La Santa Cecilia
La Santa Cecilia On Love, Loss & Using Music To Heal In New Album
In the making of their latest album, 'La Santa Cecilia,' out now, the quartet, whose Latin anthems won them a GRAMMY in 2014, were forced to face one of their toughest moments as a group yet: the loss of three of their fathers
One of the country's most recognized Latin musical groups, La Santa Cecilia have built their career on songs inspired by Latino life in the U.S. with a sound like no one else's.
They have tackled the harsh realities of being undocumented in "ICE (El Hielo)," have made people dance with the cumbia inspired "La Negra" and have reimagined iconic love songs like Julio Jaramillo's "Nuestro Juramento" through creativity and a passion of taking on any genre they wish since they formed in the late 2000s. But it is years later, during the making of, La Santa Cecilia, the follow-up to Amar Y Vivir out now, that the quartet, whose Latin anthems won them a GRAMMY in 2014, found themselves face-to-face with one of their toughest moments as a group yet: the loss of three of their fathers.
"That was a huge shock. That really shook us in our personal [lives] and as a band," lead singer La Marisoul told the Recording Academy. For her, sharing the realities of life, even the tough ones, has become a point of connection to others. "We can get in a room or a venue or at a theater and play music and cry and dance and share. That is always a continuous drive for me," she said.
But this album is about love, too. "Although life takes so much away from us, it also gives us so much," Oso, the band's percussionist, adds. "One of the biggest things it gives us is love, is romance, is all that, all those beautiful feelings that we have that inspires us to keep going."
Musically, the band known for their singular mix of music, including cumbia, Latin rock, soul, R&B, ska and several other genres, continue to push their sound into new places. "[We] took it to another level where it just matured in this really beautiful way," Oso said.
The Recording Academy chatted with Oso and La Marisoul about coping with their loss during the making of their album, the limitations of genre, the state of Latin music and more.
What is the inspiration behind this LP?
Marisoul: Well, I think the inspiration is, as it's been for the previous albums, is life. Life, love, lust. Keeping faith in our dreams and in our band. All of our albums are influenced by what we go through and this past year we've gone through a lot of changes. Three of us lost our fathers in 12 months, so that was a huge shock. That really shook us in our personal [lives] and as a band too because we're friends, we're like a family. If someone's down, we feel for one another.
Love is a big thing, too, in this album. I think it's very romantic. We have a song called "Always Together," and it's about a couple or any relationship [that is] trying to keep the fire going, keep having trust in one another [while] going through those ups and downs and finding those moments to celebrate our friendships, our relationships and to just have a good time, because sometimes you just need a dance and a drink.
Does music help you cope with your life changes?
Oso: It totally helps you cope with it. For us, as musicians, music is... a great outlet. It's a connection to everything in itself. It's an art form of communication where you try to transmit everything that you're thinking and feeling and stuff. [It's a way] for us to be able to express sentiments and feelings that we couldn't do so in regular conversation. We put it into music, and we put it into songs. It's weird because a lot of songs on the album were kind of like a foreshadowing of what was to come.
We had no idea that all that loss was going to happen all at once. So, definitely, I think it's very therapeutic for us to be able to get up on stage and sing songs and share the energy. It gives us so much hope. It gives us things to look forward to. It connects what we're doing to so many other people. I think that's what's so beautiful about it. We get to share what we feel with other people and connect, and they, in turn, share what they feel with us ... the album is filled with a lot of that energy.
I want to talk more about this aspect of romance because right now, the country is going through a lot in terms of politics and a lot of stuff going on with the environment. When you're creating something around a topic so humanistic as love, does it mean more to you to focus on that now?
Oso: I don't think so. We never set out to be like this is what kind of band [we are,] this is the kind of album we're going to make. I think our main objective is just to be honest with what we're living. Like Marisoul said, [we] like to be honest with our life. The greatest sound of inspiration that we have is life and being able to figure out how we can complement it with music, with lyrics, with melodies, with all this stuff because although life takes so much away from us, it also gives us so much. One of the biggest things it gives us is love, is romance, is all that, all those beautiful feelings that we have that inspires us to keep going.
When things get so hard, like the way life is right now, and it can very difficult for a lot of us, feeling depressed. I know I feel like that. I feel scared, I feel depressed about the future of the world we're living in, but the music, the romance, and all those things give us a reason to be in existence and to keep trying.
Marisoul: I think it's beyond romance. I think that love is always at the core of what anybody does, I hope. Anything positive. Whether it's pursuing a career or going to work every day to take care of your family or going to school. Just the everything that we're... [whether] it's politics or anything, I think it always comes down - or should always come down - to love. I [also] agree with this feeling weary and sad about all the things that we see, happening all over the world.
And it feels like dark, dark times, you know but, like, no se quisimos escribir una cancion que fuera inspiradora. That would inspire people and inspire us because ... the work that we do isn't all just fun and games and beautiful like that. Everything around you sometimes bums you out. And after losing, having so much loss, sometimes it's hard to keep going ... So we wrote this song called "Dream" to inspire ourselves and to inspire and to just keep echandole ganas a nuestros propositos and you know and fighting for change and no dejar de vencer because I know it now, it's fucked up times and it's as real as dreaming maybe sometimes or having hope, we should never lose hope.
What keeps you all going?
Marisoul: The love of my family and the love of my child. I have a kid. I have a partner, I have a band, I'm super emotional right now but like my family, my friends and music. That keeps me going, that inspires me every day. We get a chance to live our dream, be musicians, play music and spend our day with our family and with our friends and to be able to go out and connect with people, with all the friends we've made along the way with La Santa Cecilia and we can get in a room or a venue or at a theater and play music and cry and dance and share like that is always a continuous drive for me.
Oso: I still have the feeling that I had when I was 16 and I started playing music to [make the best] f*ing music I could possibly ever make. That keeps me going every day, still. I just turned 40 and I still feel like that. I feel like "Aw man I want to give music what music gave to me." I don't ever feel like I'm done giving to music.
Did you all have to pause on the album making when your losses happened?
Oso: We didn't pause. My father passed away and then I had to miss half of the tour and then Alex's dad passed away, he missed half of the tour while we were working on the music. Then Marisoul's father passed away a few months afterwards. I remember our producer Sebastian [Krys] was like 'Hey man, we should stop," because we were already in the studio doing pre-production when Marisoul's father passed away but we took a few days off and then we kept working because that's what they would have wanted us to do because music was so important to them and I knew that they were so proud of us for being able to play music and do this and to see the music was just as important to us as it was to them. So I think that what they would have wanted us to do was to finish and not give up, and not use that as a crutch to be like "Oh well I can't keep going because this is just too hard."
As hard as it is and was I think they would have wanted us to keep [working on] the music.
How did these moments strengthen you as a band?
Oso: We came together even more because it wasn't just us making music, it wasn't just us hanging out, it wasn't just us going to typical band stuff we had to go do some of the realest shit we've ever gone through in our lives. All four of us were just there for each other at every moment, checking up on each other, making sure we were okay, asking each other if we needed anything. As cliché as it sounds it feels like we became like adults.
We were just dealing with this in such an adult way and were just there for each other.
Going back onto the album, this one we hear a wider range of sounds. Tell me about the new sounds and why you decided to bring them onto the project?
Oso: We've always been about incorporating styles, different sounds and making genres and all this stuff. On this record especially, we took it to another level where it just matured in this really beautiful way where we're able to do a song like "Nobody Knows You When You're Down," which is this really gut-wrenching Betty Smith, blues, jazz song and then also do something like "Winning" where it's very like prog-rock, punk with bachata and all this stuff. For us it feels like the most natural thing, it never feels like we're forcing anything. It just feels like if this goes right, this fits good and...
Marisoul: We're not looking for like "It's because I want a new sound and stuff." It's more like I just want to experiment and what sounds good and we get to do that with Sebastian with the band and when we're working with the production of the album, we can't help but always want to mix things up and experiment. With the sounds and with our music and different styles ... I'm really proud of this album from "Winning" and "Dream" to "Always And Forever" and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down" and now it's like we're still touching on our influences, on the roots and stuff but we're also still venturing within La Santa Cecilia to find out who La Santa Cecilia is and all the kind of things that we do as a band, musically.
Speaking of the internet and all this technology I want to talk about "Winning" and that really has a strong message and it's done in such a fun way. What did you want to get across with that song specifically?
Marisoul: I think we just wanted to share our observation, share our personal addiction to social media because I think everybody's consumed by it and if you're not, lucky you. I mean at least I know that I get distracted by it but I love it, too. I love sharing, but then I don't. It's this really weird love/hate relationship that I feel I have with social media. It's such an important tool for me as an artist because it's the way that I can connect with an audience and that I can share with them what's going on with the band or with the things that I'm doing, but at the same time I feel like it feels sometimes like a chore, you know like, f* I've got to post because then they won't know that we played on Saturday night at the Hollywood Bowl, and that was amazing.
I'm wondering like we, the industry is very much like into genres and this is R&B and this is pop and things are mixing a lot more, but do you ever feel limited by genres?
Oso: Yeah, all the time. Yeah because it's not like... the genres aren't us, you know what I mean? We're not like, "We have to be R&B or we have to be punk or we have to be bolero" or anything like that. It's just for us just music is music and it's how we feel and it's how we see things, but everybody else needs to identify it to be a certain thing, but for us it's just being able to play a song and a melody and a rhythm and stuff like that and that's what turns us on. It's how it makes us feel, not what it's called.
Marisoul: To me it doesn't matter, to me it's not a hang up or it's not a like "Oh, it's cause people don't know who we are." I feel like we have these different platforms now, you can listen... you can watch videos, all kinds of stuff on YouTube or you can listen to and make your own playlists on Spotify or Apple, it's like you can listen to anything and nowadays I feel like whereever I go or whoever I hang with they're phones are out [they] have just a mix of music so to me it doesn't matter. If I'm working for Spotify and I'm the one that has to categorize that s like f* that, you know?
How was it working with Sebastian?
Marisoul: Sebastian is great. I mean, we've been working with Sebastian for years now like on all of our albums from Noche Y Citas to now. The only thing we did without him was maybe that one like demo that we did ourselves. Sebastian is very much a part of La Santa Cecilia and our family and our circle of friends so it feels like home and I'm glad that we got the chance to go down this musical adventure road together, to play music and to continue to find new things for us. It feels great to just be in the studio with that guy. And argue and then compromise and create and try new things.
In terms of musical landscape there's so much going on with music being made by Latinos in English and in Spanish. From the J Balvin's to Rosalia's and then down to the Omar Apollos, do you feel excited to be able to continue to add your voice and your touch into a greater landscape?
Oso: I think it's cool, man. People are like putting it down to the culture and all this stuff and it's great to see all these young Latino artists doing stuff. I don't know to what extent I feel like we're a part of that or not. I honestly can't say. I just know that it feels, like I said earlier, it feels good to be able to make music that someone can identify with.
Oso: There's J Balvin, there's Rosalia, all this like more modern, futuristic kind of culture of Latin music that's happening but there's also people that are so different from that, that are Latino and there's people that are so unique and different in every culture of the world so it's cool to see that there are so many different avenues of expression and for us to be able to be one of them is great. I think people want to homogenize the culture so much and it'll only be like urbano or this and that but the spectrum is huge for our culture. It's so big, that's why you get festivals where it's like you get Bronco, Los Tigres Del Norte, J Balvin, Carlos Vives, La Santa Cecilia, Cuco, all these people together in one festival because there's not one way to represent being Latino so it's cool to have so many. And I just would like all of it to get attention, not just one side of it.
The 2023 GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony To Feature Performances From Carlos Vives, Samara Joy, Madison Cunningham, Arooj Aftab & More; Presenters Include Babyface, Jimmy Jam, Malcolm-Jamal Warner & Others
Streaming live on Sunday, Feb. 5, at 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT on live.GRAMMY.com and the Recording Academy's YouTube channel, the 2023 GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony is where the majority of this year's 91 GRAMMY Awards categories will be awarded.
Officially kicking off the 2023 GRAMMYs, the 65th GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony will return to the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles with a star-studded celebration of performers, presenters and awards. Taking place Sunday, Feb. 5, at 3:30 p.m. ET/12:30 p.m. PT, just hours before Music's Biggest Night, the 2023 GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony will stream live on live.GRAMMY.com and on the Recording Academy's YouTube channel.
The beloved annual event, in which the majority of this year's 91 GRAMMY Awards categories will be awarded, will be co-hosted by current GRAMMY nominee Randy Rainbow and will feature an opening number performance by Blind Boys of Alabama, La Marisoul from La Santa Cecilia, and additional surprise performers. Other artists scheduled to perform include current nominees Arooj Aftab, Madison Cunningham, Samara Joy, Anoushka Shankar, and Carlos Vives.
Presenting the first GRAMMY Awards of the day include current nominees Babyface, DOMi & JD BECK, Myles Frost, Arturo O'Farrill, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, and five-time GRAMMY winner and former Recording Academy Board of Trustees Chair Jimmy Jam. Recording Academy Chair of the Board of Trustees Tammy Hurt will provide opening remarks. Additional talent and co-host to be announced in the coming days.
This year, City National Bank has signed on as the first-ever presenting sponsor of the GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony.
All Premiere Ceremony performers and hosts are current nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs, as are most presenters. Aftab is nominated for Best Global Music Performance ("Udhero Na" with Anoushka Shankar); Babyface is nominated for Best Traditional R&B Performance ("Keeps On Fallin'" with Ella Mai); Blind Boys of Alabama are nominated for Best Americana Performance ("The Message" with Black Violin); Cunningham is nominated for Best American Roots Performance ("Life According To Raechel") and Best Folk Album (Revealer); DOMi & JD BECK are up for Best New Artist and Best Contemporary Instrumental Album (NOT TiGHT); Frost is nominated for Best Musical Theater Album (MJ The Musical); Joy is nominated for Best New Artist and Best Jazz Vocal Album (Linger Awhile); La Marisoul is up for Best Tropical Latin Album (Quiero Verte Feliz with La Santa Cecilia); O'Farrill is nominated for Best Latin Jazz Album (Fandango At The Wall In New York with The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra Featuring The Conga Patria Son Jarocho Collective); Rainbow is up for Best Comedy Album (A Little Brains, A Little Talent); Shankar is up for Best Global Music Performance ("Udhero Na" with Arooj Aftab) and Best Global Music Album (Between Us… (Live) with Metropole Orkest & Jules Buckley Featuring Manu Delago); Vives is nominated for Best Tropical Latin Album (Cumbiana II); and Warner is nominated for Best Spoken Word Poetry Album (Hiding In Plain View).
"We are so excited to kick off GRAMMY Sunday with the Premiere Ceremony ahead of Music's Biggest Night," Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr. said. "Not only do we have an incredible lineup of presenters and performers, but this ceremony will also reveal the winners in the vast majority of our categories, celebrating this amazing year in music across many of our genre communities."
Following the Premiere Ceremony, the 2023 GRAMMYs will be broadcast live on the CBS Television Network and stream live and on-demand on Paramount+ at 8-11:30 p.m. ET / 5-8:30 p.m. PT.
On GRAMMY Sunday, fans can access exclusive, behind-the-scenes GRAMMYs content, including performances, acceptance speeches, interviews from the GRAMMY Live red-carpet special, and more via the Recording Academy's digital experience on live.GRAMMY.com.
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: 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].