Photo: Robin Laananen
George Clarke On Deafheaven's New Album 'Infinite Granite,' Finding His Voice & Breaking Out Of Underground Memeification
When Deafheaven got huge, a swath of black metal purists went to war while diehard fans exalted them as be-all-end-alls. But their most forward-thinking album yet, Infinite Granite, is—as singer George Clarke insists—"just a record"
Album art should ideally describe what's inside in some way, but Deafheaven's latest is unique in that it literally shows music. What may look like a grainy Voyager photo of Neptune in its indigo immensity is actually the first minutes of the opening track "Shellstar," processed through a visualizer and photographed in long exposure. To singer George Clarke, the resultant orb of blue specks on coal-black connotes "space or infinity, but it's also quite embryonic... almost like a place of birth."
The band is also unique in that they treat themselves as solely musicians. In a field of swollen egos, this isn't a given. Ever since 2013's Sunbather, which inspired outsized reactions from zealots and haters alike, the GRAMMY-nominated five-piece—Clarke, guitarists Kerry McCoy and Shiv Mehra, bassist Chris Johnson and drummer Daniel Tracy—has made a point to simply write the best music they can and not make a big deal out it. In a hailstorm of memes about crew-cuts and delay pedals and weeping in awe, Deafheaven simply worked hard.
Now, with their new album, Infinite Granite, which arrives August 20 via Sargent House, they get to fully enjoy the rewards of not believing their own hype. In what's already the primary talking point surrounding the album, Clarke doesn't scream throughout 85 percent of it, but croons. On advance singles "In Blur," "Great Mass of Color" and "The Gnashing," he displays just how hard he worked to not sound tentative, or coached, but confident—as if he had sung since the very first record.
In a wide-ranging interview with GRAMMY.com, George Clarke opens up about the cosmic and literary inspirations behind Infinite Granite, his creative development over the last year and a half and why, in the end, this is "just a record" and nothing more.
What's your life been like for the past year and a half?
It was fine, to be honest. The tour cancelations were a bit of a hit, but we were able to do this makeshift live record in-studio featuring songs we were going to play that year. That came together quickly and we were able to do that, which felt good. We were at the end of our cycle for Ordinary, so we had it easier than a lot of people did. We were able to settle into a writing period, so we started taking the necessary steps to get that done.
Which, of course, had its own difficulties, because we were very conscious of everything happening and we wanted to be as safe as possible. People were getting tested all the time and we were traveling to different studios with masks and all that, which kind of heightened the atmosphere of it, I think, and made things a little more difficult. But overall, it was good. We used the period to try to be creative and not waste what we saw as an opportunity.
Once the record finished, I went to New Zealand and lived there from January until about the beginning of May. Then, I've been back in L.A. since then, just kind of rolling out the album. I came back to start this whole experience, which has been really nice.
Was it a shock to the system after riding around in a van or bus for 10 years?
Yeah, definitely, especially this past year. We were spending a lot of time with each other. We worked on this record longer than any previous one, so we were together a lot, and that was great and felt very natural. But it was interesting not being on the road. Being at home for that amount of time is not something any of us are used to. That has increased throughout 2021 because we're not working on the record and not seeing each other as much. We're all eagerly anticipating that side of things to pick up again.
Did the other guys make it through OK, financially or otherwise?
Yeah, they did. That was one of the first things that happened: We had an emergency meeting and looked at all our accounts. We keep things for savings and this sort of thing. We were thankfully able to budget throughout the year so everyone could be as comfortable as possible. And, of course, unemployment as well.
Thankfully, everyone is alright, but there have definitely been times of stress. Everyone has picked up side work here and there, but that's also just in an effort to keep busy, I think. That was the other thing: The extreme boredom, the extreme idle feeling of the last year got to people a little bit.
I'm not sure how other journalists will receive Infinite Granite, but to me, it stands out from the rest. Hearing you let loose with a scream at the end—rather than screaming all the way through—gave me a feeling I hadn't gotten from any past Deafheaven record.
Thank you. I have no idea either! When we were making it, it wasn't a thought. There were jokes and things like that, but we weren't really consciously considering it. And then after the record was finished, we started to. I think that's what happens: Your head kind of clears and you sort of leave the cave and you're like, "Oh. How are people going to hear this? This actually might be quite interesting, to see what the reaction is."
I will say that we spent a lot of time on it and I think there's a lot of detail in it that wasn't necessarily present in our other albums. I think we really wanted to work more with nuance this time around.
One thing that's always struck me about Deafheaven is that you guys would open for Lamb of God or Slipknot—and then go play with non-heavy artists like Slowdive or Emma Ruth Rundle—with something of a smirk. I don't sense that you guys had existential crises along the way.
I think that early on, we simply saw that we could do both.
Just by getting the opportunity to do both, we saw that as an advantage, like an interesting position that not a lot of people were able to have. Say another band had the same position: They'd be like, "Oh, even if we can do both, we want to shy away from this and only work within this kind of thing. I don't know how an indie audience is going to respond to this, so we should always just take the Lamb of God opportunities," or vice versa.
"I think what we do is serious music, but you don't want to always feel like you have to go to battle for your art."
We would rather say yes to everything. It's all part of the greater experience of playing music like this. I think there's maybe a bit of a smirk, but it's just like an acknowledgement of how strangely unique it all is. Like, "That does work!" or "We can make it work!" and there's something fun about that. That's part of what makes what we do fun, and we have to have some of that.
At the same time, we kind of had to defend ourselves throughout our whole career, and that's a little tedious. At that point, it starts to get a little self-serious. I think what we do is serious music, but you don't want to always feel like you have to go to battle for your art.
Back in the Sunbather era, I also sensed some bemusement at your haters, like, "We're not really black metal? They're making memes about us? Fine, great, I don't care."
I was kind of surprised by it, really: People really care! Sometimes that's funny. That's the honest attitude that we have maintained, and, in a way, have had to maintain. It gets a little unnerving when people tell you, "I think this is the greatest thing ever made," or "This saved my life."
It's not just the negative things. It's quite often the very true and positive things that make you have to recalibrate and be like, "Look, everyone, while I'm glad people are having an emotional reaction to the music—and while I want them to, and that's part of the intention of making it—it also needs to be stated, for good and for bad, however you choose to see it, there are just songs. We're just people in a room trying to be creative and not be bored."
Your music is often very heightened and does elicit extreme emotional responses. Have you ever felt invaded by fans or like people were getting creepy about it?
No, no. I've never really felt that. It's always been a lot of love. It's just good to be objective sometimes, I think. Like I said, that recalibration. It's just reminding everyone that, at least from our standpoint, this is just something that we're doing.
That record in particular [Sunbather], I was really surprised at how people gravitated toward it and how it became such a conversation piece, almost like a weird moment in the subculture. From that kind of came what you were talking about earlier, where it's like, "Man, we're like memes. Oh, funny. People are really invested."
And from it came so much good, so I'm thankful that we're able to experience that, but it was funny.
Deafheaven's George Clarke performing in Oslo in 2018. Photo: Avalon/PYMCA/Gonzales Photo/Per-Otto Oppi/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Was there a moment where the irritation of needing to defend yourselves began to loosen up and you guys could just be a rock band?
Yeah, yeah. We talked about this a little bit during Ordinary amongst ourselves. At the time, we were feeling really alleviated from not being so centered in the conversation.
I think what it was was we just stuck around long enough. Perhaps, if we had gone away after Sunbather, we would always be this thing, but because we continued forward making music we wanted to make and touring and not really making a big deal out of it, I think people are like, "OK, I can focus on something else."
When we were first coming out, there were a couple of different "controversial" bands that have all, I think, outgrown that. [Hunter Hunt-Hendrix] of Liturgy being another one, who just does her own thing and expands with each record. I think perhaps it is just a time thing, but regardless of the reason, yeah, it's freeing to be in that position. And I still feel that freedom.
Even if it is still a conversation—us at large—I don't see a ton of it.
What prompted the move from Anti- to Sargent House for Infinite Granite? I imagine you merely fulfilled your contract, but I don't want to presume.
Yes, that is it—we fulfilled the contract. I love Anti- and we had a very good experience with them.
Since we knew we were going to be working with Justin [Meldal-Johnsen] fairly early on, there was an idea with this record to expand the musical palette and expand the production and, along with that, expand those budgets while simultaneously shrinking the business side and taking more control over it and working closer with Sargent House in a more symbiotic way, because from a management side, we've been together so long.
There was an idea to kind of bring everything home while we were making this sound and delivery and art and all that much more expansive.
Since you guys have been with them forever, it doesn't strike me as downsizing, but consolidating.
That's exactly it. It's just putting everything under a smaller umbrella and having more control. Not to expand on it too far, but there was this idea that people would think the aspirations for this record were more commercial.
I think on a subconscious level, sticking with Sargent House and, in fact, even leaving Anti-, would be kind of a silent response to that curiosity. Just being like, "No, this is purely an artistic move, and we want to do it with the people we've known and gotten to trust over the past decade.
Were people starting to think you were reaching for pop appeal?
I'm not sure if that's a widespread idea, but it was in the realm of what people could be thinking. That's something I anticipated and was conscious of. I think it's an interesting optic to pursue, I guess, this bigger, more rock sound while honing everything in on the business side of things.
When I first saw the album cover, I figured it was a NASA photo. Then I looked at it more closely and realized it wasn't, and then I read that [Touché Amoré's] Nick Steinhardt designed it.
It's funny: Nick and I spent months talking about the album. I sent him the lyrics and said, "This is how I'm feeling about it," and so on. Blue was present very early on, and both of us, honestly, were envisioning this sort of blue mass. We both had this idea of spherical immensity—a strange, strong spherical image.
From that, he basically created an MP3 visualizer that rotates 360 degrees as the song plays. It's made up of all these dots and their movement shifts with the song, and then, as the soundbar does its 360-degree rotations, we took long-exposure photographs of those rotations. The cover is actually the first couple of minutes of the first song, and each track has its own corresponding orb that's made of the music.
We were thinking about concept albums and talking about how artwork of conceptual records always reflects the lyrical content. For this, we wanted to kind of flip that on its head and have artwork that literally was a visual embodiment of what was happening sonically.
He did some tests and made maybe 300 or 400 of them, which all looked fairly similar. We just kind of went through and I was really struck by the one that made it to the cover. To me, not only does it have a kind of idea of space or infinity, but it's also quite embryonic. I look at it almost like a place of birth.
Did the track title "Neptune Raining Diamonds" grow out of it?
They were kind of separate ideas. I heard the guys making "Neptune Raining Diamonds" and, to me, it just kind of sounds like that. I was doing some reading and there was a National Geographic article on how Neptune rains diamonds. It was talking about all the atmospheric pressure that makes this effect. I thought it was really interesting and, to me, it's what that track sounded like.
Can you imagine anything more visually splendorous than that?
When I saw the headline in the article, I thought the same thing! I was like, "Man, that visual is incredible." I can't really take the credit for it, but it did make me feel a certain way.
I'm sure some are making a big deal out of the fact that you sing through 85 percent of this record, but to me, it's a completely natural evolution. I think of "Night People" from Ordinary Corrupt Human Love. Did you always like to sing? Which singers have stuck with you over the years?
A ton. I've listened to traditional singing—or whatever you want to call it—artists forever. Some of my favorite performers are non-metal performers.
But that said, no. It was nothing that I really pursued myself outside of the shower, you know what I mean? Outside of just fun on my own, like most people do, I never really pursued it.
I was in theater for four or five years, and I did musical theater during that time. But even that was mostly secondary. I preferred drama. I didn't do anything for a long time, and it was something we had discussed in the band and something I was pulling toward and experimented with on a couple of occasions on Ordinary.
Once we were given all this time and opportunity to write this album, I decided I wanted to take it more seriously and fully pursue the idea.
Deafheaven at the 2019 GRAMMY Awards. Photo: Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images
Hundreds of shows into your career, did you start to feel limited by screaming?
Not so much in its expression. I still feel like it is oftentimes the ultimate way for me to express an idea or emotion, to express that level of intensity. I still think, ultimately, it is a preference of mine. But in terms of technique, I was feeling limited. I just kind of felt like I had done all I could do with my range, stamina, rhythm and everything else.
Like you said, we tour quite often. I think we had done, in that year, five full tours. That definitely was a catalyst for those decisions as well, or it just reinforced those feelings. I wanted to be fully sure this was a decision I wanted to make before I did it.
I remember playing that show in January, and we had already been kind of working on songs and I had been thinking about the clean-vocal idea. After that January 2020 show, I knew that I definitely wanted to pursue it.
You mentioned in a podcast with [Touché Amoré's] Jeremy Bolm that you had started to be at odds with your position in the band. That you felt like the musical weak link in some way. Was that a motivation as well?
I think so. By the winter of 2019, we had had two songs and maybe the skeleton of a third. I knew at that point this wasn't going to work [with screaming]. We could have pursued it anyway, but I just wouldn't have been happy.
The guys often don't see that juxtaposition as wrong in any scenario. I think they're always comfortable with and wanting a harsh vocal on whatever kind of bed they end up creating. But for me, it was just the artistic aspect of it. I wanted to be challenged in that way.
When people say "Oh, he's singing now," it's so much more than just the tone. The writing is so different. It's not one-note rhythm writing, which is what aggressive vocals are. You're not moving a lot melodically. It's purely rhythm. For this, you need lot more. And if you want to make something creative and not just standard, you need to have dexterity in your vocal and a little bit of range and a lot of confidence.
"In terms of technique, I was feeling limited. I just kind of felt like I had done all I could do with my range, stamina, rhythm and everything else."
It was developing those things with JMJ [Justin Meldal-Johnsen] that, to me, really got it over the finish line. It's not just hitting the notes. It's your delivery. It's wanting to make choruses. And I've said this a lot, but I'll say it again: I've never written a chorus at all.
I've been listening to them my whole life, so it's like, "What eras do I want to link to mine? How am I feeling? Am I listening to a lot of '70s music, or '80s music, or '90s music? Where am I pulling from?" Essentially, I have a blank canvas here. I think that's what made it take as long as I did because I worked on them for over a year, continuously.
You could have easily gone off the rails with overly complex melodies, but the chorus to "Great Mass of Color" is three notes. It seems like you've stripped down your melodic vocabulary for maximum catchiness.
We did, yeah! Especially between me and Justin, there's a lot of those conversations. I was having to rework my lyrics in different ways and there was a little bit of strain. I didn't want to lose ideas, but I did want to filter them in a way that was simple enough to be effective. A chorus is kind of a universal thing. It doesn't need to be the highest brow. It just needs to be impactful and emotional.
But then you have "Villain," one of the first songs we worked on vocally, with all the falsetto things. That was more of a product of what you're saying. It's this big empty canvas where I could do whatever I want, so there are moments where there are jumps into less standard territory. I was hoping for a blend between the two.
You mentioned Chet Baker as an influence on your singing voice. I'm a Chet Baker lunatic.
That rules. A little bit! I was trying to find voices that had a sweet strength to them. When I was deciding on how I wanted my vocal approach to be, one of the things I was considering was shoegaze live and how it's very difficult to mix, especially in smaller clubs. From the top down, everyone has a little bit of struggle. I knew how the music was developing, so I needed a voice where I could compete with loud guitars but not always be full rock.
There are moments on the record where I accentuate more of this rocking voice, but what I described is sweet strength that has legs to it. I find that a lot with [Chet Baker]. I was listening to a lot of Nina Simone and Tears for Fears and stuff that has a dreamy bed of music but doesn't sacrifice the vocal to that sound. It has a very impactful voice on top of it to, in a way, compete.
It's a balancing act between insubstantial, wispy shoegaze vocals and, like, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Yes, yes, yes, exactly. I dabbled in both. There are so many demos, in part, because I wanted to record everything to hear it back. And, yes, I was going both directions and was hoping to find a middle ground, and maybe I did. I don't know. It's why songs like "In Blur" or "The Gnashing" have a different tonal quality than "Other Language" or "Great Mass of Color."
Chet kind of tossed his voice, but not flimsily. He owned the high notes.
It's that control. That's exactly what I mean. It's less breathy, less careless. They're not supposed to be what shines in shoegaze; it's just another textural element. And we didn't want to be a shoegaze band. I think while this record has a lot of that in there, I wouldn't call it that. Our defining marker was that vocal decision.
Fans glom onto one lyric or another with each Deafheaven record, but I feel like your lyrics remain weirdly underdiscussed. What can you tell me about your lyrical approach for this one? What are you reading lately?
Thank you. I'm into these lyrics. They're a real patchwork of all these different themes, and no song is about any singular thing, necessarily. They have major motifs, but it's all [multifaceted]. The reason is that, originally, I wanted it to be kind of a concept record surrounding family—estranged family, and how those figures find their way into your life in this bigger connection.
But through the course of years, I was reflecting so much on all the heightened emotion of 2020 and the California fires that were happening and the protests and all these things. Those were finding their way into the lyrics, and I just kind of made a patchwork of both things. There's equal parts familial reflection and a present-day doomsday feeling.
I'm trying to think of what I was reading. I've been reading a lot of political stuff in the last year and a half. I felt my headspace was in that area. But, yeah, a lot of Polish stuff. I was reading Aleksander Wat, Szymborska, Milosz. I was reading a lot of Lydia Davis. I got that essay and short story anthology she put out. That's some of them.
You post your photography on Instagram, and I know you put out a couple of books of poetry. It seems like you're finding ways to express yourself beyond this thing you do 10 months a year.
Yeah, I'd like to do more of that. I am doing more of that. Maybe since I turned 30, I've been in this highly motivated zone, just really wanting to do things. Last year probably perpetuated it some, but I'm just looking to be busy. I love all those steps—conceptualizing and then seeing something through, whether it's writing or photography or music. It's all kind of thrilling. I think all that stuff is just in an effort to keep my brain occupied.
Or maybe just becoming a more balanced human being?
And learning! I'd never picked up a camera. I got a camera a few years ago and, through books and YouTube and whatever else, and texting friends that shoot film, I learned all this stuff. I develop and scan everything at my place. It's been cool to exercise that muscle more.
How did you get over the hump of "amateur photography"?
Oh, I'm amateur hour through and through. I'm an absolute hobbyist. Thankfully, a couple of friends have asked me to take their photo and it's great practice, but anything that looks professional or set-up is just [me] having some fun with it. I've taken so many and there's a lot of st. My goal is always to have a high average of what I call "keeps" from each roll, and I'm still on the low. [Laughs.]
What's going through your head as you prepare to head back on tour? Do you feel apprehensive about how this material will be received? That some fans might just want the screaming songs?
Honestly, I think our audience is going to be accepting. The show is going to have a lot more [dynamism] now with these new songs. Overall, the picture will be more interesting and varied.
But there's a ton of thought going into the technical aspect of it. We got together a couple of months ago to run the songs as we'll be doing them. Everyone has in-ear monitors now and we have a totally different amp setup with tons of different pedal and synth configurations now. There's a click track, which we've never done before. So, there's different bridges to cross.
If anything, that's where the nerves are coming from. But we have a lot of time and we are typically well-prepared people, so I feel really good. I feel mostly excited to play shows and see friends and see the country and hopefully see the world at some point soon and just get on with it.
And just play music without being a conversation piece?
If there's anything I want from people or from the record, it's just to take some time with it and to really listen to it. We put a lot of work into it. It's very detailed. When people receive the package, that aspect is very detailed as well.
And it doesn't really need to be more than that. It's just a record.
The above was drawn from two conversations and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
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].
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.