Photo courtesy of Verve
Jon Batiste Talks New Album 'We Are,' His Brain-Breaking Itinerary & Achieving "Freedom" From Genre
Stay Human bandleader and Stephen Colbert foil Jon Batiste is a respected pillar of the jazz community. But as his new album 'WE ARE' and his litany of other projects attests, he's something much more significant: A fully-formed American artist
What has Jon Batiste been up to since his last album, 2018's Hollywood Africans? That's like asking an entire town, "What have you been up to for three years?"
For Batiste, even summing up three days is rather impossible. In that timespan, he's had an incalculable number of irons in the fire—his symphonic premiere at Carnegie Hall, leading his band Stay Human on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," a collaborative song with Diane Warren, and scores of other things. Still, he's found a 15-minute window for a Zoom call. Therein, the 34-year-old dynamo lovingly deems his life "a madhouse."
"It's hard to even encapsulate in one presentation of a thought," the three-time GRAMMY nominee admits to GRAMMY.com. "I'm also in the process of, while doing these things, developing other things."
This Möbius strip of a life—projects and projects and projects, blurring on a continuum—speaks to Batiste's boundless drive and work ethic. In a pandemic year, when so many lost motivation and momentum, he sped up. Not only that, he's showing the uncategorizable nature of his artistry.
Just as he can't be summed up as a bandleader, music consultant or TV personality, on his new album WE ARE, which was released March 29, Batiste combines half a dozen styles in fresh, unhackneyed ways.
"I don't even think genre exists," he declares later in the interview. "Self-curation and the free exchange of information and content creates a lack of genre adherence. That kind of diversity and access changes listening habits and changes the way people perceive music."
This paradigm, he says, exposes and deconstructs notions of genre, which, Batiste asserts, stems from race-centric marketing prevalent in the early music business. Read on as he holds forth on that subject, his Oscar-winning work on the 2020 Pixar flick Soul and what he has in store as live performances return.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
What's been going on in your life since Hollywood Africans, up to and including the daily grind of TV and working on Soul?
I'm involved in so many different types of things that so much of my life is balancing the amount of things I have going on and maintaining artistic integrity and keeping my values intact. It's hard to even encapsulate in one presentation of a thought.
Looking at my day-to-day: I just finished working on a score last night. The day before, when I was working on that score, I did a symphonic composition for an NBA Playoffs ad, which is their official ad that's out now. We did that in a matter of three days and recorded an entire symphony orchestra. Then, before that, I was working on a song in collaboration with Diane Warren. Today, I was hosting "CBS This Morning," and I wasn't even playing music. I was the host [with] Gayle King.
Today, I'm doing "The Late Show." And then tonight, after that, I'm going to work on some things for a foundation I'm part of. This is just in the last three days, which is a microcosm of the type of madhouse that my life is and the variety and range of different things I'm part of, that I care about deeply.
This is [about] focusing on a few things that are offered to me that I care about the most in a moment. That's maybe five out of 500 opportunities to do things or be part of things. It really becomes a question of what matters most to me and what I want to put on everybody's plate at this time, and how much time I have to do it.
I'm also in the process of, while doing these things, developing other things. Developing shows and developing a symphony that I'm premiering at Carnegie Hall in May of next year that's called American Symphony. It will be my largest work to date. It's a 40-minute, four-movement symphony, and it has not only the orchestra, but a choir and marching band and guest musicians. It's a very expansive work.
I've got to mention Soul, because I really got the impression that It wasn't a writer's room guessing what that world is like. It seemed like jazz musicians were deeply involved with the film.
Oh, absolutely. You've got one of the greatest living jazz musicians being a consultant on the film—Herbie Hancock—a consultation that was from the beginning of the film. And you have Terri Lyne Carrington, one of the greatest musicians living, who also consulted on the film. I consulted on the film as well as working on the score with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
You have real jazz musicians at the helm of this thing. Roy Haynes played the drums with me on the score. I put together another multigenerational band there with real jazz musicians. Roy Haynes and Harvey Mason, Sr. on the drums, and Marcus Gilmore as well, who is Roy's grandson. Then, you have Linda Oh and Tia Fuller on the bass and saxophone, respectively.
I think it's really amazing when they have these opportunities—for whatever it is—to have a big studio use their megaphone to speak to something that is more countercultural and less mainstream. This is a great example of the power of a big studio—one of the biggest studios in the world, Disney-Pixar—to use their megaphone and speak to something. It can have a lasting impact.
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That was a big win for the jazz community.
Yeah. Anyone who says otherwise, I think, missed the big picture. I think it's hard to look at that and not see it as a win for jazz and for culture. In particular, when I'm thinking about culture, I'm thinking about the ways that American identity and Black culture have been at odds in cinema. This movie was allowed to come through the cracks of a very marginalized history, when it comes to jazz in film.
As a journalist, I have to reckon with the word "jazz" and the periodic need to obliterate it. WE ARE has many of those elements, but when I listen to it, the word never crosses my mind. Do you even consider genre when you write?
I don't even think genre exists. I think it's a construct. The construct of genre was really created in order to help sell and organize music and to train the public to think about music in that way, in order to market it easier.
I think that's what it was from the beginning, and then, even earlier than our modern era of genre organization, what it was was all those things and race, which created these different forms of segregation. Segregated radio stations even had colored records versus non-colored records, and all kinds of crazy shenanigans. People would have songs that were done, and there would be a white version and a Black version. As you know, the history of all the stuff we've dealt with.
Then, you'd have R&B records and rock 'n' roll, and that became a way of segregating music. You have Chuck Berry and Little Richard, and then you have Elvis and the Stones, and all these different blues musicians. Blues and R&B were really the origin of what had become known as rock 'n' roll, but because it was Black people doing it, they didn't want to call it rock 'n' roll.
It's very interesting to see the evolution of that. That's a whole other story. But it's always been a construct. We've just always accepted it. And I think the more that we look at the way things have unfolded with streaming in the early 2000s, we see how the genie popped out of the bottle when people started to pirate, stream and download music and curate it for themselves, even though that's not even what it was called back then.
Self-curation and the free exchange of information and content creates a lack of genre adherence. That kind of diversity and access changes listening habits and changes the way people perceive music. It changes the taste of what they want from artists. We're just [now] starting to see the impact of that as the generation who grew up with streaming.
You know, my generation was the last generation in that when we were 11 and 12 years old, we didn't have it. By the time we were 13 and 14, it was taken over. It's the generation after us that grew up where that was the only thing they had. That's how they understood music consumption. There are pros and cons to it all, but it definitely was part of what is more and more exposed about genre, which is rooted in marketing and race.
When you crash together hip-hop, jazz, blues, R&B and soul, it exposes that they're all made of the same DNA.
What's totally interesting is that the more time that the construct of genre has persisted, it's created different approaches to these genres that are identifiable. You have artists that have created music to fit into a system that is a construct. And even with that being the case, the music is still not able to be separated.
I'll give you the perfect example. If you listen to what's known as smooth jazz and then listen to something from the '70s, like Grover Washington or Stanley Turrentine or post-bop music like Horace Silver or Bobby Timmons or something like that, the only thing that separates that music—besides the actual musicians—stylistically is the production concept.
Some beats, where you hear something Art Blakey might play, that could be a hip-hop beat if it was an 808 or it was sampled. It could be jazz—vice versa—if it was played on two-inch tape and recorded at Van Gelder Studios. A lot of stuff that separates genre now is largely sonic production approaches.
I feel like that's the new innovation in music. I see a lot of people trying to break genres in how they blend sonic and production approaches.
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Photo: Ben Heath
Nick Waterhouse's 'The Fooler' Is An Evocative Tale Of A City And Relationship Lost
"This record is like the skeleton key to decode earlier works," the singer/songwriter and guitarist says of 'The Fooler.' Using the sounds of his youth in San Francisco, Waterhouse's latest ruminates on connection, memory, and the disappearance of place.
Nick Waterhouse holds an affection for a certain version of San Francisco — one that is reminiscent of Beat culture, but decidedly contemporary. His is a North Beach life filled with drunken, late-night trips to the famed City Lights bookstore, DJ gigs at clubs that no longer exist, hours spent behind the counter at one of the city’s most revered record stores, and long, stoney car rides with its most lauded music critics.
And yet, in a refrain familiar to many denizens of the cool grey city of love, Waterhouse’s San Francisco has slipped away with time, gentrification and disease. On his sixth album, The Fooler, the singer/songwriter, guitarist and producer earnestly attempts to recapture the essence of his city lost. Waterhouse doesn’t indulge in nostalgia, instead using it to frame a universal story about what happens when your "heart and your memories can betray you in really nice ways."
"It's a record about human connection and memory, and places and the disappearance of places," Waterhouse tells GRAMMY.com. "The life that we've all led the last few years — everything is radically changing. [But] I don't posit mourning in remembering these things or these lost places."
An evocative, cerebral portrait of time, place and space, The Fooler’s 12 tracks meld R&B, garage and soul — the primordial aural ooze seeping from jukeboxes in San Francisco institutions like Tosca, Specs and Café Trieste during Waterhouse's salad days. He channels the sonic boom of Phil Spector and the voice of Lee Hazelwood on lead single "Hide And Seek," evokes Dylan and the surf-rock of the Allah-Las (whom he produced) on "Late In The Garden," while literary greats like Virginia Woolf inform the narrative.
While Waterhouse has achieved what he calls a "new creative impetus" and newfound narrative songwriting skills, he has kept busy outside the confines of memory. In recent years he left his native Los Angeles for Europe, co-produced and played guitar on Lana Del Rey’s latest album, and collaborated with Jon Batiste on 2021’s GRAMMY-winning We Are. He’s revived efforts on his label, Pres, and will embark on a small tour of the U.S. and European this spring.
But for all the physical and sonic terrain traversed, Waterhouse is pulled back to the place where he first found creative success — beginning with his 2012 revival soul-leaning debut, Time’s All Gone — and found his voice. "This is the total distillation of all the spirit of what my time in San Francisco was. And what I was, in my heart, thinking and feeling too — but with some good distance and perspective," he says of The Fooler.
You needn’t haunt the bars along Columbus and Vallejo streets in San Francisco, have found love on Muni, or know the difference between the Lower and Upper Haight to enjoy The Fooler, but you’ll certainly find yourself enraptured by the dreamy figures in Waterhouse’s nuanced, yet capacious city of memory.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The press release for this album is one of the headiest I’ve read recently, with a lot of literary references and existential questions. Was this always more of a conceptual album for you?
Completely. Then this record is like the skeleton key to decode earlier works. But with this record, I also had a breakthrough in writing. And I had a sudden knowledge of how I could use perspective as a songwriter; there were traces of it in earlier works, but this is finally what I think was a holistic expression.
That feeling of discovery was a big part of what drove this, and the themes in it. It's a record about human connection and memory, and places and the disappearance of places. I was listening to an interview with John Vanderslice this morning and he talked about how radically changed in such a short period of time [San Francisco] was, but even now, it's a major metropolitan area with the most vacancies of any first world nation.
With your previous work, were you mostly writing from your own perspective, asserting yourself as the character?
In a way, yes. I always was very careful not to write selfishly — the editor in my head was like, there has to be a reason that the song makes it to being done.
This record exists in the same city that Time’s All Gone was happening in, but that record was from the street level. It was like from the bus, from only where I was sitting. I was working two jobs and anxious; it was paycheck to paycheck, going through a relationship that was fragmenting; going through an apocalyptic breakup with somebody that ended up being very meaningful in my life, but I'm not with them anymore.
Now it's like 10 to 12 years later, I can see all of that floating above it. It's like this big dialogue between the characters and the world around it. And it's looking in the windows of all these places in the city, looking into other people's lives, and almost looking into people's spirits.
I thought a lot about Virginia Woolf and consciousness. The thesis is like, what does it mean to be in a space and have human connection? How do people change your life, and who changes?
The genesis of The Fooler occurred during a trip to San Francisco earlier in the pandemic. In addition to that cataclysmic change, I read that you had a number of really big changes happen in your life — you moved out of the country, you ended a relationship. How has that impacted the sound and spirit of this record?
Some of the things you're describing happened after this record, some of them were happening during, some of them were happening, maybe unconsciously before. A lot of the topics in the record are also me touching those things. And taking from them the meaningful collagen, the bone marrow, and using it to tell a story that isn't a literalized, confessional story. That was a huge breakthrough for me writing.
Is there one tune that you feel is a high watermark of this newfound ability to write in this narrative style?
"The Fooler" to me is that song, because lyrically it's so tight and it tells this story. It’s about space and memory and it's obscure enough for people to hang their own meanings on, but to me it still has meaning. "Was It You" is more of a literal storytelling, but it's also a city song. "The Fooler" and "Late In The Garden" are epiphany songs.
I wanted to write a musical novel. I wanted to write something that made me feel like James Salter’s Light Years, one of my favorite books, Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, or Mrs. Dalloway. They're going inside and outside, and perspectives change, but it's hitting at the same core human element.
I'd love to hear more of your history about you in San Francisco. Do you see this record as a sort of tribute to that time in your life?
When I was 19, I moved on to Vallejo Street with my then closest friend from Southern California. It was hanging out at [bars like] Specs and Tosca and going to City Lights drunk at 11 o'clock to buy a book, and hang out and write, and talk to people that have ideas, and talk about all the stuff that needs doing and will be done. I also studied literature at San Francisco State and the University of East Anglia.
On my last day of university, I lived in the Upper Haight at the time — I was in exile from North Beach — and I had gone through a massive tragedy that completely disrupted and ruptured my world. I was in a really bizarre state of mind, and I was comforting myself. I was just surviving.
I was listening to a lot of Them and Van Morrison, and I was working at the record shop that brought me joy, which was Rookys in the Lower Haight. And a lot of the sound that went into the sonics of this record are these specific types of New York City records made by people like Bert Berns, and Bob Crewe, and Ellie Greenwich. Dick Vivian, who ran Rookys, was playing those records a lot.
There was this girl who I thought was the most mysterious and beautiful person I'd ever seen. We took the train twice a week to San Francisco State and we never spoke. The very last day of this course we were in, I realized she was sitting in the back of that class. She came up and sat in front of me, and she turned around and she's like, "So where are we gonna go get a drink right now?"
And I fell in love with this person. We ended up living together. Her father was the piano player for Van Morrison. All these confluences of strange things started happening. I'm not a mystical person, but it was this feeling. The way that she lived, and her humor, and her mind — she was so literary and intelligent and wry and funny, and stylish. Our life was this life that I had dreamed of.
We [once] went to a book signing at Tosca in North Beach, and the journalist Joel Selvin turned to us and he goes, "I'm writing a book on Bert Berns right now." Then Selvin started inviting me over on weekends, where he'd smoked dope and take me for a drive in his Shelby Cobra and play me all this Bert Burns stuff, and tell me all the stories that I've been dying to hear.
That sound became North Beach for me. That sound became like my salad days, because it was always on in the background and everywhere I went. I was DJing a lot — we would be at Edinburgh Castle, or at the Knockout or at Casanova, or the Elbo Room, or Koko in the Tenderloin and all the music in that period of time was like girl groups and ‘60s soul and the R&B I liked.
I orbited in similar circles, and went to many of those bars and soul DJ nights. I remember seeing you perform your first album at Bimbo’s in North Beach.
When I had my career from my first record, I went out on tour and I basically left the city and never came back fully, and the city never came back to me too.
I struggled for a long time. I had a really hard couple years trying to enter another part of my life like, Do I make records now? I tour? I don't like this. I want to go back to North Beach. I want to listen to Bert Berns records in Tosca and have my girlfriend and have my life back and have my network of friends.
Then I realized everybody else's life was getting totally disrupted, and everybody was leaving or moving. That ex, when we split up, she went to New York and I went to L.A. All our friends went off to New York or to L.A. or to Austin or to Chicago or to Berlin. And those were the people who could tell the wind was changing then.
So much of what you're saying resonates really deeply with me as a Bay Arean who no longer lives there — you want to revisit that life, but realize that it's not there anymore.
Goodbye to all that, really. The cheap thing is for it to be nostalgia, right? But it gets to a deeper thing about what is memory, what is desire, what is unrequited love? What is society doing to people?
It's about release, surrender. But also why everything's worth doing even if it's gone, or you're tricked. "Unreal" and "No Commitment" are songs about the outside world to show what these characters are rebelling against or living among. And then like other songs like "Looking For A Place" or "Was It You" or "Was The Style" those are like, what is worth living for?
"Hide and Seek" is about adult relationships; they're not about visceral stuff that could be mistaken as youthful. All these songs, too, are love songs with no love in the choruses. "Hide And Seek" is not a toxic relationship, but it's about the uncertainty of what love feels like, and when people are glancing off each other instead of connecting all the way.
Cover art for The Fooler — a couple in front of City Lights Books in North Beach
I and others have previously cast you among the wave of retro soul artists. How has that characterization shaped your music, if at all?
What I'm doing is not aping. I'm expressing myself with the tools and the vocabulary that I have on hand, and a listener has to trust me, that I'm doing what I'm doing in good faith.
I always had much more in common with — and actually lived among and worked among and incubated with — the San Francisco garage scene. Ty Segall is playing drums on my first record. But you know, when you make your first record with horns and gospel-style vocals, and the people who work on your record — including your publicist and your distributor — put out Daptone-related stuff or Mayer Hawthorne or Aloe Blacc related stuff, you're put into the bloodstream as another one of those cells. It also switches how people hear stuff. I struggled with that from the beginning.
Back to The Fooler, is there anybody playing on it that you want to highlight or any interesting production facts that you think are worthwhile to note?
Making it with Mark Neill, at his place, was really revelatory for me. I surrendered to Mark to be the artist. And I also brought in my childhood best friend, Anthony Polizzi, who's playing second guitar or piano, who's a part of my DNA. Almost every record I've put out has a song co-written by us; we haven't lived in the same city together since we were 17.
[Mark] understood the sound was the place and we talked a lot about these records specifically that were influencing us whether they were little Anthony and the Imperials records, or they were loving spoonful records, or they were Bert Berns records. And he was looking into me to find who I was, and for me, it helped push me.
What else is on your plate that is contributing to your new creative impetus?
I'm writing a lot. I have been working on a lot of other projects; I'm working on another record with Jon Batiste to follow up the work that we won a GRAMMY for.
I'm finding that in a lot of my writing, [my breakthrough] helped me comprehend how I want to write and what I'm actually trying to strike at. Every day, I try to get closer or touch it if I can. So it's been good. It's turbulent, but it's productive.
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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
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Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
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Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.