Photo: Shannon Kelly
The First Ladies Of Bluegrass
First Ladies Of Bluegrass Make History At IBMA Wide Open Street Fest
Get the inside scoop on the all-star band at the center of Friday night's festivities in Raleigh
There is a strange moment that happens at the end of the annual International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass convention in Raleigh, N.C. A surreal transition takes place on Friday afternoon. After a week of business being done, seminars and workshops taking place, and bands doing late night showcases for talent buyers, record label reps and DJs from all over the world, the mood changes abruptly.
Once the IBMA Awards show on Thursday night is over and the free-form jams that last until dawn have died out, the streets of Raleigh are blocked off, stages are set up and the vendors get ready for the Wide Open Street Fest.
Beginning at noon on Friday, tens of thousands of festival goers show up to enjoy eight stages of live music with some of the best musicians in the world playing for who really counts: the general public.
A big part of the Wide Open Bluegrass Street Festival is the performances at the beautiful 5,500-seat Red Hat Amphitheater located in the heart of Raleigh. This year, on Sept. 28, the headliners are the First Ladies of Bluegrass, an amazing group of women who have bursted through the ceiling of the bluegrass genre to rightfully claim their place in history.
The First Ladies of Bluegrass include Missy Raines, the first and only female musician to win the IBMA Bass Player of the Year award, Alison Brown, the first woman to win the IBMA Banjo Player of the Year award, Sierra Hull, the first and only woman to ever win the IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year award, Becky Buller, the first and only woman to ever win the IBMA Fiddler of the Year prize, and Molly Tuttle, the first and only female to ever take home the IBMA Guitar Player of the Year honor.
Raines and Brown’s breakthroughs happened in the 1990s, but Hull, Buller and Tuttle’s awards came about within the last two years. The times are still changing.
The impetus for this lineup came from the recording of Raines’ new album, Royal Traveler, a year ago. Produced by Brown for Brown’s label, Compass Records, an idea was hatched to bring in Hull, Tuttle and Buller for the recording of the song “Swept Away.” From there, the all-star collaboration that would grace the stage at Wide Open Street Fest was set in motion
To add to the excitement of the show, two special guest musicians were added to the First Ladies of Bluegrass bill: Rhiannon Giddens and Gillian Welch. Both Giddens and Welch are GRAMMY-winning artists, and Giddens gave the IBMA World of Bluegrass Keynote Address a couple of years ago.
Before the First Ladies of Bluegrass band takes the stage, however, lightning strikes for this special lineup of female talent when on the evening of Sept. 27, exactly 24 hours before their headlining show, Raines, Brown, Tuttle, Hull, and Buller won the IBMA Recorded Event of the Year Award for “Swept Away." Additionally, Hull earned another IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year title and Tuttle won her second IBMA Guitar Player of the Year award in a row. Backstage at the Fest, we talked to Raines, Buller and Giddens about this historic grouping.
When Raines was growing up near the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia and going to bluegrass festivals as a kid, she was inspired by watching the Katie Laur Band perform. Laur was one of the first females to lead a bluegrass band of men that were not related to her in any way.
“I think about Katie Laur a lot because, even though I wasn’t imagining leading a band when I was a teenager, she stood out to me because she was in stark contrast to a lot of the women I saw playing music at the time,” said Raines. “It was Katie’s group and she was leading it and fronting a band of men, and that was something you didn’t see much then. And, there was a style about her while onstage that I really liked. She would talk to people like they were in her living room, and I was very influenced by her presence and what she was doing onstage as much as her music.”
Giddens grew up listening to all kinds of music as a kid in North Carolina. While her own style is more on the old-time, African-American blues and old-school country side with modern sensibilities and a little funk thrown into the mix, bluegrass music was in her ears for as long as she can remember.
“Bluegrass is probably the genre that I have had the longest relationship with because my uncle was a bluegrass musician and evidently my grandfather was one as well, though I never met him,” said Giddens. “It was a part of my upbringing and a part of who I am. I don’t play it, but I sure appreciate it and have my favorite sound in it. I am drawn to the older stuff. Newer bluegrass is very virtuosic and the modern pickers are amazing and they can do all kinds of things. But, I like my bluegrass a bit more gritty. One of my favorite mandolin players is Mike Compton, who plays a style that is real. He just digs in there and does it. I’m not really into the clean, fast picking, even though it is amazing to see.”
Giddens is also well-aware of the history being made with Raines’ group.
“The image of bluegrass music is still, to a certain extent, a bunch of guys in suits playing onstage,” said Giddens. “Image doesn’t always reflect reality. That is why things like this First Ladies of Bluegrass show are important so people know that women are playing these instruments and have been influential going back to the beginning. It is like, ‘We are here, and we kick butt and have been kicking butt for a long time, so we’re letting you in on a little secret.”
Buller grew up in Minnesota before making her way south to the wonderful Bluegrass, Old-time and Country Music Program at East Tennessee State University. Now, even as a performer who has won some big awards, she gets emotional thinking about standing beside and playing music with such impressive women.
“I still think of myself as a bluegrass picker from Minnesota who grew up playing with my family,” said Buller. “I never dared to dream that I would get to do this at the level that I am getting to do it now. I look over and I think, ‘Whew! It’s Alison Brown. Wow. And, I’m playing with her.’ Each and every one of these ladies is a hero of mine. All of these women are so nice and it is just a joy to get to spend time with them, and then to get to create music with them as well."
With all of this history and excitement mounting around the First Ladies of Bluegrass' special IBMA Wide Open Street Fest appearance, the anticipation is palpable – especially for Buller.
"I imagine that at this show a part of me is going to be flipping out," added Buller. "But, the other part of me is saying, ‘Yeah, man! Let’s pick!’”
Photo: Ebru Yildiz
On 'You're The One,' Rhiannon Giddens' Craft Finds A Natural Outgrowth: Songwriting
Most know Rhiannon Giddens for her multimedia work exploring American musics and how they relate to race in America. 'You're The One,' her first album of original material, is subtly and rewardingly in dialogue with this space.
At a vibey, wood-paneled listening party in Williamsburg, Rhiannon Giddens felt exposed. Chiefly known as an interpreter and a cultural surveyor — both as a solo artist and for her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops — the singer had distributed the lyrics to her new album, You're the One.
The assembled were welcoming and supportive; Nonesuch Records president David Bither was there in her corner, and delivered heartfelt remarks at the outset. Still, on a WhatsApp call weeks after, Giddens admitted she felt "awkward as hell." But that's OK, she explains.
"I'm very comfortable doing the things that I've been doing, so it can become a death knell for an artist to be super comfortable," she tells GRAMMY.com. "So I think it was time to step out a little bit and go, 'OK, so this is what happened.'
"But I don't talk about slavery, and I don't talk about civil rights," the two-time GRAMMY winner — and Pulitzer winner — continues. "This is a different way of being, and just as valid."
Giddens is referring to her work in a litany of fields — opera, documentary, ballet, podcasting, and more. Therein, she's aimed to plumb "difficult and unknown chapters of American history" through musical lenses, like the evolution of the banjo from Africa to Appalachia.
Out Aug. 18, You're the One is more eye-to-eye than Giddens' other works; she sings in first person, and deals in themes of romance and devotion, as with the glowing and companionable title track.
There's also a razzing kiss-off ("If You Don't Know How Sweet It Is") — and a brooding, socially conscious moment in the form of "Another Wasted Life," about the suicide of Kalief Browder at Riker's Island.
But despite these more direct expressions, Giddens hasn't simply pivoted from sociological to confessional; that's a binary that can be put to bed.
I'm drawing a little bit more from my experience, but I had to draw from my experience to write other people's stories," she says. "There's emotions that I feel that I then translate into these other stories, so I don't think this record is completely different from that [mode of expression]."
In that way, You're the One isn't a left turn for Giddens; it's another branch on her evermore sprawling tree. Read on for an interview with the singer-now-songwriter about how it came to be, her recent team-ups with Paul Simon and much more.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
At the Brooklyn listening party, was it vulnerable to reveal your songwriting side?
Totally. I felt like I was awkward as hell. I'm very comfortable talking about other people's stories, and that's what I've been drawn to my whole career as an interpreter.
Even as a songwriter, I am inspired by historical stories and wanting to write them. It's one of the reasons why I'm doing this, because the job of the artist is to always grow.
Yeah, it does feel vulnerable. Because it's like, I don't really like talking about myself. It's not like these are all Taylor Swift-type "ripped from my soul and my experience" songs.
But obviously, to write any song you have to pull on experiences, and whatever you do with them — whether you exaggerate them or change them — you're still pulling on yourself more. So, it's been interesting.
What kicked you into gear to do this? To express how you feel, rather than tell other people's stories?
Well, it doesn't express how I feel, though. This is the thing: they're still songs, and it's still a performance.
I'd say I'm drawing a little bit more from my experience, but I had to draw from my experience to write other people's stories. There's emotions that I feel that I then translate into these other stories, so I don't think this record is completely different from that.
There's a couple that are responses to experiences in my life, and then there's a bunch where I'm playing with styles and I'm playing with strong women's voices, and I'm playing with being inspired by all of these artists that have come before me.
So, it's kind of a mixture of these things.
You're right. There doesn't have to a be a binary between diaristic and impersonal.
And I do feel like I'm a more old-fashioned songwriter in that way — in that I really love form and I really love words, and I really love wordplay, and I really love taking an idea and really kind of running with it rather than more of a personal response to something that happened in my life.
I guess "You're the One" is probably the closest to that. That, I wrote purely out of this feeling that I had when I had my son. And I'd had really bad postpartum depression with my daughter, which kind of puts a curtain in between you and your emotions. It's really tough to get through that.
So when I had another kid and I didn't have that and I felt all of that joy — for both of my children. Obviously, I love them the same.
But I recognized that feeling more after the birth of my son because I recognized, Oh, this is what happens when you don't have postpartum depression. That's amazing. And I felt all of that. But that's probably the only one that's a pure response.
I love how universally applicable it is.
You can do "You're the One" at a wedding. It doesn't necessarily say, You're a baby.
That's what I think is really interesting about songs; as long as the emotion is pure, that forms the core of it. It can then represent so many different things, depending on how it's written. I love those stories of a song: somebody writes it because of x, and then everybody thinks it's because of y.
What else is sourced from your personal experience?
"If You Don't Know How Sweet It Is" started as a poem when I was kind of teed off at somebody who kind of left my music or whatever. It was a professional relationship that went south, and I kind of went, "Man, you don't know how good it is," and I just kind of wrote this little piece.
Then, I turned it into a marriage song, turned it into more of a Dolly Parton kind of [song] — this is a moment where this woman is fed up with this husband who has taken her for granted.
So, there's a bunch of [those songs], where I kind of take these emotions that may or may not be really represented. [Any given song] may have come from situations that may or may not be represented in what the final song is.
Tell me how you wanted You're the One to impact people on an aural level.
I was sitting on all these songs that I've written over the last 14 years and haven't had a home. I knew this was my chance to explore other soundworlds. I knew these songs needed more than a banjo, a fiddle and a frame drum. They needed more contemporary sounds.
So, we reached out. My manager suggested Jack Splash, and I knew that he had done Valerie June — and of course, she's in the club; I've known her for a long time. I was like, Well, if he worked with her, he's probably going to have an idea of what to do with me.
I met with him, and I was very quickly like, "Look, I really want you to be creative and I want you to bring your whole box of sounds, but I also want to bring my sounds." I didn't want to say Hey, put all your production on these and whatever. I wanted it to be a mixture of my sounds and his sounds — his musicians and my musicians.
So we did a real old-fashioned recording session where we had everybody there the whole time. It was like six days. "You Louisiana Man" was the first one we did, and that one was like 11 people on the floor, I think, at the same time recording. It was amazing.
I brought my folks, he had his folks, and it was a real beautiful mixture of styles and vibes. I think it's unique. You can't really place it. It's got some retro feel, it's got some modern feel, it's got some old-timey feeling sounds, and that's what I wanted.
That's the platonic ideal, right? The music being made together, in real time.
That's what I think. That's what I like.
Now, I know that there's a type of music that you make that's basically the engineer, the producer's making it, you know what I mean? And the different musicians, like he's the conductor. And that's fine. And it's not to pooh-pooh that, but it's not the way I want to make music.
I was kind of like, "Take my advance. I don't care if I make any money from this. I need us to put the money towards having the bodies in the space."
Because when we're bringing together all these varied things — electric bass, and drums, and organ, and congas, and accordion, and fiddle, and Congolese acoustic guitar — overdubs are not going to work. It's just going to be Jack's sound with a little bit of me on top, or a little bit of accordion or synths or something.
I was like, "That's boring. Can we not do that?" I really wanted us to find a sound that we couldn't have found any other way than being in the room.
Most know you via your interrogations of the history of American music, and your explorations of these wonderful instruments. Where are you at currently with this subject?
The more that I investigate, the more I'm just like: it's so complicated. And the real story is always more interesting than the one that we're fed, but it's always more complicated.
It's multicultural. That's what I'm finding: when you bring people together who want to listen to each other, you find new forms of music. That's just the facts. So, it's the genre thing. I'm going to continue to fight against it.
People always ask me, What is it that I play? And I'm like, "You tell me because I don't care." You know what I mean? "Put whatever box you need to put me in to sell my s—, but I'm not going to self-identify outside of American acoustic music. That's what I do."
I think we look at the wrong categories. I'd rather know: is the music highly produced and electric or is it acoustic? Is the music slow or is it fast? Is the music for dancing or is it songs that don't have a particular dance beat? Is the music based on riffs or is it [not]?
What does R&B mean? What does rock mean? That changes every five minutes, and it doesn't tell anything about what the music actually is. And if it does, it puts it in a box and you may not listen to it because you think what it is.
So I get why they do it, but I just think it's really destructive to innovation and what American music really stands for, which is mixture.
Another person who's very interested in exploring the intricacies of American music is Jason Isbell. Can you talk about working with him on "Yet to Be"?
It was a lot of fun. I wish I could have been there when he did it. I Zoomed in.
He's just so great. And look, we have one of these 21st-century Twitter relationships. We comment on each other's Twitter sometimes. And I have watched him, from afar, be an amazing advocate, a very smart musician and social media person.
I love the way that he interacts with his fans. I love how he's supported Black women musicians, and putting his money where his mouth is. And I just love the way that he moves in the world.
So it just seemed like a really natural fit to get him to sing on this song, and he just knocked it out of the park. It was really, really great.
What do you want You're the One to be a bridge to in your musical life?
I'm just excited to do what I do. I feel very lucky. I get to make the music I want to make with the people that I want to make it with.
I'm not famous. I have a nice-sized, very committed following. I can put on tours and pay my musicians what I should pay them, and earn a living. I just want to keep doing that, and telling stories, and raising other people up, and using my platform for the things that matter to me.
So if this record can bring me to audiences that maybe wouldn't have given me a second listen, that'd be amazing. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe nobody cares. I just make the songs and see where they go and just keep going with that.
I'm looking to have a really good time on tour with my wonderful musician friends and just keep doing the do. It's a rough world out there right now. So I'm just trying to use my time in front of people for as good of things as I can. So, that's what I got.
I've got to ask about Paul Simon. I'm a devotee. You've sang with him in the recent past, including "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute to the Songs of Paul Simon."
I didn't really realize how much of a soundtrack his music has been of my life until I was waiting to go on and listening to all the songs going, Oh my god, I know all of these. He's such an amazing songwriter. And working with him for "American Tune" is just one of the highlights of my life.
Not just because it's Paul Simon. I mean, yeah, he's an amazing musician, but the experience that we had working together on that, him changing those words for me to sing it and me kind of taking this song in and going, Wow, this is exactly how I feel right now. It's exactly how people that I know feel, and he wrote it before I was born.
And I think for him to see another artist of a different generation making it her own right in front of his face, [it's impactful], you know what I mean? I cried during the dress rehearsal. I was just feeling it. So that was a really powerful experience and I will always treasure it.
It was unexpected. It came at the last minute. I respect him a lot for being willing to do it. And as I like to say to people, nobody has the monopoly on doing the right thing and on wanting to comment on what's going on right now.
And yeah, he's an old white guy, but dang, he didn't have to do nothing but sit back and collect his checks. He made a statement with that song, and I don't want to take that away from him. I didn't change those words; he changed those words.
I remember seeing you perform "American Tune" together at Newport Folk 2022. He said something to the effect of, "This will have more resonance if Rhiannon sings with me."
The thing is the words that he changed, particularly the line about the Mayflower. Originally, it was like, "We came here on the Mayflower." And then he changed it to, "We didn't come here on the Mayflower.
99 percent of the people who live in America don't have ancestors that came on the Mayflower. You know what I mean? It's not just about Black people, it's not just about me. It opens up that song for everybody. And I think that that's really important, because we need to come together in any way that we can. It's an incredible song.
I became the focal point for that, obviously, because I was singing the song. But it is never really about me. I don't really like focusing on What does it mean for me to do it? it really gives that song a whole new life for anybody else who wants to sing it.
I think that's really powerful, and I'm just glad that he was open to doing it. And that we got a chance to not just do it once — but twice.
Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images
A Look Inside The 2023 Recording Academy Nashville Chapter Nominee Celebration, A Tribute To Its Supportive Musical Community
Two weeks before the 2023 GRAMMYs, the Recording Academy's Nashville Chapter celebrated its impressive 91 nominees with a slew of energetic performances and happy reunions.
If there's one way to sum up the Nashville Chapter of the Recording Academy, Chapter President, Ruby Amanfu, says it best: "It's about camaraderie, not competition."
That was exactly the feeling that resonated on Jan. 18, when Chapter members came together for the Nashville Chapter Nominee Celebration, honoring its 2023 GRAMMYs nominees. The three-hour event featured hors d'oeuvres (including hot chicken biscuits, a Nashville staple, and perhaps the largest charcuterie board you'll ever see), an open bar with signature cocktails from GRAMMYs sponsor Grey Goose, a red carpet, a photo booth, and performances from GRAMMY-winning Chapter members — and, of course, plenty of camaraderie.
"Nashville is really excellent at loving itself, in a lovely way. Supporting itself, and being proud of each other," Laura Veltz, one of the inaugural nominees in the new Songwriter Of The Year, Non-Classical category, told GRAMMY.com on the red carpet. "Everyone's coming with me, because this is validating us as a community."
Love and respect was abundant as attendees mingled — so much so that it was hard to tell who were the celebrators and who were the celebratees (well, other than silver gramophone pins that nominees sported). But it's quite possible that almost everyone in the room was nominated, because the Nashville Chapter boasts 91 nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
As Amanfu noted before performers took the stage, the Nashville Chapter is the leader in 2023 GRAMMY nominations in the Americana, Bluegrass, Gospel, Contemporary Christian, and Country Fields; the Chapter also received nominations in all four General Field categories, as well as a wide array of categories from Best Contemporary Blues Album to Best Metal Performance.
The Chapter's diversity was celebrated with performances from rising pop singer/songwriter Morgxn, rap multihyphenate Derek Minor, spoken word artists S-Wrap and Minton Sparks, renowned bassist/songwriter Tommy Sims, country singer/songwriter Maggie Rose, banjo star Alison Brown, and Charles Kelley of country trio Lady A.
Each performer delivered covers of previous GRAMMY-winning and -nominated tunes, including Song Of The Year winners like Lorde's "Royals," Adele's "Rollin' in the Deep" and Eric Clapton's "Change the World" — the latter of which was co-written by Sims. (Musicians Tyler Cain, Rob Cureton, Jon Lucas, and Marcus Perry served as the backing band; three-time GRAMMY-winning producer Shannon Sanders emceed the event.)
Even those who are nominees couldn't help but salute other artists, including hitmaking songwriters Liz Rose and Lori McKenna, who walked the red carpet together. Each of them are nominated for a Taylor Swift song this year, Rose for Song Of The Year nominee "All Too Well (10 Minute Version) (The Short Film)," and McKenna for Best Country Song nominee "I Bet You Think About Me (Taylor's Version) [From the Vault]."
Rose touted Swift's efforts in creating a new world around the fan-favorite track — which also featured a short film that is nominated for Best Music Video — as well as her ability as a writer. "She's one of the biggest artists in the world, but she's also one of the best songwriters that ever lived, and we will always say that," Rose says. "For her to be recognized as a songwriter in the country category and overall is huge."
McKenna particularly loved the country recognition, as it's only Swift's second nomination in the Country Field since she transitioned to pop in 2014. (Swift was nominated for Best Country Song in 2018 for Little Big Town's "Better Man," which she wrote herself.)
"I was just kind of honored that the country community understood that she's part of our genre, she's part of our world," McKenna says. "We're always going to love our Taylor Swift, and she's always going to love us."
Country veteran Bill Anderson was celebrating his first nomination as an artist, Best American Roots Performance for his song "Someday It'll All Make Sense (Bluegrass Version)" with Dolly Parton. Though Parton couldn't be there to toast with him, Anderson says she did send him a note upon their nomination, and she was top of mind as he discussed the honor.
"If her name hadn't been attached to this, I probably wouldn't have this nomination," he says. "So thank you, Dolly, wherever you are."
The love for one another even rang true on stage, as Charles Kelley gave a congratulatory shout-out to his Lady A bandmate Hillary Scott — whom he referred to as "my family" — before closing out the event with a rendition of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." This year, Scott is nominated alongside two male artists that aren't her bandmates, but are good friends, Christian pop duo FOR KING & COUNTRY. (Their collaboration "For God Is With Us" is nominated for Best Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song.)
Once the performances finished, several attendees stuck around — taking photos together, congratulating each other and giving each other hugs. After all, it's all about the camaraderie, not the competition.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].