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?’”