Photo: Lyza Renee
Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Black Pumas On Their Breakout Year, Creative Process And "New Chapter"
After exploding into the global music scene in 2019, the Austin, Texas, rock and soul duo see their Best New Artist nomination as a "great beginning to a new chapter"
Black Pumas lay claim to perhaps the defining Cinderella story of the 2020 GRAMMY season. Officially formed in 2017 in Austin, Texas, the rock and soul duo experienced a breakout 2019: Dominating their local music scene, the group was recognized as one of the breakthrough artists at SXSW last year and took home the Best New Band trophy at the 2019 Austin Music Awards.
By the time they released their self-titled debut album—a psychedelic, genre-bending project that explores the many shades of soul, rock, funk and R&B, with dashes of Latin influences—last June on ATO Records, Black Pumas were an internationally touring act, with sold-out dates across North America and Europe throughout last year.
Fast-forward to today, and Black Pumas are now nominated in the coveted Best New Artist category, alongside major pop stars like Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Lil Nas X and others. It's a surreal moment the band's frontman, Eric Burton, is still processing.
"For me, it's really hard to conceptualize still. Still sinking in," he tells The Recording Academy a few hours before hitting the stage at The Town Hall in NYC last month. "I come from busking and skateboarding with a guitar in my hand and a tip jar… I don't think that I was really conceptualizing actually winning any accolades for just my own daily regimen."
Black Pumas pairs Burton, a former street busker who charmed tourists and locals alike at the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles, with GRAMMY-winning guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada, who won a golden gramophone for his 2010 album, El Existential, as part of Latin funk band Grupo Fantasma. While the two come from musically diverse backgrounds—Burton grew up on East Coast hip-hop, old soul and folk music, while Quesada has worked with everyone from Prince to Daniel Johnston—their chemistry in the studio "fit like a glove."
"When I first reached out [to Eric]," Quesada says, "it started by him singing on some tracks that I had before we really brought in his songs and became Black Pumas… But I know [he] said that [he] had a hard time at first singing to somebody else's style and everything. But to me, sitting back and hearing it come into place, it all just kind of seemed to fit like a glove."
The Recording Academy caught up with Black Pumas to discuss their creative process, their breakthrough journey from local act to GRAMMY-nominated global headliners and their road ahead.
What does this nomination mean for you as a first-time nominee?
Eric: For me, it's really hard to conceptualize still. Still sinking in. I come from busking and skateboarding with a guitar in my hand and a tip jar, on my way to a restaurant in little Alamogordo, N.M. And doing gigs like that where I was just playing music to kind of whisk me away to a place where everyone wins and just playing to get through the day really and just having fun in it.
I don't think that I was really conceptualizing actually winning any accolades for just my own daily regimen. That it's happening now, it feels amazing. It feels really crazy. I don't know what's going... I don't know.
Adrian, you've been nominated before. You are now nominated in one of what's called the Big Four categories. Does this feel different from your previous nominations and wins?
Adrian: Absolutely does. It took a while for that to kind of sink in. Every time I start to think about that, I get a little anxiety, so I'm just trying to just enjoy it and take it in and just realize that people are reacting to this music that we were making integrity. We didn't sit down and say, "Man, we'll go for the GRAMMY." We were just like, "Man, that sounds cool. Let's make another one. Let's make a better one."
At one point, I remember we had sat down before we started touring and I just checked in and was like, "Do we want to pursue this?" He's like, "Yeah, I'm down if you're down." Because I said, "I think this could move quickly." But when I said that, I didn't even imagine that we would be nominated for a GRAMMY. It's crazy.
Read: Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Nathalie Joachim On The Haitian Musical Roots Of 'Fanm d'Ayiti,' Community Building & Standing In Her Truth
Eric, it sounded like you were hesitant to connect with Adrian in the beginning of the project. What do you think about that now?
Eric: As a busking artist… you kind of are vulnerable to any and all musicians. Engineers, producers who hear something in the guitar playing or your vocals that they want to use it and they want to maybe help me elevate that. I was meeting a lot of people, and it just wasn't working out to the degree that I wasn't very happy with some of the end product.
Right before I met Adrian, I was building my own home studio and learning how to use Logic to try to explore my sounds that inspired me from the perspective of someone who is a teaming engineer, or trying to understand how to do it in the first place. So when Adrian hit me up, I'm like, "Oh no, not again!" [Laughs.]
But to be real, I'm a realist as well, and realistically, I didn't know enough to get the quality sounds on my own. When I read a little bit about Adrian's track record, it convinced me well enough to take a chance and really commit to elevating his project. At first, it started off as his thing, and I was just hoping that maybe we would get some funds or something from just having a catalog of music publishing.
What's fascinating about the story of Black Pumas is how fast it all happened. You formed in 2017, you had a breakout year in 2019, from winning the Best New Band at the Austin Music Awards to now being nominated as Best New Artist at the GRAMMYs. Does this GRAMMY nomination now feel like the cherry on top of a whirlwind year? Does it feel like a validation?
Adrian: It's certainly not the only thing that would validate what we do, but it's definitely one of the factors. I think considering that we didn't really go out there and campaign. Honestly, this came about in a completely 100 percent organic way that surprised everybody on our team [and] us. Which meant that there were truly people out there that in the back of their mind, they were like, "We need to nominate Black Pumas and put them out there."
It feels honest and it feels good because it doesn't feel like we tried to cheat the system or anything. There was legit just people out there that believed in what were doing. And if we weren't getting the GRAMMY nomination, we'd still be playing shows. And if we weren't playing shows, we'd be still recording in the studio. We'd be doing this no matter what, but it's pretty amazing
Eric: So it feels more like a great beginning to a new chapter as opposed to an ending of anything. I think that we both really have our minds set on creating the next thing, trying to just strive to make the better song and entertain ourselves, really.
With Black Pumas exploding so fast, what sorts of challenges, if any, have you faced, either individually or as a group, with such a rapid career?
Adrian: The biggest challenge for both of us is that we have been touring so much that we haven't really had a chance to work on new music. We have a million ideas. He's always writing and recording wherever we can, on his phone or whatever. It's been hard to actually work on your music.
Eric, this is your first time in the spotlight at this kind of level. Have you had any challenges facing this level of fame or acclaim?
Eric: For sure, because I believe that it's been a little bit hard to truly conceptualize, even through my own actions as an individual on this train that is going somewhere really bright, as it seems. When you're busking every day and you're doing things on a lower level, you start to do things more for yourself — the immediacy of reciprocating what you need to express, to get through someone cutting you off in traffic or a breakup or whatever it is.
I've always used music to process my own emotions that, with everything that is going on right now, it feels a little overwhelming because there's a lot more feelings now a nd there's a lot more things happening. I'm starting to be held to a more higher standard of professionalism, can't stay up to 4 and 5 in the morning trying to write material and whatnot. That's been a little bit hard for me, just acclimating to the movement that is the Black Pumas.
You got a job now.
Eric: Yeah! I got a job now, mom. Look at me now, dad!
Read: Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: FINNEAS On Billie Eilish & "Doing Production That No One's Ever Done Before"
Your 2019 debut album touches on so many eras and genres and sounds. Eric, you listen to East Coast hip-hop, old soul music and folk. Adrian, you've worked with everyone from Prince to Daniel Johnston. How does that all come together to create Black Pumas? Were there any hurdles to face when creating your initial sound and music?
Adrian: When I first reached out [to Eric], it started by him singing on some tracks that I had before we really brought in his songs and became Black Pumas. That was how the collaboration started. But I know [he] said that [he] had a hard time at first singing to somebody else's style and everything. But to me, sitting back and hearing it come into place, it all just kind of seemed to fit like a glove.
But then when we started to work on his songs… I felt like those fit perfectly with the sound of the ones that I was doing. It all just seemed to work.
Could you talk about the creative process behind Black Pumas? How did you work together to create the songs and the album’s overall sonic aesthetic?
Adrian: The process was a combination of two methods: One was Eric writing lyrics and melodies and singing on a few instrumentals I had recorded, and the second was Eric’s songs that we learned and arranged in the studio and recorded predominantly live. The aesthetic, to me, was set up on the first day we got together and recorded "Fire" and "Black Moon Rising." What Eric came up with on "Black Moon Rising," in particular, for me was what set the tone for the album.
Your album features elements from a lot of different genres and sounds considered to be cornerstones of American culture and music, from rock and soul to hip-hop and funk. You both also come from different cultural backgrounds, each with your own experience of what it means to be American. In what ways does your album represent what the American music canon means or sounds like today and what it will mean or sound like in the future?
Adrian: To me, it represents the best part of American music in that it transcends genres, cultures and "scenes" to make sincere and soulful American music. Ideally, we would have fewer boundaries and more bridges in the future.
While your music and your album are rooted in various American styles and sounds, they are also resonating with audiences across the world, from Montreal to Paris to Zurich. What is it about your music and your album that’s able to transcend cultures and languages?
Adrian: Eric’s lyrics and the emotion in his voice and songs, in particular, [are some] of the main reasons I believe our album has transcended language and cultural barriers. People connect in a special way and sometimes adapt their own personal meaning to the songs.
You're also widely known for your live shows and energetic performances, which are key elements to the overall Black Pumas makeup. In what ways have your live shows informed or impacted your actual music and creativity, or vice versa?
Adrian: For at least half of the songs on the album, we had never played a show or even performed those songs at any point. When we began to perform live in conjunction with bringing in songs Eric had written was when it all came to life and one informed the other. About half the album was pre-produced and recorded, and the other [half was] cut almost entirely live, and I like the way it flows like that. At this point, the songs have taken on a new life in the live show, and I really like how the live versions of the songs are almost a different thing entirely.
What are some sounds or genres that you'd like to explore together as a unit? What are you most curious to explore next?
Eric: I feel like the sky is the limit because we're not necessarily a retro-soul band. We emulate some of the colors of some of our heroes and songwriters, such as Otis Redding, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Ghostface Killah. But I think that we're just such eclectic music fans, that just comes through. It doesn't sound so contrived… to the degree that I feel that we have this stage that is soul music.
There's different spaces within the same room that is soul music that we can take different genres of sound to kind of see what marriage works within the soul genre. We talk about different references all the time. We're always exploring different ways to make fresh this soul music, so to speak.
What are you looking forward to the most at the GRAMMYs?
Adrian: I'm not sure what I'm looking forward to the most, honestly, because I just don't know enough about what's happening. Our category's awesome, man. My kids and I listen to Billie Eilish and Lizzo. Yola is great. I checked out Rosalía, I checked out a few of the artists. They're all great, man. It's a great category, and I say that with 100 percent sincerity. It's exciting.
Where do you go from here? What happens next for Black Pumas in 2020?
Eric: Feels like we're probably going to be on tour indefinitely. I think that just trying to do our best with having the foresight that we need as individuals, who have a home of our own, to make sure that the people that we love who are supporting us feel that they haven't been forgotten. And individually, I hope I can find some good advice on what to do with the money that may be coming in soon. I won't tell you what I spent money on. [Laughs.]
I assume you're making more than you were busking.
Eric: Most definitely, man. I'm just trying to get it together, actually living a normalized life. I'm not just this Bohemian Troubadour busking, or just a musician anymore. It feels like a whole different level for me, for sure. Luckily, I have someone that has been doing it and is a perfect role model for it.
Adrian, what do your kids think about you going up against Lil Nas X and Lizzo?
Adrian: I think they're secretly going for Billie Eilish. They jam to Lizzo, too, and Lil Nas X, man. It's pretty cool because I jam to their stuff, too.
Don't forget to tune in to the 62nd GRAMMY Awards Sunday, Jan. 26, live on CBS at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on CBS, and the Premiere Ceremony and Red Carpet live streams right here on GRAMMY.com—your home for all things GRAMMYs.
Photo: Peter Wafzig/Getty Images
Foo Fighters Essential Songs: 10 Tracks That Show The Band's Eternal Rock Spirit
On their recently released album, 'But Here We Are,' Dave Grohl and company offer a gripping confessional of both painful loss and blistering resilience. In honor of their 11th album, revisit 10 of the Foo Fighters’ most essential tracks.
Foo Fighters — one of contemporary rock’s most pivotal mainstays — boasts an almost mythical history. What began as Dave Grohl’s one-man band in 1994 after the devastating end of Nirvana has become a seminal machine with a catalog that spans three decades.
The group currently holds the record for the most GRAMMY wins in the Best Rock Album category, picking up awards in 2000 (There Is Nothing Left to Lose), 2003 (One By One), 2007 (Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace), 2012 (Wasting Light) and 2022 (Medicine at Midnight). At the 2023 GRAMMY Awards, Medicine at Midnight also took home awards for Best Rock Performance ("Making a Fire") and Best Rock Song ("Waiting on a War").
Their recently released 11th studio album, But Here We Are, is the facet’s first project following the death of drummer and vocalist Taylor Hawkins last year. Hawkins, who joined Foo Fighters in 1997 and would become a driving creative force in the group, was mourned by musicians and fans across the world. Tribute concerts in London and Los Angeles presented by the Hawkins family in conjunction with Foo gracefully paid homage to his legacy.
Grohl and company managed to push through their collective grief on But Here We Are. The project serves as a gripping confessional of both painful loss and blistering resilience. In honor of their latest endeavor, GRAMMY.com lists 10 of Foo Fighters’ most essential tracks.
"Big Me," Foo Fighters (1995)
Released one year after Kurt Cobain's death, Foo Fighters’ debut album brimmed with promise. "Losing Kurt was earth-shattering, and I was afraid of music after he died," he told Anderson Cooper during a 2014 episode of "60 Minutes."
Though Grohl insisted that the record was just an outlet for grief, it marked the beginning of his illustrious career. "Big Me," the final saccharine single from the project, proved that the drummer-turned-frontman had a knack for crafting catchy tunes that would become undeniable hits.
The campy nature of the track was the result of Grohl not putting much thought into the album, but that intrinsically simple approach — which trickled down to the song’s video which famously parodied Mentos commercials — was the start of something great.
"Everlong," The Colour and The Shape (1997)
One of Foo Fighters’ most exhilarating moments to date comes in the form of a love song. "Everlong," which was the second single from the band's sophomore effort, pulls listeners in with its gentle, melodic chords, keeping their attention with sweltering percussion and heart wrenching lyricism.
"Everlong" is about being so in tune with a romantic partner that the conclusion of that relationship is wholly devastating. "Come down and waste away with me," Grohl serenely sings. "Down with me/Slow, how you wanted it to be/I'm over my head/Out of her head, she sang." He performed it for the first time acoustic in 1998 on "The Howard Stern Show," which Grohl said "gave the song a whole new rebirth" during a performance at Oates Song Fest 7908.
"Breakout," There Is Nothing Left To Lose (1999)
"Breakout" appeared on both the band’s third album, There Is Nothing Left To Lose, and is filled with a frenzied, punk energy that channels Grohl’s grunge roots. While critics praised the album and noted the Foos' notable progression toward more melodic anthems, this quick, fast hit remains worthy of the hype it received over 20 years ago.
The track also appeared in the 2000 comedy film Me, Myself & Irene starring Jim Carrey, and several of its stars appear in its music video. There Is Nothing Left To Lose also spurred the radio hit "Learn To Fly," which won the GRAMMY Award for Best Short Form Music Video in 2000.
"Times Like These," One By One (2002)
The Foo Fighters' fourth studio album marked a turbulent period in the band’s history. Aside from personal issues, Grohl had just recorded drums for Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf, and joined the group for a subsequent tour.
While the fate of Foo remained unknown, a triumphant performance at Coachella in 2002 gave the members a new outlook on their future. "‘Times Like These’ was basically written about the band disappearing for those two or three months and me feeling like I wasn’t entirely myself," Grohl stated in the group’s 2011 documentary Back and Forth. "I just thought, ‘Okay, I’m not done being in the band. I don’t know if they are, but I’m not.’"
With its lyrical simplicity and crippling sincerity ("It’s times like these you learn to live again/It’s times like these you give and give again"), the song has come to embody love, togetherness and hope.
"Best Of You," In Your Honor (2005)
"I’ve got another confession to make/I’m your fool," Dave Grohl howls at the top of lungs on the riveting opening for "Best of You." His declaration is followed by the existential proposition: "Were you born to resist or be abused?"
In Your Honor’s lead single is ripe with emotion, in which the Foo frontman is buoyantly defiant and encourages those listening to his words to be the same. That sentiment was politically driven, as "Best of You" was penned after Grohl made several appearances on the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign for John Kerry.
"It’s not a political record, but what I saw inspired me," he told Rolling Stone in 2005. "It’s about breaking away from the things that confine you." "Best of You" is their only song in the U.S. to reach platinum status.
"The Pretender," Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace (2007)
One of the group’s most highest charting songs was "The Pretender," from 2007’s Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace. Grohl’s songwriting on the track is of macabre proportions, as introductory solemn chords give way to the lyrics: "Send in your skeletons/Sing as their bones go marching in again/They need you buried deep/The secrets that you keep are ever ready."
Heavier riffs and pulsating percussion make it quite the auditory experience. Perfectly paced crescendos on the "The Pretender" give it just the right amount of suspense, making it indelible to the Foo discography.
"White Limo", Wasting Light (2011)
In 2012, Wasting Light earned four GRAMMY Awards including Best Rock Album. "White Limo" snagged the accolade for Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance — and for good reason.
The second single from Foo Fighters’ seventh studio album is a ferocious number saturated with primal screams and whirlwind rhythms. "White Limo" was one of their most raucous songs to date and the group does their best Motorhead impression (Lemmy Kilmister’s appearance in the music video serves as the ultimate seal of approval). The group was intentional in maximizing their aggression on the heavy-metal track, making "White Limo" the sonic equivalent of a lightning bolt in their immense catalog.
"Make It Right," Concrete & Gold (2017)
2017’s Concrete and Gold wasn’t about redefining the wheel as much as it was perfecting it. The group’s ninth studio album is as rock 'n' roll as it gets.
There were a slew of memorable guest appearances including Paul McCartney on "Sunday Rain," Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman on "Concrete & Gold," and the Kills’ Alison Mosshart on "The Sky Is a Neighborhood" and "La Dee Da."
The album’s best track, "Make It Right," features an uncredited, sonically off-putting cameo from Justin Timberlake . Yet the collaboration’s venture into heavier territory pays off, with Grohl paying respect to Led Zeppelin. The rock legends' influence oozes all over "Make It Right" in the form of ragged taunts and splintering riffs. Timberlake slinks into the background with additional vocals, making sure to not alter Foo’s formula in any way.
"Waiting on a War," Medicine at Midnight (2021)
Foo Fighters’ 10th album, Medicine at Midnight, was a refreshing return to form for the rockers.
Sparked by a conversation by Grohl’s daughter, "Waiting on a War" embodied the group’s pensiveness about America’s ominous future. Over four minutes, Grohl states that he’s "waiting for the sky to fall," though his melancholy thoughts ultimately transform from wistful crooning over acoustic guitar chords to a rumbling, full-throated ferocious outro. Foo’s bold approach snagged them a GRAMMY Award in 2022 for Best Rock Song.
"Rescued," But Here We Are (2023)
The power in "Rescued," the emotionally-charged first single from But Here We Are, relies not only on the lyrics to spell out the feeling of despondency, but on Grohl’s expression of them.
"We’re all free to some degree/To dance under the lights," he sings. "I’m just waiting to be rescued/Bring me back to life." His voice languishes between fatigue and vigor as swirling guitars and ethereal buildups provide catharsis for both the band and the listener. The vulnerability of "Rescued" channels the intriguing self-awareness heard on albums like The Colour and The Shape and In Your Honor. But this song represents a brand new chapter for Foo and it’s one that confronts their pain head on.
Foo Fighters Are An Indestructible Music Juggernaut. But Taylor Hawkins' Death Shows That They're Human Beings, Too.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
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Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
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Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.