Photo by Dominic Nicholls
Nicholas Britell On Scoring 'Succession' And 'The King' & Learning From Steve McQueen
The Emmy-winning composer talks to the Recording Academy about moving between film and television, working with auteurs like Adam McKay and Barry Jenkins and more
It's safe to say that Nicholas Britell is living the dream—his dream, at least. "Ever since I was five years old, I loved movies and I loved music," the 38-year-old film and TV composer tells the Recording Academy over the phone. "As a composer, the dream is that you can write things and that people can feel the things that you're feeling."
That's exactly what Britell’s work does: It stirs up feelings, whether it’s the bittersweet strings that adorn director Barry Jenkins' 2018 tragic romance If Beale Street Could Talk, or the cascading pianos that usher viewers into the rareified air of the Roy family, the dysfunctional super-wealthy clan at the hardened heart of HBO's Succession. Britell's ear and knack for translating emotion have helped him build quite an impressive IMDb page over the past few years. He's collaborated with some of the most respected filmmakers active today—Jenkins, Steve McQueen, Adam McKay—which means his songs have appeared in two of this decade’s Best Picture winners (McQueen's 12 Years A Slave and Jenkins' Moonlight). Britell has earned some awards attention of his own, as well; he's been nominated for two Oscars for Best Original Score (for Moonlight and Beale Street, respectively) and, more recently, took home a Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music (for Succession, naturally). Odds are, if you have any friends who spend too much time on Film Twitter, they're fans of his.
The Recording Academy chatted with Britell about working alongside a series of auteurs, his score for the second season of Succession (which is presently dominating the TV discourse online), and his compositions for the upcoming Henry V-centric film The King, set to hit theaters on Oct. 11 before debuting on Netflix on Nov. 1. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
To start at the beginning of your recent run: What was it like being a young composer, working on a film as heavy and sobering as 12 Years A Slave and working with a master like Steve McQueen?
Steve is incredible. It was truly inspiring and really a life-changing experience for me, to work closely with an artist like Steve, and to learn from him and just to see the way that he approaches things, his decision-making process, the way that he thinks about artistic choices. I often think back on that experience and I’ve stayed in close touch with Steve, and he’s been a very dear friend as well, since then.
On IMDb, it says "Additional music" for your credit on 12 Years A Slave. Can you clarify: What was your level of involvement? You didn't handle all of the scoring, but you did some of it?
Actually, I wasn't involved in the score of 12 Years A Slave. I wrote and researched and arranged all of the music that appears on-camera in the film.
All of the diegetic music.
Exactly, all of the diegetic music. Everything from working with Chiwetel [Ejiofor] and coordinating, researching the type of fiddle tunes that an African-American violinst in 1841 in New York state might have played. Everything from that to exploring the field songs and dances in the South and collaborating with Steve on figuring out the best way to execute those performances. It was actually a huge research endeavor to figure out what's possible to be known about those types of performances and music, and also what are the limits of our knowledge on that.
You've also collaborated with Barry Jenkins, who has such a distinct visual style, obviously, and favors a lot of close-ups of his characters, a lot of eye contact. What's it like composing for sequences and shots that are so direct, where the audience and the performer are both so vulnerable?
One of the things about Barry's filmmaking style is that he creates a very full, rich aesthetic experience for the films that he makes. What you’re talking about, that sort of directness, is really emblematic of the way that he approaches all of the departments of the films: the colors, the cinematography, the music, the sound. There is a directness and a boldness with his choices, but it’s all in service of the feeling. A lot of what we’re trying to do, from my perspective, it’s about finding musical landscapes that can convey those feelings and the fullness of those feelings.
And every film is different. There's no right score for something, there's just the score that you craft in collaboration with the director, at that moment in time. There are lots of possible scores, but I think one of the beautiful things about scoring is that it's so dependent on the process, and how it comes together, and that's what makes it unique to that film. Above all, it’s about finding a sound that feels like—for you and for the director—that it’s really woven into the fabric of the movie somehow. Some things just feel connected, in a way, and some don't. We ourselves don't really know, and the process is us experimenting together.
You've also worked on two films with Adam McKay, who's an executive produer on Succession. Can you talk about how you got invovled with the show specifically?
Well, actually, Succession was a result of those two films. I first worked with Adam on The Big Short, and it was after we finished The Big Short that we talked about Succession, and he told me about the premise and the ideas behind the show and asked if I wanted to be a part of the pilot, and of course I said yes. It was quite a few years ago, actually. My mental calendar is sort of a blur—but we did the pilot and I worked on that and then it was after the pilot, after some time, we then did the rest of the series and put it all together.
I started talking to Adam about it before they shot the pilot and was able to go to set and be there for when they were shooting the pilot, which, it’s always a great experience because you get to see things up close. So, it directly came out of that experience of first working with Adam on The Big Short. I finished scoring Succession, the first season, while we were making Vice, actually, so I was doing those in parallel to some extent.
The goal for me musically was that it had both this kind of gravitas to the seriousness of that world, which is—it’s a real issue in the world, that there are these increasing concentrations of wealth and power amongst fewer and fewer people. There's a darkness there, but there’s also this absurdity and I think that finding a tone that could balance both of those things was really the key. And it was very interesting, actually, working on Vice at the same time, because I feel working with Adam has been so crucial for me as a learning experience, too, and thinking about that interplay between drama and comedy.
How has the Succession score changed or developed from season one to season two?
Season one really laid the groundwork for the thematic ideas and for the tone. Season two, I think it was really important for me that as the story evolved, I definitely wanted the music to continue its own evolution. I remember talking to Jesse [Armstrong, creator and showrunner of Succession] about this idea of, "Imagine a symphony that is Succession, what's the second movement sound like? What do we do?"
Also, you never want to overstay your welcome with certain musical ideas. There's definitely a sort of dark, maniacal streak to some of the music, and I want to make sure that when we’re using certain ideas, that we know exactly where and they have a power still. There’s certain new elements for Kendall, there are certain elements that are Shiv-focused. It’s the same Succession universe, but hopefully a bit more.
How does working on a TV show compare to working on a feature-length film?
The difference between film and TV is pretty large, actually. There's just so much more real estate in TV. Certainly, there's the micro-level approach, which is thinking episode to episode. But I really try to think about it as one entire piece, in a way. So, you're always thinking about, "Where do certain ideas get seeded, where do certain ideas come back? How does what we hear in episode one impact what we hear in episode 10?" It's actually quite challenging to think about that.
That's something that I really love about film music, is thinking about the architecture of the ideas, like, where you start one idea and then how does it evolve, how does it change, where does it come back? And also, importantly, where do you not have music? That’s always really important, too. Each film has its own musical logic, and you’re trying to have the film tell you where it needs music and where it doesn't want music.
You just won a Creative Arts Emmy for the Succession theme. There's always so much talk about awards campaigning, mostly about the Oscars. What does campaigning look like for a film composer? And how does it differ between the Oscars and the Emmys?
I’m new to the TV world a bit. The film awards season and that process is very linked with the release of those films, so I view it very much as you're participating in helping bringing the film into the world. I remember last year, with Beale Street for example, it wasn’t even so much necessarily campaigning as it was, we would do a lot of Q&As at movie theaters, and really be there sharing what the story of the film is.
With TV, actually, I haven’t done quite as much, I guess. In the sense that that kind of natural, going to movie theaters and doing Q&As and stuff, there really isn't as much of that. And I think that’s partly also just the nature of the medium. Which, I would actually add to that and say that I've been really awed by the level of audience that is possible from television. I love movies, and I love the movie theater experience, but I also think it is a wonderful thing that television is actually able to get out to more people, and more people, on a weekly basis, can participate in the stuff that you’re making. That’s been something of a new experience that I’ve had with working on a TV show.
You worked on a film that's coming out in October, The King. Did you have to get into a dramatically different headspace as a composer, working on something that’s set that far back in the past?
I definitely did not change my process. When I approach a new project, I try to have a blank slate in a way, where you’re trying to be open to feeling what that film or that series need in the way of music, and seeing what that is. Obviously, you don’t figure that out without talking to the director, and having that conversation: What are they feeling and what are they looking for?
I remember with The King, the first thought that I had when I saw a rough cut of the movie was, "What would it be like if I imagined that the 1400s was actually like the 2500s?" You say to yourself, "What is that sort of sense of distance and time mean?" So I tried to create sounds early on that felt like they could be linked with the world that we were witnessing, but that also felt like they weren’t necessarily "period." I was very specifically not trying to say, "All of these instruments are from 1413."
So, the sound that I settled on, working with David [Michôd, director of The King], was this sound where it's a mixture of these bass clarinets that I pitched through this sort of tape filter that created a very strange texture. And then there’s the sound of a boys' choir, which emerges over the course of the film, and there's definitely some symbolism there, emotionally and musically, with the fact that this is a young man who is becoming king. And there were a lot of musical experiments that we did, too, with morphing some brass and morphing these sort of metallic sounds. I think it's about creating something that makes you lean into this world, to want to explore it—but at the same time, you need something that feels like it connects with you.
I've seen a lot of people tweeting about your music, saying things like, "Just working all day to the Beale Street soundtrack." I imagine that if you're a film composer, it'd be rewarding to put your music out, but there would maybe be this fear that your work would be entombed with the movie it's for, just inseprarable from it. But it seems like people are more than happy to associate your compositions with the films, but also to break them out and use them in their own lives.
Well, thank you. I definitely feel like when I’m writing, it's very important that the music for film can exist both inside and outside the project. I think that's maybe a little bit of an aesthetic criteria for me, of whether something works. For any piece that I’m writing for a movie, the music has to be able to exist on its own, hopefully, as an idea. So, I do think about its ability to exist outside of the project, but certainly, the number one goal is that it's right for the project. That's its only reason for being there.
Photo: Graeme Hunter
5 Key Music Moments From "Succession": From The Viral Theme Song To Kendall's Cringey Rapping
As "Succession" comes to a close tonight with the fourth and final season, GRAMMY.com is taking a look back at the Emmy-winning HBO series' top music moments.
After four seasons of betrayal, power plays, and intense sibling rivalries, the prestige HBO drama "Succession" will finally make good on its premise when the Waystar board (potentially) crowns the next CEO of the company.
Throughout the show's run, music has played a pivotal role in the story of the Roy family's fight to take over their patriarch's media empire — whether through building tension, foreshadowing or meta-commentary. The rich storytelling, pitch-perfect performances, masterful cinematography, and direction are bound together by emotional, gripping and, at times, haunting music from the show's composer Nicholas Britell, who received his first-ever GRAMMY nomination for Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media (Includes Film And Television) for his score for season three of "Succession" at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Britell's unique musical voice helps amplify the narrative, as seen in moments like Shiv's betrayal by Tom at the end of season three. To score the revelatory moment, the composer deployed the show's first-ever use of choral arrangements.
Just before the choir begins, there's a brief pause — a moment that elevates the tension, helping viewers to feel the full weight of Tom's betrayal. It's this type of precision that "Succession" fans have come to admire and expect from the critically acclaimed series.
As Shivy Shiv and the Roy boys prepare to wage their final battle in the war to gain control of Waystar Royco, GRAMMY.com revisits five of the show's standout musical moments.
The “Succession” Theme Song Goes Viral
The main title theme is easily the most popular piece of music from the show thanks to its creative blend of classical and hip-hop. The theme is compelling but slightly unnerving — and that's by design. Dissonant chords played on an out-of-tune piano, stabby strings and a chugging drumbeat combine to create an emotional response that befits the intensity of the prestige drama.
"The score for 'Succession' has a similar duality that I think the show has, which is this combination of elements of absurdity and also a deep gravitas under the surface," Britell told Vanity Fair in 2019.
After kick-starting the opening credits of the award-winning drama's pilot episode, the title theme became an instant hit among viewers. The infectious tune spawned several memes and parodies, including twerking Kermit, a Joker parody, a Mario Paint rendition, and a hilarious remix from writer Demi Adejuyigbe, which asks two pertinent questions: "Who will Daddy kiss?" and "Does he love his kids?"
Kendall's Hip-Hop Hype Music
Many of the show's key music moments revolve around Logan's No. 1 boy, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), who kicks off the pilot episode in the backseat of a Mercedes Benz rapping — and shadow boxing — to "An Open Letter to NYC" by the Beastie Boys to psych himself up for a big meeting.
This backseat rap moment came full circle in the middle of the final season, when Kendall is vibing out to Jay-Z's "Takedown" as his chauffeur drops him off at Waystar Royco HQ for his first day as co-CEO. This time around, there's no rapping along to Hov — this Ken is calm, focused and ready to protect his birthright from GoJo's Lukas Matsson.
But Ken is no stranger to a grim moment or theme. Season 3's "Chiantishire" ends with an intoxicated Kendall lying prone on a floating raft, his face seemingly submerged in the pool as Britell's chilling "Impromptu No. 1 for Strings" signals impending doom — leaving many viewers to presume the worst. The composer earned an Emmy nod for his work on the episode.
"L to the OG"
In season two's "Dundee," Kendall made the cringe-worthy decision to mark his father's 50th work anniversary by serenading the head of Waystar with his very own tribute song: "L to the OG."
After removing his suit coat to reveal a custom Logan Roy baseball jersey, the Notorious KEN thanked his boy Squiggle for "cookin' up the beat" then launched into his Logan-praising bars as his siblings, colleagues and associates watched in disbelief. Fans immediately fell in love with the song and rallied for HBO to release an official version — and they obliged.
While Britell created the beat for the song — which was not a part of the original script — he lauds Strong's contributions and performance for taking it to the next level.
"What was amazing was how Jeremy took this and made it his own. It's one thing to act, but it's another to pull off a true rap performance," he told Variety. "That's a whole other skill set. Jeremy wrote the melody that you hear when Kendall is singing that sung line, 'L to the OG,' it was him who came up with that part of it."
Connor's Karaoke Moment
When his ever-reluctant bride-to-be gets cold feet the day before their wedding, Connor convinces the Roy sibs to hit a karaoke joint after their work talk sours his impromptu bachelor party at a local bar. While there, Connor discovers that Willa has gone off-grid then reveals that he's invited their father to the bachelor bash so they can all clear the air — to the disdain of his plotting siblings.
Connor's vibe-killing rendition of Leonard Cohen's ultra-sad "Famous Blue Raincoat" — a song about a twisted love triangle — gets interrupted by Logan's entrance. And the Roys' final family meeting with their patriarch commences, only to be cut short after Logan fails to seal the deal, and then hurls one last searing insult at his brood: "I love you, but you are not serious people."
The Rise of Dark Kendall
In the penultimate episode of season four, Kendall finally completed his prophesied Anakin Skywalker-esque transition to the dark side in order to stake his claim to the recently vacated Waystar throne. As the church service concluded, Kendall — with the collar of his $9,000 cashmere overcoat flipped for maximum villainy — immediately resumed his quest to become the chosen Roy.
"There's been a profound transformation from the way I walked into that church to the way I leave that church," Strong said on the second-to-last episode of the official "Succession" podcast.
To mark the moment where Ken fully embraces his dark side, Britell crafted the CE-Bro his own villainous theme. The nefarious score was deployed after Ken sells one of his dad's Waystar allies, Hugo, on joining his team, as he schemes to tank the deal with Matsson — paving the way for his solo CEO era.
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].
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.