Photo: Norman Seeff
LeAnn Rimes On New Album 'God's Work,' Major-Label Debut 'Blue' & Choosing Joy 25 Years Into Her Career: "I Think It Was My Rebellion"
LeAnn Rimes was thrust into the music-biz machinery at just 13 with her breakthrough, 'Blue' — a throttling experience for any youngster. Her new album, 'god's work,' reflects the introspection and hard-fought wisdom that got her through to adulthood.
LeAnn Rimes' world-dominating success came as a bolt with the release of her debut album, Blue. She was just 13 when it came out in 1996, yet the country singer faced pressures that have destroyed artists with more years of experience under their belts — and less fame waiting at the door.
What does Rimes remember about this time that put her on the world stage, at an age when most are chiefly concerned with earth-science homework?
"Not much, to be honest," she tells GRAMMY.com over the phone, from her pool northwest of L.A. "There was so much success and momentum that for three and a half years, it was constantly the next thing, the next thing, the next thing. I didn't really have time to stop and take in anything."
To hear the two-time GRAMMY winner tell it, her unexpected hurtle into the heart of the country mainstream did "a number on me." But she made it through intact, with an eye for self-realization and mending old wounds. And that's partly what her newest album, god's work — which was released in September — is all about.
Musically, god's work is steeped in international flavors; lyrically, it gets heavier and goes harder than any of her past work. What does she say about "spaceship"? "There's a lot of anger in that song, a lot of grief." "the wild"? "A lot of rage, and a lot of hope."
Indeed, from fury and despair, god's work arcs northward into jubilation — especially that which relates to true love. Specifically, "how much a heart can hold" — written for her husband, actor Eddie Cibrian — wasn't supposed to be a public offering, but Rimes reversed course due to public demand, when she posted it to Instagram.
"I've been very fortunate," Rimes says, reflecting on the song's resonance. "I'm so honored to be part of the fabric of people's lives when it comes to their special moments." What a counterweight to any of the darknesses of getting famous, young — and reason to keep making art, no matter what.
Read on for an in-depth interview with Rimes about making her most eclectic music yet, ignoring the comments sections, and how she's achieved something like happiness in her fourth decade on earth.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What did you want to impart to the listener with god's work?
I think it's a big message. Many of them.
I think the album takes a look at the duality of life, and how we all live in that world of duality — of the light and the dark, and how everything is basically a part of creation, no matter what side it is. I've done a lot of my own spiritual exploration, taking a look at my own.
I had a podcast called Wholly Human, so it all kind of ties in. But [the album deals with] a lot of exploration of my own holy and human sides of myself — my life, and the shadow side. I took a look at all of life from that perspective. And the album, I hope, for everyone listening, takes you on a deep emotional ride.
It's been one of my gifts — being able to connect people with emotions they don't necessarily touch all the time. I know music does that for me, so this album definitely will have you crying, it will have you questioning, it will piss you off, right? It does all the things.
It's a deep record, and I don't listen to my music once I'm done with it, very often. And I find myself listening to this record, because I find myself revisiting topics often. Every listen to different songs brings up a different emotion depending on where I'm at in my life, so I hope it does the same for people.
Most emotions aren't easily categorizable; we're usually feeling half a dozen ways at once. What emotions are present on the album that might not be typically present in song?
Yeah, totally. I've touched upon my own deep, dark spaces of depression, and "spaceship," to me — there's a lot of anger in that song, a lot of grief. In songs like "the wild," there's a lot of rage, and there's a lot of hope, which is really interesting to have both in the same breath.
I think as we grow up as human beings, being able to hold the duality and complexities of emotion and being able to be happy and sad and rageful and hopeful — all of that in the same breath — is part of our evolution.
These songs hold multiple emotions and are very complex. So, I think for me, as a woman — [and] as just a human being, not just a woman — I think everybody has a very challenging time touching upon rage and anger in a healthy way.
To touch upon my own grief and shame around sexuality with songs like "the wild" — there are a lot of emotions that have been not as welcomed that I touch upon on this record, especially for women.
But, like I said, for the whole human race, I think these emotions aren't necessarily the first thing we want to admit that we're feeling.
You mentioned in the god's work press release that "the wild" touches on "the ridicule women face when voicing their opinion." Can you talk about that form of belittlement, overcoming it, and whether we're societally headed in the right direction in this regard?
I hope we're headed in the right direction. I think we are; I still see it.
[With] not only myself but other women, I see people come at us on social media when we don't just "shut up and sing." You look at sports players who are taking a knee, and they're not just shutting up and playing.
I think we do have a platform, and I think we're very fortunate to be able to have a voice in the way that we do. And use it for social justice; for women's rights — and from my perspective, equal rights — so that all of humanity has a joyful, fulfilled, sovereign life. [That's] important to me.
On social platforms and even in the media, people still want us to shut up and do whatever entertainment that we do, but it is shifting. I think, first and foremost, we're human beings before anything, and we do have a voice in life and humanity.
I'll be 40 next month [Writer's note: This interview took place in July 2022], and it's taken me [up until] this moment in time to start using my voice in the way I feel like I'm called to.
Releasing a song like "the wild" felt like coming out to me, because it was such a powerful statement, and it's not something I've made so overtly in the past. It did feel like a release and unveiling of sorts for my own spirit — my own self — to speak so freely in my music.
I think it started a few records ago, and has only grown ever since, so I don't see me going back anytime soon. [Laughs]
Comment sections and social platforms seem to be where the rancor really lives.
Yeah, and you know what? To release "the wild" and have such insanity come back at me — I feel like I've grown so much, because I can totally sit in the discomfort of it and understand that everyone has their own point of view.
We're all very unique, just as our fingerprint is unique. So is the lens that we see life through. I've really come to understand that and have compassion for everyone's point of view — even if I don't agree with it — and be able to create from that place too.
I think that's where god's work was created from — that space of "No one's right or wrong; we're all learning." If I can create a better world — a world of more compassion — with my music, that's what I'm here to do.
So, yeah, the comment sections can be challenging at times, but it teaches me a lot. It has taught me a lot.
What a caliber of contributors here; I'm sure they all helped bolster that message. Ziggy Marley and Ben Harper are very talented and versatile, and Mickey Guyton is a ray of sunshine in the music community. What do you appreciate about her?
To have her on a song like "The Wild," it was important to me for a woman like her who has been through so much and fought her way through the industry and been through so much insanity — to have her sing those words was so powerful.
I love her voice; I love her spirit. And I know I've influenced her so much along the way. I think we're practically the same age, but to know that she's just now kicking off her career and how much I've influenced her has been really beautiful to see.
I think I can't say enough great words about her. She's a really good human being.
Can you talk about "throw my arms around the world"?
With all the climate change, with everything we're going through as a collective and have been going through, I felt like that was just my big prayer.
Not only a prayer, but a call for people to wake up and see what we're doing to ourselves. And, hopefully, start to shift what we're experiencing into something that's more regenerative and nurturing not only to Mother Earth, but ourselves.
One of the things I love about this record is that it's so eclectic, and there are so many world grooves that we explored. "throw my arms around the world" was kind of the catalyst for that exploration. And then, to have "the only," which is total reggae — I never thought I'd create a reggae song, but here I am doing it!
And I know "how much a heart can hold" holds resonance regarding your 11th wedding anniversary.
I wrote that song for my husband, for our wedding. I never thought it would see the light of day in public. I put it on Instagram with a video celebrating our 10-year anniversary, which was last year.
So many people were like, "What is this song? Where can I get it?" I've been very fortunate, and I'm so honored to be part of the fabric of people's lives when it comes to their special moments.
Because of the overwhelming feedback, I wanted to go in[to the studio]; that was the last song we recorded for the record, and we put it on so that love song could be a part of people's special moments, too.
We also just celebrated the 25th anniversary of Blue. What do you remember about that period in your life, and in the music business?
Not much, to be honest. It was such a whirlwind, and I was so young, and there was so much going on.
As soon as Blue was released, there was so much success and momentum that for three and a half years, it was constantly the next thing, the next thing, the next thing. I didn't really have time to stop and take in anything.
So, I take things from the perspective of now, looking back and kind of in awe of — number one — my ability to survive those three and a half years of this skyrocketing trajectory to success, and the choices I made at that young of an age.
I took the Blue demo and put the yodel thing in it myself. I was making my own artistic choices back then and creating something different. I like the things that happened to that girl, whenever I need to really take a risk in my life these days. And she's very much alive. It was a whirlwind moment, for sure.
What do you think gave you the resilience to go through that insane pressure-cooker situation and not let it destroy you — like it did so many young people?
Well, I mean, it definitely did a number on me, for sure. But I've come out of it, and I'm thriving in my life, and happy. I think it was my rebellion.
It's interesting because for me, as a woman, I've had such shame around my rebellion at times. Because, I think, while it can work in your best interest, it can also trip you up and teach you a lot of lessons, which it has for me.
But when I look at it from a holistic perspective, I think it saved my life many times — especially at that time in my life. I had this crazy success, and then my parents were going through a divorce at 14, and then I was basically living on my own by the time I was 16.
To think about how much of a fight I had in me — not only to live and succeed, but the fight for what was right and good for me, even if I didn't know it at the time — there was just a strong drive for that.
I think the last 10 years of my life have been [about] really getting back in touch with that and appreciating that piece of me.
What would you tell that young girl today if you could?
That the voice inside of her is the only thing she needs to listen to.
I think my intuition was so strong; I think our intuition is very strong as children. Then, we have so many voices from the outside world — whether it be parental, peers, media, whatever — that gets in our heads and takes us away from that deep intuition.
I think part of my journey, too, over the last decade, has been getting back in touch with that voice and knowing that's the most important thing to listen to, and the thing I should trust the most. So, yeah, I think she was on the right path as a kid by listening to that voice, and I'm glad that voice has returned.
Songbook: A Guide To Willie Nelson's Voluminous Discography, From Outlaw Country To Jazzy Material & Beyond
Photo Credit: CBS ©2022 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
How To Watch "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys," Featuring Performances From John Legend, Brandi Carlile, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, LeAnn Rimes, Weezer & More
The re-aired tribute to the Beach Boys will also feature performances from St. Vincent, My Morning Jacket, Norah Jones, Charlie Puth, and many others, as well as special appearances by Tom Hanks, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and more.
Updated Monday, May 22, to include information about the re-air date for "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys."
"A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys" will re-air on Monday, May 29, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the CBS Television Network, and will be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+.
After six decades of game-changing innovation and culture-shifting hits, the Beach Boys stand tall as one of the most legendary and influential American bands of all time.
Now, the iconic band will be honored by the Recording Academy and CBS with a star-studded "Beach Boys party" for the ages: "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys," a two-hour tribute special featuring a lineup of heavy hitters, including John Legend, Brandi Carlile, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, LeAnn Rimes, St. Vincent, Weezer, and many more, who will perform all your favorite Beach Boys classics.
Wondering when, where and how to watch "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys"? Here's everything you need to know.
When & Where Will The Special Air?
"A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys" will air on Monday, May 29, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the CBS Television Network, and will be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+.* A one-hour version of the tribute will air on MTV at a future date to be announced.
Who Will Perform, And What Will They Perform?
The following is a list of artists and performances featured on "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys":
Andy Grammer performing "Darlin'"
Beck performing "Sloop John B"
Beck & Jim James performing"Good Vibrations"
Brandi Carlile performing "In My Room"
Brandi Carlile & John Legend performing "God Only Knows"
Charlie Puth performing "Wouldn't It Be Nice"
Fall Out Boy performing "Do You Wanna Dance"
Foster The People performing "Do It Again"
Hanson performing "Barbara Ann"
Norah Jones performing"The Warmth of the Sun"
Lady A performing "Surfer Girl"
John Legend performing "Sail on Sailor"
Little Big Town performing "Help Me Rhonda"
Luke Spiller & Taylor Momsen performing "Surfin' USA / Fun Fun Fun"
Michael McDonald & Take 6 performing "Don't Worry Baby"
Mumford & Sons performing "I Know There's an Answer"
My Morning Jacket performing "I Get Around"
Pentatonix performing "Heroes and Villains"
LeAnn Rimes performing "Caroline No"
St. Vincent performing "You Still Believe in Me"
Weezer performing "California Girls"
Read More: 5 Memorable Highlights From "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys": Weezer, St. Vincent, John Legend & More
Who Are The Special Guests & Presenters?
In addition to the musical performances, the special features appearances by Drew Carey, Tom Hanks, Jimmy Jam, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, John Stamos, and Recording Academy CEO Harvey Mason jr.
Beach Boys core members Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, and David Marks are featured guests.
What's The Context For The Special?
Filmed at the iconic Dolby Theater in Los Angeles after the 2023 GRAMMYs, "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys" airs during the year-long celebration of the Beach Boys' 60th anniversary. Counting more than 100 million records sold worldwide and recipients of the Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award, the Beach Boys are one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful bands of all time, and their music has been an indelible part of American history for more than six decades.
Keep an eye on GRAMMY.com for more exclusive content leading up to "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys."
*Paramount+ Premium subscribers will have access to stream live via the live feed of their local CBS affiliate on the service as well as on-demand. Essential tier subscribers will have access to the on-demand the following day after the episode airs.
Watch backstage interviews & exclusive content from "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys”
Photo Credit: CBS ©2022 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys Tribute Concert To Feature Performances By John Legend, Brandi Carlile, St. Vincent, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, Weezer & More; Tickets On Sale Now
Taking place Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, the live concert special will feature a star-studded lineup that also includes Charlie Puth, LeAnn Rimes, My Morning Jacket, Norah Jones, Pentatonix, Lady A, and many others.
Updated Saturday, April 9, to include air date information about "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys."
"A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys" airs on Sunday, April 9, from 8 – 10 p.m. ET/PT on the CBS Television Network, and will be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+. A one-hour version of the tribute will air on MTV at a future date to be announced.
A few days after the 2023 GRAMMYs, the Recording Academy, along with Tenth Planet Productions and CBS, will present A GRAMMY Salute to the Beach Boys, a special tribute concert honoring the legendary, GRAMMY-nominated music icons, the Beach Boys. Taking place Wednesday, Feb. 8, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, the live concert special will feature a star-studded performer lineup that includes GRAMMY-winning artists and past and current GRAMMY nominees including Beck, Brandi Carlile, Fall Out Boy, Andy Grammer, Hanson, Norah Jones, Lady A, John Legend, Little Big Town, Michael McDonald, Mumford & Sons, My Morning Jacket, Pentatonix, Charlie Puth, LeAnn Rimes, St. Vincent, Take 6, and Weezer, who will all celebrate and honor the Beach Boys’ everlasting music and impactful career.
Tickets for A GRAMMY Salute to the Beach Boys are available now.
Wednesday, Feb. 8
Doors: 5:30 p.m. PT
Concert: 6:30 p.m. PT
6801 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028
Take A Look Back At The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds | For The Record
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.
The Rise Of Underground House: How Artists Like Fisher & Acraze Have Taken Tech House, Other Electronic Genres From Indie To EDC
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].
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