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Natalia Lafourcade On 'Un Canto Por México, Vol. II,' Music As Activism & Uniting Women Through "La Llorona"

Natalia Lafourcade 

Photo: María Fernanda De la Torre Portillo

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Natalia Lafourcade On 'Un Canto Por México, Vol. II,' Music As Activism & Uniting Women Through "La Llorona"

Natalia Lafourcade embarked on a mission to save a cultural center after an earthquake in Mexico through her project 'Un Canto Por México,' but ended up creating something even greater

GRAMMYs/Jun 4, 2021 - 10:42 pm

With Un Canto Por México, Vol. II, Natalia Lafourcade’s latest album released on May 28, the Mexican singer/songwriter closes her two-part project raising money to repair a musical cultural center preserving Afro-Mexican folk music known as son jarocho in her home state of Veracruz, Mexico. A powerful earthquake badly damaged the center in 2017. 

The undertaking began with Vol. I, an album honoring Mexican folk sounds—son jaracho included—and modernizing some of the country’s most well-known ranchera songs like "Cucurrucucú Paloma," first sung by the late beloved Lola Beltran and featured in Pedro Almodóvar's 2002 Spanish film Talk To Her. (Unsurprisingly, the album went on to earn her several Latin GRAMMYs, including Album Of The Year, and a 2021 GRAMMY for Best Regional Mexican Music Album.) But while Vol. ll mimics the same thematic approach, it is apparent that at the end of the project, something greater flourished.

While meaningful collaborations like the one with Pepe Aguilar, one of today’s most recognizable ranchera singers, on "Cien Años," an unrequited love song made popular by the late great Pedro Infante, are at the heart of the project, the alt-pop singer, who has delved deep into Mexico’s folk music on her last few projects, also makes room for social change. On “Nada Es Verdad” featuring son jarocho group Los Cojolites, you hear Lafourcade embrace activism as she calls for the end of the violence that has plagued Mexico for years.

"Maybe I wouldn't have seen it a few years ago, but today I realize that music has such a brutal capacity to impact," she tells GRAMMY.com about using her voice for change.

Then there’s "La Llorona," one of Mexico’s most haunting folk songs serenading Mexico’s weeping woman, which happens to be her most-requested song outside of Mexico. The deeply melancholic song, she shares, connects women through a sobering note. The track's inclusion on the album feels especially meaningful now as femicide across Latin American countries receives more attention: "I feel that La Llorona is the voice of women's pain, it is the pain that comes from the womb, from the depths of being."

At a larger scope, the album grew to be a communal project encompassing both the beauty and pain that coexist in Mexico’s fraught reality, something that came as a surprise to her. "Un Canto Por México is a musical piece that is encapsulating the collective voice," Lafourcade explains. "I didn't think of it that way when I started doing this project."

Lafourcade recently spoke with GRAMMY.com on how the project impacted her, becoming more conscious of the messaging behind music and how women are uniting to face dark times.

This interview was conducted in Spanish and translated to English; it has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Un Canto Por México, Vol. I was a fundraiser for the Centro de Documentación del Son Jarocho en Veracruz. How’s it looking now?

It’s going, it has foundations, it has walls, it has columns. Our center is still missing, but it is in the works and is looking beautiful.

Now we have Un Canto Por México, Vol. II. How was it working on this album?

The same as the first, in part, because we actually made 80 percent of the album in Mexico when we recorded Vol. 1, but when choosing the songs we gave priority to Vol. 1 and then Vol. II stayed a little dormant until we said, "Okay, let's finish Vol. II."

The rest of the album, which was about 20 percent that we had pending, was really very interesting to finish. We practically finished it at a distance from our homes. Our possibilities, the wonderful technology that exists today allows us to plan videos from a distance, plan recordings, make mixes. Incredible really, it was a learning experience. That's how it went down, that's how we finished the album. We are very happy, very proud.

COVID-19, as you mentioned, changed a lot of things. Did you ever think, "We have to put a pause on this album?"

Yes, of course, we paused, not just the album, we paused the whole project. We paused the construction of it, the album, the album release … When we released the first volume we were already in lockdown, and from there it was like, "What do we do? Do we let it out? Do we not let it out?" We decided to release that first volume, obviously also with the intention of bringing people a lot of happiness, of being able to bring music that could take them out of this uncertainty and give them moments of great joy.

Now with this volume, it was the same; we did a bit of waiting. The hope always with this volume was to be able to finish the construction of the center [in Veracruz], but that has also been something that we have learned, with this pandemic, that we have no control of saying, "This will happen on that date" because there are other factors that can alter what we want to do.

It also became like, "Well, since we don't know when we are going to actually finish the [center] physically, we are going to finish the album and in due course we are going to celebrate the album and then we are going to celebrate that we finished the center for sure." That is what we are already doing.

How has that loss of control affected you? Because we have a lot out of our control now, do you get anxious?

I have felt everything to be honest. I have had moments of great peace here in my house. I personally had a need for years to stop touring. I was very happy playing on stage and the stage is my home. I like to say that my house is here and the stage is my house, too. It is like water for me, it’s necessary. However, to do it involved being away from my home, from my other home, being away from my family and being away and traveling a lot. It was something I needed, my soul needed not to travel. I got ready to stop, I had intentions to stop until 2023, I don't know if that will happen or not, but then all this came. We really don't know when we are going to perform the album live.

I had moments of everything, I had moments of not knowing what to do in my own house because I had never been in my house, it was like, "Well, what now? What are these rooms and what do I do in them?" That little by little was transformed into, "Wow, I love being at home, I don't want to leave," of procuring my spaces, my candles, my incense, my favorite corners of the house. The truth is, it has been very nice. Then at the same time I went from really being on vacation, kind of being able to rest, to being totally booked. Right now, I'm totally busy, I don't have time to watch any series, I don't have time to read. Really from the moment I get up, all the time we are working on things for Un Canto Por México. It is impressive, it is like the times have changed the industry and we have been working a lot, but we are happy, I am very happy.

Read: Mon Laferte Talks First Coachella Performance, 'Norma' & More

The concept of the two albums brings you together with other great singers. It has themes of love, themes that make us think about society, among other things. Did this change you in any way personally?

Totally. Collaborating always affects what you are doing. It can inspire you so much that it can alter the way you are creating. It’s not about copying, it’s about being inspired by what others do, it is that thing to absorb, that art that moves you and that takes you out a bit of what you would have done or what you had in mind that was being done.

That is the case, for example, with Mare Advertencia. When I saw what Mare is doing, the work she is doing with her community, the way she relates to words, to the power of the word, it was very moving and very inspiring for me. I see her as a total warrior and a teacher in that aspect, seeing how she has released her project being this way. That's why I invited her on Un Canto Por México because I wanted that, when it came to having Rubén Blades’ voice and being able to think that a rapper like Mare could be there too [on "Tú Sí Sabes Quereme"], that seemed very cool to me.

We invited Silvana Estrada. She is another beautiful fellow friend who already has her niche, she has her space, she has her followers and listening to her is like, "What a wonder what this woman does." The same thing happens with everyone. I really think all the guests that I have, I admire them all, I love them, they are friends, they are people who have been there in some way for me. Jorge Drexler and I have seen each other’s [path] for many years and we love each other very much. Leonel García [composed] "Hasta la Raíz." We have been there for each other ... Meme, Mon Laferte who is a great friend, I admire her deeply. Anyway, it really is very nice to be able to collaborate and it is very nice to be able to share those spaces [with them.]

More: The Many Faces Of "La Llorona"

I noticed there are two versions of "La Llorona" on the album. Why?

There really just is the "La Llorona" acoustic version—it is the version I did during the international tours. It became a song that I did not sing in Mexico, but that I sang outside of Mexico for the people of Mexico who were outside of Mexico. It became that hymn requested by the people, it became the song that people said, "Please, ‘La Llorona,’" they yelled at me to sing it. It was that moment, we could sing together and, for them, to connect with Mexico and with their longing from a distance.

"La Llorona" is that kind of song that really confronted me when it came to singing it, interpreting it. It's one of those songs that has so much spirit, so much strength, so much mystique that the songs don't allow you to sing them overnight. Actually, interpreting them implies opening, it implies going deep, it implies going within and allowing that energy to come to the surface. It is very confrontational.

I feel that, as a singer, as a performer, I needed to get closer to this type of song and this type of music to explore other ways of singing, of interpreting the music that I make. I owe a lot to songs like these. I didn't want the acoustic version to be forgotten because it became an important song that connects me with my audience internationally. Later, I returned to Mexico and I wanted to sing it there too, but it had an extra meaning outside of Mexico. That's why I wanted to leave it as a solo with my guitar. Later, in the version I did with Ely Guerra and Silvana Estrada, its tinge is much more of women interpreting and chanting it together.

Was it on purpose that you sang it with only women?

Yes, of course, totally, because we based it on something that happened very beautifully with Ángela Aguilar and Aida Cuevas at the 2019 GRAMMY Awards Premiere Ceremony.

It’s one of the most popular performance videos.

Yeah?

Yeah, a lot of people have watched it.

Of course, it was a beautiful moment. The inspiration really came from there. Angela couldn't sing because she had scheduling and timing issues, but we said, "Well, we're going to do it with two powerful women. We're going to think of a woman who has been a pioneer in some way."

I had already collaborated with Julieta Venegas at the time but had not had Ely Guerra on any of my albums. She is another friend that I love, another artist that I admire and who came before many of us. It was also nice for me to have her and to have Silvana, as a representation of different generations of women. That also made it interesting for me, representing different generations in a song that will continue to be ours throughout life, through history.

"I feel that La Llorona is the voice of women's pain, the pain that comes from the womb, from the depths of being."

We’re talking about La Llorona’s symbolism in the world. In Chicana literature, she represents a woman archetype. What does she mean to you?

For me, she’s that mystique, that mystery, that force, that existing femininity, not only at the physical level. For me she’s like the force of the earth, the force of nature, the force of Pachamama. I feel that La Llorona is the voice of women's pain, the pain that comes from the womb, from the depths of being. The pain of love, the pain of loss, the pain of death, the pain of violence, pain in general. It is that song that manages to inhabit, not only that feeling that can be so collective among women, but the one that exists in the universe that is earth, in nature, at night, on the moon; I feel that in all that mystery is La Llorona.

Hearing you say that makes me think a lot about what’s happening in Mexico in cities like Juárez, also in Puerto Rico, with all the violence against women. It makes me think that songs like these unite us as women. What do you think about that?

Totally. They are necessary because they are also important—that’s one thing that I love about music, it has this ability to bare emotions. That is really nice because when you can really see the emotion, when you can connect with it, whether it's happiness—because music can make us very happy, it can make us dance—but it can also connect us with pain, what hurts, with its weight. [With music] we can see it and we can sing to it. And while we sing, we cry. Everything is a cleanse.

Of course, songs like "La Llorona" connect us women. I especially feel that at this moment, all women are waking up to something that we had to turn around and see. We had to turn around and see each other, we had to allow the moment to happen with precisely these issues that hurt, heavy issues, issues that hide [beneath], those issues that can live in the closet for years and that we could even die and they never come out.

That is ending now and that makes us meditate and makes us reflect on the importance of mutuality between women, how we strengthen each other and push ourselves out of that pain, out of the boxes, out of the drawers. We're letting it out, those topics that were not discussed for so long have come out, we've put them on the table. To say, "Enough, this is not going to happen anymore. What do we have to do so that we can change the way we live as a humanity?”

It’s not only women who have to put these issues out there, men too, because men also have a lot of repressed pain and a lot of repressed sensitivity. I feel that the music becomes like a warrior to help us with that, the music makes us see it.

Speaking of powerful songs, I really liked "Nada Es Verdad" that you sing with Los Cojolites, who are like the voice of the people of Veracruz. The song has a strong message about society. How did this track become a part of the project?

It had to be part of this project because Un Canto Por México is a musical piece that is encapsulating the collective voice. I love this project. I didn't think of it that way when I started doing it—every project, every album, every song has its own spirit. You start to do it, but there is a point when you are recording in which the music shows its own spirit, its soul, its personality. There was a point in which Un Canto Por México began presenting itself as this collective project, of beings, of musicians, of artists, of a community.

Being that this is a community project, it is not just me. A community is the voice of all and is the song of everything happening today in our Mexico, whether it's nice or whether it's painful. This is what we are. We see it and sing to it and with love we look at it. This tree of life, you have to look at it, you have to fix that too, but it is a tree, it is a whole, it is a unit.

I really like to see this project like that and there had to be [songs like "Nada Es Verdad"] as well. Yes, we can sing to love, but we can also sing to that system that—sorry, but that system has failed. I [also] learned the power of love. How are we afraid of turning around to really look at each other? [We can] see that we are different, but at the same time we come from the same place and are made of the same thing, but we are different and there is diversity. Long live diversity, that is nature, this is the earth.

I feel like all those values are encapsulated in Un Canto Por Mexico. This project was born out of earthquakes that forced a collapse, a beautiful community center where good [has come from it] and that is this new reality that we can build.

That’s the reflection that remains for me. At least, you can always turn around and say, "I am going to be another kind of truth. I am going to build another kind of reality." I feel that it is a very inspiring project in that aspect and that all this is accompanied by music, that I could not explain all this to you and [so] you are going to feel it with the music.

Do you see music as activism?

Yes, totally. Maybe I wouldn't have seen it a few years ago, but today I realize that music has such a brutal capacity to impact. It moves us all, stirs us, confronts us, impacts us without us realizing it. There are songs today that I think we are already beginning to ask, "What? What does that song say? No. No, this is not cool." You start to question yourself and you say, "The rhythm is great, the music is great, the production is great, but [the lyrics] … no."

Just a little while ago someone asked me about how certain groups or artists have decided not to sing certain songs from their repertoires anymore because of the lyrics they are singing. I say we are living in an era, a time in which we are possibly waking up and we are being more aware of what we were singing and promoting without realizing it.

It is not because we are bad, it is only because we were not aware of certain issues that are experienced in other contexts. That is part of what we were talking about, is to begin to see and say, "I live a reality, but I have companions in other places who live another reality."

We have to see how to strengthen the threads because we are all connected. Art, music makes an impact, in some way or another it becomes—I mean, there are those who might say, "No, I'm not an activist," OK, fine, but what you're doing is going to make an impact in one way or another, it will generate something in whoever hears it.

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

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Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist

The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.

GRAMMYs/Jan 6, 2023 - 12:17 am

Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!

The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.

Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.

So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.

Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.

About GRAMMY U:

GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.     

Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.

As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.

Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.

2022 In Review: 5 Trends That Defined Latin Music
(From left) Bad Bunny, El Alfa, Natalia Laforcade, Rosalía, Rauw Alejando

PHOTO: Gladys Vega/ Getty Images; John Parra/Getty Images; Rodrigo Varela/Getty Images for The Latin Recording Academy; Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Latin Recording

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2022 In Review: 5 Trends That Defined Latin Music

2022 glowed with abundance in every region and style — from Chilean folk and Mexican sierreño to Argentine synth-pop, Dominican dembow and good old fashioned rock en español.

GRAMMYs/Dec 27, 2022 - 08:51 pm

Years from now, 2022 is likely to be remembered as a moment of expansion and inspiration for Latin music. It’s not only that the unstoppable reggaetón beat and its multiple permutations brought people to their feet as the entire world danced to the sounds of Bad Bunny, KAROL G and Rosalía.  

After years of pandemic-related suffering, 2022 glowed with abundance in every region and style — from Chilean folk and Mexican sierreño to Argentine synth-pop, Dominican dembow and good old fashioned rock en español. Forgotten genres were resurrected and given bright new outfits, while a wave of daring young producers experimented with cutting-edge textures and studio effects. Globalization shook up the Latin spectrum, and the results are splendorous.

Here are some of the notable trends that emerged during the past 12 months.

The New Epicenter Of Global Pop? Puerto Rico 

As the mainstream embraces Latin trap, EDM and folk genres like champeta and bachata in this brave digital world of neo-reggaetón hits, Puerto Rican vocalists and producers have mastered the recipe of success. 2022 marked the third consecutive year in which Bad Bunny was the most streamed artist in the world on Spotify. An intriguing combination of raucous party hedonism and melancholy self-reflection, Benito’s musical universe continues to evolve, but his hold on pop culture is part of a wider trend.  

The year also saw the release of excellent new tracks by Ozuna, Rauw Alejandro, Daddy Yankee and Myke Towers, confirming San Juan as the avant-garde capital of Latin futurism. La isla del encanto’s dominance shouldn’t surprise the most studious observers of popular music, though. Just like Jamaica, Puerto Rico has given birth to countless legends in the past, from Tito Rodríguez and Cheo Feliciano to El Gran Combo and Héctor Lavoe. Further, there is a solid threadline that unites the early salsa sizzle of 'Maelo' Rivera with the 2000’s narratives of Tego Calderón and the melodic brilliance of a Rauw Alejandro.

The Seduction Of Retro Lives On 

Much of today’s Latin music relies on the-future-is-now sonics, with the use of autotune, synth patches and all sorts of studio gimmicks to create the slick patina of today's hits. At the same time, a number of artists prefer a return to analog warmth and the formats that hypnotized their ears in younger times.  

Growing up in Texas, multi-instrumentalist and Black Pumas leader Adrian Quesada developed an obsession with the intoxicating strand of psychedelic baladas that flourished throughout Latin America between the early ‘60s and mid ‘70s. Quesada had already recorded a reverential cover of "Esclavo y Amo" by Peruvian combo Los Pasteles Verdes, but in 2022 he recorded an entire album, Boleros Psicodélicos, with mostly original songs that capture the sinuous beauty and baroque harpsichord lines of the original genre.  

Following a similar vein, Natalia Lafourcade’s stunning De Todas Las Flores favored a retro approach with songs such as the breezy tropi-pop gem "Canta la arena." The album was recorded live on tape, with every musician present in the recording studio and no previous rehearsals. And if the intro to the solemn "Llévame viento" reminds you of Claude Debussy and French impressionism, it’s no coincidence. The Mexican vocalist showed producer Adán Jodorowsky pictures by Claude Monet for inspiration while they worked on the record.   

Dembow Transforms The Urbano Landscape 

Hypnotic and repetitive, the Dominican genre known as dembow is instantly addictive, but at the same time a bit of an acquired taste. Because of its aggressive pattern, it can be successfully transplanted to mainstream reggaetón — a prime example being Bad Bunny’s eye-opening use of dembow in his mega-hit "Tití Me Preguntó."

The indisputable king of the format remains El Alfa, the incredibly prolific, 31 year-old singer/songwriter from Santo Domingo who has turned the native riddims and hilarious slang from his homeland into a cottage industry of feverish dance anthems. El Alfa (Emanuel Herrer Batista) releases singles and videos at a breakneck pace, and 2022 found him riding a creative wave. A collaboration with Braulio Fogón and Chael Produciendo, "Tontorón Tontón" grooves with a fervor that borders on insanity, as El Alfa spits out rhymes that fuse hilarious vulgarity with surreal impressionism.

Last Night A Lo-Fi Songstress Saved My Life

While the ubiquitous stars of the Latin pop firmament compete for hundreds of millions of streams, indie artists from Argentina to Mexico continue doing what they do best: writing awesome songs. Easy access to recording equipment has allowed a young generation of female bedroom-pop and lo-fi rock performers to blossom undeterred by any record label interference.

On her brilliant and darkly hued EP Misterios de la Plata, Argentine singer Srta. Trueno Negro channels her devotion to the Velvet Underground. Hailing from Culiacán in Sinaloa, Bratty collaborated with Cuco on the hazy reverie of "Fin Del Mundo." In Brazil, São Paolo native Brvnks flexed her angular, guitar-based hooks on "sei la," an atmospheric duet with Raça. Seeped in the sugary vibes of ‘80s Argentine bands like Metrópoli, "Tuna" — an under promoted single by young Buenos Aires composer Mora Navarro — is probably one of the most gorgeous Latin songs of the decade.

Bachata Officially Not A Niche Genre Anymore

All those Dominican aristocrats of the early 20th century who looked down on bachata as the filthy music of the lower classes would shake their heads in disbelief if they saw the place of honor it occupies today. Prince Royce and Romeo Santos made headway in bringing the authentic strains of música del amargue into the mainstream.  

But just like salsa in the ‘90s, bachata is now part of the pop lexicon, and artists from different genres delve into its mystique. Most famously, Rosalía, whose majestic "LA FAMA" distorts the expected guitar lines into jagged, digitalized objects of beauty. The autobiographical lyrics are poignant, and the diva’s decision to enlist the Weeknd helped to further the cause (as it turns out, bachata’s wounded feelings sting even more deliciously as a duet.) In Colombia, Elsa y Elmar aimed at the very roots of the genre with "atravesao," complete with skittish bongó beats and a vocal delivery that bleeds unrequited romance. Even in Buenos Aires, bachata has attracted the muse of talented songwriters such as Silvina Moreno, whose "Ley de Atracción" muses philosophically on the perverse contradictions of erotic desire.

2022 Year In Review: 7 Trends That Defined R&B

A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Franc Moody

Photo: Rachel Kupfer 

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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.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

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

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

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

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

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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Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
Billy Idol

Photo: Steven Sebring

interview

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."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

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 Bamback 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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