about the artist
"I wasn't allowed to leave the house more than maybe… six times in a year because I was high risk. So I made an entire album at home, sold it to Warner Brothers, then threw it in the trash and spent a year making the right album. I can't believe who I talked into that room. I think people are going to be very shocked when they find out. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew this was it. This was the moonshot. When I could finally leave the house, I spent fifty hours a weekMore
"I wasn't allowed to leave the house more than maybe… six times in a year because I was high risk. So I made an entire album at home, sold it to Warner Brothers, then threw it in the trash and spent a year making the right album. I can't believe who I talked into that room. I think people are going to be very shocked when they find out. I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew this was it. This was the moonshot. When I could finally leave the house, I spent fifty hours a week with my best friends in a studio for a year, until for me it's unimpeachable. I don't honestly know how many records we made, but this is it. This is love, loss, ecstasy, death and resurrection on the dance floor. That's what this album will be."
– The Blessed Madonna
Prophesied and promised. Rumored, remade and restarted. Images from the studio sessions hinted at an improbable or even impossible cast of guest stars and collaborators, a semi-formal alliance assembled quietly around London. After months in small rooms and towering landmarks like Paul Epworth's studio, The Church and even a Christmas intensive at Imogen Heap's home, the results are seismic.
But what kind of alchemy transports you from hometown rave scene hero to one of the most sought after and respected producers, songwriters and DJs on the planet just dropping their first album twenty years into their career? How does one function amphibiously in the sweaty dank depths of dance music's underground and while soaking effortlessly in the same mainstream waters as Dua Lipa, Madonna, Florence and (no seriously) Elton John? And how does all of this unfold while being split down the middle of a pandemic?
Maybe the first time you saw Marea Stamper aka The Blessed Madonna, she was a blonde dot commanding a stage half the size of a football field. Maybe you saw her for the first time huddled in front of your TV during lockdown, swaying with Dua Lipa in a make believe roller rink disco called Studio 2054 and screamed: I KNOW HER! Or maybe the first time you saw her it was in an illegal house party with fifty people, or in a gay bondage dungeon DJing at 5am in a sportbra. Maybe you watched her avatar deck a police officer in the video game, Grand Theft Auto. Or maybe you heard her voice before you saw her, back in the heartsick pandemic days where we "lost dancing."
But how did we get here? "When I was a kid, I was bullied out of high school. I don't think there's any other way to say it. My mom, to her credit, saw that I just wasn't going to survive long under that pressure. She had to let me go chase this crazy thing. By the time I was supposed to be a sophomore, I was throwing free raves in the middle of nowhere in Kentucky with a small band of techno outlaws. Everyone was older than me. I was still wearing braces the first time we got raided by the police. It's all magic and speaker-freaking after that."
Cutting her teeth in illegal rave promotion, she developed as a DJ and producer, record label go-fer, A+R. "I started off selling mixtapes. Somehow eventually I got a real job in dance music at a big label in Chicago. One time Daft Punk showed up in their tour bus at the house I lived in with the guys at the label. I made them macaroni and cheese."
But in some ways, the current incarnation of The Blessed Madonna begins with three magic words, scrawled in shoe polish on a broken — down box and hung with Christmas lights on the wall at a small sweaty party: We Still Believe. "I think you have to give up completely to really understand what hope is. It was like 2011? I had spectacularly, monumentally failed. I left the label. I wasn't DJing. I wasn't putting out records. I was divorced and living on my Dad's couch so naturally my friends and I decided to throw an illegal rave. We didn't have any decorations, so I took a box and wrote, 'We Still Believe' on it. I needed to believe that something better was possible and that's how it started. If you don't have any hope, then write some up and hang it on the wall. In retrospect, that's when my mind started to change." Within a few short years, We Still Believe went from three words on a box, to sensational underground club residency at the legendary Smartbar. In 2012, the landmark Chicago venue named her resident along with, no less than the godfather of house, Frankie Knuckles. In 2013, she became the first ever woman to helm the curation of the club, in thirty years, the oldest independent dance music venue in the world. And following Chicago's lead, global dance music suddenly believed in her too.
It's a cliche: the overnight sensation that took twenty years, but that's precisely what happened. After years of fifty dollar gigs, strung together by gas money and surfed couches, she connected. Her first invitation to Europe came from no less than the esteemed Panorama Bar in Berlin and the secret didn't last long. Her reputation as a sublime technician behind the decks and selector cemented a legacy of fluent and dynamic sets, spanning from disco to techno to house and back. Her touring schedule exploded. Launched at breakneck pace from dropped pin to dropped pin on the globe, she seemed as comfortable delivering an eight — hour disco beat down in a bathhouse as she does dominating the largest festival stages in the world with searing techno: Coachella, Sonar. You name it. We Still Believe expanded globally too, beginning with thirteen straight sold out nights in London. One room sweatboxes, circus tents, theaters, massive festival stages and entire city blocks have all served as the canvas for this kaleidoscopic event. In 2016, The Blessed Madonna became the first woman to be named Mixmag's DJ of the year, landing the prestigious magazine cover wearing a giant gold crown. The New York Times profiled her. These were just a few of many rolling shots across the bough to come. Top ten in the Resident Advisor poll. Passport pages filled up as if by printing press. The definitive voice of Saturday nights on BBC Radio 6. She was nowhere… and then she was everywhere.
To see her play is to feel like you know her, to be drunk on her verve and the sheer elation she emits as the records fly. There's an infectious joy, a quickening, an ability to plug into people. One moment, it's the spark of Sylvester and the next it could be the electric klang of Kraftwerk. Things that shouldn't work, simply work together. Stopping mid — set to hug dancers, singing and clapping when she plays, it takes her ages to traverse a room when the show is over. Everyone wants a hug and they get it. She looks you in the eye when she plays. Connection is full contact. People want to tell her their story, tell her what she meant to them. They give her flowers and handmade bracelets and records. She listens, looks them in the eye and lets them know they're supposed to be right where they are. They're dancing together. This was the story of two decades of endless weekends first as a dancer, then promoter, then DJ, then producer. And then very suddenly in 2020, the weekend stopped.
She was half a world away in Australia when the pandemic slammed the breaks on the entire touring DJ industry. But in a time when many in dance music lost access to their creative voices, she found dancing with her voice and the world heard it, metaphorically and literally.
You could argue Club Future Nostalgia has to be one of the most improbable, ambitious pop dance excursions in history. A veteran of the midwest rave scene and the biggest pop star of the era decided to make an underground club album. "In retrospect, we were early. That's the best I can reckon. In March of 2020, it felt like my world was ending and then a couple of months later me and Dua were freaking out over the phone about this insane thing that we were trying to do. Absolutely the most surreal part of my life. A remix album on that scale. From home. Done literally in my pajamas. CFN is borne of the surreality of pandemic times." After working together for the remix of Silk City's Grammy winning "Electricity," Dua Lipa and TBM conceived of a club version of Dua's earth shattering lockdown masterpiece, "Future Nostalgia" including a remix of her hit, "Levitating" featuring Madonna and Missy Elliot. "The fact that we did this and this insane single, then the album with, on one hand, Moodyman and on the other, Mark Ronson, Louie Vega and on and on? And it was a shock to a lot of people. No question. For a lot of young listeners this was their first encounter with aspects of underground dance music. But we were right. We did it right. It holds up. We might have been early but we were right on time."
The global streamed concert, Dua Lipa's "Studio 2054" followed. "It's one of the less than ten times I left the house over that year. We were in a bio-secure bubble in order to safely pull it off. You can't imagine how tight the ship was. They built a real working DJ booth for me to act… as myself? Dua was basically my first hug other than my husband in six months. And it all happened on camera after we'd made a whole album together. Beyond surreal."
And then there's that other record. Again, you remember exactly where you were the first time you heard it. And you could be forgiven if you cried a little. Marea met Fred Again… in an unusual place: Banksy's Walled Off Hotel, in Nazareth… yes that Nazareth perhaps appropriately for such a blessed union. They remained friends and during the lockdowns Fred recorded her saying just precisely what the world had been feeling. "Marea: We've Lost Dancing" became a worldwide hit, going platinum across the globe, her voice sountracking the communal grief, loss and hope that we experienced together: the lockdown national anthem. Released just as COVID restrictions eased in the UK, neither Marea nor Fred Again.. were prepared for the impact. "It always blows my mind when someone shows me the words I said in that song tattooed on their body. Literally dozens of people have them." And indeed, what came next was marvelous.
The album was the only logical next step. "When I first started writing lyrics I was so terrified to say them, much less sing them, that I had to write them down and point to the words with a pencil like one of those sing-a-long videos with the bouncing ball." If the words were born of hesitation, it doesn't show in the first single, Serotonin Moonbeams. An anthem even before its actual release, Serotonin boldly teleports straight into the centre of the communal dancefloor experience. "This song came about after a holiday dinner with Hen from Joy Anonymous, my studio partner, Pat Alvarez and friends where we talked about what it was like to fall in love in Vicks Vapo-rub, candy soaked raves. It's about 'cuddle puddles' and the intense emotional, physical and spiritual connections that can form when serotonal conditions are right. It was written on one of those days where I was running from the production console to the sofa to bang out lyrics with Uffie and Jin Jin. Karma Kid was doing his thing. I remember being so embarrassed to say, 'Bet I hit you with that bad bitch, thunder lightning, super frightening yeah!' But when I did, they just howled and we knew we were onto something."
Next up is "We Still Believe." TBM wrote and recorded a version of this song that shares a name with the party alone in her attic over a decade ago, writing the lyrics on the back of a record sleeve and recording them into a blackberry under a blanket. "I distorted my own vocals on the original, but imagined that the song would someday be performed by Jamie Principle, arguably the first real writer in house music and my hero. Eventually years later, Jamie and I met, sitting next to each other at Frankie Knuckles' memorial and we've been beloved friends ever since. Jamie kindly agreed to re-record the song I wrote for him before I knew him and here we are, writing the next chapter together and doing it the way I imagined it all those years ago." Soulwax chimed in on the final version and the result is absolutely fresh.
Past this album and her musical legacy, a deep commitment to social justice remains a natural companion to The Blessed Madonna's life in music and an immensely important part of both her popularity and her day to day work. Whether it's traveling to Uganda to work directly with queer women DJ's, mentorship schemes for women, advocating on behalf of various racial justice efforts, prison and bail reform and especially international refugee, feminist and LGBTQi projects, her commitment to humanitarian work is as strong as her commitment to music. She remains a steadfast fixture of Smartbar and the underground clubs and parties of the globe.
It's 9AM in a smokey European discoteque. We are clenched in the teeth of an unimaginably long, grueling DJ set, nearly nine hours. Many revelers have been installed on a speaker since Sunday night. This is the magic hour. The blinds clack open and amber slats of light slice into the hazy room. She puts her hands up and into the morning sun. Her left palm is black and blue — bruised from clapping. She twirls in ecstasy and throws her head back, singing, her chest almost out of her body and once again, for a moment, everyone believes. The last record plays and for now the party's over.