Photo: Rachel Murray/Getty Images
Margo Price Turns Back Time
Country singer/songwriter performs "Hands Of Time" and talks taking an honest approach on her debut album, Midwest Farmer's Daughter
Country singer/songwriter Margo Price visited The Recording Academy's headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., to participate in an exclusive GRAMMY.com interview and performance. Price discussed why she wanted to be honest and relatable on her debut album, Midwest Farmer's Daughter, and why she considers her music "rooted" country. Following the interview, she performed a brief set featuring tracks from Midwest Farmer's Daughter, including "Hands Of Time" and "Since You Put Me Down."
"I just wanted to make something that was honest for me," said Price. "When we started recording, I had these songs that were around for a while. Because I wrote it for me, I think that a lot of people have gravitated towards my honesty and the hard things I've been through because everybody else goes through those types of things."
Illinois native Price got her start in music playing piano and singing in church. She majored in dance and theater in college, but dropped out early and moved to Nashville, Tenn., where she formed the band Buffalo Clover with her future husband, bassist Jeremy Ivey, and later Margo And The Pricetags. She made Rolling Stone's list of "10 New Artists You Need To Know" for fall 2014.
Price eventually signed with Jack White's Third Man Records and released Midwest Farmer's Daughter in March, which features 10 tracks, including "About To Find Out," "Hurtin' (On The Bottle)" and "Hands Of Time." The album reached No. 10 on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart.
Price is currently on tour, performing dates internationally through November.
Photo: Rob Kim/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
6 Things To Know About Margo Price: Her Struggles, Writing Process & Unforgettable Success Story
Country-adjacent singer Margo Price is a craftswoman with gallons of candor. At a special GRAMMY Museum event, she got real about her new album, 'Strays,' and memoir, 'Maybe We'll Make It.'
The adjective "vulnerable" is something of a music press cliché. Margo Price is capital-v. Because before she released her 2022 memoir, Maybe We'll Make It, she was in a state of abject terror over how her family would react to her confessions therein.
"I was having panic attacks, thinking about all of this being out there," Price told The Guardian. "I know what people do on the internet, and I was imagining the names they were gonna call me. They're gonna say I'm a horrible mother, that I'm a drunk."
But then, there's that word again: "I also [hope] that people are going to appreciate my vulnerability."
This attribute — married to sterling craft — has launched Price into the stratosphere; none other than Willie Nelson provided a blurb for Maybe We'll Make It's front cover. ("Margo's book hits you right in the gut — and the heart," he wrote. "Just like her songs.")
As she details in the book, the masterful Nashville singer/songwriter knocked around town for more than a decade in search of a record deal, and dealt with poverty, alcohol abuse and numberless other calamities. But Price was stubborn and persistent; her ascent began with her exceptional 2016 solo debut Midwest Farmer's Daughter, released on Third Man Records.
She continued her winning streak in 2017 with All American Made; the following year, she was nominated for a GRAMMY for Best New Artist. That streak continued with 2020's That's How Rumors Get Started, produced by Sturgill Simpson. In 2023, she released another excellent album, the Jonathan Wilson-produced Strays, which she's promoting alongside Maybe We'll Make It.
At a recent edition of the GRAMMY Museum's "A New York Evening With…" interview and performance series at the Greene Space at WNYC and WQXR in New York City, Price sat down with moderator Craig Finn of the Hold Steady. Together, they discussed the counterbalances of Strays with Maybe We'll Make It, and her wild, tragic, joyful story that's contained in both; the result was a window into Price's psychology.
Here are six takeaways about this GRAMMY-nominated master of words and melodies.
Her Album And Memoir Influenced Each Other
Early in the conversation, Finn inquired about the dynamic between a book and an album, as the publishing process typically takes much longer than the writing and recording process.
"They definitely ended up kind of influencing each other, because I was working on them in tandem," Price said. "I did kind of lose myself in it for a moment. My husband would say things like, 'You haven't written a song in months.' I was like, 'I'm an author now.'"
Price Finished Her Memoir Through Routine
In 2018 — upon getting pregnant and coming off the road — Price needed to keep her mind busy.
Despite not having a book deal, she and her husband, fellow musician Jeremy Ivey, would take their son to school, go to an East Nashville coffee shop and write from "about 8 in the morning until maybe noon or 1. And I just did that for maybe five or six months." By her telling, there were "many, many, many drafts" prior to the one we can hold in our hands today.
Observing Herself From The Outside Proved Beneficial
In reading about her experiences in the way a consumer of her memoir would, Price identified a seam of compassion for herself that she didn't realize she had.
"You can suddenly give yourself a break. I feel like I'm my own worst critic," she said. "There was always a breadcrumb to keep us going — and then there was something to knock us back down." However, "if there wasn't a struggle, I wouldn't be Margo Price."
Patti Smith's Memoir Influenced Her Own
"I had heard some of her songs and things before, but I think once I really devoured her written works, I started digging into her albums," Price said of Smith. "And I just thought it was incredible the way that she used poetry and just felt unafraid to throw it all in the pot and mix it all up."
On the literary front, one cue Price took from Smith was her use of descriptive detail for everyday scenes: "She talks about living off of tomato soup," she says, connecting that to the $2 frozen tilapia filets and bags of edamame she and Ivey used to subsist on.
"When you can taste what's going on, it puts you there in the kitchen with us," she said. "You can starve with the artist."
Price Is Becoming More Open To Collaborating — Judiciously
Price is skeptical of some of the team-ups she sees in the music industry. "Sometimes, I see a collaboration happening," she says, and I'm like, 'That looks forced. I don't know, man. I feel like they're just doing that for the Spotify plays.' So, I really try to only do it if it's meaningful."
Somebody in her camp presented a list of potential writing partners; she didn't bite. But when her manager suggested GRAMMY-winning guitar great Mike Campbell, she changed her tune.
"I'm like, 'Duh, of course. We're trying to write Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers songs over here anyway, so if we can get him in on it, then it legitimizes the whole thing… he sang on ["Light Me Up" on] my record, and it was just very natural."
She Might Join Your Band
"I'd love to play more drums," Price said during a brief audience Q&A before performing tunes like All American Made's "Pay Gap" and Strays' "Country Road" for the crowd. "Just drums in a band sometime, where I'd just be in the pack. It'd be so much less pressure.
"I need to find a gig," she added mirthfully. "If anybody knows something, let me know after the show."
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen
Margo Price Finds Freedom On New Album 'Strays' & Memoir: "I've Never Felt This Happy"
On her new album 'Strays' and memoir 'Maybe We Can Make It,' singer/songwriter Margo Price dug deep, but offered herself a bit of grace. The releases meditate on forgiveness, self-image and substance abuse —all with a heaping helping of rock and humor.
Margo Price is beaming with excitement. In the early weeks of 2023, the outspoken songwriter finally has the chance to tour the world again with her band, and is embracing the opportunity to continue to better herself.
"I have never felt this happy, this energetic, this full of life," Price tells GRAMMY.com about the joy she’s felt since she quit drinking two years ago. "It's almost just like waking up all over again and getting to try everything for the first time. I thought it was going to be really scary, but it's just been exciting."
The past few years have played a major role in Price's newfound understanding and growth. In her memoir Maybe We Can Make It, which was released last fall, Price chronicles the highs and lows of her musical journey, focusing on themes of loyalty, loss, grief, and forgiveness. "I really was peering inside," Price recalls. "I was able to give myself compassion, grace, and not be so full of shame really with a lot of the mistakes I've made."
A psychedelic, six-day writing session in the summer of 2020 provided Price with the opportunity for further reflection, and informed her decision to stop drinking. The result is Strays, a Jonathan Wilson-produced album out Jan. 13. The rock-leaning record features many of the same themes as her memoir, and explores topics such as substance abuse, self-image, abortion rights, and orgasms. In her examination of loss, lies and failure, Price learned how to let go of trauma — and Strays captures that newfound freedom.
She’s grown other projects, including the podcast "Runaway Horses," which features interviews with Price's music heroes such as Emmylou Harris and Bob Weir. "I truly enjoyed it just as a music fan myself, to be able to talk about some of the different choices that can be made in music and to be able to talk with people who think outside of the box," she says.
GRAMMY.com caught up with the singer/songwriter to discuss how her new album, memoir and other projects have allowed her to grow and deepen her understanding of self.
With each project, it seems like you've gotten much more confident in expressing yourself and talking about personal issues more openly. Why did you feel it was the time to write a memoir?
I have always dreamed of being an author. I'm an avid reader. I think that I owe a lot to literature and its influence on my music and my work in general, so it just felt like a really natural progression for me. I've always enjoyed writing autobiographical songs. As they say, "you write what you know."
When I found myself pregnant with my daughter Ramona and I had come off the road after everything kind of exploded after signing with Third Man and doing the late-night TV circuit and being nominated for a GRAMMY and all those things, I needed somewhere to put all that energy. It felt really natural, and I really got into the flow of writing. I would wake up and take my son to school, and then I would go to a coffee shop, and I would write for about five to six hours a day. After I had my daughter, I got back to touring and being on the road for a while, and so it kind of sat there. And then when the pandemic hit, well, that seemed like as good a time as any to finish the memoir.
It must have been interesting not having a limit of a song’s length.
Oh, for sure. I feel like it always takes me a lot of words to get around to the point. So yeah, it felt like just a big release. As cliche as it sounds, I have figured out so much about myself, about my personality through going back and reading the first draft of the book. Once I started the editing process, I was going pretty deep into my psyche and really evaluating my life choices, reframing a lot of things in my mind.
I keep joking that writing the book was kind of some sick form of therapy. We're all just humans, and we're all just trying to figure this experience out. I think that vulnerability is really a strength that not a lot of people know how to cultivate. For years, I was scared to go into a lot of those vulnerable places. I was afraid of being judged. It was really eye-opening.
How did the experience writing the memoir most impact the writing of the new album?
It brought up so many things from my past. I was definitely in a very reflective mind state. I think there was a lot of what I was writing in the memoir that did end up coming through in some of the songs. I think a lot of people will be connecting the dots between the two, because I was working on both of them [at the same time]. I was working on the book for about four and a half years, and I've been working on this album for about two and a half, three years. They definitely did influence each other.
Thematically, the album's songs are largely about fighting for something, whether that's survival, being heard, fighting your demons, or being loved. What about that truthful yet hopeful theme appealed to you?
This life is about survival and about trying to find your way. While writing the album, I had several psychedelic experiences that were really spiritual. I think that definitely also influenced my writing over this time period, and I wanted to just continue to unapologetically be myself. I think that we are in just such troubled times in the world.
Always with my art, but especially on this last album, it is about finding your peace and finding your place in the world. One of the ways that I've kind of moved through my trauma and through difficult times in my life is being able to reflect upon it in my art and hopefully also connect with people. That's one of the biggest things that keeps me doing it, is being able to connect with others and share the pain and misery and beauty of life.
You've said that you felt an urgency to be creative and that you had a moral obligation to pursue it, even if it wasn't the easy popular path. Why was that an important realization?
I think when you break through and you are in a genre and labeled as one thing, many times fans come to expect that from you. There's been people that I have greatly admired who have the ability to reinvent themselves and to evolve and to grow. I didn't want to fall into the trap of making the same albums and just staying in one small lane to be popular.
I wanted to be able to explore. Before I made Midwest Farmer's Daughter, I had tried on many different genres. I had been in many different bands and projects. I had studied folk music and even classical mezzo Italian soprano style singing. There were a lot of things that I've been influenced by, so I just wanted to be able to touch on any of those things and not feel like I had to get stuck.
On album opener "Been to the Mountain," you examine this idea of reaching a free and stray-like state. What about strays and that free state do you find appealing?
Many times, our lives feel like they're written out and we're just on autopilot. During the pandemic and just during the whole time of lockdown, I was just reevaluating a lot of the things that I had been doing day to day, and things that I thought were rebellion or things that I thought were making me happy. And I realized that a lot of them weren't.
A lot of it was due to my experiences that I've had with psychedelics and psilocybin mushrooms. I wanted the whole album to feel like a psychedelic trip, or it could just be an entire life that happens before your eyes. There's going to be happiness, and there's going to be joy, and there's going to be pain and difficult things.
You’ve mentioned wanting the album to feel more like an epic listening experience rather than a typical album listening experience.
Yeah. Jonathan Wilson, the producer, really helped steer the ship and guide us into this new sonic territory. My band and I have been together for a really, really long time. Some of us for over a decade. I think when people come to our live show, they're always really blown away by the experience. That's difficult to capture in the studio. I think in the past I've been rushed on projects either because I did not have the budget, or I didn't have the time. I just had a burning in me to get the next thing out. With this project, it seemed like I had nothing but time, and I just wanted to get it right.
We went out to South Carolina. We took a writing retreat, and then we did pre-production demos, just the band and I in the studio. I sent those along to a bunch of different producers, and then ended up talking to so many different producers, but I knew Jonathan was the one. So, we went out, and the band and I got an Airbnb together. We took a lot of psychedelics and hung out there and worked on the record for a long time. And then we did more sessions in Nashville at a place called Creative Workshop Studios and another place in Berry Hill. I just kept writing and writing and writing more songs.
Honestly, I had enough for a double album. I have about three unreleased albums that I'm working on right now. I have a psychedelic gospel record that I recorded right after All American Made. I have Strays Part Two, and then I have this other project that I was working on during the pandemic at the Cash Cabin with John Carter Cash. We have so much material right now, so many things that we've been working on.
The new songs tackle subjects that people often have a hard time talking about. For example, you reflect on giving up alcohol a couple years ago and how that's freed you to discover yourself, your self-worth, and better yourself.
There is such a misconception about drinking, at least this is how I used to feel. It was framed in my mind that drinking alcohol and living hard, that was rebellion. But honestly, once you strip all of that away, all of that numbing, I've been feeling my feelings. I know that sounds a little woo-woo. I have truly been able to look at my life, to look at my experiences, my flaws in a clearer light. When I was numbing all the time with booze, there's just a kind of facade that you're living in. I'm not saying that everybody is using alcohol that way, but I definitely was.
At times, my alcohol use was fine. It was healthy, and it was under control, and it was normal. But there is that gray area in drinking that I think so many people deal with. So many people don't want to talk about it because of the way that this country and this society has framed it where it's like, "Okay, there's people who are alcoholics and they are flawed, and then there's other people that are just normal drinkers." That is not true. If you actually go and do the studies and do the research, alcoholism, there's no genetic thing there that says that you have a gene that makes you an alcoholic.
There's just so much stigma around quitting. Truthfully, I had a psychedelic journey that led me to the decision that I could quit drinking, and it didn't have to be the way that it's been in our society. This January will be two years for me. I have never felt this happy, this energetic, this full of life. It's almost just like waking up all over again and getting to try everything for the first time. I thought it was going to be really scary, but it's just been exciting. I can't wait to see where the next few years take me.
The album features several collaborations, including "Light Me Up" with Mike Campbell. Why did you feel he would fit this song?
He’s one of the best guitar players that are out there and still playing today. We had an incredible time doing some writing sessions with Mike. I grew up on the Heartbreakers. I think it's some of the best American songwriting that there is with the writing that Tom Petty and Mike Campbell achieved.
He did pretty much one take on that solo for "Light Me Up," and it was exactly what it needed to be. Mike has just really taught us so much about writing and recording and performing and just what it means to be in a band and to play music for a living.
The song "Lydia" has powerful, stream of conscious lyrics. Why did that format seem important to capture the sentiment in the song?
That was one of those songs that really felt like it came to me from somewhere else. It was just one of those spiritual moments that keeps me coming back to songwriting.
The lyrics for "Lydia" came to me when I was in a little bit of a dark place that day. I was really kind of just feeling for people who live below the poverty line and who find themselves in bad situations. It was a reflection of a lot of places I'd seen touring, a lot of the faces that I'd seen outside of this Methadone Clinic in Vancouver.
I wrote that song, and I kind of sat on it for a really long time because I didn't feel that it was fitting to record for, say, Rumors. I just didn't feel like it fit on the album. I'm glad that I finally got it down. I just really loved the strings that Jonathan and Drew [Erickson] added. It just made the whole thing come together.
Last year you became the first female artist on the board of the Farm Aid organization. What does it mean to add your voice to that organization?
Becoming the first female musician to be on the board of Farm Aid is my most precious achievement so far. It means a lot to my family. It's really something to be named next to Willie Nelson and Neil Young. I've admired their songwriting my whole life, and it just gets me choked up just thinking about it. My entire life, I had this vendetta that I wanted to help make things right for not only my family and the farm that they lost, but just for farmers all over America.
I'm still trying to figure out how I can do more, because I think that the climate crisis and the climate change that we are facing, Farm Aid has been thinking about all of these things for a long time. They are really set up to help make food justice for everyone. It affects us all. If we can figure out how to create more farms and how to preserve the family farms that we have and all this regenerative farming, there's so many things out there. It’s definitely my crowning achievement.
Your husband Jeremy has been an important part of your recent songwriting, and your psychedelic trip to South Carolina really helped you. What did it mean to be able to share that experience with him?
Well, Jeremy, he's been in my life for 19 years. We truly have a way of writing together that is just on a deeper level than co-writes that I could have with other people, because he knows everything that I've been through. He's able to really write from my perspective. I also think that he's just one of the best writers of our time. He's going to be one of those people who is discovered later. He put out a great record [last] year, and it just really flew under the radar. I see him as an Elliot Smith, Bob Dylan-like writer. He's my secret weapon. I really am grateful that I get to work with him.
As I mentioned in my memoir, we've definitely had our share of troubles after losing a child and just being in the music business for a couple decades. I'm happy that we get to be together and raise kids and make music. It's a bit of a fairytale.
You capture that sentiment in "Anytime You Call" quite well.
We were having a really challenging time. We were in Santa Fe when he wrote that song. We were a hold up there writing some songs, and I was working on my memoir. When I came into the room, he played that song for me. I just started bawling.. I had to add it to the album, because it had such a Kinks’ "Strangers" kind of feel to it. I've always loved Lucius and their harmonies, and especially their rendition of that song. I asked them to put their magic touch on it, and it just made the whole thing come alive.
What are you most looking forward to this year?
I am looking forward to so much this year. I’m going on my first headlining tour since 2018. I didn't know when I did my last headlining tour that I was going to get pregnant and then that the pandemic was going to hit, so I feel like I have been waiting for this for five years. The band and I are sounding better than ever and getting out and doing these headlining shows has just been such a release.
I've also been working on a film with a friend of mine. His name is Joshua Weinstein. I've got a lot of songs that I've been writing. I'm ready to get back into the studio again here and start recording the next album.
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].