Photo: VCG/Getty Images
Lay Zhang's Music Diplomacy: From EXO To GRAMMY Festival China
The multi-talented star lends his unique voice to raise awareness as Promotion Ambassador for the inaugural festival on April 30 in Beijing
Lay Zhang's many talents — which include the ability to speak Chinese, English and Korean, and years of artistry as the main dancer for EXO — add up to a unique combination he's putting to work to raise awareness for GRAMMY Festival China, coming up on April 30 in Beijing. As Promotion Ambassador for the festival, Lay will stand alongside Bravo Entertainment, China Music Vision and the Recording Academy to bring the exciting event to fruition in its inaugural year.
In addition to his role in the South Korean-Chinese boy group EXO, Lay is an actor, composer, record producer, songwriter, and author of Standing Firm At 24. Through all of his work, he has demonstrated that love is the center that motivates his personal drive.
Speaking to his solo composition "I Need You" during a Billboard interview, Lay said love "can sometimes be like a habit, but also refreshing and touching. I believe that love, from what I have felt, is being able to do even the smallest of things for your loved one thousands, if not tens of thousands, of times."
As Promotion Ambassador, Lay will lend his positive message of love to GRAMMY Festival China's multicultural footprint.
"This amazing event will be a real celebration of music and live performance," said Neil Portnow, President/CEO of the Recording Academy, "and a unique opportunity to embrace the integration of many cultures. I sincerely hope more and more music lovers in China enjoy the GRAMMYs, and share the excellence and happiness that music brings."
The debut GRAMMY Festival China will feature GRAMMY winners Daya and Macy Gray; GRAMMY nominees James Bay, Carly Rae Jepsen and OneRepublic; and GRAMMY winners Phoenix and Pharrell Williams. Chinese artists Williams Chan and Nicolas Tse also join the lineup.
Tickets are available for purchase now at www.damai.cn.
Photo: Courtesy of SM Entertainment
Korean Pop & Film Star D.O. Exceeds 'Expectation' On New EP
Over the years, D. O. has come to be known as an artist in constant motion. His latest EP, 'Expectation,' is an aural treasure that reflects his longstanding creative drive.
The ability to transmit the most genuine emotions and make the audience truly feel the lyrical meaning of a composition is what sets apart the best singers. It’s an earnest gift that furthers the linkage between artist and audience, endowing any performance.
In the competitive K-pop industry, few are the vocalists who boast this virtue, and one of them is — unquestionably — EXO’s D.O. He has become a paragon of excellence, a man whose irresistible voice has enthralled beyond the borders of South Korea.
As part of EXO, one of K-pop’s most legendary groups, D.O. reached stratospheric heights and a much-anticipated career as a soloist. And though it took him nearly 10 years to strike out on his own, his July 2021 solo debut, Empathy, landed with great success – and enthusiasm for more offerings.
Now he’s back again with his second EP, Expectation. Out Sept. 18, the record is an aural treasure that lays out D.O.’s greatest strength: bending any melody to his will with an evocative tessitura with exceedingly emotional effect.
Debuting With EXO
A native of Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea, the artist born Doh Kyung-soo developed a musicality during his elementary school days, with singing being his creative medium of choice. Growing up, he constantly captivated with his maturing vocal abilities, and in 2010, he won a competition that prompted SM Entertainment — a K-pop label that is one of the heavyweights in the industry — to recruit him. Given his shy nature, Doh Kyung-soo kept his new reality as an idol trainee low-key from people until his subsequent debut two years later.
Amid considerable anticipation, SM Entertainment began introducing the 12 members of its new boy group (the first one since SHINee’s debut in 2008). Doh Kyung-soo — now going by the stage of D.O. — was revealed alongside power vocalist Baekhyun as part of the lineup with the sublime prelude single, "What’s Love," at the end of January 2012.
With a larger-than-life concept including superpowers and a metaphysical storytelling, the upcoming act would be known as EXO, taking its name from the exoplanets. To broaden the expanse of possibilities and impact, the group was split into two parallel contingents: EXO-M (who were molded to promote in China) and EXO-K (a group mainly focused on South Korea).
EXO officially broke into the K-pop sphere on April 8, 2012, with "Mama" — a bold and colossal production composed by SM’s revered singer/songwriter Yoo Young-jin — the title track from their first EP, ushering a soon-to-be volcanic trajectory. D.O. impressed as one the group’s vocalists with a beautiful technique, showcasing how his versatile voice could smoothly glide across all types of genres.
EXO’s Success & D.O.’s Expanding Artistry
While many weren’t initially convinced by EXO’s premise, the group’s reputation skyrocketed in the summer of 2013 with the release of "Growl," the lead single from the repackaged version of their first studio album, XOXO. All 12 members of EXO-K and EXO-M united under the same banner to elevate the spectacularity of the production, subverting expectations and flaunting their undeniable chemistry.
"Growl," an effortlessly magnetic hip-hop cut, received widespread acclaim and topped South Korean charts. As a result of the single’s popularity, EXO became million-sellers for the first time in their careers, and they won 14 first place trophies in the weekly music shows.
K-pop idols tend to combine their group efforts with other individual endeavors, and for D.O., acting was always a calling. In 2014, he landed his first supporting role in the film Cart, also contributing to the soundtrack with the song "Crying Out."
In the SBS-produced series, "It’s Okay, That’s Love," D.O. had a breakout portraying Han Kang-woo, a young, aspiring writer who ends up becoming a central piece to the protagonist’s narrative arc. It was a heart-wrenching interpretation, with D.O. rendering vulnerability and tenderness over a storyline that revolved around sensitive topics such as domestic abuse and mental health. The performance resulted in a nomination as Best New Actor in the category of Television at the Baeksang Arts Awards — one of the leading entertainment ceremonies in South Korea — and an accolade for Best New Actor at the APAN Star Awards.
Meanwhile, EXO’s status continued to rise in the ranks of the K-pop industry, transforming into an example for future generations. Following the triumph of "Growl," the group released the extended plays Miracles in December, Overdose and Sing For You, and their second studio album EXODUS, along with its repackage Love Me Right. (With some lineup changes in between, the separation of EXO-K and EXO-M was unofficially blurred). They also made their Japanese debut in November 2015 with the arrival of their single album Love Me Right ~ romantic universe ~, which peaked at No. 1 on both the Oricon and Billboard Japan charts.
In 2016 D.O began to show the range of his acting abilities through leading roles. He starred in the movie Pure Love and the web-series "Be Positive," dabbling with genres like romance, drama, and comedy. Another important project for him was My Annoying Brother, a dramedy where he brought Go Doo-young to life, a judo athlete who loses his sight and has to deal with a brother that suddenly returns after disappearing for years. The movie turned out to be a success, and D.O. was recognized as Best New Actor during the Blue Dragon Film Awards in 2017.
Though his notoriety as an actor evolved in prominence, his commitment to EXO and singing never faded away. After all, it remains his first love. In February 2016, D.O collaborated with Yoo Young-jin to release a special duet titled "Tell Me (What Is Love)," a song performed during EXO’s first tour a few years earlier and was part of SM Entertainment’s newest musical initiative, "SM Station."
At this point, his artistry stretched all-encompassing: a protean entertainer regarded as one of the finest vocalists in the world of K-pop, and a renowned idol-actor. D.O. seamlessly created a balance between his own artistic growth and EXO’s ascension.
"We always say to each other that we should really be together as a team," he said in an interview with The Korea Herald in reference to EXO’s symbiosis. "As I have continued my acting and idol career without causing trouble, I want to continue to do that for the rest of my life."
A Temporary Farewell With "That’s Ok"
By the end of 2018, the now nine-member act had completed four tours, sold 10 million record in their home country — making history as the first group to do so in the 2000s — and even performed at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics closing ceremony, which earned them the title of the "the Nation’s Pick." But at the same time, a period of change was quickly approaching.
For every K-pop boy group, there comes a phase where its members need to fulfill a mandatory military conscription of almost two years. EXO entered this pivotal term in 2019 with the enlistment of Xiumin, the oldest member born in 1990, and the collective focus (momentarily) slowed down to make way for different ventures like subunits and solo debuts. In turn, D.O. continued expanding his filmography with his first protagonist role on the silver screen with the historical K-drama "100 days my prince," and a major participation in the feature film Swing Kids, incarnating a North Korean soldier who gets immersed into the world of tap dancing while imprisoned in a war camp.
Despite a string of back-to-back professional accomplishments under his belt and the public eagerly awaiting for his next project, D.O. unexpectedly announced his early enlistment in May 2019. "I hope that everyone will always be healthy and have [days] that are filled with things that make you laugh," he wrote in a message posted on EXO’s official fan website. "I will carefully serve and return to greet you all with a healthy image."
Before enlisting, D.O. recorded the gentle, self-penned ballad "That’s Ok" in an uplifting farewell. "I’ll shine on you with all the light I have / So don’t hide yourself. Will you show me you?" He sweetly croons accompanied solely by acoustic guitar strings. "Be comfortable with the way you are / That’s right. It’s okay to be okay."
The track became a source of healing and comfort for a lot of his peers in the industry. One notable example is IU, arguably the most lauded K-pop female soloist from the last decade, who offered her own rendition of it, later saying in a radio interview that "That’s Ok" is the first song that moved her to tears in 10 years.
D.O.’s Long-Awaited Solo Debut: Empathy
After 19 months of military service, D.O. was discharged in January 2021, just in time for the release of EXO’s seventh mini-album, Don’t Fight The Feeling. The EP was their first musical offering in two years, with Xiumin and D.O. rejoining the group. Don’t Fight The Feeling became their sixth record to surpass one million copies sold; more than a comeback, it was a celebration of EXO’s legacy in the industry.
To say D.O.’s solo debut was highly-anticipated isn’t an exaggeration, and with his talent, it became a matter of when, not if. So, in the summer of 2021, when SM Entertainment confirmed his first EP, Empathy, many rejoiced. The eight-track album casts a soothing ambience, and it was an important opportunity for him to "make the music he wanted to do" and to etch his feelings in the skyline through his most genuine songwriting.
"One of the thoughts that came to mind was love, an emotion that anyone can feel," D.O said in an interview with the South Korean newspaper The Dong-a Ilbo. "I also thought that it would be good to provide comfort like the previously released ‘It’s Okay’, so I took on the challenge of writing lyrics myself."
Empathy tempers D.O.’s rich vocals with minimalistic arrangements where the main components are nostalgic-laced guitar chords, a reflection of his well-known tranquil aura. He delivers solace at the length of the record, with the titular song, "Rose," collating the fragments of an endearing admission of love. But perhaps the brightest diamond is "Si Fueras Mía," the Spanish version of the B-side, "It’s Love (다시, 사랑이야)," a tune that portrays D.O. longing for a love unmet, and could only be reached in dreams. His wistful tone captured the romance ingrained in the language, and for some part, it also symbolized a throwback to EXO-K’s cover (from almost ten years ago) of the famous bolero called "Sabor a mí."
EXO’s Seventh Album & Expectation
Just as he reached his 10th debut anniversary with EXO in 2022, saw D.O. take on his second leading role on television in the series "Bad Prosecutor." But as most of his groupmates completed their military service by 2023, the prospect of a second solo release and an EXO comeback was drawing near.
Suho, the group’s leader, confirmed EXO’s return in the last days of 2022; in June 2023, news surfaced they were gearing up their seventh full-length album, EXIST. The group dropped the pre-release singles "Let Me In" and "Hear Me Out," preparing the stage for the record’s titular song "Cream Soda."
The July 2023 release was the first time D.O. stepped into the South Korean music shows since the release of the group’s fifth studio album, Love Shot, in 2018, and it marked EXO’s first promotional cycle since 2019’s Obsession. Seeing them together — except for Kai and Lay, who are currently inactive — enjoying a performance again was a treat for fans and K-pop artists alike.
Over the years, D. O. has come to be known as an artist in constant motion, always with a new endeavor lined up. Case in point: Before he completed his military service, he was selected as the protagonist of the sci-fi movie The Moon, the release of which nearly coincided with the end of EXO’s latest album cycle.
Simultaneously, the excitement for D.O.’s second mini-album increased, especially after he revealed in an interview with the South Korean outlet SportSeoul that he had finished the structuring of it in May 2022. "I wanted to prepare early, so I did it in advance before I went into another shoot," D.O. said, also adding that it would contain "a lot of acoustic songs." The first teaser and the name of the record, Expectation, was unveiled in August.
True to his title, the record’s essence derives from a contemplation about the desires and consequences of love — from professions of devotion to its contradictory nature. Lead single "Somebody" talks about the yearning for a significant other who can embrace us through our flaws and walk hand-in-hand carefree.
That sense of hope expands to the melodies of "Wonder" and "I Do," until melancholia hits on the second half of the album with "Lost," "Ordinary Days," and "The View." Throughout, D.O.’s alluring timbre draws ruminations in a sonic canvas that certainly will linger as another harbor for his ever-evolving journey.
Photo: Courtesy of SM Entertainment
K-Pop Veteran KAI Feels Freer Than Ever On 'Rover': "It's Going To Be A Very Memorable Period For Me"
On KAI's third solo mini album, Rover, out today (March 13), the EXO and SuperM member finds freedom through the multiplicity of sounds and concepts that have defined his 11-year journey.
When K-pop's emblematic group EXO debuted in 2012, each member was assigned a superpower as part of their overarching lore. Kim Jongin, then a fresh-faced 18-year-old, was given the ability to teleport, promptly appearing and disappearing throughout their many music videos. He also received an alias: KAI, whose Chinese character "开" means "to open."
Eleven years later, KAI has manifested his nickname; his individual success has opened doors to three solo albums, countless world tours as part of EXO and supergroup SuperM, and several luxury brand contracts (he is an ambassador for Gucci and a representative for Yves Saint Laurent Beauty). It makes sense that he sees himself as someone who can't be constrained — and that he named his third EP Rover.
As the title insinuates, embodying multiple things at once has always been KAI's specialty. He is notoriously shy off-camera, an introvert who stays silent unless spoken to, but who unravels in winding thoughts and warm laughs when comfortable. At the same time, he is also one of K-pop's most lethal performers, with a voice that is as soft as sinful, and ballet-trained movements that spellbind any audience.
Rover is KAI's latest self-actualization. In a Zoom call with GRAMMY.com, he is all smiles as he mentions that this album is the truest to his creative desires so far. Whether visually or sonically, the six-track collection (plus a second installment of his conceptual video series, FILM : KAI, to be released on March 20) fuses everything that he is known for: the teleporting, the hypnotizing dance moves, the many characters he can embody, and his versatility in approaching rhythms that go from reggaeton to R&B.
He ponders about the limitations of social media and receiving love in tracks like "Black Mirror," and "Say You Love Me," while longing for freedom in "Bomba" and the project's title track. "Here I am in your face/ Focus on every single expression/ Y'all buzzin', catch me if you can," he sings in the latter, making reference to one of his favorite movies. In the music video, he also hints at Billy Elliott, another formative movie in his life, while adopting multiple personalities and namesakes. There are no boundaries to KAI's artistry, after all.
Ahead of the release, GRAMMY.com caught up with KAI about the meaning of freedom, his relationship with social media, and how it feels to be an idol for over a decade.
You ask to be called "Mr. Rover" in the EP's title track. Who is Mr. Rover?
That's me! [Laughs.] [The song] has a story about a wanderer and a message of wanting to be free, and since I want to be free on stage, and as an artist in general, Mr. Rover is me.
What is freedom to you?
I put a lot of thought into that, but honestly, I still don't know. I do feel free, and I do feel freedom when I'm on stage, and in order to feel that true freedom, I think it's not just throwing away something that's inside of you. It's more like trying your best and putting more effort into that freedom that you're seeking.
A lot of my fans say that I seem very happy and free on stage. I really want to be like that. I realized that, in order to be free, there's a lot of things that I have to try harder behind the stage.
Indeed, one of your main characteristics is that on stage you are very confident and charismatic, while off stage you are a little more shy and warm-hearted. What's on your mind when you're on stage?
I don't think that much when I'm on stage. This is intentional, because I try not to think about anything and just do my best. Just enjoy that moment. If I think a lot, then it'd be difficult for me to concentrate. I really want to get to that level where I don't have any thoughts and I can just feel free and do the performance as it is.
On stage, you can usually see me smiling and laughing a lot, but that's because the more I get nervous, the more I start smiling and laughing, and the more I enjoy it. Once I feel a sense of pressure is when I truly start to enjoy [it]. I realized that I must be crazy to be enjoying all this nervousness. [Laughs.]
Besides freedom, what are three main words that you associate with this album?
The first one is "SNS" [Social Networking Service, or what Koreans usually call social media], because it's actually a theme in the album. To add up, the album also has a message of loving yourself and not caring about what others think.
As in one of my tracks, "Black Mirror," when the display screen is black, it tells you to see yourself reflected there and to love yourself more. "Say You Love Me" [is] a song about desiring love. On SNS, we care a lot about likes, followers, and what other people think or how they see us.
The second keyword is "performance." It is a very important part of this album, because I really did what I wanted to do. There are a lot of performances to see and hear altogether, so when I was preparing [them], I tried to show different aspects of myself.
And my third keyword would be "happiness," because that is the emotion I felt the most while preparing for this album. I really enjoyed it, and I felt a lot of happiness in my daily life. I think that it's going to be a very memorable period for me.
Since your first keyword is SNS, what is your personal relationship with social media?
Honestly speaking, if I wasn't a celebrity, I think I wouldn't have been using SNS at all. But since I am, I do have to [use] it, and I think of it as a way to communicate with my fans.
In my album, tracks such as "Black Mirror" or "Rover" have a message of being free and loving yourself, and I [prepared] a lot of curated content to show to my fans. I do have a desire for [my fans] to like that, but I want to say that it doesn't matter because, as a human, it's the same for me. I watch YouTube too, I watch all those [Instagram] Reels at night before I go to sleep. So you know, after all, I'm doing the same thing [as everyone].
Your second keyword is performance, and you seem very happy that you could do everything that you wanted for Rover. What new things were you able to show through your performances this time?
The ["Rover"] music video is very well-made and fun, and another FILM : KAI is coming out soon. The first FILM : KAI was released before my first music video [for "Mmmh"], so the role of it was to explain the whole concept and help the listeners understand what I was trying to say.
This time, FILM : KAI is coming out after the music video [for "Rover"], so I think it could be a chance for the viewers to organize their thoughts and compare with what they have been thinking while watching the music video, so they can realize some different charms [within it].
You talked about your first album, KAI (开), and now you're on your third album. What are some of the differences between them, and what have you improved on since your solo debut?
For the first album, when preparing the songs, it was more about finding what I wanted to do as KAI and what I'd like to show people. For the second album, it was more about focusing on what people would like to see and what they wanted from me. I did feel a bit pressured and stressed, but it was one of the steps in the process of trying to find what I really want to do.
For my third album, I was able to find what I want to do and start doing it. As an artist, I grew a lot, but that's why I think it was a new challenge. It's something new that I'm attempting.
If it wasn't for the first or the second albums, the third one wouldn't even exist. I even had some songs that I saved during the [previous] albums because I thought I wasn't prepared before, but now I'm ready to release them to the world. As a soloist and an artist, I'm just developing and growing. There may be a lot of lacking skills still, but this album is very special to me, and I like it a lot.
You've been an idol for more than a decade now. What is the most important thing you learned so far?
Being an idol is a job too. The line between my daily life and my life as a celebrity is very ambiguous. From time to time, I could feel more stressed out, and as it is a job where I can share emotions with the public, there's a bit of pressure on that too.
The most important thing to do is to take care of my mental [health] and mindset, and this realization was a chance for me to grow. I've been thinking deeply on how to become a better person, how to live a happy life as a human being, and I think that, as KAI, I really want to share more positive and happy thoughts with my fans and the people all around the world.
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].