Photo: Isaiah Trickey/Film Magic
Living Legends: Jazz Titan Dee Dee Bridgewater On Fighting For Her Rights, Mentoring Young Women & Not Suffering Fools On The Bandstand
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com sat down with Dee Dee Bridgewater, a jazz-vocal titan headed into her sixth active decade with integrity, autonomy and a fighting spirit.
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. In the second edition, GRAMMY.com spoke with Dee Dee Bridgewater, a GRAMMY-winning jazz vocalist and NEA Jazz Master who has shattered stylistic boundaries across her five-decade career.
Dee Dee Bridgewater's life and career are defined by unshakeable values she holds paramount: personal integrity, professional autonomy and artistic borderlessness. But in a music world full of schmoozing and sycophantism, this can be a double-edged sword.
"Mine is a lonely road. I don't have a lot of friends in the business. People are standoffish with me because I say what I feel," she tells GRAMMY.com. "I just don't have a lot to say to people unless we're going to have an intimate conversation between two individuals."
It's this quality that makes her an impactful mentor to young women in the jazz business, particularly through her Woodshed Network program. It also makes her a hell of an interview — furious, poignant, always in the pursuit of equality and justice.
Bridgewater is currently approaching the sixth decade of her career, and she's just about seen it all. Not only has the two-time GRAMMY winner worked with pioneers from Sonny Rollins to Dizzy Gillespie to Thad Jones: she's set the standard for how a jazz singer can be self-sufficient and unbeholden to genre constraints.
And as a Black woman in a space frequently dominated by white men, Bridgewater has seen it all at this point. But rather than let it embitter or stall her, she's resolved to teach young women how to stand tall and proud in the face of discrimination, humiliation and any other adversities they may face.
GRAMMY.com had an in-depth conversation with Bridgewater about her most recent album, 2017's Memphis… Yes, I'm Ready; how she learned to deal with critics; and the hard-won lessons she imparts to her mentees.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I've found that music steeped in the blues tends to have longevity. I wonder why music with those roots becomes sort of bulletproof.
That's an interesting question. I don't know that that's totally true, but you can find the blues in a lot of different musical forms — and it's not just jazz or hip-hop. You can find it in rock music and country music. Country music, to me, is blues.
In my music, I don't really consider it to have a lot of blues in it. My most recent album, Memphis… Yes, I'm Ready, was dealing with songs from Memphis, and a lot of those songs were blues-based. But in my repertoire of recorded music, maybe I will throw in a blues, but my music doesn't necessarily have blues-tinged form.
The blues is just very accessible music. When you get into blues lyrics, it's dealing with everyday problems that people have. I think that's what makes the music really identifiable. That, and the combination of the fact that the music is simple, so it's easier to access, I think.
I was just having a conversation about jazz and where jazz music has gone, and how it's become this more elitist music. My conversation was with another woman who's Black, like myself — or African-American.
I was saying to her that one of the reasons that I did Memphis… Yes, I'm Ready is that I wanted to see more people like me in the audience. I wanted to see a reflection of myself instead of seeing a predominantly white audience with a sprinkling of Black people.
I think jazz has categorized itself out of the mainstream like classical music has. A lot of the younger jazz musicians and vocalists alike — I consider us all musicians — have opted to do music that has more accessibility by putting in hip-hop, electronic music or all these other forms that can allow the music to reach a broader audience.
But when you think about jazz music today, unfortunately, you do not think about seeing Black people. Which is really unfortunate.
I find it also interesting that no matter what kind of music one does as an artist, if one has established oneself in a particular category of genre of music, then all the music that artist does becomes immediately whatever that genre is.
So, my Memphis… Yes, I'm Ready album was not able to fall into a category because in the jazz category, they said it was most definitely not jazz. But in the R&B category, they said "It's old-school R&B, so we can't really fit in." Of course, it wouldn't compete with who the new R&B artists. It wasn't American traditional, so it wasn't straight blues.
A lot of people that came to those concerts in the first couple of years were very upset. You could see they were visually upset. They'd be crossing their arms with scowls on their faces. And by the end, everyone would be standing and dancing. Now, that repertoire is my most in-demand repertoire for jazz festivals. Go figure!
My question about playing the blues wasn't necessarily because I think you play blues music, but that some old-school artists consider them one and the same. Lou Donaldson once told me, "Playing jazz is about playing the blues."
I've always been interested in more musical exploration. I haven't really concerned myself with categories and genres. I've just tried to do things that interest me and please me, because I feel that if they do, then they'll please the public that comes to see me. As I produce myself and have my own label, I have the [opportunity] to do so.
I haven't felt inspired, though! I haven't felt one iota of inspiration. Mm-mm. I've been very blown away by the political environment in our country. I spent the first four or five months appreciating being at home, and I didn't realize how exhausted I was because I constantly toured.
I'm just now starting to have some creative juices flowing. It's very interesting — I've started, when I go out, writing poems. I haven't written poetry since I was in college! But I've written four pretty good poems. I'm just starting to get into trying to do anything musically.
I'm probably going to have to do a new album of Memphis music, because I have been getting a lot of requests for that repertoire. And I'm going to want to do new stuff, because I'm tired of it. And probably, in February, we'll start rehearsing new songs that I want to put in.
It seems like no matter which musical context you find yourself in, you don't want to be defined or confined by anything.
I received a lot of criticism early on in my career — in the late '80s, in particular, when I started to go back into the jazz world. I was living in France at the time, and the French did not like that I would change repertoires and genres with each album I'd do. I was heavily criticized until they said, "Oh, this is just how she is."
I've been one of the rare singers who's been able to go all over the place. People are always saying, "We don't know what she's going to do next, but it'll be interesting, because her stuff is always interesting."
Then, I established myself as a good live performer, so I have a lot of people coming to my shows saying, "I've never listened to her music, but my friends tell me, 'Oh my goodness, go see her. She's a great performer — whatever she's doing, you're going to love it.'"
And I like that. I'd say I'm probably in a rarer position than my vocal counterparts. And having lived in France for 24 years, I was able to establish myself in a way that other American musicians had not been able to.
To me, the job of a music critic is to guide listeners to something they'd enjoy. At a certain point — especially as it concerns genres — it can devolve into a destructive function.
Yeah, that's been an issue. I used to write critics when they would give me a negative review. I'm well-known for my letters. [Laughs.]
But now, I don't care. I can read something and say, "Well, they're all up in their feelings," as we say now. They weren't really interested in what they heard or saw. They were more interested in expounding on whatever's inside their heads and trying to promote themselves as writers.
I don't really deal with critics anymore. With my work, you know — I started professionally 50, 60 years ago. I just do whatever it is that I feel like doing, and I know that I have a strong enough fanbase — if you want to call it a fanbase — and a strong enough reputation as a musician and performer that people want to come and see me anyway.
I'm interested more right now in mentoring, so I'm doing more of that. I've got a mentoring program with my daughter who does my management, Tulani Bridgewater-Kowalski. It's called the Woodshed Network, and we're going into our third year [in Feb. 2022]. Up until this year, we didn't speak so much about it because we wanted to see if it was going to really have legs and stand on its own. It's something that seems to be working, and we're really happy with that.
It's for women or female-identifying individuals. It's going well, and it's not about the music. It's about the business of music and establishing one's career and understanding all the various aspects of having a career — how to go about getting a career started and maintaining it. We're trying to create a community where women can network with each other and, so far, it's been really, really nice.
I'm sure you're getting opportunities to tell younger musicians things you wish you would have known when you were younger. Who were your mentors in the music business?
When I was starting out in the music industry, all my mentors were men. Thad Jones, of course. Dizzy Gillespie. Clark Terry. Dexter [Gordon]. Sonny Rollins.
Females — not so much mentoring as kind of shepherding me and allowing me to express myself on their stages. In that way, I had people like Nancy Wilson invite me up on their stage. Carmen McRae. Sarah Vaughan.
I did spend some time with Ella Fitzgerald after she had been decorated in France by the Minister of Culture. I went to the American embassy and we spoke at length about her career and the things she had suggested for me to do.
There was another woman who was very supportive of me and helped me out a lot personally, and helped me get gigs when I was trying to establish myself. That was Rita DaCosta.
And Betty Carter was a mentor. I was Betty Carter's puppy dog when I first moved to New York. Betty told me a lot of things to do and not to do, and any dates she had in New York or Brooklyn — anywhere — I'd always go, sit at a table, pay my way, and study her. I worked with Danny Mixon, because they were married and I wanted to get as close to Betty as I could.
I'd say that probably all I am as an artist and performer came from watching Betty. She told me I needed to have ownership of my music and produce my own stuff. I did.
Betty was someone who gestured a lot and moved a lot on stage, and for a jazz singer, you shouldn't do that. But I just loved her physical movement and how she could get so involved and twist and turn her body and do all these facial gesticulations when she sang. I don't know — I was just mesmerized by her.
Betty taught me to be fearless, you know? And not to worry about what people had to say about me and just go on and be myself.
It seems that you were attracted to being an entertainer — not obfuscating that part of what you do.
Well, I would say that I consider myself to be an artist, so I'm always trying to explore and go in new directions. I liked to say for many years that I wanted to model myself after Miles Davis. You never knew what Miles was going to do next, and I never understood why a singer would be expected to stay in one particular lane.
And I still don't like that. It's a choice of yours if you want to explore this one particular avenue and that's what you want to do. I respect that. But for me, I'm more interested in musical inspiration. I'm a Gemini, so I liken myself to — Miles Davis was a Gemini. Prince was a Gemini. I like my Geminis.
I hope that I will be exploring things until I don't have the voice, or until my body gives out, or until they both give out, or until I just leave this earth. And that's it.
I'm really about trying to lift the image of women in jazz, but not in a way that I'm going to hit people over the head. I'm just trying to push forward with myself without making a lot of noise. I'm just trying to do the things I do — the things I believe in — and I'm really trying to champion women. They need championing. I think I'm at a place in my career where no matter who I work with, I always want to provide a platform for any musicians that work with me.
In which ways do we still have a long road ahead as far as elevating women's profiles in this music?
First and foremost, a lot of women need to have equal footing. I still see a tendency with jazz magazines — when they do musical reviews on a female singer's albums — they compare that singer to another singer.
When I see a critique by a jazz journalist — generally men — and they critique an instrumental album, they get all into how that individual, that group is doing this, that and the other. And they don't do comparisons.
I hate that there's still this kind of macho notion that women cannot coexist with each other. We can't have singers with very different voices and be allowed to do the thing we want to do. Paying more attention to that than we do musicians [is important], but we just don't get the same respect.
It's better, you know? There seems to be a more conscious effort to allow a female musician to coexist in the same way as her male counterpart. And we are beginning to see bands that are more integrated with men and women. But we've got more to do in those areas.
But let me say this: I'm very excited that Jazzmeia Horn is nominated for Best [Large Jazz Ensemble] Album, and that she wrote all her arrangements — because people kind of see her as a singer. That's one of my babies. She's got her own label now. She's producing herself.
She's making some wonderful strides, and I think she's going to break some glass ceilings and people are going to start paying attention to her. They are already — because she's uncompromising. She's doing the thing she believes in. She's fighting for herself. She's standing tall — regal — and just doing her thing, and I love that.
The whole thing, I think, as an artist, is being an individual. Being unafraid to stand up and be who you are. I don't want to be like anybody else! And I don't want somebody to be like me, or try to be like me! I'm really a supporter of people finding their own, unique voice and emphasizing their uniqueness. That's what makes it interesting.
It's incumbent on my fellow music writers to not pigeonhole or marginalize women artists, but allow each one to have a limitless capacity for self-expression.
Yeah, just like our male counterparts. This goes into the whole societal thing — look, it's a bunch of men trying to do away with us having our abortion rights. Really? You motherf<em></em>*ers! And I will say that. Who the heck are these people? I just don't understand.
This country has to get away from the s<em></em><em> it was founded on. There's so much that this country has refused to deal with, and it permeates the arts. It permeates every aspect of our lives. So, when you get into jazz — and you've got to throw away all of this elitist bulls</em><em></em>.
Jazz music has become international music. It is music that is played around the world. And there are great musicians wherever you go. And it doesn't matter what the sex is!
It seems that since this last administration was in, they've been able to roll right back to where it's all about the white man being in control. I feel it's out of fear, because they know they're losing their grip. Because our world is turning into a beige world.
I feel like in the jazz world, there’s desperation because the music and the people involved in the music are no longer this old guard. Why do we keep giving awards to people who are dead? Really? Really? Have you noticed that?
I think it's all about change and fear by those who have been in control — that they're going to lose control — and doing everything they can do to maintain that control. But! It cannot continue. And it won't continue.
You mentioned elitism in jazz. From your vantage point, when did it tip over from being music for normal people — to enjoy, to dance to, to socialize to — into something locked in an ivory tower?
I can't speak to that. I'm not a jazz historian. I don't know when it happened. I just know that it's happened. I'm not that person who can discuss those kinds of things. I'm not that person who can discuss albums and who played on those albums and how they played on all of that.
I am that person who concerns myself with what I'm doing based on the relationships I've had with other individuals, and the people who have helped to shape me based on my appreciation of those artists. I'm the person who's tried to make a way for themselves no matter where the direction is going, with whatever it was I was doing. That's always been my concern. How am I going to keep pushing my artistry, keep my integrity, but at the same time, also do it to the best of my ability?
I say to young people when I do masterclasses: "Whatever you do, you want to be proud of that thing. If that thing's going down with a sinking ship, you'd better be proud that you built that ship, you sailed that ship — even though it hit rough waters." Being as uncompromising as you can possibly be.
You've got to be unafraid to be alone. Mine is a lonely road. I don't have a lot of friends in the business. People are standoffish with me because I say what I feel. I try to be honest. I just don't have a lot to say to people unless we're going to have an intimate conversation.
It's unfair that we allow someone like Miles Davis to be the mysterious lone wolf marching to the beat of his own drum without letting women occupy that role. I admire that you're a no-BS person with no interest in hobnobbing or glitz or whatever.
I mean, I'm trying now to hobnob a little where it concerns the mentoring program I'm doing [in case] I meet someone who's interesting.
All the mentors that are involved in our program are also all females. Because it's important to see yourself in the room. It's important to see people like you. It's important when you're aspiring to do something — even for you — to surround yourself with successful individuals that have similar interests to yours.
That's also something that isn't very prevalent. As my own producer, when I go in to have conversations with whatever label is distributing me — because that's another thing! I have a label called DDB Records. Whenever my albums come out, they're on my label, distributed by whatever label does my distribution.
But I own all my masters. It's my label; I've had other people sign to my label. But when a journalist gets ready to critique, they say, "Oh, here's Dee Dee's album out now on Sony Records." They totally disregard that I produced it. So, I still have to fight for that! I still have to write in and they make the correction later. But the damage is done!
There's also the disrespect of the musicians you hire to deal with. I'm not going to go out with some half-a<em></em>ed individuals, no matter who I'm playing with. I have been known to fire somebody on the stage if they don't have their stuff together. I have docked musicians who have played with me and didn't think they had to learn my stuff.
They think, "Oh, I'm just going to play with this singer." I send them arrangements and give them live recordings, but they don't pay attention. They think they can come on stage and just wing it? I'm about precision. So, yeah, I'll fire people. I will call you out if you don't know what you're doing.
I don't have time. I've worked too hard to get where I am and have the reputation that I have. I've built this reputation over many, many, many, many, many years. I'm not going to have some lazy-a<em></em> punk come on stage and not do their job.
Was it a long process to develop your integrity and sense of self?
Heck yeah! Of course. I went through many, many years when I was starting out where I could read a review and just boo-hoo. And then I would think I wasn't worth it.
Then, it dawned on me: you can let them know what they've done to you.
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Photo: Ross Halfin
Living Legends: Def Leppard's Phil Collen Was The Product Of A Massive Transition For Music — And He Wouldn't Change A Thing
Def Leppard is out with a new collaborative album with the Royal Philharmonic, 'Drastic Symphonies.' In an interview with GRAMMY.com, guitarist Phil Collen gets in a reflective mood about their early days of hysteria — and euphoria — in the studio.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Phil Collen, the guitarist of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Def Leppard for more than four decades. Their latest studio album, Diamond Star Halos, was released in 2022; their new album with the Royal Philharmonic, Drastic Symphonies, is available May 16.
By any standard, the 1980s were a transitional era for popular music, a rubicon crossed.
That had a lot to do with emerging technology, which led some to sink and others to swim. While the drift to synths and sequencers left some classic rockers beached, artists from Madge to Prince and Paul Simon flourished. And that trial-by-digital gave us the one and only Def Leppard.
Def Leppard's new release, Drastic Symphonies, out May 16, acts as the opposite point of this arc, proving that the band is adaptable to both tech and the timeless nature of classical music.
Reimagined with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Drastic Symphonies may be a program of hits (like "Animal" and "Pour Some Sugar on Me") and deep cuts (like "Paper Sun"), but it is far from typical.
Rather, Drastic Symphonies’ splendorous, cinematic treatment provides a window into their tunes’ innate malleability and longevity — while giving their legacy something of a consolidative This Is Your Life treatment.
"It gives it that third dimension that you always want to hear,” Phil Collen, their guitarist of more than 40 years, proudly tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom. “It was a beautiful experience, I've gotta say."
Collen's head is full of memories of that pivotal decade — the one where they were "selling sometimes a million records in a week." If you imagine Def Leppard as being rowdy and recalcitrant in the studio back then, like their current tourmates Mötley Crüe — think again. Under producer extraordinaire Robert "Mutt" Lange, they were perfectionists, breathing the maximum amount of imagination into every song.
"You have this image in your head, and it was creating it for audio," Collen recalls of the era that produced classics like 1983's Pyromania and 1987's Hysteria. "[Lange] always used to say, 'Look, we've got to create Star Wars for the ears."
Operating by that celestial edict, Def Leppard succeeded and then some: they've sold more than 100 million records worldwide, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019. "We're ticking every box," Collen says. "And a lot of these boxes we didn't quite tick in the '80s."
Read on for a rangey interview with Collen about Diamond Star Halos a year on, the genesis of Drastic Symphonies and the state of Def Leppard.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What's it been like living with Diamond Star Halos over the past year?
It's been great in the fact that we've actually been touring it, and it's been getting accepted as we've been playing it. You know, when you release a new album, it's like: no one really wants to hear it live. They just want to hear all the hot chestnuts — all the older stuff. But we feel this is genuinely, fully integrated into the live set. We're doing, like, three songs, and one of them we're doing acoustically.
I love the album, looking back at it. It's amazing. We felt like we celebrated our heroes on it — everything about the Bowie, T. Rex, Queen era. I think we hit the mark with that one.
Since Def Leppard is still an actively creative enterprise, how do you navigate that tension between the old and the new? You're not devoted to, as David Crosby memorably put it, "turning on the smoke machine and playing the hits."
Well, now you gave me an idea — we'll put the smoke machine on during the new songs!
We just follow the Stones' lead on that. Every time they go out, they carefully place a new song. They know they've got to do "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Satisfaction" and all that stuff. We just do that — we integrate it in there.
You've just got to be careful. It's great doing [it as a] first song, because you can use the theatrics of "Here we are." There's a lull at a certain point, and you inject something like that. We're very careful about where and when we put them in the set.
Who were your role models in the early Def Leppard days? Who did you look to and say, "I want to perform live, or make records, or have a career like them"?
It's always been the rock-ness of AC/DC but the finesse of Queen, and the great songs that Queen had. We like to tour like the Rolling Stones but have the caliber of appreciation of Queen. We're kind of getting there, to an extent. But they are the two pillars, I guess, that we kind of base the whole thing on.
Tell me about your relationship to symphonic music, and pave the road to the Royal Philharmonic album. Def Leppard and your peers have always had something of a symphonic sweep, so this seems like the most natural thing in the world.
It is. On "When Love and Hate Collide" and "Two Steps Behind," we had an orchestra. "Let Me Be the One," a song we did in the late '90s [and released in 2002, also did]. Especially ballads lend themselves really well to that.
This came up about a year ago, when we were over in England doing promo for Diamond Star Halos and getting the whole thing sorted out. It just got suggested by the label.
[The Royal Philharmonic] was doing this series of albums of bands like Queen and Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys. We wanted to be involved in it; we didn't just want an orchestra playing our stuff. So, we got into the arrangements; we got our string arranger guy who worked on Diamond Star Halos, Eric Gorfain.
It really worked. And some of the songs absolutely didn't work. They sounded wrong and kind of comical in some respects. We had to demo each song with a keyboard string arrangement, and it was really easy. It was like black or white, yes-no.
Were you in Abbey Road Studios, working with the string players on a hands-on level? What was the nature of the interchange between the band and orchestra?
They played all their stuff live. It was a year of preparation. Eric scored it all out. Ronan McHugh, our front sound guy and producer and everything, got in touch with the producer, Nick Patrick, and all of us met up at Abbey Road. We were there when strings were done.
That was really an icing-on-the-cake type thing. All the prep work had been done — on some of the songs, we'd leave guitars and drums out for whole sections and let the orchestra breathe.
But we'd done that all before, so it was just them literally playing to the conductor and us sitting in the control room hearing this wonderful cacophony coming back, of us playing with them.
Songs like "Paper Sun," which is kind of a deep cut off [1999's] Euphoria, just works so well with an orchestra. It gives it that third dimension that you always want to hear. So, yeah, it was a beautiful experience, I've gotta say.
I think we tend to think of classic songs as preordained — that they'd inevitably come into existence and bake themselves into culture. Back when you guys actually wrote and recorded hits like "Pour Some Sugar On Me," was there any attitude that would be modern standards 40 years on?
This is really funny, actually. I remember Mutt Lange, our producer, 37 years ago or something like that — someone came into the room and said, "The album's taking so long! Why do you spend so much time?" He said, "So that you'll be talking about it in 40 years." He actually said that!
Certainly, Mutt Lange had the vision of it. We were just part of his vision!
Sounds like you guys were serious perfectionists in the studio — deeply focused on the product.
We were. And I think we overdid it a little bit, because we'd be there from 10 in the morning 'til 2 the next morning and not take weekends off. As we've gotten more experience, we found that if you have a cut-off point, you actually get more done.
It was gangbusters, the whole thing. It was trying to make something that no one had ever done before in that format. It really worked, but we do have to thank Mutt Lange for that.
In what regard do you think you guys overdid it? Were you scrapping arrangement after arrangement? Were you doing take after take after take?
With the time, actually. You have this image in your head, and it was creating it for audio.
[Lange] always used to say, "Look, we've got to create Star Wars for the ears." And a song like "Rocket" literally was that. Even when we play it now, it's got such immense proportions, and we have this screen and all that stuff. You have this mental image, and you have this stacked-up vocal thing, which takes ages to do. Just singing them over and over, like Queen did.
We did that with the guitars as well. We made orchestrated guitar things, and not gratuitous. There's a big difference between just overdoing it and then doing it for a reason where it actually works and enhances the song; it always comes back down to the song.
Like I said, Mutt knew what he was doing, but back then, we were following his lead. It would be scrapping guitars and adding new parts and copying strings on a guitar with an EBow.
That reminds me of the Boston template, as per their debut album — a brainiac trying to create perfect, idealized rock songs — but it's an actual band with a producer.
About a year ago, I heard this BTS song and thought, "This actually sounds too good. It sounds almost like AI." I don't know whether it was or not.
I know these days a lot of writers will come in. There was this Beyoncé song where they said, "There's 23 writers!" and everything. And I get that. I really understand how that could be. You want to create the best that you can; you have a top-line guy that comes in, you have a drum programmer guy, you have someone writing the lyrics and all of that stuff.
We were kind of doing that back then with Mutt, but it was internal. It's like: OK, we need a melody. We've got this lyric; that works here. That was the approach, and I think it's a similar thing now.
With AI, I think that we are going to hear that. Like I said, I heard this BTS song and thought, This is so amazing. But could a person do that? I had my doubts. Maybe not. Perhaps it was a collective.
Phil Collen performing with Def Leppard in 1983. Photo: Fryderyk Gabowicz/Picture Alliance via Getty Images
With Drastic Symphonies on the way, how would you characterize the artistic and professional juncture that Def Leppard is at?
It's great. We're ticking every box. And a lot of these boxes we didn't quite tick in the '80s, when it was massive and we were selling sometimes a million records in a week, which is crazy, just the thought of it.
But there were still a few things that we didn't do. When we finally got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that kind of propelled us forward a little bit. Doing an album like this, but actually having a say in it and going, "We'll do it if we can do it this way."
We're actually doing the stadium tour now. We did one last year, which was great, with Mötley Crüe. We're still on tour with them and having such a blast. Grown-up kids at school together, just having that extreme thing.
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Photo: Derek Blanks
Living Legends: Smokey Robinson On New Album 'Gasms,' Meeting The Beatles & Staying Competitive
Fresh off the MusiCares 2023 Persons Of The Year gala that honored him and Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson is out with his first album of new material in 14 years. 'Gasms' is about everything that lights up your brain.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com presents an interview with GRAMMY winner and lead Miracle Smokey Robinson, whose contributions to the American musical canon — chiefly via Motown — cannot be overstated. In 2023, he was honored alongside Motown founder Berry Gordy at the MusiCares Persons Of The Year Event. Robinson's new album, Gasms, is available now.
Smokey Robinson listens to everyone. If you're on the radio, he claims, he's heard you. It doesn't matter your age, or your genre — as the 83-year-old is still in the ring, he intends to keep his gloves up. "I'm not a prejudiced musical listener," he tells GRAMMY.com. "I've got to compete with them. I've got to know what they're doing."
In the middle of a question about who, specifically, he's enjoying from the new guard, his rep's drive through a tunnel abruptly ends the call. But the Miracles and Motown star's assertion checks out — partly on the strength of his new album, Gasms, his first album of new original material since 2009.
On hot-and-bothered highlights like "I Wanna Know Your Body," "Roll Around" and "Beside You," God's gift to green eyes — to borrow a phrase — proves his writing, vocal and performance abilities remain undimmed.
"My thoughts on it is that you can put it on and be with the person that you want to be with and just kick back and enjoy each other," Robinson told the AP. "It's more of the idea of love."
There's a lot of chatter about Gasms. Of course, that's by design, and Robinson's OK with the album title subsuming the conversation. (When asked about the central thesis of the record during its conception, he responds with one word: "Controversy.")
But by Robinson's assertion, Gasms refers to anything that makes you feel good, and the high-thread-count music signifies far more than horny man is horny. It's a treat to hear that the GRAMMY winner responsible for innumerable culture-shifting classics — who has been around long enough to have met the Beatles when they were playing basements — is still a force.
With the 2023 MusiCares Person Of The Year gala, which jointly honored Robinson and Motown founder Berry Gordy, in the rearview, GRAMMY.com sat down with the man himself about his past, present and future. The results might give you a… well, you know.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did it feel to be honored along with your best friend, Berry Gordy, at the MusiCares Persons Of The Year 2023 gala?
That was a wonderful experience. They had never honored two people at the same time, and for me to get honored with my best friend like that — it was an extraordinary night.
When you met all those years ago, was there any inkling your relationship would stretch so far into the future — and impact the planet on this scale?
You can't tell about people and relationships, man. We just struck up a relationship. And we were good in the very beginning, and it just lasted. I couldn't be with him then — or he with me — and say, "Oh, well, this is gonna last forever," like it has, because you just never know. Fortunately, for us, it has, and we're still best friends.
How do you keep a relationship like that going on such a grand scale for decades and decades?
You know, people have asked me that many times. Sometimes, it's six months and I don't even talk to Berry. But when I do, he's my best friend, and I'm his best friend. It's never "Let me get to know you again, or feel you out," or any of that. There's none of that happening.
As you've stated, the title of Gasms isn't expressly sexual. Rather, it refers to any number of mindblowing experiences. What was the last big experience in your life or career that gave you a "gasm," as it were?
I've had so many of those. You know, gasms are what makes you happy, and makes you feel good. Recently, I had one when I did "American Idol," because I hadn't been in a long time. I was on the second panel for judges when Simon Cowell was there. I got a chance to see [judges] Lionel [Richie] and Katy [Perry] and Luke [Bryan], and it was a wonderful night.
I've been a mentor; I've been a judge. "American Idol" is one of the main state talent programs in the world, so it's a great thing for the kids. Because before they even made a record or anything like that, from the very first auditions, being seen by millions of people is a great thing for them.
Let's get to the ground floor of Gasms, when you first picked up a pen and made some calls and put together these songs. What was the central idea you wanted to put forth, musically and creatively?
That was it, huh?
To raise curiosity, and have people wondering what it was before they even heard it.
It seems you succeeded.
It worked. So I'm very happy about that, man.
How did you curate the accompanists and producers on Gasms?
Most of the guys are guys I've worked with all the time in the studio. I've been working with them for years, so I didn't have to get to know them. The main guy — my arranger, David Garfield — is a well-known jazz pianist who makes his own albums and stuff like that. We just got together and did the arrangements at the studio.
I'm sure you were raring to get back to original material, as wonderful as the old Miracles songs and your Christmas stuff is, and flex your songwriting muscles.
I write all the time, Morgan. It's something that I just do. It's not a conscious effort where I set aside some time to write or anything like that. It doesn't happen like that. For me, it just happens.
What are you working on lately?
Well, at the same time we were working on the Gasms album, we were working on one in Spanish. I've got two more songs I've gotta re-record for that. That's what I'm up to musically.
Is it a learning curve to record in another language, or are your Spanish chops sharp?
I've been learning Spanish for probably about a year. My housekeeper is a Spanish lady. She's from Guatemala, and she speaks four different languages, so she's been really helping me with it.
I'm not fluent in it where I understand everything. I watch the soap operas and news shows on Telemundo and stuff like that, trying to get better, but they're talking so fast. I try to get a word in every now and then and then try to pick out what they meant by the rest of the stuff.
But it's a great language, and I enjoy it very much, so I've been trying to write some songs in Spanish also.
Your voice is so pristine on Gasms. At times, it's like you haven't aged a day. How do you keep your instrument — your voice — sharp as the years and decades go by?
Well, first of all, I appreciate you saying that, man. Thank you very much.
Your voice is like your instrument, and if you take care of yourself, you have a better chance of it lasting and doing well for a long time. I don't think there's any secret formula — Lipton's tea with lemon and all that stuff like that. I've never done anything like that.
I just try to take care of myself. Occasionally, of course, your body will wear down and get hoarse, because you don't know how to play your instrument. I don't do any special stuff.
What are your habits, or what's your regimen, to keep your physical vessel in shape?
I think that the main one is yoga. I've been doing yoga for about 40 years, and I do it almost every day of my life. Then, I have workout programs I do. I have a half-hour workout program and then an hour one. At home, I do the full monte, because I can do everything; I have weights in the basement and so on and so forth.
When I'm on the road, I have a 45-minute regiment that I do most mornings, and it starts with stretching.
I really enjoy how you didn't feel the need to reinvent the wheel with Gasms. The songs could have been written 60 years ago or yesterday. What is it about the timelessness of songs about love, romance and sensuality?
Well, yeah, they all have a connotation; you can use your own ideas of what they mean. For instance, "gasms." That can mean whatever you want it to mean. I try to put that connotation in all of them, so whatever the person means, or who is the listener, it can be that for them.
Smokey Robinson performing in 1964. Photo: PoPsie Randolph/Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images
Speaking of timeless love songs, you play a huge role in the Beatles' rise. They worshiped you, and beamed you into millions of kids' heads via "You Really Got a Hold On Me" on With the Beatles. And you've covered them, too. Does it feel surreal to look back to your youth, and to these recordings, and say I wrote that?
You know, I don't think about that nowadays, man, unless somebody brings it up. It's not something I concentrate on, or anything like that, but it's a wonderful thing.
It was especially wonderful — back then, they were the number one group in the world — to pick one of my songs. They were great songwriters themselves. So, to pick one of my songs to record was especially flattering.
What are your memories of those guys?
Oh, they were cool dudes, man. I had met them before they became [Adds air of thunderous significance] the Beatles. We met them in Liverpool; they were singing in a little club down in the basement. They were good guys, and I especially got close to George while he was alive, you know? He was my closest friend in that group.
He sure loved you. He wouldn't have written "Pure Smokey" if he didn't. Can you offer more memories of George?
George was just a great guy, man. He was a nice man. He was one of those people that if you meet him, you like him.
With Gasms out in the world, what do you hope people take away from it?
Oh, take away some enjoyment. I hope they enjoy it with themselves, alone, and with others also. That's what I want them to take away from it. If I can accomplish that, then I feel that I've done what I set out to do.
What has been giving you "gasms" lately? What are you watching, reading or listening to that has been inspiring you?
I listen to everyone, man.
I'm a music lover, so I listen to all kinds of music. Especially when I'm in my car, and there's no telling what musical mood you're going to catch me in. Weeks happen where I don't listen to anything but classical — Chopin and Rachmaninoff and all that. Sometimes, I listen to hip-hop or jazz or alternative. I just love music, man.
What newer artists have you been checking out?
All of them, that are making music that I can hear on the radio. I listen to all of them, because I'm still making records, too. So, I've got to compete with them. I've got to know what they're doing. I'm not a prejudiced musical listener, whereas I think, OK, these are young people, so I'm not gonna listen to their music.
No, they're in the forefront of music right now. So I listen to everybody.
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Photo: Madeline McManus
Living Legends: John Cale On How His Velvet Underground Days & Love Of Hip-Hop Influenced New Album 'Mercy'
The Velvet Underground may be riding a wave of public interest, but John Cale is laser-focused on the now — especially his miles-deep new album, 'Mercy,' which features Animal Collective, Sylvan Esso and many more.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with John Cale, a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and founding member of the Velvet Underground who has steadily built his solo discography for more than half a century. His new album, Mercy, is available now.
Back in 2018, John Cale strolled into the Velvet Underground Experience, an exhibition in New York City's NoHo neighborhood, and gazed upward at a massive projection at Lou Reed's face for several seconds. This writer was there, and the memory lingered — as did its attendant questions.
What must it be like to be chiefly known for what you did as a very young man, for all of two years? To boot, after decades of a storied solo career — including classics like 1973's Paris 1919 and 1982's Music for a New Society — what is it like to have people chiefly want to talk about the Velvets? On top of that, was there any perception among its members that what they were doing was important — much less momentous, and pivotal for popular music?
"I had some theoretical ideas as to why it was important," Cale tells GRAMMY.com over the phone from Los Angeles, where he resides. "I thought if I put together the music that Lou and I would do — which was out of tune slightly, but getting somewhere — the idea of what the music was going to be was going to have an effect. Not only on the avant-garde, but on a lot of other different styles.
The impact of the Velvet Underground on alternative, punk and experimental music has been litigated and relitigated — most recently, in Todd Haynes' fantastic 2021 documentary The Velvet Underground and Ignacio Julià's illuminating 2023 book of interviews, Linger On.
Where do you go from there, with Reed; Nico; manager, producer and cover artist Andy Warhol; and founding Velvets guitarist Sterling Morrison no longer with us? Cale remains a potent creative force, so he keeps hurtling forward. His new album, Mercy, is one of his very best — aurally immersive, lyrically wise and filled with facilitative guests, from Weyes Blood to Laurel Halo to Animal Collective.
"I was angry," Cale says of his mindset while writing songs like "Noise of You," "Story of Blood" and "Not the End of the World." More specifically, "I was angry at the number of people in positions of power that should have known better and didn't." Thus, Cale remains a truth-teller as well as a thoughtful collaborator and vital innovator — and it's all there in the music.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Cale to discuss the origin of Mercy, the young rapper that's influencing him lately, and what the remainder of 2023 holds for him.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Whether political or personal, what raw materials went into Mercy?
Well, it was happenstance more than anything.
I was on tour in São Paulo, and I was getting on a plane to go home, and by the time I landed in LA, everybody was under strict lockdown. I'd already written the bulk of the album. So, I came back and was thinking: What is it I can add to this, and maybe ignore the lockdown for a minute and get on with some useful stuff?
Two and a half years later, I was still working on the structure and the noise of the album. I went straight back into it and added some other musicians. I was really glad I did, because [of] the variety of the musicians I found — I mean, I'd worked with them for the Velvet reunion concerts and other places.
So, there was Laurel Halo; there was Actress; there was Weyes Blood, Sylvan Esso, Animal Collective, and Fat White Family. And the songs benefited from all of that interruption.
Reading the lyrics, I was captivated by their heavy, overarching topics. You seem to have a bird's-eye view of everything.
Well, I was angry. I was angry at the number of people in positions of power that should have known better and didn't.
Regarding pandemic mitigation?
Pandemic mitigation, and distorting the truth. Disinformation, conspiracy theories, guns — so much hate. And we were really badly in need — and still are — for people to speak the truth, to help heal this mess and get to the point where redemption was possible. I thought, Well, that's what it is. Strain your soul.
Having been born at the top half of the '40s, do you remember another time when things were this nuts?
Well, I was born at the end of World War II, so it had something going on there that when you got out of it, you thought, Well, I'm glad that's over. Maybe now we'll go learn some common sense. And here we are, 60 years later; we still haven't learned it.
Can you describe the aural aesthetic you pursued for Mercy? I was struck by how enveloping it was from the beginning. It's maximal, but not busy.
That's true. I didn't want it to be busy.
Usually, I write songs from an improvisational point of view. I start with a rhythm, and I improvise the biggest part of the song and then simplify it. Because most of the stuff that I listen to is hip-hop, and I learned a lot from their style and their awkwardness. It was really instructive to me.
I only listened to certain kinds of hip-hop, and the further out they got, the better I liked it. There's a California style, and there's the Bronx. I can't say that I tried to imitate what they were doing, because I couldn't. I mean, I've got a Welsh accent, and that'll stop you in your tracks.
Tell me more about your improvisatory roots, back in the Velvets days when you played a lot of viola.
I don't play as much viola as I used to in those days, but that instrument was really what started me off. I was playing in orchestras from the time I was 12 or 14, and I used to improvise in the most awkward of situations. When you think of what the viola is famous for… not much!
I thought you'd be telling me you were really into Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman or something.
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I also loved listening to U.S. radio; the broadcaster came from D.C. I used to listen to Radio Moscow as well. It was full of those hard-to-find jazz musicians — I mean, Miles and Gil Evans and the entire "new jazz."
I used to go down to the Village and listen to all those guys playing there. I would go several nights a week to see Gil Evans and how his arrangements were really rich.
They were splendid, if you know what I mean by the use of the word "splendid." They had luxurious arrangements with several bass clarinets — not the simple, improvised pieces. These were chord-oriented and very rich. Yeah, they were something I learned a lot from.
John Cale performing with the Velvet Underground in 1966. Photo: Adam itchie/Redferns via Getty Images
You characterize yourself as being an awkward improviser early on. When do you feel like you really came into your own in that regard?
Last year, when I finally got this album under control.
Yeah. I mean, it really took a while, and it's kind of insecure. But when you start writing songs from the rhythm point of view first, you get to the end a lot faster — and it's a very exciting kind of journey, the progress to the end of the song.
That's what this album represents more than anything: what comes first? Do you put the melody down first? Do you put the rhythm down first? I put the rhythm down first. And as soon as you put the rhythm down first, you're in hip-hop.
Tell me a little more about what draws you to hip-hop. Which artists speak to you?
Earl Sweatshirt. A lot that didn't fall into any particular category. They drifted a bit; they drifted in their own thoughts. And I didn't mind that at all.
I'd love to go through the tracklisting and get your insight on each tune.
"Mercy": I had to decide whether I was going to lay myself open to pseudo-religious methodology, and Laurel Halo was similar. I met her in Australia on a tour, and she was a very trance-like synthesist.
"Marilyn Monroe's Legs": I wanted to write a song about Marilyn Monroe, but I didn't want to mention her name in the song. It has a certain obscurity to it; I wanted that song to have abstractedness.
"Noise of You" was something I wrote as an atmospheric piece. With all the melodies and choruses going in it, it really reminded me of Central Europe — of Prague in wintertime. Every time I played that song, I couldn't get away from the idea that this is the Charles river. When I first went to Prague, it was a difficult period, but it straightened itself out.
Then, there's "Story of Blood" with Weyes Blood. [She] has this passionate voice that really fits in, and carries the melody and emotion really well. "Time Stands Still," with Sylvan Esso — I loved them from when I first got used to them. I loved the way that they do melody and rhythm. They had some really beautiful phrasing.
"Moonstruck" is something that came late in my day. I'd not written a song about Nico, because I'd worked on a lot of her records, but "Moonstruck" is how I imagine her style would be. When she approached songwriting, it was because a big influence on her was Jim Morrison. She put much of it together in that style. Jim was making a point of saying, "Do the words first. Do the poetry first, and then the music will come." So, "Moonstruck" was something I reflected on.
"Everlasting Days" with Animal Collective was a very, very useful way of using several different harmonies, like the Beach Boys — four-voice harmony. This was a fun track to work on with them.
"Night Crawling" was about what I remembered from those days when CBGB's was carrying on. It was one of those cases where you really want to work with somebody so much that you don't get the opportunity.
"Not the End of the World" was my way of dealing with the serendipity of life. You got a problem? Yeah, well, get over it and get some work done. That's always the way I've found life since the Velvet Underground — to be a continuum. Because really, I was always into work. Andy [Warhol], Lou [Reed] and myself, we all had that poke in the eye that comes from doing good work.
So, you have "The Legal Status of Ice" by Fat White Family, and they were a rambunctious lot. As close to having a punch-up as anybody. "I Know You're Happy" has [Colombian-Canadian singer/songwriter] Tei Shi on it. And "Out Your Window" is a little bit of a look back at the Velvets. The piano part does.
John Cale. Photo: Marlene Mariano
Aside from Mercy, what's the remainder of 2023 looking like for you?
A break! The two-and-a-half years that I put into this album — before I could leave the album, I came off the road and started getting used to daily life without performing. And deciding that it was smart to write as many songs as I possibly could and get them done fast, because you've got this nasty little monster around.
So, that's what I did. By the time I went back on the road, my engineer and I looked at the list that we had. There were something like 70 or 80 songs on there, and I thought: Good job.
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Living Legends: Electronic Music Pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre's 50-Year Odyssey Of Audio Experimentation
"I don't think that you decide to be out of the box. It’s just a part of your personality or your character," the French musician says of his decades-long desire to democratize sound.
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. GRAMMY.com recently caught up with Jean-Michel Jarre, whose work has greatly influenced the scope of electronic music and broken multiple records.
Jean-Michel Jarre is living proof that age is a construct.
The 74-year-old electronic music legend is just as curious and excited about music as artists in their 20s heading out on their debut album tour. For 50 years, Jarre's resume has overflowed with a spirit of ingenuity.
Jarre first sparked international attention with his 1976 album Oxygéne, which was one of the first to solely utilize synthesizers in the creation of three-to-four-minute pop songs. The LP’s second single, "Oxygene, Pt. 4," merged then-unheard bubbly synth sounds with a clear sense of melody and song form — launching both the technology and electronic music to new heights.
In the decades that followed, the global music community took note of Jarre's innovation and the artist became a sought-after collaborator. He’s worked with classical composers including Hans Zimmer, dance music stalwarts such as Detroit techno icon Jeff Mills and trance legend Armin Van Buuren, collaborated with Moby, and partnered with burgeoning talents like the anonymous music project, Deathpact.
But the reach of Jean-Michel Jarre extends beyond his discography; he continually redefines what electronic music can be in both the listening space and the live space.
He’s invented hybrid instruments like the laser harp. He’s broken records with his performances, playing for audiences of over a million people on multiple occasions. Jarre has also broken geographic and cultural boundaries with his performances; in 1981 he became the first Western artist to perform in China in the post-Mao Zedong era. On Nov. 25, Jarre celebrated the 40th anniversary of these historic performances with The China Concerts, a remastered edition of the live recordings from those five concerts.
But Jarre is doing more this year than looking back into his extraordinary past. His 22nd album, Oxymore, came out in October and is billed as the "first commercial release of this scale" to fully utilize multichannel and binaural sound in the production, composition, recording and mixing processes. This spatial 3D audio allows listeners to feel as if they are physically inside the music — a concept Jarre has wanted to bring to life since he first saw Chet Baker play trumpet in Paris when at age 10. The album was developed in the "Innovation" studios of Radio France and is a homage to the late composer Pierre Henry, Jarre's mentor and a pioneer of electronic music.
Jarre created an Oxymore-based VR world, Oxyville, and has hosted several performances in the metaverse. During a digital meet and greet with fans and avatars, "one girl was very excited. Asking lots of questions and moving and bouncing everywhere," Jarre says from his home in Paris. "I discovered by talking to her that she was quadriplegic and it was her first time she attended a concert and danced all evening."
Such an interaction is what keeps Jarre excited about what’s coming next in his career. It’s not technology. It’s the magic he can generate by sharing creative, physical experiences with other human beings.
"Who cares about the technology? When you are in a restaurant you don’t care so much about the kitchen and how it’s done. You just enjoy the food or not, and it’s the same with music or art," Jarre says. "I think mystery is key. I have a son who is a great magician and the last thing I want to know is how he is doing his trick. It’s a magic killer."
Jarre is still finding that magic. He spoke with GRAMMY.com about his two new albums, his continuing relationship with experimentation, and how the role of art and culture in the world has changed (or stayed the same) over the last five decades.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I read that you started your musical experimentation as young as age 11 with a secondhand tape recorder. Have your feelings towards musical experimentation changed or stayed the same over that time?
When I started at the age of 11-12 with this second-hand tape recorder that my grandfather gave me I became obsessed with the machine. I was basically recording everything all day and sometimes at night, but I had no idea that it could be a link to any future linked with music.
One day, I played the tape backward and I had the feeling that some aliens were talking to me, and from that moment I started to record. I was starting to play in some local rock bands with friends, and so I was recording some of my guitar and organ and playing [the recordings] backward, changing the speed, just doing experiments with sounds but with no preconceived ideas.
And then when I discovered [Groupe de Recherches Musicales] in Paris, one of the origins of French electro-acoustic music, I discovered that some people were considering music in a different way. Thinking about integrating noise and sounds into music, and it became very obvious that it was really a revolution — a revolution in music.
I was listening to American rock bands or British rock bands, and it was a revolution globally around the world, but I felt that something else could be explored. These days were right in the middle of the student revolution where it was cool to rebel against basically any kind of establishment and, in a sense, electronic music was a way to rebel against the establishment of rock. We tried to find a different voice in a different way, and at that moment I was experimenting with very limited technology…. doing field recordings and processing sounds, or stealing some oscillators from radio stations to create the first DIY type of synthesizer.
Today whatever you do — hip-hop or rock or pop or techno — we’re all integrating sound effects into our music. We all became sound designers as well as music producers. Today, the emergence of immersive technology and immersive worlds are two other disruptive moments very potent in my career.
Does that drive to revolutionize music still play a role in how you move forward as an artist?
I don't think that you decide to be out of the box. It’s just a part of your personality or your character. I’ve always been interested in new ideas or new tools. I’ve always considered that technology is dictating styles and not the reverse.
It’s because we invented the violin that Vivaldi made music with it. It’s because we had 78s in Elvis Presley’s time that you could only cut three minutes on the 78 and it was the only way to put a record in a jukebox. The pop single as a format started to be played on the radio and not the reverse. This link between tech and culture has been always something quite essential in music production.
I’ve always been curious about new techniques because the beauty of lots of music productions is the idea of hijacking technology — to take technology which has not been devised or designed for us, but stealing from them. We are all robbers.
It brings us back to the idea that great art goes against what’s come before.
[Electronic music is] probably the most popular music in the world, but it still has its underground feel, its underground image.
Every emerging movement in music has been rejected by the previous one. The first jazz was quite rejected by classical musicians. Then the first rock musicians were rejected by jazz.
When I started with electronic music it was really against the establishment of rock. Lots of rock artists [were saying] "What’s all these machines with knobs? They are not real instruments," and a few decades later these instruments are still called machines.
All these signs are showing that electronic music is still underground. It’s still truly something linked with a kind of rebellious approach about sound production and music production.
Considering the "machine-instrument" relationship, you built the laser harp, which no one can deny is a machine, but no one can deny is an instrument either.
Exactly. It’s all a cultural thing. What is an instrument? A saxophone is a fantastic piece of technology. A clarinet is a fantastic piece of technology. It’s quite sophisticated. And then it’s a machine. It’s an acoustic machine. It’s a manual machine. It’s not electric but it’s a machine also.
For Oxymore you were the first person to conceive and compose an album from beginning to end using 360-degree audio. What’s it like for you to use different forms of technology in your music today?
[I don’t consider] myself a geek. I’m not really interested in technology for the sake of it. The same way you don’t ask a pianist to fix a piano. It’s the same thing, but I’ve always been interested by the relationship between my music and space. Even in times of Oxygéne, I was …finding delays or reverb to try to enlarge, widen the soundscape in a sense.
We have, culturally, this kind of frontal relationship with music. When you compose for a symphonic orchestra you visualize the orchestra in front of you. When you’re producing music in a studio you have two speakers in front of you. When you are in the festival or concert hall you still have the PA system in front of you.
So our relationship is more a kind of representation of music than an immersion into music. Stereo doesn’t exist in nature. When I’m talking to you I’m in mono. When a bird is singing it’s singing in mono. It’s the environment around us and our ears which are creating the perspective in audio.
And then modern technology is allowing us to go back to a very natural way of experimenting and experiencing sounds, and for the first time, we can be inside the music. This is a total disrupting moment.
At the moment, lots of spatial audio is conceived and composed in stereo but then spatialized later on. I conceived and composed the music [for Oxymore] in space. Putting every element of my arrangement in speakers that go all around me is a totally different approach. It’s like going from painting to sculpture.
How did you conceive of and compose this record in spatial audio?
I started in my own studio in 5.1 [speaker setup] because only 5.1 was allowing me to put the sound in space. Then I went to Radio France Internationale, the French BBC, and they have a very sophisticated studio with 36 speakers where you can really adjust sounds by degree.
Then you could say "that’s interesting, but who can listen to that?" And the answer is important.
Binaural — the multichannel audio version translated for headphones — was not devised for music at the beginning, but more for movies. We had to twist the system to get a convincing binaural version [that would sound] very close to the experience you could have with real speakers around you.
The binaural version, for me, is essential because it’s the real democratization of immersive sound. With just your standard headphones and any kind of smartphone or laptop, you can have access to the immersive experience. With the development of the metaverse and VR, with the development of electric cars that are more equipped with immersive sounds, we know that this technology is going to be the next step.
I’m actually convinced that in maybe in five years’ or six years' time, we’ll probably consider stereo with the same nostalgia that we are considering the gramophone of our grandparents.
I’m also convinced that new styles and new artists in hip-hop, punk, and the pop of tomorrow will depend on this new technology. As all the previous genres of music have been depending on the tools we were using as music producers.
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You’ve said your first physical experience with music came when Chet Baker played his trumpet for you at the age of 10. Fast forward to today and you are performing in VR worlds with 360 audio where people are literally surrounded by the music. How does that physical experience of VR and spatial audio compare to your experience with Chet Baker?
In a sense, it’s very similar. I always consider our relationship with any kind of art form to be organic and based on emotions and feelings, physically. When I think about what happened with Chet Baker and this physical feeling I got with the air of the instrument on my chest, it was absolutely purely physical and the feeling was from an organic process.
It’s the same thing with VR. The first VR object is a book; you are projecting yourself and you imagine the face of the characters and you become inside the fantasy world as a watcher or as an actor. VR is one step further where you are sending your digital twin into a VR world. But it’s still emotional; it’s still very organic.
When I was playing in VR I have my instruments in the physical world, but if I’m in front of an audience made of avatars, these avatars are digital twins of real human beings, a real audience. So after five minutes, I’m sweating. I’m nervous or I’m enjoying it in the same way. It’s even strange to think that after five minutes you forget you are in a virtual world because you are still feeling, physically, emotions.
There is a social dimension that we forget when we’re talking about the metaverse because lots of people these days are mixing the metaverse and cryptocurrencies and saying the metaverse is linked only to business.
Actually, there is a fantastic creative potential, poetic potential, a kind of Romanesque approach to creating your own world even from your living room. For the last 20-30 years you can produce, compose and distribute your music from your living room with a laptop. The same thing is going to happen with VR. A young artist could create his own fantasy world with some tools from his home.
This month you will celebrate 40 years of your performances in China, which remain an astounding testament to how music can generate unity. In today’s world, we are seeing so much division and turmoil. What do you think your role is as a musician with a huge audience to address that?
I was raised by an extraordinary woman. My mom used to be a great figure in the French resistance and after the war. When I was a child, she told me about this idea that we shouldn’t mix ideology and people.
I think we have to go everywhere where people don’t have the same freedom of speech and freedom of expression as we have. And I think that more than ever culture should be considered as a trojan horse.
The beauty of VR is tomorrow you can have people from Iran or from North Korea — if they have a headset or even a laptop — and they can have access to the concert we can do in New York or in Paris or in London.
When I look back, I think that China concerts are very special to me because it was like playing on the moon for both sides. At that time people had absolutely no idea about what was going on in the West. I went there with a stage project that was even revolutionary from the Western point of view —with electronic music, with lasers, things that were totally new. But you can imagine from the Chinese point of view, in those days, it was a real shock.
That your career has lasted so long to allow for a 40th anniversary album is kind of unbelievable. When you think back on your decades as an artist, what are your key takeaways?
What I learned is the importance of curiosity. Every time you start a project is to touch reset. I’m starting again as a beginner. I’m not really interested in what I’ve done before. It doesn’t really belong to me anymore. I’m more interested by what’s next — not to try to beat records, but as a kind of excitement. As long as this excitement exists, I think you go on.
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