Leon Bridges & Khruangbin's DJ Johnson Talk Magic Of New EP 'Texas Moon,' Bringing The Church & Houston Hip-Hop Into Their Music
"Everything about working with Khruangbin was just liberating," shares GRAMMY winner Leon Bridges, in a lively chat with drummer DJ Johnson and GRAMMY.com.
Some collaborations are so natural and sound so perfect together, that it's hard to imagine them not happening. That's definitely the case for Texan musicians Khruangbin and Leon Bridges, who released their second collab EP, Texas Moon, on Feb. 18.
Moon follows 2020’s Texas Sun, an EP which the quartet of musicians had hoped would be a full album. Two years later, listeners get to finally experience the full range of songs from the Khruangbin-Bridges original first sessions — including Bridges' moving tribute to his grandma, "Doris," as well as newer creations, like "Mariella."
Khruangbin (consisting of bassist Laura Lee, guitarist Mark Speer and drummer Donald "DJ" Johnson) and Bridges first connected in 2018, when the mostly instrumental Houston band toured with the soulful Fort Worth singer/songwriter as an opening act. Bridges was already a fan of Khruangbin’s atmospheric, global sound, and would sing lyrics over their music whenever he listened — including on the side of the stage while they performed. Lee noticed and sent Bridges a demo, and the rest was history.
As the singer tells GRAMMY.com, their collab was "honestly just seamless. There was nothing hard about it…. Everything about working with Khruangbin was just liberating."
Read on for a lively conversation between Bridges and Johnson about Texas Moon and Texas Sun, their love for the music of their home state, and more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Leon Bridges: I first heard Khruangbin's music on a video shoot. I was just totally enamored with their sound. And like so many other singers, you have no other choice but to sing lyrics over [the music], so even before I met them, I would write little melodies and lyrics to their songs. I think it's amazing we were able to do a collaboration.
In 2018, I embarked on a Good Thing tour, and management was like, "Have you heard of Khruangbin? We've been thinking about having them open." And I was like, "Hell yeah!" It was the perfect tour. If I could co-headline with them for the rest of my career, then I would be totally fine. There was a night in Montana, when Laura Lee sent me a tune that they had been working on. Right before I got on stage, I went in GarageBand and wrote a couple of lyrics over it, sent it back and that's kind of what sparked our collab.
GRAMMY.com: What has it felt like when y'all collaborate together?
Bridges: It's honestly just seamless. There was nothing hard about it. When I'm in other sessions, the ones I have to do for “the machine,” it's a little rough because you have so many ideas being tossed around and a little bit of ego — totally understandable. Everything about working with Khruangbin was just liberating, to not have to adhere to a certain type of formula, to just to get in and just do what we do. And Texas Sun, Texas Moon, are a result of that.
Donald "DJ" Johnson: For me, working with Leon is a treat. I put him in a special category of artists that have a very unique voice. When you hear Leon, you know it's Leon; no one else sounds like him and he doesn't sound like anyone else. And as a producer myself, that opportunity [to work with a singer like that] doesn't come around very often. I think the last time I was afforded that opportunity was when I worked with Slim, the lead singer of 112.
It's really something special that happens when you sit down in the studio and you see an artist like Leon get behind the mic….It's magic immediately. There's not a lot that can go wrong with a special voice like that.
Bridges: That's love, man. Initially when we went in, we worked on the song that sparked the whole thing. And I think during that time we did "B-Side" and, after that session, I grabbed a guitar because I was trying to impress Mark Speer. [Chuckles.] I started playing a couple tunes and it was just really rad how you reacted to what I was playing — the minor chord progression of [Christian hymn] "At the Cross." I remember you going straight to the piano and playing out the chords and pulling out the mic. Man, it was just magical how everything unfolded [to create the Texas Sun closer, "Conversion"].
Johnson: I remember that. I grew up in a very small Missionary Baptist Church on the north side of Houston, which I still attend every Sunday when I'm home; I play organ there. But every second Sunday we have communion, and usually we sing that song. To hear it coming from Leon's voice...playing it flipped in a minor harmonization — it's true, I literally tripped over my feet to get to the piano to play along. Hearing it in that way, in an entirely new approach was crazy.
Bridges: Wow. It's wild because, when I went on my songwriting path, "Conversion" was the first one that I wrote. I'm happy that it finally found a home. It's funny, I wrote that before I started playing guitar. I used to go to Bandcamp and download random beats. Right before I went in to work, I was in the car and turned on the beat and just started flowing. The initial way it sounded was totally different from what it turned into.
Johnson: Yeah, that turn around too, "And now I'm happy all the day." Whoa, chills. There's a thing that happens when you're singing in church and a particular line can just kind of go by. And it's something special that happens when you repeat it over and over again, it gives you a chance for the words to really impact you and hit home. The fact that it's being repeated makes you really think about what you're saying.
When you sang "Now I'm happy all the day," after saying everything else you said up to that point, to repeat that over and over, it creates a sense of joy in your heart. It's a really, really uplifting thing that happened at the end of that record. It's one of the most, if not the most proud, I am of a record I've been a part of.
Bridges: "Conversion" is such a poignant tune, that's definitely my favorite. But the fans gravitate towards the more pop tunes.
Johnson: I knew what it was going in. I was like, "This is gonna be one of those sleeper cuts, they'll get it later." We will be old and gray and someone's going to pull that out and be like, "Wow, this happened."
GRAMMY.com: Do either of you think about how future generations will think of your music? Like, when we listen to Stevie Wonder's albums from the '70s.
Johnson: I'm always thinking about that. Life is fleeting; you don't know when your last time to make music or when your last day on this earth will be. I think if everyone made music like that, music would sound a bit different. Not everything is that serious song where you have to pour out all your feelings; sometimes you just want to party and have a good time. And if that's also the last thing people hear from you, that's a good thing. But yeah, I'm always forward-thinking.
It's funny you said Stevie; I was listening back to Songs in the Key of Life recently. Lyrically and musically, what Stevie was on back then, for it to last and still be effective 50 years later, that says it all. When you're doing something real from the heart, it'll last. Especially now, if you want things to stick around and you're honest with what you're making, I think you can achieve that.
Bridges: Yeah. For me, making music is therapeutic. And in that, I hope to make timeless music and music that transcends, and I just keep my head down about it. I think it's beautiful that my demographic is a wide spectrum of ages and that my music, our music, speaks to people [in] that way. I hope that it will last forever.
Johnson: That's another thing I appreciate about Leon; I don't think a lot of people know how well rounded he is or how cultured Leon is as an artist. I discovered that he listens to a lot of the same stuff that I listen to. There's a lot of questions I want to ask Leon:
What was it like in the DFW area when [Dorrough Music’s 2009 single] "Ice Cream Paint Job" hit?
Bridges: Man. I was so disconnected from it in a way. It was one of those records where if you were immersed in the nightlife, you was lit. I couldn't go to a club, really. [Laughs.] And then I got saved and was super Christian, so you for sure wouldn't catch me in a club. I did catch the tail end of that whole movement when I was pursuing dance in college, when some of my homies put me on to the music.
It's the same way that Memphis and New Orleans have their own sound and dance culture, that's a piece of Dallas. That whole style, I incorporate it live. It's wild because a lot of the heads don't know where it comes from. [Laughs.]
Johnson: He did for me, for Texas. When I watched him perform and in the middle of a song he stopped singing and hit some D-Town Boogie onstage in Seattle. I think it's really special that he's able to take those things about where he's from and take it all around the world. All overseas, doing the D-Town Boogie, I never thought I would see that. I really salute you for taking Dallas-Fort Worth and putting it on the map in that way, and taking the culture with you.
Bridges: We all get homesick when we're on the road. I'm still processing even having success in music. So it's those little bits of nostalgia that I can cling to and that's all it is really. I think that's why we work together so well, our love for chopped and screwed music and R&B. There was a time I only wanted to hear the chopped and screwed version of an R&B song. [Now], if you gave me a guitar and you held a gun to my head and said, "Write a fast song or you're out of here," I'm just gonna die. I'm out. [Chuckles.] I can't do it! You look at Texas Moon and man, "Doris," "Father, Father," that's that slow and low-end type music.
Johnson: "Doris" almost sounds like it could have been a song that was faster and we slowed it down. It almost sounds like that because it's so slow and intentional. There's so much space.
Bridges: There's so many nuances in there, but "Doris" is like "Diamonds & Wood," UGK; I hear Pimp C.
Johnson: It's so slow. And it leaves so much space. The listener is waiting for the next thing to happen within the song. I think that's something that you can really take advantage of, being from Texas and from the South and understanding chopped and screwed culture and that it's okay for things to be slow. It's okay to wait for stuff. I think it goes with the whole Southern way of life, how people slow cook food down here. When my people barbecue, they start the day before. And I take all of that mindset into the music. It's all art; music, food, it's all connected.
GRAMMY.com: Leon, did you grow up singing?
Bridges: Kind of. I found one of my journals from when I was in elementary, and I don't know why I don't remember any of this, but I wrote "When I grow up, I want to be a singer." When I was 3, my dad taught me and he's good at singing. I never really sang in church or anything, but I always sang along to the music. I never really thought I had a good voice until I got to college and in my downtime, I would get together with some friends on campus and do these little jam sessions. We'd all take turns freestyle singing, and when I would do my thing, some of the people would tell me like, “You kind of got something there.” So that kind of gave me the fuel to keep going.
I actually wanted to be a dancer, to pursue choreography. I had aspirations to hopefully be dancing with Usher or something like that. [Chuckles.] But I found music.
GRAMMY.com: What about you DJ, when did you start drumming?
Johnson: I started drums when I was 2 or 3 years old. My uncle John Foster plays drums. He played at my grandmother's church back in the '80s. He's a flashy drummer, which is what attracted me to them as a kid. I actually quit drums later in life, because there's so many dope drummers in Houston that there's just really no point playing.
And Khruangbin was my full circle moment, to come back to my original instrument. I had hung it up; I started playing keys and bass. I was getting more work in Houston doing gigs on keys and bass. No one ever called me for drums because no one really knew I played. When Mark and Laura decided to start Khruangbin, we were hanging out every week. Mark knew I played because he played at church with me and I would hop on drums every now and then to just mess around. It was his idea to say, "Hey, let's get DJ to play drums" and that was my red carpet back to the drum set. I'm grateful for it.
Life has a funny way of sometimes leading you back to where you started. I never thought I'd be a drummer touring the world in a band making records with Leon Bridges.
GRAMMY.com: What did you each learn from working together on Texas Moon and Texas Sun?
Johnson: Working with Leon makes you appreciate things happening in the moment. It made me be more attentive and sensitive, listening to what's going on around you. Because if you're not listening, or if you're not always tuned in, you may miss it.
A lot of these songs in the Texas Sun, Texas Moon sessions were birthed from Leon sitting with our engineer Steve Christensen and bouncing files or creating stems, and Leon just has a guitar and starts singing. And whenever Leon would start noodling around on the guitar, Steve would put a microphone in front of the guitar and Leon to make sure he's capturing all of these little moments that were happening. If it had been any other studio session I've been in the past, those moments probably just would have flown by; no one's capturing it, no one's hearing the genius within that moment or the possibilities.
But for us, they were like concerts. Leon Bridges picks up a guitar, with this beautiful vocal tone, with these amazing lyrics. So, we're all just sitting back, captivated and listening. It really made me keep my ears open, and listen to the possibilities of what could be. A lot of those moments are what inevitably turned into songs on this project.
Bridges: I was a fan before meeting y'all, so the moment when we got to sit down and jam was super special. And I learned from all of this that honest music is always going to thrive. Initially, the powers that be felt it wasn't a strong enough album. And it's nuts that, "Texas Sun," next to "River," one of my biggest songs. Each album [of mine] is a different character and sound, but working with Khruangbin, I wanted to take everything back to the basics and let the focal point be the songs and to surround those songs with minimal instrumentation. So, I gained family and good music.
GRAMMY.com: I wanted to talk a little bit more about "Doris," the song itself, and, Leon, if you'd like to speak about your grandmother and creating the sonic tribute to her?
Bridges: I just wanted to honor my grandmother. And honestly, I never got to really spend too much time with her, but I saw my father experience her passing. I'm constantly searching for new song ideas, and I came into the studio and had this bare bones baseline vibe on a guitar. And it was just, wow, to hear how Khruangbin interpreted that tune. I was just totally impressed how it all came together.
Johnson: When I heard what was going on lyrically — and knowing that Leon was writing the song from his father's perspective of watching his mother transition — it's just one of those things where, musically, I just wanted to stay out of the way. It's how much can we pull back and make it as much about this very sensitive moment, and hopefully we did that.
GRAMMY.com: What does Texas sound like to you? And how do you sort of relate to that, or incorporate that in your projects?
Bridges: Texas music is a wide spectrum of sounds, but there's some specific elements that I associate with Texas. And for me, it's the song, it's the twang. It's blues. You know, R&B is blues. And so, in a world where every sound has been exhausted, I just try to find that uncharted territory within R&B. There's a lot of R&B musicians that live in Texas, but some artists don't see the importance of incorporating some of those country and blues elements in the music. Juxtaposing that with a more modern sound is something that you rarely see, so I feel like we're representing Texas well.
Johnson: You can't really nail Texas music down. Texas is Steve Escobar Jordan, the Tejano artist. It's Paul Wall, Slim Thug, Chamillionaire, Lil' Keke, Zero, Yella Beezy. Megan Thee Stallion, Travis Scott, Kruangbin, Vanilla Ice — I could go on. You can't really put Texas music in a box.
A lot of times, when you say Texas music, people automatically zero in to what's happening more or less in Austin, what you would hear on Sixth Street — Texas blues artists or singer/songwriters. Artists like Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, that's what people usually associate with Texas, but it's just as much that as it is ZZ Top. I think all of those people in some way, shape, form or fashion influence you just by being here. Being from the state influences how you approach things and how you make music, even culturally.
One of the biggest questions that Khruangbin would get in interviews early on, from people that were not from Houston or Texas, was "How did you guys meet?" That's a thinly veiled way of asking, "How the hell did you end up with this Black guy in your band? You don't look like you belong together." We travel around a lot, and the three of us will walk into a restaurant, and it'll be like "Table for two?"
It's funny because we don't look like we roll together. I think that's the biggest part about Texas is we all roll together. And that's how we ended up in the same band making music together. We all hang out. I don't think we get as much credit as we should for being as culturally diverse as we are down here, especially in this part of the South.
GRAMMY.com: Is there anything else that you want to ask each other?
Johnson: Leon, what are you listening to right now, what are you jamming to?
Bridges: Man. I’ve been digging that cat Dijon. He's dope, a dope songwriter. His music kind of has that kind of minimal approach we've been talking, that marriage of twang and folk and R&B.
Johnson: I was listening to him back with the older stuff he came out with, like "Speed It Up." I just like the approach. His cadence on that record was rhythmic in a way, it's very creative to me.
Bridges: His delivery and his sound are so soulful to me. He's another one that uses that space.
Bridges: What's your favorite food spot in Houston?
Johnson: That's tough. It depends what I'm in the mood for, honestly. Did you go to Nancy's when you were here?
Bridges: Bro, I was about to say Nancy's Hustle! When I go to Houston, I'm either kickin' it with y'all, or I'm at The Flat, or I'm at Nancy's or I'm at Mr. Rogers.
Johnson: I think you went to Xochi too.
Bridges: Yes! I love that place. I always run into Mark and Laura over there.
GRAMMY.com: Leon, what does it mean to you for Gold-Diggers Sound to be nominated for the Best R&B Album GRAMMY this year?
Bridges: It's humbling. Specifically within the R&B realm, there's so many people making music, so for my album to even be included in all that is wild. I take none of this for granted. I think the beautiful thing about Gold-Digger Sound is it definitely gave me more visibility within the Black space. That's one of the things I understand that you have to put in the work to get into that world, and [I did it] making something that was honest.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
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].
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.