fall in love with music in the first place,” she says. “Just sitting at the piano and writing a song, and being about me and the music and a story I wanted to tell — something more autobiographical, something more personal. This transition in my career is me embarking on a new journey with Joanne in my heart, and I’m hoping I can connect with the world on a deeper level.
“The thing is, once I was able to return to that, I was able to remember what’s important in life is family and friendship and connection and taking care of one another, especially in a time when people are so isolated and lost and afraid. It just feels really good to write a song that lays it all bare, and sing it and look my fans dead in the eye. That’s really the point of what I’m trying to do. And Joanne is giving me the strength to do that.”
This article originally ran on Yahoo Music.