For her sixth album, Lady Gaga dove deep into the history of house music and recruited an army of electronic music veterans to go back to her dance music roots.
On the Chromatica track “Free Woman,” Lady Gaga sings with conviction: “This is my dance floor I fought for.” She’s not exaggerating; her sixth album is, in many ways, about the journey that paved the way for the pop superstar’s triumphant return to dance music.
For longtime fans, Chromatica is as familiar as it is fresh. It’s electro-pop Gaga, an update from the girl who gave the world “Poker Face” and “Just Dance,” that digs deeper into the classic house music scene that has always informed her music. To make the album, she found a partner in Michael Tucker, known as BloodPop, who had previously helped produce Joanne alongside its executive producers Mark Ronson and Gaga.
“It actually [began] around the same time Gaga was working on A Star is Born,” Tucker tells Rolling Stone. Following the release of Joanne in late 2016, Gaga sunk her teeth into the film soon after, writing and recording the soundtrack just before shooting that following spring. Her Joanne World Tour would begin that summer.
For ASIB, Tucker and the pop star would write ideas at her home. While none of their collaborations during this time would make the soundtrack, one idea did stand out: “Stupid Love.”
“I worked on that demo for a while but it was missing something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. When I played it for Max Martin, he had some fantastic ideas that really elevated it,” Tucker explains. When Gaga’s Joanne World Tour arrived in Kansas City, his hometown, in November 2017, he flew out to play her the new version of what would become Chromatica’s lead single. “I played it on her bluetooth speaker in her dressing room with my family and friends present. I would definitely consider that the moment Chromatica was started.
“[Gaga] just knew she wanted to dance,” Tucker adds. The decision to make an album rooted in house music would come some months later. “Some of those days were very long and hard emotionally. No matter how hard they would be, by 9 or 10pm she would be dancing and smiling. You could physically see dance music healing this person in real time so it just became obvious very quickly that that’s what we had to do.”
“When we sat with Gaga, we all talked about how it should feel. There was this general consensus that the music should feel classic and familiar, but also fresh and new at the same time. Something I thought about a lot when finishing these records: What sound would work here to make the listener almost feel comfortable, like they’ve experienced it before?”
Norris, a friend of BloodPop, had been brought on to help with “Fun Tonight,” a moody break-up song about a partner more obsessed with Gaga’s fame than her. The song had been “considerably slower,” as Norris describes, with a different arrangement before the BPM was turned up to match the rest of the LP. He was eventually brought on to mix the rest of the album, working closely with the vocal producer Ben Rice in Los Angeles’ Henson Studios.
“[Ben] added interested vocal effects, delays and reverb, which felt era-appropriate,” Norris says. The album’s also thought hard about the gear that they used, with Norris investing in a $50 “cheapo compressor” in tribute to Daft Punk who used a similarly low-budget compressor on their first two albums. It was used on “Rain on Me.”
“I would reverse engineer some Daft Punk songs to figure out what went into the making of that. Some of that didn’t make it on to the final record, but it helped us figure out how we evoke that French Touch sound in a 2020 way.”
Once Chromatica began to really take shape, Gaga and Tucker decided to pull in some real dance music heavyweights to help the star further conquer the dance floor she fought for: Skrillex, Axwell, Tchami, Madeon, Johannes Klahr and Boys Noize were among the EDM giants that were called upon for additional ideas and production.
“They were going through the history of dance music, and I play a little bit of a part in that history,” Axwell tells RS, calling from his home in Sweden. He was brought in this past winter to help amp up “Alice” and “Free Woman.” Axwell admired their dedication to making more “proper dance music,” leaning on house and garage scenes instead of just EDM. He even dug up and dusted off an old track he had worked on when he performed with Sebastian Ingrosso as Axwell and Ingrosso: “Sine From Above.”
“I had this old song we worked on, like, seven years ago with Elton John,” Axwell explains. “Sine From Above,” which was also co-written with Ryan Tedder, was meant to be a collaboration between the house duo and the legendary piano man.
“We tried working on it and we couldn’t really get it where we wanted it,” he says. “It was also kind of hard to get ahold of Elton John. I had this on my computer and was like, ‘Wait a minute. Lady Gaga and Elton John are buddies.’”
Axwell sent the demo to Gaga and Tucker, who loved the track. Plus, Gaga had an easier time getting ahold of John, as a longtime friend of the singer and the godmother to his son.
“It was pretty cool how that song finally left my computer,” he laughs.
“Recording Elton John on Skype from Australia is one of the most surreal moments I’ll never forget,” Burns adds.
Skrillex had been a fan of Gaga’s since 2007 when he saw her perform for 50 people at Steve Aoki’s Dim Mak Tuesdays party. He’s remixed a couple of her songs but has yet to meet Gaga in person yet. He was brought on by Tucker to help produce “Plastic Doll,” an emotional track about being used and played by a partner.
“The track came together effortlessly as BloodPop and I have worked together many times before,” Skrillex says. The pair famously worked on Justin Bieber’s comeback LP Purpose together. “I especially fell in love with chorus. Her delivery is so full-on. She’s just going for it! There’s something very cool about the way it all came out.”
As therapeutic as it was to dance, delivering some of the more emotional lyrics in the studio proved difficult for Gaga. Tucker notes that the song “911,” which features additional production from Madeon, was particularly tough. The song is a powerhouse dance track with deeply affecting lyrics about how she’s her own worst enemy.
“She’s very smart and she wants to make sure that everybody working on a song knows what the message is so that we don’t get distracted,” Madeon adds. “We kept the production quiet. I think there’s so much life and impact in those lyrics that you want to let them breathe. You don’t need to drown them. I really wanted to respect that.
“I was just talking to my friends, and I was saying, ‘I can’t wait to dance with people to this music. I can’t wait to just go into any space with a whole bunch of people, and blast this as loud as possible to show them how much I love them,’” Gaga said in her interview with Lowe. “Until then, I hope that they listen to this record, and go on not only my personal journey with me, and dance through all the pain, but also go through their own journey, and dance through all their pain.”
Read the full interview here.