Photo courtesy of Leanne Ungar
Producer & Engineer Leanne Ungar On Recording Leonard Cohen, Accessibility & Her Unique Studio Touch
What has Leanne Ungar learned after decades of producing and engineering albums by Cohen, Laurie Anderson and countless other greats? Above all else: serve the song.
Within the grooves of a record, some producers announce their presence loud and clear. Daniel Lanois sounds like Daniel Lanois. George Martin sounded like George Martin. Eno is Eno is Eno. Other leading lights, like Rick Rubin, practice a sort of willful transparency and backseat-ness to let the artist be their most authentic selves.
Then consider Leanne Ungar, who's produced and engineered some of the preeminent artists of the 20th century. Where does she fit within that spectrum? "I think different types of music call for different types of sound," Ungar tells GRAMMY.com. "Some have buried vocals; some have the biggest vocal you've ever heard. I wanted to be able to do both."
Having it both ways in the engineer's chair doesn't mean Ungar somehow lacks a distinct identity; actually, it means the opposite. By serving the song first and foremost, Ungar fulfills the highest calling of a producer and/or engineer: Getting the music into a listener's consciousness via the purest, most unfettered route.
Where does this philosophy come from? "What goes with my personality is that I've always tried to be as invisible as I can," Ungar continues. "So, when I go back and listen to records I've done over periods of time, it's pretty changeable. It's pretty much at the service of the artist and the song."
Read on for an in-depth interview with Ungar about what inspired her to become a producer and engineer, how she honed her particular approach and what she wants to bring out of any artist — no matter the genre, style or intent.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I'm such a fan of those Leonard Cohen albums you co-engineered. What was it like working on I'm Your Man?
I was just talking to a student the other day who said he's working on a song called "I'm Your Man." I said, "I recorded a song called 'I'm Your Man!'" He'd never heard of it, of course.
It was fun because the sense of humor seemed to come more to the front of that record than some of the others. I took over in the middle; I didn't record all the basics. It was being produced by Roscoe Beck in the beginning, and at a certain point, he wanted to leave the project. I never really talked to him about why.
I was traveling between working in New York and working in L.A., and Leonard was in L.A. It was just terrific, meeting [oudist] John Bilezikjian and recording [vocalist] Jennifer Warnes. There was some amazing talent on that record.
Leonard's always been hilarious, so I never fully grasped how it came to the forefront on that album.
Just looking at him with a wilted banana on the cover is so funny!
When did you first realize you were into the sounds of records — the architecture of them more so than what they contained?
There were a couple of things that happened to me after I walked into the studio and was bowled over by what was going on in there, and wanted to be part of it. A couple of things that pushed me into engineering.
One was a sound company that worked with the Grateful Dead, called Alembic. At that point in time, which was the late '60s, people weren't even really using stacks of speakers and monitor speakers. The fact they were putting that much into the concert sound told me that sound was really important.
Then, there was a record called Something/Anything by Todd Rundgren.
Such a fan!
Such a fantastic record. I noticed he did everything on it. He wrote; he sang; he produced; and he also recorded and mixed, which put that on the same level as the others. That meant a lot to me, too.
One other key moment didn't happen until '76, when Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life came out. Amazing record, and a lot of those horns were synth horns, and they didn't have reverb on them.
I was listening to that record, sitting there with a fellow assistant engineer, and we were just marveling that it could sound like that without having any reverb. I didn't know how they did that, and it was wonderful.
I'm also a big fan of dry production.
I am too! Reverb is hard. It clouds up records and it puts a distance between you and the subject. It also can imply impact, so I think there are times when it has to be there.
But records on the dry side — especially those that have depth, with something in the front of your face but also in the back of the soundscape that's [dictating] the front or back of the room — are really satisfying.
How did you meld your various influences into a signature approach?
What goes with my personality is that I've always tried to be as invisible as I can. I don't think that sound is about the mixer that much. If you're serving the song and it's getting across, I think that's the important thing.
So, when I go back and listen to records I've done over periods of time, it's pretty changeable. It's pretty much at the service of the artist and the song.
I love producers on both sides of the equation — those who are super-transparent and those who put an unequivocal stamp on everything.
I think different types of music call for different types of sound. Some have buried vocals; some have the biggest vocal you've ever heard. I wanted to be able to do both.
And being transparent involves far more than just flicking on the recorder and walking away. I'm sure seeming invisible requires a lot of subtle brushstrokes behind the scenes.
[Chuckles] I think you're right about that.
The way Leonard and [producer] John [Lissauer] worked on "Hallelujah" in the studio — there wasn't a big budget for the record, and they had some big ideas. One of the things they were doing a lot was using samples from the Synclavier [synthesizer]. We were having to simulate a church space, a choir — different things that weren't what they seemed.
So, to serve that particular song, there had to be a great amount of dynamics and depth to the "choir" that was going on. So, I was working hard, sweating, trying to make that happen.
Leonard kept asking for more and more and more reverb in his voice. He wanted to sound like God on that particular [song]. And I don't think I did that good a job of simulating God, but there's certainly a lot of reverb on it!
Listening to early Leonard Cohen is interesting. They added bells and whistles that didn't really need to be there — but I kind of like them!
He really did not like those!
When we went to do that Sony Legacy album [2022's Hallelujah & Songs From His Albums], the first thing we thought is we'd make the early stuff sound like the later stuff, as some of the later stuff sounded fabulous.
So, when we put that EQ up on the early stuff, it brought up all those tambourines and bells and things that were all [Gestures, suggests a ceiling] up here. Leonard said, "I fought the producer. I didn't want it to be on the album. And now, I don't want it louder on the album. Make it dull!
His idea was very much centered around the voice. And I think he always thought because he was not a quote-unquote great singer — I think he was a great singer in his own style — he always thought that if there was too much embellishment, people wouldn't listen to him.
Give me a record you worked on that you feel sums up your vision.
Well, there is that Holly Cole record I like a lot — [1993's] Don't Smoke in Bed. It's a jazz trio in Toronto — just piano, bass and voice. It's very, very simple, but it sounds pretty good and goes into different style machinations. It's emotional, but not overdone. I like it a lot.
I rented Shelley Yakus' Telefunken 251 for the voice and it sounded fantastic! We also rented a Neve sidecar so we could get some 1073 [channel amplifier/equalizer modules] on some of the inputs.
We ended up not liking it very much on the piano because the piano player [Aaron Davis] had a way of touching the piano that sucked all the highs out of the sound. It was the most velvety, quiet piano sound I'd ever heard, and he could make any piano sound like that.
Having that piano sound go through the Neve pre[amp]s put too much fuzz and softness into the sound, so I ended up not using Neves on the piano.
It's crazy how recording processes that would have cost a fortune 40 years ago are now accessible to almost anyone. What advice would you give a young music-maker just starting to mess around with sounds at home?
I think it's wonderful that the sounds are there and they can be had that universally. It's absolutely great that you don't have to go into some million-dollar studio. Although if you are searching for certain orchestral or drum sounds, it is good to have an acoustic environment that's been treated.
For me, the thing that's most important is the way you listen — what you hear. So, to me, mixing is mostly about hearing. Because hearing is so universal — we can't stop sounds coming in — we all think we're hearing everything, but we're not.
One of the courses I've been teaching for 19 years now is critical listening. It's about, "What do I listen for? How do I go into a dense recording and listen for things that were done that made it sound like that? What are the tools, and how can you tell them apart when you can't solo something?"
I think mixing is a lot about the relationships between this sound and that sound. I was talking about "front and back" earlier. The ways textures sound next to each other. Not how they sound on their own or solo, but how something bright can make something sound darker than it would on its own.
That's the stuff you have to be paying attention to, and listen hard for. Mixing is hard, whether you're doing it in a million-dollar studio or in your bedroom. I don't think either one is really harder if you know what you're going for.
Producer & Engineer Susan Rogers Worked With Prince And Barenaked Ladies. Now, She Wants To Know Why We Love The Music We Do.
Source Photos (L-R): Courtesy of the Recording Academy® / Photo by Jason Kempin for Getty Images © 2023; Courtesy of the Recording Academy® / Photo by Alexandra Wyman for Getty Images © 2023
The Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing To Honor Trailblazers Terri Lyne Carrington And Judith Sherman
The Recording Academy's Producers & Engineers Wing will honor three-time GRAMMY winner Terri Lyne Carrington and revered classical producer and 13-time GRAMMY winner Judith Sherman at its annual GRAMMY Week event in February.
The Recording Academy has announced Terri Lyne Carrington and Judith Sherman as honorees for their accomplishments as pioneering women in jazz and classical music. They will be honored at the Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing GRAMMY Week Event on Feb. 1 at The Village Studios in Los Angeles. The 15th annual event will return in-person for the first time since 2020, to kick off GRAMMY Week 2023.
In addition to celebrating the achievements of three-time GRAMMY winner Terri Lyne Carrington and revered classical producer and 13-time GRAMMY winner Judith Sherman, the event will celebrate the year-round work of the Producers & Engineers Wing and its members. They advocate for excellence and best practices in sound recording, audio technologies and education in the recording arts, along with proper crediting, recognition and rights for music creators.
"We’re thrilled to return live to The Village Studios for the first time in three years to celebrate two groundbreaking music creators who are dedicated to innovating both creatively and technically in the recording field," said Harvey Mason jr., CEO of the Recording Academy. "Both Terri Lyne and Judith have made indelible contributions to music, and we look forward to bringing together producers, engineers and artistic professionals to honor these incredible artists and kick off our GRAMMY Week celebrations."
Terri Lyne Carrington is an NEA Jazz Master, Doris Duke Artist, and three-time GRAMMY-winning drummer, composer, producer, and educator. She is the founder and artistic director of the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, as well as the artistic director for both Next Jazz Legacy program (a collaboration with New Music USA) and the Carr Center in Detroit. She has performed on more than 100 recordings over her 40-year career and has toured and recorded with luminaries such as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz, Esperanza Spalding, and numerous others.
Her artistry and commitment to education has earned her honorary doctorates from York University, Manhattan School of Music and Berklee College of Music, and her curatorial work and music direction has been featured in many prestigious institutions internationally. The critically acclaimed 2019 release, Waiting Game, from Terri Lyne Carrington + Social Science, earned the esteemed Edison Award for music and a GRAMMY nomination. In the fall of 2022, she authored two books, Three of a Kind (The AllenCarringtonSpalding Trio) and the seminal songbook collection, New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets By Women Composers. Her current GRAMMY-nominated album, New Standards Vol.1 (Candid Records), and her visual art curatorial debut at Detroit's Carr Center, Shifting the Narrative Part 1: New Standards, have accompanied the songbook release as part of the Jazz Without Patriarchy Project.
Carrington is a 2022 inductee into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is co-executive producer and musical director for the newly formed Jazz Music Awards.
Judith Sherman has made an indelible contribution to the catalog of recorded classical music.
She is an 18-time GRAMMY Award nominee and 13-time GRAMMY winner, including six GRAMMYs for Producer Of The Year, Classical (at the 36th, 50th, 54th, 57th, 58th, and 64th GRAMMY Awards). Early in her career she was employed at WBAI-FM in New York City, beginning as an engineer and over the course of four years working her way up to become producer and then music director. She was the recording engineer for the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont during the summers of 1976 through 1994 and worked as audio faculty at the Banff Centre in 2006 and 2008. A member of the board of directors of Chamber Music America, Sherman served first as secretary in 2002, and thereafter as vice president. She currently works as a freelance recording producer and engineer in New York.
Sherman has collaborated with a vast number of artists throughout her career including Rudolf Serkin, Ursula Oppens, Marc-André Hamelin, Llŷr Williams; with the Kronos Quartet and the Cleveland, Ying, Takács, and Pacifica String Quartets; with eighth blackbird and the American Brass Quintet; and with conductors such as Christoph Eschenbach, Donald Runnicles and David Zinman. Her recordings in the field of contemporary classical music have been particularly noted, including work with such composers as Steve Reich, Elliott Carter, Steve Mackey, Charles Wuorinen, John Adams, Shulamit Ran, David Rakowski, Philip Glass, Eric Moe, Joan Tower, and Terry Riley. Her recordings have appeared on many labels, including Nonesuch, Telarc, Cedille, New World, Avie, Albany, Signum, Hyperion, and Bright Shiny Things.
"The Producers & Engineers Wing is privileged to pay tribute to two women who have pushed boundaries both in and outside of the studio," said Maureen Droney, Vice President of the Producers & Engineers Wing. "As GRAMMY nominees this year, Terri Lyne and Judith are awe-inspiring honorees who represent the best of the recording industry and whose contributions to their respective genres continue to resonate with our music community."
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.
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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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Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.