Photo: Global Mgmt
Aespa Talk Debut Mini-Album 'Savage' And Fusing Artificial Intelligence With K-Pop
K-pop group aespa set records with their artificial intelligence-indebted first singles. Following their newly released debut mini-album, 'Savage,' the band chats about diversifying their sound and working with their own digital avatars.
How many times have you wished for a companion, a friend who knew you inside out? Someone who knows your strengths and shortcomings, your failures and successes? If you feel like playing a game, they're ready to be Player 2. If you want to write a song, they're here to help you pull melodies out of thin air. If you want to show off on social media, they have all the right poses. What if instead of a friend, this other half was more literal—an extension of your inner self?
But this isn't the introduction to an Elon Musk-ian vision of the future. This is the alluring world of K-pop group aespa, where people exist side by side with their æs, or AI-based avatars fashioned out of the data they put on the internet. While the æs' physical traits might differ from their human counterpart, the bedrock of the avatar's personality is built from data drawn from the pictures we like, the things we post, and the hashtags we follow.
That technological advance alone would make aespa's upcoming debut a fascinating listen, but the mythology in which aespa's members interact and collaborate with their AI-driven æs adds an unprecedented layer of surreality. Though only the four flesh-and-bone members are typically seen on-screen, aespa is billed as an eight-member group. While Karina, Giselle, Winter, and Ningning capture the real world through songs and music videos, their æs (æ-Karina, æ-Giselle, æ-Winter, and æ-Ningning) hold the fort in the FLAT, the virtual world in aespa's lore.
The digital æs connect with the human members of the group, learn from them, and constantly evolve. Shortly after the act's debut, fans were introduced to this dynamic through a series of videos showing each member interacting with their æ in a process known as REKALL. The human half of aespa modeled the ins and outs of social cues and interactions for their digital other halves, directly giving them tips on how to appear more natural.
As might be expected from a group under the banner of K-pop mainstay SM Entertainment, a complex mythology powers aespa. In fact, the group stands on the first rung of what is known as the SM Culture Universe (SMCU), a dystopian tale spanning the entire SM Entertainment roster, wherein the members' connections with their æs are severed due to an entity known as the 'Black Mamba' that aims for control over both the digital and real worlds.
aespa's explosive debut single, also named "Black Mamba," traces the origins of the story, with genre-bending follow-up "Next Level" extending the narrative. With a tally of 21.4 million views within just 24 hours of its release, "Black Mamba" earned the highest number of views ever for a K-pop group's debut. "Next Level," meanwhile, reached number 97 on the Billboard Global 200 chart, making aespa only the third K-pop girl group in history to reach that chart more than once.
Less than a year since their debut, the group's debut mini-album, Savage, faces the unprecedented pressure of carrying an entire cultural universe. Just as in their larger-than-life, theatrical SMCU introduction, however, the members of aespa are more than up for the challenge.
"We worked really hard on [Savage] because we're showcasing a new genre of songs that we haven't tried before," Ningning says.
"We always released singles and they were all vocally–for me–kind of low or rap," Giselle adds. "This time we have an album where there's [more] actual singing involved. Vocally, I tried to make sure that I brought something [new] to the songs."
Following the release of Savage, aespa spoke to GRAMMY.com about their music, their lore, and how they wish to grow in the future.
This is your debut mini-album. What is Savage about?
Karina: Savage contains the story of the SMCU, continuing from "Next Level." We have six tracks which all showcase different genres of music and contain different colors of aespa.
Giselle: The title track has our main storyline–the continuation of "Black Mamba" and "Next Level." Our other songs also carry a bit of our story, but [they're] leaning towards us–more of the "real world" us. It's [not about] our AI members, not about the story, but more about us as real people. "Lucid Dream," for example, is actually a love song. We wanted to show both senses between the real world and the virtual world.
I'm glad you brought up "Lucid Dream," because it features Hayley Kiyoko. What was it like working with her?
Giselle: We actually didn't get to meet her and do an actual collaboration, but the song was made by her. Seeing that she wrote it for us, we were so surprised. We're so glad that we were able to sing it.
Let's talk a little bit about the æ-members. Who are they to you, and what purpose do they have in terms of your larger storyline?
Karina: The æs are AI characters based on the members' real, individual data. They live in a world called FLAT, and just like how we live and continue our daily lives in the real world, the æs also continue their own lives in the FLAT. They live separate lives, and connect with us via [a process called] SYNK.
Ningning: Even [though we have] the SMCU storyline, which tells a story about how we go on a journey together, [it's] not only that. On stage as well, we interact with the æ-characters–that's something that we've started with Savage. That's something new that we've tried.
You've said before that the æs bring a new dimension to your music. How so?
Karina: Our music tells the story of our journeys and our experiences with æs. In terms of the concept of the album and the songs as well, they contribute a lot. It helps develop our own "aespa" genre. The æs have a big role in that.
It's very hard sometimes to describe aespa's sound. You never limit yourself to one genre. How do you approach this diversity?
Giselle: When we were approached with the songs and the demos, we actually were very fond of it. We liked the songs, but [at the same time] we did have a lot of effort that we had to put in to make sure they actually sounded good and that we actually matched well with them.
For example, Winter has a very soft voice, but in order to sing "Black Mamba," [which is a] little more powerful, she worked to show her vocals in a different style. We really enjoy trying something new. "Savage" was also new to us.
How did you mentally prepare for this album? What were some things musically that you wanted to work on in the run up?
Giselle: We all gave each other a lot of honest feedback and kept updating each other while practicing. We were like, "We want this song to have this kind of vibe," or, "If this is your part, we think this would be good."
Karina: The title track has a bit of a heavier mood. So, in terms of musicality, I really tried to understand the song and the sound. [I tried to] really focus on the details and little things like facial expressions and gestures. That was how I tried to convey the music right.
Ningning: Before recording, it's very important to deliver the message and the mood of the song. I really get into the character. For example, if I'm recording a song, I'll think of various scenes in my head, like a movie. "What character am I portraying? What's happening? How am I feeling?" Little things like that. After I do that and prepare myself, then I go on [and] record the music.
Winter: I think that styling is also important in terms of figuring out the musical colors of the song. With "Savage," I thought about what would be the best way to visually represent the song, whether that's fashion or accessories or dance moves–how to visually bring that out and have that in harmony with the track. That was something that I really paid attention to for this particular album.
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Photo: The Chosunilbo JNS/Imazins via Getty Images
TXT, Blackpink, Aespa & More: Here Are All The K-Pop Tours And Events You Can Catch This Summer
Whether you want to put your Head in the Clouds, free yourself at Outside Lands or be (re)born pink, plan out your summer with these K-pop events and tours in mind.
2023 started off strong for K-pop events in the U.S. Household names like NCT 127, Kang Daniel, and Stray Kids all toured the country, while the Empire State Building was lit up in honor of TWICE's latest EP, Ready to Be. In April, BLACKPINK made history as the first K-pop group to headline Coachella, while BTS' Suga (under the alias Agust D) began his first solo tour — the first out of all BTS members.
As summer starts to bloom, so do even more tours, festivals and conventions for lovers of Korean music and culture to rejoice. From mid-May to the end of August, almost every week will be busy with affairs that range from concerts by rising groups like WEi, to weekend-long celebrations like KCON, to trailblazing performances like Tomorrow X Together (TXT) headlining Lollapalooza, or aespa becoming the first K-pop group to play at New York’s Governors Ball.
To add some color to your summer, GRAMMY.com assembled a list of all the K-pop concerts and events happening in the next few months so you can enjoy the season at its fullest.
Suga: Agust D Tour
April 26 - May 17
The first BTS member to headline his own solo tour, Suga kicked off a string of performances in the U.S. on April 26 in Belmont Park, New York. The setlist included hits from his two mixtapes, August D and D-2, new tracks from his first solo studio album, D-Day, and even some BTS classics. Before heading to the Asian leg of the tour, Suga will play in Los Angeles and in Oakland, California.
Head in the Clouds Festival
Forest Hills, New York
88rising continues its mission of spreading the talents of Asian diaspora artists through their Head in the Clouds Festival. In addition to their usual Los Angeles edition, 2023 sees Head in the Clouds Festival expand to New York for the first time. The lineup includes returning acts such as DPR IAN and DPR LIVE, while K-pop sensation ITZY, global girl group XG, and rising rockstar LØREN will make their HITC debuts.
Tomorrow X Together (TXT): ACT : SWEET MIRAGE World Tour
Dazzling boy group Tomorrow X Together (TXT) grow bigger with each new release and their international tours follow suit. After last year’s ACT : LOVESICK, they return for a six-city stint in the U.S. with ACT : SWEET MIRAGE, kicking it off on May 5 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Members Soobin, Yeonjun, Beomgyu, Taehyun, and Huening Kai perform hits like "0x1=LOVESONG (I Know I Loved You)," "Good Boy Gone Bad" and their latest single, "Sugar Rush Ride."
MAMAMOO: MY CON World Tour
May 16 - June 4
Vocal queens MAMAMOO will soon begin their first-ever U.S. tour. Hwasa, Solar, Moonbyul, and Wheein are set to perform in nine cities, starting with New York on May 16 and ending in Los Angeles on June 4. With almost a decade of classics under their belts, the quartet will likely perform songs such as "Um Oh Ah Yeh," solo songs by each member, and a slew of hits like "HIP" and "Egotistic."
WEi: PASSION World Tour
Boy group WEi also returns to the U.S. for their second world tour, PASSION. Each of its six members — Daehyeon, Donghan, Yongha, Yohan, Seokhwa, and Junseo — are known for competing in different survival shows, with Yohan finishing in first place on Mnet’s "Produce X 101" in 2019. Although Yohan himself will be absent from this tour due to conflicting schedules, the remaining quintet promises to have a blast from coast to coast.
Bang Yongguk: The Colors of Bang Yongguk US Tour
May 31 - June 16
As a singer/songwriter, record producer, and former leader of boy group B.A.P, Bang Yongguk is one of K-pop’s most wide-ranging artists. Through honest lyrics and a voice deeper than the Mariana Trench, Yongguk’s work is immediately identifiable and always innovative. After releasing a brand new album this month, The Colors of Love, he is set to perform 10 concerts across the U.S., beginning in Joliet, Illinois on May 31.
TRI.BE: 2023 USA Tour VIDA LOCA
June 6 - July 3
Girl group TRI.BE have graced K-pop with effervescent singles and boundless energy since 2021, when they debuted with "Doom Doom Ta." This year, members Songsun, Kelly, Jinha, Hyunbin, Jia, Soeun, and Mire will embark on their first U.S. tour. The septet will play a massive round of 17 shows throughout the country, starting in Orlando, Florida and concluding in L.A.
aespa: Governors Ball Music Festival
In less than three years since their debut, aespa are already making history. The quartet — formed by Karina, Giselle, Winter, and Ningning — will be the first K-pop group to perform at NYC outdoor festival Governors Ball, held June 9-11. SM Entertainment’s latest girl group became known for their AI-filled lore that includes avatars and an avant-garde sound in the likes of popular singles "Next Level” and “Savage."
TWICE: 5th World Tour Ready to Be
June 10 - July 9
Unrelenting girl group TWICE return to the U.S. for their 5th World Tour Ready to Be. Named after their latest album, the performances will feature hits from their 8-year spanning discography, as well as solo performances from each of its nine members. After performances in Asia and Australia, they will kick off a 13-stop North American leg of the tour at the SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California on June 10, and wrap it up at Truist Park in Atlanta on July 9.
CRAVITY: The First World Tour Masterpiece
Last year, rising boy group CRAVITY toured the U.S. as one of the representatives of KCON 2022 Rookies — a series of concerts organized by the All Things Hallyu festival with up-and-coming names in the industry. In 2023, the nine-member group are proving their growth as they headline their own tour through New York, Chicago, San Juan, Atlanta, Dallas, and Los Angeles.
JUST B: Otakon
Held in Washington, D.C., Otakon is the place to be for lovers of Asian pop culture. After bringing names like AleXa and PIXY last year, this year’s edition of the festival will bring rookie boy group JUST B — Lim Jimin, Geonu, Bain, JM, DY, and Sangwoo — for a performance and some VIP experiences to get to know them better.
Lee Youngji K-PLAY! FEST
San Mateo, California
Rapper Lee Youngji rose to fame by being the first woman to win survival shows "High School Rapper 3" and "Show Me the Money 11." However, she gathered an even bigger fandom through the YouTube variety show "My Alcohol Diary," where she invites other K-pop idols to her home for drinks and hilarious conversations. On July 30, she will headline the Bay Area edition of K-PLAY! FEST, the "first ever K-pop festival for fans, by fans." Besides spitting fiery bars, she will also do a hi-touch event, a fansign, and take some selfies with fans who purchase VIP packages.
Tomorrow X Together, NewJeans, DRP IAN, DPR LIVE: Lollapalooza
After last year’s success with performances from Tomorrow x Together and BTS’ j-hope, the Lolla 2023 features even more K-pop. For the first time in history, TXT will headline the festival on August 5, while fellow labelmates and current sensation NewJeans will perform on Thursday, August 3. DPR IAN, 6 and DPR LIVE bring their R&B, rock, and rap fusion to the last day of the festival on Sunday.
(G)I-dle: I am FREE-TY World Tour
K-pop’s resident tomboys will bring their flair and authenticity stateside. After last year’s Just Me ( )I-dle World Tour, the quintet formed by Soyeon, Miyeon, Minnie, Yuqi, and Shuhua will perform in six cities throughout the first half of August. In addition to their attitude-filled setlist, fans can expect new songs from their upcoming sixth EP, I Feel.
Head in the Clouds Festival
After their New York edition in May, HITC heads to the West Coast for another weekend celebrating Asian talents. While the lineup is yet to be announced, fans can expect it to hold some of the names who performed in past editions, as well as exciting newcomers. HITC will happen at Brookside at the Rose Bowl on Aug. 5 and 6.
BLACKPINK: BORN PINK World Tour
Headlining Coachella in April wasn’t enough for the unstoppable girl group BLACKPINK. Jennie, Rosé, Lisa, and Jisoo have just announced four stadium concerts in August as an extension of their ongoing BORN PINK World Tour, which also included U.S. dates in 2022. The quartet will perform at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. on Aug. 12, then follow to Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Oracle Park in San Francisco, and wrap it up at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on Aug. 26.
aespa: Outside Lands Music & Arts Festival
Once again, the groundbreaking aespa hit the U.S. for another milestone: they will be the first K-pop group to perform at San Francisco’s Outside Lands. The quartet will play their futuristic set on Friday, August 11, along Kendrick Lamar, Janelle Monaé and WILLOW, among others.
Known as the largest Korean culture and music festival in North America, KCON has a decade-long legacy of serving as a bridge for "all things Hallyu." Held at the Los Angeles Convention Center and Crypto.com Arena, the festival includes a two-night concert, fan signings, food and merch stalls, panels with professionals in the industry, and many other attractions. KCON hasn’t announced its official lineup yet, but attendees can expect it to maintain the same excellence of past years.
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Photo: Rachel Kupfer
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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Photo: Steven Sebring
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.