meta-scriptAnaïs Mitchell On Newport Folk 2022, The Power Of Musicals & Her Eternal Bond In Bonny Light Horseman | GRAMMY.com
Anaïs Mitchell On Newport Folk 2022, The Power Of Musicals & Her Eternal Bond In Bonny Light Horseman
Anaïs Mitchell

Photo: Jay Sansone

interview

Anaïs Mitchell On Newport Folk 2022, The Power Of Musicals & Her Eternal Bond In Bonny Light Horseman

Anaïs Mitchell released her first self-titled album two decades into her career — which speaks not only to the vulnerability therein, but her consolidative attempt to make songs with staying power.

GRAMMYs/Aug 16, 2022 - 02:16 pm

Songwriters have likened their craft to every medium under the sun; for Anaïs Mitchell's purposes, photography will do.

When trying to capture a feeling, she tries to find a shot neither too wide nor too narrow — that "gauzy, beautiful, poetic space where there's imagery that speaks." That last word — "speaks" — reminds her of a slightly jarring story.

As the GRAMMY winner recalls backstage at Newport Folk 2022, she once met the Canadian songwriter Ferron. "She said, 'You have to understand that if you say an image, if you say a word, you summon a spirit. If you say the word 'door,' you summon the spirit of a door,'" Mitchell recalls.

As Ferron elaborated, this meant Mitchell must choose her words meticulously — so as to not agitate the spiritual plane.

"I loved that, because I think that is true," Mitchell continues. "There's something about imagery — it speaks to us that isn't always through the conscious mind. It speaks to your body and your memory and your senses." And while Mitchell has been making records for 20 years, this partly explains why she chose to make her first self-titled album — it spoke that it was to be.

In this interview backstage at Newport Folk 2022, learn about Mitchell's latest creative moves, her ineluctable bond with her bandmates in Bonny Light Horseman, and what musicals and parenting teach her about the ineffable art of songcraft.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

What's been your relationship with Newport Folk over the years?

I definitely heard about Newport when I was coming up, even as a historical event — the Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger stuff. It's this legendary kind of place. I started to come to Newport several years ago; I think the very first time, I came in, played my set and then rolled out.

I've come back a few times — for my own music, and also with my band, Bonny Light Horseman. I've come to really appreciate how it can be if you hang out the whole weekend. How many folks you meet, and also, the level of collaboration that happens. It feels less like a festival and more like an artist residency.

Tell the readers about your bond with everyone in Bonny Light Horseman. I'm sure it's very familial.

So, the trio of Bonny Light Horseman [includes] Josh Kaufman and Eric D. Johnson. I met Josh when I was living in Brooklyn, and he was also living there. We started to mess around with these old kinds of British Isles folk songs.

He said, "Hey, you know who would be great for this music is my friend Eric!" And I'd just discovered Eric's band, Fruit Bats, and really flipped out for it. So, I was like, "Sounds great!" We got together and it felt very intuitive to make music with those guys.

Since then, I made a solo record this past year with Josh and a couple of guys who have often played with Bonny Light Horseman — JT Bates on drums and Mike Lewis on sax and bass. It does feel like the Bonny Light world has spilled into my own music-making and recording world, and I'm so grateful for it.

Read More: Bonny Light Horseman's Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson & Josh Kaufman Are Moving Folk Forward Together

I'm sure it feels like you're not working a day in your life with those guys.

[Laughs.] They're fun. They're funny. We have a good time. It feels easy, and that's funny for me. A lot of the time I think things need to be hard. I worked on this musical, and it took a decade of my life. I was like, "I'm going to work on this thing every day for however long…"

It's like the harder you're laboring over something, the better the end result will be.

Right? It isn't always the case! Sometimes it is; sometimes it's not. And then, I think, meeting those guys and falling in love with playing music with them reminded me how it can feel easy and also be good.

You've talked about how you "want your songs to walk on their own legs." What are your techniques to write a song that can exist apart from you and widely apply to others?

You know, I did this Pete Seeger tribute the very first night of this festival, and I sang a song I had learned as a kid, growing up. Someone had taught it to me and sang it to me. I never knew that Pete Seeger had written it; I never heard a recording of him doing it. I love that type of folk song; it makes its own way through the world.

For me, it's all about finding this sweet spot between what feels intensely personal and true — that you can stand in your shoes and sing — and then also what feels archetypal. Like you're tapping into something older and younger, you know? Something that could have been sung a hundred years ago, and could be sung a hundred years from now.

That's what thrills me the most when I'm writing — that I can be in the center of that Venn diagram.

I've noticed that songs tend to begin a little more generally, and then you fill in the details as it rolls on. Is that a conscious form of architecture for you?

I could talk about songwriting for, like, hours [Laughs]. But it's like a camera lens, right? You get the wide scope, and then the specifics — and then, sometimes, you turn the lens a little too far and it's a little too specific, and you have to pull back.

There's somewhere in the middle where it's kind of this gauzy, beautiful, poetic space where there's imagery that speaks — because images speak to us. Anything you say, you know?

Do you ever write a song and then stop yourself? Like, "This spirit I'm summoning isn't appropriate for right now! It's too raw and prickly!"

I mean, I like raw! This record I made recently is interesting, because it's a self-titled record. It's the first record I've made where all the songs actually are me — the speaker in the songs is me, and the songs are actually from my own life. I'm not taking on the voice or story of another character.

Did you have a propensity for that in the past?

I have, yeah! Obviously, working on that musical for years and years — that was a grand experiment in that type of stuff. And I love that stuff also, but there was something about this record that felt like: How honest can I f—ing be? That was the job; that was the task.

That's not easy.

Yeah. To put my heart all the way on the sleeve and be OK with it. There are a few songs that took a really long time to figure out how to write, and I think I had to figure out what was true.

Who are your go-tos, as far as confessional singer/songwriters? Joni Mitchell is often the first artist that people grab for, but there are obviously so many.

Well, Joni for sure was a huge influence early on. And then when I came of age musically, when I was in high school, it was the time of Lilith Fair in the '90s. Ani DiFranco was huge [for me], and I was on her record label for years. Tori Amos, you know.

All those women — it's almost embarrassing how emotional that stuff is, but I really responded to it as a kid. I wanted to emote and express like that. People come to music for different things. Some people will come to it…

To get drunk?

[Laughs] They want to get drunk! They want to dance! And music can help you do that. And some music is to help you cry, you know? That's a thing music can do, and sometimes, I think that's part of my job as a songwriter.

Were you particularly in touch with your emotions as a kid?

For the times that I was growing up, my parents were very OK with emotions. I have two kids of my own — a 9-year-old and a 2-year-old. The popular understanding nowadays is: "See the emotion and validate it!" When I was a kid, it was less like that. It was kind of like, "Get your s— together, come back to the table and we can talk."

I think it's a popular therapeutic tool to just acknowledge and observe the emotion rather than immediately assign it meaning.

That's lifelong work right there, to be able to be OK with that.

I love that you made a self-titled record, by the way. That's a classic choice.

You know, I always wanted to do it! Usually, you do it with your debut record, and I'm now 41. I thought it was funny to do it at this point in my career, but it really did feel like, first, a return to songwriting after a long time in the theater world. And second, it was so personal and heart-on-sleeve, like I was saying.

What notes did you give Josh as a producer? I'm sure you wanted the record to leap out in a certain way. A certain bodily impact, regardless of the contents.

You know, I hadn't made a new record in a long time — especially of new songs — because I was working on Hadestown, my musical. When the songs started to flow again for me, I didn't want to look too hard at them. I didn't want to overthink them.

I remember feeling that way about the record: I need to make this thing right now. I didn't want to get in my head about what kind of record it was; I just wanted to lay it down.

So, for Josh, maybe a guiding light was wanting to keep the focus on the lyrics and the singing, because they are very wordy. That's just what my DNA is, I guess. A lot of storytell-y kind of stuff. I think he tried to create a space where that story could shine.

An atmosphere that's conducive to the feeling.

Yeah. A buoyant kind of warmth around the vocal that doesn't necessarily compete with the vocal. What I hear in the record is that it sounds very live to me, which was how it was recorded — just us in a room.

That nice, organic bleed between the musicians.

Totally! I love mic bleed! You want it to be stewing together.

As a parent, is it a trip to hear music through your kids' ears?

It's fresh to hear what my 9-year-old is into. She's into some pop music that's caught on with kids, like Imagine Dragons and stuff like that, which I wouldn't necessarily be exposed to otherwise. It's like: These guys know how to write a song.

You can appreciate the craft. It's not like it's being piped into CVS, washing over your brain.

Absolutely. And it's fun to try to turn her on to cool stuff. She's into musicals, which I love, because I've been listening to my favorite musicals nonstop. I just have a crazy amount of admiration for that craft.

I've gotten into them just from being a jazz fan. Like, "That Rodgers and Hammerstein tune is pretty. What's that from?"

What a match made in heaven, Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Speaking of trying to craft a song that can walk through the world on its own legs: It used to be that the way a song got out there in the world was through a musical. That's what the musical theater was for — debuting these classic songs.

So, they were necessarily songs that could work in the musical, but they were repurposable. You could sing them at a wedding or a funeral and they would work.

What are your favorite musicals?

My all-time favorite is "Les Miz." I'll never get over that musical, and I've seen it a ton of times. It's so emotional for me, and epic, and political…

What's the best tune? I'll check it out later.

"On My Own" is a classic one. I love a lot of them — "Lovely Ladies," "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." I love Sweeney Todd by [Stephen] Sondheim.

R.I.P.!

I know, right? I got tickets for my 9-year-old and I to see 'Into the Woods," which is in revival on Broadway right now. I'm very excited. But I tend to love sung-through musicals where there's not a book scene and then a song — where it's all sung. I love the trance you can get into with that type of show.

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

Looking for more GRAMMYs news? The 2024 GRAMMY nominations are here!

He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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Fruit Bats' Eric D. Johnson On New Album 'A River Running To Your Heart' & His Career Of "Small Victories"
Eric D. Johnson

Photo: Chantal Anderson

interview

Fruit Bats' Eric D. Johnson On New Album 'A River Running To Your Heart' & His Career Of "Small Victories"

With each new album by Fruit Bats, the trope of the precocious, tortured artist loses more credibility. Almost 25 years after Eric D. Johnson started the project, he's arguably on his hottest streak.

GRAMMYs/Apr 11, 2023 - 06:17 pm

Which musical epoch do Fruit Bats belong to?

It's not quite the '90s, even though that's when Eric D. Johnson started the project; he wouldn't release his first album until 2001, nor sign to Sub Pop until the following year.  But Fruit Bats aren't exactly an early-aughts phenomenon, either.

"I felt like I was watching it from the sidelines and hoping I might get thrown a bone," Johnson recalls of the Meet Me in the Bathroom era to GRAMMY.com. "But it was more like my friends got really big and I was sort of the perpetual opening act for the next 10 years."

Johnson readily says that's the paradigm that produced him. But as he remains an extremely active artist, it would be unfair to seal him off there as a remnant of the past. Perhaps the trajectory is best seen as an arrow gradually trending upward. And, in 2018, shooting upward.

That was the year that two magnitudinous events happened: One was that he formed Bonny Light Horseman, his celebrated folk trio with Anaïs Mitchell and Josh Kaufman. Another is that he signed to the prestigious indie label Merge.

Since then, Johnson has received long-overdue plaudits, and produced some of his finest work: 2019's Gold Past Life, a 2020 full-album cover of Smashing Pumpkins' classic Siamese Dream, and 2021's The Pet Parade.

Now, he's out with A River Running to Your Heart, out April 14. True to the album title, Johnson feels like the warmth and camaraderie he enjoys with Mitchell and Kaufman flows directly into the heart of this new Fruit Bats. "It's hard not to be totally inspired by them." he says, calling both projects "interwoven" and" inspirational."

Partly as a result of this, mellow, sophisticated songs like "Rushin' River Valley," "We Used to Live Here" and "Sick of This Feeling" have a special patina to them: they feel connected to Fruit Bats' past while reflecting the creative universe Johnson inhabits. 

In that way, A River Running to Your Heart proves that Fruit Bats aren't the province of a decade — or two — ago. Rather, they're a band for right now. Read on for an in-depth interview with Johnson about the genesis of Fruit Bats, the road to the new album, and the nuts and bolts of his recording process.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Tell me about your creative path over the past few years, leading to A River Running to Your Heart.

My perspective on it is weird. I've been doing this for a really, really long time, and it was kind of like this slow, slightly bumpy, very gradual first 16 years — which is [itself] a really long time.

Then, things kind of happened, but then slowed down again. Then, in 2019, I signed with Merge, made that Gold Past Life record, and then the [2020 debut] Bonny Light Horseman record came out during the pandemic. I think you either were or you weren't extra-productive during that 2020-and-2021 time.

So, it's felt like a bit of a blur. But all I know is that last year, I played 113 shows with both bands, and we've been kind of going full tilt with both bands. It's been kind of a weird few years of craziness, basically.

Read More: Bonny Light Horseman's New Album Rolling Golden Holy Is The Voltron Of Folk Music

You've had hills and valleys in your long career, but this must feel like a boom period to you.

It is. My glass-half-empty person is like, "Why couldn't I be 30 when this happened?" With lots more physical energy and everything like that. But also, oh my god, this is incredible that this is happening to me, because it took me a really, really long time.

I have musician friends in their thirties and forties who are on hot streaks after years of nonstarter projects. I think the notion of the 22-year-old genius as the platonic ideal — think Brian Wilson making Pet Sounds — is revealing itself to be nonsense.

It's nonsense. I think the median age has gone up. I'm almost hesitant to talk about it because it feels so weird. But I use age 30 as an example, because I remember back to that year, being like "Ugh," and feeling like, "I'm an old codger at this point!"

I'm 30, and a musician. I feel that way.

Yeah, but that's 16 years ago. I feel fine still, and I'm still doing stuff, and things are going well. But also, it's exciting to have a long history and everything, and be appreciated for that. But of course, I'm always like, I don't want to just be an old-timer talking about how great it is to be an old-timer.

In that timespan, guitars and singing have gone in and out of vogue. Was there ever a point where you felt like the indie train had left the station?

It may have already left the station. I don't know. Its death has been announced many times.

I come from a weird era, too, because I had friends 10 years older than me who were from the '90s indie times. I wasn't old enough to have experienced that. I maybe caught the tail end. I always describe that as a beautiful time of very low stakes. It truly was DIY, and there was no notion of success in it. It was underground music, truly.

I remember being in Chicago, being an indie-rock fan, young. It was before I was really doing bands in earnest, and it would be Tuesday night at Lounge Ax or something. The biggest indie band would come through, and that's 200 tickets or something like that — where you're just like, Wow!

Then, there was that early 2000s boom, which I had a front-row seat to but didn't get [chuckles] swept up in either.

Now, it's something else. I don't even know what. There's so much thinkpiece-y stuff you could say about it now. I don't have a good perspective on what's going on with indie music.

It seems like you don't consider yourself to be of any era or ilk. You're just a person making music, and whatever people want to lump you into is none of your business.

Yeah. I feel very connected to the roots of independent music — I really do. I admire it so much. I'm on a venerable indie label that I was a huge fan of when I was young, and I got to be on Sub Pop at one point, too.

I think when indie became this buzzy, big business in the aughts — again, I was there, but I didn't reap any benefits from that [at the time]. I didn't make it big until after that was over. I don't even know if I've made it big yet, either.

But basically, what I'm trying to say is that I've lived in a lot of eras and weathered a lot of storms, and you never have any perspective on it when you're inside of it at the moment.

During lean times for this kind of music, how did you maintain your fire and inspiration?

I think I've always had small victories and been OK with that. I think there's a certain kind of fortitude that certain people have or don't have. I'm OK with being told no, and I'm OK with embracing one inch forward or something like that. So, I think that kept me going.

But also, I remember running into some friend who was like, "I remember you saying 'I'm quitting.'" So, I don't even know. Sometimes I forget that I probably was much more negative-seeming back then, but I managed to not quit and just keep going, for whatever reason.

Bonny Light Horseman was a watershed for your artistry? How would you characterize that triangulation?

It's the first band I've ever had, really, since my first pretty short-lived indie rock band in the '90s. This is the first time I've been in a democratic band where it wasn't just my own nom de plume.

I guess the easy paraphrase is we have complementary skillsets, but we also have a deeply equal level of respect for each other, too. There's sort of a deference there. There's a balance there that's not a balancing act. When we got together, it worked.

I was just listening to A River Running to Your Heart through a Todd Rundgren lens, thinking about how he built those arrangements like towers. Tell me how you built these songs from the grooves up.

I'm glad you asked about the grooves, because there's actually a couple of songs where we did something really unique: "Rushin' River Valley" and "Waking Up in Los Angeles."

Actually, "See the World by Night," too, where I had written these things on a drum machine. Josh Adams, who's been my longtime drummer, came in and we were sort of messing around.

He's like, "Why don't I just perform the drum machine? Why don't we make a drum machine out of me, so it's kind of these short loops based on a drum machine, but where we took it and created our own organic [sound]?"

Plenty of people do that — looping and Pro Tools, or something. But we actually built it almost like it was a sequencer. Rather than just looping him playing, we actually modularly built these grooves, and some of them kind of skip the one and stuff.

So the beat turns around a little bit, and that was just sort of a happy accident. I'm not a singer/songwriter that sits with an acoustic guitar or something, writes an acoustic song, and then we go work it out.

Nothing against that either; we actually do that with Bonny Light Horseman. But with Fruit Bats, I'm hyper-cognizant about tempo and how it relates to a lyric, or possible lyric, or melody, or something like that. Because I'm a singer first and foremost. That's the thing that's always going to be at the center of it for me.

So, everything is usually built off a drum machine and groove of some kind. Writing and demoing are kind of one and the same. So, it's kind of one big process, but it always starts with that tempo thing. That makes me happy.

When learning a digital audio workstation for the first time, one struggle I had was to get out of the grid. The click track is necessary, but it can also box you in and make the music inorganic. How do you avoid that sense of boxiness?

I find that I slowly drift out of the grid and forget it's there. Unless you're going to make some kind of major structural change to the session or something — which I do sometimes — but that's usually fine too. But you start with the grid and then you forget about it.

Josh Adams is one of the greatest play-to-the-click or play-around-the-click drummers, too, where he can stay on the grid and yet also play off it too. You could kind of start with the grid and then continue to add human elements.

Unless you need to make some kind of major structural chop, the grid becomes totally irrelevant after a few more tracks that you've added.

**What are your favorite subliminal — or even accidental — aspects of A River Running to Your Heart?**

There's a nice moment in "The Deep Well" where there's an iPhone recording of me and my friend Andy Cabic from Vetiver walking in New Orleans, and there was some kind of boat with a pump organ on it, or something. I was just getting a little field recording, and I said, "Do you want to walk towards it?"

There's something about the capture of that line, which is completely off-the-cuff and natural. That's an interesting line — what does that mean, exactly? Do you want to go explore something? I don't know exactly what yet.

Eric D. Johnson Fruit Bats

*Eric D. Johnson. Photo: Chantal Anderson*

In 2023, where does the onus for music-making lie? Is it making ear-catching records? Tightening up as a touring act? Just writing great songs?

In a way, it's like we're back to the '60s where you're going to top-load a record with the jams. I don't really know. I am personally always trying to make super-connective music, and I think that [had to do with] kind of getting out of lo-fi when I did go into a bigger studio.

I did realize I'm still a child of '80s radio, and I was actually interested in blasting out of your speakers. But I was coming from this lo-fi background, too, so you could kind of hear that on the first few Fruit Bats records. It's like this lo-fi attempt at making hi-fi music.

Then, later, I got better at hi-fi music in general. I think the [debut] Bonny Light Horseman record was super-connective, and obviously has great fidelity and everything, too. It's not a lo-fi record, but "Deep in Love," that was a single take at 1:00 in the morning. That's still one of my biggest songs I've ever been involved with.

So, I think there was an emotional chord of that song that somehow was connected. There's a little bit of fairy dust involved, too, or there's really good engineering. I've been revisiting INXS

Underrated!

Underrated, and then you're like, "This sounds expensive," when you hear that, but you're also like, "It was worth every penny." Then, there's some cool lo-fi song that was just totally off the cuff, but has an emotional core.

I think there still isn't a rhyme or reason for it. If you hear music that's very cynically engineered to be as hard-hitting as possible, you can kind of hear that. It sounds corny, but it it's coming from the heart, then it means something to someone. 

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The Hold Steady's Craig Finn On New Album 'The Price Of Progress,' The Band At 20 & His Constant Search For New Stories
The Hold Steady (third from right: Craig Finn)

Photo: Shervin Lainez

interview

The Hold Steady's Craig Finn On New Album 'The Price Of Progress,' The Band At 20 & His Constant Search For New Stories

For singer Craig Finn, modern life is endlessly fascinating. And his characters in the Hold Steady's new album, 'The Price of Progress,' grapple with it in all its disorienting dimensions.

GRAMMYs/Mar 31, 2023 - 04:18 pm

For most of their two-decade career, the Hold Steady have traveled in a bus, not a van. But just a few weeks ago, with their hardest-touring days behind them, the cult rock band found themselves back in a six-seater, like the old days — in England, for a string of Rough Trade in-stores.

While packed like sardines, their brainy yet utterly unpretentious leader, Craig Finn, had something of an epiphany. "I was looking around, and there were three of us this way, and then three of them facing this way, and I'm like: Here it is. We're still in the van; we're still enjoying each other," he tells GRAMMY.com.

"As we turn 20 — which is this year," he continues, "I think one of the most beautiful things is that the friendships are still intact."

Indeed, the Hold Steady have crossed an impressive rubicon. They've made it to two decades together, happy, fruitful and energized — and with an upcoming oral-history book, The Gospel of the Hold Steady: How a Resurrection Really Feels, out Jul. 25, to mark this milestone.

Catch any night of any residency, and it's still guaranteed to be a rowdy lovefest, a feedback loop between the galvanized band and their beery disciples. Riveting storytelling, bar-band bonhomie, Midwestern boys who landed like space invaders in Meet Me in the Bathroom-era Brooklyn: that's the Hold Steady for you.

And after nine albums as a unit, including five acclaimed solo records, Finn is not even close to running out of stories to tell. The band's inspired latest LP, The Price of Progress, out Mar. 31, finds Finn's characters flailing through life in contemporary Western society, in all of its boundless access, convenience-on-steroids and spiritual unmooredness.

In "Grand Junction," a couple driving through the expanse of Colorado battles over the woman's Amazon wishlist, frequented by creepy strangers. In "Sixers," another woman watches NBA replays alone while flying on stimulants. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

"I think a lot of it is how the advances in technology have made us so efficient — as a society and in business and all that — that it's kind of left us reeling in a million different ways," Finn describes. Rarely does that inertia feel so crackling and alive.

Read on for an interview with Finn about The Price of Progress, how he avoids repeating himself or losing inspiration, and the rare feat of keeping a rock band together for 20 years — with more of a rabid, grassroots following than ever.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

What fascinates you about the experience of living through this particular time in human history, in Western society?

The Hold Steady's been pretty prolific — nine records in 20 years. And then I've got the solo records — five of those. I'm constantly writing songs; there are songs coming out all the time. It's not like, "Oh, I pulled this one back from 2009." These are always fairly fresh. So, they're always being written under the influence of whatever's happening in the world.

But I've been doing this podcast ["That's How I Remember It"] and I had George Saunders on, the writer. I thought in his newest book [2022's Liberation Day], the sort of late-stage capitalism backdrop had moved up a few steps.

That's very much what I feel about this record. I think a lot of it is how the advances in technology have made us so efficient — as a society and in business and all that — that it's kind of left us reeling in a million different ways. That sort of adjustment is what we're going through now — the sensation of reeling.

And that's where these characters find themselves. They're a little older than the ones I started my career writing about, and they're being affected in different ways.

**Before we continue to unpack The Price of Progress, how would you draw a conceptual thread between this album and its predecessors?**

[2019's] Thrashing Thru the Passion, which was the first album we did with Josh Kaufman producing, was kind of a collection of songs we recorded a little bit piecemeal. But [2021's] Open Door Policy was the first album we made with Josh where it was like: This is going to be an album.

The Price of Progress is the continuation of that. There's a comfort in working with Josh; we went to the same studio, same producer, same engineer. It was like, We know this works, and there are going to be no surprises. Like Open Door Policy, a lot of the songs talk about people — their work, how they survive, how they get by.

Those are two threads that definitely connect the last two records. I think they speak to each other in that way.

And as far as making it: a) because we're older, b) because we don't live in the same exact place anymore — a couple of us live in Brooklyn; one lives in Manhattan; two are upstate, and one's in Memphis — there's a lot more trading files leading into it, where people are sending stuff around, sending ideas, and I'm writing lyrics to different ideas people are sending me.

And then, we go through a period where we all get in the same room, physically, and play these songs — try to build them into songs. Then, there's a third part where Josh, the producer, comes in and says, "What if we tried this? What if we tried this?" We kind of put him through those stages and ended up with the record we have.

How do you keep your storytelling sharp so you don't end up repeating yourself or losing impact?

You know, Jeff Tweedy wrote a book about creativity. I think he's written a few, but the one I read, I think was his first — or maybe it's just his biography.

But he talked about taking things in. If I'm feeling stuck or feeling like I'm doing the same thing again, I like to just stop and read something. Or watch a film, or something. Make sure I'm taking other stories in and thinking about how other stories are told. Thinking about how I relate to my own stories. That really helps me.

What have you been reading, listening to or watching lately that's been inspiring you?

I've been reading the new Bret Easton Ellis book [2023's The Shards], which I love. It's really hard to tell what is him, because it's set in his high school and he's the lead character, but it's a novel. So, as far as storytelling, it's kind of confusing in a good way. I've really been enjoying that; I'm about halfway through.

When I'm playing shows, sometimes I can't read anything of much depth except for rock bios. So, we were in Rough Trade in England the other day, and I picked up a biography of Fat White Family, who are totally insane, and that was very entertaining. I read that in, like, a sitting.

The last thing I watched that I really liked was "Industry," the British finance drama — which seems pretty lurid, and probably a little more sex-and-drugs than working in finance in London, but who's to say? I don't know.

I interviewed John Cale recently, and he was talking about how he collaborated with Fat White Family and they were constantly raring to brawl in the studio.

I forgot they worked with him! That book is harrowing. All I could think about, as a 51-year-old man, is how hungover I would be. It's like: How are you walking around? How bad do you feel? But I guess youth is different.

Can you talk about your specific inspirations for the characters in The Price of Progress? Are they wholesale inventions? Amalgamations of real people? Reflections of your past or present?

All of the above.

For instance, the first song on the record, "Grand Junction," talks about a couple that's driving out west. I've done that this year; I bought a car in Arizona and drove back. So, there's some me in that, but in the story, it's a couple; I was just with a platonic dude friend.

But the couple was fighting, because the woman, she's got an Amazon wishlist, and strange dudes she talks to online are sending her presents, and the dude — her partner — is not that into it, so they're fighting about that.

So, you know, I did drive through Grand Junction, Colorado, and I thought that'd be a good place for a song, but then I made up the rest. I was thinking about people who ask for presents on Amazon, and how that's sort of a modern thing that didn't exist 10, 15, 20 years ago.

It seems like you guys are growing more and more ambitious as per how the music can reflect these stories in a way that transcends simple rock songs; the arrangements and production are growing more ornate. How do you conceptualize and execute these musical backdrops?

I think part of that is thinking about it ahead of time and reflecting it in the demos we're passing around. Some of that is also Josh Kaufman.

We've kind of had three periods of the Hold Steady. 1.0 would be, like, up to [2008's] Stay Positive, and then [keyboardist] Franz [Nicolay] leaves, and then [guitarist] Steve [Selvidge] comes in. That's kind of 2.0, and we made two records that way, and then Franz came back in 2016 and we made three.

In this 3.0, I think a big part of the story is how Franz and Steve have learned to play together — against each other, with each other — because they are the two people who, up until fairly recently, haven't been in the band together. So, in some sense, that's allowed us to expand a lot.

Also, now that there's six of us, I think Josh Kaufman does a good job of directing traffic. Just because there are more people there doesn't necessarily mean it's going to sound bigger. It could sound smaller if everyone's playing at once.

So, creating space with everyone and making sure everyone's got their space — I think Josh does a great job of that, and I think that's led to a more expansive sound on these records.

The Hold Steady 'The Price of Progress'

On that tip, I tend to be more interested in asking about moments on records than songs. Would you like to shout out any MVP moments from your bandmates on this album?

I think the rhythm section had a particularly great showing on this record. When I listened to it most recently, that was what stuck out to me. There's a drum fill on the first song, "Grand Junction," that blows my mind.

But what's especially interesting is: on the fourth song, called "Understudies," it's really somewhere we haven't gone. There's strings; it's almost got, like, a disco thing. It might be like our "Miss You," like when all rock bands made disco songs.

In the third verse, there's a bass thing that's panning back and forth. It's a real funky [Mimics a syncopated bass line] and it's going back and forth in a Nile Rodgers sort of situation. 

I was out of the room in the studio, on the phone or something, and I came back, and Josh and [bassist] Galen [Polivka] were working on that, and I was like [Mimics mind-blown gesture] Wow! That is awesome, and that has absolutely never been done on a Hold Steady record before.

I've always thought of the Hold Steady as existing in a similar realm as other bands I adore, like Drive-By Truckers and Guided by Voices. These acts aren't necessarily chasing hits or trends; they're just consistently productive and excellent — almost meekly so. Can you talk about how your various personalities merged to create a well-oiled machine — one that's built a following on a local, grassroots level?

It's funny, because when [guitarist] Tad [Kubler], Galen and I started the band, we weirdly talked about wanting to have a band that people felt part of. I really experienced that from hardcore, mainly; I didn't want to be in a hardcore band, but I was like, What if we had a rock 'n' roll band people felt that away [about]?

From what I've read of the Clash — and Mott the Hoople also — their followers really felt part of it. They sort of had this army marching with them. I'm not exactly sure how we did it, but there is a community, now, around this band that feels supercharged. Just getting back from London, where we do these weekends every year, there are people from all around the world, and they all see each other that weekend, and they all plan on it.

When we were right about to start, I saw the Drive-By Truckers at Bowery Ballroom. I wasn't sure I wanted to be in a band; I'd been in a band in my 20s in Minneapolis. But when I saw that show, I was like, This is my model, sort of. They're never going to be of the exact moment, because they're timeless, you know? But they shouldn't go wildly out of style, either, because there's always a place for it.

I guess that's what we tried to do. I definitely think of them as peers — friends and peers, because before too long, we were touring with them, and we got along like wildfire.

Any great rock 'n' roll band should become better than the sum of its parts, and there's something about getting on stage; everyone plays their role. There has to be an understanding that six people are going to have to move around.

To turn the clock back once again: when the band's stature and fanbase were precipitously growing, and you were on late-night TV and all that stuff, how did you nurture and engender that cult following?

I think one thing that makes it easier — or less difficult — is that this band started when I was 31. I think I had some perspective as to what it's like to be in a band that's not working.

So, I think we still have a lot of gratitude. We're grateful for the things we get to do. I say it jokingly, but also very truly: it's the best job that I've ever had. I think we all take it very seriously and know that we have to respect it and remain in gratitude.

I remember interviewing Jay Farrar of Son Volt about that band's early days; he told me stories about doing "crazy things" like hooking a U-Haul to a Honda Civic and bankrolling studio time on his girlfriend's credit card. In the early days of the Hold Steady, what did you guys do that would make you cringe today?

We had this box truck that we bought. It was a windowless box truck, and it was converted by these guys. Someone connected it to the Bouncing Souls, but it wasn't them. At the time, we thought it was f—ing amazing. You went in, and there was a cab up front, and there was one seat behind, but then you entered a door into this windowless box.

There was a couch that was not bolted down. There was a TV; you could play video games. There was a loft; the merch lived up there. If you were really tired, you could go up there and sleep among the merch, but every time the brakes hit hard, the merch box would fly off and become like a missile. We thought it was amazing, and now, I'm just so thankful that we didn't die in that.

One time, we did a western Canadian leg of a tour, and we drove over the Canadian Rockies in Banff. It was raining, and there were tiny roads; I remember that it was white-knuckled, and, like, please let us get to the end of that. I remember coming around one corner, and there were mountain goats all up the side of this very sheer-looking face. It was beautiful, but it was terrifying.

I don't know how Drive-By Truckers made it through those hard-drinking, hard-touring days intact.

You know, I asked them about that. I asked who drove, and I guess [co-leader Mike] Cooley drove. He was the late-night driver. I was fascinated by that, because by the time we met them, they were on a bus. Actually, so were we.

Twenty years in, I've really come to like the van better than I like a tour bus due to sunlight — seeing sunlight more often. A tour bus can make me and a lot of other people pretty depressed. I don't think that's talked about enough. We talk about mental health in rock, but we put people in these submarines, basically, and they go from town to town.

My biggest example is — because I just did a solo tour in a van — when you drive from Portland to Seattle, it's so beautiful. But if you're in a tour bus, you're in, like: downtown Portland, ehh, and then you go in the bus and you go to downtown Seattle, ehh, and you see none of it. It's disorienting, in some way.

Craig Finn The Hold Steady 2006

*Craig Finn performing with the Hold Steady in 2006. Photo: Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images*

Speaking of that solo tour, you've built an acclaimed body of work on your own, in parallel to this cult rock 'n' roll band where energy keeps flowing between yourselves and your audience. How do you conceptualize your solo work versus the Hold Steady? Do some stories seem more appropriate to tell on your own?

In some ways, it's pretty easy, because in the Hold Steady, I pretty much just write the lyrics. People are giving me the music, and I'm writing the lyrics to it.

For the solo stuff, I'm either here with my piano or an acoustic guitar figuring out very basic chords. Josh Kaufman, who also produces the solo stuff, does a little more co-writing on [that]. But when I do that, the stories in those songs tend to be smaller.

I have this joke that in the Hold Steady, someone's always falling off the roof or getting shot. In the solo stuff, they might just be sitting in a supermarket parking lot, wondering what happened with their life.

So, it's maybe a little less dramatic, but maybe a little more vulnerable, and probably a little closer to my own life.

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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Franc Moody

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea

James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

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

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

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

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

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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