Photo: Steve Jennings/WireImage
Ann Wilson Speaks Fiercely From The Heart
In a career spanning interview, Heart’s lead singer reflects on her new solo album 'Fierce Bliss,' all that’s come before and what’s in store for the band’s 50th anniversary.
Months after the pandemic started, singer Ann Wilson felt the need to be inspired and energized. So she and her husband rented a tour bus and traveled from her Florida home (where she moved from Seattle in 2016) across the U.S. They visited several national parks before driving up to Seattle and down to Los Angeles — a route Wilson has known well over the course of her career as the frontwoman of Heart.
Wilson’s intense wanderlust most likely has its roots in the numerous moves she made with her parents when she was a child. Her father, affectionately nicknamed "Dotes" (as detailed in the Ann and Nancy Wilson autobiography Kicking And Dreaming, co-authored with Charles R. Cross), was a World War II veteran and officer in the Marines, which required numerous moves around the world. While growing up, the Wilson family lived on both the east and west coasts of the U.S., as well as in Taiwan. "There was one English speaking radio station out of the Philippines and that’s where I first heard Little Richard and Elvis and everything that was on the radio," she recalls of that time.
As it turned out, moving around during the pandemic was creatively fruitful for Wilson, who recently turned 72 years old. She recorded several singles in 2021 (including a blistering version of "Rooster" by Alice In Chains) and has followed this up with her just released third solo album Fierce Bliss, which includes original material and covers that include songs by Queen (recorded with Vince Gill), Eurythmics, Robin Trower and Jeff Buckley.
Around the time she recorded Fierce Bliss, a studio session with Kenny Wayne Shepherd proved so successful that Wilson ended up collaborating with several Nashville studio musicians at the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Alabama, among them Tom Bukovac and Tony Lucido. The musicians — now known as "The Amazing Dawgs" — are currently on a national tour with Wilson that runs through September.
During a recent Zoom chat with GRAMMY.com, Wilson talked about a wide range of topics — from Fierce to maintaining her vocal range and her songwriting process, to some notable live appearances and reflections on musicians she’s met along the way. Wilson also discussed whether she and sister Nancy will reform Heart for their 50th anniversary in 2023.
There’s so much to take in with Fierce Bliss. The single "Greed" is almost like an instant classic and then it’s surprising to see you cover both Queen and Eurythmics. What was your thinking behind some of these?
Well, those four covers are songs that I just loved so much and spoke to me and I wasn't satisfied until I got inside them. I had to sing them. I had to meld with them, you know, and I was lucky enough to get [guitarist] Kenny Wayne Shepherd to come and play on "Bridge Of Sighs" and "Missionary Man" and Vince Gill to sing on "Love Of My Life."
Was there a reason why you chose those songs to cover?
Yeah, the reason is that I just loved those songs so much and I couldn't be satisfied until I got to sing them myself. The musicians I'm working with right now have great ideas and they're just great players and fiery and all that. So a song like the Jeff Buckley song "Forget Her" just blossomed into something that was mine, you know? And it was a great experience all around with those four.
It appears that you met the band in Nashville, jammed and just really hit it off. Then you went down to Muscle Shoals Studios.
We actually met in Muscle Shoals at Fame Studios. I had asked Tom Bukovac to be my main guitarist and he brought with him [bassist] Tony Lucido. [Drummer] Sean Lane is from Seattle, and [guitar and keyboardist] Paul Moak is from Nashville, and we just gelled in this way that rarely happens during a first meeting. It was almost like magic.
How do you define that? When you say "gel" is it because the ideas are flowing and there’s a good feeling amongst all of you? What is it?
That's part of it. The other big part of it is, can you hang out? Is it a great hang? Do you have a sense of humor that meshes? Can you do some shots together and everybody can hang in and be cool and have fun?
It was almost like meeting old friends. And the songs kept coming and now we’re writing for another album. So yeah, it’s working and we’ve got something really good going on.
Jennifer Hudson recorded at Muscle Shoals recently as well and also recognized the vibe. Did you feel a sense of recorded history there?
You do, you do. And it's a very unassuming place. It’s in the middle of this little kind of nowheresville town, so there's not a bunch of distractions and you just go in there and it's small, funky and vibey. It's just got this sort of welcoming, warm, relaxing, feel about it. It does have the magic that people talk about. There's just an energy there that just makes you wanna open up. You don't feel inhibited and the ideas just start coming and everyone feels safe.
The people who run the place are still very down to earth and real. It does give me fresh energy, especially to be out of a corporate type situation. You’re not always looking at yourself in the mirror because your attorney is going to show up or the manager. It’s just you and the musicians.
With Fierce Bliss, was there a lyrical theme?
Well, during the quarantine lockdown period in ‘20 and ‘21, there was enough peace and quiet around here in the house — just me and my husband. I got to the point where my thoughts got really super loud and I just started writing things down. So the lyrics that I wrote for this record are products of different things that had been inside me for a while. Like the song "Black Wing," I was looking out the window — I live on a river — and all the sea birds are out there free and we're locked in the house.
So I started talking to the birds and that became "Black Wing." "Greed," I just thought about from checking out the national and world situation. It’s just everywhere. You know, it's just at this high point that I've never seen before in my life. So I just thought, ‘Yeah, there’s a topic’ [Laughs] The words I wrote just all came from my own thoughts.
How is it going on tour now? We’re just leaving COVID and some places are still in it. What precautions do you have to take?
It’s not over, you know, it's just shifting, but to be out on the road, you have to be super careful and I'm guilty of not being careful. We were out on the road last time and I got too relaxed and did a meet and greet after a show without a mask. A couple of days later I tested positive.
I'm back — I'm negative now — and I'm feeling good. But just that one little momentary slip and there it was, you know? [Laughs] So we have to be super careful. We have all kinds of protocols. Everyone wears a mask when they’re out amongst the people and are vaccinated and boosted. That’s about the most you can do, really.
With regards to your vocals, how do you keep your voice in such good shape?
There's no real easy answer to that. I just think that I’m basically a healthy person and have never smoked or screamed or anything like that. I don't ever mistake screaming for singing. They're smoking and making their voice do all kinds of really dramatic things and their voice won't be able to take it forever.
My feeling really is that it's not so much about the skin of the throat. It's about the opening of the soul. If the soul is open, the rest seems to follow because of the mind body connection. I just drink lots of water, try to get sleep, warm up properly before, and then that's it. What I like to do is choose a CD of someone I really like and sing along with before I go on stage. That's a good 40 minutes to warm up right there. Last time out it was Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels On A Gravel Road record. I’ve been known to do Emmylou Harris and U2 – just various things that depend on whatever mood I’m in at the time.
Going back in your career, there’s a reported story that you and Nancy attended the GRAMMYs (Heart was nominated for four GRAMMY Awards, beginning in 1986), but were scared to be there. What happened?
We were, yeah. And it was for the silliest of girly reasons. It was because that particular show you got up from your seat and you had to climb this flight of steps up to the stage if you won the award. And we didn't want people looking at our butts when we climbed the stairs. But of course, if we would've won, we would've been just fine with it. But we were sitting there going, "Oh my God, does this dress make me look fat?" You know, wow [laughs]. And, we didn’t win, so no worries. But, uh…
Are those types of awards and honors important to you?
Oh, to me, they're flattering. It feels good to be recognized and acknowledged for sure, but it would never be the reason why I'd be doing this. The reason that I do this is for the joy of music.
How do you perceive yourself as an artist?
Well, I perceive myself as never being that comfortable with any kind of formula. The minute somebody says, "You should be doing this," that's the minute I start to rebel . So I'm probably never going to be very pliable in people's hands when it comes to creativity.
But there's something in me that just wants to write and wants to do it. That’s an unnameable thing. It’s kind of like a calling. When I have a good period of writing, when everything seems to be clicking, that is just the most satisfying thing for me. And I don't have any concept of what retirement would be like. I just don't. I think that my great-grandchildren will probably have to come and drag me off stage.
In your autobiography, there are many well known artists who you have encountered. Some are real historical figures in the musical realm. Do you reflect on your time with Queen, The Rolling Stones and others, or is it just another day?
No, it's never another day. I mean, sometimes I look back on some of those experiences and can’t believe that they really happened. Because at the time that you meet someone like Mick Jagger or Bono it’s always a surprise at how human they are. It’s just like you’re talking to another fellow musician. So, at the time I never really got starstruck, but then later I would go "Wow, that was Bono!" [Laughs]
Your vocal performance of “Stairway To Heaven” in front of members of Led Zeppelin (at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2016) now has 80 million views on YouTube. What were your memories of that day and what pressure did you feel?
That was a dream day. You wake up and go to a breakfast and then they take you to the White House where you meet the President and First Lady and, and it's like a cocktail hour type thing. You see all kinds of luminaries just hanging about in the White House. Then, you go back to the Kennedy Center and you do your set or your song. And then you go to a big dinner afterward with all the luminaries again,. It's a day where you don't have time to sit and freak out. It's one thing after another, all timed and planned for you. So you just let yourself be a sack of potatoes and get carried through this day.
When your moment comes on the stage, I felt that it was extremely important for me not to get nervous, but to be completely serene while singing that song. At that point I was learning entry level meditation techniques. So I made myself calm before I went on and just did it. Later I got nervous after it was over like, Wow, did we just do that? From where we were on the stage, we could not see the Led Zeppelin guys up in the boxes or the President that well. So I didn't know that they had an emotional reaction to it until I saw it on YouTube later, like everyone else.
I thought it was very sweet and our mission that day was to please and honor them. And I think that we did please them. So mission accomplished, you know!
You’ve always done many Led Zeppelin covers but your love of the Beatles has been made clear over the years. Are they neck and neck for you?
Yeah, I guess that the difference would be, I feel really uncomfortable ever doing Beatles covers. You know, this is holy stuff. But I think Led Zeppelin is different. I mean, I think that it's holy — especially "Stairway To Heaven" is just a piece of cultural iconography at this point — but their songs begged to be covered.
You’ve been asked about being a woman in the music industry many times, so let’s not go down that path. But do you feel that what you’re able to do with music is better today, or do you prefer the expansiveness and how rough it was when you were first starting out?
It's not binary for me.I think that a lot of the ways we used to do things are good and have carried over into the future and the present. For instance, analog recording where you're all in the same room, looking at each other's eyes is something that I think is timeless.
Social media is the best outreach you can get at a time when touring is difficult. There's Spotify and all that kind of stuff, but there's no big voice over the land that does your advertising for you. You have to do it yourself. So, that's something that I really prefer. But I think it's also very dangerous because of how it can spread bulls<em></em>* and people believe it because they read it, you know?
Do you watch any artists today and think they could use some mentoring? After all, you dealt with so many artists in Seattle, particularly during the city's grunge era. Did you ever pull them aside and say ‘You don’t want to go down this path’?
No. I don't think anybody would have dared say that kind of stuff to them because they had a full head of steam on all those guys. They wanted to say, "F— you" to everything.
But what I did do, was at that point in Seattle, I had a house that was centrally located on Capitol Hill, which is where most everything was going on. I opened it up to them many times and there were lots of nights where Soundgarden and Mudhoney and Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains would come and hang out and just intermingle with each other. And guitars would come out and people would go swimming in the pool and sit around on my carpets and drink beer (laughs).
That was a good thing for them because it was a safe house and lots of people — quite a few people — from that era didn't make it out alive. So there was a lot of tragedy. The loss of [Alice In Chains lead singer] Layne Staley, for instance, and just the different ones. So there was a lot of grief that went on as a group, as a music community and that’s where we got close.
It sounds like you really love these creative communities where people let the music ideas flow.
Yeah. I think that where the magic happens is when people get together and exchange ideas and bounce off each other.
You’re so prolific right now. You’ve mentioned the possibility of another album already. Do you see this carrying on?
Yeah, I do see it carrying on. I never make predictions about success. I gave that up a long time ago, trying to predict what song's gonna be the next hit single or whatever. That is just unknowable to me. But what I can do now with these ideas I have is just get 'em down and go in with this group of excellent musicians. I have the “Amazing Dawgs” and shape 'em and what we have is really energized, fiery and sharp. I think it’s working for us right now. It’s real.
Obviously, you have a big anniversary coming up. Do you have plans for that?
Yes we do. I’m not at liberty to say exactly what they are yet because it’s such early days, but sure. It will be next year. And we’re doing a thing. Definitely. We’re still formulating it now.
Photo: PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images
Here's What Happened At The Recording Academy's 2023 Special Merit Awards Ceremony Honoring Nile Rodgers, Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart, Nirvana, The Supremes & More
In addition to seven music legends receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, the GRAMMY Week event honored recipients of the Music Educator Award, Trustees Awards and Technical GRAMMY Awards.
Amid the madness of GRAMMY Week, there was an air of tranquility surrounding the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on the afternoon of Feb. 4. The sunlit streets were nearly empty, the red carpet was discreetly hidden from public view. Inside the theater, music royalty, entertainment journalists and GRAMMY nominees congregated for one of the week's most emotionally charged events: the Special Merit Awards Ceremony.
Music teacher Pamela Dawson beamed as Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. handed her the 2023 GRAMMY Music Educator Award. Mama Dawson, as she is known among her students at DeSoto High School in Texas, is loved by all for her relentless positivity and encouragement. "I thank you God for giving me the gift of music," she said. "My mother believed in me even when I didn't. My heritage is a big loving heart that I can give to others."
In the Technical GRAMMY Award department, the Academy recognized the efforts of the Audio Engineering Society and Dr. Andy Hildebrand — inventor of the Auto-Tune software program.
The Trustees Awards honorees were Henry Diltz, who photographed iconic album covers of the '60s and '70s; the late Ellis Marsalis, jazz pianist and educator; and the late Jim Stewart, founder of the mythical Stax Records.
"Dad had an open-door policy that helped create a utopian reality," said Stewart's daughter Lori, addressing the label's unusual-for-the-time policy of working with talented artists regardless of their racial or ethnic background. "More than a business, Stax was a family."
Then, it was time to salute the recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award, and the gallery of selected artists painted a wondrous picture of popular music — from classic rock and grunge to soul, hip-hop, funk, jazz, and blues.
In his typical unconventional fashion, 10-time GRAMMY winner Bobby McFerrin accepted his award doing what he does best: singing. "I want to have some fun today," began the "Don't Worry Be Happy" hitmaker in his inimitable falsetto. Backed briefly on vocals by his three adult children, McFerrin smiled and improvised, surprised and delighted, crediting his late father — the first Black singer to be offered a contract at the Metropolitan Opera — as a major inspiration. "Have fun," he concluded. "Play. Don't think. Be good to yourself.'
Equally moving — but in a more grungy, Seattle kind of way — was seeing the surviving members of '90s pioneers Nirvana. "Kurt Cobain is never far away," said the band's bassist and founding member Krist Novoselic. "Just turn on the radio." He also thanked young people from all over the world for the many fan letters he continues to receive, as drummer Dave Grohl and guitarist Pat Smear stood by his side, nodding approvingly.
Legendary blues singer Ma Rainey (1886-1939) received a long-overdue induction to the Lifetime Achievement gallery. On hand to collect the award were her great nephew, Frank Nix, and great great niece Cassandra Behler. "Ma was an amazing performer and businesswoman," said Behler. "I can't imagine the sacrifices she made for her career and lifestyle."
Prolific beyond any reasonable expectation, guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers was visibly moved — almost lost for words. "I'm sorry to be so emotional," he told the crowd, which responded with an even bigger round of applause. "This journey was a series of steps."
The founder of disco-funk collective CHIC, Rodgers is known for his unmistakable guitar sound — adding waves of funk to every single genre it touches — and sensitive production work. When he thanked the musicians that he worked with, the list was regal, including David Bowie, Diana Ross, Bryan Ferry, and Beyoncé — the latter of whom he would go on to win Best R&B Song with at the 2023 GRAMMYs (and accept on her behalf!).
"Do you like my coat?," asked English-American rapper and producer Slick Rick "The Ruler," showing off an elegant, light purple coat over his suit and matching tie. "Macy's women's section." Slick's speech was as witty as his rapping. He mentioned listening to Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By" as a kid, then outlined his love for the music of the Beatles, the Supremes, Jamaican dancehall and hip-hop — and his fateful move to the U.S. in 1976.
Fittingly, the Supremes were also honorees this year. During their induction, Florence Ballard's daughter Lisa Chapman explained that she couldn't share any personal anecdotes because her mother died when she was only 3 years old. "I thank [the late] Mary Wilson, because she never left my Mom's side," she said. "They're probably sipping on the finest champagne right now," added Wilson's daughter Turkessa Babich. "They are always with us."
The last artists to be honored were two immensely talented sisters, Ann & Nancy Wilson of Heart. The sibling duo changed the nature of the game for women in hard rock, and guitarist Nancy Wilson spoke of her beginnings in music. "I left college in 1974 to join the band," she recalled. "Our dream was to be the Beatles. Not to be their girlfriends, or marry one of them, but to be them — and we did it."
Wilson was effusive in praising her sister, powerhouse singer Ann. "We survived the sheer insanity of a rock 'n' roll circus. We were two military brats, two badasses, and we stood up. We rocked our butts off, and we did all of it together."
Wilson's last words — bringing the event to its conclusion — were dedicated to the fans: "You were always the reason for us to catch dreams in our butterfly nets."
Photo: Chris Cain; Jeremy Danger
Ann Wilson & Nancy Wilson Of Heart Receive The Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award | 2023 GRAMMYs
This Lifetime Achievement Award honors performers who have made creative contributions of outstanding artistic significance to the field of recording.
Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart are verging on the half-century mark of their groundbreaking group. Through five decades of changing musical eras, their impact has not waned. From the ’70s, when Ann set the blueprint for rock frontwomen and Nancy established her oft-imitated and never-quite-duplicated guitar playing style, through the ’80s when the band dominated MTV, to 2019 when the sisters spearheaded the all-female Love Alive tour, the Wilsons broke barriers as musicians, singers and songwriters.
The two started early in music. Nancy showed marked virtuosity on the acoustic guitar at 9 years old. Ann, four years her senior, was already singing in the style of blues greats — albeit filtered through rock and roll.
Their 1976 debut album, Dreamboat Annie, spawned the hits "Magic Man" and "Crazy on You,"which remain staples on classic rock radio. "Barracuda" from 1977’s Little Queen followed suit. Drawing from folk, hard rock and the daring to not be pigeonholed by their gender, the Wilsons were among the few women granted authority on a rock stage dominated by men.
By the time the sisters glammed up and became MTV staples and chart-toppers in the mid-‘80s, they were proven songwriters and already a multiplatinum-selling band. It was the GRAMMY-nominated Billboard No.1 album Heart that catapulted Ann and Nancy into the musical stratosphere. The album’s hits were ubiquitous, all cracking the Top 10. Its flagship song, "These Dreams"— sung by Nancy — hit No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100. A year later, the band snagged that position again with "Alone" from their album Bad Animals, and with it, two more GRAMMY nominations. They continued their GRAMMY nomination streak with 1990’s Brigade.
Over the course of 16 studio albums, the pair have sold 35 million records and had seven Top 10 albums. Ann and Nancy also charted on the New York Times bestsellers list with their 2013 memoir, Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock & Roll.
Ann and Nancy individually extended their musical reach to the silver screen. Ann through her iconic voice on the unforgettable songs "Almost Paradise," "Best Man in the World" and "Surrender to Me" on stellar soundtracks from the timeless films Footloose, The Golden Child and Tequila Sunrise, respectively. Nancy through her essential, award-winning scores for the box office smashes Say Anything, Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky.
Their abilities have continuously attracted accomplished musicians of all genders who speak with reverence about their skills and consider performing alongside as a distinct privilege. Their songs have been sampled by the likes of Eminem, Lil Wayne, G-Eazy, and Nas.
No matter how much they accomplish, the need to create is ever present with the Wilson sisters. In the last couple of years, they have both released solo albums. Nancy with her first album of original material in 2021 with You and Me, and Ann in 2022 with her third solo album, Fierce Bliss.
Honors and accolades abound for Ann and Nancy: the ASCAP Pop Music Awards Founders Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But they remain active. As Nancy said in her Rock Hall acceptance speech: "We’re not finished rocking just yet."
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].