Patrick Leonard reveales all on Madonna’s Like a Prayer and more

Celebrating Madonna‘s Like a Prayer 25th anniversary, Billboard spoke to fan-loved Patrick Leonard, who co-produced most of the songs from the album. Leonard revealed that the title track was written in one day and the entire album was written in less than two weeks. Impressive!

Like a Prayer was released by Sire/Warner Bros. Records on March 21, 1989, and shot to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 shortly thereafter. It spent six weeks atop the chart, which is Madonna‘s longest run at No. 1 for any album.

First of all, Patrick Leonard denied the rumours that he is working with Madonna on her new album, even though he would like to work with her again.

Here is some excerpt regarding the Like a Prayer recording sessions.

Billboard: You’ve said before that “Like a Prayer” was the first song that was written for the album. When you guys finished that song, or at least had it at some sort of stage where it seemed like it was finished, did know that you had something special?

Patrick Leonard: I think there was a point when we realized that it was the title track, and the lead track, and it was going to a powerhouse. It became obvious that there was something unique about it. And that somehow we made this thing work: with its stopping and starting, and a minimalistic rhythmic thing, and the verses, and these bombastic choruses, and this giant choir comes in. This is ambitious, you know?! Of the songs I’ve worked on in the studio — which is in the thousands — there is something different when you write something and you just have a sense that you can’t break this, you can’t really ruin this. It exists already. And that used to be what made a hit song.

Billboard: Prince turns up on the album, obviously, on “Love Song,” the song he and Madonna did together. I’ve read that his guitar work is on “Keep It Together” somewhere.

Patrick Leonard: What I know is that his guitar work is on, when you start “Like a Prayer,” the guitar that you hear before the door slams…

Billboard: The distorted guitar?

Patrick Leonard: That’s Prince. What happened is, [Madonna] sent him something to play on and he played on it and sent it back. And we didn’t feel that what he did served it. But that piece, that beginning, is him. Recently, I listened to [the song “Like a Prayer”] — I hadn’t heard it years. There’s a heavy rock guitar that’s in the bridges — I don’t think it’s Prince. There’s a heavy guitar in the choruses and when I heard it, I thought: “Did we use his guitar in those bridges?” Because the sound is similar to the first sound [in the opening], but it’s not exactly the same. . . . But I know for a fact that we did use that [Prince] thing as the intro, because we just thought it was crazy and really cool. I seem to recall that that’s all we used, but I could be wrong.

Billboard: With “Oh Father,” were you surprised that song was chosen to be a single? That was a pretty bold move for her because it was such a slow, heavy song to come out as a big pop commercial single from her at the time.

Patrick Leonard: My favorite thing that we ever recorded, ever — or wrote — is “Oh Father.” That to me is the best thing we ever did. So, it didn’t surprise me because we knew when we did it, that there was something about this that was in a way kind of the most *real* thing. [For] that song, the ‘record’ button was only pressed three times. It was pressed to do the track, live, with her singing live. Then we did the orchestra. And then we did a double of her vocal when we were mixing. That’s it. So it’s real. It’s something that I really wanted to do and she was kind enough to say “let’s try this,” and it was not easy. There’s two or three guitar players playing. I’m playing keyboards. Jai Winding was playing keyboards. There was a percussionist and a drummer — and she’s singing — all at the same time. These days, people go “wow, that seems crazy.” Those days it wasn’t uncommon for everybody to be playing together even though you’re not a band. But it was one of those things where the arrangement was tricky enough, that it really took some working out to get it all right. Even all those weird synth overdubs and things — all those things were being done live. We worked out all the parts, had all the sounds. I remember that we cut it live, and then put the orchestra on. You’re not doubling the orchestra, so it’s one pass for the orchestra. When I say [the ‘record’ button was] pressed three times, it might have gotten pressed 10 [times] that day, but it was ultimately one that stayed there. If you see what I’m saying. When we were mixing it, [mixer] Bill Bottrell suggested that we double the choruses. I remember even being a little upset about it (Laughs). Like, look, “we’ve got an amazing record that we only pressed the record button twice — can’t we leave it?” He said, “three isn’t exactly shameful.” We doubled the lead vocal on the choruses, and that was it.

Billboard: The whole album sounded so “live” with real instruments. It didn’t sound computery or programmy, and I think that was surprising to a lot of people. Was there a focus to make it have more of a “live” sound?

Patrick Leonard: I’ve always had that agenda, at least it was then. I’ve actually kind of cooled on it a bit, because I’m not sure it matters that much when people don’t actually understand A) what they’re listening to or B) even how to play in an ensemble unless they’re 60-years old like I am. It’s not something people really do very well anymore. It was one of those things I was always on my soap box saying “let’s get real musicians in.” And I think also that we had done the tour or even a couple tours I think at that point, and I was musical director on those tours, so we had the experience of working with live players. We had a couple players that were part of the flock that we knew we could bring in, and my studio is very well set up. It wasn’t in any way painful. It was fun and easy. It was kind of a process of getting the songs written, and the demos recorded, which was just you know, me, by myself making the demos and her singing. And then replacing the drum machines and the percussion with real people and getting background singers in and having guitar players come in and do parts. Most of the bass on the record is synth-based. Most of it is me playing bass. But on a couple things, there’s bass players added. Like “Like a Prayer’s” Guy Pratt and me. I think “Express Yourself” is Randy Jackson playing bass.

Click here to read the whole interview which is also about other albums they wrote together.