Photo: Luke Piotrowski
Bartees Strange Talks New Album 'Farm To Table,' Reports From Inside The Indie Apparatus: "Your Music Still Has To Be Good"
With 'Farm to Table,' Bartees Strange is breaking through during the weirdest possible time for the music business. How do you not only survive, but thrive? The answer's simpler than you think.
At first listen, Bartees Strange's new song "Cosigns" seems like a work of unmitigated self-regard. Like Kendrick Lamar casually boasting that "Obama just paged me," Strange namedrops indie stars he's opened for or otherwise associated with — Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Justin Vernon — and basks in how it all reflects on him: "I'm a genius, damn!"
But when Zooming with Strange — on a train back to D.C. from New York, where he'd been doing press — that bluster evaporates.
Attentive and unassuming, Strange projects zero airs of being an indie breakout star; he's just someone commuting home from a job like anyone else. It only takes a few minutes of getting to know the guy for "Cosigns" to reveal its true nature. It’s not a paltry boast track; the trap-influenced tune is as personal and genuine as can be. Strange is partly singing this song to himself. Because he needs to.
"I'm not a person that's normally down to be that boisterous," he tells GRAMMY.com. "But I felt like, on that song, I had to be for that song to work — [for it to reflect] how I'd seen it in my mind. So, I kind of chased the dragon with that a little bit."
And as such, the end of the song brings the comedown: "How to be full, it's the hardest to know/ I keep consuming, I can't give it up/ Hungry as ever, it's never enough."
This mix of humility and unequivocality seems to sum up Strange, both on record and in conversation. His latest album, Farm to Table, which drops June 17, is deeper, maturer and more forthright than anything he's made before. The aforementioned "Cosigns" digs into the toolbox of 2000s radio hits; "Tours" and "Hold the Line" rank among his rawest dispatches.
Strange's ride from workaday PR and comms guy to festival favorite has been dizzying. But thanks to his everyman integrity and ability to keep his head on straight, Strange can swim in that world without drowning — as he has at least since his 2020 debut, Live Forever.
And for the astronomical number of indie musicians trying to be heard, he offers a simple report: authenticity, and being really good, still matter. And he admits that for a while, he simply wasn’t a strong enough musician to get noticed. What it took were manhours, and a good attitude, to get to the place where he could write “Cosigns” and make it work.
“Keep getting better, no matter what. Always focus on getting better, and things will work out,” he says. “You can't blame other people for it. You've got to just keep grinding.”
Read on for an in-depth interview with Strange about navigating the entertainment industry as a recent breakout, what meeting Phoebe Bridgers and Courtney Barnett taught him, and why his most spectacular music is "100 percent" ahead of him.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
You seem to have experienced your indie breakthrough during the weirdest possible time — when streaming and the pandemic have made this business harder than ever. How do you navigate the weirdness?
The way I always have. I've been making stuff my whole life. During the pandemic, I felt like, "If it doesn't go well, I'll just make another record."
I always feel like I'm going to make more music. With that will come more opportunities for things to go well. Sometimes when things aren't going so well, that's when I need to make things the most. It's almost more natural to make things during this weird time than it was before.
Your attitude is less "If this year doesn't go as planned, my life will be over!" and more "If it doesn't work out this year, I'll keep going next year."
Yeah! I love doing this, so I don't see that changing because the things around me change. I do this because I need to do it for myself.
Can you drill into that need a little more? We hear all the time about how music saved people's lives, but can you articulate why you have a psychological need to make it?
The best way I can answer that question is to talk about old stuff.
Before I was doing music full-time, I had full-time jobs. I was working in administration, and then I worked as a climate change communicator in Brooklyn. Throughout all of it, I made music just for myself. I would dive into YouTube tutorials about how to use compression, or how to use different microphones or get different sounds out of guitars I had.
I've always been in love with how sound works and how to create it. There's always more to learn, and it was fun for me. It kept my mind interested when everything else around me was banal. There was a series of years when I wasn't focused on music that much, and that was a really horrible time in my life. After that, I just said, "I'm going to keep doing this no matter what, because it makes getting up in the morning a lot easier."
I always have something to look forward to if I'm creating things. So, that's why I have the operating ethos I have now around making stuff: "Well, I have to do this regardless!" [Laughs] "This is what I like doing, so why would I stop doing it now?"
I used to work menial odd jobs for a living, so I completely understand that thinking: Once you find a way to support yourself that aligns with what you love, don't let it go.
Yeah, exactly. And now it's to a point where my livelihood kind of depends on it. I'm glad I'm at the stage of my life, age-wise, where that doesn't put too much pressure on me. I'm in my early thirties, so I feel like if all this happened when I was 22, I'd be a little shook. But the fact that I've had some jobs and I know how to compose myself and get work done — I have some processes for that.
This transition hasn't been that hard. I'm just excited to make more stuff.
Bartees Strange. Photo: Luke Piotrowski
As you alluded to in "Cosigns," you've become something of a go-to opener for big-name indie acts. Was that a role you ever envisioned yourself in, or did it just turn out to be the logical way to slide into the music-biz apparatus?
After Live Forever, I had some opportunities to open for some people I'm a big fan of. But for most artists, that's just how you start building your career. You go on tour with bigger artists, and eventually, they become your tours. I've been really lucky to tour with people I've admired my whole life.
I don't think I started off thinking: Oh, I'm going to open for Courtney Barnett next year. It was more like: I'm going to make this record, and I would love one day to meet the National. I didn't think I'd go on tour with them. I can't wait to do that — it's going to be amazing.
When I first experienced a measure of success as a music journalist, I felt like I was walking into my record collection and interacting with the people on the cover. Was that your experience early on?
Yes, dude. But I got over that real quick.
The first time I met Phoebe Bridgers, I went to her house in L.A. I met her mom; I met her dog. I was like, "Damn, you're just like me, dude. You're so normal." Courtney Barnett, too — she's so disarmingly normal. Same with Lucy Dacus, and Will [Toledo] from Car Seat [Headrest]. You hit a point where you realize you and these people have a lot in common, actually.
We're all just weirdos who got a little too deep on the music thing. There's not a lot that separates us.
I mostly see the music world as a bunch of people with a couple of screws loose who can't work office jobs. It binds all of us.
I know. But the thing is, I did work in offices for 12 years. The whole time, I was like, "Am I crazy? Does anybody else in this office feel like I feel? Maybe everyone wishes they were playing Pitchfork this weekend!" And the answer was no, they didn't. The way my life turned out, I was the person that wanted that.
It's been a wild journey, and the last couple of years have been so fascinating. I learned so much. Just playing shows and watching the shows grow and actually getting fans. I've been thinking a little further out, about what I'd like my life to look like. Thinking about this record, and the next records. It's really cool how things have evolved and shaken out and where it can go next.
Was it odd needing to shape your personal story into a press-ready narrative?
No, not really, because I didn't feel like I had to. That was really my life, you know? I was just talking about what my life really was. Also, I don't think it hurts that, for the last 12 years, I've been doing comms and PR. [Laughs] I'm sure that plays into it! I knew how to package it a little!
What lessons did you learn hard and fast once you were firmly within the music-biz machinery?
Man, the craziest thing was that all these music industry people are not different than all the people I met working for foundations or non-profit spaces or PR firms. They're all very similar types of people. It's just that instead of loving politics or social justice, they love music.
Once I kind of understood that and understood there's a way to move around these people and connect with them by talking about the things we're all passionate about, it all became a lot easier to understand. And once I realized that all my counterparts were very similar, I started to realize, "Oh, I can actually have a career doing this! Maybe this isn't just a flash in the pan! Maybe I can keep making records and keep growing this.
Because it looked like all these other people who have the same skill set as me were doing just that. That was an amazing thing to see.
It seems like you realized that, in the end, we're all just winging it.
Exactly. We're all still winging it. Just as much as I've always seen people winging it — they're winging it here, too. That felt great. I was like, "Oh, cool!! I know I know how to wing it, you know?
When you started to make Farm to Table, which goal was paramount in your mind?
The first challenge for me was sound. I wanted to make something that just sounded better.
I love Live Forever, but I was at a different stage in my life as a creative person. I was using the tools I had. I spent most of  producing other records and learning things from those processes, from artists I had met since Live Forever was created.
So, going into Farm to Table, I wanted to create a more sonically dense world. I wanted to make something that was a little more thoughtful and full-ranging with the sounds. I had some things I really wanted to try, so I went hard on that and tried to apply all the things I'd learned.
Also, I kept thinking of this record as the start of a new life. There's a series of records I'm planning to do that will all relate to this album. So, I wanted to create a foundation for the kinds of stories I want to tell later. This record is important in that sense, so I tried to be even more clear and direct with my lyrics.
Whereas with Live Forever, man, I felt like I was just trying to make some noise. I was like, "How do I get people to see me?" Throw it all at the wall. But this time, I feel like I had more focus. It was a little more concerted.
What other hurdles did you face, either from an aural or lyrical standpoint?
The hardest thing about this record was "Cosigns" — writing that song. People think the sad and vulnerable songs are the ones that are hardest to write, but really, the hardest ones for me to write were the ones where I was fully embracing the changes I was experiencing in my life.
That song was about how I was touring with all these people I looked up to, and how I kind of felt like I deserved it. Like, "I'm ready for the next thing; I feel like I can compete."
This record was also the first one where I had other people help me with writing. I met up with Stephanie Marziano, who writes for Hayley Williams and a few other awesome artists, in London when I was finishing the album. She helped me finish "Tours," which is probably one of my [most personal songs] in terms of it being about my family.
Normally, when I write about my family, I'm very vague. But that song is so on-the-nose and direct, and that's what I wanted to do with the album. But it was hard to pull it out of myself.
I think one of the reasons "Cosigns" works is that it doesn't sound like you're simply full of yourself. There's a lot of humor to it, as well as the "Oh my god! It's all happening!" rush — moreso than "Look at me! I'm so awesome!"
I'm so glad you feel that way. I was afraid people would see it the other way — that I was just bigging myself. But, really, it's a song about how grateful I am that other people have stepped up for me and done things to help me.
So much of your struggle as an artist is just finding people to believe in you. And when people do, it's like "Oh my god! Thank you for being here!" [Laughs]
What are some of your favorite moments on Farm to Table? Not even songs — just segments.
My favorite moment is "Escape This Circus." When that song starts.
It's such a freakin' weird vibe. It feels like a "Twin Peaks" energy. This woozy, drunk country shuffle that interrupts a vibe. Because leading up to that, you have two slower songs that are pretty raw, right? You have "Tours," "Hold the Line" and "We Were Only Close For Like Two Weeks," which is kind of a drumbeat, boom-bap interlude track.
And then, at that point, you don't really know what's going to happen next on the album, because you just had "Cosigns," "Wretched," "Heavy Heart," and "Mulholland Drive." So, you have this crucial decision point on what direction we go. And then the message is, "Oh, we go here. To f<em></em><em>ing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." [Laughs.]*
I think it's just a lot of fun. I like how it sounds, and I like what the message of the song is in the context of the album leading up to that point.
What outside records were on your mind while making Farm to Table?
There were different things for different songs.
I was listening to The Life of Pablo a lot. Mainly, because there are some vocal things from Kanye I really wanted — the vocal mixes were just crazy. So, for "Wretched" and "Cosigns," I was referencing that super, super hard. A lot of 2000s-era Kanye, big pop songs — "All of the Lights" and s<em></em>*. Just trying to find big kick sounds, big snare sounds.
I was also really into Burna Boy — the album African Giant. On the song "Wretched," I felt like I was pulling from his drum breaks. Just putting more of a pop sensibility behind it. But that groove is very much an Afrobeats groove in the chorus, which propels the entire vibe.
For songs like "We Were Only Close For Like Two Weeks," it was very much retrograde James Blake vibes. Deconstructed, broken beats with mantra-like repetition over the top. And Escape the Circus feels like Boxer to me. It feels like a Matt Berninger song.
When I was making this record, I remember telling my friends, "This is my Boxer." I was trying to do something new with it I had never done before, and I felt it would be the person I was writing from for at least the next record or two.
Bartees Strange. Photo: Luke Piotrowski
What do people still not understand about how the indie-rock business works — speaking as someone firmly within it?
I think your music still has to be good. I know a lot of people who feel like they're being overlooked or that they won't get an opportunity.
Luck is such a big part of it — being lucky, being in the right place at the right time and playing the right show, and the right person being there. But also, you have to be really, really, really good. And all the people I've played with — Courtney, Lucy, Phoebe, Will from Car Seat — all these people are freakish good. Like, way better than you realize.
You hear their songs, and you see one thing. But if you see them just pick up a guitar and play a little bit, you're like, "Oh, wait." Courtney Barnett is a murdering guitar player. Absolutely disgusting guitar player. At any level, she's a devastating guitar player and songwriter, straight up. She can write better than most people, she can play guitar better than most people, and she can sing better than most people.
Before you get caught up in saying "Nobody likes me," or "The industry doesn't have space for me," just perfect your s<em></em>*. I remember watching Moses Sumney and serpentwithfeet and all these people get humongous, and the whole time, I was like, "Damn, why can't I get a shot?"
But I wasn't good enough at the time. I know that now, looking back. But you've got to get good at your s<em></em>*. Keep getting better, no matter what. Always focus on getting better, and things will work out. But you can't blame other people for it. You've got to just keep grinding.
So, authenticity still matters.
That's how you can last for a long time. Lucy Dacus can continue to build her fanbase because people believe what she's saying. She writes words that connect with people, for real. Yeah, it's great that her label makes it so more people can hear it, but there are lot of people who have that support and it doesn't catch.
It catches for her because she's actually very good. Being good is the best thing you can do for yourself in being a musician.
Before we wrap it up, do you feel like your best work is ahead of you?
Tell me more.
I'm already working on the best record, and it's the best record I've ever made.
In what sense?
I don't want to talk too much about it, because my label is like, "Don't go too deep into the next record. Stay focused on this one. But, dog. Morgan, it's incredible. It's a whole new world. I feel like I've found some stuff where I'm the only one in this world that can do it.
I'm excited about building it out, and I think Farm to Table is the perfect precursor to what can come next.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Listen: All Of The Latin Music 2023 GRAMMY Nominees In One Playlist
Ahead of Music's Biggest Night on Feb. 5, 2023, celebrate with this immersive playlist of every Latin Field nominee at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
The Latin GRAMMYs may have just honored the genre's trailblazers in Las Vegas on Nov. 17, but the celebration will continue at the upcoming 65th GRAMMY Awards ceremony in February. There are five categories in the Latin Field of the 2023 GRAMMY nominations — and you can hear all of the nominees in one playlist.
In the Best Latin Pop Album category, are Christina Aguilera's Latin GRAMMY-winning AGUILERA will compete with Rubén Blades & Boca Livre's Pasieros, Camilo's De Adendro Pa Afuera, Fonseca's VIAJANTE, and Sebastián Yatra's Dharma+. Channeling their lively Latin roots while traversing pop landscapes, these albums all magnetically merge tradition and modernity.
Reggaeton, dancehall, hip hop, and funk coalesce in the nominated works for Best Música Urbana Album: Rauw Alejandro's Trap Cake, Vol. 2, Bad Bunny's Un Verano Sin Ti, Daddy Yankee's LEGENDADDY, Farruko's La 167, and Maluma's The Love & Sex Tape.
The genre-blending jubilation continues with the Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album category. This year's nominees are Cimafunk's El Alimento, Jorge Drexler's Tinta y Tiempo, Mon Laferte's 1940 Carmen, Gaby Moreno's Alegoría, Fito Paez's Los Años Salvajes, and Rosalía's MOTOMAMI.
For Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano), 2021 winner Natalia Lafourcade's Un Canto por México - El Musical is up against Chiquis' Abeja Reina, Los Tigres Del Norte's La Reunión (Deluxe), Christian Nodal's EP #1 Forajido, and Marco Antonio Solís' Qué Ganas de Verte (Deluxe).
As for Best Tropical Latin Album, Marc Anthony — a two-time winner in the category — returns as a nominee with Pa'lla Voy, alongside pioneers Tito Nieves (nominated for Legendario), La Santa Cecilia (Quiero Verte Feliz), Víctor Manuelle (Lado A Lado B), Spanish Harlem Orchestra (Imágenes Latinas), and Carlos Vives (Cumbiana II).
Listen to all of the above albums in this comprehensive, 338-song playlist of the Latin music GRAMMY nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.