ri Lankan-English pop/urban starlet M.I.A., born Mathangi "Maya" Arulpragasam, has a seemingly bright future, but journalists have been more interested in her past. Her 2005 debut full length, Arular, is peppered with the imagery of her childhood recollections, and the political implications of the Tamil refugee's upbringing have likely seen more coverage than her actual music.
Her elusive lyrical references to the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), with whom her estranged father has actively participated, has kicked up controversy among fellow Tamils as well as the Western press. The organization, which was established in the late ‘70s to promote Tamil independence from the Sinhalese government in Sri Lanka, has gained notoriety for its suicide attacks, recruitment of underage children, and alleged targeting of civilian villagers. The LTTE was blamed for the mid-August assassination of the Sri Lankan government’s foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgama, and while the organization denies any ties to the killing, it is recognized as a terrorist unit by both the British and U.S. governments.
In January, an ILM thread anticipating the release of Arular began to tread into deep political waters with the account of an anonymously self-proclaimed half Tamil, half Sinhalese individual:
Anonymous: "When I first heard about this Sri Lankan MC stirring shit up in London, I was mad excited to check her out, and now I'm in the sorry position of running after friends and media types trying to stop them from donating money to the LTTE 'freedom fighters.' Bleccchh! She's one confused cookie. Yes, things are bad there. But the LTTE just made everything so much worse for everyone, especially the very Tamils they're supposed to be fighting for."The extent of Maya’s LTTE approval is almost purely speculative, as most of it involves over-analytical dissections of her lyrical output. (Arular tends to be more concerned with conjuring up striking militant imagery rather than making blatant political declarations.)
While such matters are of obvious significance to Maya’s musical (and visual) output, I decided against prompting her with any inquires about her childhood or political standpoints during the interview. (Call me old fashioned, but I’m not one for beating a dead horse.) Our meeting took place in her dressing room before she took the stage at a modest Austin venue (La Zona Rosa). No picture you will ever see of Maya will do her much of any justice, and she bears a mellow, candid swagger and aura about her in conversation.
Most recently, Maya has been touring North America, opening for labelmate Gwen Stefani. (Yes, for those not in the know, Maya is now on Interscope.) The last leg of the tour will commence later this month. She commented on the differences between Gwen’s live set and her own.
Maya: “In terms of Gwen Stefani, it’s a contrast. She is probably gonna have 20 dancers, and it’s high production versus lo-fi. And that’s the challenge. If you find out in that show that all it takes is one person on a mic rather than having this big theatrical show, then that’s a really good thing to learn.”Maya’s feelings on touring have changed for the better since earlier this year.
Will: “Rumor has it that you have a kind of distaste for the touring experience in general.”Aside from tour dates, Maya has had several noteworthy network televised performances here in the U.S. (and elsewhere no doubt), most notably on Late Night With Conan O’Brien and Jimmy Kimmel Live, the latter of which made recordings of Maya’s two performances available for download on Sony’s Connect music store. While Maya made clear that she doesn’t dislike performing for TV, she mentioned the differences between headlining tour dates and playing for unfamiliar television audiences.
Maya: “Well, that’s what they put on the MTV thing. I said it was more difficult for women compared to men. But since then I’ve had a really good run of it.”
Will: “How has tour preparation been for you?”
Maya: “When I was trying to take my show on the road, in the beginning it was really nerve racking because I’m dyslexic, and I have issues with remembering my own lyrics. When I was writing my songs and making the album, I was thinking that I was going to get someone else to sing it the whole time. I never thought I could actually present it live. And when it comes to actually doing a show, the hardest thing to do is not have any faff and frills around you and just be you. And once you’ve done that, anything on top is really like a bonus.”
Maya: “Doing TV is different. I don’t put too much thought into it. But when you do a show, and your fans are turning up for you, you have to give something. That’s what it’s about. You have to let them tap into what it is you’re trying to project. That’s what I respect, and you can’t do that on TV.”Maya has been creative throughout her life, but she didn’t start making music until 2002 at age 25. She took a moment to reflect on getting a late start.
Will: “So you’re a late bloomer as far as getting started on a medium like music. Did you catch any flack for that? Did anybody tell you, ‘Maya, you need to reprioritize; you don’t need to get involved in this new medium; you need to stick to the visual arts’?”Speaking of cool, cliquey things going on in London, Maya still finds herself pegged into one certain U.K. underground movement in particular.
Maya: “Oh yeah. They always tell you that, especially in England. That creative world is so competitive. I feel like in America it’s a bit more open. And it was really important for me not to make music attached to any scene or any cool, cliquey things going on in London. That was my first obstacle. In order for me to make music, I had to cut everything off and [say], ‘I’m doing this because it’s something I need to do. This is what motivates me to get out of bed every morning, and that’s why I’m doing it.’ I think no matter where you are in life, as soon as you can work out being open, the better it is for you. You have to figure out what makes you happy, and you have to customize life that suits you. I was thinking if I’m open minded enough to let shit happen to me that I’m not going to be judgmental about, then it will happen. When I was an artist, I knew that any minute something else could happen. And when music came along, I was like, ‘OK, let me ride this and see where it goes.’ I really just did it to learn whether or not I could trust my instincts and follow what I wanted to do without hearing people’s voices.”
Will: “People still tend to lump you in with the grime scene. How much of your own sound do you feel you owe to grime?”In 2005, Maya has collaborated with dancehall/soca sensation Jamesy P. as well as one of her own personal idols.
Maya: “I don’t really feel like I owe anything. But when I came out, it was the same year as Lady Sov and Shystie, and Dizzee [Rascal] was on my label. And when you think of urban music that’s doing anything in Britain, it’s grime. Five years ago it was garage. Five years before that it was jungle.”
Will: “One particular difference I notice between M.I.A. and, say, Dizzee or Sovereign is that grime is a very posse-oriented scene. And you tend to keep more to yourself. Arular had no guest vocal spots. Is that something you think you might change for future albums?”
Maya: “I’m always really up for collaborating, but when I was making my album, I felt there was some weird misunderstanding with me and what was going on in grime. They were like, ‘What is she? What’s she doing?’ But I didn’t want to put it in anyone’s face. I just quietly got on with it. And I couldn’t afford anyone to come on my album. When I was making the album, I had no money. I basically hustled and borrowed studio time, and when I got signed, it was still on a budget.”
Will: “So you actually wanted vocal collaborations on Arular?”
Maya: “Yeah, but I found it too hard to convince people of what I was doing. I thought I’d just get on with it. I figured that in time, when they thought [it] was good enough, they’d come to me. But at the time, I didn’t wanna convince anyone it was good. I felt it was much better to prove that I could be an individual. Right now with urban music in England, it’s so much about that posse culture. If you watch every grime video, that’s all it is. But if you teach any of those kids to stand up on their own and do something that comes from nothing, that’s kinda cool. It’s an old school way of doing shit, but it’d be nice for the young kids to get back into that. I think you can find too much comfort in a posse.”
Will: “You did a song with Missy [Elliott]. And I know you’ve expressed your distaste for the ‘jewelry and cars’ aesthetic. Was that ever an issue when you collaborated with Missy? Obviously, she’s not really a stranger to that type of thing.”Aside from collaborations, Maya’s work has been extensively remixed since the release of her first single. XL has issued two different singles featuring remixes of “Bucky Done Gun” and “Pull Up the People” and three singles with remixes of “Galang” and “U.R.A.Q.T.” Last year’s much hyped Diplo-assisted M.I.A. mixtape, Piracy Funds Terrorism, saw loads of album tracks remixed and mashed up before Arular even hit shelves. But perhaps the most notable and least likely of all the remixes would be courtesy of System of a Down’s Serj Tankian.
Maya: “No, because Missy’s got so much other stuff going on for her. I think the cars and the bling are totally determined by the decade she happened. She happened in the ‘90s and 2000s, which are about that. But if Missy happened in the ‘50s and ‘60s, she’d be something else. In hip-hop right now, it just happens to be what was going on in rock music 20 years ago. It’s like how Rod Stewart would behave with the Rolls Royce and bling and models and stuff. Basically, rappers are going through that phase now, while rock music has gotten more experimental, and it’s about wearing shitty T-shirts and being really poor and scruffy.”
Will: “Is my T-shirt shitty?”
Maya: [laughs] “No, but mine is. But with Missy, she’s a legend. Creatively, she’s already blown it out of the water. She never fails with that. She pushes the boundaries for herself, and she explores how far she can go. And I think that’s a bigger point to remember about her than endorsing bling.”
Will: “In ‘Fire, Fire,’ you had a Missy/Timbaland reference. Did that have anything to do with her taking interest in you? How did the collaboration come about?”
Maya: “I don’t know. I think she got the album before Timbaland. She must’ve had it for like a month or whatever, and then she called me after I did Coachella and was still in America. She rang the phone, and she started rapping ‘Sunshowers’ down the phone to me. She said, ‘I love it! I’ve been so bored with music for years. I don’t listen to anything anymore, but I got your album, and it’s something out of this world. Would you get on this song and just do whatever you want?’ And I was still like, ‘Oh my god, this is Missy.’ [laughs] At that time, I got offered so many different collaborations, but I chose to work with her because she’s one of my idols, and I did namecheck her.”
Will: “There have been a lot of remixes. XL is really milking this thing.”Diplo, aka Philly-based DJ/producer and Hollertronix alum Wes Pentz, still maintains a BF/GF status with Maya. The Online Piracy mixtape is over 100 entries strong and is accessible here.
Maya: [laughs] “They’re obsessed with remixes. I’m just going, ‘Enough already! Leave my album alone!’ After we did Piracy Funds Terrorism, we did this online thing. That kind of spun the whole remix thing out of control. People were able to get online and upload their versions. And Diplo had his DJ paws in there going, ‘That’s great! A new version!’”
Towards the end of our 20-minute conversation, I fell into something of a rant. In long, decorative talk, I tried to convey to Maya how remarkable it was that three years ago, she had no music-making experience whatsoever. One year after she commenced her venture into music, she landed her first single on wax. A bit later, she signed to a perfectly respectable indie, and now she’s on a major. I mentioned that I live in a small town in the southeastern U.S., and I can walk into the local Best Buy and see Arular on the featured new releases shelf between Coldplay and Mike Jones. I can walk into the mall, modest as it may be, and see the video for “Bucky Done Gun” playing on a large screen in some shoe chain. I can flip through the telly and catch “Galang” puzzlingly backdropping a Honda commercial. Most recently, I can log on to MTV.com and select “Galang” from a list of videos to vote for on TRL.
Will: “Is it getting creepier and creepier?”Maya’s tour with Gwen will conclude with dates in Canada and along the West Coast.
Maya: “Yeah, of course. Sometimes my friends call me up, and I just have to [say], ‘This is all really strange.’ Two years ago, I was borrowing money off my mates just to get on a bus, just living like every other artist who graduates and tries to get ahead and shit. And that’s kinda creepy: the fact that music was that one thing that got me so far."
11/16 Winnipeg (@ MTS Centre)
11/18 Edmonton (@ Rexall Place)
11/20 Vancouver (@ General Motors Place)
11/21 Seattle (@ Key Arena)
11/23 Portland (@ Memorial Coliseum)
11.25 Fresno (@ Save Mart Center)
11/26 Anaheim (@ The Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim)
11/29 Bakersfield (@ Rabobank Area Theater & Convention Center)
12/01 Oakland (@ Oakland Arena)
By: Will Simmons
Published on: 2005-11-07