Photo by Autumn de Wilde
Jenny Lewis On Loving L.A., Texting With Beck & Why 'On The Line' Is Just "One Piece Of The Puzzle"
The celebrated singer/songwriter reflects on her upward career trajectory—from Hollywood child actress to tooling around Omaha with indie saviors Rilo Kiley to eventually collaborating with Beck and Don Was for her latest release
I'm having trouble getting Jenny Lewis on the phone. Her publicists try again and again to connect our call, and at last have success on the third or fourth attempt. The irony is not lost on Lewis, whose much-praised fourth solo album, released earlier this year, is called On The Line and features a great deal of landline imagery in its marketing. "I've got like six rotary phones on stage with me on any given night!" she laughs.
In conversation, though, the L.A.-born and based singer couldn't be easier to talk to. Her voice is low and wry-sounding, evoking memories of her alto sing-speaking aesthetic on early Rilo Kiley cuts like "Go Ahead" and "Glendora," and she's clear and articulate when describing her perspective in making On The Line. A few months have gone by since the album came out (it dropped this past March via Warner Bros.), which means she's had a moment to absorb its accolades.
And boy does it have them: Recorded at Capitol Records' Studio B and featuring contributions from Beck, Ringo Starr, Don Was, Benmont Tench, Jason Falkner and Jim Keltner, among others, On The Line peaked at No. 34 on the Billboard 200 and earned rave reviews from respected outlets such as Pitchfork and Rolling Stone.
When asked how such an outpouring of recognition sits with her, Lewis responds that she's careful not to view herself as having "arrived."
"I really think of this album as part of 20 years of songwriting, and I really think of each project as a continuation of the narrative," she says. "I'm so thrilled that people are listening and they're enjoying it, and I hope it's one piece of the puzzle moving forward. I feel like it's dangerous to read your own press, because if you believe the good stuff, then you have to believe the negative stuff. So yeah, I'm just going to keep on writing as long as I can."
In our conversation, Lewis reflects further on her accomplished career trajectory—from Hollywood child actress to tooling around Omaha with indie saviors Rilo Kiley to eventually collaborating with Beck and mentoring younger artists—and goes deep on her complicated yet rewarding relationship to L.A.
On The Line features no co-writes—just you. Why did this feel like a good time to go in that direction?
First and foremost, I consider myself to be a songwriter. And that's really why I started playing music when I was a little kid. It wasn't about learning other songs. It was about expressing something, or finding an outlet for that expression. I think I wrote my first song when I was 10, nine or 10, and so the narrative for me has been really what interests me about music, and then the melody, and all of the things that go along with making records. Playing in a band, learning about the studio, all of that stuff has kind of come secondary to the poetry. So this album, I kind of found myself alone in the world once again, coming out of a long-term, serious relationship. And I really had the time to process and just work on a very singular storytelling perspective.
That makes me think of something you said in your Rolling Stone profile. You're kind of discussing the idea of learning to finish your own stories after a long-term relationship. It made me wonder if you feel like, with this album and in the time since, you've achieved that goal?
Yeah. And you know, that's a reference. Really, in any relationship, you start to share a similar consciousness. And I think when you have a partner, and you've been together, you have a lot of experience. They finish your sentences for you. They finish the stories. It's like now I'm a single woman out in the world. I've got all the time in the world to finish my songs. So I think being an artist, in some ways it's a double-edged sword. I think there's sacrifice for your work, which is being alone to create the work. Not that there's anything wrong with co-writing. I've co-written with my lovers and my band mates and partners over the years, and that is mostly because of proximity, and not that I don't appreciate it. I feel like I learn every time I collaborate with someone, but really left to my own devices, I've got like a hundred songs just sort of kicking around in there at all times.
If you haven't gotten the chance to yet, you should definitely check out the Linda Ronstadt documentary. The film briefly glosses over how she never married, hinting at how she may have felt like she had to choose between her career and long-term partnership.
Oh, I will. And she is not really a songwriter. Right? I mean she chose the band, as far as I know. The Eagles backed her. I mean, all filtered through her taste and curation, and that's so interesting. And have you seen the Motown documentary? On Showtime? It's amazing.
I haven't yet.
A lot of it is based on the song craft, where for me, being a performer is sort of a secondary part of telling the story. And the song craft to me is what I'm completely obsessed with, and it just plagues me. I walk around all day. I've got these little bits that I'm constantly working on and just... Not perfecting, but just finding the cohesive story. The story that begins with an opening line that gets you. Within the first line, it draws you into the story, and then you tell a complete story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. That's sort of the direction that I want to kind of find myself going in, just the craftsmanship of songs.
Right, and I get the sense that there's still an element of curation with On The Line, because there are a lot of people who came in on the album to work alongside you. On that note, how did you settle on which songs you'd bring Beck in to produce?
Well, Beck and I collaborated on the Voyager album, on the song "Just One Of The Guys" and "Late Bloomer," which I didn't end up using his version of "Late Bloomer." But he helped me finish that song in that I had two and a half verses, and we were demoing stuff for "Just One Of The Guys," and he had me go in the next room and finish the story. He's like, "You got it. Just finish it and lay it down." I've found these guides throughout my career that have always pointed me back in my own direction in a way.
They've been so supportive, but really honoring the song itself. And Beck is someone I grew up listening to. We've become friends over the years. We're both from L.A. We grew up in L.A., so we have this very unique perspective on the city and the music that comes through it. I think our taste, it's kind of like a mix tape. There's a lot of influence growing up in Southern California. Hip-hop, and soul, and funk, and country, and the Bakersfield country thing. It's all sort of in there. In writing for this album, there were a couple of songs that I thought would benefit from a kind of groove-based place. And I demo all my stuff on my phone on GarageBand, and I just texted them to Beck, which I think is called "bext." It's "bexting."
And he immediately was like, "Oh yeah, I get these songs. Let's do it." And so we went into Capitol Studio B with an incredible band. Jim Keltner, Benmont Tench, Jason Faulkner, Beck. And once the song is done, I'm at a point where I just want to hand it over to a producer. I've always been so involved in the production with my bands, and just the details, but I really wanted to be open to what a true producer would bring without my meddling, but having the song complete before stepping into the studio.
Is that something that you would want to keep doing? Handing your stuff over to another producer?
Well, I think openness is the key, and I have become more open. Coming from a DIY indie-rock background, you really have to do everything. Not only are you writing, arranging, recording your own material at home, but you're printing your own T-shirts, driving yourself to the gig, counting the money, doing the interview. You kind of learn how to do everything. But in a way, it can become a detriment once you've moved past that, because I think part of great record-making is a collaboration between producers and writers and performers. So to have perspective on your own work, to have someone come in like Beck or even Shawn Everett, who makes the record, who had yet another perspective on it, I think it was this communal effort that made for a really complete-sounding piece.
Yeah. It's so interesting, learning that it's OK to rely on someone other than yourself as an artist. But I imagine if Beck is in the mix, then that's probably a no-brainer.
Yeah. You have to trust your collaborators, and so to find myself in a room with Jim Keltner, Beck, Don Was. I was kind of like, "All right, I guess I can give up control now." But it's an ongoing practice in every area of my life. It's like, this is why I do yoga and smoke weed or whatever. You know what I mean? Just like learning how to let go, and letting that also be a part of the music, and being a student, and being a teacher. Embodying all of these roles. It's like I've been playing music long enough where people come up to me and they're like, "Oh, when I was in junior high, I went to see you play, and you were the first woman I saw playing a guitar on stage and like that made me want to start a band." It's like Katie Crutchfield from Waxahatchee is doing great. So to be able to be that role and be kind of a mentor, and then also surround myself with people who I can learn from, I think it's a process.
Now that we're kind of circling back to the group of people involved in the making of On The Line, why did a variety show experience feel like the right way to introduce this album to the world?
Well, I've made so many records. I've been doing this for so long. I've made so many music videos, some of which are good, some of which didn't stand the test of time, some of which disappeared. I don't even know where they are. Doing this, and in the kind of changing landscape of music, just what holds people's attention, and trying to not just make a stock music video, I reached out to Tim Heidecker, who I'm a huge fan of. He's a comedian, and part of Tim And Eric. He makes records as well, and he's just a really funny, funny person whose humor is a little bit off.
And so I reached out to him, asking if he wanted to make something for the album, and he wasn't excited about the music video format either. And he suggested we do an eight-hour live telethon in lieu of a music video. So it started out as an eight-hour telethon, and I was completely down. So creatively, to just have a new thing to wrap your head around to present an album... And then we realized that to do eight hours live streaming was really expensive, so we chopped it down to three hours, and we just filled the three hours with as many of our friends and wishlist people as possible. And it was a live experience that went off the rails at times, and was completely spontaneous and really so much fun. And it benefited the downtown L.A. Women's Center, which is a really vital, necessary place in Downtown L.A. And so we were able to donate a little bit of money, and get all these people together and have a spontaneous experience, and preview part of the record.
Speaking of L.A., I'd love to talk a little bit about your relationship to the city. What do you think fuels your affection for L.A.? What keeps you coming back?
I have a complex relationship with Los Angeles. I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, and when I turned 15 or 16, I basically hitchhiked over the hill and never looked back, and thought to myself, "I'm never going back to the Valley." And then when I was able to buy my first home, I bought it in the San Fernando Valley. Sort of on the outskirts, but there's something that... It's like a magnet that pulls me back. After my relationship ended, when I was sort of in the middle of writing this album, I did go to New York for a year or so, and wrote a lot of my songs in my head walking around the city. But really, what I was picturing was L.A., was Ventura Boulevard, the strip malls, all of the places that kind of shaped my writing, all of the imagery. It's all steeped in Los Angeles kind of lore. So I try to remain positive about where I'm from. And I feel like everywhere I go, I meet people and they're like, "Oh, so you're born and raised in L.A.? You grew up in LA? Wow. That's got to be hard." Well, it's also hard dealing with a snowstorm in Omaha. These are different challenges.
But yeah, people have this idea of L.A., and I find myself defending it in a way, because there's so much and there's so many different ways to exist in L.A. There's so many suburbs. It's so spread out. You can really kind of find your own path there. I think that there's a lot of comparison in L.A. If you're a young woman growing up and you're in Hollywood, I think there are danger zones there, so navigating that also informed the writing as well.
Personally, I think L.A. is what you make it, because there are so many pockets and so many little neighborhoods. It's not just one thing.
Well, like they say, "Wherever you go, there you are." And Lana Del Rey, on her new record, had a variation of that plan, which I really like.
But yeah, I mean, I think being a musician coming out of show biz, growing up as a child actor, growing up within a family of performers... When I started playing music, I think people were like, "You can't do that. You're an actor. You're a kid actor. You're not allowed to do that." And so I think keeping it very small, and going back to the DIY thing, I think we did it on our own because we had to prove it to ourselves that we were viable writers and artists. And the L.A. kind of music machine, A) wasn't available to us. B) Just felt inauthentic. So we went around. We had to go to Nebraska to find our people. And then kind of circle back around. And then 20 years later, I'm at Capitol recording with Don Was. It's like I went around the block to get back to where I'm from. But it was like, we had to just go out and do it.
MUNA: "The Most Radical Thing You Can Do Is Believe That The World Can Be Saved"
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Taylor Hill/FilmMagic
The Postal Service's 'Give Up' Remains An Indie Time Capsule 20 Years Later
The Postal Service's Jenny Lewis and Jimmy Tamborello reflect on the magic that made 2003's impactful 'Give Up' reach "Such Great Heights." Led by Ben Gibbard, the Postal Service and Death Cab For Cutie will begin their first-ever joint tour on Sept. 5.
"I am thinking it's a sign / that the freckles in our eyes / are mirror images / and when we kiss / they're perfectly aligned," Ben Gibbard sings on the Postal Service's 2003 classic "Such Great Heights." If you consumed American media in the early aughts, those memorable lyrics may well be committed to your memory, as it saw placement on "The O.C.," "Grey's Anatomy," "Veronica Mars," Garden State and an assortment of commercials.
This was the band's biggest song from their only studio album, Give Up, released on Sub Pop on Feb. 18, 2003, and it almost didn't happen. Producer Jimmy Tamborello tells us it was originally going to be a cover of an '80s deep cut, but it just didn't click. When they decided to nix that idea, Tamborello used a similar sonic palette for what became "Such Great Heights."
Yet the song — and the Postal Service side project itself — came from a very DIY and creative space. It all began sometime in 2001, when left-field electronic producer Tamborello, a.k.a. Dntel, reached out to Death Cab For Cutie's Gibbard to sing on a track on his debut full-length, Life Is Full Of Possibilities. The collab session at Tamborello's L.A. home studio went so well that Gibbard suggested they make more music, and Tony Kiewel at Sub Pop urged them to make an album versus an EP to make more of an impact with reviews and sales.
They had no idea the project would resonate as widely as it did, let alone that we'd still be talking about it 20 years later. And the staying power is real — to this day, it’s the second-best selling album on Sub Pop, second only to Nirvana's debut Bleach. In 2012, just shy of its 10th anniversary reissue and much-anticipated tour, Give Up reached platinum status.
2003 was an important year for everyone involved with the Postal Service. Death Cab For Cutie released their critically acclaimed fourth album, Transatlanticism in October, which caught the attention of Atlantic Records (who signed them in 2004). Jenny Lewis — who sang backing vocals on Give Up and has been a part of their live band since their humble first tour in 2003 — also struck gold with her band Rilo Kiley's 2002 album, The Execution Of All Thing.
The Postal Service toured Give Up for a few weeks; the gigs were small, but the album’s popularity grew as they made stops in North America and Europe. When the group's members went back to their main projects, the Postal Service was set aside for a decade. Yet the album continued to make waves. There were never plans for a second album or tour, but Gibbard was regularly asked by interviewers about new Postal Service music.
Gibbard and Tamborello attempted further collaboration which resulted in a few singles (including the perfect Phil Collins cover for the 2004 Josh Hartnett film Wicker Park). The pressure for new Postal Service music was very real, but as their careers had taken off, space for collaboration had narrowed.
Twenty years later, Gibbard will lead the Postal Service and Death Cab For Cutie on their first-ever joint tour playing both 20-year-old albums in full. The tour kicks off on Sept. 5 in Washington D.C. and wraps on Oct. 17 at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.
To celebrate what is sure to be a memorable, tear-jerking run of concerts, GRAMMY.com recently caught up with Tamborello and Lewis to revisit the beloved side project that continues to take on a life of its own.
Back in 2002 when you were working on Give Up, did you have any idea that we would still be talking about it today?
Jimmy Tamborello: No, not at all. It really felt like a side project when we did it — just something that was fun to do. I couldn't really even figure out what the audience for it would be when we finished it.
Jenny Lewis: I just was happy to be there for the two days I laid down my vocals. I didn't really think much about it.
In our world, side projects are pretty common. Over the years, I've done five or six side projects. It's really just a creative outlet; a way to try something new with low stakes. I always do best under low stakes.
Do you think the lack of pressure or expectation — and the earlier points in your careers — made Give Up a special, inimitable project?
Tamborello: That was during the time I was the least aware of how other people were hearing what I was doing, so it was a little freer.
Lewis: Yeah, it was very free. I think the burden of knowing too much can creep its way in and then you can't help but kind of get jaded with your own music after putting out 10 or 15 records.
There's something so precious about Give Up because it's this time capsule. It's frozen in amber. And although we revisit it, it's still this very special, pure thing that's untainted by time or pressure to do it again.
Tamborello: I bet I worried about it more than I remember now. I was still pretty neurotic, so I was probably stressed out about it back then.
Lewis: But the expectation was low. When we were on the road touring it, things started happening. We booked these tiny little places. We had a show booked in this really small spot in Barcelona, and they moved us to the big room, which had never happened in my career before. To feel that kind of momentum while we were out touring was really unique. And then we stopped touring it for 10 years.
Tamborello: I'm surprised we even put a tour together in the first place. I don't know if Sub Pop wanted us to do it or we just thought it would be fun, but we could have easily just never toured it. Even though we only did a month of touring, I think that did solidify us as a band and probably somehow gave us more lasting power.
What did it feel like on that first tour to see the success of the album happening in real time?
Tamborello: They were pretty humble successes when we were on tour. It was little steps up — we were still playing 200-person clubs, besides maybe L.A., which felt extra-big.
Lewis: Although these little things were happening, we were caught up in the logistics of being on tour; carrying our gear, loading in and out and driving ourselves around.
Tamborello: There were a lot of people in the van. [Chuckles.]
Lewis: We shared one room. Jimmy and I shared a bed. Nick [Harmer] — from Death Cab was our tour manager — and Ben shared a bed. That's how we did it back then. So you're in the weeds getting to the shows and making them happen. And then these little fun things happen where you're like, "Oh my goodness, people are kind of dancing in the crowd. Whoa." They don't dance as much at emo shows.
Tamborello: I'd only done a couple tours with a band before that. They were really small, like, two people at a house. So it was crazy even just to sell out one show on a tour. I think the most my band got paid on the tour before that was $100 and pizza or something. Ben and Jenny had more experience with that level of touring.
Lewis: [Rilo Kiley] had just put out The Execution Of All Things on Saddle Creek. I think we had put out a record and an EP and toured for a couple of years.
We made the [Postal Service] record and then I just went on doing my band. You guys sent me a copy of it on a CD-R. I was on tour with Rilo Kiley and Desaparecitos, and we were all in our 15-passenger van. I was like, "Oh, I got this Postal Service record. You guys want to listen to it?" Everyone in my band freaked out, especially Denver [Dalley of Desaparecitos]. He was like, "Whoa dude, this is gonna be huge." I was like, "What?!" It hadn't even occurred to me, but when I played it for my peers, they were like, "Wow, this is next level."
I think my band was worried, like, "Oh my gosh, are you gonna leave us?" There were all these mixed emotions. We listened to the record and then everyone was like, "Can we listen to that again?"
Tamborello: I remember a lot of memories of listening to Execution Of All Things and [Death Cab For Cutie's] Transatlanticism [after] getting copies from you guys, and loving those albums.
Lewis: Yeah, all three of those records came out [one after another]. Execution changed my band's trajectory. The Postal Service was happening simultaneously and Transatlanticism. It was a lot. But it was small back then. It was pretty DIY.
In what ways did you feel Give Up sonically impacted indie rock at that time? And how did it impact your work going forward?
Tamborello: I think we were already at the beginning of the wave of electronics getting really deep into indie rock.
Lewis: I think when you're in it, you don't really notice it, because you're just doing it. Jimmy and I collaborated after that for Dntel and Jimmy produced a Rilo Kiley song. I think we just kept going, and this was now part of the palette. Having Jimmy as a producer and a resource is a whole new world of sounds. It was very exciting for my band.
I think it took a couple of years for it to kind of infiltrate television and scoring, as a part of this wave of electronic music becoming more mainstream in the indie world. There was a mainstream band that put out a song that kind of sounded a little bit like the Postal Service, but we weren't active. The record was just doing its thing, but we had done our tour and we had gone back to our regular lives.
Give Up was a mostly remote collaboration, hence the name the Postal Service. Jimmy, were you sending demo CD-Rs to Ben via USPS or was it a different mailing service?
Tamborello: I think it was USPS. I have the envelopes and there's stamps on them and stuff. I still have a stack.
Lewis: That was pretty unprecedented to not be in the room with someone. There's something to figuring out your parts and writing in that kind of space, and then sharing it. When you're in the studio, you're playing a character version of yourself because everyone's watching you. But to have that [privacy], makes it really real.
Jimmy, how did you meet Ben?
Tamborello: It was through my roommate Pedro. He was in a band that toured with Death Cab, so they were friends. I was working on the Dntel album and asked Pedro if I could send Ben some music. And then Ben came to stay with us to hang out. That's where we recorded ["(This Is) The Dream Of Evan and Chan"] and got to know each other.
Lewis: And when did you guys say, "Hey, let's make a whole record of this stuff?"
Tamborello: That trip, when we recorded that Dntel song. I think Ben brought up doing more stuff, I don't think I would have. I remember being on the phone with Tony [Kiewel] at Sub Pop that weekend, talking to him about it, and he said we should do a whole album. And that was the beginning of a year of making it.
Lewis: That's an example of a good A&R person. Non-intrusive but like, "Hey, this is cool, you guys should make a whole record." Maybe you wouldn't have done it if it wasn't suggested.
Tamborello: We would've done an EP or something, and he pushed us into a full album.
"(This Is) The Dream Of Evan And Chan" sounds like it could've been on Give Up. What was the creative process like when you made that song together and how did that inform the process of Give Up?
Tamborello: That process was really easy. I was pretty far into making that album and I wanted a more upbeat song. I made the instrumental; I don't think I made it with Ben in mind. Once I thought of him as an option for a singer, I sent him that song and he wrote [lyrics] to it. Then he came to visit and we recorded it in an afternoon. I didn't have to change anything he did.
When we started making Give Up, I figured that song was going to be the launching point, the sound blueprint. I was figuring it would get kind of weirder, more experimental from there. I like the idea of his really pretty voice on top of more messed up music. I don't know what happened; immediately everything I was making came out more pop-y. And once he started singing on that stuff, it just snowballed from there. I'm so relieved we didn't make a super experimental album.
Were there any unreleased or unfinished tracks from that original Give Up-period? Or did everything fall together and go on the album?
Tamborello: Everything went on the album. There's a song called "There's Never Enough Time" that ended up being the B-side for one of the singles. Basically, the first 10 songs we made were the album.
We attempted a cover for a second that I don't even think Ben ever sang on and then scrapped it. We used the same kind of palette — not the same music or the same sounds — and changed it into "Such Great Heights." That was lucky. Our lives — or mine — would have been so different if we'd had an obscure '80s band cover song on that album instead.
Lewis: But that's the freedom within collaboration [outside of your main project]. When you're in a rock band and you're like, "Let's make a hit song," it feels contrived. It feels lame. But the freedom to not have the pressure to do one thing or the other, to just make music with this very honest collaboration is so cool. You weren't trying to make a hit song.
Tamborello: It hadn't really happened yet that indie rock was becoming a viable way to have a hit. That kind of happened as we were making it, so that possibility wasn't on our radar.
Lewis: For me, every step of the way, it's been so surprising that it's endured. When it comes around every 10 years, it's like "Oh my goodness, we're gonna do this again? People still want to come and see this? This is incredible."
"Such Great Heights" really did take on a life of its own. It got played on alt-rock radio. It was in the Garden State trailer and on "Grey's Anatomy" and "The O.C." Why do you think about that song resonated so widely at the time?
Tamborello: I don't know. I mean, it has a repeating chorus and a sweet, clear message.
Lewis: Yeah, it's interesting that other artists at that time and filmmakers gravitated towards that song and it just fit.
Tamborello: It's a really fast song too. It's weird for a song to be successful when it's 170 BPM.
It's fast even for a dance record. <a href="https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/scientists-discover-trends-in-pop-music/#:\~:text=America's%20popular%20songs%20have%20also,100%20BPM%20in%20the%202000s.">Note: Billboard Hot 100 hits in the 2000s [averaged around 100 BPM.]
Tamborello: It's faster than a techno song.
I don't think any of those shows existed yet when you were making the song, but if you were tasked with making the theme song for "Grey's Anatomy," it would probably end up being very different.
Lewis: Yeah. And they wouldn't have done that. It became that, but I feel like at that moment, we didn't do stuff like that. The Shins had their song in a McDonald's commercial [in 2002]. There were these sea change moments where things that you weren't supposed to do before — coming from the punk or Pavement ethos — you could kind of do them. My band had a real powwow about licensing songs at first. Like, "Is this cool? Is this the right thing to do?" And now all bets are off.
What did it feel like revisiting the album on the 2013 tour?
Jenny Lewis: Well, we sort of had a template because we had done it 10 years prior with just the three of us. We had this foundational thing where Ben and I were doing the vocals and playing guitars and keyboards and hit pads and the music really was coming from Jimmy. So we had a rough template and expanded it with the tech and we added another member to have more live stuff and vocals. Every 10 years, we have a place to build from and we have become a real live band.
I think you could just go out there and press play and it would have a similar impact because the songs are so good and it feels so good to hear those songs. As a fan of the record, when "The District Sleeps Alone" starts, I'm just full body chills because I love it so much. Whatever accoutrement is there I don't think necessarily matters because the songs and vibe are there.
Tamborello: For the 2013 tour, I hadn't kept my files in order at all, so I had to rebuild a lot of the songs which was stressful. I managed to save all those files on a hard drive and keep them all these years even though I didn't think we'd ever be doing it again. But yeah, the 2013 one was a little bit crazy, trying to find pieces of the songs and put them back together.
I think each time we do it, it sounds better. It gets adjusted and the tracks get better and the tech gets better. The sound people that we have on tour are really good and have done a lot to make the songs sound as good as possible. They're pretty lo-fi songs, so in 2013 it was scary thinking about how they're going to translate into these big venues on big speakers. [Before, we were] a band playing in small venues with no sound guy. They weren't very powerful sounding I don't think. [Chuckles.]
Lewis: But they sounded better than any other tour I'd been on then.
What are you most looking forward to as you revisit the album again on the upcoming tour?
Tamborello: I mean, every part of it is exciting. There's still so much up in the air about what it's going to be like once we start. But being back rehearsing for it has me excited about being back traveling with Ben and Jenny.
Lewis: When you tour all the time, you don't really get to spend a lot of time with your friends unless you're out on the road [together]. I'm so excited about the shows but, really, I'm excited about hanging out with Jimmy and Ben and getting to experience this again together. A decade is a fair amount of time to have everything come together or fall apart in your life. [I appreciate] the consistency of this band being able to dip in every 10 years and be like, "We're still friends. This record still exists. My life has changed." We get to catch up over a couple months. I think that'll be really fun.
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].