Photo: Erika Goldring/Getty Stringer
Photo: Erika Goldring/Getty Stringer
Irma Thomas, known as the Queen of New Orleans Soul, is legendary for her ballads and blues. Over Thomas' 50-plus year career, the woman with "the sadly sweet voice of a fallen angel" has remained fiercely true to herself.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com sat down with Irma Thomas, who changed R&B and gospel music forever as a singer and made exquisite recordings as a solo artist.
Irma Thomas might not be as well-known as Aretha Franklin or Gladys Knight, but her voice is a key part of American R&B and blues history, especially in the South, where she is known as the “Soul Queen of New Orleans.”
Born in 1941 in Ponchatoula, La., Thomas grew up listening to gospel greats like Mahalia Jackson, and blues legend Cecil Gant. A self-taught musician, Thomas started singing in a gospel quartet at the Home Mission Baptist Church in New Orleans. She was discovered in1959 while working as a waitress at a New Orleans club, where she was asked to sing alongside R&B singer Tommy Ridgley. The duet got her fired but led to much more.
Thomas soon became known for her crisp, soulful voice and penchant singing love songs with a sweet southern twang. She achieved a charting single in 1964 with “Wish Someone Would Care,” a slow burning self-penned soul ballad, which was based upon her life as a 17-year-old mother of three children (the lyrics were written after a breakup with her then-husband). Recorded the same year, Thomas’ most enduring song is “Time Is On My Side” — which was covered by the Rolling Stones three times and became their first single in the U.S.
Thomas signed with Chase Records in 1967, did a short stint in Los Angeles in the 1970s, but returned home to New Orleans. She continued to make albums throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, performing on national festival stages until the pandemic.
A new documentary traces Thomas’ upbringing in New Orleans and rise to fame as a GRAMMY-winning blues musician. Irma: My Life In Music features an interview with the singer alongside interviews with recording artists Bonnie Raitt, Ledisi, Erica Falls and the late Allen Toussaint, as well as archival concert footage from the New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival.
Thomas was nominated for three GRAMMY Awards for her blues albums: 1992’s Live... Simply the Best, 1999’s Sing It! and for her 2009 album, Simply Grand. Despite her commercial success, Thomas’ first GRAMMY win came nearly 50 years into her career with a Best Contemporary Blues Album Award for 2007’s After the Rain. The album was a response to Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed Thomas’ long-running nightclub.
Irma Thomas remains a legend; a woman whose sharp sensibility and distinct voice are unwavering. As 1960s rock critic Dawn Eden called her: “To a sizable following of rock and soul fans, she is simply a wonder — a woman with the sadly sweet voice of a fallen angel, who rose from poverty to become the Soul Queen of New Orleans.”
Thomas continues to perform every Sunday at her church in New Orleans. With her new documentary out on TV, GRAMMY.com presents an exclusive interview with the acclaimed singer about singing in the church, meeting the Rolling Stones and her addiction to Jeopardy.
What did you think of Irma: My Life In Music?
Irma Thomas: Well, it’s me. They did a wonderful job. Surprisingly. I didn’t think I was that interesting. When you live it, you just don’t think about it. You just use whatever survival skills you have to get through whatever you need to get through. You never think about someone making a documentary about you later in life.
A lot of times, when people make a documentary and they don’t know a lot about you, they have to do what they think would have happened or could have been done. But they knew me well enough, and they put in there what I said, like I said it.
What have you been up to since you stopped touring?
A lot of interviews, and more set up as we speak. I don’t mind, I’m an open and extroverted person, I don’t have a problem with it.
Is it true you’ve returned to gospel music in your later years?
I never left it. I sing at church every Sunday; I sing in the church choir.
Does God govern all of your decisions in life?
He helps me make them!
Gospel isn’t mainstream, though, correct?
It hasn’t been mainstream because it has been used as entertainment, rather than being used for what it's meant to be used for — that’s giving souls peacefulness or happiness in times of need. It hasn’t been properly presented. That’s my opinion.
I don’t feel comfortable doing gospel music unless I explain to folks what it's about, so they don’t get any misconceptions of what’s being done. I’ve been doing a gospel program at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival since 2006. I always explain to my audience, it's not a genre that my audience is accustomed to hearing from me, but I let them know it's very personal, meaningful, and not entertainment — it’s a form of prayer.
Is the world a more compassionate place today, as we know it?
I try not to be a judge of what the world is about, but there are some compassionate people, but when you look at the whole scope of the situation, people are more “me, my and I” nowadays, they don’t think of “we.” When I grew up, neighbors knew each other. Now, they’re building houses without any front porches. There’s no welcoming situation, no stoops to talk across the street, like I grew up doing. To talk to your neighbor, get to know them and be there for your neighbor if they need something. You have to make an effort. Nowadays, people don’t make the effort like they used to.
It sounds more like isolation.
Like, literally. Most homes you see nowadays in New Orleans, people work to protect their homes. You feel like you’re in jail in your own home. That’s not really a way to live. It’s not comfortable. I never thought we’d live that way, but the Bible is fulfilling itself. I’m not surprised.
As a musician, you’re used to bringing people together. Do you have a memorable concert that changed your life?
I have so many memorable performances, they didn’t necessarily change my life, but they added to it. I learned this: You don’t sing at people, you sing to them. People are people, like you and I.
I try to do what I would want to see at a concert, which is allowing my audiences to make requests. Whatever money they spend to see my show, they get to hear their favorite song. Even if my band doesn’t know the song, I’ll do it acapella. This is how I’ve operated over the years, and it has been fruitful to me.
How difficult was it being a woman musician in the 1950s and 1960s?
I didn’t think about it that way; for me it was a job, a way to make a living. For me, I didn’t realize you could do that as a job. It became my job. It was a job I enjoyed doing and still do.
Is it true you stopped performing “Time Is On My Side” after the Rolling Stones covered it? People misunderstood it as you honoring them?
When they covered it, I had no problem with that, it’s the biggest form of flattery. My problem was not the Rolling Stones, but the audience who didn’t realize that I had performed it first and [thought] I was doing the Rolling Stones song. I got tired of explaining that, so I stopped doing it altogether. You can only explain the same thing so many times, then it becomes boring.
Eventually I started doing it again because Bonnie Raitt wanted me to do it with her; she said “Irma, you have to put that back into your repertoire.” Even after doing it with her, it’s a selective situation where I might do one show, not another. If someone requests it, I will gladly do it. When someone requests it, they understand I did it prior to the Rolling Stones.
Did you ever meet the band?
I met two of the guys before they even recorded the song [when] I was touring England. They were nice guys. When they came to the States, they had Tina Turner open for them because she was more of a rock artist than I am, I’m basically rhythm and blues. I’m not one to shake my tail that much. [Laughs]. I’m not an explosive type of performer but I do my share of entertaining.
Did you ever get to meet Tina Turner?
I did have a pleasurable moment in New Orleans when Tina Turner was in town doing a show at the Blue Room. She came over to where I was performing, stood by the stage watching me do a couple of songs. Gave me a “hello love you” sign and went back to her performance. I thought that was nice of her to do that, she didn’t have to.
How did you come to run the New Orleans nightclub you co-founded with your husband, the Lion’s Den?
It was already created, I wanted to have somewhere to rehearse other than my garage. There was a place next door that connected to the Lion’s Den. My husband acquired the property from the owner who we were leasing the space from.
I was there rehearsing and then I had an audience there during Jazz Fest. I was cooking for people there, too. I cooked a big thing of red beans and rice, and smoked sausage. It was a fun thing to do like inviting company to your home.
Is it true that when you moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s, you had a tough time, because it was all about “who you know?”
It was exactly that. I tried to get a foothold in the entertainment industry when I left New Orleans because of a storm called Camille and a breakup. I couldn’t get any work locally; the work was blown away by the storm. But I thought I could get paid to perform in L.A. but they wanted me to pay them to get onstage. I thought no, I need to get a day job first. That’s exactly what I did.
LA is a “me, my and I” city, it's all about who you know, the connections. I knew singers who couldn’t sing their way out of a paper bag but because of who they knew, they were singing. That’s the way it was — it wasn’t about how good you were. I wasn’t part of that kind of situation. I’m about appreciating talent. I moved to the Bay Area and did performances on the weekend as a sideline to my day job; I had four children all school-aged at the time. My singing was my extra money to take care of what I needed to take care of. When you do what you need to get done, it’s called survival.
You have a good survival instinct?
Oh yeah. I’m not a pity party person. I save that energy and try to think: How am I going to make this better for me?
You almost predicted your GRAMMY Award — as a joke, right?
I don’t know if it was a prediction. I had been nominated prior to winning a GRAMMY two times…. I wasn’t going to go with my hopes up too high. I was joking around with the guys in the band we were recording with [that we were going to win]. When I won, I felt overwhelmed. It didn’t sink in until the award arrived on my doorstep. It really touched home.
Do awards make a difference?
When it comes to your peers, it took me a while to realize the GRAMMYs was not where the public voted for you, it is a situation where your peers vote for you. The fact my peers were listening and voted for me, that does make a difference.
I had been in the business over 40 years by the time I won it. I didn’t look at it as me not having the talent, because so many people I worked with who were really talented over the years and they didn’t win a GRAMMY. I didn’t need the validation but when you win a GRAMMY, it is something to cherish.
You always wanted to stay true to your own sound — was that a challenge when Atlantic Records wanted you to record an album and sound like Diana Ross? Was it hard to say no?
No it was easy, I knew I wasn’t going to do it. This is how I look at it: I didn’t spend all my time working hard to sound like somebody else. I didn’t want it that bad. I want to be me.
I am a firm believer of doing unto others as they do unto you; I’m not going to sell out just to be your friend. I’m a survivor, I’m not someone who is going to do anything for a dollar.
Do you believe in blessings in disguise?
Not as much as I believe in blessings that are given to you for a reason. When you are blessed with much, as the Bible teaches, much is expected. I try to do as much as I can, I know my reward is in heaven when I go to the other side. I look forward to that, as we always say I pray and ask God if I’m not doing it right, show me how to do it right. But I’m going to do unto others as they do unto me. The rest is for the almighty to judge me.
Which musicians do you like today?
I don’t really listen to today’s music because most of it is full of profanity and I don’t think you have to express yourself that way. It's not necessary. I didn’t grow up in a naïve world, there were a lot of double-entendres. People didn’t come out cussing in the music industry. Today, what’s the point? You can't express yourself any better?
I don’t care what neighborhood you grew up in. I’m not going to blame it on where I grew up. I grew up in the hood, too. We didn’t call it the hood, we called it home. We respected our surroundings because that’s all we had. I didn’t find it necessary to degrade where I grew up because it made me who I am, a stronger person.
I wasn’t able to do a lot of things, especially in the Jim Crow South. But I didn’t use it as a means to degrade where I grew up. I loved where I grew up. I had a neighborhood that looked after me when my parents worked. Why would I want to put a song out that would not respect that?
You are known as a blues and R&B musician. When I think about R&B, today it’s much more explicit?
Ridiculously explicit. No modestly at all. The saying goes, there’s no mystery in it when you’re putting it all out there. You see what you get. To me, that was part of the whole thing, the mystery of what’s underneath the covers.
You came from the era of real music.
It was. Music made sense back then. Songs told stories; good stories….. [My car radio is] turned to old school music. It can be calming with traffic. I listen to music in my car because when I’m at home, I’m a game show addict. As we’re doing this interview, I’m watching “Jeopardy.”
A few more questions before you get back to your game shows. Who was your most influential mentor growing up?
If I had mentors, my career probably would have taken a different direction. I was self-taught [and] learn-by-mistake. I was never given business advice; a lot was trial and error. I would watch the late shows on TV — [actress] Pearl Bailey had a relaxed state about her. She didn’t seem nervous, and [was] open with her thoughts. I like that. I like to feel my audience is in my living room and I’m handing them my company. Pearl Bailey was my mentor. That’s where I got a lot of my stage presence information from.
What advice do you have for young artists today?
First of all, be yourself. Number two, get a day job. Number three, it ain’t always going to be monetarily sufficient to meet your needs. You have to be prepared. Use my motto: Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. Including your work as an entertainer.
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
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.
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
Graphic: The Recording Academy
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.