Photo: Zach Pigg & Chelsea Rochelle
Molly Tuttle & Producer Tony Berg Discuss the Cross-Country Making Of Her New Covers Album
Tuttle's new Berg-produced LP '...but I’d rather be with you' features the Nashville artist’s takes on The National, Harry Styles, the Stones and more
At the beginning of 2020, when it looked like the year would be as normal as any can be, Molly Tuttle met with producer Tony Berg to discuss working on a new album of original songs. Then the pandemic hit, forcing the 27-year-old singer, songwriter, and guitarist to stay home alone in Nashville with no access to a proper studio, putting plans to develop her next LP on hold.
But Tuttle didn’t just wallow in isolation or pass the time making a sourdough starter. She kept in touch with Berg, whose most recent production credit was Phoebe Bridgers’ 2020 standout Punisher, and they figured out a new project: an album where Tuttle would home-record cover songs that had special meaning to her at various points in her life. Inspired, she taught herself to use Pro Tools and got to arranging and tracking, then sending her work to Berg, who was sequestered in Los Angeles.
That collection became …but i'd rather be with you, which was released by Compass in August. The 10-track LP features renditions of songs by artists including The National, FKA Twigs, Rancid, Harry Styles, Cat Stevens, and the Rolling Stones, all anchored by Tuttle’s powerfully shimmering vocals and virtuosic guitar playing. It’s a departure from the bluegrass and Americana that won her acclaim, but as she explains, 2020 felt like the right time to explore something new while returning to the songs that brought her so much joy. We recently caught up with Tuttle and Berg — who are still separated by thousands of miles — to discuss how the album came to be.
How did the process for recording this album start?
Tuttle: Tony and I had been talking about making a record and then once quarantine started, we had this idea to do it remotely and choose these cover songs. We both wanted a creative project to work on and these songs kind of stood out to me as ones that I wanted to put my own voice to. They were some of my favorite songs. It was kind of an unconventional way to make an album, but we both thought it would be a fun and interesting new project to work on remotely.
Berg: Yeah, we had a plan and then the world got in the way.
Tuttle: It gave me something to look forward to when I wasn't like screaming at my computer because Pro Tools was crashing. That certainly wasn't good for my mental health, but overall, I loved working on it. It was really gratifying to be able to share something with people during this time that hopefully helps people who are struggling.
How did you narrow down the list of songs?
Tuttle: That maybe took the longest out of the whole process. We went back and forth sending each other playlists and different songs. I think we decided early on that we had to only choose songs we both felt really strongly about and both really loved.
Berg: Well, I would send Molly songs by [Karlheinz] Stockhausen and John Cage and she would say, "Oh no, that's not going to go." [Laughs] It was, I'm not going to say effortless, but in the relative scheme of things, it was surprising how quickly and easily we agreed upon repertoire.
Tuttle: That's true. It was funny — I feel like we were looking for the same qualities in the songs and we ended up with such a diverse array of different genres that we were pulling from, but we wanted the same qualities: great lyrics, great melodies, interesting chords, and stuff that I could really put my own spin on. We were gravitating towards songs that sounded really different from what I do.
Berg: It's as if we met and then eloped. It was like this instant wedding.
Molly, you mentioned your misadventures with Pro Tools. What was that process like?
Tuttle: It was just that I'd never run Pro Tools before and I still don't have a great setup for it. I was going off my six-year-old MacBook, which I don't even think is supposed to run Pro Tools. My little house, all my electricity and stuff, was interfering but Will [Maclellan], who mixed the album, and Tony would walk me through stuff. There were hiccups along the way, but overall that felt pretty smooth. I wasn't doing anything crazy with plugins or like anything super advanced — just basically trying to get it to run.
Berg: What was interesting about that was, I think we both approached it with an unspoken dread because making a record is a social exercise. It's the interaction of players and the discussion of ideas and contacts and to be denied face-to-face, in-the-room experience, I found it a little daunting initially. By the second day, it was second nature.
What was it like putting the songs together with the backing musicians without being able to work in person?
Tuttle: I really trusted Tony and I trusted all the musicians because the people he asked to play on it were so wonderful. They were people I'd never played with before, but I was familiar with most of them. I just had to let go. I realized it was better if I didn't listen to stuff a lot until it was more fleshed out because there was a temptation to get really nitpicky with each piece along the way. My biggest concern was my own parts and that it would gel with everyone since we weren't playing altogether.
Berg: There's the great luxury of, as Molly was alluding to, if you're going to call Matt Chamberlain, Rich Hinman, Taylor Goldsmith, Gabe Nolan, Patrick Warren, basically, it's hard to f* up. These are great musicians with a real history of sensitivity to song and to the artist.
Tuttle: There was the slight anxiety of, “I'm probably not going to hear these until they're all done. I hope I like it,” but again, I wanted to make this record with Tony because I knew he would choose great people. Then when he sent me the list of players and I was like, "There's not really a way that that's going to not sound awesome."
Did any track make you nervous to record, with the worry that the original artist would disapprove?
Berg: No, we were lucky, weren't we, Molly?
Tuttle: Yeah, no.
Berg: We heard wonderful things back from [The National’s] Matt Berninger, whom I know pretty well and I have huge respect for, so that was a relief.
Tuttle: That broke the ice because you sent it to him and he was the first one who heard the cover of one of his songs [“Fake Empire”]. Then the guys from Rancid have reached out to me and said they really loved the cover [“Olympia, WA”]. One of them got the vinyl and posted a video of him listening to it. I was like, "Oh, my God." Then Harry Styles, he started following me online and I messaged him and he said he had heard the cover [of “Sunflower, Vol. 6”] and loved it. He was the one I thought for sure would never hear the cover.
Berg: Of course, Mick and Keith haven't said a thing.
Tuttle: Yeah. We're still waiting on that one.
Berg: The nerve.
How much did working on this project help you both in terms of mental health during this overwhelming year?
Tuttle: It definitely made me reflect on what these songs have meant to me. I felt I was struggling being creative and feeling like I had purpose. It was comforting to come back to these songs and just revisit how I felt when I first heard them and what they mean to me now, then also have something that would hopefully bring other people joy. It really gave me a sense of purpose. And it was fun making the videos for them and having that connection with people still.
Berg: In what is perhaps inarguably the worst year in our history since World War II, the community that has stood up, in my opinion, has been the musician community. By that, I mean the quality of material we've been exposed to, whether it's Fiona Apple, Bob Dylan, Phoebe Bridgers, or Molly Tuttle, I think speaks to artists acknowledging their responsibility to do their best work in the face of adversity. Maybe it is collectively about hope that the orange imbecile will no longer be part of our lives in 45 days.
Tuttle: Yeah, it's overwhelming how much incredible music has been coming out. I've been listening to more music than I have in years.
Berg: On a personal note, when I was first introduced to Molly, I was aware of her as a guitarist. I'd watched some videos, but spending time with her, getting to hear her, I realized that as much focus should be placed on her singing and on the intelligence of what she brings to a record, because that shows the breadth of her as an artist. The fact that she's a world-class player, it's almost a given, but to learn that she sings as beautifully and intelligently as she does is something I'd like an audience to really be aware of. Her next album, I would like for her writing to be the focus of all of it, because that's where she really would excel.
Some of the videos you’ve put out touch on some weighty topics. What was the decision behind that?
Tuttle: Yeah, the “Fake Empire” video was the first one. We decided to put that out because we thought it was relevant to the moment we're in. That song, to me, feels like a wakeup call [to] people who have the privilege to ignore these things happening in our country. That was during the time that I was going to Black Lives Matter protests in Nashville and trying to get more engaged in the community, as I still am. We took a lot of protest footage from the ‘50s and ‘60s and put it with that song to kind of contrast the message of the song, the dreamlike quality with these really powerful images from American history.
How is Nashville these days? You had the tornado in March and then the pandemic hit right after, and there still seems to be a lot of fighting over safety precautions from the virus.
Tuttle: It's really bizarre. We had the tornado a couple of weeks before quarantine started. It's like people almost have forgotten about that. Now it's COVID, but people are still trying to rebuild from the tornado. A lot of businesses have just been closed this whole time because their buildings were destroyed and they couldn't reopen because of COVID. It's bizarre to see people packed into bars and restaurants. I drove by downtown and you feel like half the people aren't wearing masks. It seems really chaotic. A lot of people are frustrated. I'm frustrated that people aren't being safe. Then people on the other side are mad that they haven't let bars open to full capacity yet. I've seen pictures of bars completely packed with people not wearing masks and it's freaky.
Yeah, many musicians have said they won’t tour until there’s a vaccine or some sort of indication that things are safer. How do you feel about getting back on the road?
Tuttle: I don't know. I thought of the vaccine as the thing that hopefully people will be able to get and want to take. I don't know what's going to happen, but I feel like until there's a vaccine, I just don't want people getting sick at my shows.
But whenever it happens, like you said, musicians might be able to be the ones who can get back out there and maybe make us feel normal again.
Tuttle: Yeah. No matter what, there's still the music. It’s all really heartbreaking but it makes you realize what's actually important about playing music.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Terry Wyatt / Getty Images for Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum
How Bluegrass Trailblazer Molly Tuttle Embraced Her Quirks & Vulnerabilities On The Highly Collaborative 'Crooked Tree'
The guitarist and songwriter didn't want to be pigeonholed as a bluegrass artist. But in creating the GRAMMY-nominated 'Crooked Tree,' Molly Tuttle faced her fears and found herself.
Molly Tuttle has bluegrass music running through her veins. The California-born artist first picked up a guitar when she was 8 years old, and was a regular fixture with The Tuttles & AJ Lee, the family band fronted by her father, prior to breaking away to pursue a solo career.
Today, Tuttle is a revered bluegrass guitarist; and the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Award for Guitar Player Of The Year in 2017 — an honor she won the following year as well. A string of other awards have followed come as the 30-year-old continues to break new ground and build upon her already impressive musical legacy. At the 2023 GRAMMY Awards, Tuttle is nominated for Best New Artist and her Crooked Tree for Best Bluegrass Album.
While first three projects included country, folk, pop and punk sounds, Tuttle returned to the sweet string music of her youth on Crooked Tree. Over its 13 tracks, Tuttle oscillates between Hazel Dickens-esque bluegrass and Lynn Anderson-inspired California country to tell stories of pride, paving your own path, and making room in your "Big Backyard" for everyone.
The sonic move resulted from longing for the communal nature of bluegrass music during the dog days of the pandemic, leading her to — as she often has — include as many friends on the project as possible. Crooked Tree, Tuttle's third album, features everyone from Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor to Billy Strings, Gillian Welch, Sierra Hull, Dan Tyminski and Margo Price.
With plans to return to the studio again in 2023, there’s no telling who she’ll bring in to join her next. GRAMMY.com sat down with Tuttle to discuss how music makes her feel more comfortable in her own skin, and what she thinks of being labeled a trailblazing woman in bluegrass.
Where do these GRAMMY nominations stack up with your other awards and career accomplishments to date?
It’s a highlight of my career to be recognized by the GRAMMYs. The bluegrass GRAMMY is something I was really hoping I’d be nominated for; I grew up in the bluegrass world and felt like it was finally time to make my first real bluegrass album. I’ve always loved the bluegrass community, so that recognition really does mean a lot to me.
To also be nominated for Best New Artist in a general category is something I wasn’t really expecting but am humbled by. It can be a hard, discouraging life on the road touring all year, but things like this make me smile and feel like I’m on the right track.
You’ve mentioned in the past the impact that Hazel Dickens, Alison Krauss and other groundbreaking women in bluegrass have had on you. What are your thoughts on how you fill that role for many in the present?
There’s several songs on [Crooked Tree] that were directly inspired by people like Hazel Dickens and Gillian Welch, who actually ended up singing with me on the song “Side Saddle.” Those were my early songwriting heroes. This record was a big return to my roots and coming back to the music that I grew up listening to.
Even though artists like Hazel Dickens were very outspoken in their work, I feel like most people don’t think that bluegrass tackles progressive subjects like feminism and worker’s rights. She was one of the first women to lead her own bluegrass band and sing about these issues that meant a lot to her and were still very taboo at the time. It was, and still is, very inspiring to me.
I feel the same about Gillian Welch and her knack of creating songs that sound timeless but at the same time are relevant to who she is as a person. I’m always going back and looking for inspiration in both of their music as a way of honoring and carrying on the tradition of their trailblazing ways.
Bluegrass, and music in general, is often a male dominated world. Is that the dynamic that you’re touching on in your song “Side Saddle”?
On that song I’m channeling the feelings of playing the guitar and, more specifically, how the guitar world is so male dominated. The song is about being a cowgirl and feeling like you have to adhere to a standard set by men to prove yourself worthy in a man’s world. That’s how I often felt…like there was always this extra attention on me and people picking apart my playing in ways they never did with male guitarists.
When I was starting out I felt like the guys I played with were always taking these big musical risks that I didn’t feel the same liberty to take because of all the extra attention on me and my playing. If I made a mistake, the stakes were always higher. I don’t feel that constant pressure to have to prove myself anymore. The people I surround myself with now are always very supportive. I feel like I’ve created a world where I’m more free to take risks and make mistakes like anyone else.
What have you done, and what would you like to see done to make bluegrass a more welcoming place for women, people of color and other marginalized groups?
There’s been a big push in recent years to make the space more inclusive. A lot of my friends and I will talk about how queer people, people of color, women, we’ve always been a part of this music, but we haven’t always been recognized and treated equally within its circles.
I’ve done a lot of work with Bluegrass Pride, an organization which started in California that now hosts events nationwide with the mission of making bluegrass music welcoming to everyone. Organizations like that not only change people’s perspectives about what bluegrass is, but they also help everyone already within the world of bluegrass feel more seen, included and uplifted.
I understand Crooked Tree was inspired by your paternal grandfather. How has he influenced you, musically and otherwise?
A lot of my early musical memories, like hearing my grandpa play at my first bluegrass festival, inspired the music on this album. I dedicated the project to him because without him I don’t know that I’d even be playing music.
My grandfather played the banjo and was a rural farmer in Illinois, which is also where my dad grew up. He taught my dad how to play everything from the fiddle to the mandolin, guitar and banjo. They’d regularly play, travel around to bluegrass festivals and listen to the Grand Ole Opry together.
After college, my dad ended up moving out to California where he planned to begin working in finance until he stumbled into a music store in Palo Alto. It led to him teaching banjo and eventually all bluegrass instruments. He was my first guitar teacher, something that likely wouldn’t have happened if my grandfather hadn’t taught him all those years before.
I wanted this album to honor [my grandfather] with music that I know he’d love if he were still around. I actually drove up to Illinois to visit the old farm with my grandmother, which was very nostalgic. Once I got back to Nashville, I ended up writing the song “Flatland Girl” that Margo Price joined me in singing on for the record.
You initially planned for Crooked Tree to have more of a poppy sound before recasting it as a bluegrass record. What circumstances led to that shift in sound?
Early in the pandemic I was experiencing a creative lull due to the shock of no longer being able to tour. It led to me recording a cover album, …but i’d rather be with you. I started to get back into writing, but I was still having a hard time feeling inspired and didn’t know which direction I wanted to go in next.
At first I thought I’d continue pushing outside of the bluegrass and Americana box since the cover album leaned more toward the pop end of things. I started writing songs with a bunch of different people but none of them seemed to fit together into one cohesive group. The longer the shutdown went on, the more I started to miss festivals — especially bluegrass festivals, and the communal nature that had you playing on stage one minute and around a fire in nearby campgrounds the next. It made me realize that it was finally time to make my first real bluegrass album to pay tribute to the music I grew up with.
Once I decided that was okay, I was no longer scared of being pigeon-holed as a bluegrass artist. Immediately the songs started pouring out, leaving me really inspired. From there I found friends who also loved writing that music like Ketch [Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show], Melody Walker, Becky Buller and Mark Simos. Those four people are who I wrote the whole album with.
For nearly a year and a half I struggled to figure out what I’d do next musically. Then, in the span of a few months, I suddenly had a full album of songs.
My favorite song on Crooked Tree is the title track, which focuses on embracing our differences and insecurities rather than letting them weigh us down.
That’s a tune that I wrote with Melody that touches on our mutual feelings of growing up and being different from those around us. For me that inspiration stems partly from losing my hair. At a young age I was diagnosed with alopecia areata and my hair has never grown back. I’ve been completely bald my whole life and have been wearing wigs since I was 15. Even prior to that, though, I always felt like I stood out. I wasn’t able to fully embrace that and not be ashamed about wearing a wig until my early 20s.
It’s a personal message that I’ve always felt was important for me to portray in my music. I feel like everybody has something that makes them feel different, so my goal with the song was to show why it’s worthwhile to embrace those things, because ultimately it’s what makes us the unique individuals we are.
What has music taught you about yourself?
Music has taught me how to be with and express myself. When I was a kid, I was so closed and didn’t feel like I had anyone to talk to about what I was feeling inside. Music for me was a safe place where I could express my feelings, which has led to me being more comfortable with those tough feelings and communicating them to others.
Music is also a way for me to connect with people. For me the best part of music is when I hear a song that someone else wrote but I have the same exact experience as them, which really helps me to connect with that person. It’s a way for all of us to better understand that we’re not alone.
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].