Photo by Vivian Johnson
The Jayhawks' "New Day": How The Americana Pioneers Overcame Decades Of Turbulence And Became Full Collaborators
For the first time in 35 years, the Gary Louris-led rockers pivoted to a full democracy on their new album 'XOXO.' Will it last?
The Jayhawks are generally seen as the rootsy, easygoing Minneapolis band that helped pioneer alt-country 35 years ago. But their leader Gary Louris hardly touches the stuff.
On his own time, the 65-year-old prefers to zone out to ambient drones by Cluster and Neu!; he's effusive about the hallucinogenic hard rockers Hawkwind. His bandmates, too, don't exclusively sit around listening to the Flying Burrito Brothers. Lately, keyboardist Karen Grotberg has been revisiting the French prog band Magma and German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. Bassist Marc Perlman cites R.E.M. as a major inspiration. Drummer Tim O'Reagan was partly reared on 1970s power-pop like Badfinger, Cheap Trick and Big Star.
These influences have bubbled up in their music since the 1990s. This has been something of a liability. "A strength of ours is that we’re hard to pin down. We’re eclectic. But it’s also been a hindrance," Louris tells GRAMMY.com. "I don't take it personally, but I feel like it's because we have a little too much of a British pop element that mixes in with the roots. Only in the 1980s — when I was 26 or 27 — did I discover American traditional music. That was added into what was already our DNA and that’s what makes us kind of in-between."
The Jayhawks exist in an awkward limbo — too rootsy for experimental rock fans, too left-field for those with a closetful of Western snap shirts. But that in-betweenness gives them longevity and range. The band has swerved between soothing Americana, morose pop, and art-rock meltdowns over the years, but their new album XOXO (out on July 10 via Sham/Thirty Tigers) marks their most profound shift to date.
For the first time ever, Grotberg, Perlman and O’Reagan, all who have been in the band for decades, contributed their own songs and sang lead vocals throughout a Jayhawks album. When Grotberg's "Ruby," Perlman’s "Down to the Farm" and O'Reagan's "Dogtown Days" ricochet off each other and Louris' contributions like "Living in a Bubble," the effect is of a songwriters' guild a la Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac.
To hear the Jayhawks tell it to GRAMMY.com, they're pleased by this development. "It's fun in a way that wasn't there before," O'Reagan says of the open format. "It gives some variety and depth." Perlman concurs: "It does help to get a band's interest and focus on recording to have them included from the writing stage through the production stage," he says. Most important, "I feel like I had equal opportunity to express myself and to have those expressions heard and respected," Grotberg explains. "Gary opened it up. Wide open."
But when the Jayhawks began, they were anything but.
The Jayhawks perform at The Greek Theatre on October 21, 1992 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Lindsay Brice/Getty Images)
Crowded In The Wings
The band was formed in 1985 in Minneapolis by Louris, Perlman, drummer Norm Rogers and their founding co-leader Mark Olson, who has since left the band twice. "Mark had the idea of putting the Jayhawks together because he had songs," Perlman says. "Good songs that he wanted certain musicians to flesh out for him." Their self-titled 1986 debut album and its 1989 follow-up Blue Earth were almost exclusively written by Olson, and on each, he and Louris honked together in ragged, gorgeous harmony.
The cocky pair's breakthrough came in 1992 via Hollywood Town Hall, which was released on Rick Rubin's fledgling label American Recordings. On that album, Louris emerged as Olson's co-writer and competitor. "There was a lot of blood spilled and sweat poured out and feet stepped on," Louris recalled to The Aquarian in 2011. "It was just our transition from being kind of a regional band to being internationally known."
"When we were younger, our edges were sharper," O’Reagan says. "Our egos were bigger."
Hollywood Town Hall featured Benmont Tench and Nicky Hopkins trading off on piano duties. When their mutual friend Mike Russell learned they needed an onstage keyboardist, he referred Grotberg, who lived around the corner from their frequent haunt the 400 Club and had seen the Jayhawks a number of times, She met up with the band at their rehearsal space and had one practice: "I guess it must have gone well, because I got the job!" she says.
But the spotlight unwaveringly remained on Louris and Olson. They got brasher and more ambitious on 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass, dabbling in psychedelia and breaking into an exuberant cover of Grand Funk's "Bad Time." "I just remember us all kinda rubbing our hands together going 'I think we’re onto something here,'" Louris told The Aquarian of songs like "I'd Run Away"; "Miss Williams' Guitar" and "Blue," the only Jayhawks song that came within spitting distance of a hit.
"I think we pushed it a little bit more on that one," Louris added. But they might have pushed it over the edge altogether: that Halloween, Olson abruptly left the band.
The Jayhawks at Farm Aid in Ames, Iowa in 1993. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
Olson Leaves The Band
"It wasn’t a joyous ride, man!" Olson told Popmatters in 2011 of being a Jayhawk. "I'd been in the band for quite a while. I'd just got married [to singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, the namesake of 'Miss Williams' Guitar']. I found a house down in Joshua Tree. And I wanted to try something else with my life. I felt like we’d given it 100% on those two records, and we’d landed where we’d landed. And those guys wanted to go on, and I wanted to stop. And they went on."
Louris struggled in his new role as the band's leader. "A concern of Gary's was whether or not he could handle being the frontman himself," Perlman recalls. "He went and did it out of necessity. It’s like second nature to him now." Fearing the end of the band and hitting the bottle hard, Louris let his inner Anglophile take the controls, and he wrote a handful of rattled, despondent pop songs that became their 1997 masterpiece Sound of Lies.
"It is the fk-you record. It really is the fk-everybody record," Louris told San Francisco Bay Area Concerts in 2015. "I was going through a divorce, I was a mess, I was drinking too much, I was unhappy… I really felt this was the last Jayhawks record, and why not go out with a bang, so fk it?" One line from opener "The Man Who Loved Life" predicts how the album would fare commercially: "The traveling band was not well-received."
Still, Olson's absence created a clearing in which the other members could flourish. O'Reagan, who replaced their third drummer Ken Callahan, wrote and sang "Bottomless Cup"; Perlman contributed “I Hear You Cry,” one of the album's B-sides. "I learned how to write songs by being in the Jayhawks," Perlman explains. "I didn’t really have any interest in it in any band I was in before. It kind of took me years to understand the concept of it."
Smile, their 2000 album helmed by star producer Bob Ezrin, was their shot at a full-bore pop record with co-writing credits from all Jayhawks. Sunnier than its predecessor while thrumming with slightly unhinged energy, Smile has aged terrifically, but the slickness of songs like its title track, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” and “Queen of the World” came to some fans' chagrin. Louris was unmoved by the pushback: "I get bored easily… I don’t like doing cookie-cutter things," he plainly told Yahoo! in 2014. "I didn't want to blindly follow what we were supposed to do and play country-rock."
Which is ironic in light of its 2003 follow-up Rainy Day Music, which completely abandoned synths and drum machines and took shelter in Americana. "People say that it's a return to our original sound, but sometimes I think of it as a retreat," Louris told City Pages in 2014. "We licked our wounds and said, ‘Well, that didn't work.’ And, I mean, we weren’t going to go in another direction of weird shit and drony music."
On that stripped-down album, the other Jayhawks continued to step up in Olson's absence. O’Reagan contributed “Don’t Let the World Get in Your Way” and “Tampa to Tulsa”; Perlman wrote “Will I See You in Heaven,” which the band sang in harmony. While lovely song-for-song, Rainy Day Music was a safe move instead of a surge forward, and it arguably cemented the Jayhawks’ image as an easy-listening band. They wouldn’t release another album for seven years.
The Jayhawks' Gary Louris and Mark Olson perform onstage at Barbican Centre in 2012 in London. (Photo by Roberta Parkin/Redferns via Getty Images)
An Ill-Fated Reunion
While the Jayhawks quietly puttered along, Olson was engulfed in a tailspin of his own making.
At home in Joshua Tree, he was a full-time caregiver to Williams, who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. During periods of remission, the couple performed and recorded as the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers. After an exhausting 2004 tour of Europe, Olson decided to clear his head and enroll in a geology course at Barstow Community College. "One day, I drove the half-hour to college, and I kept driving," Olson told The Independent in 2007.
Olson didn’t stop until he arrived back in Minneapolis, where, he told Williams, he was crashing with Louris. In reality, Olson had gotten back with an ex-girlfriend. Williams quickly found out and filed for divorce. "The episode put such a strain on me that when I was in Minnesota my behavior wasn't rational," Olson recalled. "I mean, I was eating and doing normal things, but I was actually insane."
A bright spot emerged soon enough: Olson and Louris had reconnected back in 2001 when they were asked to write a song together for the Dennis Quaid-starring sports drama The Rookie. In 2008, they released Ready for the Flood, a duet album produced by the Black Crowes' Chris Robinson. "I'm willing to play it more by Mark’s rules now," Louris told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that year. "There’s definitely some kind of chemistry between us musically that just seems to pick up wherever it left off."
It worked so well, in fact, that Olson briefly rejoined the Jayhawks for 2012's Mockingbird Time, their first with their old co-leader since 1995. International touring followed. Then it all fell apart that same year after a festival gig in Spain. "In front of a bunch of people, Gary said, 'Why don’t you hit me?'" Olson told Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2014. "I don’t ever want to see Gary Louris again, nor do I want him singing my songs," he added.
Despite strong reviews, Louris has since disowned Mockingbird Time: "I don’t even count [it] as a Jayhawks record," he told Wicked Local Beverly in 2019. "I just kinda skip over it. It was a really bad experience. I was trying to force something that wasn’t there anymore with my relationship with Olson." Plus, "I was in the throes of drug addiction at that time," Louris admitted.
Ever since a heart-related surgery in 2003, Louris had been addicted to painkillers, and his drinking was spiraling out of control. "I found I just felt good on these things," he told MPR News in 2016. "I finally felt not-anxious, which is what I had growing up and all of my life, a low-level depression and anxiety." But Louris' need for pills ballooned over time; on one solo tour, he fell over backstage and repeated songs onstage.
The bottom fell out in downtown Los Angeles, when he stood on a hotel ledge at midnight and thought about jumping. Luckily, a friend from MusiCares got him into treatment: "I was so ready. You have to be ready,” he told The Current in 2016. "And I was so ready, it wasn't even funny."
Leaving The Monsters Behind
Sobriety gave Louris a new lease on life. "It’s changed the way I played," he told The Current. "I'm actually much more comfortable on stage straight. I approach the music differently." After spending years blaming music for his problems, he immersed himself in the stuff, writing prolifically in his home studio and twisting found sounds into unrecognizable shapes.
"[I] started dabbling with everything from manipulating radio broadcasts to sampling things off of my vinyl and twisting them into strange compositions," Louris told Courier Journal in 2016. This artistic roll resulted in 2016’s Paging Mr. Proust, which was co-produced by Peter Buck and juxtaposed pop jewels like "Quiet Corners and Empty Spaces" with Krautrock-influenced jams like "Ace" that reflect Louris' outré tastes.
Grotberg had a more hands-on role in Paging Mr. Proust. "I didn’t have any lead vocals that I sang, but there was definitely a lot of prominent piano," she notes. "Also, we started collaborating a little bit [on the writing of 'Lost the Summer,' 'Leaving the Monsters Behind' and 'The Dust of Long-Dead Stars']. There was a lot of freedom on that album. A lot of ‘Let’s get a little jammy and see what happens.'"
Proust’s easy-breezy follow-up, 2018’s Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, was a "cover album" with a twist. Nearly every song had been written by Louris for an outside act, whether it be The Chicks' ("Everybody Knows" and "Bitter End"), the Wild Feathers ("Backwards Women") or Ari Hest ("Need You Tonight"). Grotberg and O’Reagan sang more lead vocal parts than ever — the former on "Come Cryin’ to Me" and "El Dorado," the latter on "Gonna Be a Darkness" and "Long Time Ago."
Back Roads and Abandoned Motels led to a eureka moment for their next album of new material. "It kind of spurred me on… I just start thinking ‘I wish these guys were singing more,'" he says. "I'm singing 95% of the songs, and I have these two other people who sing so well. People love to hear their voices. Not just behind me, but singing lead."
A Full Democracy
In the interest of "opening [the band] up a bit more" and finding a unifying theme for a record, Louris asked Grotberg, Perlman and O'Reagan to write and sing their own compositions for XOXO.
Grotberg contributed two songs that dated back decades. "Ruby," which the Jayhawks occasionally performed live in the 1990s, was written about an elderly woman who cared for her during childhood. "Fast-forward a couple decades, and I hadn’t seen her in a long time. I found her with one foot in this world and another foot in the next," Grotberg says. "So it’s sort of a transition into death, but I view it more as a love song. I was trying to write about her relationship with her husband, which is a beautiful story."
Her impressionistic ballad "Across My Field" was written while living in the countryside. "I was probably sitting there spacing out with a kerosene lamp on the table and looking out across the gravel driveway to that field," she says. "It’s about trying to move forward out of any situation in life. You have to take a step. It’s not necessarily a large step. But you have to step forward." (Grotberg also wrote and sang "Jewel of the Trimbelle," a piano ballad named after a small Wisconsin town where she once lived, which is included as a vinyl-only bonus track.)
Grotberg's bandmates are ecstatic about the leaps she's taken. "Her lyrics are very poetic. It’s a major step for her to be able to express herself more," Louris says, aglow. Adds Perlman, "Gary and I talk about how enjoyable it is to watch her come out of her shell. He and I have been supporters of her songs for a long time. It’s just a question of finding the right time and place for her to step up."
Perlman, who had never sung a lead vocal on a Jayhawks album, wrote "Down to the Farm" half an hour before a writing/rehearsal session. “"I kind of felt like I wasn’t pulling my weight. I kind of got frustrated," he admits. "You’ve got to step up to the plate a little. So I sat down and just popped that one off." ("I love the dark beauty of that song," Louris says of the Leonard Cohen-esque track, noting its theme of "aging and feeling time pass.")
O’Reagan ramps up the energy on XOXO with "Dogtown Days" and "Society Pages," two hard-charging tracks that hint at his power-pop roots in his old band the Leatherwoods. The album’s closer "Looking Up Your Number," a tender, close-miked ballad he wrote more recently, is something else entirely.
"The lyrical content is kind of a well-trod area for me, which is regret over a screwed-up relationship and trying to figure out how to make it work again," O'Reagan says. "I seem to keep going back to that subject in my songs. A lot of selfishness and screwed-up relationships and trying to make good on it."
Louris, Grotberg, O'Reagan wrote the winding "Illuminate" in hot-potato fashion by tossing suggestions back and forth — it’s anybody’s guess whose lyrics were actually whose. "It has a variety of styles within," Perlman says, calling it a "process song." "I do remember that Gary and I had kind of rediscovered the Moody Blues at some point in the last year. I think subconsciously I was thinking of the song 'Question,' which is a beautiful song and has really distinct parts to it. It doesn’t barrel through the song from beginning to end."
As for Louris' songs, "Living in a Bubble" is a bouncy rejoinder to data-tracking and the 24-hour news cycle reminiscent of Harry Nilsson and Elliott Smith; "Homecoming" is a climate-change warning that slowly becomes subsumed in a bit-crusher storm; and "Bitter Pill" is an aching story-song that builds on "Lovers of the Sun" from Paging Mr. Proust.
"It’s a theme that hits close to home for me," Louris said in a statement about "Bitter Pill." "Always searching for the next fix of happiness, the missing piece… never being happy with what one has."
A "Shit Show" For Good Causes
While waiting for the COVID-19 pandemic to die down and for concerts to resume, most of the Jayhawks have been at home in Minnesota. "I'm kind of bored, like every musician," Perlman says. While Grotberg, Perlman and O’Reagan have zero desire to live-stream ("I think it would be a challenge for me," O’Reagan says pointedly), Louris has taken to the format like a child clambering on monkey bars.
Every week or so since late April, Louris has hosted "The Sh*t Show," a ramshackle home performance series in which he performs Jayhawks favorites and obscure solo cuts by request. His girlfriend Steph runs point from a second iPad from Canada, and his son Henry, who possesses a dusky tenor like his father, typically joins on-camera to sing backup and cover songs by Radiohead, Paul McCartney and Sean Lennon.
Louris began broadcasting "The Sht Show" from his home in West Saugerties, New York; now, it’s live from Minneapolis, where he moved in June just as the George Floyd protests kicked into gear. "We join in with our fellow Twin Citians in expressing our grief over the senseless death of George Floyd," the band wrote in a Facebook statement in June. "Our sympathy [is] with the family and all those affected by the events of the past couple weeks." Given current events, he splits tip jar donations from "The Sht Show" between the Navajo Water Project and the GoFundMe for Elijah McClain, who was killed by police in 2019.
Overall, Louris, who has been open about his struggles with depression, looks relaxed hosting his home show — cracking jokes, bantering with the peanut gallery in the comment section, lightheartedly penalizing Henry for sour notes. "He can pull that off. He has the ability to get on a stage," Perlman says of his boss' livestreaming abilities. "I don’t think I’ll ever work with anybody else who is as proficient a songwriter and as talented a singer and as talented a guitar player as he is. People don’t realize what an amazing guitar player he is. You don’t find people with that kind of all-around talent. So he can do that."
"On the other hand," the bassist says, "I would never be caught dead doing something like that."
Photo Credit: TimGeaney
When the pandemic allows for touring and recording again, will the band continue in this democratic format?
"I’ve been thinking about this and I’ve kind of painted myself in a corner," Louris says with a laugh. "There is no rulebook. I’m always going to feel a little bit like a benevolent dictator and the buck’s got to stop with somebody because it’s really hard to have everyone agree on everything. I’ll always kind of sort of steer the ship a little bit more, but hopefully this continues. I have total faith that this will continue."
"We kind of have similar sensibilities between us about what’s good and what ain’t," O’Reagan says, noting that the process of trimming songs was surprisingly painless. "There were no knock-down drag-out discussions about what would make it and what wouldn’t."
"Who knows?" Perlman asks in response to the question. "The songs decide how the record is going to be produced. The next record we make could be completely acoustic, stripped-down. The next record could be all Karen songs for all I know."
To Grotberg, who has had the longest journey of any Jayhawk to the spotlight, there’s no question that XOXO is the beginning of an era. "I’d have to say yes, I do anticipate that," she responds. "It could be that Gary has such a large volume of songs for the next album, but I can’t imagine him saying ‘Nobody else can have a song.’ I imagine that this is a new day."
To that end, nearly four decades since Louris found American traditional music, the Jayhawks are arguably just getting started.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Listen: All Of The Latin Music 2023 GRAMMY Nominees In One Playlist
Ahead of Music's Biggest Night on Feb. 5, 2023, celebrate with this immersive playlist of every Latin Field nominee at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
The Latin GRAMMYs may have just honored the genre's trailblazers in Las Vegas on Nov. 17, but the celebration will continue at the upcoming 65th GRAMMY Awards ceremony in February. There are five categories in the Latin Field of the 2023 GRAMMY nominations — and you can hear all of the nominees in one playlist.
In the Best Latin Pop Album category, are Christina Aguilera's Latin GRAMMY-winning AGUILERA will compete with Rubén Blades & Boca Livre's Pasieros, Camilo's De Adendro Pa Afuera, Fonseca's VIAJANTE, and Sebastián Yatra's Dharma+. Channeling their lively Latin roots while traversing pop landscapes, these albums all magnetically merge tradition and modernity.
Reggaeton, dancehall, hip hop, and funk coalesce in the nominated works for Best Música Urbana Album: Rauw Alejandro's Trap Cake, Vol. 2, Bad Bunny's Un Verano Sin Ti, Daddy Yankee's LEGENDADDY, Farruko's La 167, and Maluma's The Love & Sex Tape.
The genre-blending jubilation continues with the Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album category. This year's nominees are Cimafunk's El Alimento, Jorge Drexler's Tinta y Tiempo, Mon Laferte's 1940 Carmen, Gaby Moreno's Alegoría, Fito Paez's Los Años Salvajes, and Rosalía's MOTOMAMI.
For Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano), 2021 winner Natalia Lafourcade's Un Canto por México - El Musical is up against Chiquis' Abeja Reina, Los Tigres Del Norte's La Reunión (Deluxe), Christian Nodal's EP #1 Forajido, and Marco Antonio Solís' Qué Ganas de Verte (Deluxe).
As for Best Tropical Latin Album, Marc Anthony — a two-time winner in the category — returns as a nominee with Pa'lla Voy, alongside pioneers Tito Nieves (nominated for Legendario), La Santa Cecilia (Quiero Verte Feliz), Víctor Manuelle (Lado A Lado B), Spanish Harlem Orchestra (Imágenes Latinas), and Carlos Vives (Cumbiana II).
Listen to all of the above albums in this comprehensive, 338-song playlist of the Latin music GRAMMY nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.