Photo: Brian Ziff
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: How Illenium Went From An "Obsessed" Dance Music Fan To An Arena-Filling DJ & Producer
With his fourth LP, 'Fallen Embers,' Illenium kicked off a new era that blends his love for electronic music and pop-punk. As he celebrates a GRAMMY nod, the producer looks back on his journey to stardom and shares how the dance genre changed his life.
Growing up, Nick Miller never really listened to dance music. Now, he's one of the genre's most prolific stars, better known as Illenium — and is celebrating a GRAMMY nomination as a result.
Illenium's fourth album, 2021's Fallen Embers, is up for Best Dance/Electronic Music Album at the 2022 GRAMMY Awards. It's a pinnacle moment for Miller, who became "obsessed" with the electronic music world in 2009, launched his career with a self-released EP in 2013, then made his major-label debut in 2016.
Since then, Illenium has put out three more LPs and countless singles, teaming up with fellow dance titans like Gryffin and the Chainsmokers, as well as a variety of singers, from Georgia Ku to Jon Bellion. His versatility is perhaps most apparent on Fallen Embers, which features Tori Kelly, iann dior and Thirty Seconds to Mars, among others.
Though he's already teasing new music — which will debut during Illenium's set at Miami's Ultra Music Festival on March 26 — the producer/DJ feels the next chapter of his career truly began with Fallen Embers. With a GRAMMY nomination to validate his new direction, it may really just be the beginning.
GRAMMY.com sat down with Illenium to discuss the importance of Fallen Embers, how he transitioned from the crowd to the stage, and the role music played in changing — and saving — his life.
What initially made you realize that you were interested in producing — and that you were actually pretty good at it?
I started messing around in GarageBand in high school, and it introduced me to the idea of spending time creating something — even though that stuff back then was really bad. I moved to Colorado, and had some life-changing moments, and I started putting a lot of my time into it. A lot of the encouragement I got from friends, even though it was just mediocre music, was really exciting.
I was writing for music blogs, and I just loved the whole electronic music scene at that time. I would try to create what my idols were doing, and try to learn how they were doing it. I became obsessed, passionate and excited. I got addicted to trying to make songs. The feeling of doing it yourself, and being able to control every aspect of that, was really addicting.
I went to a Red Rocks show in 2012, and seeing that community, especially in Colorado — the Denver-based music scene is really tight-knit and communal, and it's really genuine. It was just really special. It was an experience that really drove me to want to succeed in it.
Was dance music your No. 1 genre growing up?
No, not at all. I didn't listen to much dance music until, like, 2009. I first got into it when I was living in San Francisco. I really liked a lot of the house stuff and trance, and then once I moved to Colorado, it turned into the bass music scene.
I grew up listening to a lot of pop-punk and rock, and my family listens to country a lot. A lot of hip-hop [too]. So I was all over the place in middle school and high school.
That's kind of all I listen to now. I listen to some pop, and a little bit of hip-hop, but it's almost all rock music and pop-punk.
Considering you were a teenager during the pop-punk explosion of the mid-2000s, that makes sense.
Totally. I feel like there's so much emotion and — it's not even aggression, but it's like, intensity, in that kind of music, where it can be really pretty melodically or lyrically, but the instrumental stuff behind it just like, hits. It hits me more than a lot of electronic music does nowadays. So I think that's why I'm transferring it into my type of thing.
Fallen Embers is the first album that doesn't start with "A," but its title still fits into the overall theme that Ashes, Awake and Ascend present. What's the story behind that?
My logo is a phoenix, [because] the imagery behind the phoenix really relates to me and the music that I make, and why I make music in the first place. So my first three albums were kind of this whole birth cycle of a phoenix. They all started with "A," it was a trilogy of that cycle. So Fallen Embers was kind of my take on what pieces were left — the embers fallen from the phoenix throughout that whole journey.
I made that album when I wasn't touring, and that's the first album I made in a long time [that] I wasn't touring, because I've been touring like crazy. It turned out much more calm and much more like a recharge album for me. Lyrically, it [details] the ebbs and flows of a relationship — it doesn't have to be a relationship, but just through finding yourself, and forgiving yourself for making mistakes and moving on.
Sonically, Fallen Embers has more rock elements. It's definitely calmer than Ascend. I love emotional music, so my music is always going to have an emotional aspect to it. That is not going to change. But I don't want to just keep repeating and chasing [the same sound], so now I'm moving very — like, totally — different, post-Fallen Embers. Fallen Embers, for me, was like a farewell, almost. I just wanted to be very clear that that was a trilogy, and now we're departed.
When you announced Fallen Embers, you said this is "the start of a new chapter." So is that kind of what you were talking about?
Yeah. I've been in LA five out of the past six months to start from scratch and write rock songs, and heavy aggressive s<em></em>*, because I feel like I took a break and made music that's kind of calm. Now I'm [going] a little more aggressive and adding some metal aspects.
There's this middle ground of electronic, rock and metal that can be really cool. And I feel like there's a lot of people doing similar stuff, but the songs can be really authentic and healing to people — right now, especially.
You also said this album was "an incredibly personal journey for me." Since it was so personal for you, did you see an even more meaningful impact from these songs?
Yeah. I mean, these past two years have been really challenging for a lot of people, myself included. Especially since shows have come back, you can definitely see in people the excitement to get a release of some sort. And to [just] enjoy — it's hard after a long time of people just going through the motions.
Especially in the electronic music scene, a lot of these people use these shows and the music for their healing and their escape. And that's really important for 'em. So to be able to give them a show and also give them new music, and see how that music has been their kind of crutch this past year, has been really beautiful for me.
You had everyone from Tori Kelly to Angels and Airwaves on Fallen Embers. What goes into finding the right vocalist for a track?
It's a mix. A lot of it is availability-based. When I first am working on a song, especially if it's a demo, it'd be like, "Who would sound good on this?" The "Blame Myself" demo had Emily Warren, who has a really amazing voice, and a very unique tone. So it's hard to fill that.
You get this thing called "demoitis," where you're used to the demo so much, it's hard to separate. But you've got to just find the right vocalist that is gonna bring her own or his own whole attitude to it. And you just kind of have to sit with it for a second because you're so obsessed with the first version.
It's not about, necessarily, the skill of singing. It's a lot of tone. Sonically, how you make a whole song, and you have a vocal in there, you need someone that fits that exact same spot. And that can be really challenging.
For "Paper Thin" with Tom and Angels and Airwaves, that was just a bucket list [thing] for me, I've always wanted to work with him. When we sent it to him, we were like, "They're probably not going to do this." Same with Jared [Leto, Thirty Seconds to Mars' frontman]. I'm the biggest fan of all of the people I collaborated with, so it's really been special.
I feel like a lot of people who aren't as familiar with the dance music scene may assume that producers like you, who aren't on their tracks vocally, might not write them. But you, and people like Kygo and Zedd — all of these huge names in the producer world — have proven that wrong. Do you feel like that's a common misconception?
I think there's always gonna be a misconception of a DJ/producer type thing. I don't think there's any way to get around it, unfortunately. But at the end of the day, it's okay. People [who like] different music have a whole different perspective.
When people see "DJ," they're like, "Oh, like, Vegas DJ. Throw a party!" They have no idea the complexities that go behind that. There are some producers out there that can do insane stuff. It's hard to even start describing that. There's some songs where we start with a guitar, and we write from scratch. It's just about having an ear for what is going to be successful, and also just having an ear of what you enjoy.
In 2018, you shared a really personal story about how music changed your life. Was it a certain song, album or artist that did that for you? Or was it being able to use the music that you were creating as your outlet? Or a combination of both?
It's definitely a mixture of both. When I turned my life around from that time period, it was a mixture of getting so curious about music production, but I was also obsessed with music — I was like, "How do these producers create these things?"
That little thought sparked so much curiosity in me, and [I] wanted to figure out how to implement my love for music and love for different genres. For it to change my life, it had to have all of those aspects — being obsessed with music, loving other people's music, and wanting to create my own.
Doing an action in one of those phases every day is what got me going and got me into the scene, and into my career. But also [made me] confident with myself and feeling like I had some sort of purpose. It was a really healing process for me, because I was kind of a s<em></em>*show before that. I needed something to put all of my energy into, and something that my family supported, and I had friends that supported me. So that was just really cool.
When I was so low, I had no faith in myself at all. You just have no confidence, and you're pretty broken. For you to even have an idea of "I might be good at something" or "I might get good at something if I work hard enough at it and I love it," then it's just full speed ahead.
What does 2012 Nick at Red Rocks think of 2022 Nick being a GRAMMY-nominated producer?
It's just mind-blowing. You know, I told myself when I saw the Red Rocks show in 2012, I was like, "Maybe in 10 years, I'll get to play at Red Rocks." I wasn't even saying headline or anything, just play at Red Rocks. I apparently set a very low goal for myself. [Laughs.]
Constantly having goals set and then reaching them throughout my whole career has been amazing, but it's crazy to think about being a GRAMMY-nominated artist. That is a whole different world that I never even thought — I just got into bass music and EDM, you know? To think of that transition, that's crazy.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images for iHeartMedia
8 Times Dance Stars Channeled Their Inner Punk Kid, From Deadmau5 & Gerard Way To Rezz & Silverstein
With the release of Rezz's new emo-loving EP, 'It's Not A Phase,' dig into eight songs that saw the dance and rock worlds collide.
At first glance, the worlds of rock and dance music might appear diametrically opposed. Dig a little deeper, though, and the two genres share more than just a love for all-black outfits.
In recent years, a wave of dance stars have embraced their inner mosher by collaborating with their favorite metal, post-hardcore, emo, and pop-punk artists, creating a mutant sound with a foot in both spaces. Just this month, Canada's dark bass maestro Rezz released a winkingly titled EP, It's Not A Phase, which channels the punk and metal she loved as a teen. (On release day, she posted an old photo in front of a My Chemical Romance poster, with the caption, "this one's for everyone who had an emo phase.")
The EP followed Illenium's self-titled album in April — which features several of the Denver producer's rock heroes — while the likes of Marshmello, Kayzo and Excision have also tried their hands at rock/dance collaborations. For DJ-producers who grew up on raw guitars and tear-the-house-down vocals, it's a natural next step.
Of course, this mixing of worlds is not just a recent phenomenon. For decades, dance artists have remixed, borrowed from, and occasionally collaborated with their rock counterparts. From the punkish ferocity of the Prodigy's 1997 album The Fat of the Land to Justice's Slipknot-sampling "Genesis" ten years later, the examples are endless.
In the decade since the EDM boom minted a new generation of superstars, crossover collaborations have increasingly positioned the dance artist in the lead. In honor of this phenomenon, we're head-banging our way through eight of the best.
deadmau5 feat. Gerard Way — "Professional Griefers" (2012)
Back in 2012, as EDM was taking over America, deadmau5 was busy touring an early iteration of his eye-popping 'Cube' show and preparing to release his sixth studio album, > album title goes here <. Ahead of the LP, the producer born Joel Zimmerman released "Professional Griefers," a hard-charging dance-rock stomper featuring My Chemical Romance vocalist Gerard Way.
While fans had already heard an instrumental version of the track in deadmau5's live shows, Way's vampy vocals brought the rock swagger, even as the production remained resolutely electronic. To celebrate the release, the collaborators appeared as gamers piloting a UFC battle between two giant mau5-headed robots in what Zimmerman told SPIN was "one of the highest-budget electronic music videos of all time." And yes, it's as extra as it sounds.
Steve Aoki feat. Fall Out Boy — "Back To Earth" (2014)
Steve Aoki is one of dance music's most voracious collaborators, teaming up with everyone from will.i.am to Louis Tomlinson to Backstreet Boys. He's also a punk rocker from way back, having jumped between hardcore bands as a singer and guitarist in his pre-fame life.
These passions have intersected throughout Aoki's DJ/producer career in his collaborations with Linkin Park and blink-182, as well as Rifoki, the straight-up hardcore band he formed with Sir Bob Cornelius Rifo of the Bloody Beetroots.
In 2014, Aoki joined forces with pop-punk favorites Fall Out Boy on "Back To Earth," which featured on his collab-stacked album, Neon Future I. In an interview with Billboard, Aoki explained that the band worked on their live instrumentation in a separate studio before he added the dance elements, and the result was "one of my favorite rock collaborations."
The Bloody Beetroots feat. Jason Butler — "Crash" (2017)
Like his friend and collaborator Steve Aoki, the Bloody Beetroots' masked leader Sir Bob Cornelius Rifo is a punk at heart. That raucous spirit was present on the breakout Aoki/Beetroots team-up, "Warp 1.9" (2009), then turned up to 11 in their aforementioned hardcore band, Rifoki.
In 2017, after a few years away from the limelight, Sir Rifo delivered the third Bloody Beetroots album, The Great Electronic Swindle, featuring guests like Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, GRAMMY-nominated singer-songwriter Greta Svabo Bech, and Australian rock band Jet.
On "Crash," the Italian producer hooked up with post-hardcore singer Jason Butler, of Letlive and Fever 333, to make a heavy, distorted and shouty head-banger that honors both of their styles. In true punk fashion, it's over and out in just over two minutes.
Kayzo & Underoath — "Wasted Space" (2018)
Few DJ-producers relish the opportunity to slam together dance music and rock quite like Houston-born Kayzo. For his 2019 album, Unleashed, the rising star secured some of his favorite metal, hardcore and pop-punk acts as guests, including Of Mice & Men, Boys of Fall, Blessthefall, and Alex Gaskarth of All Time Low.
One of the album's standouts, "Wasted Space," pairs Kayzo with Underoath, the Florida metalcore outfit who previously collaborated with Rezz on her 2019 release, "Falling." The collaboration is equal parts metal — with dueling vocalists Aaron Gillespie and Spencer Chamberlain at full-tilt — and shuddering bass drops built for an EDM main stage.
Marshmello feat. A Day To Remember — "Rescue Me" (2019)
Perma-helmeted producer Marshmello has enjoyed a whirlwind decade, with a famously prolific output that includes several dance and pop hits. In 2019, he surprised fans by announcing a team-up with Florida four-piece A Day To Remember, whose metalcore meets pop-punk sound is a far cry from Marshmello's usual vibe.
Their collaboration, "Rescue Me," finds an easy middle ground between crunching rock guitars, frontman Jeremy McKinnon's impassioned vocals, and Marshmello's skittering trap-pop beats. In an interview with Kerrang! Radio, McKinnon recalled his surprise at how quickly Marshmello shared the chorus on socials, adding that he wishes rock artists could be as spontaneous.
Illenium and All Time Low — "Back To You" (2023)
Hot on the heels of his first GRAMMY nomination in 2022, Denver-based phenom Illenium got back in the studio to make another album straight from the heart. The producer's self-titled fifth LP took inspiration from his teenage years listening to the likes of blink-182 and Linkin Park, while staying true to his own bass-heavy aesthetic.
Thanks to his stadium-filling stature, Illenium assembled a starry lineup of guests, including pop-punk royalty Avril Lavigne and Travis Barker on "Eyes Wide Shut" and metalcore band Motionless in White on "Nothing Ever After." Early fan favorite "Back To You" features the full force of pop-punkers All Time Low going up against Illenium's furious drops — and achieving perfect harmony.
Excision, Wooli, and The Devil Wears Prada — "Reasons" (2023)
Fellow bass lovers Excision and Wooli are frequently paired, whether they're going back-to-back as DJs or co-producing EPs like 2019's Evolution and 2023's Titans. This time around, the collaborators decided to try something outside their comfort zone, calling up Ohioan metalcore band The Devil Wears Prada to bring their distinctive grit to "Reasons."
In contrast to more pop-leaning entries on this list, "Reasons" is unapologetically heavy from the halfway mark, morphing back-and-forth from metalcore theatrics to hard-hitting wubs. In a statement, The Devil Wears Prada described this team-up as "uncharted territory" for the band, and their gamble paid off.
Rezz, Tim Henson, and Silverstein — "Dreamstate" (2023)
In a statement accompanying her new EP, It's Not A Phase, Rezz notes that she "grew up listening to bands exclusively, and over time developed an understanding of what it was about those songs that I loved."
That innate grasp of rock dynamics is on full display throughout Rezz's most vocal-driven release to date, with guest turns from the likes of Alice Glass, Johnny Goth, and Raven Gray. On "Dreamstate," Rezz embraces her inner emo kid with the help of Canadian post-hardcore band Silverstein and metal guitar prodigy Tim Henson, undergirding her guests' contributions with dark, stabbing bass.
"I listened to a bunch of Silverstein growing up, so it felt nostalgic to me," Rezz told Front Row Live Ent., before admitting that it was "the hardest song I've ever mixed." The extra sweat resulted in a one-of-a-kind collaboration, proving once again that dance music and rock are a potent mix — one with plenty of fuel left in the tank.
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Anitta On The “Insane” Success Of "Envolver," Representing Brazil & Reshaping Global Pop
After a decade of building a massive career in her home country of Brazil, Anitta took her success to a global level in 2022. The singer discusses her “brand new career” and the Best New Artist nomination that came from it.
Before Anitta released her album Versions of Me last April, she already had four albums in her catalog. But as the title insists, Versions of Me is the project that showed Anitta has many layers to her success — and now, she has a GRAMMY nomination to show for it.
The Brazilian star is nominated for Best New Artist at the 2023 GRAMMYs, which may feel like a long time coming for those who have been a fan since Anitta's self-titled debut album arrived in 2013. After becoming a household name in her native Brazil, and then in Latin America, she finally cracked the U.S. last year with the worldwide hit "Envolver." Ten years in, Anitta almost feels reborn.
"In Brazil I got the recognition before, but internationally, it's amazing because I've just started a brand new career," she tells GRAMMY.com. "I feel really special. I feel like things are happening really fast and I'm really happy about it."
With Versions of Me, Anitta explored and embraced her cross-cultural appeal, even singing in Portuguese, Spanish and English across its 15 tracks. The album opens with "Envolver," which blends reggaeton music with an electronic allure; later, she put a trap music twist on the Brazilian bossa nova classic "The Girl From Ipanema" in "Girl From Rio," a tribute to her hometown of Rio de Janeiro.
Those personal details helped Versions of Me resonate with a global audience, and they were amplified by Anitta's unabashed ability to push pop music to new places. She embedded elements of funk carioca (Brazilian funk music from the favelas of Rio De Janeiro where she grew up) into genre-bending collaborations alongside stars like Cardi B, Khalid, and Saweetie.
Anitta has also become widely acclaimed for her show-stopping performances, from Coachella to the Latin GRAMMY Awards to the viral "Envolver" dance challenge on TikTok. Her charming transparency with her fans helps uplift women, her country of Brazil, and the LGBTQIA+ community (she publicly identified as bisexual in 2018) — in turn helping Anitta become one of Latin pop's most refreshing and boldest artists in recent memory.
Ahead of the 2023 GRAMMYs, Anitta spoke with GRAMMY.com about her first GRAMMY nomination, the viral success of "Envolver," and what's next.
How do you feel about being nominated for Best New Artist?
I feel really special. First of all for the nomination, to be part of the GRAMMYs. That makes me feel like I'm doing a good job. I'm on the right path. But also, I felt really special that I was nominated for the Best New Artist category. I feel happy that people understand that for me it's a whole new world.
Even though I have more than 10 years of a career in Brazil, for me, in these other markets, like singing in English and Spanish, it's brand new stuff. I am a new artist in these other markets. I feel really happy that people can understand that and see it like I do.
You're also representing Portuguese and Spanish music in the Best New Artist category. What does it mean to you to be able to represent those languages within the category?
I feel like it's really important. My country feels very special about it. They've never seen something like that. Last time they saw something like that was like 57 years ago <a href="https://www.grammy.com/artists/astrud-gilberto/16737">when Brazilian artists [Astrud Gilberto and Antônio Carlos Jobim were nominated for Best New Artist], so they're really happy for me to be part of this. To be representing so much for my country, I'm really glad that I can do that.
Your song "Girl From Rio" interpolates one of Jobim and Gilberto's classic songs.
"The Girl From Ipanema"! It's crazy, it's like a cycle. It's amazing!
In your album Versions of Me, you sing in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Why did you decide to record music in those three languages?
Portuguese is my first language, obviously. And then I started to learn English when I was still a kid. I started to learn Spanish after I went to Spain for the first time because one of my songs in Portuguese, "Show Das Poderosas," was playing in Madrid. So I went to Spain to sing for a radio show, and I didn't understand anything that people were telling me, so I decided to start learning Spanish, and I loved it. And I started singing [in that language].
I think it's just part of my personality to enjoy learning languages. When I was a kid, I also learned Italian, so I have songs in Italian. I really enjoy it.
The album cover art features different versions of yourself throughout your career. Why did you decide to bring together those images from your past and present?
I think controversy is good when people talk about a subject, and they can see it's accurate and real, and they can get to know you a little better. I think it's a little fun.
I like being open about the [plastic surgery] procedures I've done. Being open about all the things in my life. I don't like to fake or hide situations. I feel like I would feel stuck in some kind of prison. I feel better if people just get to know me from a 360 point of view.
In the album, you explore genres like pop, R&B, trap, and reggaeton music. What was experience like to work with those different genres?
I wanted to show different types of music that I like singing. Like different versions of myself. I'm fascinated by people's music — the different countries and cultures. I love traveling and getting to know the way people consume music, the way people create music. It's really special when I can travel and get to know a new culture, and sing, and get that feeling running through my blood.
I love playing with the biggest amount of places and rhythms, and everything that I can, because I think that's what it is about, when you can create music that's more than just something fun to listen to. If you can bring cultures and bring people together, I think it's even more of a special thing.
How did the song "Envolver" come together?
The [COVID-19 pandemic] quarantine was over, but still the gates were closed to Brazil from America. To go to America, you had to quarantine for 15 days somewhere. I was in Punta Cana waiting for these 15 days to pass, and I decided to bring some friends of mine — artists to write songs with. It was Phantom and Lenny Tavárez. We started writing, [and when] we got to "Envolver," it was really special. We wrote it so fast. It was insane. It was amazing.
What was the inspiration behind that song?
We wanted to talk about a woman that is always in control and not the opposite. In songs, we always see guys talking like that to women, and I wanted to bring exactly the opposite — when a woman is in power.
Did you think that "Envolver" would become the massive hit that it was?
We did think that — but we also think that about so many songs, so it's like, we never know. It was insanely big. I think it wouldn't have been that big if I didn't have the support of the foundation of my country, and also if I [hadn't] done so much work in the Latin community. It got big because we were already doing a lot of stuff.
You've become known for your electric live performances. How important is it to express your music through dancing as well?
Even more right now, with TikTok and things like that, I think people are so engaged to dancing. They want to feel involved somewhere, so that's one way of how people are getting into music right now. Getting involved with the artists in some way more than just the music. I think dance is a very good way of doing that.
You incorporate elements of Brazilian funk music throughout Versions of Me. How important was it for you to bring that genre into some of the songs?
I put in a little bit. Not as much as I wanted to. I think in the next albums I will do more. I'm trying to introduce a little bit of [Brazilian] funk to the worldwide audience, and then I will [release] something really cultural that I really believe in.
Since I started traveling around the world, I'm fascinated about showing people where I come from, my origins. I think funk is my origin. It's so different, and it has the power to be the next big thing, so I feel really special about it. I feel like people are starting to get into funk and making more Brazilian funk music, and I really love that I'm part of this change.
You announced that your next album will be a Brazilian funk album. How is that coming along?
I'm still waiting. I'm working on the album. I have most of the songs kind of ready. I'm still adjusting some things and the features on it. But I'm going to wait for the best time to release it. I'm not going to do it in a rush.
I'm going to put effort behind it because this is the thing I always dreamed about doing. I always dreamed about having an album where I can truly feel my culture and what I really love about funk and Brazilian music. I think I'm going to wait for everything to be completely perfect for me to release it.
Throughout your career, you've proudly represented the LGBTQIA+ community, collaborating with artists like Brazilian drag pop stars Pabllo Vittar and Gloria Groove and being open about your own sexuality. How do you feel to be helping raise that representation and visibility?
I think it's amazing the more we can [do that], because it's still very hard for the LGBTQIA+ community to show up and to get a space to talk and be open without prejudice. The more that we can open room for artists who are openly gay, or trans, or drag queens — I think the scene needs more representation, more artists. The more I can do to bring people to me, or bring visibility to new artists like that, I will do it. It's really important.
Coming off of such a huge year in 2022, what can fans expect from you this year?
I'm going to rest a little bit. I thought I was going to do that last year, but with everything that happened with "Envolver," I ended up not resting the way I wanted to, so for sure this year, I'm going to take more time for myself.
Photo: AB + DM
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Viola Davis On Sharing Her Life To Help People Change Theirs & Her Potential EGOT
Viola Davis has already netted an Academy Award, two Tonys, and an Emmy, but now the iconic actor has earned her first GRAMMY nod for her performance of the audiobook for her memoir, 'Finding Me' — a work that Davis hopes can help change lives.
"There are not enough words and pages to quantify one's life," Viola Davis says with a warm, stern certainty — despite having delivered a memoir that carries a remarkable weight and beauty.
Living through difficult experiences takes incredible strength. Living through them again to write a memoir and then read them aloud as an audiobook must be a herculean feat. But it should come as no surprise that Davis has proven herself more than capable of meeting that challenge.
The acclaimed actor’s memoir, Finding Me, reaches back to her difficult childhood, to trauma and struggle, and continues through on her journey of healing and artistic achievement — and Davis delivers it with an uncanny blend of fragility and strength. Davis, a first-time GRAMMY nominee, has been lauded for her efforts, with Finding Me receiving a nod for Best Audio Book, Narration, and Storytelling Recording at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
And now the audiobook extends the possibility to add a GRAMMY Award to her awards shelf alongside an Emmy, an Oscar, and two Tonys, potentially making her the 18th person to complete the EGOT. While joining those ranks would be an undeniable honor, Davis’ vision of achievement and impact remains much simpler: helping others find the hope and healing that she discovered. "When you begin to connect with yourself, to unpack your life and make peace with it, it's easier to connect to the world — and I want other people to do the same," she says.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Davis to talk about how reading Finding Me differed from her usual style of performance, finding her calling in life, and what joining the ranks of EGOT winners would mean to her.
Let’s start at the beginning! How did you feel when you got the call that you were nominated for a GRAMMY?
I don't know if I expected it. When I wrote the book, I was just trying to write a good book. That was the goal. I wanted to be honest. I wanted to honor the people who were in my life and who were the subject of my story. And that was it.
Everything else that came out of it has been the icing on the cake, those beautiful sort of boons and gifts that come when you put yourself out there. 'Cause they don't always come. The GRAMMY nomination and how the book has done have been truly a gift that I didn't expect.
And it’s something of your own. It takes such an incredible amount of introspection to write a memoir, and Finding Me is simultaneously so elegant and raw. I can imagine that the whole experience of writing was incredibly powerful as well — putting yourself at the forefront, but also giving yourself the time to honor that self.
Absolutely. The character that I played in The Woman King, Nanisca, who is the leader of this female army, has a line in the movie that has been motivating me in this part of my life. She says to her daughter, Nawi, "I'm sorry I left you. I wasn't brave enough."
And I just never want to get to the end of my life with that turn, saying, "I wasn't brave enough." And I certainly do not wanna get to the point in my life that I say that to my younger self. I don't wanna leave my story behind. I don't want wanna leave it unexplored, not articulated, hidden, in a vat of shame. I don't want that.
With this book you got to tell your own story in your own time, and you get to shine a light on stories that haven't been told before. And now that might bring you into the storied halls of EGOT winners. You don't seem like the type of person driven primarily by ego, but the EGOT is a rare achievement and a huge moment to recognize all the work that you've done in the past as well.
I absolutely, definitely think about it as a huge accomplishment. I feel this way, even though it's probably a very dramatic statement on my part: I think that everybody wants their life to mean something. I believe in the Cherokee birth blessing, which is "May you live long enough to know why you were born." I do believe that you literally wanna blow a hole through this world in whatever way you can.
A lot of people don't know how to do that. A lot of people haven't found that thing that they're passionate about, that they can do. Some have. But we all are looking for that, blowing a hole through this earth before we leave it. I think about that in my work a lot. I really found that thing that I love to do. So I always wanna make it meaningful.
You can feel that when listening to you read the audiobook. There's that passion throughout your work that's always there with you. How did you make sure that you punched that hole in the world with the audiobook, specifically?
Well, my briefing to myself was to be honest with my voice with each chapter, to match my heartbeat with my voice; to not make it feel formal. I always feel that when one is honest, words leap off of the page and they really enter someone's soul. When you speak from the soul, people receive it in their soul. I really wanted that, which sometimes is very difficult when you're reading an entire book that's over 300 pages. You get tired. But I have to say, I wrote most of the book at 2, 3 o'clock in the morning. That's when inspiration hit me. That's also the hormone reset time. [Laughs.] But I wrote it at that hour because things would hit my spirit.
I really, really do believe that when it comes to artistic excellence — and this is not my ego saying it, it's a general statement — when it comes to things that are just good, they always have to move you. You cannot stay in your head and admire something from afar, the technical aspects and proficiency of it, the technical execution of it. It's got to hit your heart. And once it does that, you cannot downplay that value. That is what we are supposed to do as artists. And that was what I wanted to hit when I was doing the audiobook.
Three o'clock in the morning is, I suppose, a time when you can get out of your own way.
Your book showed that, and the story flows without impediment. But it must have been difficult at times to not have another actor to bounce off of. I'm so curious about how you've trained yourself as an artist to ensure you can still deliver a powerful performance in the audio booth.
It's a wonderful question. Listen, I'm always an actor in search of a director. I got my Equity card at 23. That's when I became a professional actress. That's 34 years ago. I have put in my 10,000 hours. [Laughs.] I cannot tell you how many speaking gigs I've had. I can't tell you how many times I've had performances where there was a director, but they weren't very good so I had to direct myself. Then there's my undergraduate degree, my degree from Julliard, as well as other schools where you learn a way of working.
That's what being an artist is about. Being an artist is not getting up and making the bold statement: I wanna be an actor. Yes, I did say that, but the step in between is learning a process, learning how to warm up your voice, learning what to emphasize, learning what the main thought is, how to breathe, what exactly you are saying and what the journey is. I ask myself all of those big questions. If I did not have a process, I don't know, maybe I'd just be an entertainer. But I went to school to learn a process and it serves me when I am in a situation where there is no director other than the guy running the sound booth.
You have to just check yourself. That process clearly helped ground you in the performance, but at the same time you're almost re-embodying your own past and experiences. Were you conscious of that as you were performing? Or was it more of a natural process?
Sometimes both. It is my story, so I know where I was at each moment — at the beginning, running as a 6-year-old little girl, being called ugly Black n—. Here's the thing, no matter what I wrote on the page, there are not enough words and pages to quantify one's life. As much as I remember, it only represents 30 percent of who I was. A huge part of what I was just still exists somewhere. Some memories were just lost. Some memories I just couldn't even interpret.
But when I'm speaking them, there is a sort of backstory stream of consciousness, of emotional elements, that could not even be put on the page but can inform the words when I speak them. It's my life. My heartbeat. And at the same time, there is a technical aspect of it because you have to speak it in a way that people receive it. They have to understand phrases, pauses, those technical things, but for the most part I spoke from my heart because the story was birthed in my heart.
The mere existence of the book is proof of concept for the hope that exists in its pages, the hope that cycles of trauma and suffering can be broken through healing. How does it feel to know that that hope will impact readers? As an artist, you have similarly chosen roles that have really impacted people, so it must be a guiding principle for you.
It feels fantastic. I started out being an actor because it was the one thing I loved to do and I knew that it would get me out of my situation. But sometimes, it is divine intervention with what you choose in life. I was just driven to get out, and I found something that just made me jump out of bed in the morning. Sometimes when you fall in love with something, the reason why you fall in love with it becomes your purpose, which in this case is it helped heal me.
It was almost like everything that happened in my life created this giant emotional cyst within me and I couldn't rein it in. It was just being fed by just holding onto secrets, holding onto shame, holding onto feeling not worthy. And then all of a sudden, whenever you're given a chance to express what is inside of you, to put your story out there, showing up as Viola, it slowly began to drain that cyst. That then provides extraordinary healing to people who are witnessing it.
I've had so many people read my book, and I so appreciate it. More than even my acting, I'm really, really enjoying this whole experience with my book. But I find there's one thing that I wanna say to people, but I don't say, but in the back of my mind is my fantasy. There are so many people that read my book and say, "Oh my God, you've had a hard life. It's so unbelievable what you were able to accomplish. Oh my God. It was so hard. It was harder than anything I've been through." I always wanna say, "That's not why I wrote the book. I shared my story, now I want you to share yours." I'm not the only one moving through life with all of the sticks and stones and filthy swill and obstacles. We all have it because life is hard.
But the other side of it is not sharing. Then what you do is you abandon people. You make them feel alone. We're not alone. I've had people read my book who I know have been abused by their spouses, who I know have been in jail for substance abuse, who I know have addiction issues. And they've said, "Wow, your life was hard." Well, their life was too. But you see, what I did was I unpacked it. I resolved it. I continue to resolve it and continue to not live in shame, to make peace with myself. That's a larger conversation. It makes me feel so wonderful when people say "Your book has shifted people." That for me is everything.
Speaking about the potential impact to shift people, it's incredible to look at your fellow nominees in the category. You've got Mel Brooks, who's obviously an EGOT winner himself. You've got three other people of color: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Questlove, Jamie Foxx. How powerful is it for you to see that your own story is sharing the category with these nominees?
It feels overwhelming. They say everything you are is the company you keep. Being with that level of excellence? I have to say, I've always wanted to be excellent. And I understand that in the path to be excellent, there's lots of failures along the way. There has to be. It's how you chisel yourself. It's how you become. But to be in the presence of these extraordinary artists — all men too by the way [laughs] — it makes me feel like I'm on the right path.