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We Pass The Ball To Other Ages: Inside Blue Note's Creative Resurgence In The 2020s
Joel Ross

Photo: Lauren Desberg

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We Pass The Ball To Other Ages: Inside Blue Note's Creative Resurgence In The 2020s

The foundational jazz label Blue Note Records has ebbed and flowed over the years, but they’re charging into the 2020s with renewed energy. Streams are way up; fresh talent is being signed left and right. And label president Don Was has a few ideas why.

GRAMMYs/Apr 15, 2022 - 04:31 pm

When Ethan Iverson sent Don Was his new song, the crackle of frying eggs mixed with the sound of Was weeping in awe.

During the frightening early days of the pandemic, pianist and composer Iverson enlisted 44 friends and colleagues — including pianist Marta Sanchez, choreographer Mark Morris and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza — to join in song via an accumulation of voice memos on top of Iverson’s reedy, tenor voice. The tune was "The More it Changes," with the lyrics written by Iverson’s wife, writer Sarah Deming. Despite never being in the same room, they sounded like a small-town congregation — songbooks out, shoulder to shoulder.

As he cooked breakfast, Iverson’s plucky virtual choir "just made me burst out in tears, man," Was tells GRAMMY.com. "It’s one of the most beautiful summations of the eternal nature of music and the musicians who make it." On Zoom, the five-time GRAMMY winner is framed by voluminous dreads, with various wide-brimmed hats perched on instruments and furniture behind him. And as usual, when rhapsodizing about music he deems "staggering," Was zooms out, considering the whole timeline.

"It’s about us being carbon-based life forms — that carbon will just keep going, man," Was says. He raps his desk with his knuckles. "This desk was a tree." And by invoking that natural cycle of permutation and proliferation — matter never being created nor destroyed, only assuming new forms — Was sums up his job. He’s been the president of the almost century-old jazz label Blue Note Records since 2012. And when he examines the history, lineage and ancestry of Blue Note, he finds that change — transformation — is the constant.

He sees that change in Charles Lloyd, the saxophone titan who Was says is playing better at 84 than he did at 34. ("I think I’m coming into my own!" Lloyd recently quipped to Was.) He sees it in Bill Frisell, the lopsided guitar genius who still endlessly challenges himself at 71.

It permeates his day-to-day operations at the label, too. As a musician himself, Was knows the value of making adjustments when needed — like when he corrected an inconsistent batch of audiophile vinyl from the label’s 75th-anniversary campaign, without fuss or ego. Being open to adjustments is how you evolve. And Blue Note has never stopped evolving, even when some years or decades are stronger than others.

Read More: ​​Bill Frisell On His New Trio Album, Missing Hal Willner & How COVID-19 Robbed Jazz Of Its Rapport

Like the luminaries in its roster do in their craft from time to time, Blue Note is experiencing a growth spurt — despite already making innumerable contributions to the cultural canon. Since being founded by German immigrants Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff in 1939, the label has accumulated a wealth of musical treasures from various generations, scenes and subgenres.

But as recent developments have shown, Blue Note isn’t a "dusty museum" of ancient history  — Was’s words — but a still-dynamic entity with plenty of surprises left in it.

"It seemed like in every era, the artists that were signed to Blue Note were artists who had absorbed the traditions, understood the foundations of the music that came before, but pushed the boundaries and turned it into something new," Was says. "They turned it upside down, maybe, and did something brand new with it."

And by adding bricks to Blue Note’s architecture every day, newcomers to the label are doing the same thing.

Building On Tradition With New Signees

The most conspicuous sign of development at Blue Note is its intriguing array of new signees, marking another boom period for the label at the dawn of the 2020s.

Over the last few years, musicians at the helm of the New York scene — saxophonists Melissa Aldana and Immanuel Wilkins, pianists Gerald Clayton and Ethan Iverson, vibraphonist Joel Ross, and guitarist Julian Lage — have joined jazz’s arguably most prestigious family. What explains all these new notches in the Blue Note lineage?

"Probably the pandemic — more time to listen!" Was replies with a hearty laugh. Granted, they’ve always had an ebb and flow of new arrivals and folks moving on. But this latest class of musicians has him particularly enthused. Speaking to Was, one doesn’t get the impression of a honcho selling you something, but a pal who’s an authentic music fan. Even the mere evocation of Aldana’s tone on the horn seems to send shivers down his spine.

But back to the question. Is it really just that Was had "more time to listen"? The answer is more complex, of course. And it has to do with the cash flow from Blue Note’s voluminous catalog, which includes albums that represent the apogee of the artform — by John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Hank Mobley, Kenny Burrell, Lee Morgan, Andrew Hill, and scores of other leading lights.

Read More: Hank Mobley's Soul Station At 60: How The Tenor Saxophonist's Mellow Masterpiece Inspires Jazz Musicians In 2020

Was and his colleagues are always finding ways to present the Blue Note catalog in fresh and innovative ways. Their Tone Poet audiophile vinyl series, which highlights deeper selections with cutting-edge sound quality, is a particular hit; Was says they sold half a million units last year. "We could have done more, except we couldn’t get enough records pressed," Was adds. "But it’s looking better this year."

Plus, a certain singer/songwriter, signed to Blue Note at the turn of the millennium, helps keep the operation flush. "Norah Jones has really helped us to underwrite new music at the rate we’ve released — which is at least one thing a month, sometimes two things a month," Was explains. (Blue Note put out Jones' first holiday album, I Dream of Christmas, last fall.)

Take Jones’ commercial appeal with increasingly detailed and dynamic reissues of agreed-upon classics (like Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! and Joe Henderson’s Page One) and deep cuts by well-known names (like Grant Green’s Feelin’ the Spirit and Stanley Turrentine’s Rough ‘n Tumble), and you’ve got a healthy cash flow for embracing and nurturing rising talent.

"It’s a lot of new music to subsidize," Was continues. "If you were going to start a jazz record label without a catalog, it’d be an almost impossible business."

At Blue Note’s weekly A&R meeting, Was and his colleagues comb through new music — both what they get in their inboxes and who they’re hearing murmurs about. Some of it’s great — even impressive — but they have to pass on the vast majority of it. So what’s the "wow factor" that makes Was bolt up and sign someone? To answer that, he digs into his decades as a musician, producer, record executive and all-around industry cat.

That Ineffable Something

A quarter-century ago, Was found himself producing an album by Garth Brooks. He knew Brooks as the "biggest star in the world" back then — was mightily talented and a great live act. But something ineffable happened in the studio: "He went to do his vocal, and his vocal jumped," Was recalls, comparing the line of speakers to a 50-yard line on a football field. "It was like he was behind me."

He’d only experienced that phenomenon with a handful of artists — Aretha Franklin, Mick Jagger, Bonnie Raitt. "I’ve seen [Jagger] play to 100,000 people. I saw him play to a million people in Rio, man," Was says. "If you’re far back, he’s an inch tall." He leans his scruffy visage into the camera, making eye contact: "But you feel like he’s talking right to you."

And that ability to jump — with their voice, horn, or whatever their instrument is — is what separated Melissa Aldana, Immanuel Wilkins, Gerald Clayton, Joel Ross and Julian Lage from the rest. And it’s less edifying to comb through the forensics of who met who, and when, and where, than to examine how certain Blue Note signees act as hubs of talent.

Thelonious Monk was one. Herbie Hancock is one. So is pianist Jason Moran, who recorded for Blue Note for years before striking out on his own. And so is Ross, a vibraphonist only in his late twenties.

Ross released his third Blue Note album, The Parable of the Poet, on April 15 — and it’s by far his most ambitious to date. A seven-movement work featuring heavy hitters such as alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, tenor saxophonist Maria Grand, and trumpeter Marquis Hill, the album represents a high watermark and an enticing hint as to how expansive Ross’ vision could become.

"I’ve just been about creating music with my friends, in general, and like-minded individuals," Ross tells GRAMMY.com, noting that some of these connections date back to high school. "And now that I have some opportunities to create some music and open some spaces, I’m just like, ‘I know these great musicians. I want to play with them. Also, Don, you should listen to them."

One of these friends and collaborators happens to be Ross’s best friend: Wilkins, who’s a few years younger. In Jan. 2022, Wilkins released his second album on Blue Note, The 7th Hand; Was hails it a work of sophistication and profundity. "He’s a deep thinker. There’s a conceptual foundation behind what he’s doing," Was says. "But you don’t have to know that to feel the music."

While recording for Blue Note, Wilkins feels a sense of pressure — the good kind. "​​I think the pressure comes from the canon, the catalog and the archive. It's just like thinking of all these musicians who have come through Blue Note and all of my favorite records that have been on Blue Note," Wilkins tells GRAMMY.com. "It's a pressure that I welcome and love, and it forces me to make sure that I produce music at the highest level possible for myself at all times."

Tenor saxophonist Aldana, who hails from Santiago, Chile, felt that importance too, while recording her 2022 debut album for Blue Note, 12 Stars. In her case, the impetus was more to be herself than to be perfect — and it resulted in intensely personal playing.

"I feel more connected to myself and my own imperfections — and I've discovered that it's the same process with music," she said in a press release. "Embracing everything I hear, everything I play — even mistakes — is more meaningful than perfection." And speaking to GRAMMY.com, Aldana reflects on her experience thus far with Blue Note.

"I haven’t experienced anything but extreme support," she says, "allowing me to record the music the way I want, like really supporting my vision." It’s this sense of solidarity, of being backed up, that allowed Aldana to take the biggest swing she could on 12 Stars. She knew the results would be part of the canon that got her going — Sonny Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard chief among them. And that’s a weight to carry.

"The most meaningful thing is to be part of that legacy, to be honest," Aldana says.

Read More: Tenor Saxophonist Melissa Aldana On Emerging From Chaos, Finding Her Chilean Identity & Her Blue Note Debut 12 Stars

Speaking to GRAMMY.com in 2021 after releasing his Blue Note debut, Squint, Julian Lage laid down what signing to the label means to a jazz musician. 

“Blue Note is the mecca of recorded music. All the greatest records come from Blue Note,” he said. “So, I think there's always a sense that as a jazz musician, it would be a dream to be on Blue Note because they cultivate musicians, support innovation and understand jazz as an artform — the social constructs that exist within jazz and the fact that it is an abstract art.”

Pianist Gerald Clayton, who made his Blue Note debut in 2020, tapped into the rich ore of Blue Note's legacy with his 2022 follow-up, Bells on Sand. Most notably, in the majestic "Peace Invocation," an intergenerational duet with Charles Lloyd — the legend who joked he was "coming into his own." "It’s just staggering, man," Was says of the track, as well as three other duets with his father, bassist John Clayton.

While meditating on the significance of Lloyd and his participation in "Peace Invocation," Clayton — a six-time GRAMMY nominee — considers the entire lineage that came before him.

"To feel the connection to Lloyd and to the legends of the music that recorded for the label, who aren’t even with us anymore," Clayton tells GRAMMY.com, "to feel that you’re somehow, in an official history book way, sort of connected to that, is a really honorable, wonderful feeling."

Celebrating The Past, Investing In The Future

In addition to welcoming new talent, Blue Note will honor both their history and potential in innovative ways in coming years.

The label recently announced Blue Note Africa, a co-creation with Universal that spotlights the multitudes of its continental namesake, with inaugural release In the Spirit of Ntu, a majestic album by South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini. The label also recently acquired an archive of tens of thousands of Francis Wolff photographs from their early history, which includes alternate takes of classic jazz images that might make diehards flip. (At press time, they’re mum on plans for the images.)

Iverson is thrilled that Blue Note has the financial leverage to stay robust into the 2020s and beyond. "[Don has] got the leeway to invest in the future," Iverson tells GRAMMY.com. "And if he was a suit — just a business guy — he wouldn’t bother. But Don is actually interested in the future, and young musicians, and he’s like, 'Yeah, let’s sign the best and brightest. Give them a shot.'"

And on a personal level, Iverson finds Was a breath of fresh air in an evermore strangulating, formatted world. "As the world’s gotten smaller — as the internet has made everything sort of like a steel bearing, that’s one smooth surface, and everyone moves in a certain lockstep — I really love those old-school New Yorkers that are always fresh and idiosyncratic."

On Iverson’s 2022 Blue Note debut, Every Note is True, the communal "The More it Changes" leads off a program by a sumptuous, intergenerational trio — Iverson, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jack DeJohnette. With a simple, diatonic approach to harmony and a classical sense of swing, the record is a psychological balm, a cozy fireplace for the brain during traumatic times. Which makes it perfect for Blue Note.

"Through COVID, people have been treating our catalog like comfort food," Was says. "It’s the same way you eat a grilled-cheese sandwich and Campbell’s tomato soup because your mom made it for you when you were a little kid and it makes you feel good in hard times."

With this momentum, Blue Note seems poised to embrace the future of music while deftly stewarding the treasures of the past. And Iverson’s "The More it Changes" seems to sum up the give-and-take through the decades and the label’s potential to keep the lamps of tradition trimmed and burning for a long time.

"The more it changes, the more it stays the same," the rough-hewn choir sings, bound by common purpose and undeterred by global turbulence. "We pass the ball to other ages; it’s how we play the game." At Blue Note, the ball rolls forward unabated; the game has rarely been this much fun.

No Accreditation? No Problem! 10 Potential Routes To Get Into Jazz As A Beginner

Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

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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.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

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.

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

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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

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

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.

Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.

Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.

In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.

Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.

There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.

Say She She

Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.

While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."

Moniquea

Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.

Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.

Shiro Schwarz

Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.

Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.

L'Impératrice

L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.

During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.

Franc Moody

Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.

Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.

The Rise Of Underground House: How Artists Like Fisher & Acraze Have Taken Tech House, Other Electronic Genres From Indie To EDC

Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
Billy Idol

Photo: Steven Sebring

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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."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

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 Bamback 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].

Living Legends: Nancy Sinatra Reflects On Creating "Power And Magic" In Studio, Developing A Legacy Beyond "Boots" & The Pop Stars She Wants To Work With

Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
2023 GRAMMYs

Graphic: The Recording Academy

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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.

GRAMMYs/Nov 23, 2022 - 03:01 pm

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.

2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List