M.I.A.

With music, it doesn't matter where an artist comes from as long as a certain sense of creativity comes from within. Although 27-year-old Maya Arulpragasam
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With music, it doesn't matter where an artist comes from as long as a certain sense of creativity comes from within. Although 27-year-old Maya Arulpragasam

With music, it doesn't matter where an artist comes from as long as a certain sense of creativity comes from within. Although 27-year-old Maya Arulpragasam (shortened for the convenience of Westerners to Arul) is of Sri Lankan descent, she has been a British resident for the past two decades — Arul and her family fled their homeland of Sri Lanka, where her father is a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, after conflicts escalated in the '80s. Arul's years of growing up in a South London council estate and not knowing the whereabouts of her father have brought about a singular persona known in artistic circles as M.I.A.

Although she had originally worked as a filmmaker and visual artist, Arul learned the wonders of the Roland TR-505 drum machine after traveling with Peaches while working on a documentary. “It was the first time I'd come across the concept of someone doing a gig or a show onstage with nothing,” Arul says. “It was the most liberating thing I'd ever seen. It puts the emphasis on the artist. I really loved that sense of bravery. I thought if I started with something as minimal as that, I could work on myself. At the end of the day, that's all you've got.”

For her full-length debut, Arular (XL, 2005), Arul began every song with lyrics, melody and beats on the 505. Working in that fashion gave her the freedom to go wherever she liked with a tune before taking it to a producer whose music had caught her ear. The twist with Arul, however, was getting a producer who is known for, say, indie music to work on a dancehall beat for her.

Producer Richard X agreed to collaborate on the dirty and earthy number “Hombre,” whose sounds are triggered by a bunch of toys that Arul bought on a recent trip to India. X created a drum pattern from the toys' sounds with Digidesign Pro Tools. Arul took the track a step further by adding vocal sounds on the mic. Building layers, they were able to make room for any number of additional inputs of sound. “We'd use my earrings, my mobile, my pen — whatever made a sound, we used it,” Arul says. “The coolie influence comes from an old Tamil movie. The only treatment of the sounds was the extremely high-pitch Indian chant. I wasn't used to singing like that.”

In contrast, Arul's first single, the infectious and bouncy “Galang,” took a lot longer to complete. Again starting with a beat that she programmed on the 505 at home (just six weeks after she purchased the machine), she later added claps to the beats, wrote the lyrics soon after and laid it down on a 4-track tape machine. A month later, Arul took “Galang” to a “proper” studio and invited Caveman to join her. Using Apple Logic and rerecording the vocals, they added a bass line and reworked the beat. They mixed it down in a way to give it more of an analog sound than what was possible with the 505.

“A 505, you can smash it out,” Arul says. “I like turning knobs, pushing buttons and lights flashing. On a computer, it's too sterile. I prefer making music with a bucket and a stick, keeping it as real and organic as possible.”

Given that Arul comes from a nonmusical background and is not the type to have a library of references, she has her share of detractors. “I have a sense of urgency,” she admits. “It comes from other parts of my life. How I make music is related to how I make a painting or how I cook my mum's curry. England is not a great place if you believe in communication. It's highly critical but never offers a solution. This is why I started saying as much as I can in songs — whether people got me or not. The things that never get talked about these days seem to be what I'm about. If I don't use my art form to express myself, what am I supposed to do with it?”