Photo: Douglas Mason/Getty Images
Béla Fleck Has Always Been Told He's The Best. But To Him, There Is No Best.
Backstage at Newport Folk 2022, the world's preeminent banjoist brushed off notions of supremacy in his field — and vigorously praised the awe-inspiring collaborators who make his bluegrass dream happen.
Imagine being told for decades upon decades that you're the finest in the world at whatever it is you do in this life. It happened to Béla Fleck, the banjo virtuoso (to trot out the word again) who's earned 15 GRAMMYs and 35 nominations (plus a Latin GRAMMY) across half a dozen genres for his trouble.
But, miraculously, all this veneration never went to his head. Partly because Fleck has very little use for it.
"It puts some pressure on you that doesn't really help anything," Fleck tells GRAMMY.com backstage at Newport Folk 2022, in a folding chair surrounded by moldering Civil War-era forts. "It means that things have worked in my career… but in truth: there is no best. There are people who have always done things better than me on the banjo and always will.
"I certainly work hard at it, and I take it very seriously," Fleck continues. "There are things that I've come up with and abilities I have that other people don't have, but that's the way it's supposed to be with everybody who's a serious player on their instrument."
Of course, he understands he's a leader in his field. But Fleck is far less interested in being "the best" than surrounding himself with musicians that inspire and galvanize him to be great. "It's never a job," he adds. "It's always like: "What's the best we can do? How can we propel each other?"
That’s exactly why Fleck does this — not to collect endless accolades. It was the animating spirit behind his "My Bluegrass Heart" performance at Newport Folk 2022, where he was flanked by first-call musicians who happen to be close friends — like fiddlist Michael Cleveland, dobro/lap steel player Jerry Douglas, and so many more.
As the dust of last weekend's Newport Folk settles, read on for an in-depth, career-spanning interview with Fleck about his performance at the historic festival, the cruciality of ripple and flow in his work, and what he wants to creatively avoid as he settles into his mid-60s.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Tell me about your history with Newport Folk Fest.
I grew up in New York City, and we always heard about the Newport Folk Festival — the stories about Joan Baez and Bob Dylan going electric and Pete Seeger and everything.
So, I was very aware of it, but it was a long time before I finally got here. I think it was with New Grass Revival. I'm pretty sure we got to play here one year. Maybe it was a bluegrass-themed stage that year. But then I got to come back a number of times and play the Jazz Festival too.
It's a beautiful spot. But it's not just the place; it's the history and being part of what feels like a historical event and a legacy of great music being presented. Things ripple out from here. People hear about what happens at Newport.
I feel like as music fans, we're born programmed with Newport stories, even though half of them are probably apocryphal. Pete Seeger with the axe…
Yeah, maybe so. The stories about Pete getting up and tuning Dylan's guitar for him in the early years, and then being dismayed about how loud he was when he rocked out and all that stuff.
But the Jazz Festival, too, is just as impactful — all the stories from that.
Did you come in contact with George and Joyce Wein a lot?
I did get to know them a little bit. They used to book the Flecktones on European tours — those tours that [came about] from the Jazz Festivals. That was the goal as a jazz-oriented group — especially coming from outside the jazz world like myself.
Just to be on those jazz festivals — Montreaux Jazz Festival, North Sea, Molde, all these amazing festivals in the summer. We got on that circuit for a while thanks to the folks from George's office.
I think he actually liked us, because at the time, I didn't think he liked us that much! But then, the last time I was here, he came over, riding up in a golf cart and said, "Oh, yeah! You guys are so great!" I was like, "Wow, we tried so hard to get you on our side — and it seems like you are!" So, it's nice when that happens.
Read More: 5 Reflections On George Wein: How It Felt To Be Around The Architect Of The Modern Music Festival
I only interviewed him once, and this is my first Newport Folk. But I wish he was riding up to us right now with his cane and cap.
Me too. Me too. He did a lot of good. He really, really did. I read his book, too [Myself Among Others].
So, early on with the Flecktones, you were truly straddling both worlds when it came to Newport. It was a perfect fit.
Right. There was one year when I played the Folk Festival with my bluegrass trio. And then, a few years later, I came back and played the Jazz Festival with Jean-Luc Ponty and Stanley Clarke.
It was at Newport that year that Ted Kurland came up to me; he was the booking agent for Pat Metheny and Chick Corea. He said, "Oh, Chick Corea's thinking about doing duets next year! Would you be interested in being one of his duet partners?" I was like, "Whoa!" It changed my life.
So, I remembered that happening right behind the main stage, when I was walking by today. That's where it happened, and I got to play with him for a decade, or a decade and a half — make records and learn so much about music from Chick, being in his orbit.
I have great memories of that. He was an incredible inspiration, but also he became a very dear friend and mentor to me. It was a loss, but I'm still amazed that it even happened.
I just think of his light. Nobody I've ever talked to has ever had a bad word to say about him.
Mr. Fun. Mr. Imagination.
Yeah, but he had a work ethic, too.
Of course! He made, like, seven billion records!
Just flying from one situation [to another].
I remember when we made our record together, [2007's] The Enchantment. We worked really hard for four or five days in the studio. And as we finished the last take of the last song, instead of going in to listen to takes, he pulled out the music for the next gig and started practicing. I was like [grins] "That's the way you do it! That's how you stay great your whole life!" It's all about the music.
Read More: In Remembrance: Chick Corea Played In More Ways Than One
Tell me about your lineup for this particular gig at Newport Folk.
This is the dream team of dream teams, in terms of the bluegrass community. And when I say "bluegrass," you have to extend your imagination of what bluegrass is, because these are musicians who can play anything and do play anything with all kinds of people.
So, folks like Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, who are our special guests today — they're known for all the genre-bending that I am. They move seamlessly in and out of rock 'n' roll and jazz situations.
That's always kind of been your MO. You're playing with people like [The Flecktones'] Jeff Coffin and Victor Wooten, who are musical universes unto themselves.
Right. You don't expect that so much from folks in the bluegrass world, but it's just as prevalent. These are folks who are just as curious and just as able. They're lifelong fans of music and learning.
There's a lot of joy when we're all together, because we all feel that way. It's never a job. It's always like: "What's the best we can do? How can we propel each other?"
So, anyway, those are our guests. But the basic band is fabulous, too — the biggest stars [chuckles], I guess, if you can look at it that way, in the bluegrass world.
Our fiddle player, Michael Cleveland, is a stunner. He's come up in the tradition. He's a Kentucky guy, and he's blind — just happens to be blind. He plays like — I don't know — Kenny Baker on steroids? This old way of playing, but with this youthful spirit. He really wants it, like every solo is the last one he's ever going to play. He's so good.
Then there's Bryan Sutton, who's kind of the reigning king of bluegrass flat-picking guitar these days. He's also constantly playing on all kinds of music. He's very able in all areas. And he's one of the biggest online teachers out there; he's got hundreds of thousands of students. So, he's a big presence in that world as well. But as a player, he's just stunning.
Mark Schatz — he's a bass player. I've been playing with him since 197...4, I believe? Maybe '75?
Oh my gosh.
Oh, no. I moved up to Boston in '76. So, '77. And we were in a lot of bands together before I joined New Grass Revival with Sam Bush in the '80s. Then, he went on to play with Tony Rice for many years, and Tim O'Brien, and Nickel Creek. So, he's just a premier, first-call bass player who happens to be my roomie from when we were still in our late teens, early 20s.
Then, we've got Justin Moses. Justin is a multi-instrumentalist, and he's a stunner, because he can play pretty much as good as any of the other people on stage on their instruments.
We do double-banjo stuff, and he can cut it just fine with me. He goes up and hits the double-fiddle stuff with Michael, and it's perfect. He can get up and do double-mandolin stuff — intricate stuff. He can play guitar; he can sing. Mostly, he plays dobro with us, because that's what we need. But he can play anything. He's a very musical character.
On this tour, we have different mandolin players. Previously, we had Sierra Hull, but she wasn't able to come out with us this time. So, we found a relative unknown, compared to some of the other guys: Jacob Jolliff. But he's been in a lot of great bands; he played with Yonder Mountain [String Band] and he had a band called Joy Kills Sorrow.
He's just one of these effortless, speed-demon mandolin players. I'm not always a fan of the word "shred," because it feels a little demeaning to me if you're really trying to play music. But he can shred. I mean, he can really burn it on the mandolin. He has no speed limit. But, also a very musical character, and he sings well.
So, it's a power pack, man. Oh, and also, Noam Pikelny, one of the great banjo players of the current time. He's going to join us for a triple-banjo number as well. He plays with Punch Brothers. It couldn't be a better band.
It doesn't seem like you had to delicately curate the band. It seems like most of these guys are just friends of yours, and it naturally fell together.
Right. The thing that makes it easy to be friends is that everybody has that work ethic. If there was somebody who didn't want to work on it and make it as good as it can be, it's harder to be friends, because resentments would start to creep in.
That's the secret to Chick's nature: He surrounded himself with people that were willing to do the work, and showed up knowing the music. So, they could just be pals. He wasn't like, "Hey, you've got to work on that. That's not up to snuff."
You’re not naturally magnetized to anybody who just sloughs it off.
That's the thing about all of this. You can be really great friends if the other stuff is not … [Trails off] I mean, if you're good enough friends, you can deal with anything. But what I'm saying is there's something very comforting about the fact that we don't have to worry about the music. Because we're going to work on it; not because it's just there.
Everyone's willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen, and then you can just have a great time together. It's just joy, because that's all taken care of.
I love that record you made with [Malian kora player] Toumani Diabaté, The Ripple Effect. What do you appreciate about playing with him?
Well, he's one of the most elegant musicians I've ever played with.
So lithe! So riverlike.
It's all about the flow. And banjo playing is all about flow and rippling, too.
So, when you get two ripplers from different continents together and try to find a way to ripple together, it's going to work or it ain't, you know? And the reason it worked is because he's just such an elegant listener and supportive player. He's a stunning soloist, but he doesn't seem to want to solo as much as he wants it to feel amazing.
Music needs to dance. Instrumental music has to have a feel, or it's not going to work. It's got to create emotion. I'm very rhythmically inspired. If the rhythm is good, the ideas will come. If the rhythm isn't good, it's a struggle and a pain in the ass to play music.
So, making the music dance is a must, whether it's the Flecktones or playing with Toumani or this bluegrass band. Every chromosome needs to swing and dance. Then, you add to that some amazing, melodic playing on top of it — or whatever the song calls for — and you've got something. It makes you feel something.
And I would say that dance can be debated, too. It doesn't have to be a dance; it has to be a feeling. I like that stuff that grooves along, because I play a banjo with short notes. But it can just as easily be the slowest thing in the world. It just has to have a sensibility, feel and mood.
The records of yours I grew up on were UFO Tofu and the self-titled. Any memories of that time in the music business you can share?
It's funny: I hear people say, "Oh, it was so much easier when the Flecktones came out. You could have an instrumental band do really well." And I'm just like, [incredulously] "Easy?! What are you talking about! We're playing in 27/8!"
Honestly, we did have an amazing run. Not that we're not going to play together. But that run-up when we first came out and how well it did was a shock to everybody. It's not like it was common; it didn't happen to a lot of instrumental acts.
It was something about the chemistry and the makeup of the band and all the different boxes we checked that made it appealing. It was fun to watch. Victor spinning his bass and Future Man playing his drumitar and me up there with a banjo — "What are you doing up there with those guys?" — and Howard [Levy] with the harmonica and piano.
It was compelling almost as a circus act. But then the music would hopefully have enough to make you want to stay with it and come back and hear the next record.
The melodies grab you.
Hopefully. I don't mind the pop element if it makes you listen enough for the real stuff under the surface to dig in. Music needs those layers. There needs to be something that makes you want to listen to it again or you go, "Oh, that was cool," and never listen to it again.
There needs to be enough melodicism or a hook or groove or something that makes you go, "Wow. I want to hear that again." And as you continue to listen, you hear all the things that are under the hood that make the music so good.
That first impulse sometimes isn't what you listen to anymore, but without the first one… we wouldn't still be talking about the Beatles and all the underlayers and subtle production elements if it didn't have that pop element that made us listen to it so many times that we know every single chromosome of what's in that music.
I think that's true of everything. It has to have those layers.
You've been described as a virtuoso for as long as I can possibly remember, but I'm sure you still feel you have a ways to go, decades in. I'm sure there are still mountains you want to climb. It's not like you reach the peak early and then just plateau.
Yeah. I mean, I have my frustrations with things I haven't been able to pull off technically. A certain level of ability. If I was able to go all the way into jazz, I'd be a better jazz player. If I was to go all the way into Indian music and do the things I learned from Zakir [Hussain], I'd be a way better Indian player.
And then there are techniques where, as I get older, I have to maintain my level. It's not as easy at 64 as it was in my 40s and 50s.
More stretching, more exercising, more practicing?
Well, more just playing all the time, whereas I used to put it down, do other things, come back to it and be right there. But now, I really need to stay on top of my thing if I want to be at that level.
And yet, I have a better idea of what I want to play. Like they say: "If I could be 15 and know what I know now." The things that I know I don't want to sound like. The curation of my playing is better now. Better choices. But sometimes the ability can be scary: "I don't know if I can pull this off. I could pull this off 10 years ago." So, hopefully, my playing will change as I get older, to find the right way to play for that age and not try to do things I can't do.
I remember Bill Monroe keeping the songs in the same key he sang them as a young man. He couldn't keep the pitches; it was really hard to listen to. I don't want to be like that: "Oh, you need to hear the old stuff." I want it to be: "He's aging well, and he's doing things he didn't do before that have their own worth." That's the goal. We'll see what happens.
I'm so lucky I get to spend my life doing this, because if I sit with the banjo, I'm happy. I like to study and learn, and the sound it makes in my lap. There's always more to explore and more to try.
Newport Folk Festival 2022 Recap: Taj Mahal, Brandi Carlile With Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon & A Crowdsurfing Singer
Photo: Rodrigo Simas
Jeff Coffin On His GRAMMY-Nominated Album 'Between Dreaming And Joy,' Constant Education, Playing With Dave Matthews & Béla Fleck
Jeff Coffin’s legacies with Dave Matthews Band and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones are more than enough to hang his hat on. But his solo career is a kaleidoscope of ideas, connected to musical traditions from all over the world.
Hanging out with Jeff Coffin is a bit like listening to his music. Engulfed in a whirlwind of musical references, you’re never lost. Music seems dizzyingly limitless when he describes it, like the fractals in the cartoon eye on his new album's self-drawn cover.
For a three-time GRAMMY winner with bona fides in two household-name bands, Dave Matthews Band and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones — Coffin has zero airs and a whole lot of music knowledge.
Our conversation left me to check out Albert Ayler's rip-your-heart-out gospel album Goin' Home, Van Morrison's country-breezy Tupelo Honey and Charles Mingus' warped masterpiece Oh Yeah.
Understanding Coffin’s background enhances the listening experience of his inspired latest release, 2022's Between Dreaming and Joy, which is nominated for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Read More: 2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List
Featuring "Middle Eastern frame drums, Brazilian percussion, Moroccan vocals, a turntable artist, multiple horns, an ice cream truck, a Hungarian tárogató and an African ngoni" — as well as modern greats like guitarist Robben Ford, bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Chester Thompson — the album feels jubilant and companionable.
It’s surprising to learn the album was recorded completely remotely.
"It was crafted in a way that I've really never crafted a record before," Coffin tells GRAMMY.com in its New York Chapter Office, ahead of DMB's sold-out Madison Square Garden gig. So, to him, this GRAMMY nomination is extra sweet: "it's a recognition of the process, but also a recognition of the work. Not just in this record, but the 19 others before it."
If you're familiar with Fleck and/or Matthews but not so much Coffin and his musical universe, let Between Dreaming and Joy act as a gateway to all 19 — with the Mu'tet, in co-billed LPs, all of it. And read on for an in-depth interview with the musician, clinician and searcher.
Jeff Coffin. Photo: Rodrigo Simas
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Congratulations on your nomination for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album at the 2023 GRAMMYs. What role has the Recording Academy played in your career over the decades?
You know, when I was in the Flecktones, we were nominated a number of times; I won three GRAMMYs with Béla. It's always kind of been interwoven with the things that I've done.
The Flecktones were a hard band to pin down. We won for Best Pop Instrumental Album [for 2008's Jingle All the Way; we were nominated [that same year] for Best Country Instrumental Performance [for "Sleigh Ride"].
It's interesting; I remember the first time we were nominated was for Left of Cool [at the 1999 GRAMMYs]. I remember it being my first time there, and just being like, "Wow, this is unbelievable." We didn't win, and I remember thinking that I wasn't disappointed: Oh, it's OK, it's not a big deal that we didn't win. It reaffirmed that this is not why I do what I do.
You know, it's funny. [With Dave Matthews Band], it's a machine. We have like 90 people on the road with us, of course, and the band is really all about the music. We've talked about it a lot: how the music has got to come first.
I think that music is a service industry. I think that first, we serve the music. Then, we serve the other musicians we're playing with, and then we serve the audience. So, we're at least fourth on the list. But by serving those others, we get served.
I talk to my students about this all the time: how important it is to recognize that circle. I think about management, and I'm thinking, Well, they're just thinking dollars and butts in seats. Which I understand: that's part of it. But I feel a disconnect sometimes in the way they approach things, as opposed to the way we approach things.
So, for me, with awards and accolades and things like that: I've had my fair share, and I'm very honored and grateful for that. But that's not why I do it. I'm not like, I'm going to do this record and submit it for a GRAMMY.
Read More: Béla Fleck Has Always Been Told He's The Best. But To Him, There Is No Best.
At this point, you've won three GRAMMYs. How does it feel to earn another nomination for Between Dreaming and Joy?
It's big for me. It really is. There was a ton of work put into it during the pandemic. Most of the record was remote, although you'd never know listening to it. It was crafted in a way that I've really never crafted a record before. So, it's a recognition of the process, but also a recognition of the work. Not just in this record, but the 19 others before it.
I've got six others in the can that I'm working on, that are basically ready to go. It was a very prolific time for me during the lockdown. So, this material on the record was culled from a lot of other stuff I had recorded also.
I wrote about 30 or 34 new tunes, and they were all over the place from the standpoint of genre or style. So, when I put this together, I had to decide which tunes I was going to put into this pot. There are a couple that I was on the fence about initially, but I'm really glad they're on there because it kind of diverges, and then comes back into a particular space.
So, yeah, I'm just thrilled about it, and the GRAMMY Foundation <a href="https://grammymuseum.org/national-reach/grant-program/">now the [GRAMMY Museum Foundation] has been part of that. I love what they do educationally; I want to be more involved with that, because I do a lot of education work outside of touring. I've done 325-plus clinics over the years, and I've been teaching at Vanderbilt now for eight years.
Tell me more about your teaching style, and how it's in dialogue with the other parts of your career.
I've looked at people that have kind of been DIY, like Dave Liebman, Bob Mintzer, Bobby Shew, these kinds of people. I don't try to do exactly what they did, because that's how they see things. But I've been able to kind of muddle out a career [incorporating] certain aspects of what they do.
The books that I've written are all for my students; they have nothing to do with the things that I'm working on, because I've already done it. So, the method books, the etude books — I have something called The Road Book, which is all the things you do before you leave the driveway. These are for students that are just getting out there and doing this stuff, to help them along the way.
I really respect what [The Recording Academy] has done educationally around the country and the world. I think it's awesome, and really makes a big difference. You know, music is an essential part of education on every level — not just in higher education, but deep in the schools. A lot of those programs are being cut, and it's categorically unfair.
Let's talk a little more about Between Dreaming and Joy. You mentioned that you pulled these songs from disparate sources. So what was the throughline, or thesis? What made these songs swim together in the same tank?
When I was with Béla, one of the things I remember him talking about was the sequence of a record, and talking about how it really makes or breaks a record. It's really the flow, now that I think about it.
I put a lot of effort into putting sequences together. The middle tune, "Spinning Plates," is just me — all me, all horns. I think there's percussion on there, and it's sort of the place where you would flip the record over. It's a breath between the first and second section of the record. I did it that way on purpose.
It's kind of the spirit of the tunes that [make them] work. "Vinnie the Crow" wouldn't have worked in any other place except for opening the record.
It's very strident. It has that swagger in it.
Yeah, and it has the only co-writer on the whole record: a drummer named Alex Clayton, who was living in Nashville and a Belmont student. He's turned me on to some really great s—. He was the first person who ever told me about Anderson .Paak and Donald Glover. He's really got his ear in these different places.
He's a very, very dear friend. We were just hanging out and were like, "Let's write a tune." He had a groove, so I put some stuff down, and just kind of went from there.
But coming back to the sequence: I want it to be a journey. I don't want it to be the same tune written seven or eight different times. I wanted to touch on the different influences and interests I had musically, but not be so removed from the other tunes that it doesn't connect.
Because there's a bunch of stuff that I also wrote that's very global music-oriented. There's this one tune written off this traditional Peruvian folk melody that wouldn't have fit on this record. It's this really elaborate thing. I've got Brazilian percussion on it. There's some Afrobeat stuff that I did with Chester Thompson.
There's a lot of pretty esoteric stuff, too. [Turns to publicist Lydia Liebman, Dave Liebman's daughter] Stuff your pops would be way more into than this kind of thing.
Jeff Coffin. Photo: Rodrigo Simas
I remember something Béla said to me years ago: "I'll never be an Indian musician. I'll never be an African musician. But I can bring those elements into what I do, and have them inspire the music that I make."
And it's the same with Dave Matthews. He's from South Africa, and he went back in his early teens and grew up there for a number of years. His music is very influenced by that music — by those dances, by that structure of music, and there's a hybrid of things that are going on there. So, to me, using the term "jam band" for a group like that doesn't do it justice at all. I don't have any idea what you'd call it.
I love when they asked Miles about his music. They said it was jazz, but they said, "What should we call it?" He said, "Call it music." I'm totally down with that, and that's how I look at it. It's just music.
It's coming from different places I'm influenced by. Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, et cetera, et cetera: they're all the same spirit. That's what I'm looking for in the music that I make, the players I play with, the way I'm putting something together. I like art that is mysterious — that I don't totally understand.
We first spoke for an article about Yusef Lateef. Given the sheer range of ethnic instruments you play on Between Dreaming and Joy, it seems like you're in his lineage. Can you talk about your ongoing process of learning new instruments and weaving them into your work — choosing what's appropriate and what isn't?
Here's the thing, too: I know a lot of people who play a lot of different instruments. Michael League was playing Moroccan frame drums, but everybody knows Michael from playing bass with Snarky Puppy. And the ngoni on "When Birds Sing" was played by a Moroccan woman named Sarah Ariche, who also sang. The title is kind about her, also: what she's doing is this angelic vocal stuff.
I'm really interested in a lot of different sounds. Some of this is also coming from people like Roland Kirk. This gets into a whole other tangent, but the idea of string theory is that everything is a vibration; therefore, everything is sound.
I have the tárogató I bought from Charles Lloyd; my bass flute is Yusef Lateef's. I feel like I'm just the curator of these instruments, because I'm always like, "This is Yusef Lateef's bass flute." I don't ever say, "This is my bass flute." [Same with] the tárogató. There's kind of a spirit imbued in the instruments.
You're calling out a spirit, even when the musician is alive and well — in Lloyd's case.
Right, yeah. I bought Yusef's main tenor and bass flute after he passed. The first time I played the tenor, I recorded it; I was like, I want to hear what happens the first time. And this tune came out. I called it "Yusef." And as I tell people, he left the tune in the horn. It's a very powerful tune. My hands were off of it.
For those who might know Dave or Béla but not be familiar with your solo work, with the Mutet or otherwise: how do you conceptualize it in relation to these household names? What's the nature of that isthmus between these two massive entities?
Let me take a step back.
So, people ask about my influences. My main influences are people like Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Ornette. Then there are the people I played with all these years, having spent 14 years with Béla, Victor Wooten and Roy Wooten — Future Man. And now, 14 years with Dave, [bassist] Stefan [Lessard], [trumpeter] Rashawn [Ross], [violinist] Boyd [Tinsley] when he was in the band, [drummer] Carter Beauford, [guitarist] Tim Reynolds, and now [keyboardist] Buddy Strong.
I mean, we are creating every single night for three hours a night — playing some of the same music, but recreating it nightly also. So, there are no more profound influences on me than those players: the people that I play with at home, that I've had in my bands, where we're digging deep in a way that is proactive.
So, when I'm listening, I'm active in that process, but I'm not participatory in that process — in the sense that I'm not making music when I'm listening to a Coltrane record or whatever. But when I'm making music, I'm participatory; even if I'm being silent, I'm still part of what's going on. To me, that changes everything.
Jeff Coffin. Photo: Rodrigo Simas
Can you connect this to your experiences with Matthews and the Flecktones?
I remember that when I first started playing with Béla, I was like, "I don't know any of your music; your audience knows the music better than I do." Which was the same thing when I joined Matthews: "The audience" — they still do, actually — "knows all the words."
With the Flecktones, one of things that was an epiphany for me was that I would look out and see people dancing. We'd be playing in 13 or 17 or some crazy s—, or moving time signatures throughout the piece.
But what it made me realize is that it's all on up or down. It doesn't even matter. Like, even on the Matthews stuff, there's a tune called "Rapunzel." I remember the first time we heard it, when I was with Béla because we were doing the opening dates.
We couldn't figure out the time signature. You have four great musicians who are listening to this and just going, "What is going on?" It's in five, but if you listen to it, you would not know that it's in five, unless you're really tuning in and going, "OK, I've got to figure this out," or watching somebody's foot, given the way Carter's playing polyrhythmically over it.
But, again, we joke about this: everything's in one. Just one-one-one-one-one-one. If the pulse is there, than it's going to feel good. It's going to make a mixed meter not feel like a mixed meter, because it's going to be all pulse.
That's why I love African music so much; it's all pulse. You can feel it in six; you can feel it in two; you can feel it in three. You can also put different groupings; you can do sevens over the top. It all works, as long as the pulse is there.
It seems that you've conceptualized your solo work as an ongoing investigation of your influences.
I think that's a great way to put it: an ongoing investigation of my influences. Not only my immediate musical influences, but my historic musical influences also, and trying to see it from above. Not just the immediacy of it, but the things that are in the periphery also.
I'm kind of going, I wonder what would happen if I did this, and drop this in there. I wonder what the sound of bass flute and bass trumpet is. The tárogató was on the new Dave record also, and it's a Hungarian instrument, It's a wooden soprano, basically. It's like an English horn.
Sometimes, I'll also give myself parameters to work within. I was doing a livestream every Friday all the way through the pandemic. There were nights when I would be like, I'm going to start writing a song at six o'clock because my livestream is at seven. I'm going to get it done within an hour, play it for them on the livestream, and maybe play along.
I tried to bring them into my process of doing what I was doing. It was really fun. It was really, really challenging. And I didn't have any idea what the f— I was doing.
So, it's really just about exploring and trying things. There's an element of randomness to it, but also an element of focus and "Let's try this and see what happens." I've always been really into pedals, envelope filters and harmonizers. Doing double-horn stuff. I've got this triplicate flute with one mouthpiece. I've got singing bowls and bells and gongs. I'm a total bell freak. Anything I can get my hands on that I can make music from, I'm going to try it.
Jeff Coffin. Photo: Rodrigo Simas
You've mentioned, like, 15 musical traditions and 150 instruments in this interview. Do you ever feel like you're still getting started in learning about all the music the world has to offer?
I do, actually, yeah. I feel more creative than I've ever felt in my life.
But here's the thing, too: I play for a different reason now than I used to. I think that's partially because I'm able to articulate my own feelings better — not only verbally, but musically. When I was younger, I was playing from a different emotional place. Today, some of the reasons for playing are the same; some are very different. But I feel like I can make decisions based on experience.
I'm still wrong a lot, by the way, which is really interesting to me. I'll listen to a couple of tracks with some people, and I'll think: OK, I know the one that I like. I'll say, "What do you guys think?" and they'll both pick the other one. I'll be like, Oh, OK, great. Let's use that one. Good thing that wasn't up to me.
A year and a half ago, I went down to New Orleans and did a record with [drummer] Johnny Vidacovich, [saxophonist] Tony Dagradi and [drummer] James Singleton [of jazz quartet Astral Project]; Helen Gillet was on the cello on one tune. It's very, very different than this record. It's open and free.
I'm trying to mix it myself, and I've been working on it for a while. I think it sounds pretty good. But I'm not a mixing engineer, and those guys are wizards. So, I'm sitting around with some people, and I'm like, "Look, man, I want your brutally honest feedback. If it doesn't sound good, I want to know, because I'm trying to mix it."
I still second-guess myself on certain things, which I think is great, because I think that's how we learn also. You've got to keep making mistakes, because after a while, you find those successes in there. I think it's Vic Wooten who says something along these lines: "The only reason you don't succeed is because you eventually stop trying."
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Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
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Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
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Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.