SOURCE PHOTOS (CLOCKWISE, L-R): Gregg DeGuire/FilmMagic; Kevin Mazur/MG21/Getty Images For The Met Museum/Vogue; Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Live Nation
Inside The Visual World Of Billie Eilish's 'Happier Than Ever,' A Testament To Her "Brilliant" Creative Vision
After years of longing to take creative control, Billie Eilish is finally at the helm of her visual output. As she celebrates GRAMMY nods for Best Music Video and Best Music Film, her collaborators detail how her 'Happier Than Ever' vision came to life.
There's a moment early on in the 2021 Apple TV+ documentary film, The World's A Little Blurry, where Billie Eilish stakes her claim as the ringleader of her own creative circus — one where what she says goes.
In the scene, a then 16-year-old Eilish maps out her visual ideation for the "When The Party's Over" music video. Explaining in fine detail how she envisions her now-iconic black ink tears coming to life, Eilish has very specific instructions for director Carlos López Estrada.
"Don't zoom," Eilish demands in a video message to Estrada, filmed at a replica set in her backyard. "Don't do anything these bozo f<em></em>*ing filmmakers do when they try to have it not be boring."
At the actual video shoot, the blue-haired singer bounces between the set and the monitor to ensure that her vision — born from a "beautiful piece of art from a fan" — is being properly executed. When they wrap, she makes a quiet declaration with loud determination: "For the rest of the videos, I'm directing them all myself."
It's an aspiration Eilish has had since she started releasing music at age 14, but an opportunity she only had a few times before taking the reins with 2019's "Xanny." "Since the beginning of my career I wanted to direct videos," she told The Guardian in 2019. "I told everybody that immediately and they were like: 'Well, you don't have any experience and you don't have the time.'
"They really didn't want a 14-year-old girl to direct a music video," she continued. "But I knew I wanted to and I convinced them, I got their trust, and from here on out I want to do my own videos, and I eventually want to make a movie. I've wanted to direct my whole life. I love cinematography, the camera angles, the visuals."
Now, the singer is in the midst of building a world around her second album, Happier Than Ever, which earned Eilish seven nominations at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards. Though she's no stranger to GRAMMYs — in 2020, she became the youngest artist (and only second ever) to sweep all four General Field categories — this year spawned perhaps Eilish's most meaningful nomination yet: Best Music Video. Earning the nod was the visual for the album's title track, one of Eilish's self-directed masterpieces that features the star experiencing a cathartic release of emotion by way of a rain-induced flood.
One of six videos Eilish directed for the album, "Happier Than Ever" — which is nominated for both Record and Song of the Year, as well as Best Pop Solo Performance — is just a sliver of the visual universe the singer created. With the release of a philharmonic-backed concert film (the Disney+ special Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter To Los Angeles, nominated for Best Music Film) and multiple aesthetically pleasing live performances, Eilish displays a transformation at work — one helmed by an artist set on having full creative control.
As that fateful scene in The World's A Little Blurry indicates, the documentary's director R.J. Cutler saw the genius within Eilish as they worked together. "It was important to me to illustrate the fact that in terms of all other aspects of her work, her career, her business, her art and her image — whatever it might be, she is the final word," Cutler tells GRAMMY.com. "It should be no surprise to anybody that a brilliant visionary director who has an incredible instinct and a very specific visual sensibility is in command of the camera."
That sense of visual awareness is integral to pop stardom — particularly for women artists, who have historically been held to a higher standard than their male counterparts. Knowing this, Eilish launched the Happier Than Ever era with an aesthetic rebranding that swapped her trademark neon green roots for an Old Hollywood-style blonde cut. "I couldn't go anywhere with that hair because it was so obviously me," she told Elle last year. "I wanted anonymity."
Her compromised sense of security is a major theme across Happier Than Ever — and rightfully so, considering she came of age in the public eye. Though Eilish had never fully lost authority of her narrative, building a world around such a personal record offered an opportunity to regain control in more ways than one.
Visualizing Happier Than Ever
Eilish's self-directed visual world began to truly take shape with the music video for "Your Power," a damning examination of abuse and its consequences — or lack thereof. Nearly camouflaged against the earthy tones of Simi Valley's mountainside, the singer steeps in her lyrical vulnerability while a green anaconda envelops her body. "Your Power" served as the follow up to "Therefore I Am," a final send-off to Eilish's old signature green-rooted hair.
Within her own visual direction, Eilish often errs on the side of solitude. She builds narratives through the use of distinct locations and dramatic accessories, rather than acting out elaborate scenes with other people — whether she's having a real tarantula crawl out of her mouth for early career cut "You Should See Me In A Crown," walking down the middle of a street in the path of cars racing in all directions for "NDA," or performing in a torrential flood for "Happier Than Ever."
In the official "Male Fantasy" music video, which Eilish directed and edited, she conveys cold and brooding emotions with acute power within isolation. She moves from the quiet space of a living room back to her bed, then in and out of the refrigerator before once again returning to the security of the blankets. It's the exact opposite parallel to the lively slumber party she directed for "Lost Cause," which played into the same neutral color palette, but did so with a carefree air of spontaneity.
Crafting Intimate Live Performances
In July 2021, Eilish kicked off a four-part live performance video series that saw the singer scale back the avant-garde ideas often executed in her music videos for a more intimate setting. For the first release in the series, she leaves behind the slithering snake of "Your Power" and reimagines the song at Los Angeles' Biltmore Hotel.
Opening with an Old Hollywood film title card, the video places Eilish and Finneas against graceful orange curtains at the end of a long corridor at the hotel. The famed designs of the location are obscured with focus locked on the acoustic performance itself, a subtle visual narrative that develops over the course of the series. The historic 1930s hotel plays into the presence of Los Angeles as a character in Eilish's world, somewhere she often champions and revisits through song and video. Her constant call-backs add weight to the depth of the pivotal moment in "Happier Than Ever" where she cries out: "I'd never treat me this shitty, you made me hate this city."
"We had a good, long conversation with their team early on about [wanting] to create this as Billie not only enters this new phase of her musical career, but as she becomes an adult starting to tackle bigger themes — as you can clearly hear on the album," says Micah Bickham, executive producer of content production at Vevo. "We wanted to create this world that was elevated and took it to that same sort of place, exploring these more iconic and maybe more adult themes."
For "Male Fantasy," Eilish settles on the edge of a gold-blanketed bed in a torn cream sweater as she ruminates on the same notions of the male gaze and desire that she later explores in A Love Letter to Los Angeles. "All of that was by design," Bickham explains. "Her and Finneas in a simple hotel room just having a conversation with her fans in a way that blaring concert lights and large bands [couldn't]."
He adds: "We were just trying to create a bit of a paradox, if you will, between these softer environments and then take Billie into those worlds, who is basically, either vocally or performatively, creating a bit of a contrast. If you think about some of the songs, some of the lyrics juxtaposed to the world that she's sitting in, it's a really interesting simple expression of contrast. That was a really important part of it."
Completing Another Visual Journey
In the Vevo live performance series videos, there's a sense of emotional release that mirrors the intensity embedded within the lyrics. But Happier Than Ever is shaped through Old Hollywood regality, which displays the power of performance even in the absence of theatrics. "Lost Cause" and the simmering, rhythmic "Billie Bossa Nova" are delivered in the Biltmore Hotel's famed Crystal Ballroom, using the location as a point of entry to the alluring tone of each track. As the final installation of the video series, "Billie Bossa Nova" places Eilish in the center of the ballroom in front of a trio of luxurious ceiling-high windows.
"It's like, how do we create vignettes and spaces for each of these conversations to take place so that when you watch them individually, they stand on their own two legs — but if you were to watch them as a collection, you see the evolution of those performances from song to song," Bickham says.
The series is a significant example of Eilish driving the narrative of Happier Than Ever forward through the use of hyper-specific tones and color palettes. The singer, who has synesthesia, established the visual and tonal range executed through wardrobe choices and set designs. The muted pinks, pops of blue, and array of neutral selections — juxtaposed to the gold regality of the hotel — correspond with the Eilish's own synesthetic perceptions of each song.
"There are not that many artists who create a world around the album that they're making. They're not just performing singles, they're creating a character and that character is operating inside a world and the visuals that you're seeing are built inside that world," Bickham says. "Some people think they want endless possibilities, but it's important to have someone like Billie define what the parameters are and give us that thing that we can color inside the lines of, and help extend and build that world."
Reimagining The Concert Film
Amid the rollout of Vevo performances, Happier Than Ever: A Love Letter To Los Angeles arrived in September. The hour-long special brought more stunning live performances, doubling as a tribute to Eilish's hometown. Filmed over a week at the Hollywood Bowl, Love Letter reconfigures the typical concert film formula — particularly thanks to her 2D animated avatar, which threads a visual storyline through the streets of California.
When Eilish first approached animator Patrick Osborne and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez to co-direct the Disney+ feature, she — in very Billie fashion — had a specific vision for how the film would look.
"The first interaction we had, she was sending all of these reference images of blonde animated characters from '80s cartoons," Obsorne explains, recalling Ralph Bakshi and Jessica Rabbit-esque sources of inspiration. "Billie, from the beginning, [wanted to have] an animated alter-ego version of herself that was kind of idealized and something she isn't."
Working under a tight deadline, animators in London, Los Angeles and Sydney created a landscape for the blonde avatar to explore Eilish's hometown. The avatar has freedom that the real Eilish lacks, though billboards promoting Happier Than Ever appear throughout, reinforcing the ironclad inescapability of fame.
During "Not My Responsibility," Eilish tackles the conversation surrounding her body, while the avatar's silhouette saunters through shallow waters. She drives through rare traffic-less streets in a top-down convertible, making pit stops to take in the city from the rooftop of the Roosevelt Hotel and to dine alone at a quaint restaurant. Later, she arrives at a movie premiere under the shine of flashing lights. The avatar detours through Echo Park and Highland Park (the singer's longtime home until stalkers and security breaches made relocation imperative) before arriving at the Hollywood Bowl.
"If I was to dig into the psychology of the animated character, these '80s animated characters that she's referencing are really idealized from a male perspective," Osborne says, calling back to Eilish championing bodily autonomy and desire on Happier Than Ever itself.
"She has such a cool aesthetic eye that certain things feel like her," he adds. "She had an angle on this and that, then it was up to me and Robert to shape it into some kind of achievable story."
Capturing A Precious Moment In Time
The unrestricted adventures of Eilish's 2D avatar are a call back to life before When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and the massive influx of notoriety that followed. Having captured that moment in The World's A Little Blurry, R.J. Cutler recalls a recent conversation with Eilish's mother, Maggie Baird, about the change.
"Maggie said to me recently that she didn't expect that this would be one of the reasons she is so grateful for the film," he says. "But she now recognizes that it captured a moment in their lives that in some instances no longer exists."
At the pinnacle moment in A Love Letter to Los Angeles, the 2D character appears as the venue's sole audience. She watches the real Eilish perform an exceptional record of their shared experiences, backed by Finneas, the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, guitarist Romero Lubambo and drummer Andrew Marshall. The artist's ongoing theme of solitude, and the autonomy found within that, reaches a pointed height and speaks to the one consistency between where Eilish has been and where she's headed: herself.
"These films are a dialogue between the moment that they capture, and the moment that they're viewed," Cutler adds, noting the comparison between the 16-year-old girl in the Apple TV+ documentary and the now 20-year-old GRAMMY-winning musician currently embarking on a sold-out international arena tour.
By presenting the complex emotions of change in a tangible form, Eilish has constructed a living gallery of artistic growth. Surely she'll continue to evolve, but her Happier Than Ever era will always serve as an important statement piece of where she's been and where she's going — with her artistic identity at its center.
Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for ABA
5 Standout Moments From Billie Eilish's Happier Than Ever, The Hometown Encore Tour
Opening night of the highly anticipated, sold-out Billie Eilish's Happier Than Ever, The Hometown Encore tour brought new guest stars, tender moments, and a whole lot of holiday cheer. EIlish will perform in her native L.A. for three nights in December.
Billie Eilish is celebrating the holiday season in her native Los Angeles, with a few thousand of her nearest and dearest.
On Dec. 13, the GRAMMY-winning musician kicked off her Billie Eilish's Happier Than Ever, The Hometown Encore tour at The Kia Forum in Inglewood, to a sold-out crowd. Eilish has two additional sold-out gigs at the Forum on Dec. 15 and 16.
While there were no opening acts, just a pre-show soundtrack of classic Christmas tunes. Over the course of two hours, the 20-year-old ran through more than 30 songs on a stage that seemed to be fully constructed from LED screens.
She was not shy about displaying her youthful vigor, jumping in the air, doing the splits, jaunting around with the mic stand like a classic '70s rocker. Even while sitting on the floor during slow songs or confined to a small platform atop a crane as she floated around the arena, Eilish maintained her stage presence to the point that no one could take their eyes off her.
Opening night of the tour showcased how Eilish has stepped into her status as an international superstar — an echelon she continued to climb even as the pandemic marred the release of 2021's Happier Than Ever. She kept very busy in the interim of the COVID-plagued industry, releasing live concert films taped at The Hollywood Bowl, sharing a documentary detailing her previous touring cycle, doing collaborations with Nike, branding new fragrances, and recording an Oscar-winning entry into the legacy of James Bond themes: "No Time To Die."
Then the restrictions cleared, gatherings were permitted, and postponed dates were solidified, and so she hit the road, playing over 75 shows in almost eight months across four continents (she’s visiting the fifth, South America, in 2023), and that number doesn’t include her headlining slots at festivals like Coachella 2022.
Although Eilish performed at both weekends of Coachella 2022 — which, despite its location in Indio, is an L.A. festival for all intents and purposes — her performance within city limits took her infamous energy to a new level. Built on a combination of the considerable experience she gained as a performer in 2022 and her unfettered love for her hometown, Eilish truly seemed happier than ever onstage. Read on for five moments Billie Eilish showed Los Angeles that there is no place home.
Billie Gets Jazzy With Tunes New And Old
Billie Eilish is an artist born into a generation that doesn’t give a darn about genres. With Spotify and other DSPs, everyone has access to every genre in the palm of their hand, and she’s been influenced by all of them — including jazz.
While her music may not fit a jazz aesthetic, Eilish has begun to implement more artistic improvisation into her vocal delivery. A lilt to close a phrase here; a small riff between verses there. The improvisation demonstrates her continued ownership over the songs, and Eilish's ease with manipulating them.
Such skills came front and center during two songs in particular: "my future" (her first time performing it on this tour) and "Billie Bossa Nova." Had there not been thousands of fans screaming every word, Billie’s intricate vocal work could have turned the forum into an intimate jazz lounge for a few minutes.
Listened To Her Fans, And Went Deep Into Her Catalog
In the days leading up to the shows, Billie took to Instagram to ask fans what songs she should perform, because "these shows are for you!"
On Dec. 13, Eilish performed "xanny," the second track on WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP WHERE DO WE GO? and one she hadn't performed in four years.
There’s no way to know whether she decided to perform "xanny" because her fans requested it, though it was one of the most unifying moments in the entire show.
If only she had also done "wish you were gay," which is what I sent to her through Instagram.
She Climbed "Mount Everest" With Some Friends
When Billie says she has a song stuck in her head, everyone in the crowd knows she’s going to sing it.
So when she referenced Labrinth's "Mount Everest," everyone knew what was coming — yes, that includes Labrinth’s appearance. Eilish said she was going to make the shows special, and that just had to include some of her friends.
Labrinth’s music is as titanic as it is poignant, and it may be hard to believe the sweet-voiced Eilish could match his intensity. But she did so with aplomb, especially when she took on the duties for the verse of Labrinth’s song for the "Euphoria" soundtrack, "I’ve Never Felt So Alone."
For "I’ve Never Felt So Alone," the crowd was singing along instead of screaming along. The screams were welcome for the rest of the set, but it was simply impossible not to take it down a notch and be in your feelings in that moment.
Apparently, Finneas Sneezed
Eilish's creative relationship with her brother Finneas — her co-writer, producer and band member — took center stage during the acoustic portion of her performance.
Finneas admitted that he had sneezed on his sleeve earlier, and was worried everyone could see the remnants when he took a seat on his stool next to his sister under the direct front lighting. At this admission, Billie started laughing with sheer glee. Then Finneas started laughing at her.
It may sound like innocuous stage banter, but it’s a kind of chemistry that’s infectious. It was a powerful, honest moment that highlighted the unique chemistry required to make this music.
Everyone in the crowd felt it, and the acoustic versions of "i love you," "Your Power" and "TV," were just as powerful and honest.
Santa Eilish Or Billie Clause?
Billie Eilish was full of holiday cheer, giving not just the gift of music but actual gifts for the audience as well.
From atop a raised platform that moved throughout the arena, where she performed three songs, Eilish took candy from a stocking and threw it into the crowd. Before the final song of the night, "Happier Than Ever," she pulled out a bag of gifts and threw what looked like t-shirts into the crowd as well.
This came after she performed an actual Christmas song —"Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."
Billie is an artist who keeps her family close, and the holidays are a time of family. At her Happier Than Ever, The Hometown Encore, everyone in the audience felt like they were a part of the Eilish family…if only for a couple of hours.
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].