Photo: Maurice Johnson
America Has Birthed A Wealth Of Musical Forms. These Indigenous Artists Want To Know Where They Fit Into Them.
Despite being the first, truest Americans, Indigenous peoples have historically been alienated and othered while working in what we understand as American forms — from jazz to country to hip-hop and beyond
A festival promoter told Delbert Anderson he didn't present as Indigenous enough. The trumpeter and his group, DDAT, showed up to the State Fair of Texas in what he calls "the Native American section" — filled with dancers in traditional garb, among other signifiers. DDAT, for their part, donned suits.
"They immediately assumed that we had some type of traditional feather show," Anderson, who is of Diné and Navajo descent, tells GRAMMY.com. "They probably thought we were going to show up in regalia or something."
The promoter asked Anderson whether or not DDAT played traditional music. "No, we don't," he responded. "But there are a lot of melodies that are inspired from that." The promoter didn't comprehend this — so much so that she went up to Anderson mid-set and shoved a turquoise necklace around his neck.
Anderson was shocked. "I kind of stopped and said, 'Excuse me,'" he recalls. "And she just sort of said, 'You don't look Native enough.'"
Ever good-humored, Anderson brushed off the harassment and tossed the necklace around his white bass player's neck. Still, he can't get the incident out of his head. "That's one of the first times anything like that has happened to me," he says. "They expect that kind of back-to-the-roots, traditional type of music from anyone who uses the words 'Native,' 'Indigenous' or 'tribal.'"
He's not alone: Many musicians of Indigenous ancestry in his circle — and outside of it — have felt the micro- and macroaggressions come fast and hard. And othering those who identify and market themselves as Indigenous isn't exclusive to jazz.
Even though Indigenous peoples have been here longer than anyone, they face tension, discomfort and/or unadulterated racism in a slew of genres understood to be American — from country to blues to gospel to hip-hop.
This is despite the fact that all these genres have deep Indigenous roots. Jazz household names Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk had Native American ancestry. Same with blues musicians like Howlin' Wolf, Charley Patton and Martha Redbone. In classic rock, you've got Jimi Hendrix and Robbie Robertson. The list goes on.
Renata Yazzie. Photo: Darklisted Photography
Despite this, Diné classical pianist Renata Yazzie says moving through her world is a "scabrous" experience. "The greatest difficulty is not only teaching ignorant people, but willfully ignorant people who refuse to recognize how the elitism of classical music has affected historically underrepresented groups," she tells GRAMMY.com.
Why do musicians who identify as Indigenous, like Anderson, Yazzie, Mali Obomsawin, Adrian Wall, JJ Otero, James Pakootas, Julia Keefe, Warren Realrider and Raven Chacon — all of whom spoke to GRAMMY.com for this story — experience such tension, both from within their communities and in the wider world?
The answers are manifold, varying wildly between artists and their tribal affiliations. Here are some of the ways that artists of Indigenous descent have experienced unease in the American music landscape — and how they overcame it.
Howlin' Wolf. Photo: Gilles Petard/Redferns via Getty Images
Considering The Course Of History
Since time immemorial, Indigenous peoples have developed an impossibly broad array of musical traditions. And with the arrival — or invasion, depending on who you ask — of European settlers came trade, fighting over boundaries and the introduction of European instruments.
At mission schools, Europeans taught Native Americans to compose on European instruments. This led to students composing Indigenous usic with those tools and methods. Works like 1845's Indian Melodies featured traditional Native tunes composed with European notation.
In the back-half of the 19th century, the primordial stew of Black American music was percolating — the one that would give the world jazz, blues and other idioms. And the pervasive invisibility felt by Indigenous peoples meant they had a point of commiseration with Black musical communities.
"Black and Indigenous people have been in community with each other since the beginning, since Black Africans were forcibly brought here for slavery," jazz bassist Mali Obomsawin, who is affiliated with the Odanak Abenaki First Nation tribe, tells GRAMMY.com. "I think people tend to forget that many of the founding blues and jazz artists were both Black and Native."
This confluence of heritages and traditions has been obscured by what Obomsawin calls a larger obfuscation of Indigenous identity — coupled with anti-Blackness. "If someone like Thelonious Monk, who was Tuscarora, was to be like, 'I'm Native American,' everyone would be like, 'No, you're Black,'" Obomsawin says.
"It was not desirable for Natives to be higher in numbers, whereas it was desirable for Black folks to be higher in numbers because they were considered property," she continues. "That means that slave owners and human traffickers had more property value. Whereas the more people that were Native, the more people the government was accountable to."
Mildred Bailey. Photo: Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images
Julia Keefe, a jazz vocalist and enrolled member of the Nez Perce tribe, is acutely aware of the crossroads of Blackness and Indigenousness in early American music.
"There is a historical precedent for Native Americans in jazz," she tells GRAMMY.com, citing Indigenous people who learned European music in boarding and residential schools. "Around the same time that jazz was taking off in the '20s and '30s, there is evidence of Native people forming their own big bands."
One lesser-known early Indigenous jazz musician was Mildred Bailey, a singer of Native descent from the Coeur d'Alene tribe.
"She was the first one to sing in front of a big band," Keefe notes. "You think about all the female vocalists — Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan — who got their start singing in front of big band, and it was because there was such an appetite for that sound by Mildred Bailey singing in front of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra."
Oscar Pettiford. Photo: Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images
But Bailey is just the tip of the iceberg in this regard. Besides Parker and Monk, there's a lengthy list of jazz artists of Indigenous descent — including saxophonist Jim Pepper, bassist Oscar Pettiford and trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist Don Cherry.
And jazz is but one piece of the puzzle: Indigenous artists can be found in all genres. But at times, proudly broadcasting their heritage in these spaces has proved difficult in the face of divisive politics.
Navigating Political Divides
While Anderson can only speak for his local scene near Farmington, New Mexico, he has a clear vantage on what it's like to market oneself as a Native American musician.
"I think as time progressed from the '80s until now, there were a lot of stronger Indigenous voices that came out," he says, citing activist causes like the American Indian Movement. "The moment you try to take any stand for Native American something, people tend to take those words as 'You're a hardcore activist.'"
"I mean, I could go outside right now and say, 'I stand with Standing Rock,'" he adds. "Immediately, people are going to think of me as a negative force here."
And while that scene comprised a healthy variety of perspectives and genres, it attracted judgement from the outside. "I think a lot of the people who were involved didn't really realize what they were creating," Anderson says. "It really looked like they were making some type of coalition — or Indigenous organization — that's going to fight everything that goes in their path."
Delbert Anderson. Photo: Maurice Johnson
This atmosphere weighed heavily on Anderson's career in 2013, when DDAT began to market themselves as "Native American jazz." (James Pakootas, their MC, is Indigenous; bassist Michael McCluhan is white; drummer Nicholas Lucero is Hispanic.)
"We immediately got thrown into this pool of musicians that were stirring up this big group or organization," Anderson says. "The moment we said 'We are Native American jazz,' they immediately assumed we're part of this Native American music scene, and it lost us gigs because they thought we were there to lecture the audience."
Anderson saw his more militant colleagues as refusing to compromise, acting as if rules didn't apply to them. "There's a lot of that showing up in musicians today," he says. "The moment a venue says something that they can't do, like, 'Oh, you can't burn cedar here before the show,' or anything like that, they'll throw a huge, huge fit."
"I hate to say it," Anderson says, "but it kind of ruined it for the rest of us who don't participate in that ceremony."
To avoid these associations, DDAT eventually decided to pivot away from "Native American jazz," describing themselves as a funk/jazz group inspired by Indigenous melodies. "People started to see us as not being activists, or the rowdy ones," Anderson says. As a result, the group immediately started getting offered more gigs.
Julia Keefe. Photo: Don Hamilton
Braving Inner Conflict
This dissonance isn't limited to sociopolitical factions, or a conflict between musicians and promoters — although Anderson could certainly share other horror stories. Even so-called enlightened spaces, like jazz workshops, have left Indigenous musicians second-guessing themselves.
"At gigs or at workshops or what have you, people will come up and be kind of aggressive about it — almost offended," Keefe says. "Like, [Flustered voice] 'What does that mean? What do you mean you are a Native American jazz vocalist?' 'Well, I'm Native American and I sing jazz. That's what I do.'"
"With that confrontation of my identity," she adds, "there's been tension within myself of, 'If I'm going to claim my Native heritage on my business card, should my music be more influenced by my Indigenous heritage?'"
But even if an artist defines what Indigenousness means for themselves, it's bound to create friction with others' preconceptions or stereotypes. "That's something that Natives come up against in any sort of art form," Obomsawin says.
Adrian Wall. Photo: Shondinii Walters
Adrian Wall, a flutist and guitarist with roots in the Jemez Pueblo tribe, experiences dislocation just by announcing who he is to the world.
"Once you play the Native card, you're kind of stuck being a Native musician when you're actually playing music that's accepted worldwide just as American music," he tells GRAMMY.com. "Once you call yourself a Native, all of a sudden you're playing Native music."
Raven Chacon, a Diné composer who works in the experimental and noise scenes, has had to push against assumptions that his work would be stereotypically Native — or adjacent to new age.
"There was an assumption it was going to involve flutes or drums or something," he tells GRAMMY.com with a laugh. "Even from people should know better, there have been assumptions."
Raven Chacon. Photo: Jamie Drummond
To fellow experimental musician and sound sculpturist Warren Realrider — who is Pawnee and enrolled with the Crow Nation of Montana and makes music akin to John Zorn, Pauline Oliveros and Merzbow — the solution lies in creating a music industry framework that accurately represents Indigenous creators.
"These systems of music, distribution, performance, whatever — they are built on a world that's not the Indigenous world," he tells GRAMMY.com. "You're always going to have to work against that in some way."
Plus, as a representative of his background in the insular noise space, Realrider's work has become bigger than him — he feels inordinate pressure to not let his tribe down.
"A lot of Indigenous artists don't lose that aspect," he says, considering the arc of his life and career so far. "That's something you carry along with you, and you present yourself that way."
Addressing Language Barriers
Sometimes, the criticism comes from within Indigenous communities themselves. JJ Otero, a Hopi and Diné singer/songwriter inspired by bands like Counting Crows and Pearl Jam, had to deal with the finer points of language — even one he knew backward and forward.
"I didn't use the Navajo language in my music for the longest time," he tells GRAMMY.com from his home on a Navajo reservation. "The white guys in [my first band, Saving Damsels] said, 'You should write a song in Navajo that we can play.'"
JJ Otero. Photo: Unek Francis
Despite being a fluent Navajo speaker, Otero wanted to be careful that he said things exactly right. "I don't want my songs to just be a lazy utterance of words in Navajo," he says. To thread the needle, Otero enlisted his father to vet his lyrics for inexact grammar and syntax.
"I do believe that sometimes our own people can be our toughest critics," Otero says. "We can take that criticism and be mad and upset about it, or we can dive deeper into why those criticisms exist and understand the foundation of why Navajo is sacred."
Facing One's Own Community
As a rapper and motivational speaker who spits bars in DDAT, James Pakootas operates by what he calls "a very deep awareness of protocol."
"A lot of times, Native artists in contemporary music want to meld the two worlds, but it seems like sometimes they're taking away from the culture. It's not done with care," Pakootas tells GRAMMY.com. "It's like sampling a powwow song, putting it on a hip-hop beat and calling it good."
James Pakootas. Photo: Maurice Johnson
To avoid this sort of mishandling, Pakootas works with collaborators to tell his stories as considerately as possible, preferring to bring in a drum group and analyze together how the story could be told.
"A lot of songs I know are ceremony songs," he adds. "There's not going to be any of those that I share because there's a protocol in place to keep that sacred. There's a time and a place for that song to be sung or that melody to be used."
Reaching Harmony From Dissonance
How can music fans right these wrongs and push against the othering of Indigenous artists? Maybe the first step is realizing that Indigenous music is all music.
"Native people are very much seen as mythological creatures, as the villains in Westerns, the mascots that you love to hate, or whatever," Keefe says. "So, I can see why [musical discrimination] would be a thing because so often we are perceived as a figment of someone's imagination."
Warren Realrider. Photo: Shane Brown
For Obomsawin, this necessary shift begins with education — and by listening to the stories of her elders. In her case, that teacher is Pura Fé, a Tuscarora and Taino vocalist and activist related to Thelonious Monk.
"She is so intimately aware of those dual legacies — the Black and Native lineages of jazz," Obomsawin says. "I just hope that more air time is given to the elders in the jazz and blues community who know those things. I think it could really help to unearth some of those stories as really important parts of American music history — as well as our history in general."
Mali Obomsawin. Photo: Nolan Altvater
As for Yazzie, she believes significant change won't occur until we give sovereignty to Indigenous artists — so they can decide who their audience is, why they perform their music, what their music sounds like, where they want their music played, and how they want it to be perceived by the rest of the world.
"I always maintain that Native music is Native music because a Native person is outputting it," Yazzie says. "But on the flipside, you don't want to limit people to where all they do is Native music. I think you have to be really careful to not use the Native music label as a way to put people in a specific box. Because Native music is still also blues. It's still jazz. It's still country. It's still hip-hop. It's still classical music. [Indigenous] people are in those genre-specific spaces and they're doing amazing things."
When considering this subject, Anderson always returns to Don Cherry, who remains one of his idols. "In one of his interviews, he said, 'Hey, it's about meeting other people. It's about having relationships with your friends,'" he says.
"I think everyone just needs to go back to their original state, going back to just being a human and recognizing that we're all humans here," Anderson adds. "Approach each other as human beings with our minds or our thoughts."
Anderson is bringing Cherry's openhearted philosophy to his next endeavor — collaborating with the American Pops Orchestra for a Bureau of Land Management project. This has been a laborious process, with no shortage of fine lines to navigate.
"Bringing this orchestra onto the Indigenous lands is going to be a real struggle because of all the racial division going on in the world," he says. But in the end, Anderson believes all the work is going to be worth it.
"Having these two different identities on that land, I'm hoping the land can really heal the group that's there," he says. "I mean, if the land really heals, we're going to put the land to the test."
Because it's happened before on this soil: Indigenous people and those of so many other backgrounds have come together to make great American music. Sure, it's been a rocky path to get there — sometimes a troubling and treacherous one. But Anderson and his colleagues aren't afraid to tread it.
Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
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.
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].
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.