Photo: Holland Brown
Maria Usbeck On 'Envejeciendo,' Finding Gray Hairs & Embracing Aging
The Ecuador-born, Brooklyn-based dream-pop artist takes us deep into her gorgeous new LP—a concept album about getting older
Dream-pop performer Maria Usbeck rather serendipitously got her start in music fronting a synth outfit called Selebrities, which she started with her best friend from art school. In 2016, she released her first solo album, Amparo, marking the first time she wrote and recorded in her native Spanish. Last month, on Aug. 16, she returned with an ambitious, beautiful sophomore album (sung primarily in Spanish), Envejeciendo, which means "aging."
Prior to the album's release, we spoke to the Ecuador-born, Brooklyn-based singer over the phone to learn more about its inspiration (spoiler: a friend pointed out some new gray hairs), recording in Spanish and how she's pretty much ready for retirement.
Your new album, Envejeciendo, comes out tomorrow. How are you feeling about finally sharing this project with the world?
It's exciting. It's been about a three-year journey up to completion and for the release of the record. [I'm] eager to see how people respond to the songs and just happy to share these thoughts with everybody.
I always imagine too that when there is a personal journey that goes along with making an album, that when the finished product finally comes out, it can feel a bit surreal.
Yeah, and by the time it does, perhaps you're still fully diving into the thoughts that you wrote about, or perhaps you're completely detached. At this time, I feel like I'm still very much in the same place, so it's good.
The album is centered on aging, but it feels very playful and upbeat, which I love. Can you explain why did you chose to explore this topic?
I had a bit of a crisis when I turned 30. I think everybody goes through this. There's certain stages in life that you just have to take a moment of reflection and be like, "Okay. What am I doing? What is this?" It was because I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in a while and the first thing they said was, "Oh, wow. You have a lot of grays now." And I do have a substantial amount. It's a genetic thing, or maybe it's stress. I'm not sure. I felt bad, obviously. My first reaction was just like, "Oh. Ugh." That's a big deal.
So that spiraled into this moment of contemplation and observation of how I felt, why I felt that way, and it's developed this fascination with the idea. What is aging? What is the moment that we start observing it? Because as children we don't notice these changes. They're not as obvious. But as adults, we contemplate them. We notice the physical changes. We notice that our train of thought is different. We choose to do different activities. We start evolving in that way.
So that's what inspired this record, and also it's just having a few conversations with people while I was on tour and while I was traveling, conversations with my grandmother and my grandpa and just seeing how they changed, and my parents. I don't see my parents more than maybe once a year. Every time I see them, it's a bit of a shock. They just look much older. I had to just write it down. I had to observe it.
Do you feel like working on this project and pondering this concept in a musical format shifted your views around aging?
Yes and no. It's still something that I might feel a certain way about, especially the physical changes. But maybe putting them on paper and just putting sounds to them helped me take a moment to reflect. Whether it had a positive result or a negative result, I'm not 100 percent sure yet. But if it does help somebody that does feel bad about a certain thing, and it's one of the topics of the songs, then I've done my work. That's why it's upbeat, it's meant to be positive, but also at the same time be realistic about what these topics are.
For example, there's a song that talks about technology called "The Machine." This song is putting together this idea of as you get older, you become more and more detached from technology per se. It becomes harder to learn certain technology. Older people at the moment, have difficulty with iPhones. It's this idea that unless technology becomes a part of aging, we grow without it and you're stuck with what was there for you at one point.
Did the second song on the LP, "Un Cabello Gris" ["A Gray Hair"], stem from that initial experience with your friend?
Yes. There's definitely a moment right now to serve the beauty of elderly women and elderly men and gray hairs. There's been a moment in fashion, for example, of the beauty of these elderly people. I think that's amazing. When I started writing the record it wasn't really a thing, but [now] we're seeing it happen, and I think it's just like anything else. You see how a flower dries and dies and ages, and that's a beautiful thing. So why are we so obsessed with youth? Why do we want to stay the same? Is it just the physical appearance? Is it an energy thing? Is it just feeling sad and longing for those moments of energy? On my travels I've met some much, much older people that have the exact same energy that my nieces do. So I think most of it is psychological in a way, you have it in your head that you can make it happen.
Another example is I was reading this really interesting article a little bit ago about this man that was born without this part of the brain that senses pain. He has no limits. He has broken his spine a few times. This guy should be totally immobile, but he's not because he doesn't have the function, the pain itself, so he's walking. It's a marvel to doctors, obviously, like how is this possible. But if you don't feel it, then there's no limitation. Unfortunately unlike him we're all quite limited. Fortunately and unfortunately.
How much is it me thinking that I can't have the same energy that I had in my twenties versus it actually being true? Just reflecting on that and the physical part of how much of it is the emotional changes. Like how they say, "Oh, you're becoming an adult now" because you start thinking about having kids, and you get a real job, et cetera. How much of that is inflicted by society and serves a standard of what is expected of us at different ages, versus how we really feel.
Until I turned 30 last year, I thought, "I have a long time until that happens." Now I wonder if we need to be more open to end of life. Do we need to just be more open to however aging affects our bodies? What are your thoughts on where the mental element of a fear of aging takes us?
It takes ahold, yeah. Definitely something that I looked into is just the increase of the fear of death as you become ill, as when you're in a moment of danger. It's a real thing that people think about and feel. I don't think there's any control to it except that perhaps it's cultural. Again, we're raised to have that fear. I don't think, necessarily, we're born with that. We're born with a fear of what we know, and that is something that we've never experienced, we don't know it. And perhaps that's where it stems from, the not knowing.
But also if you think about every movie that we watch, every piece of literature, there's interpretations. And in different cultures, especially in some tribes, they embrace it. It's that moment that you culminated your life, this is what you came here for, basically. You've done what you need to, you pass and that's that. It's the embracing that I think is very necessary because it helps you to be more present. It helps you to deal with things in reality perhaps without the need of religion, perhaps without the need of this belief of the beyond, because you're here.
You understand that you're here for only a certain amount of time and you don't know how long that is. You live every moment and every day in a more grateful, interesting manner. If you knew how long you were going to live for, if it was a month from now, wouldn't you spend every single day just having the best time? Obviously there's limitations to that. We all live within a certain society, we have to pay bills, et cetera. But it's interesting to think about that. It's endless.
On "Amor Anciano," you included your grandmother's voice.
Yes. I had to. She passed away last summer, actually out of nowhere. It was pretty shocking because we were expecting her to outlive my grandpa. So my grandpa is now alone, and it's been hard, but he's doing a little bit better. One of the last conversations that I had with her I, luckily, recorded. And it was an interesting conversation because I had had a similar one in New Zealand with this man, an older person as well, and he's talking about this idea of a long lost love, the what if had I done this versus what I chose to do with my life, and I think that's something that we all think about. It's not so much the regret part of it as versus the longing part of it, like what if I had been with this person [instead]. What if I would have chosen a completely different career?
My grandma, who was a very emotionally in touch person, very outspoken, just went off on one of her speeches about all of her youth and all of these men that chased her and wanted to marry her in front of my grandpa. I thought it was hilarious; you get to that point in your marriage and then life that jealousy is not even a real thing anymore because you've been together for 40-something years. It's totally okay to joke about that and talk about it. He would just laugh.
I thought it was so special that she pushed upon the same topic and this idea of the "what if," which is valuable because we make these choices. We choose where we live, to an extent, if we have the means, or we were escaping from something. Talk about immigration, just making decisions to move to a different country and try a different way of life. These are all decisions that we make, and we do, and later in life we can reflect upon and hopefully we're comfortable with them. But it's a thought that might come back. Like, "Oh, I forgot about this person that I met when I was 20-something. What if it was them?" Right? It's a love song in a way.
What was the biggest piece of advice that she gave you that stuck with you over the years?
That's a good question. She never really gave me any advice whatsoever. She just wasn't the type of person. She lived in dreams, my grandma. She liked to read. And then she liked to just have conversations, none of them included any advice, which is nice. I never really asked her either. I've never been that kind of person myself. Not even with my parents. But that's me.
She sounds like she was a very just thoughtful and intuitive person. Is there something about her that stuck with you? Or, by adding her voice to this song, an older woman's perspective, do you feel like it shifted the song?
There's definitely some statements that stuck with me through the years. I wouldn't call them advice necessarily, but more just general observations of life. Her attitude towards death, for example, was very memorable and impressive in a way, despite the fact that I'm not a religious person. The way that she put it together didn't really feel that specific to any religion. It was more of just this idea of energy and having to evolve to the next space and how if it was time, it was time. She was really ill a few years before, and I remember her saying that, "If it's time for me, then it's time for me to go." And she seemed very calm. If anything that really stuck with me is this idea of just calmness and being able to control yourself in that way. It's impressive.
That comes across on the album. You're exploring end of life, aging, things that can feel very heavy, but there's a calmness throughout it, even as some of the sonic elements add texture or intensity. It still feels like an album that you could listen to poolside.
Yeah. That was obviously on purpose. Since the topic is so heavy, some of the songs especially, I wanted it to feel calm. There's people that are going to listen to this album that don't speak Spanish, or they don't speak English as well, and they might not get the idea whatsoever. So what do they hold onto? That's how I feel when I listen to songs in other languages that I don't understand. What I hold onto is those melodies, and there's a feeling with a melody. If you can somehow connect that feeling of the message of this song with the melody, then I think you've done your job. It's pretty impressive, and I think most successful songs do that. It's hard to do, but I think if you can manage to do it, it's impactful.
Also, we are seeing a lot more Spanish-language music becoming popular and charting in the U.S., which makes me happy.
Yeah, it's great.
A lot of times I get lyrics, even in English, wrong in my head. I feel like music is way more of a mood for me, so it's cool when there's different layers to connect to.
And you're making it your own if you're coming up with your own lyrics. I think that's so special. I grew up in Ecuador, and whenever I would hear songs in English, before I really knew English well, I would make up whatever and it was my own thing. And it took me years to realize that I was wrong. It makes it more special. It's like that Ace of Base song, "The Sign." I thought it was "I saw the sun."
I thought that too!
Yeah, exactly. See, and you speak English [natively], so it's totally fine. It's their Swedish accent. It's still good. There's a value to the song standing on its own regardless of the lyrics, right? It's the melody.
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What music did you listen to and love when you were younger growing up in Ecuador?
Like every other child in the universe, I was just like, "My parents like boring stuff," like folkloric music. My mom was super into ABBA. My dad was into the Beatles and all this stuff. I was just, "I don't like any of that," so I started getting into Brit-pop. I started getting into techno and dance, all this European and American music, and purposefully not listening to any salsa, or anything like that. It would be played out. At parties in high school, it was there. We would dance to it. It was a part of life, but I was like, "No, I want to listen to goth music," like every teenager out there.
But I liked it, and now it's all nostalgic. I think it's also awesome how, for example reggaeton, which is something that came out after I left high schoo,l has become so massive in this country. I used to complain a few years ago with some of my Hispanic friends here in Brooklyn. We were like, "Every time we go out it's just this English music. I wish they'd play some salsa, some merengue, something more upbeat. We got to go find that." Now you go out and bam, reggaeton. It's awesome, it's like someone was listening to our wishes and they made it come true. It's pretty cool.
And like you were saying, the Spanish music scene right now is big. It's grown significantly since I put out my first record. When I put out Amparo [in 2016], I was like, "This is crazy. No one's doing this. No one's going to like this. But I love it." And I just stuck with that. And [now] there's all these different levels of indie musicians or bigger musicians [singing in Spanish]. It's so cool.
That's such an interesting point because when you put out Amparo, you were switching from performing in English with Selebrities to singing primarily in Spanish, correct?
What did it feel like for you?
It was just unreal how good it felt. At first, it was difficult because I had only written music in English. So there was a bit of a gap. Before I started traveling, going to all these places, I would just be fully immersed in Spanish again so my brain could go to that place. Once I was there, it was a breeze. It felt so natural, and it made me really happy. I was like, "Wow." It's almost like this whole time, as fluent as I am in English and as perfect as it may be, it still feels like I'm playing a little bit of a character. And people always tell me, though, when I speak Spanish I sound a lot more serious. The reason for that I think is because I take it seriously because it's my first tongue. I know my English will never be 100 percent perfect, but my Spanish has to be. You know what I mean? It's a pride thing.
"It was just unreal how good it felt… It's almost like this whole time, as fluent as I am in English and as perfect as it may be, it still feels like I'm playing a little bit of a character."
More Spanish-language artists are becoming huge, like Bad Bunny, J Balvin, Rosalía. While they all speak some English, they're like, "We're performing in Spanish because why do we have to perform in English?" I think that is sending such a positive message. It feels so refreshing versus the idea that everything needs to be in English in order to be consumed on a global scale.
It's really shocking how it's changed because for longer than I can remember—a perfect example of this is somebody like Shakira or J. Lo. Through the '90s they could have totally released songs in Spanish, and they chose to do English just because they wanted to get into the U.S. market, the big money maker market. So it was a choice. And who knows if they would have chosen to do [all] their songs in Spanish, if they would have had the same success. We'll never know.
Someone like Selena, for example. She had originally written "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" as a song in English, something about fish. I just read about this. They decided to do the song in Spanish, and it blew up in the Spanish market. I don't think she was that successful in the English-speaking market. But yeah, it definitely was a choice. But by now, I think there's a lot more freedom because we've seen it happen and we've seen that it works. I think that's giving everybody a little bit more confidence to release the songs as they please.
I want to return to Envejeciendo. What really stood out to me about the journey of the album was how it opens with "Adios A Mi Memoria." The initial noise is jarring at first, and then the song goes into the calmer pace of the rest of the album. And you close with the appropriately named "Nostalgia." Can you talk about how you built the album out, maybe how you picked the order of the songs or which sounds you chose to explore in each song?
The order wasn't really defined from the beginning, unlike my last record, which I wrote chronologically. This one I jumped around a little bit just because I wanted to give the songs, and my brain, a little bit of time in between, so I could go back and really listen and make changes. The order itself came to me later on. The reason why it's in that order is mostly musical. I think the songs flow really nicely in that order.
But it's purposely that "Adios A Mi Memoria" is the first song because of that intro and because of the message itself. I think memory loss is one of the hugest things that we associate with age. It's also something that the sound itself is trying to convey that split-second where you can't remember something and it's a shock. You're like, "What? Why can't I ... I know it's in there." And you can't remember. I'm not sure exactly the chemical reaction that's happening in there, but that's what it sounds like to me. It's just like, "What? Why can't I access this piece of information?" It's terrifying. That's why that one's the first one.
"Nostalgia" is the last because I think it just embraces what everything really comes down to, which is this feeling, the missing of something. You might miss your memory or your physical appearance. You might miss things from childhood or that toaster. You might miss all of these things. That's what nostalgia's all about, the missing, the longing. That was why the order of the songs is like that. I thought of so many other things to write about, one of them being the biological clock. I'm a woman in my thirties and okay, the clock is ticking. It's a huge thing, but I just felt it was a little too personal at the time for me to write it down. I freaked out a little bit about that. It's such a vast topic. Aging is just endless.
One of my favorite tracks on the record is "Secret in Japan," and it's talking about the way that aging is perceived in Japan. It's a lot more spiritual, a lot more ingrained in society. There seems to be this more poetic view of looking at it. At the same time it's about all these little pockets in the world, these blue spots in the world where people live till they're a hundred and over. What are the factors that are allowing these people to live so long? Looking into it and doing research and being in a couple of these places, I'm just like, "I have no idea." I say that in this song as well because there's just so many things, and it could be nothing at all. Maybe it's just genetic and you got lucky. It's wild how there's just so much to talk about and so little time.
Zooming back a little bit, I know we talked about some of the music you listened to growing up, but did you have any musical idols, and was there someone specifically that you looked to that made you feel like you had a place in music?
I love his voice.
Yeah, his amazing voice, but also just his choices, just as far as the diversity of the music. He did those records in Africa as well. He really just dived into so many different genres and I find that really impressive. It takes a certain kind of brain to be able to do that and be that diverse with yourself.
As an adult, to be honest, I've been looking back quite a lot and listening to salsa, then listening to a little bit of everything. I'm a huge Japanese '80s fan, like the YMO [Yellow Magic Orchestra] guys. It's just all of those people from the past that I've always had in my headphones and in my brain since forever. Anything can really influence you, and that's just other music. Birds and the ocean and nature. Nature's the first music composer.
When did you start making music? Did you learn an instrument or sing when you were a kid, or was it not until you moved to New York? I'm curious as to when the musical bug bit you.
As a child I was forced to go to piano lessons. She took me when I was six because there's a conservatory run by nuns where my sister was already going to learn piano. It was terrifying. I was a really introverted, shy little girl. I started crying nonstop, and then she was like, "Okay. You're not ready." We went back when I was seven and she just left me there. I learned piano until I was 11 or 12, and then I rebelled. I hated it with such passion. And maybe that's just like your future, and being stuck playing these classical songs that you don't really find that interesting. Now I do obviously, but as a kid I wasn't that interested in them. So I stopped completely after 11 or 12.
And then it wasn't until art school that my best friend was like, "I taught myself how to play guitar." And I'm like, "What? When? That's cool." "Hey, don't you know how to play the keyboard?" And I was like, "I don't really remember." And he's like, "Why don't we just get one where we can just mess around." And then it led to, "Hey, don't you know how to sing?" I'm like, "I don't," and he's like, "Yeah, you do." So you could say I was peer pressured into the whole thing various times, but then I quickly realized, "Whoa. This is really helping with my shyness and my introversion." It's a really good output for me creatively. I really enjoy it. The whole speech thing took a while, but now I like it. I mean, I still get a little nervous, but it feels good. It's good therapy for me.
And then when you were making music with your friend, when did it shift from being just for fun to more of "Maybe I should try to share this music with other people or record it," or what not?
We started my band together, the one that we had in my 20s, Selebrities. It happened that we moved to New York together after art school and we met our third band member, this guy Max, and he helped us produce everything because we were using GarageBand or whatever, super lo-fi. And then, as a joke, we put it up on a blog and it got picked up, and it started getting blogged about everywhere. Next thing you know we're getting emails and calls from labels. We're like, "Wait a second. What's going on?" And then next thing we know we have to play a show. We had no idea how, but we figured it out. Again, peer pressure. I almost threw up at the first show, but then I was like, "Okay. I like this. This is fun."
You couldn't escape music. It came to you.
Yes. I mean, you've got to do it. You've done all that effort already. Yeah. I didn't want to disappoint them. It became a thing.
I noticed on social media you talk about wishing you were retired and I think even your Instagram tagline is something about waiting for retirement, which is cute.
I'm exhausted. Don't you feel like that? You're just like, "Ugh." Every time you go on vacation, you're just like, "This is what's up."
Like, "How do I do this forever?"
Yeah, I know. It feels so good, especially for somebody like me that wants to just write a bunch of music and not have to worry about paying bills. That would be incredible. And have all the time in the world. But it's not realistic, obviously, whatever. Yeah, Mom and Dad, chill out. They're always just like, "Don't quit your day job." I haven't. That's the unfortunate state of the music industry, we're all just trying to get by.
It is a really interesting balance and dynamic where, I think, the best music comes from a place of authenticity, of being able to live your life and have the freedom to record what you feel. But then there's the other side of it, which a lot of artists talk about, the hustle. You have to tour. You have to get in the studio maybe when you don't feel like it. Sometimes you have to jumpstart the creative process.
Yeah. To play a devil's advocate there, honestly some songs come out of that frustration and that exhaustion, and they're amazing songs. Some favorite songs that I've written were definitely after working till 10 p.m. on whatever job and being super tired and just having to write about it. I mean, if somebody was like, "Hey, Maria. You can retire now and here's a bunch of money, and we just want to hear more music from you," I'd be like, "Okay, where do I sign?"
So you would still be making music when you're retired at least?
Oh, yeah. I think I'll make music forever. Whether I'll release it or not, we'll see. It's something that I just enjoy so much. Just like making sound. It's so fun.
What do you hope your legacy will be as an artist?
I'm not sure. If there was a category or type of genre that was more related to music that was about researching topics, meanings, I hope that's me. I really love and enjoy writing these concept albums that are about something specific. I hope that's what I can leave behind, more specific songs about certain things. At one point or other, after writing a million love songs, I was like, "I'm over it." It became a little obsession to just find these topics and find these things that I find interesting that I think hopefully other people do as well.
You can be the professor of this new genre.
No way. [Laughs.] I think there's a challenge to it that I really enjoy. It's challenging and that's why I like it. I love learning. It's the best, keeps your brain active.
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Hope everyone is chillaxing and enjoying summer a little despite the current state of things. Just wanna say that Envejeciendo has been the most challenging album I've written so far. Not just because of the classic sophomore slump (which is real) but also because I chose such a sensitive, deep and uncomfortable topic....aging. Thank you to everyone listening and reviewing the record. May it age gracefully. @pitchfork review link in bio. Pic by @cashmeremoshpit
Photo: Delali Ayevi
Little Dragon's Yukimi Nagano On New Album 'Slugs Of Love,' Damon Albarn's "Inspiring" Impact & Leaning Into Intuitive Creativity
The electro-pop group's frontwoman details how their seventh album, 'Slugs of Love,' expands on the group's synergy and the fun they've had together for nearly three decades.
There's a special synergy and magic that comes from music made by people that love and really know each other. Little Dragon has manifested and expanded on that feeling since they were teenagers.
The spirit-lifting Swedish dance-pop quartet — drummer Erik Bodin, bassist Fredrik Wallin, keyboardist Håkan Wirenstarnd and singer Yukimi Nagano — met at their local music high school, and formed Little Dragon back in 1996. Now, they're back with their seventh album, Slugs of Love, and they're simply having fun.
The LP follows 2020's New Me, Same Us, which saw the band at their most collaborative, working together on all elements of the music-making progress to shake things up. Slugs of Love furthers their ultra-collaborative and experimental impulse, exemplified by the exuberant, silly title track, a playful meditation on the essence of humanity.
Their creative freedom radiates throughout the rest of Slugs of Love, like the sun-soaked "Disco Dangerous," whose funky instrumentals provide a dreamy backdrop for Nagano to coyly exclaim "never ever!" to falling in love. The subsequent track, "Lily's Call," shows another side of Little Dragon, a dark and driving number whose instrumental could fit in a Blade Runner soundtrack. Slugs of Love also sees them reconnecting with Damon Albarn — who they first worked with in 2010 on the Gorillaz's Plastic Beach — on the trippy, shimmery "Glow."
"We feel really grateful that we don't have to compromise ourselves at all," Nagano tells GRAMMY.com. "We do what we love and there are people who are into it."
GRAMMY.com caught up with the Little Dragon frontwoman to chat about the group's lively new album, their longevity as a band, reuniting with Damon Albarn and more.
When I first heard "Slugs of Love," I was obsessed and listened to it on repeat. I love how euphoric and absurd it is. What inspired it and how did the track come together?
The track was first written as just a demo beat and it had that infectious energy from the very start, without any vocals and melodies on it, and it just really grabbed me. The guys always write very random titles for demo tracks because you have to name it something, but I loved that title. And sometimes you get inspired by an odd angle, and the demo title together with the music gave me this image to write to. I painted this picture in my mind of humans being like slugs that are crawling on the wall, and everyone's becoming more obsessed and lazier, but ultimately kind of all needing and wanting the same thing — just wanting to be loved and safe.
It took a few turns production-wise. We tried to play it live and then we kind of returned back to the demo vibe. That sometimes feels like you're going backwards because you're trying too much stuff and nothing's working, but then you realize that the vibe was in the original ideas.
Since you chose "Slugs of Love" as the title track of the album, in what ways do you feel like it speaks to or sets the tone for the rest of the album?
It is just a fun image, so we're playing with that. Our first idea was that we wanted to make a trilogy [of] albums. We were gonna make one that was just romantic songs, one of dance songs and one with trippy forest music. In the end, we decided just to make an old-fashioned album because it was becoming very complicated.
"Slugs of Love" stood out as a track and as a title, and it felt sort of representative to the whole process and that time of making music. It felt like it also represented something a little bit new for us. [Our music] is very intuitive when we write it, whatever feels good in our guts, and then we let journalists and the people describe what it means.
You've said that your last album New Me, Same Us was your most collaborative and saw you working together in a new way. How did your approach to making Slugs of Love compare or differ, or build upon that?
Well, it's all just one long, linear story in a way for us, so [we gain] more experience with and understanding of each other. Sometimes you gotta throw away ideas that you have of each other as well – like you do with a family, with someone always being the little sister.
Sometimes we just have to try to have a blank slate and not get too stuck in the characters we've created. So it keeps evolving and everyone really wants to collaborate. I think we all feel like it's a meaningful process, even though sometimes it's really hard. Everyone is pretty strong-willed in different areas of the creative process so it can get complicated.
When you're on stage, you're so in the moment and your feelings are so big, but when you're watching the show, you're so relaxed and you're just there ready to take it in. And I think that kind of feeling [exists] with the process of making your music, and with the relationship with ourselves. Sometimes it's so serious, it's like the center of the universe — but at the end of the day, it's just music. We can get really caught up in one little detail, but really, we just want to be friends and have fun.
Being in a band, you have each other's different perspectives. I think it'd be different if it was just one artist in your own head, being your own neurotic self. We're four neurotic egos bumping heads with each other, so we get a little perspective.
I love the combination of the funky, fuzzy, sparkly instrumentals on "Disco Dangerous" with the sort of anti-love love song lyrics and the "never ever!" refrains. What was the spark for that track?
That track was just fun. [We were just] being silly and having fun and enjoying writing music. We love music that has that vibe of playfulness, and I think that kind of translated on that track. But most of all, we just had a good time making it, so I'm happy that came through.
And how did the instrumentals evolve on that one, from the demo to where it is now?
It started as a pretty basic layer of bass and drums. Then I wrote a little part and then more things got added, and I wrote a little more. We weren't sure about this song. Sometimes you want to write a good song, and sometimes you just want to have fun.
It's fun to know that you can release that stuff as well and not care too much. I think we can all get too stuck in the sickness of wanting to create something special and get caught up in thoughts that actually don't really help the process very much.
You reunited with Damon Albarn on the shimmering "Glow"— how did working with him on it inspire or shift the track?
We just chanced it to see if he was into the song, and he was. What we really loved about Damon's contribution was that he was very careless in a way that we found really inspiring.
When we collaborate with people, we're a little bit tip-toeing, like, "Okay, does this work for you? Is this okay?" And he came in and chopped it up, and added a bunch of new harmonies and a whole new part. I think it fits really well.
When I listened to the song, the visuals I got were very psychedelic; you're in the desert and then you're in the water. And when his part came in, I started seeing these big statues. The music, vocals and everything else he added felt like a whole new scenery which I found really refreshing. It was inspiring [to realize] you don't have to be so careful.
What did you learn from touring with him back in 2010 on the Gorillaz's Escape to Plastic Beach Tour?
The whole experience was a really big impression because there was such a mix of artists on the tour. Fred and I shared a tour bus with Bobby Womack. De La Sol was also on the tour, along with a whole horn band and a Syrian orchestra. There were maybe eight or nine tour buses — it was crazy, like a festival on tour. It was such a good time and a lot of fun memories.
We traveled the States and the UK and Australia, so it was a good three months. The inspiring part was seeing Damon deliver on stage — he gave everything — and the way that he brought all those different artists together. It created a lot of friendships that still exist.
Speaking of performing, you all bring so much energy and joy to live shows. What does it feel like for you and the band when you're on stage?
That's probably the main reason why we gravitated towards each other, because we admired each other as musicians. It feels like we're all in our element together and it feels natural because we've done it for so long. We know each other's language musically, and we know how to communicate with each other. That's such a special thing.
You don't really realize that until you play with people that you don't know their musical language in the same way. It's something that we cherish. Of course, you have good shows and bad shows, but the guys still impress me on stage with the way they play because we improvise a lot and we try to take it somewhere. Every show is different.
Is it important to you to change things up on stage to not get bored yourself, or to entertain the audience, or a bit of both?
I think it's some kind of musician's pride. We also love the jazz philosophy of music. I guess it bores us if we see bands and they have a backing track. I think that's where it shows that we're musicians first, and then we became a band. We were all session musicians, and we had these vibrations between us when we were playing and that's what made us write music together. It started there. It reminds us of the core of what we are on stage together.
What do you get out of sharing your music in person? I'm sure it's one thing to get sweet comments from people online, but it must be something to feel people freaking out to your songs.
It's the best feeling. I mean, we don't always get [an engaged crowd]. Any band will know that doing support shows strengthens your backbone because you have to play almost for yourself. So we have shows that are great, and shows that are less good. Every show has its twists, but when the stars are aligned, it's pretty amazing.
You can have moments where you lose track of yourself, and you feel like the communication between the band is just flowing so nicely — you almost feel like it's flowing back and forth with the audience too. It's a bit addictive, actually, to get that feeling, that energy, from a crowd. Sometimes you have a few people that are going off so hard and dancing and giving so much energy that it just fuels us.
"Ritual Union" was such a big track when it came out in 2011. What did the success and buzz you experienced then feel like to the band at the time?
I don't think it necessarily felt like a peak or anything to us because we've always felt like we were on some kind of a verge. But now we're appreciative of it. Just this last summer when we did shows in San Francisco, I recognized hardcore fans from 10 years back, who still come to the front.
At the time, we were touring so much that we almost exhausted ourselves after Ritual Union. We needed a proper break. As a band, when you feel that you're up-and-coming, it's the feeling that you've got to grab this thing right in front of you, but it keeps moving forward — you're just running after nothing.
We had to stop and be like, "Okay, you can prioritize other things and you can say no to shows." We had to learn stuff like that because you can get this FOMO feeling like if you don't grab it, someone else is going to take it and you're gonna miss it.
There's this feeling in industry that there's so much competition, so if you don't take it now, it's never gonna come back. There's so much fear and pressure in the industry that can push a band too hard. It was a very intense time after Ritual Union. But we were getting a lot of love and touring hard.
What came after that pause? What was the thing that was like "this is why we're a band" or "this is what we're actually focused on"?
We still have our studio and we go there pretty much every day. People rent studios for tons of money, and we have a nice homemade one that's an apartment that we made into a studio. That allows us to be able to make a song like "Disco Dangerous" and to be silly in the studio. It's such a blessing to be able to release that and know that people actually want to hear it and dance to it.
We feel really grateful that we don't have to compromise ourselves at all. We do what we love and there are people who are into it. That's what every artist wants to do, not have to sell out.
Do you feel connected to or inspired by the music scene in Gothenburg?
We have our bubble in the studio. The setup is four studios in one space, so we're definitely bouncing off of each other in that collective space. In a dream world, it'd be a whole building and tons of bands, that would be pretty awesome.
I read that it actually took some time for the band to catch on in Sweden, after the U.K. and U.S. When did that home country recognition finally happen?
I feel like it's still pretty slow here. We're gonna do a show in Gothenburg and Stockholm this fall, it's definitely been growing. We did a few things here during COVID; we were a house band for a really big Swedish TV show. That probably made some people aware, but I feel like it's still growing.
We haven't really invested that much time, either, in playing here. Some bands tour all over Sweden and play all the small towns, but we haven't really done that. You can't really complain if you haven't really toured and promoted that much here. We probably need to play more shows in Sweden. Our first record label [Peacefrog] was in the U.K. I don't know if that has anything to do with it, but they were definitely not really focusing on Sweden.
As a band, how do you make sure that you're still having fun making music together and meshing creatively, since you have been doing it for so long?
Most of the time, it's pretty easy. I mean, it's not always gonna be a vibe, but since we go to the studio pretty much every single day, you're going to flow at some point, even though it can take some time. After the summer, you're going to need a little bit of time to warm up before, and you're not necessarily gonna write your favorite song the first day you get in. You just have to just flow with it.
I think just showing up in the studio every day, being with each other, makes things happen. But how do you make it fun? I think we just have fun together, we don't even have to try most of the time.
Photo: Erika Goldring/WireImage, Daniele Venturelli/Daniele Venturelli/Getty Images for Luisaviaroma, Scott Legato/TAS23/Getty Images for TAS Rights Management, Astrida Valigorsky/Getty Images, Don Arnold/WireImage, Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images for Atlantis Paradise Island, Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
15 Must-Hear Albums This July: Taylor Swift, Dominic Fike, Post Malone, NCT Dream & More
From the highly anticipated 'Barbie' soundtrack to a celebration of Joni Mitchell's iconic Newport Folk Festival return, check out 15 albums dropping this July.
The first half of 2023 is already behind us, but July gives us much to look forward to. The warm sun, tours and festivals abound, and a heap of exciting releases — from Colter Wall's country music to NCT DREAM's K-pop — will surely make this season even more special.
We start it off with Taylor Swift and her third re-recorded album, Speak Now (Taylor's Version) on July 7, the same day Pitbull returns with his twelfth studio album, Trackhouse. Post Malone will deliver his fourth LP, AUSTIN, and Blur returns with their first album in eight years. And for the classic music lovers, folk legend Joni Mitchell will release At Newport — a recording of her first live performance since 2015 — and rock maven Stevie Nicks will drop her Complete Studio Albums & Rarities box set.
To welcome the latter half of a year filled with great music so far, GRAMMY.com offers a guide to the 15 must-hear albums dropping July 2023.
Taylor Swift, Speak Now (Taylor's Version)
Release date: July 7
Taylor Swift fans are used to gathering clues and solving puzzles about the singer's intricate, ever-expanding discography. Therefore, in her hometown of Nashville concert last May, when she announced that Speak Now (Taylor's Version) would come out on July 7, it was not much of a surprise to the audience, but rather a gratifying confirmation that they had followed the right steps.
"It's my love language with you. I plot. I scheme. I plan. And then I get to tell you about it," Swift told them after breaking the news. "I think, rather than me speaking about it ... I'd rather just show you," she added, before performing an acoustic version of Speak Now's single, "Sparks Fly."
Shortly after, she took it to Instagram to share that "the songs that came from this time in my life were marked by their brutal honesty, unfiltered diaristic confessions and wild wistfulness. I love this album because it tells a tale of growing up, flailing, flying and crashing … and living to speak about it."
Speak Now (Taylor's Version) is Swift's third re-recorded album, following 2021's Red (Taylor's Version). It will feature 22 tracks, including six unreleased "From the Vault" songs and features with Paramore's Hayley Williams and Fall Out Boy. "Since Speak Now was all about my songwriting, I decided to go to the artists who I feel influenced me most powerfully as a lyricist at that time and ask them to sing on the album," she shared on Twitter. Swift is currently touring the U.S. with her acclaimed The Eras Tour, which will hit Latin America, Asia, Australia, UK, and Europe through August 2024.
ANOHNI and the Johnsons, My Back Was a Bridge For You To Cross
Release date: July 7
"I want the record to be useful," said ANOHNI about her upcoming sixth studio album, My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross. The English singer says she learned with her previous LP, 2016's HOPELESSNESS, that she "can provide a soundtrack that might fortify people in their work, in their activism, in their dreaming and decision-making," therefore aiming to make use of her talents to further help and inspire people.
Through 10 tracks that blend American soul, British folk, and experimental music, ANOHNI weaves her storytelling on inequality, alienation, privilege, and several other themes. According to a statement, the creative process was "painstaking, yet also inspired, joyful, and intimate, a renewal and a renaming of her response to the world as she sees it."
My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross "demonstrates music's unique capacity to bring harmony to competing, sometimes contradictory, elements" — qualities that can be observed in the album's contemplative pre-releases "It Must Change" and "Sliver Of Ice."
Release date: July 7
GRAMMY-winning singer/rapper Pitbull has recently broadened his reach into an unexpected field: stock cars. Together with Trackhouse Entertainment Group founder Justin Marks, he formed Trackhouse Racing in 2021, an organization and team that participates in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Now, to unite both passions, the Miami-born singer is releasing Trackhouse, his twelfth studio album and first release since 2019's Libertad 548. "In no way, shape, or form is this some kind of publicity stunt," said Mr. Worldwide of the upcoming album during a teleconference in April. "This is real. This is all about our stories coming together, and that's why the fans love it. […] This right here is about making history, it's generational, it's about creating a legacy."
Preceded by singles "Me Pone Mal" with Omar Courtz and "Jumpin" with Lil Jon, it seems that Trackhouse, despite its innovative inception, will continue to further Pitbull's famed Latin pop brand. This fall, he will also join Enrique Iglesias and Ricky Martin on The Trilogy Tour across the U.S. and Canada.
Dominic Fike, Sunburn
Release date: July 7
Multitalented singer, songwriter and actor Dominic Fike also joins the roll of summer comebacks. His second studio album, Sunburn, comes out July 7, and follows 2020's acclaimed What Could Possibly Go Wrong.
In recent years, the Florida star found great exposure after landing a role in the HBO hit series "Euphoria" as well as the upcoming A24 drama Earth Mama, which is slated to release on the same day as Sunburn. The past three years were also marked by collaborations with a handful of artists, from Justin Bieber ("Die For You") to Paul McCartney ("The Kiss of Venus") to his Euphoria co-star Zendaya on "Elliot's Song" from the show's soundtrack.
Sunburn marks Fike's joyful return to music, aiming to portray "the aching and vulnerable revelations of a young artist still growing and putting their best foot forward," according to a press release. Through 15 tracks, including singles "Dancing in the Courthouse," "Ant Pile," and "Mama's Boy," Fike will explore themes of "heartbreak and regret, addiction, sex, and jealousy."
One week after Sunburn's arrival, Fike will embark on a tour across North America and Canada, starting July 13 in Indianapolis.
Lauren Spencer Smith, Mirror
Release date: July 14
Lauren Spencer Smith said on TikTok that she's been working on her debut album, Mirror, for years. "It has been with me through so much in my life, the highs and the lows, and it means more to me than I can put into words. It tells a story of reflection, healing and growth," she added.
The 19-year-old, British-born Canadian singer is unafraid to dive deep into heartbreak and sorrow — as she displayed on her breakthrough hit "Fingers Crossed" — but offers a way out by focusing on her growth. "I went through a hard breakup, and the album tells the story of that all, the journey of that and now being in a more happy relationship. The title comes from the one thing in my life that's seen me in every emotion through that journey — my bedroom and bathroom mirror."
Like a true Gen Zer, Smith has been teasing the 15-track collection and its upcoming world tour all over social media. On July 14, the day of the album release, she kicks off the North American leg of the tour in Chicago, before heading to the UK, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
Colter Wall, Little Songs
Release date: July 14
"You might not see a soul for days on them high and lonesome plains/ You got to fill the big empty with little songs," sings Colter Wall on the titular track off his fourth studio album, Little Songs. The Canadian country star says in a press release that he wrote these songs over the last three years, and that "I penned most of them from home and I think the songs reflect that."
Born and raised in the prairies of Battle Creek, Saskatchewan, Wall found inspiration in the stillness of his surroundings. With this album, he bridges "the contemporary world to the values, hardships, and celebrations of rural life" while also opening "emotional turns as mature and heartening as the resonant baritone voice writing them," according to a press release.
Little Songs is composed of 10 tracks — eight originals and two covers (Hoyt Axton's "Evangelina," and Ian Tyson's "The Coyote & The Cowboy.") He'll celebrate the album's release with a performance at Montana's Under The Big Sky festival on the weekend of the LP's arrival.
Release date: July 14
British singer Mahalia celebrated her 25th birthday on May 1 by announcing IRL, her sophomore album. Out July 14, the R&B star claims the album to be "a real reflection of the journeys I've had, what actually happened, and a celebration of everyone who got me there."
The 13-track collection will feature names like Stormzy and JoJo, the latter of whom appears on the single "Cheat." Before the release, Mahalia also shared "Terms and Conditions," a self-possessed track that pairs her silky voice with delightful early-aughts R&B.
"I'm so proud of this album, and so proud of how much I challenged myself to just let those stories out," she said in a statement. "We're all fixated on how we can make ourselves better but I want people to also reminisce on lovely or painful situations they've lived through and how they've helped shape the people they are now."
IRL is Mahalia's follows 2019's highly-acclaimed Love and Compromise. In support of the release, she has announced UK and Europe tour dates from October through November.
NCT DREAM, ISTJ
Release date: July 17
The Myers-Briggs Personality Test (also known as MBTI) is a current craze in South Korea, therefore, it was only a matter of time until a K-pop group applied its insights on their music. Although none of NCT DREAM's seven members has the ISTJ personality type, that's what they decided to call their upcoming third studio album, out on July 17.
The 10-track collection comes in two physical versions: Introvert and Extrovert, the first letters and main differentiators in any MBTI personality. Spearheaded by the soaring "Broken Melodies," where they display an impressive set of vocals, their comeback announcement on Twitter promises "The impact NCT DREAM will bring to the music industry."
Since September, the NCT sub-group embarked on The Dream Show 2: In A Dream World Tour, which crossed Asia, Europe, North America. The group will wrap up July with four concerts in Latin America.
Blur, The Ballad of Darren
Release date: July 21
"The older and madder we get, it becomes more essential that what we play is loaded with the right emotion and intention," said Blur's guitarist Graham Coxon in a statement about The Ballad of Darren, the band's ninth studio album set to arrive on July 21.
Maybe that explains why The Ballad is their first release in eight years, and represents "an aftershock record, reflection and comment on where we find ourselves now," according to frontman Damon Albarn. During a press conference in May, bassist Alex James reinforced the positive moment that they find themselves in, stating that "there were moments of utter joy" while recording together.
Produced by James Ford, the album contains 10 tracks, including the wistful indie rock of lead single "The Narcissist." On July 8 and 9, Blur is set to play two reunion gigs at London's Wembley Stadium, followed by a slew of festivals across Europe, Japan and South America.
Barbie: The Album
Release date: July 21
The most-awaited summer flick of 2023 also comes with a staggering soundtrack. Scored by producers Mark Ronson and Andrew Wyatt, Barbie: The Album features songs by hot stars like Dua Lipa, Lizzo, and Ice Spice, as well as some surprising additions, such as psychedelic star Tame Impala and K-pop rookie sensation Fifty Fifty.
As undecipherable and alluring as the actual movie plot, the album tracklist only increases expectations for Greta Gerwig's upcoming oeuvre. Is it all a satire? Is it a serious take on "life in plastic" and consumerism? Is it about nothing at all? You can try to find some clues through pre-release singles "Dance the Night" by Dua Lipa, "Watati" by Karol G, and "Angel" by PinkPantheress.
Greta Van Fleet, Starcatcher
Release date: July 21
Fans who attended the three final shows of Greta Van Fleet's Dreams in Gold Tour this March already got a sneak peek of the band's upcoming third studio album, Starcatcher. Among their most popular hits, the quartet played five new songs — or half of Starcatcher — including singles "Meeting the Master," "Sacred the Thread," and "Farewell for Now."
In a statement about the album, drummer Danny Wagner said that they "wanted to tell these stories to build a universe," and that they wanted to "introduce characters and motifs and these ideas that would come about here and there throughout our careers." Bassist Sam Kiszka adds: "When I imagine the world of Starcatcher, I think of the cosmos. It makes me ask a lot of questions, like 'Where did we come from?' or 'What are we doing here?' But it's also questions like, 'What is this consciousness that we have, and where did it come from?'"
Just a few days after release, Greta Van Fleet will embark on a world tour. Starting in Nashville, Tennessee on July 24, they will cross the U.S. and then head over to Europe and the UK in November.
Post Malone, AUSTIN
Release date: July 28
In a shirtless, casual Instagram Reel last May, hitmaker Post Malone announced his upcoming fourth studio album, AUSTIN, to be released on July 28. Titled after his birth name, the singer shared that "It's been some of the funnest music, some of the most challenging and rewarding music for me, at least" — a very different vibe from the more mellow, lofi sounds of 2022's Twelve Carat Toothache — and that the experience of playing the guitar on every song was "really fun."
Featuring 17 tracks (19 on the deluxe version), AUSTIN is preceded by the dreamy "Chemical" and the angsty "Mourning," and sees Malone pushing his boundaries in order to innovate on his well-established sound. The album will also be supported by a North American 24-date trek, the If Y'all Weren't Here, I'd Be Crying Tour, starting July 8 in Noblesville, Indiana and wrapping up on August 19 in San Bernardino, California.
Stevie Nicks: Complete Studio Albums & Rarities box set
Release date: July 28
To measure Stevie Nicks' contribution to music is an insurmountable task. The Fleetwood Mac singer and songwriter has composed dozens of the most influential, well-known rock classics of the past century ("Dreams," anyone?), also blooming on her own as a soloist since 1981, when she debuted with Bella Donna.
In the four decades since, seven more solo albums followed, along with a trove of rarities that rightfully deserve a moment in the spotlight. Enter: her upcoming vinyl box set, Stevie Nicks: Complete Studio Albums & Rarities. The 16xLP collection compiles all of her work so far, plus a new record with the aforementioned rarities, and is limited to 3,000 copies. It's also the first time that Trouble in Shangri-La, In Your Dreams, and Street Angel are released on vinyl. For those who can't secure the limited set, a version of Complete Studio Albums & Rarities with 10xCDs will be available digitally.
Joni Mitchell, At Newport
Release date: July 28
Last year's Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island was one to remember. During one evening of the fest, a surprise guest graced the "Brandi Carlile and Friends" stage: it was none less than legendary folk star, Joni Mitchell. And what's more? It was her first live appearance since 2015, when she suffered a debilitating aneurysm.
During that time, the 79-year-old singer quietly held "Joni Jams" at her home in Los Angeles — inviting musicians that ranged from Elton John to Harry Styles to participate — with organizational support offered by Carlile. With Mitchell's special appearance at Newport, the coveted experience of a Joni Jam was available for thousands of fans.
This month, the release of At Newport eternalizes the headlining-making moment, bringing her talents to an even bigger audience. Among the classics in the tracklist are "Carey," "A Case of You," and "The Circle Game," proving that Mitchell is still as magical as when she stepped on the Newport Folk Festival stage for the first time, in 1969.
Jennifer Lopez, This Is Me… Now
Release date: TBD
In 2002, J.Lo was everywhere. Her relationship with actor Ben Affleck ensued heavy attention from the media, and her This Is Me… Then album — which featured hits like "Jenny from the Block" — was a commercial success, with over 300,000 first-week sales in the U.S.
How funny is it that, 20 years later, the singer and actress finds herself in a similar situation. After rekindling with Affleck in 2021, she announced the sequel to her 2002 release, This Is Me… Now, and stated in an interview with Vogue that the album represents a "culmination" of who she is.
A press release also describes This Is Me… Now as an "emotional, spiritual and psychological journey" across all that Lopez has been through in the past decades. Fans can also expect more details on the new-and-improved Bennifer, as many of the titles among its 13 tracks suggest, especially "Dear Ben Pt. II."
Although an official release date has not yet been revealed, on June 29, Lopez posted a cryptic image on social media with the caption "album delivery day" — suggesting that the highly anticipated This Is Me update may not be far away.
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].