Photo by JJ Gonson
He's Gonna Make It All OK: An Oral History Of Elliott Smith's Darkly Beautiful Self-Titled Album
To honor the 25th anniversary re-release of 'Elliott Smith,' archivist Larry Crane and photographer JJ Gonson reflect on Smith’s impact on their lives—and ours
The longer Elliott Smith has been gone, the closer his listeners have felt to him. Since his untimely death at 34 years old in 2003, Smith's closest friends and family have seen his masterfully empathic songwriting give that intimate companionship to countless fans. The 25th anniversary reissue of his self-titled album, due Aug. 28th via Kill Rock Stars, aims to bridge that gap. The expanded release allows those closest to Smith to share intimate memories and experiences with fans, and for fans to understand the real person behind the music.
Released in 1995, Elliott Smith found the songwriter gaining an increasing profile in the Portland, Oregon, scene and far afield. Smith mined his darkness and exposed it for the world, redoubling Heatmiser’s cleverly twisted songwriting and Roman Candle's homemade flame.
The reissue is a document of Smith's heart and mind, but also of the tight-knit community surrounding him. The remastered take on the record itself was overseen by producer/engineer Larry Crane, a friend and collaborator of Smith's who has since become the official archivist for the Smith family. The reissue also includes Live at Umbra Penumbra, the earliest known live recording of Smith performing as a solo act. Not only does the bonus disc share an up close and personal account of Smith at his rawest, but Crane's experience at the venue and deft hand editing the original cassette tape bring the man behind the legend closer into focus. The package also includes a coffee table book full of handwritten lyrics, notes written by peers about the album's creation and a series of previously never-before-seen pictures by the artist behind the cover image—another close friend of Smith's, JJ Gonson. Her kinetic photographs have been beloved the world over for their ability to document an entire world; these are not pictures of an artist, but rather a life story of the emotions, experiences and memories of the moment.
To honor the duality of image and sound that comprises the 25th anniversary re-release of Elliott Smith, Crane and Gonson reflect on their relationships with the songwriter, the record’s origins, the process of assembling the anniversary edition and Smith’s impact on their lives—and ours.
"We were kids not doing our jobs"
JJ Gonson: We were all very tight. Elliott and Neil [Gust, Heatmiser guitarist/vocalist], when they first came from college, would come in and sit at the coffee bar where I was a baker, and we would just all hang out because we were kids not doing our jobs. There probably wasn't much to do. The muffins were made. And we'd sit there and talk about music and art.
Larry Crane: I wasn't even friends with Elliott at that point. I didn't know him, but I would see him around. I'd see JJ around, with her blue hair. Even when I first moved to town in ‘93, I remember being at parties with my roommates. We'd be at some party and they'd be like, "Oh, Neil Gust from Heatmiser is here." It used to be you’d go downtown or to a few places on the East side to see shows and there weren't even that many bars or pubs that weren't working class, blue collar, working dude bars. So we’d all end up in the same places, hanging out and the same venues, seeing the same kind of underground music.
I saw Heatmiser play a few times when I moved to town, but I’ve got to admit, I wasn't that interested. In fact, I think I even wrote a review of Yellow No. 5 for a little magazine called Snipe Hunt that was going then. But I remember seeing Heatmiser and thinking, "Oh gosh, another guitar band. Who cares?" When grunge hit and ruined Seattle, it didn't initially really affect Portland much and everyone would start bands here that were unique, like Crackerbash, Calamity Jane, Sprinkler, and the Spinanes.
Roman Candle came out on Cavity Search Records, which our friends Denny [Swofford] and Christopher [Cooper] ran. JJ is the one that instigated all that, of course. It got a fair amount of attention. I was working in a pub at that time, and we always had a budget to buy CDs to play at the pub. My manager bought Elliott's album, and I was like, "Oh, it kind of sounds like Nick Drake or something." It was cool and moody. But at that point, I don't think Elliott played any shows solo, or at least I don't have any record of it. So [the recordings on the bonus disc] are really the start of him playing out live, one of his earliest shows. But he had already written a lot of the stuff that would be the second album.
The two songs that people always react to are "Needle in the Hay" and "Christian Brothers." Technically, [Elliott Smith] is not the best-sounding thing. It's all self-recorded, basically, with a little bit of help from Tony Lash [Heatmiser drummer] and Leslie Uppinghouse. Leslie doesn't really get the proper credit. The record was tracked on 8-track, reel-to-reel, and then mixed. It started at Tony's with two songs and the rest in Leslie's spare room. Then it was taken back over to Tony's and mixed down through a pretty inexpensive Mackie console and a DAT machine, which if it's running well, pretty much what you put in is what you get back. But it's a little bit lossy, not the best sound quality. Tony assembled it, but he didn't really master it, apply much EQ, or do any limiting. He just kind of got the songs in the right levels and structured the album. Tony Lash is a fantastic guy and an amazing engineer and drummer. But back at that time when CDs first came out, especially for independent artists, it was really confusing what the mastering process was supposed to be. Finishing vinyl was a manufacturing process: you send the lacquer to a place that would make the negative, and then they would press the vinyl and you’d need to check it out to make sure it sounds right. With CDs, you’d basically send them a digital audio file and they’d make something. Small labels like this just weren't prepared for mastering CDs in a flattering way.
Gonson: I was just capturing what he was doing. It wasn't that I picked up the camera and he started goofing around. There’s a picture of him with the Mickey Mouse glasses, we were out with friends. I was just documenting the whole experience. The one where he's tuning his guitar in L.A. has been a really important photo in my life. That photo and then also the cover of Roman Candle are very popular. But that photo, it could be anybody sitting there tuning and I would still love that picture. The hair, the shape of the body—he really is listening. For years I saw that picture as a little bit dark and gloomy. But then a few years ago, I started seeing it as very positive because his body language is attentive, not depressed. And he's listening to this instrument. He loves the guitar and he's really in this moment of preparing. It just says, "I'm in a punk club getting ready to go on stage.”
I'm going to be really precocious at the moment, and I’m sure some people are going to be like, "I hate her," but one really big part of my reconciling sharing [my photos from that time] was that Elliott loved my photography. I took all of Heatmiser's promo photos and he used my pictures on the covers of two records, a single, and back covers. I feel that he would be okay with my showing my work because he really loved it. He made music and I made pictures, and that's why there are so many pictures...God, I hope he didn't write "Pictures of Me" about that. I don't think he did. I have given a lot of my memory, but the biggest thing about the photos really has to do with feeling like it was okay. And I actually did talk to his sister about it. She’s a dear friend, a wonderful human being, and a brilliant, amazing person.
"I want to make a thing that the people who love him want to have"
Crane: My role is to make sure everything's cataloged and stored properly and backed up digitally. And if any release or remaster is coming out, I supervise it and work on it. I'm not really a mastering engineer, so in cases like this I go through all the different sources and choose the best [recordings]. I went to different digital audio tapes it was mixed to and listened to them all back to back against each other. In some cases, even as these are digital tapes, they transferred differently and were recorded differently somehow. And you just have to find the one that sounds the clearest and the best. And then I would prep the files before mastering, cleaning up the subsonic information, removing tape hiss.
I always felt that it was a beautiful record, but that it sounded a little rough. If you really examine "Needle in the Hay," there were these huge low-end bumps, sub-sonic information on the master tapes. Tony and I have tried to figure out what it is, but it wasn't musical information. It was almost random sound. So being able to go in and surgically remove that with the tools that are available digitally opens up more room for the music to sound better. It takes away this incorrect information. Songs like "Satellite" were really buried in tape hiss at points. I would also clean up really loud guitar scrapes when he was going between chords or really popped P's or S's that were causing a bit of distortion. And then I would go attend sessions with Adam Gonsalves, who's the actual mastering engineer, and we'd spend a few days doing the mastering work as far as EQ'ing and limiting. We would go back and forth, listening to the original album, my raw files, and what he'd done and make little adjustments.
Gonson: Putting out a book is major, major, major for a photographer. I have been taking pictures since I was five, since I was old enough to point and think about what I'm doing. As much as that kid who picks up Rolling Stone magazine and wants to be a guitar player or a drummer, I read Aperture magazine and wanted to be a successful photographer. I shot punk rock and the second wave of hardcore from ‘85 to ‘90 in Boston and New York, so that could be another book. But this one is very much a gift to his fans from me and his label. When Portia [Sabin, Kill Rock Stars president] approached me about doing this project, she said, "I want to make a thing that the people who love him want to have." She was very clear that she wanted to make a beautiful thing and that it was going to be very special.
Crane: Every time you remaster or reapproach an album like this, some people just will not like any change whatsoever. So, some fans are going to say, "That's not what he intended. It just sounds louder and brighter," or something. Most people aren't really equipped to do incredibly deep, critical listening. Some people are going to say they don't like it as much, and to them I say: hang onto your original copy. But when a remaster of an album is done well, you open up just a little more detail and a little more depth. My goal is always to make it something where you're hearing a little bit more of what was intended. I studied filmmaking and I always equate it with a good transfer of a film, where you don't see the hairs caught in the frames, and there's not jumps where the reels change. You take all the garbage out that you don't need and clean it up so it's more emotionally involving. I hope that people will hear it and say, "It affected me more."
I try to keep everything that you're used to hearing. There are noises at the beginning of "Coming Up Roses," a bunch of rustling. I wouldn't take that out. And I would certainly never auto-tune or pitch correct his lead vocals. You couldn't really slick up this record or do too much to it. We don’t have multitracks for half of the record. There's a missing reel somehow. It's one of the few cases where we just don't have the masters. I just try to present it in a similar way to the way he was mixing his stuff. I go with certain panning schemes and certain affects usage that made sense to the way Elliott worked. He wasn't someone who was super communicative all the time, but I watched him work on XO and he would just be matter of fact and move forward.
Gonson: The [book] designer I worked with was so talented that I very easily downloaded from my brain into his what my dream was of how this would look. He totally nailed it immediately. I went to a very conventional fine arts school as a really fringy person and learned that photography is called bottom weighted. It's not quite in the center of the page; it's a little bit to the top. It has a black line around it, and it's on a white page.
This work has never been seen, and I'm not just someone who happened to be on the spot with a quick camera. I'm a trained photographer and photojournalist. So some of them are candid, but they're still photography. They're not just what I call happy snaps—though those do still have a lot of merit. But these are very satisfying to me because they're actually portraits. I have thousands and thousands of pictures and these are the ones that I selected out to share. Editing is the bugbear of the artist. It's hard to know when to stop. Gratefully, I did a lot of critique in art school, and I was taught to have a discerning eye. So, I can go from 200 pictures down to 40 pretty easily. But it's that last 40 that are painful. In this case, there were very, very strict criteria: no photos of Heatmiser, and only pictures from a certain couple of years.
Photo by JJ Gonson
"That picture is a story...a portrait of 1994 in Portland"
Gonson: There are always my favorite pictures, a lot of which have never been seen. There are ones that I find the most dear, like the photo of Elliott with blue hair and he's doing the devil horns and he's holding a cup of coffee. That photo is that it is a portrait of 1994 in Portland, Oregon. That picture is a story. You've got the wet streets. The cars give you the time period. And then his growing out, faded, dyed blue hair and the ironic cat's eye glasses, the ironic jacket—it was all about being ironic, because it was grunge. I look at that picture and I'm like, "That's ‘93, ‘94 Portland, Oregon." Another one that I find very satisfying as a picture is of Elliott playing guitar with our friend, Chris. That tells another story that's very important: everybody sitting around, playing constantly. I think they're in front of a shower curtain that we were using to divide a room because somebody was sleeping in the other part of the room. It was a house full of 20-year-olds, whatever we were, post-college youngsters with bad jobs or no jobs.
The thing that was the most difficult was not being able to lay a bunch of pictures out together on a table. You really can't in this process. That makes it very hard to do the color balance, because they all have to be contiguous. You can't have one be shockingly blue, and the next one be suddenly shockingly yellow or your brain will just go, "This looks like shit." So they all have to be color balanced and the blacks and whites had to be adjusted to suit each other. And that's probably the thing that the designer, Rob Jones, and I spent the most time doing. I actually went to Portland so we were looking at the same screen and I was like, "A little bluer..." And then we scrolled through them really fast before taking a day off and coming back to it with fresh eyes. Making this book was like mixing a record—mastering, mixing, all of it.
"There’s a whole person there"
Crane: The live album that comes with it was very difficult. I'd drive around town, borrowing four-track cassette players from different people and doing different passes with noise reduction on and noise reduction off. The masters for the album were easier to deal with than this cassette recording because with an analog master, like these cassettes, you can keep messing with it and pulling more information out of the ether, out of the tape hiss. If you get a slightly better tape head or a tape player, maybe the tape player plays the tape more steadily and there's less flutter. Or maybe the different brands of four-track cassette recorders have slightly different gaps between the tracks on the heads, so they follow it differently. There are a million things, so that was frustrating as heck.
I feel we always end up saying, "There's a whole person there. There's a whole breadth of emotion, personality behind this music. Don't take it at a shallow base value." And I think when something like this live concert comes out, people are able to hear he was very casual with his shows. He would stop and start songs and chat with the audience. He would sound nervous to some people, but honestly, I don't really think he was. He was just up there, like, "What do you want?" It's a tiny venue. I remember seeing him play here once. It was a little coffee shop. The tiny crowd is probably sitting on the floor. You can hear Sean Croghan and Neil Gust and Joanna Bolme and a few of our other friends talking in the background. He plays "Half Right" with Neil, which had just been written. And we're lucky that Casey Crynes made this little live cassette. I wasn't there for this show, but I saw shows there later, so I know what the space felt. It's important to understand those things.
"Everyone knew that what he was doing was pretty damn good"
Crane: I'm pretty sure I met Elliott in ‘96 through Joanna Bolme. They were dating at the time and she worked at a venue called La Luna as a bartender. If you listen to "New Monkey," it actually refers to that. My friend was the bar manager there, so when I went to La Luna to see shows, I usually got on the guest list and they'd give me free beers. That's how I met Joanna and how Elliott ended up hanging out at our house.
Summer of ‘96, we talked at a party, and then I recorded the vocals on "Pictures of Me" for him at my house. I remember saying, "Do you really have to double everything? Do you have to put so many vocals on here?" He did six tracks of vocals. I was kinda like, "That seems excessive, but this reminds me of the Left Banke." And he goes, "You like the Left Banke?" It sparked this conversation where we discovered we both liked a lot of the same stuff, more nuanced, older music and Baroque pop. In the winter of ‘96/’97, we went and found a space and opened up Jackpot. But when he was recording Either/Or, he did a lot of the recording at JJ's office space. I was working at a record distributor that was on the other side of the wall from where he was playing drums. We'd hear Elliott in there banging around and we knew he was making a new record. And then when we opened the studio, we spent weeks building the walls and wiring things up. It was my business, but I told him if he wanted to bring gear down and help me build the studio, he could work out of here for a small fee. It was really fun building the studio with him. We'd listened to CDs all day, lots of Beatles, Zombies, and the Kinks. There was always Dylan hovering in the background. I think I tortured him with Petula Clark one time. He went out one day and came back with a CD of Pat Boone's In a Metal Mood. It's pretty hilarious. Not really something you want to listen to.
I was not putting Elliott on any sort of pedestal at that point, just because he was in our friend group. Everyone knew that what he was doing was pretty damn good. But at the same time, everybody was falling all over themselves about Everclear and the Dandy Warhols. The Dandy Warhols are fun, but it's just lightweight, fluff music. And Everclear are just flat-out shitty. It's an old guy writing songs for teenagers. It's bullshit music. It's as bad as listening to Foreigner or something.
"It's my life"
Gonson: I didn't listen to his music at all [while making the book]. I don't need to. I watched it being written. I think he's brilliant, but I don't necessarily dig back into old favorites and that's what that would be. I don't need to be triggered into that. It's my life.
Crane: If you went to my mom and gave her a two-inch reel of my old band or something, she'd go, "What do I have to do with that?" I remember in the middle of working on New Moon, I met with Elliott’s dad, Gary, and he goes, "I got this box of stuff. Do you want to look at it?" And there was a whole bunch of digital audio tapes. We put it in the archive, but I don't think he even quite knew what they were. He was like, "Are these something?" I'm like, "Oh, majorly. Yes. But we need to get those backed up now." I'm really honored that they trust me and it really helps to be in a position to help them. I'm in a wonderful position because I know Rob Schnapf and Joanna [Bolme] and most of the guys that were in Heatmiser. I'm still in touch with Neil [Gust]. I can drop a line to anybody and say, "Hey, I've got a question" and they're happy to talk to me about it. They trust me. If I was some stranger that was just hired because he had the technical expertise, they might be nervous about this person. We can all confer and make sure that things feel okay.
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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.
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Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
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Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Listen: All Of The Latin Music 2023 GRAMMY Nominees In One Playlist
Ahead of Music's Biggest Night on Feb. 5, 2023, celebrate with this immersive playlist of every Latin Field nominee at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
The Latin GRAMMYs may have just honored the genre's trailblazers in Las Vegas on Nov. 17, but the celebration will continue at the upcoming 65th GRAMMY Awards ceremony in February. There are five categories in the Latin Field of the 2023 GRAMMY nominations — and you can hear all of the nominees in one playlist.
In the Best Latin Pop Album category, are Christina Aguilera's Latin GRAMMY-winning AGUILERA will compete with Rubén Blades & Boca Livre's Pasieros, Camilo's De Adendro Pa Afuera, Fonseca's VIAJANTE, and Sebastián Yatra's Dharma+. Channeling their lively Latin roots while traversing pop landscapes, these albums all magnetically merge tradition and modernity.
Reggaeton, dancehall, hip hop, and funk coalesce in the nominated works for Best Música Urbana Album: Rauw Alejandro's Trap Cake, Vol. 2, Bad Bunny's Un Verano Sin Ti, Daddy Yankee's LEGENDADDY, Farruko's La 167, and Maluma's The Love & Sex Tape.
The genre-blending jubilation continues with the Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album category. This year's nominees are Cimafunk's El Alimento, Jorge Drexler's Tinta y Tiempo, Mon Laferte's 1940 Carmen, Gaby Moreno's Alegoría, Fito Paez's Los Años Salvajes, and Rosalía's MOTOMAMI.
For Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano), 2021 winner Natalia Lafourcade's Un Canto por México - El Musical is up against Chiquis' Abeja Reina, Los Tigres Del Norte's La Reunión (Deluxe), Christian Nodal's EP #1 Forajido, and Marco Antonio Solís' Qué Ganas de Verte (Deluxe).
As for Best Tropical Latin Album, Marc Anthony — a two-time winner in the category — returns as a nominee with Pa'lla Voy, alongside pioneers Tito Nieves (nominated for Legendario), La Santa Cecilia (Quiero Verte Feliz), Víctor Manuelle (Lado A Lado B), Spanish Harlem Orchestra (Imágenes Latinas), and Carlos Vives (Cumbiana II).
Listen to all of the above albums in this comprehensive, 338-song playlist of the Latin music GRAMMY nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Check it out on Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music — and we'll see you at Music's Biggest Night on Sunday, Feb. 5!