Photo: Daniel Boczarski / Stringer
For The Record: How The Chainsmokers' "Don't Let Me Down" Set The Duo Up For Global Success — And The Freedom To Defy Dance Music Expectations
After their career started with an ironic hit, the Chainsmokers solidified themselves as dance hitmakers in 2016. As the duo releases their latest album, 'So Far So Good,' revisit the impact of their GRAMMY-winning smash, "Don't Let Me Down."
The pop-ification of electronic dance music did not start with the Chainsmokers, but no act blurs the line between arena anthems and DJ culture quite like Alex Pall and Drew Taggart.
In 2013, the duo were just another EDM twosome making remixes of indie rock bands for DJs on Hype Machine. By 2017, the pair were headlining their own international arena tour on the back of a multi-platinum sing-along that had just broken the record for longest streak on the Billboard Hot 100 top 5 in history.
When you're looking for an explanation — some musical node that connects the tissue of the Chainsmokers' signature dubstep-heavy DJ sets and the group's de facto pop stardom — one must inevitably turn to 2016 crossover hit "Don't Let Me Down."
Powerful and eruptive, the song's dark electronic hook and bright melodic verses straddle the Chainsmokers' bleeding synth past and made-for-radio future. Both halves are stitched together by the hauntingly strong, yet emotionally desperate, performance of then 17-year-old vocalist Daya.
It's a single that belonged as much on a festival set list as it did in the darkest electro-trap club floors, and it earned the Chainsmokers their first GRAMMY win for Best Dance Recording in 2017. It begs the question: How did they pull that off?
If the Chainsmokers give off a frat-house energy, it might not be their fault. The duo rocketed to stardom fresh out of college, and the band's 2014 breakthrough single "#Selfie" was indeed meant to be a joke. It was a gag song, a catchy pot shot at the vapid VIP bathroom talk that goes down in Miami Beach megaclubs like LIV.
Buzzsaw synth lines and pounding four-on-the-floor bass kicks gave the song a stereotypical EDM vibe. But underneath the novelty hit's spotlight, Pall and Taggert pushed themselves to write real songs full of love, longing and infectious pop hooks. They were never going to stay the "#Selfie" guys, even if they had to fight tooth and nail.
"Roses" — a sun-dipped pop tune with hints of the popular off-kilter future bass sound and an earworm of a synth hook — was the first taste of things to come. While the 2015 hit signaled a shift toward the now signature Chainsmokers sound, its 2016 follow-up was what really turned heads — and it all starts with a clear and wistful guitar pluck.
"All of our new songs happen right after we buy a new instrument," Taggart said in a "How I Wrote That Song" segment for 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon' in 2016. "We bought a new Fender electric guitar, and I was listening to a lot of the xx, and I wanted to do a lonely guitar sound."
"So I made that, and it was pretty vibey," he continues, "and then I was on a plane, and I got this new sample pack and it had this cool bouncy sound so I cut it up and made this cool trap drop. We'd never made trap music before, so I wanted to try it and see if we could do it."
Sourced from their friends in electronic hip-hop duo Loudpvck (whose member Kenny Beats has gone on to his own internet fame alongside big look productions for Vince Staples, Ed Sheeran, Gucci Mane and more), that trap breakdown is sandwiched expertly between the song's sentimental pop verses that make "Don't Make Me Down" such a striking hit.
The mix of hard and soft elements — an energetic club hook and sensitive lyrics — make "Don't Let Me Down" a defining tune of its era. The Chainsmokers' managed to capture the coy sleekness of 2010s indie pop and the gritty EDM trap world, then mixed it all up with a certain kind of cinematic grandeur. The song starts so subtle and rises in a gradual tension until it positively explodes, another element that brings it closer to the Chainsmokers' club roots.
They knew they had a hit on their hands, too, mostly because it came together fairly quickly. "Everything we do happens in one session," Taggart said in the "How I Wrote That Song" segment. But as Pall revealed, it almost became the hit that never was.
"When it was completely done, [the] computer crashed and we lost the entire song," Pall said. They had to completely remake it from scratch, but Pall suggested that it may have ended up working in their favor. "We remade it, and it's even better than before."
The song's dangerously romantic message — the line "It's in my head, darling, I hope/ That you'll be here when I need you the most" sets up the titular phrase — was penned by songwriter Emily Warren. (She later went on to co-write hits like Dua Lipa's "New Rules" and Charlie XCX's "Boys"; Warren also features on several Chainsmokers songs, including the 2017 hit "Paris.")
It was Warren's voice that originally graced the single when it was an unreleased set piece for the Chainsmokers, though she was never intended to be the final vocalist. The song was originally pitched to Rihanna, Taggart disclosed to Rolling Stone in 2016, but the R&B singer ultimately turned it down.
At the time, Daya's breakout hit "Hide Away" was gaining traction. "When I heard that, I knew that she had the range," Taggart told the New York Times in 2016. "Her voice was pretty unique and didn't sound like other people on the radio."
As Taggart recalled, Daya "didn't really need my help" in the studio, furthering the song's magic. But "Don't Let Me Down" clearly didn't just make an impact with those involved — it was a runaway hit that won the hearts of critics and fans alike without much effort.
"Don't Let Me Down" charted in 32 countries, including a No. 3 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Even Usher covered the song during an appearance in BBC Radio 1's Live Lounge. To date, the video has amassed more than 1.8 billion views on YouTube; it remains one of the Chainsmokers' three most-streamed songs on Spotify with more than 1.5 billion streams.
"Don't Let Me Down" opened the door for the Chainsmokers to do bigger and more glamorous things — including the biggest hit of their career The Halsey-featuring smash "Closer" earned the duo their first No. 1 on the Hot 100 (among several other charts around the world), becoming the first single to spend 26 weeks in the chart's top five.
The Chainsmokers went on to capitalize on that larger-than-life pop sound, collaborating with Coldplay's Chris Martin and celebrating the project's debut album Memories…Do Not Open with a 71-date world tour.
The band continues to mix its DJ past with its pop star reality, choosing not to perform fully-original sets, but cramming strings of sing-along hits between mixes of other artists' songs that influence them. It can be a bit clunky at times, sure, and the Chainsmokers' earnest white-guy style hasn't always made the group a critical darling. But the band continues to sell out shows and figure itself out, continuing their musical story with their fourth album, So Far So Good, a project they've dubbed "the start of a new chapter"; Apple Music's Zane Lowe declared it their "boldest song-based statement yet."
Are they a band? Are they DJs? Do they even make electronic music anymore? It doesn't really matter, and maybe that's the point.
In a world where genres have ceased to define listeners, why should they define the entertainer? "Don't Let Me Down" dared to break that barrier — and even six years later, the Chainsmokers continue proving there's frontiers yet to explore.
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Catching Up With The Chainsmokers: Their Hopes For Another "Golden Age" Of Dance Music, A Latin Collab And Yes, Going To Space
This year saw the Chainsmokers make a return with their most mature album yet, 'So Far So Good.' The dance duo reflect on another wild year, which included planning a trip to perform in space in 2024.
From the moment the Chainsmokers took off in 2016 with "Roses," they never slowed down. The duo of Drew Taggart and Alex Pall delivered three albums between 2017 and 2019, in addition to a rigorous global touring schedule that included a three-year Las Vegas residency. They had the career artists dream of, but they were burnt out. So what did they do? Well, slow down.
Even before the world shut down in March 2020, the Chainsmokers planned to take the year off — for their own sakes, but mostly for the band's sake. Shortly after their 2019 tour ended, they took a two-week trip to Hawaii in hopes of a reset.
"What we were making before was great, but we felt like it didn't have a thesis, [and it] kind of lost its soul a little bit," Taggart admits. "We wanted to rediscover what made us most excited about being in this band."
That trip ignited the process for their fourth studio album, So Far So Good, a 16-track display of a rejuvenated, mature Chainsmokers. Its wide array of production techniques showed the duo's growth as well as their true talent — something that they're highly aware has been mocked. They even made that clear in their album announcement, a video titled, "Sorry, the Chainsmokers are back."
Though the album wasn't their most commercially successful, So Far So Good received glowing reviews from fans upon its May 2022 release. ("I saw comments that were like, 'This is my favorite album' and 'This is the most complete album you guys have put out,'" Pall recalls.) But after hearing them talk about the album for even just a few minutes, it's clear that the Chainsmokers didn't really care about how their music was received — they're just happy to still be making it.
The Chainsmokers sat down with GRAMMY.com to reflect on what their return meant to them, their place in today's dance scene, and that crazy announcement about performing in space.
Earlier this year, you did a cover story for Billboard, which touched on the fact that you guys had an unfair reputation in the beginning of your career. Regardless of what has been said, how do you two feel about your place in the dance world?
Pall: I think we've done a lot of growing up. It's such a wild ride. No one can truly prepare you for what we went through. We definitely made some mistakes and missteps and things, but I'd like to think we owned the moments and made ourselves better afterwards.
And as far as the dance music community, this is what brought us together. There's nothing more important to us than staying connected to the electronic scene. And there's a lot of great artists like that right now, like Fred again.. and other people that are doing some really awesome, inspiring things. We hope we continue to be a big part of that world and find ways to bring the pieces of it that made us so excited about it back [in the beginning] — reinventing and innovating and creating new sounds and styles of music that people are fond of.
That's the challenge right now for us — finding that balance of making things that we want to keep coming back to that sound fresh and exciting, but also unique to what makes the Chainsmokers' music special.
I think every artist kind of endures this moment where you become successful for a sound or style, and then you try to prove to yourself that you're more than that sound and style. You go on this, like, tangential journey that isn't not important because it's like leaving home — you have to just discover yourself again.
Ultimately, we learned a lot. We certainly improved a lot of our production and songwriting and everything. And now, it's like, going back to those important principles that got us here in the first place and innovating them. And I think So Far So Good did a really good job of that — finding some of those pieces and making them more interesting and exciting. We weren't scared about taking songs in really experimental directions.
It is interesting thinking about the complex of being an artist who has a hit song. That has to be so tricky, especially when you are eager to show that you are more than your big hit.
Taggart: Now more than ever, a lot of the artists that we look up to — that are some of the most popular in the world — they aren't ones that are living and dying by hit songs. They're obviously some amazing, massive artists that can consistently deliver big songs, but they don't have the highest streaming numbers. But, they still do arenas and massive festivals because they're really good at playing to their fan base and really focusing on that. I think that's the most important thing that any artist can do.
Pall: Yeah, if you want that longevity, it's [about] building worlds that people can live in with you. And that is why we hang out on our Discord and different channels so much — we want to keep connecting with those people, let them be a part of the process, listen to them, even. And hopefully, we'll figure out where we want to go next.
It's a cool time in music, with everything that's happening from the technology side to the GRAMMYs adding a songwriter category. It's certainly been an interesting year.
I watched your interview with Zane Lowe, and you were talking about the time that you were coming up with all of these other dance artists. You're just name-dropping all these people, and I was like, "Holy crap, I don't think I realized just how monumental dance was in the early 2010s!" And it does feel like it's coming back around now.
Pall: Back then, it was this really interesting time where you had bands like MGMT and Passion Pit and Phoenix, but then you had like Mastercraft, Boys Noize and Daft Punk — these kind of electro acts that were making really exciting and interesting music. And then it evolved into this Skrillex, Zedd, Avicii, Calvin Harris era, which was just like, the golden age of dance music, when we were getting into the scene.
Taggart: It does kind of feel like that now. Hard house is like, so big in Europe right now. It doesn't really have much presence in the U.S., but that could be the kind of the Boys Noize electro scene, and then you have techno and deep house that's really popping off. Where all this leads, I'm not sure, but it's really an exciting time that feels like the beginning of how it started before.
Pall: And you need producers. We have so much respect for artists like Flume and ODESZA and countless other acts [who are] experimenting. Experimenting and remixes ultimately led us to discovering our sound with "Roses." And I think that's why So Far So Good was so important to us, because it was that process of removing any sort of limitations and expectations that allowed us to dive into all these genre-bending songs. And then you kind of come out the other side with clarity on the things that really feel like you were honing in on something special.
You guys have already been in the scene for 10 years, and I feel like dance has completely changed in that time, in a cool way. Where do you think dance is at now?
Taggart: I haven't seen this many people excited about dance music in quite some time. I'm seeing so many more underground techno DJs build really massive followings that compete with more EDM [acts] and their followings on Instagram [and such]. They [post] videos of them playing shows, and the engagement is super high. And then you have new artists like Fred again.. that everyone is just rallying around right now. He's built this really unique, genuine, awesome, energetic show.
And then, of course, you have Beyoncé and Drake dropping albums that have a lot of dance-influenced [tracks] on there too. It feels like the world's kind of coming back to it, so I'm hoping that this leads to some innovation and we have another golden age of dance music.
I think people really just want to have fun right now, coming out of the pandemic. We've been in a hip-hop wave for about seven years now — which has been awesome, and there's been so much amazing, interesting music. I just think things are gonna change again now. And whether dance music becomes a leading genre, I hope that people get excited about it again, these festivals pop off again, and it leads to more innovation in the space.
You've both mentioned Fred again.., but are there any other dance acts — or maybe even people who aren't quite in the dance space, but are dabbling in it — that is really awesome and might even be kind of changing the game for dance?
Pall: There are a lot of cool artists — I love this group Ship Wrek, they have a really interesting sound. Tale Of Us, a deep house group, has been making really euphoric, cinematic, Hans Zimmer-type deep house records that are really cool. Rüfüs Du Sol obviously tapping into this really unique — I don't even know how you describe it — it's like, deep house, but it's from the perspective of a band.
Taggart: ARTBAT is these two Ukrainian DJs that are amazing. They have this massive sound that is just an experience that you can get lost in.
There's a ton out outside of dance music that we're super into too. I feel like our take on dance music has always been kind of combining indie/alternative stuff with traditional EDM energy.
I'm obsessed with this kid called Versace right now. And I don't know how that makes its way into our music, but his stuff sounds so fresh. It feels like I'm discovering Post Malone for the first time.
Is there anyone you're looking to collaborate with?
Pall: We've been super inspired by the Latin scene, from our friends like Sebastian Yatra and Bad Bunny and Maluma and Bizzarap. That's probably when we're at our strongest, when we do those really interesting types of collaborations that maybe people didn't expect. We're for sure gonna go further down that road in the future.
Have you guys done a Latin collaboration yet?
Pall: We've worked on a ton of different things. And it's got to feel right. It's got to have the DNA of Chainsmokers. You gotta find that right moment, right song, right collaboration. [We're] definitely exploring it, but it's just a matter of feeling really confident about the song itself.
Well, and you don't want to come off as like, "Hey, Latin music is really popular. We want to get in on that."
Pall: 100 percent. Now, if you hung out with us, I feel like 85 percent of the music we listen to is exclusively Latin music. So it'd be coming from a real genuine place now if it happened.
I mean, there's a lot of awesome beats in that world! I don't know how more dance artists aren't tapping into that.
Taggart: Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of songs that are great reggaeton songs, but a lot of artists that we love in that scene are multi-genre. I feel more comfortable about us fitting into the world than I did probably five years ago, when it was strictly something that wasn't anything we had traditionally come up in. Now it's more genre-bending.
Pall: For me, listening to Bad Bunny's amazing melodies and these incredible voices, it feels reminiscent of getting into dance music. It's a feeling that you get.
So aside from a Latin collaboration, are there things that you feel like you haven't achieved yet, whether musically or something that you want to do in your career?
Taggart: I just have been enjoying where we're at right now. We're having more fun writing music than ever before, and I feel very open-minded about trying new things. I just want to be around and be able to work with great new talent that comes out, and have fun, and kind of expand my artistic palette.
It's crazy to have a 10-year career in music. Going forward, I just want to be very embracing of everything that's new, [but] stick to our core, and remain authentic, and just lean into all that.
Pall: I don't know if we could ever recreate the amazing run we had for ourselves again, but if we ever found ourselves [with] a song that the world was embracing [again], [I'd want to] do things right, and enjoy that process more. Because, again, it was like us playing catch-up. [We were] just young and trying to figure it out. I would love to have the opportunity to live through an exciting moment like that again, and do it the way that we know we could now.
But if it doesn't come, that's totally fine, too, to Drew's point. We're having a blast, we have so many exciting things that we're working on and a part of. We're just grateful to be here, and we want to continue to feel like this into the future.
Did you ever think you'd add performing in space to your resume?
Taggart: [Laughs] Umm…we'll see how that goes.
Pall: It's such a Chainsmoker headline. It was funny, actually — obviously, we knew about this for a while, and there's still a lot of things that need to be figured out, whether this is a reality or not. But hopefully it works out. So much has been happening that we forgot about it. And we woke up that morning to like, 25 messages from friends being like, "You're going to space?" And we were like, "Oh s—, this is real now."
Better get your spacesuits on and train!
Pall: Daft Punk might have been a more suitable option to send into space, but we'll try our best.
I mean, you have until 2024. You've got time to figure things out.
Pall: I had a conversation with my girlfriend that morning. She's like, "You're doing what?" And I was like, "Don't worry about this yet." [Laughs]
That's definitely the kind of thing where no one will think you're serious until you're actually doing it. But I do feel like that's kind of like the way the music is going, though. I don't think it's that out of left field for an artist to perform in space.
Pall: It's always funny to me, the things we set our sights on as a human race. Like, "How cool would that be to say that you were the first artist to play in space?" But also, it's like, "Why are we playing music in space?"
In the meantime, I'm glad to hear that you feel like you are in the best place you've ever been as artists. I saw that you're already working on the next album — it must be nice knowing that you're going into this next phase of making music feeling so good.
Pall: Yeah, and not be so protective over it. Before, it was like, we'd make a song and we were basically in a bubble — we weren't allowed to play a song that we just made and dance with your friends and see how they feel [about it.] Now, it's the complete opposite. It's like nothing is sacred. We could go upstairs and post a video on our story of a song we're working on and everyone can say, "Holy s—, we want this!" It's definitely exciting times in that regard.
We're here for our fans that have supported us from the get go. We want to keep pushing ourselves to be bold as we write and produce, and continue to tap into those things that not only made us fall in love with music, but hopefully made people fall in love with the sounds that we create.
Since you're feeling so good about where you're at, how do you hope that this chapter of the Chainsmokers and what's to come is perceived?
Taggart: I've kind of given up on hoping for that. We just make stuff that we think is awesome and just keep doing that. It's all you can control.
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
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.
The Rise Of Underground House: How Artists Like Fisher & Acraze Have Taken Tech House, Other Electronic Genres From Indie To EDC
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
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Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.