(L-R) Josh Kaufman, Eric D. Johnson and Anaïs Mitchell
Photo: Daniel Mendoza/Recording Academy
Bonny Light Horseman
(L-R) Josh Kaufman, Eric D. Johnson and Anaïs Mitchell
Bonny Light Horseman's Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson & Josh Kaufman Are Moving Folk Forward Together
The all-star trio discuss their traditional-rooted, modern-grown supergroup and the joy of making, "Real folk music for everyone, which is rad"
Super groups are never a gimme. But walking through the audience at this year's Newport Folk during Bonny Light Horseman's set, which was only their fourth or fifth gig together, you'd think it was always this easy. Experienced and accomplished in their own arenas, Tony winning singer/songwriter and playwright Anaïs Mitchell, Fruit Bats' Eric D. Johnson and The National and Bob Weir collaborator Josh Kaufman play something that sounds like folk but feels like soul, complimenting each other's strenghts on stage to brave new ground for each of them, together.
This chemestry is also evident on the group's eponymous first single, "Bonny Light Horseman," a thoughful, lilting, timeless waltz worked up as a thesis statement for the trio's honest look back and bold step forward. We caught up with Mitchell, Johnson and Kaufman just after their Newport Folk set to hear what ignited their all-star collaboration, how their modern take on folk took shape, and what their future plans are as they gear up to head out on the road with this fresh new project.
Can you tell me how the group came together?
Mitchell: Right, so we all know each other from the different angles and obviously are involved in different projects. We realized that we all were hungry to play around with traditional music. And we found that when we do it together, it feels very natural and…
Kaufman: Personal. [We] connected to it.
Mitchell: Yeah. So we started making some music together and then our very first gig was at the Eaux Claire Festival in Wisconsin. And they gave us a gig when we didn't even have a band name or any songs. So it was really sweet of them, and we had an occasion to rise to, and we worked up a set. And then we took part in this residency in Berlin, called the People Residency, which is also curated in part by Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner. And that was where we started to make recordings and work with a bunch of people that also were at that residency. And then, we finished that record in Woodstock, last year. So we're starting to play some shows. We haven't played that many, and we're excited to put this record out.
The material on the new record, did you write together or is this more about re-imagining traditional music?
Johnson: Well these guys started it, but I would say it's very re-imagined. It's not Renaissance fair music or something. When you say "traditional music" that could be… we're not civil war reenactors or something. I wouldn't say it's a hyper-modern lens or something like that, but fully modern, totally graspable with modern years, but pretty respectful, too.
Mitchell: I would say whatever it takes for us to feel it. I think some of the songs are more of a straight reinterpretation and some of them it feels like we co-wrote... We've often talked about it. It doesn't feel like a research project. It's for whatever makes us feel it, and it's the feelings that are big and the chords are open and it's whatever feels good.
Kaufman: You can also let go of this music because it's taken from, we don't know who, and it seems like it's for everyone. Real folk music for everyone, which is rad.
What do you think playing live with this group brings each of you that you haven't experienced in your other projects?
Mitchell: Singing with Eric has been kind of a revelation. We didn't even know each other before this project, and definitely I sing different when we're together.
Mitchell: That is awesome. It feels like I can let go more.
Johnson: Yeah. This applies to the live show, but also I think our relationship with the record too, is where it's ours and it's not and at the same time, and when you're playing a live show you're almost watching it happen from above yourself. At least that's how I feel about it. I'm sort of enjoying it as a fan too, in a strange way. Then all three of us have been singer/songwriters for forever, but it's different than being locked into your own movie, I guess. You're watching somebody else's movie, but you get to act in it.
What do you have planned between now and the record release? What's the rest of 2019 look like?
Johnson: We have a few dates in September. We're having our first "tour." It's a very small tour, but it's going to be fun.
Mitchell: We get to open up for Mandolin Orange at the Ryman, which is exciting.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Shervin Lainez
The Hold Steady's Craig Finn On New Album 'The Price Of Progress,' The Band At 20 & His Constant Search For New Stories
For singer Craig Finn, modern life is endlessly fascinating. And his characters in the Hold Steady's new album, 'The Price of Progress,' grapple with it in all its disorienting dimensions.
For most of their two-decade career, the Hold Steady have traveled in a bus, not a van. But just a few weeks ago, with their hardest-touring days behind them, the cult rock band found themselves back in a six-seater, like the old days — in England, for a string of Rough Trade in-stores.
While packed like sardines, their brainy yet utterly unpretentious leader, Craig Finn, had something of an epiphany. "I was looking around, and there were three of us this way, and then three of them facing this way, and I'm like: Here it is. We're still in the van; we're still enjoying each other," he tells GRAMMY.com.
"As we turn 20 — which is this year," he continues, "I think one of the most beautiful things is that the friendships are still intact."
Indeed, the Hold Steady have crossed an impressive rubicon. They've made it to two decades together, happy, fruitful and energized — and with an upcoming oral-history book, The Gospel of the Hold Steady: How a Resurrection Really Feels, out Jul. 25, to mark this milestone.
Catch any night of any residency, and it's still guaranteed to be a rowdy lovefest, a feedback loop between the galvanized band and their beery disciples. Riveting storytelling, bar-band bonhomie, Midwestern boys who landed like space invaders in Meet Me in the Bathroom-era Brooklyn: that's the Hold Steady for you.
And after nine albums as a unit, including five acclaimed solo records, Finn is not even close to running out of stories to tell. The band's inspired latest LP, The Price of Progress, out Mar. 31, finds Finn's characters flailing through life in contemporary Western society, in all of its boundless access, convenience-on-steroids and spiritual unmooredness.
In "Grand Junction," a couple driving through the expanse of Colorado battles over the woman's Amazon wishlist, frequented by creepy strangers. In "Sixers," another woman watches NBA replays alone while flying on stimulants. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
"I think a lot of it is how the advances in technology have made us so efficient — as a society and in business and all that — that it's kind of left us reeling in a million different ways," Finn describes. Rarely does that inertia feel so crackling and alive.
Read on for an interview with Finn about The Price of Progress, how he avoids repeating himself or losing inspiration, and the rare feat of keeping a rock band together for 20 years — with more of a rabid, grassroots following than ever.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What fascinates you about the experience of living through this particular time in human history, in Western society?
The Hold Steady's been pretty prolific — nine records in 20 years. And then I've got the solo records — five of those. I'm constantly writing songs; there are songs coming out all the time. It's not like, "Oh, I pulled this one back from 2009." These are always fairly fresh. So, they're always being written under the influence of whatever's happening in the world.
But I've been doing this podcast ["That's How I Remember It"] and I had George Saunders on, the writer. I thought in his newest book [2022's Liberation Day], the sort of late-stage capitalism backdrop had moved up a few steps.
That's very much what I feel about this record. I think a lot of it is how the advances in technology have made us so efficient — as a society and in business and all that — that it's kind of left us reeling in a million different ways. That sort of adjustment is what we're going through now — the sensation of reeling.
And that's where these characters find themselves. They're a little older than the ones I started my career writing about, and they're being affected in different ways.
Before we continue to unpack The Price of Progress, how would you draw a conceptual thread between this album and its predecessors?
[2019's] Thrashing Thru the Passion, which was the first album we did with Josh Kaufman producing, was kind of a collection of songs we recorded a little bit piecemeal. But [2021's] Open Door Policy was the first album we made with Josh where it was like: This is going to be an album.
The Price of Progress is the continuation of that. There's a comfort in working with Josh; we went to the same studio, same producer, same engineer. It was like, We know this works, and there are going to be no surprises. Like Open Door Policy, a lot of the songs talk about people — their work, how they survive, how they get by.
Those are two threads that definitely connect the last two records. I think they speak to each other in that way.
And as far as making it: a) because we're older, b) because we don't live in the same exact place anymore — a couple of us live in Brooklyn; one lives in Manhattan; two are upstate, and one's in Memphis — there's a lot more trading files leading into it, where people are sending stuff around, sending ideas, and I'm writing lyrics to different ideas people are sending me.
And then, we go through a period where we all get in the same room, physically, and play these songs — try to build them into songs. Then, there's a third part where Josh, the producer, comes in and says, "What if we tried this? What if we tried this?" We kind of put him through those stages and ended up with the record we have.
How do you keep your storytelling sharp so you don't end up repeating yourself or losing impact?
But he talked about taking things in. If I'm feeling stuck or feeling like I'm doing the same thing again, I like to just stop and read something. Or watch a film, or something. Make sure I'm taking other stories in and thinking about how other stories are told. Thinking about how I relate to my own stories. That really helps me.
What have you been reading, listening to or watching lately that's been inspiring you?
I've been reading the new Bret Easton Ellis book <a href="https://www.npr.org/2023/01/19/1149929589/bret-easton-ellis-first-novel-in-more-than-a-decade-the-shards-is-worth-the-wait">2023's [The Shards], which I love. It's really hard to tell what is him, because it's set in his high school and he's the lead character, but it's a novel. So, as far as storytelling, it's kind of confusing in a good way. I've really been enjoying that; I'm about halfway through.
When I'm playing shows, sometimes I can't read anything of much depth except for rock bios. So, we were in Rough Trade in England the other day, and I picked up a biography of Fat White Family, who are totally insane, and that was very entertaining. I read that in, like, a sitting.
The last thing I watched that I really liked was "Industry," the British finance drama — which seems pretty lurid, and probably a little more sex-and-drugs than working in finance in London, but who's to say? I don't know.
I forgot they worked with him! That book is harrowing. All I could think about, as a 51-year-old man, is how hungover I would be. It's like: How are you walking around? How bad do you feel? But I guess youth is different.
Can you talk about your specific inspirations for the characters in The Price of Progress? Are they wholesale inventions? Amalgamations of real people? Reflections of your past or present?
All of the above.
For instance, the first song on the record, "Grand Junction," talks about a couple that's driving out west. I've done that this year; I bought a car in Arizona and drove back. So, there's some me in that, but in the story, it's a couple; I was just with a platonic dude friend.
But the couple was fighting, because the woman, she's got an Amazon wishlist, and strange dudes she talks to online are sending her presents, and the dude — her partner — is not that into it, so they're fighting about that.
So, you know, I did drive through Grand Junction, Colorado, and I thought that'd be a good place for a song, but then I made up the rest. I was thinking about people who ask for presents on Amazon, and how that's sort of a modern thing that didn't exist 10, 15, 20 years ago.
It seems like you guys are growing more and more ambitious as per how the music can reflect these stories in a way that transcends simple rock songs; the arrangements and production are growing more ornate. How do you conceptualize and execute these musical backdrops?
I think part of that is thinking about it ahead of time and reflecting it in the demos we're passing around. Some of that is also Josh Kaufman.
We've kind of had three periods of the Hold Steady. 1.0 would be, like, up to [2008's] Stay Positive, and then [keyboardist] Franz [Nicolay] leaves, and then [guitarist] Steve [Selvidge] comes in. That's kind of 2.0, and we made two records that way, and then Franz came back in 2016 and we made three.
In this 3.0, I think a big part of the story is how Franz and Steve have learned to play together — against each other, with each other — because they are the two people who, up until fairly recently, haven't been in the band together. So, in some sense, that's allowed us to expand a lot.
Also, now that there's six of us, I think Josh Kaufman does a good job of directing traffic. Just because there are more people there doesn't necessarily mean it's going to sound bigger. It could sound smaller if everyone's playing at once.
So, creating space with everyone and making sure everyone's got their space — I think Josh does a great job of that, and I think that's led to a more expansive sound on these records.
On that tip, I tend to be more interested in asking about moments on records than songs. Would you like to shout out any MVP moments from your bandmates on this album?
I think the rhythm section had a particularly great showing on this record. When I listened to it most recently, that was what stuck out to me. There's a drum fill on the first song, "Grand Junction," that blows my mind.
But what's especially interesting is: on the fourth song, called "Understudies," it's really somewhere we haven't gone. There's strings; it's almost got, like, a disco thing. It might be like our "Miss You," like when all rock bands made disco songs.
In the third verse, there's a bass thing that's panning back and forth. It's a real funky [Mimics a syncopated bass line] and it's going back and forth in a Nile Rodgers sort of situation.
I was out of the room in the studio, on the phone or something, and I came back, and Josh and [bassist] Galen [Polivka] were working on that, and I was like [Mimics mind-blown gesture] Wow! That is awesome, and that has absolutely never been done on a Hold Steady record before.
I've always thought of the Hold Steady as existing in a similar realm as other bands I adore, like Drive-By Truckers and Guided by Voices. These acts aren't necessarily chasing hits or trends; they're just consistently productive and excellent — almost meekly so. Can you talk about how your various personalities merged to create a well-oiled machine — one that's built a following on a local, grassroots level?
It's funny, because when [guitarist] Tad [Kubler], Galen and I started the band, we weirdly talked about wanting to have a band that people felt part of. I really experienced that from hardcore, mainly; I didn't want to be in a hardcore band, but I was like, What if we had a rock 'n' roll band people felt that away [about]?
From what I've read of the Clash — and Mott the Hoople also — their followers really felt part of it. They sort of had this army marching with them. I'm not exactly sure how we did it, but there is a community, now, around this band that feels supercharged. Just getting back from London, where we do these weekends every year, there are people from all around the world, and they all see each other that weekend, and they all plan on it.
When we were right about to start, I saw the Drive-By Truckers at Bowery Ballroom. I wasn't sure I wanted to be in a band; I'd been in a band in my 20s in Minneapolis. But when I saw that show, I was like, This is my model, sort of. They're never going to be of the exact moment, because they're timeless, you know? But they shouldn't go wildly out of style, either, because there's always a place for it.
I guess that's what we tried to do. I definitely think of them as peers — friends and peers, because before too long, we were touring with them, and we got along like wildfire.
Any great rock 'n' roll band should become better than the sum of its parts, and there's something about getting on stage; everyone plays their role. There has to be an understanding that six people are going to have to move around.
To turn the clock back once again: when the band's stature and fanbase were precipitously growing, and you were on late-night TV and all that stuff, how did you nurture and engender that cult following?
I think one thing that makes it easier — or less difficult — is that this band started when I was 31. I think I had some perspective as to what it's like to be in a band that's not working.
So, I think we still have a lot of gratitude. We're grateful for the things we get to do. I say it jokingly, but also very truly: it's the best job that I've ever had. I think we all take it very seriously and know that we have to respect it and remain in gratitude.
I remember interviewing Jay Farrar of Son Volt about that band's early days; he told me stories about doing "crazy things" like hooking a U-Haul to a Honda Civic and bankrolling studio time on his girlfriend's credit card. In the early days of the Hold Steady, what did you guys do that would make you cringe today?
We had this box truck that we bought. It was a windowless box truck, and it was converted by these guys. Someone connected it to the Bouncing Souls, but it wasn't them. At the time, we thought it was f—ing amazing. You went in, and there was a cab up front, and there was one seat behind, but then you entered a door into this windowless box.
There was a couch that was not bolted down. There was a TV; you could play video games. There was a loft; the merch lived up there. If you were really tired, you could go up there and sleep among the merch, but every time the brakes hit hard, the merch box would fly off and become like a missile. We thought it was amazing, and now, I'm just so thankful that we didn't die in that.
One time, we did a western Canadian leg of a tour, and we drove over the Canadian Rockies in Banff. It was raining, and there were tiny roads; I remember that it was white-knuckled, and, like, please let us get to the end of that. I remember coming around one corner, and there were mountain goats all up the side of this very sheer-looking face. It was beautiful, but it was terrifying.
I don't know how Drive-By Truckers made it through those hard-drinking, hard-touring days intact.
You know, I asked them about that. I asked who drove, and I guess [co-leader Mike] Cooley drove. He was the late-night driver. I was fascinated by that, because by the time we met them, they were on a bus. Actually, so were we.
Twenty years in, I've really come to like the van better than I like a tour bus due to sunlight — seeing sunlight more often. A tour bus can make me and a lot of other people pretty depressed. I don't think that's talked about enough. We talk about mental health in rock, but we put people in these submarines, basically, and they go from town to town.
My biggest example is — because I just did a solo tour in a van — when you drive from Portland to Seattle, it's so beautiful. But if you're in a tour bus, you're in, like: downtown Portland, ehh, and then you go in the bus and you go to downtown Seattle, ehh, and you see none of it. It's disorienting, in some way.
Craig Finn performing with the Hold Steady in 2006. Photo: Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Speaking of that solo tour, you've built an acclaimed body of work on your own, in parallel to this cult rock 'n' roll band where energy keeps flowing between yourselves and your audience. How do you conceptualize your solo work versus the Hold Steady? Do some stories seem more appropriate to tell on your own?
In some ways, it's pretty easy, because in the Hold Steady, I pretty much just write the lyrics. People are giving me the music, and I'm writing the lyrics to it.
For the solo stuff, I'm either here with my piano or an acoustic guitar figuring out very basic chords. Josh Kaufman, who also produces the solo stuff, does a little more co-writing on [that]. But when I do that, the stories in those songs tend to be smaller.
I have this joke that in the Hold Steady, someone's always falling off the roof or getting shot. In the solo stuff, they might just be sitting in a supermarket parking lot, wondering what happened with their life.
So, it's maybe a little less dramatic, but maybe a little more vulnerable, and probably a little closer to my own life.
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].