Photo: Alysse Gafkjen
Big Questions And 'Little Oblivions': Julien Baker On How Her Latest Album Navigates Healing & Forgiveness
Tennesseean indie folk artist Julien Baker expands her palette for songs of introspection and recovery on 'Little Oblivions'
There’s a fluidity to the way Julien Baker hops between discussing the "hopeless zones" of life that influenced her new record and the joy she gets out of making dinner for her roommates. This rapid shifting between the ecstatic and the somber should be familiar to many of us. In a year with too many calamities and surrealities to detail, the experience of swiftly bouncing between cherishing small joys and dissecting previously unknown darkness has become commonplace.
On her latest album, Little Oblivions—due February 26th via Matador—Baker explores her list of pains, staring down her tornado of experiences with stunning, present clarity.
The 25-year-old Tennessean’s catalog packs an immense emotional weight, her lithe vocals and vivid songwriting ensuring the songs bore ever deeper into the listener’s heart. A voracious reader of theology, philosophy and sociology, Baker’s lyrics find acute precision even in the uncertain examination of existence’s biggest questions.
"Like so many people raised in the Western world, specifically evangelical Americans, I have such an issue with guilt and shame," she tells GRAMMY.com. "But you can't go back and excuse or undo the hurt that has happened."
Little Oblivions captures the potency and immediacy of Baker’s debut, Sprained Ankle, combined with the widened scope of Boygenius, her collaborative project with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. It’s telling, too, that the record is inspired more by gray areas than revelations—including her ongoing journey with sobriety and addiction, dealing with her religious upbringing and current spiritual questing, and developing a relationship with the concepts of forgiveness and healing.
Little Oblivions doesn’t offer grand answers yet retains a certain strength of statement, both in Baker’s poetics and the increasingly welcoming structures. As evidenced by the steamy "Heatwave," she weaves a striking and painful image of Orion’s Belt as a noose. On "Bloodshot," her lyrics dig deeper into the vein than ever before: "Oh, there is no glory in love/ Only the gore of our hearts/ Oh, let it come for my throat/ Take me and tear me apart."
Baker spoke with GRAMMY.com about taking time away from music to go back to college, the value of setting boundaries, the danger of conflating identity and career, and how Little Oblivions grows from its predecessor, Turn Out the Lights.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Having a new album and not being able to tour must be so unbelievably strange. Have you been able to use this time to rest a little? How do you navigate your free time?
I haven’t thought of that before. I took some time off in 2019 because I had just been touring since 2015. I went back to school, and then I got the band back together to rehearse. We were all stoked for this summer tour we were going to do, and then an even longer hold was placed on my life.
At first, it was kind of maddening. It's always different when you make the decision, but it’s very different when your ability to work is no longer possible. My micro life has been pretty stable. I just got done working on a score. I work from home. I have a little studio up in the attic.
But as a function of everything that happened this year, I’ve learned how to better articulate and respect boundaries.
That’s been a difficult lesson for so many of us. How does that lesson function alongside looking toward the future?
Before I went back to school, I was originally supposed to go to South America to tour and make a record in London and then go to Australia. I was saying yes to all these things because the last time I took a significant amount of time off, I didn't know what to do with it! When you take a person who is used to being stable at a certain momentum and then slow them down, everything gets off balance.
But in conversations with my friends and people that I tour with, it was clear it wasn’t going to work out anymore. I was super burnt out and not being healthy. So I took some time off and went back to school. At that time, I realized that I have a deep love for the artistic ideal of music, but if music isn't the thing that I do to make money, it's going to be fine, and it's not going to mean that my life is less important or less fulfilling. I just dialed back the arbitrary anxieties that I had constructed and put on myself, like who I needed to be and what service I needed to provide in my job.
It's been freeing. It's been challenging but ultimately super healthy for me—which is a privileged thing to say because it's been an economic disaster for some people. It's been fatal for people.
But it's good to acknowledge the little things that you've overcome as well. There's a sense of chaos when you're constantly moving around. You don't have time for the little moments, like waiting for a kettle to boil and seeing some crumbs on your counter. When you stop moving suddenly, you're like, "Okay, I notice this, but then what am I without it?"
Yes! One thing that I've talked to with a couple of my friends is how our relationship to constant productivity has been reexamined. For a while, it had swung the opposite way for me where I kept thinking, "I have no excuse not to be doing something productive all the time because I work from home now." But people remembered that we still have an emotional bandwidth of how much we can engage with.
All the information that we can absorb in one day is overwhelming, and it comes at us from 500 channels. My expectation for myself, the negative self-talk that I would have about not being productive, has helped me set more realistic expectations for everyone else and to realize the anxiety that I take out on others.
There is a lot of joy in figuring those things out and knowing that tomorrow it can be completely different. It isn't about lessening expectations for oneself. It's about shifting your goalposts, knowing that you will achieve something at some point if you put your mind to it and not putting that pressure on yourself.
Oh gosh, exactly. Not even expectations, but... Okay, yeah, I'm going to talk about it. I was just thinking, "Do I talk about capitalism?" It's only been like 10 minutes!
How can we not?
How can we not? We live in this consumer-product relationship-based society, and even though I know this is BS, it's hard enough for me to feel like this is my job because there are people digging ditches.
But it has also shifted how I quantify what my job and my life are worth. As you said, it's shifting goalposts. What metrics do I want to use on whether I'm doing the right thing? It's incredibly meaningful for me to be able to be like, "You know what? I'm so tired of looking at these emails about magazine articles and stuff that may or may not happen.
They're a mechanism of me being in the consumerist music industry," and just shut my laptop and go make my roommates a big yummy dinner. I've been cooking so much in quarantine. The other day I made curry from leaves. My ass was up there at the international market, like, "Let's see how this goes. I'm going to try."
You're giving yourself time to enjoy those things. And it's very problematic when those things don't bleed into the things you do for a living. When you get caught up in this concept of, "I play this music with this guitar, this is me," all the other things don't matter.
I fixated so much on my identity. I tried to make my identity and my career the same. Sometimes, taking every opportunity comes at the cost of not understanding when things are special or doing things performatively.
And it was all predicated in the back of my mind on this weird looming feeling, like, "Or what? If you don't play the show, then people aren't going to care about your music. If you don't do this, then you're not going to make money." And then still it comes back around to this weird thing where I'm fixated on my career security, when I should know better than anyone how imaginary career security is.
It's been a trip, but there can be time just to sit and look at your dog and be like, "You're a doofus. You're not worried."
There's that duality between concern and freedom on songs like "Hardline," this thin line between poison and medicine where the same thing can be redemptive and also destroy you. That concept seems to be so important to this moment in time.
For all of my understanding of the need for balance, it's something that you can regurgitate as a theory but not understand for so long. I could be like, "Sexuality is on a spectrum, everything's on a spectrum, but the thing that isn't on a spectrum is good and bad or right and wrong."
I'm not saying, "Do whatever! There's no right and wrong," but it ends up that when you reevaluate the things that you felt so strongly about, and they end up not being the most important thing, it's this wild loss. It's a very heavy loss to think, "Oh, the parameters that governed my life before are gone, and I don't know what to do without them. I don't even know if I was happy or if I was just doing what I was doing."
For that reason, the idea of hope and redemption amid darkness is complex on the album. How do you feel sharing that honest yet complicated relationship to hope?
Yeah, which is wild since the events on the record take place in some pretty hopeless zones of my life. On Turn Out the Lights, I was looking back on tragic or traumatic events but that were four and five years away from me, where I had distance and had processed.
I had this binary attitude about that bad person I was versus the better me I've become. And when I circled back around to see that I still had unhealthy coping mechanisms and they were just manifesting in new ways that were equally as bad, it shocked me. I had no idea what forgiveness or healing was about because receiving forgiveness involves a lot of pain.
It's a very humbling experience that gave me a very different idea about what love entails and what healing feels like. It's not always the alleviation of negative feelings. Sometimes there's a whole bunch of appropriate guilt. It's a new mental territory for me to be in that is better, hopefully.
I expected my first record, Sprained Ankle, to flop. In the deal that we signed with the smaller label that put it out before Matador, I was like, "I'm not gonna sign this deal unless my band is also signed," because I thought it would be seen as a solo album from the girl that was in this band. But it did well, and I wasn't prepared for it. And then I had this crisis four years ago when Trump got elected, and I was supposed to be taking time off to write a record.
I had this call with my manager and my booking agent, like, "I gotta be out on the road interacting with people. I've got to do something about this with the power of my art!" [Laughs] I wanted to craft this record where I was feeling a whole bunch of super dark things but had begun to feel like healing is possible, and I could get to a better place.
I felt this need to represent and reiterate that to listeners. But at the same time, it does feel good sometimes not to have to put a happy or hopeful caveat on the end of a song.
From a writing perspective, that must be freeing—which is itself a sense of forgiveness.
Yeah, exactly. I'm an anxious person. I've always struggled with anxiety. I have so many thoughts all day long where I'm like, "Did that person take this this way?" It got to the point where I was like, "I can't think about this this much anymore because it's a problem, and it's giving me a week-long panic attack." So I just do a mental exercise where I follow whatever new thing I'm catastrophizing in my head out to its most logical end. Like, "Do I think they're going to hate me forever, or do I think they're going to think something was a little rude."
Before, I just couldn't handle other people's emotions. But, weirdly, that's not giving them space to feel angry or annoyed or stressed. And so accepting how another person is feeling and then being like, "Can I live with this? Can I make a mental note not to do this again? Or can I make a mental note to do something more considerate and learn from this? Because obsessing over it right now is only going to lead me to panic and over-apologize and infuriate the person even more."
I want to preface this by saying that I'm not necessarily asking about specific experiences of addiction and sobriety but rather about the process of sharing. I've been sober for eight years, and discussing my experience has become second nature to the point that doing so almost steps me out of it. It almost takes on its own life and then depends on the listener to respond to it. How does that relate to how you share this experience via songwriting?
When I was writing Turn Out the Lights, it was having been multiple years sober and not having recent experience with those things. And it's super humbling to return to a place… it almost feels like some of this record is made up of songs that were cringing not out of spite towards who's listening to them or who they're about, but more just at myself. Like, "Can I get down to the ugliest thing that I can admit about myself? And then can I have that be the starting place?"
It's this weird masochistic thing. I want to be a good person really bad, but I've got so much anxiety about if I'm doing it right. And then I was like, "Well, what if I just admit that I'm not doing it right?" And it's just the adrenaline rush of when you cancel plans. Like, "I've just confirmed to my friends yet again that I'm a flake. I can have them not expect anything from me."
That’s what happened here. I was like, "Well, what if I'm still struggling with substance abuse? Or what if I radically change what I believe about God?" I thought I was doing so much to sculpt my personality and my identity. When I was the worst me possible, it was super freeing because all of my friends were still there being annoyed.
But the reason they were friends with me in the first place was never the things I cultivated about myself or that I tried to live up to crazy expectations. That made me feel like I could trust my friends to be my friends. I can trust people not to hold my mistakes over my head. I had had very specific and stringent ideals about politics, and about being straight-edge, and about how I would let my faith out in the world and what that meant.
And really, what I needed was problem-solving skills, patience and communication. It wasn't like, "I need just to read all of these anarchist zines, and then I'll know the right ideology to have." I just need to be a kinder, more stable person instead of fixating on some random thing.
Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
Photo: Ralph Bavaro/NBC via Getty Images
Listen: Get Jolly With New Holiday Music From Dolly Parton, Phoebe Bridgers, Pentatonix, Alicia Keys & More
This year saw several new holiday albums and singles from artists of all genres, from Backstreet Boys to Gloria Estefan. Get in the spirit with this festive 30-song playlist.
As we're all stringing up colorful lights and scrambling to buy last-minute gifts, music shines as the one constant in our lives amid the rush of the holiday season.
Some playlists have been bursting with holiday music since early autumn, with releases such as Dolly Parton's "A Smoky Mountain Christmas" dropping back in August and Joss Stone's Merry Christmas, Love releasing in September. Since then, several more holiday albums arrived, whether they were new projects from artists such as Alicia Keys and Thomas Rhett or polished deluxe editions from the likes of Reba McEntire and Norah Jones.
Beyond releasing albums, many artists have also found their holiday spirit by releasing festive singles. Remi Wolf brings her bubbly personality to warm covers of "Last Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland," Dan + Shay remind us to throw a "Holiday Party" with loved ones, and Phoebe Bridgers shares her annual holiday cover, this year a rendition of the Handsome Family's "So Much Wine." And even stars such as RuPaul, Jimmy Fallon and Ryan Reynolds surprised with holiday singles this season.
Groups such as Pentatonix and Backstreet Boys joined in on the fun with their own cheery holiday albums, and Gloria Estefan and her family capture the joys of love in a snowglobe on Estefan Family Christmas. Collaborations sparkle with holiday magic as well; Ingrid Michaelson and A Great Big World team up for "It's Almost Christmas," and Kelly Clarkson and Ariana Grande perform "Santa, Can't You Hear Me" in a thrilling live version.
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].