meta-scriptFormer Punk Frontman Brian Fallon Continues His Americana Metamorphosis On ‘Local Honey’ | GRAMMY.com
Former Punk Frontman Brian Fallon Continues His Americana Metamorphosis On ‘Local Honey’

Brian Fallon

Photo by Kelsey Hunter Ayres

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Former Punk Frontman Brian Fallon Continues His Americana Metamorphosis On ‘Local Honey’

The onetime Gaslight Anthem vocalist opens up to the Recording Academy about how present-day moments—fatherhood, therapy, religion and relationships—have shaped his newest collection of solo songs  

GRAMMYs/Mar 27, 2020 - 08:16 pm

"I got my first Tom Waits record when I was about 17 and ever since then I’ve thought, 'I can’t wait to be an old man.' I’ve always wanted to just be a crazy old man musician, banging on pots and pans and playing whatever I want," laughs former Gaslight Anthem frontman and current Americana solo artist Brian Fallon as he reflects on hitting 40 earlier this year. After spending his 20s and most of his 30s interpreting his classic-rock hero influences through a frenetic punk filter, the gravel-throated howler started slowly swapping out his low-slung, amped-up electric guitars for rootsy acoustics on a pair of increasingly introspective solo albums: 2016’s Painkillers and 2018’s Sleepwalkers.  

On Local Honey, Fallon’s newest solo record out March 27 (the debut release from his own Lesser Known Records imprint on Thirty Tigers), the 40-year-old father of two has fully completed his own version of the punk-to-folk pipeline with a musically stark and emotionally vibrant collection of some of the best songwriting of his career. Led by gorgeously spacious acoustic guitars, hauntingly bare pianos, and the pitch-perfect sprinkling of ornamental instrumentation that masterfully shades in the outer corners, Local Honey’s austere musical palette provides the ideal backdrop for Fallon’s elegantly plainspoken lyrics full of diary-close honesty, heart-stirring resonance and vividly cinematic storytelling.        

Fallon recently chatted with the Recording Academy to discuss the shifts in his approaches to songwriting, how taking guitar and piano lessons two decades into his musical career has affected his playing and how his present-day moments—fatherhood, therapy, religion and relationships—shape and define his newest collection of songs.  

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Brian Fallon: During the recording of my last solo record in New Orleans, I got to play with a bunch of really great musicians like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and it caused something to click in my head. I decided I wanted to write and play music that directly gets to the point and is pure. To do that, I had to first analyze my own skillset to say, "I don’t know if you can do that right now with what you have." So I started taking piano lessons—I had never touched a piano before—and I went back into guitar lessons. I also took a course in lyric writing. I did my best to grab all the instructive information I could; not to get more fancy, but to get more direct and to the point. Honestly, I feel like I’ve just started scratching the surface of this new thing in my brain that I’m sure will continue to shape my songwriting from here on out.

To help achieve his new songwriting goals, Fallon set out to identify as many lyrical inspirations as he could find to dissect and analyze what made them work. He even compiled a playlist of over 40 songs that he felt conveyed the most direct and simplest statements to repetitively listen to in hopes of studying their inner-workings.

Brian Fallon: When I was writing for this record, I looked to the best lyricists that I could find for inspiration. Tom Waits is always kind of hanging over my head as someone that I aspire to write songs like. Jackson Browne’s The Pretender record has been a huge one for me, especially after I found out he wrote it after his wife had passed away. "You’re Bright Baby Blues" was the track I kept listening to over and over again. The playlist I made was full of songs where I felt the lyrical statement was just so pure: Nina Simone’s "I'm Feeling Good," Fleetwood Mac’s "Silver Springs," some Springsteen, old Rolling Stones songs like "Play With Fire." I would listen to these songs over and over to remind myself to not use metaphor alone and not rely on fancy language to convey the emotion. I wanted to boil everything down to just true, unembellished emotion.

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As Fallon started writing the songs for what would eventually become Local Honey, he decided on two other important elements. First, after years of talking about it together, he knew he wanted production duties to be handled by Peter Katis (The National, Death Cab For Cutie, Frightened Rabbit). Second, he knew he didn’t want to make an album that felt like it had too many songs. In fact, instead of just being an amorphous target to keep in mind, Fallon went into the recording sessions knowingly exactly how many songs he wanted to walk out with.

Brian Fallon: Nailing the right song count was a conversation that Peter and I had a bunch of times. I told him that I only wanted it to be eight songs and thankfully he was all for it. I thought he might give me a bit of resistance, but he was into it because so many albums these days just feel too long. Even though I had written more songs, I knew these eight specific ones told the story I wanted to tell. I didn’t want to dilute that at all. Peter really helped me get where I wanted to go with these songs because I wanted them to be really bare and I wasn’t exactly sure how best to execute that in a way that would keep people interested. He responded very positively to the demos I sent him and to the direction I wanted to take them in. He basically just said, "You handle the songs and I’ll handle the sounds."

The first song Fallon and Katis ended up working on for the record was "Vincent," an arresting piano-scored murder ballad in the vein of country and blues standards like "Long Black Veil," "Delia’s Gone," "In the Pines/Where Did You Sleep Last Night?", Bob Dylan’s "Ballad Of Hollis Brown" and Nick Cave’s entire Murder Ballads album from 1996. The stirring narrative that unfolds in "Vincent" came to Fallon in a single night during a rush of inspiration that resulted in so many verses that it took him a month to whittle it down to a manageable song.    

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Brian Fallon: "Vincent" actually sprung up from a few different places. At the time, I was reading a Stephen King book called On Writing about his creative process. Then, I saw this documentary on Nick Cave where he was talking about how he creatively allows himself to write character stories. Then, I remembered hearing an interview where Bruce Springsteen talked about doing the same thing when he was writing songs for The Ghost Of Tom Joad. He had never been an immigrant living across the border, but he was able to write all these songs that actually felt like he had been arrested by a border patrolman and crazy stuff like that. All of these things were stirring around in my head and they all kind of oddly coalesced on this one night while I was sitting at the piano. I started playing a little bit and I felt like there was this character in my head speaking to me. I ended up writing something like 30 verses because I had never written in that way before and I really wanted to get it right. I’ve never written so much for one song, but it just wouldn’t stop. It was so weird how real the story felt to me.    

Fallon notes that although he is really proud of the song, the opening line of "Vincent"—"My name is Jolene, but I hate that song"—has prompted a little cause for concern. His hope is that listeners will understand that he is singing in character and that he himself doesn’t actually hate the celebrated, GRAMMY-nominated Dolly Parton ballad from 1973.    

Brian Fallon: I wrote that line because I think it’s funny when people are named after songs—my daughter is actually named after a song—and I often wonder if people hate that when they grow up. I love the song "Jolene" and I think Dolly Parton is one of the greatest songwriters of all time. I hope people get that I’m singing that line as a character. I think that with these types of character songs, maybe as long as the emotion is true, then the details can be more like a story or a novel and not be so dependent on what you actually think or believe yourself.

Back in December of 2019, Fallon announced Local Honey with the lead single, "You Have Stolen My Heart," a swaying, starry-eyed ballad that functions as the “always leave ‘em wanting more” album closer. Marked as “my most direct attempt at a love song” by Fallon, the song’s waltzy-strummed acoustic guitar and love-letter lyricism unfolds as intimately as an overheard conversation.

Brian Fallon: I had almost all of the songs finished up and I felt like I just needed one more that was kind of in this romantic vein. Surprisingly, this one came out pretty quickly. I was listening to The Smiths and that song “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” came on and I was struck by what a good, honest lyric it was. It was extremely direct in a way that could’ve gone so wrong. I think he really meant it though, and that was the trick. When I sat back down to write, I just tried to say exactly what I was feeling and “You Have Stolen My Heart” just came right out.   

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For his follow-up single, "21 Days," Fallon drew on his various experiences with therapy; finding inspiration in the targeted focus on process and progress. Casting addictions into a fractured relational context ("I miss you most in the morning, we used to talk over coffee, but now I’m going to have to find another friend"), Fallon’s "one day at a time" lyrics forego any mountaintop platitudes and instead place the listener in the thick of the struggle. "21 Days" also contains an interesting sonic touch that helps to drive the push-pull internal monologue of the song’s protagonist: Fallon double-tracked his vocal across distinct high and low registers and then blended them together into one ghostly reverberating amalgam.

Brian Fallon: I’ve been to therapists for a few different things and I've found that the really helpful thing they can do when you’re facing a hard situation is not to give you a solution but to offer you a goal to work towards. Oftentimes, that goal is a measure of time because people always want to know how long it’s going to take before they start to feel better. That’s where that throwaway idea that it takes 21 days to break a habit comes from. But the truth is, going in, you never really know how long it’s going to take and it’s different for every person. That’s what that song is about. I’ve read that it’s about me quitting smoking, but not really, because that’s too small for what the song is saying. It’s about just encouraging yourself and reminding yourself that you will eventually feel better. On the right songs, I really enjoyed doing the double-vocal thing. The first time I heard somebody do that really well was Greg Dulli of The Afghan Whigs; going really high or really low, like beyond his reach in both directions. Mark Lanegan is amazing at it too. I have to be careful with it because sometimes it just sounds like you’re trying to make fun of Barry White or something.   

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In what may be Fallon’s most personal song to date, Local Honey opens up with "When You’re Ready," a song Fallon wrote about his two young kids. The song rides along warmly delivered reassurances ("In this life there will be trouble, but you shall overcome") and there’s something soothing in its mid-tempo roots rock shuffle that evokes familiar echoes of halcyon classics like Don Henley’s "End Of The Innocence," Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, and the breezier moments of Tom Petty’s Wildflowers album.        

Brian Fallon: This song actually started off really loud but I couldn’t get it to quite work that way. One day, when I was right at the end of the session and was a little frustrated, I sat down and just started typing some words in what I can only describe as a moment of divine intervention—and I don’t get those moments too often. The words were coming out faster than I could type them and when I finished up, I read back over them and could see they were about my kids. I didn’t even know that stuff was kicking around in me. I guess it was just the timing—I had been off tour for a bit and was getting to be home every day. It was just one of those songwriting moments where the lyrics came out of nowhere and I was just really glad somebody else didn’t get that one.   

Being a parent has also affected Fallon’s songwriting in his poetic use of spiritual themes and religious imagery. Not only recalling fond memories of his mother singing hymns around the house when he was a kid, but he also points to navigating his own approach to parenting as a factor in his existential contemplation. Luckily for Fallon, some of his biggest songwriting heroes have also managed to parse out their own spirituality in ways he connects with; being kind, leaving room for mystery, and operating with more questions than answers.   

Brian Fallon: I learned early on that when you’re in a rock band playing loud and fast, it’s not really the time to get ultra-contemplative about the hereafter. I guess I did try a few times though. Spirituality is something I’ve grown up with my whole life. The first music I ever heard was my mom singing hymns. It’s always been around me, but I will say that having kids can really put your head in a position of considering the hereafter, for sure. You wonder if you’re raising them right and you get filled with these sensations of love that you never knew you were capable of feeling for another human being. I think that any artist that digs into life will eventually have to face their decisions on how they feel about all that. I’ve been really drawn to Iris Dement’s hymns record because she has such a beautiful voice and it was all songs I knew from when I was a kid. I’m also influenced by Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and of course, Tom Waits when it comes to that too. I’ve always come at it from a place of it being something to be discovered, not to be understood. I mean, I personally don’t understand it at least. Maybe one verse, "Love thy neighbor," I get that one.

With Local Honey, Fallon now has three solo records under his belt—meaning he’s only two away from equaling the five full-length studio albums he recorded with the Gaslight Anthem. Although, when comparing the two seemingly disparate chapters of his career, he doesn’t actually see that much of a difference between his past punk roots and his current Americana aesthetic. While some of his fans may not be ready to place the two collections right beside each other on their record shelves, Fallon sees his whole musical body of work on a singularly threaded continuum.

Brian Fallon: The punk and Americana communities are so similar in the way that they allow artistic freedom but the funny thing for me is that what I did then and what I do now are so closely married to each other. When I was in the punk scene, so much of what I did was by default. Even in just the first few practices with the Gaslight Anthem, I told the guys that I didn’t know if I could write punk songs. I wanted to write in a more country or folk vein and they were totally cool with that. I wrote acoustic songs liked I wanted and they turned them into loud, fast punk songs. Almost every single song I wrote with them can be stripped back to those acoustic roots. To this day, my approach has remained very similar. When you get older, I guess you just don’t have to make your point so loud. I’ve learned that sometimes it can hit harder when it's quieter.

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The Gaslight Anthem's Comeback Album 'History Books' Makes A Case For Meeting Your Heroes
Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem

Photo: Taylor Hill/Getty Images

interview

The Gaslight Anthem's Comeback Album 'History Books' Makes A Case For Meeting Your Heroes

On 'History Books' — the Gaslight Anthem's first album in nine years — the New Jersey punks sound hungry again. Brian Fallon explains how friendship with Bruce Springsteen, dinner with Jon Bon Jovi and mental health inspired the band's latest.

GRAMMYs/Oct 25, 2023 - 03:00 pm

Seventeen years ago, Brian Fallon and the rest of the Gaslight Anthem — guitarist Alex Rosamilia, bassist Alex Levine, and drummer Benny Horowitz — were just trying to hold onto the dream. 

New Jersey’s communal culture of DIY punk brought them years of friendship and freedom from square jobs, but entering their late 20s, Fallon and co. had played in countless bands that flamed out or left them unfulfilled. Formed in 2006, the Gaslight Anthem was their final shot. "That’s why we called our first record Sink or Swim," Fallon tells GRAMMY.com. 

They swam. That 2007 debut signaled a sea change: In the early 2000s, punk bands were not repping Bruce Springsteen. They were absolutely not namechecking Tom Petty. Here was a punk band from the same streets as the Misfits, Bouncing Souls, and My Chemical Romance, writing great songs draped in the Americana of their parents’ generation. By the time the Boss himself joined Gaslight onstage at Glastonbury Festival 2009, their sophomore album The ‘59 Sound had made them one of the world’s most acclaimed new rock bands. 

The Gaslight Anthem mined its tried and true sound for two more albums,but half a decade of non-stop touring and creative pressure was starting to take its toll. 2014’s Get Hurt, a moodier record inspired by Fallon’s recent divorce, received mixed reviews. A year later, the band was on ice. They reformed in 2018 to perform 10-year anniversary shows for The ‘59 Sound but disappeared soon after. Fallon released singer/songwriter-oriented solo albums into the 2020s and kept in touch with his old bandmates, but it wasn’t the same. 

On Oct. 27, the Gaslight Anthem releases History Books, its first album in nine years. It’s an earthy, battle-tested rock record from a veteran band that sounds hungry again, their first self-released album after an amicable split with Island Records. The title track features a duet with Bruce Springsteen, the pair’s first studio collaboration after years of friendship. 

GRAMMY.com caught up with Fallon to discuss  what years of (humble) rock stardom brought him: a hard-earned appreciation for Gaslight Anthem’s past and a new understanding of the demons rattling in his brain.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What made you want to get the band back together? 

I don’t think it was anything other than being inspired to write. I wouldn’t say that being inside for two years didn’t have a hand in that. At some point, you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, I had this band and we played big shows. It’s fun. A lot of people like it. It sounds like a good idea… I gotta do this. I have something else to say.

When the band was inactive, how much did the four of you stay in touch?

We don’t call each other every day, but we stayed current on the things going on in everybody’s life.

The whole thing is more about being friends. We’ve been through things no one else has seen. We’ve slept on floors in another country in a youth center with bugs crawling on you when you’re sleeping. And the only people that understand that are those other three. 

It’s been almost a decade since Gaslight Anthem released its last album, Get Hurt. Now that there’s some space to look back on it, why do you think the band went its separate ways after that album? 

We all felt that strain. In 2015, you couldn’t really say, as a musician, "Hey, I need to not be on tour because I’m going crazy. I need to sort my mental health out." People would just be like, "We’re going onto the next band. Bye. Your career is over." 

So when we pulled the plug, everyone was like, "Why are you doing this?" Well, so we don’t die. So we don’t hate ourselves, that’s why. We knew it wasn’t the band. We knew it wasn’t each other. I think we just needed to stop the landslide.

Do you think this had to do with being in the major label ecosystem? You came up releasing albums on punk rock labels, so I’m interested how you think it all compares.

I would love to sit here and tell you that the pressure is only in the major label world and that it’s the evil major label corporate overlords who do this to bands, but it is absolutely not. It comes from the smallest indie label of some dude in his basement, all the way up. My experience on majors was maybe even a little more sensitive. If you’re running a small label and you have excitement built up, you’re like, "Whoa! This is working on a big level!" You’re so excited that you’re like, "You gotta do this! You gotta do that!"

I’m not saying any of the labels we were on were like, "You gotta do this!," but there was definitely, "Well, if you don’t play this radio show, they’re not gonna play your record." 

Now, people are a little more in tune to what’s going on, but [10 to 15 years ago] for sure, it was like, this is your only opportunity ever! Well, no, it’s not the only opportunity ever. There’s other opportunities. 

Did it feel like people knew what to do with you at Island Records?

We had a real big champion at the time in the president, David Massey. He was the person who signed us. Bon Jovi and U2 had been on Island for a while and contemporary to us, was the Killers. Every time the Killers did something good, it gave us a little more freedom because they were the other rock band on the label. We liked [the Killers] and they liked us. They covered one of our songs ["American Slang"] at one of their shows in New York [in 2017]. It was like having a big brother on the label, paving a path. 

When we got back together, we weren't really on Island, but they could have made us make a record [for Island]. We don’t own anything. I don’t own [the masters for] Sink or Swim. I don’t own ‘59 Sound. Nothing. So we wanted to own it, now. We wanted to do our own label, with [independent distribution company] Thirty Tigers, where it’s much more of, "You’re the label, you make the decisions." 

How did "History Books" with Bruce come together?

I’m not one to shoot my shot, so to speak. Which has not been great for my career, I guess. But if somebody wants to do something for you, let them do it, you know? I never asked Bruce for anything. 

We were talking and I was saying, "Yeah, we’re putting the band back together and working on some songs." He just said, "Why don’t you write a duet for us?" I was like, "What? Alright!" You have to understand that, for me, sitting here and saying, "Why don’t you whip up a duet for me and Bruce Springsteen?" – that to me is like saying, "Why don’t I write a book for Ernest Hemingway? Why don’t I write Jimi Hendrix a guitar solo?" 

So I went away and I would say to myself, Alright, the next one is for Bruce. I’ll write the next song for Bruce. I just kept writing the songs to get them out, without the pressure. And at the end of it all, I just said, "Which song would Bruce sound good singing on?" Everybody just said "History Books." Cool! And then we sent it to him. 

What did he say when you sent him the song? 

He said, "Cool, I’ll get it done." He was in Dublin on tour and he just did it. 

After knowing him all these years, why do you think now was the time he proposed writing a song together?

With the band back and writing new material, it was just the right time. I don’t think there was a time before this where it would have been good for us to have done. 

Now, we’ve gone down a path enough to where we can embrace Bruce, New Jersey, our influences. We’re able to comfortably have that be our home.

When you’re around Bruce, do you get nervous? 

Imagine you’re seven years old, you’re reading your comic books, and then all of a sudden Batman jumps out of the comic book in your room and goes, "Hey, you wanna go fight crime tonight?" It’s insane to be in the presence of a person that’s that famous, and that influential to you. It’s not a thing a normal person can comprehend. And I can not comprehend this. 

Reading the lyrics to this album, I thought you were referencing your mental health a lot. Can you share what's been going on during the several years of your life?

It feels like everybody in America’s got things on their mind, especially the last couple years. I got to a point where the days felt like they were harder than they should have been. It’s like pushing a rock up a hill when you’re doing that every day, and you get tired. You’re dealing with stuff in your mind that you can’t quite… there’s not an event that causes you to feel a certain way. There’s no cause, so you can’t predict it. And that becomes extremely frustrating.

You turn to other things, or you get help and say, I don’t think I can do this on my own. I need someone else alongside me." That’s the point I got to. I got a therapist. There’s not a special rockstar line that people call, or if there is, I don’t have that number. I just went to the doctor and said, "I don’t feel right." 

Did these feelings get  buried during Gaslight Anthem’s more active years, only to come out during the pandemic when things got quieter?

I think it was coming anyway. Whether there was time to deal with it or not. The band slowing down before the pandemic was part of that, needing some time and space. That was why the band stopped, because it was like a steamroller. It’s like you have another mental illness, which is the anxiety of the pressure of feeling like you have to be excited. And that’s where the tidal wave starts… You feel guilty ‘cause you’re like, "I should be grateful. I’m in a band." And you are grateful, but you’re also struggling, and it’s freaking hard! 

[Mental health] comes up a lot in the song "Positive Charge"… I wrote it about that struggle. But this isn’t the mental health record. I’ve been writing long enough where I can steer the boat so it’s not a diary entry anymore. 

Back in 2021, you played a fundraiser in New Jersey alongside Jon Bon Jovi and Johnny Rzeznik from the Goo Goo Dolls. What was that like? 

We were doing a benefit for the reelection of the Governor of New Jersey [Democrat Phil Murphy]. Jon Bon Jovi reached out to my manager and wanted me to play. Whoopi Goldberg was hosting. Insane stuff. 

Jon Bon Jovi wanted to meet for dinner beforehand. At the same time, I was really thinking about the band. On the way in the car, I said to my wife, "I think I wanna get the band back together." I had not spoken of this prior, so this blew her mind. 

We sit down at the table, and it’s Jon Bon Jovi and John Rzeznik. I didn’t expect them to be familiar with my band, because they’re giant songwriters. They were just genuinely interested in what we had done, talking about the songs they liked. When we left, my wife was like, "That’s a sign. If there’s a sign, that’s a sign."

I’ve met famous people who are completely off the planet. They’re just not interested in having a normal conversation. They just revel in the absurdity of their fame. I could relate to [Bon Jovi and Rzeznik] because the one common denominator is we all came from nothing. And now we’re in bands that achieved some amount of success. 

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

video

GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

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He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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

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

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Say She She

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

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

Moniquea

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

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

Shiro Schwarz

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

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

L'Impératrice

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

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

Franc Moody

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

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

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

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

Photo: Steven Sebring

interview

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

"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP,  Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.

Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.  

Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face." 

But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life. 

His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves. 

Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)

Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") —  their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.

While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens. 

Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.

Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up. 

Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically. 

"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?

We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds. 

We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick. 

I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?

Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol. 

You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way. 

**Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about  freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?**

I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier. 

I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff. 

So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.

[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.

I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.

Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?

I did, yes.

You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?

I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.

It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.

But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is]  informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.

Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.

We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.

It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].

We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.

You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.

It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.

When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.

You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?

Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."

We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.

You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.

With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.

Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.

You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?

I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.

But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.

I remember when you went on "Viva La Bamback in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?

I think it was his car.

Did he get over it later on?

He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.

Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?

In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.

We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.

The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.

There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.

It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.

It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.

Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?

Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.

The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.

The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?

Yeah.  Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].

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