Photo: Getty Images for the Recording Academy
8 Highlights From "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To The Songs Of Paul Simon": Garth Brooks' & Trisha Yearwood's Charming Duet, Stevie Wonder' & Ledisi's Heartwarming Performance & More
Paul Simon's GRAMMYs tribute included moments of vulnerability, generation-straddling duets, and plenty of other surprises. Here are eight highlights from the magical night. The tribute re-airs on Wednesday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
Updated Monday, May 22, to include information about the re-air date for "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To The Songs Of Paul Simon."
"Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute To The Songs Of Paul Simon" will re-air on Wednesday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the CBS Television Network, and will be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+.
Many tribute shows for legacy artists end in a plume of confetti and a feel-good singalong. But not Paul Simon's.
At the end of the songbook-spanning "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Tribute To Paul Simon," the only person on the darkened stage was the man of the hour. Sure, the audience had been baby-driven through the Simon and Garfunkel years, into the solo wilderness, through Graceland, and so forth. But all these roads led to darkness.
Because Simon then played the song that he wrote alone, in a bathroom, after JFK was shot.
It doesn't matter that Simon always ends gigs with "The Sound of Silence." After this commensurately cuddly and incisive tribute show, it was bracing to watch him render his entire career an ouroboros.
That "The Sound of Silence" felt like such a fitting cap to a night of jubilation speaks to Simon's multitudes. The Jonas Brothers coolly gliding through "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," juxtaposed with the ache of Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood's "The Boxer," rubbing up against Dave Matthews getting goofy and kinetic with "You Can Call Me Al," and so on and so forth.
The intoxicating jumble of emotions onstage at "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Tribute To Paul Simon" did justice to his songbook's emotional landscape — sometimes smooth, other times turbulent, defined by distance and longing as much as intimacy and fraternity.
Here were eight highlights from the telecast — which will re-air on Wednesday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the CBS Television Network, and will be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+.
Woody Harrelson's Lovably Bumbling Speech
After Brad Paisley's rollicking opening with "Kodachrome," the momentum cheekily ground to a halt as Harrelson dove into a rambling, weirdly moving monologue.
"The songs of Paul Simon really are like old friends," the cowboy-hatted "The Hunger Games" star remarked, interpolating one of his song titles and crooning the opening verse.
Harrelson went on to recount a melancholic story from college, where the spiritually unmoored future star clung to Simon songs like a liferaft. We can all relate, Woody.
Garth Brooks & Trisha Yearwood's Pitch-Perfect "The Boxer"
Brooks has always been one of the most humble megastars in the business, praising his wife Trisha Yearwood — and his forebears — a country mile more than his own. (Speaking to GRAMMY.com, he described being "married to somebody 10 times more talented than you.")
The crack ensemble could have made "The Boxer" into a spectacle and gotten away with it, but Brooks wisely demurred.
Instead, the pair stripped down the proceedings to guitar and two voices; Brooks provided an aching counterpoint to Yearwood.
Billy Porter's Heart-Rending "Loves Me Like A Rock"
The "Pose" star blew the roof off of Joni Mitchell's MusiCares Person Of The Year gala in 2022 with "Both Sides Now," so it was clear he would bring napalm for a Simon party.
Given the gospel-ish intro, one would think he was about to destroy the universe with "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
Instead, he picked a song of tremendous personal significance, "Loves Me Like a Rock," and dedicated it to his mother. The universe: destroyed anyway.
Stevie Wonder & Ledisi's "Bridge Over Troubled Water"
The question remained: who would get dibs on the still-astonishing "Bridge Over Troubled Water"? A song of that magnitude is not to be treated lightly.
So the producers gave it to generational genius Wonder, who'd bridged numberless troubled waters with socially conscious masterpieces like Songs in the Key of Life.
But he wouldn't do it alone: R&B great Ledisi brought the vocal pyrotechnics, imbuing "Bridge Over Troubled Water" with the grandiosity it needed to take off.
Jimmy Cliff & Shaggy Brought Jamaican Vibes With "Mother & Child Reunion"
Simon embraced the sounds of South Africa with his 1986 blockbuster Graceland, yet his island connection is criminally underdiscussed; since the '60s, Jamaican artists have enthusiastically covered his songs.
For instance, it's impossible to imagine a "Mother and Child Reunion" not recorded in Kingston, pulsing with the energy of Simon's surroundings.
Take 6 Dug Deep With "Homeless"
Leave it to the Recording Academy to avoid superficiality in these events: Mitchell's aforementioned MusiCares tribute included beyond-deep cuts like "Urge for Going" and "If."
Most remember "Homeless" as Ladysmith Black Mambazo unaccompanied vocal cooldown after bangers like "You Can Call Me Al"; eight-time GRAMMY-winning vocal group Take 6 did a radiant, affectionate rendition.
When Simon took the stage at the end of the night, he was visibly blown away. Touchingly, he shouted out his late guitarist, Joseph Shabalala, who founded Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
"Imagine a guy born in Ladysmith, South Africa, [who] writes a song in Zulu and it's sung here by an American group, singing his words in his language," Simon remarked. "It would have brought tears to his eyes."
Angélique Kidjo & Dave Matthews' Love Letter To Africa
Graceland was Simon's commercial zenith, so it was only appropriate that it be the energetic apogee of this tribute show.
"Under African Skies," which Simon originally sang with Linda Ronstadt is a natural choice — not only simply as a regional ode, but due to its still-evocative melody and poeticism.
"This is the story of how we begin to remember/ This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein" drew new power from Kidjo's lungs.
Afterward, Matthews — a quintessential ham — threw his whole body into Simon's wonderful, strange hit, "You Can Call Me Al."
The Master Himself Took The Stage
With his still-gleaming tenor and still-undersung acoustic guitar mastery, Simon brought the night home with "Graceland," a Rhiannon Giddens-assisted "American Tune" and "The Sound of Silence."
At 81, Simon remains a magnetic performer; even though this is something of a stock sequence for when he plays brief one-off sets, it's simply a pleasure to watch the master work.
Then, the sobering conclusion: "Hello darkness, my old friend," Simon sang, stark and weary. With the world's usual litany of darknesses raging outside, he remains the best shepherd through nightmares we've got.
And as the audience beheld Simon, they seemed to silently say: Talk with us again.
Photo: Image Group LA via Getty Images
10 Halloween Songs That Have Won GRAMMYs: "Thriller," "Ghostbusters" & More
With Halloween celebrations in full swing this Oct. 31, revisit 10 eerie or ghoulishly titled songs that have all been awarded music's top honor, from the 'Exorcist' theme to Eminem and Rihanna's "The Monster."
If the holiday of trick or treating, pumpkin carving, and decorating your front porch with skeletons is your favorite of the year, then you'll no doubt already have a playlist stacked with creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky bangers ready to fire up on Oct. 31. But if you want to add a bit of prestige to your supernatural soundtrack, there's another list of Halloween-friendly songs to check out — one that highlights another celebrated annual occasion.
While the GRAMMYs might not yet have awarded Rob Zombie, Jukebox the Ghost, or And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead, it has embraced the odd musical spooktacular in several forms. In 1988, for example, it gave Halloween obsessive Frank Zappa Best Rock Instrumental Performance for Jazz from Hell. A year later, it handed Robert Cray Band Best Contemporary Blues Recording for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. And it's also dished out goodies (of the statuette, rather than the sweet, variety) to the likes of Mavis Staples' "See That My Grave Is Clean," Chick Corea's "Three Ghouls," and Mastodon's "A Sultan's Curse."
With Halloween 2023 fast approaching, here's a closer look at ten other tracks which left the music industry's biggest awards show completely bewitched.
Stevie Wonder — "Superstition" (1974)
It seems unlikely that Stevie Wonder walked under a ladder, crossed a black cat, or 'broke the lookin' glass' while recording "Superstition" — the squelchy Moog-funk classic kickstarted his remarkable run of 25 GRAMMY Awards when it won both Best Rhythm and Blues Song and Best R&B Vocal Performance Male in 1974. Taken from what many consider to be his magnum opus, Talking Book, "Superstition" also gave Wonder his first No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 in over a decade. And the soul legend further leaned into its supernatural theme in 2013 when he appeared as a witch doctor in a Bud Light Super Bowl commercial soundtracked by the Tamla favorite.
Mike Oldfield — "Tubular Bells" (1975)
Incredibly, considering how perfectly it complements all-time classic horror The Exorcist, Mike Oldfield's prog-rock epic Tubular Bells was recorded long before director William Friedkin came calling. Mike Oldfield, then aged only 19, used a variety of obscure instruments across its two mammoth pieces. Yet, it's the brilliantly creepy Steinway piano riffs which open Side One that are still most likely to bring anyone who experienced the movie's hysteria in a cold sweat. Oldfield was rewarded for helping to scar a generation of cinemagoers for life when a condensed version of his eerie masterpiece picked up the Best Instrumental Composition GRAMMY.
The Charlie Daniels Band — "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" (1980)
The Charlie Daniels Band certainly proved their storytelling credentials in 1979 when they put their own Southern country-fied spin on the old "deal with the devil" fable. Backed by some fast and furious fiddles, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" tells the tale of a young musician named Johnny who bumps into Beelzebub himself during a jam session in the Peach State. Experiencing a downturn in soul-stealing, the latter then bets he can win a fiddle-off, offering an instrument in gold form against Johnny's spiritual essence. Luckily, the less demonic party proves he's the "best that's ever been" in a compelling tale GRAMMY voters declared worthy of a prize, Best Country Vocal Performance By A Duo Or Group.
Michael Jackson — "Thriller" (1984)
The 1984 GRAMMYs undeniably belonged to Michael Jackson. The King of Pop picked up a whopping 11 nominations for his first blockbuster album, Thriller, and then converted seven of them into wins (he also took home Best Recording for Children for his narration on audiobook E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial). Remarkably, the title track's iconic John Landis-directed video didn't feature at all: its making of, however, did win Best Music Film the following year. But the song itself did pip fellow superstars Prince, Billy Joel, and Lionel Richie to the Best Male Pop Vocal Performance crown. Jackson would also win a GRAMMY 12 years later for another Halloween-esque anthem, his Janet Jackson duet "Scream."
Duran Duran — "Hungry Like the Wolf" (1984)
Produced by Colin Thurston, the man behind another early '80s Halloween-friendly classic, (Bow Wow Wow's "I Want Candy"), "Hungry Like the Wolf" cemented Duran Duran's status as MTV icons. Alongside their much raunchier earlier clip for "Girls on Film," its jungle-themed promo was also responsible for giving the Second British Invasion pin-ups the inaugural GRAMMY Award for Best Music Video, Short Form; it featured on the Duran Duran compilation that was crowned Best Video Album, too. Frontman Simon Le Bon had been inspired to write their U.S. breakthrough hit by Little Red Riding Hood, giving the new wave classic its sinister, and appropriately predatory, edge.
Ray Parker Jr. — "Ghostbusters" (1985)
Ray Parker Jr. not only topped the Hot 100 for four weeks with his ode to New York's finest parapsychologists, he also picked up a GRAMMY. Just don't expect to hear "who you gonna call?" in the winning version: For it was in the Best Pop Instrumental Performance where "Ghostbusters" reigned supreme. The fact that Parker Jr. wrote, performed, and produced the entire thing meant he still took home the trophy. However, Huey Lewis no doubt felt he should have been the one making the acceptance speech. The blue-eyed soulman settled out of court after claiming the spooky movie theme had borrowed its bassline from "I Want a New Drug," a track Ghostbusters' director Ivan Reitman admitted had been played in film footage intended to inspire Parker Jr.
Ralph Stanley — "O Death" (2002)
Traditional Appalachian folk song "O Death" had previously been recorded by the likes of gospel vocalist Bessie Jones, folklorist Mike Seeger, and Californian rockers Camper Van Beethoven, just to name a few. Yet it was Ralph Stanley's 2002 version where GRAMMY voters first acknowledged its eerie a cappella charms. Invited to record the morbid number for the Coen brothers' period satire O Brother, Where Art Thou, the bluegrass veteran won Best Male Country Vocal Performance at the 2002 ceremony, also picking up a second GRAMMY alongside the likes of Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, and Emmylou Harris when the soundtrack was crowned Album Of The Year.
Skrillex — "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites" (2012)
David Bowie fans may well feel aggrieved that his post-punk classic "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)" was entirely ignored by GRAMMY voters, while the bro-step banger it inspired was showered with awards. The title track from EP Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites added Best Dance Recording to Skrillex's 2012 haul: the asymmetrically haired producer also walked away with Best Dance/Electronica Album and Best Remixed Recording: Non-Classical for his work on Benny Benassi's "Cinema." Packed with speaker-blasting beats, distorted basslines, and aggressive synths, Skrillex's wall of noise is enough to scare anyone off their pumpkin pie.
Eminem and Rihanna — "The Monster" (2015)
Who says lightning can't strike twice? Just four years after picking up five GRAMMY nominations for their transatlantic chart-topper "Love the Way You Lie," unlikely dream team Eminem and Rihanna once again joined forces for another hip-pop masterclass. Unlike their previous collab, however, "The Monster" didn't go home empty-handed, winning Best Rap/Sung Collaboration at the 2015 ceremony. The boogeyman hiding under the bed here, of course, isn't a Frankenstein-esque creation, but the mix of paranoia, self-doubt, and OCD that leads the Real Slim Shady into thinking he needs a straitjacket.
Jason Isbell — "If We Were Vampires" (2018)
While the Twilight franchise may have failed to add a GRAMMY to its trophy cabinet, it did pick up several nominations. But four years after the Team Edward vs Team Jacob saga wrapped up, folk hero Jason Isbell proved mythical bloodsuckers weren't a barrier to awards success. Emerging victorious in only the fifth ever Best Americana Roots Song category, "If We Were Vampires" is a little less emo than the various Twilight soundtracks. Still, as a love song dedicated to wife Amanda Shires, and the quiet acceptance that the Grim Reaper will inevitably end their story, it's certainly no less emotional.
Photo: Nicky J Sims/Getty Images
20 Years Of 'Wicked': On This Day, The Culture-Shifting, GRAMMY-Winning Musical Premiered
Twenty years after its premiere on Broadway, the deliciously corrupted musical 'Wicked' is still going strong.
Twenty years ago, the Broadway-shaking musical 'Wicked' opened its doors in New York City — and the theatre world was never the same.
Based on Gregory Maguire's book Wicked: The Life And Times Of The Wicked Witch Of The West — itself influenced by L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz — the musical debuted on Broadway on Oct. 30, 2003, six months after it premiered in San Francisco, California on May 28.
Two years later, the musical was honored by the world's leading society of music people; it won the golden gramophone for Best Musical Theatre Album at the 2005 GRAMMYs.
Fifteen years and numberless inspired performances after its premiere, Ariana Grande, Ledisi and Adam Lambert as well as GRAMMY winners Pentatonix performed with original cast members Idina Menzel and Kristin Chenoweth to celebrate 'Wicked,' in a performance dubbed the "Wicked 15 Anniversary Concert."
Also back in 2018, the play about the green witch named Elphaba also garnered a special called A Very Wicked Halloween, starring the aforementioned musical luminaries.
"The themes of the show, the love and friendship aspects," "Wicked" star Kristin Chenoweth told the San Francisco Chronicle at the time. "We can look at these two characters looking forward to seeing everything."
For Mitch Grassi from Pentatonix, it was a full-circle moment for him to perform in the special. "It's a full circle moment, we grew up with this show and the [album] kind of shaped us as performers," Grassi told Playbill.
'Wicked' is still on Broadway — and is about to be on the silver screen! On Nov. 27, 2024, Cynthia Erivo and Grande will star in Wicked: Part One, a film adaptation of the play. (The sequel, Part Two, is scheduled to release on Nov. 26, 2025.)
And on the stage proper, the team behind 'Wicked' is plotting a special anniversary show at the Gershwin Theatre — and on Oct. 30, the anniversary proper, the Empire State Building will light up green in commemoration of the show.
On Halloween, the New York Public Library will hold a free panel discussion about the musical, featuring panelists in book writer Winnie Holzman, producer David Stone and composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz.
And after spooky season concludes, traveling iterations of the show will continue to roll on throughout the world — with a home base in London providing the (slightly altered) experience for Wicked fans in the United Kingdom.
Whether or not you're able to catch the film, these celebration shows, or just a good old performance, keep a little wickedness in your heart in tribute this Halloween!
Photo: Ebru Yildiz
On 'You're The One,' Rhiannon Giddens' Craft Finds A Natural Outgrowth: Songwriting
Most know Rhiannon Giddens for her multimedia work exploring American musics and how they relate to race in America. 'You're The One,' her first album of original material, is subtly and rewardingly in dialogue with this space.
At a vibey, wood-paneled listening party in Williamsburg, Rhiannon Giddens felt exposed. Chiefly known as an interpreter and a cultural surveyor — both as a solo artist and for her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops — the singer had distributed the lyrics to her new album, You're the One.
The assembled were welcoming and supportive; Nonesuch Records president David Bither was there in her corner, and delivered heartfelt remarks at the outset. Still, on a WhatsApp call weeks after, Giddens admitted she felt "awkward as hell." But that's OK, she explains.
"I'm very comfortable doing the things that I've been doing, so it can become a death knell for an artist to be super comfortable," she tells GRAMMY.com. "So I think it was time to step out a little bit and go, 'OK, so this is what happened.'
"But I don't talk about slavery, and I don't talk about civil rights," the two-time GRAMMY winner — and Pulitzer winner — continues. "This is a different way of being, and just as valid."
Giddens is referring to her work in a litany of fields — opera, documentary, ballet, podcasting, and more. Therein, she's aimed to plumb "difficult and unknown chapters of American history" through musical lenses, like the evolution of the banjo from Africa to Appalachia.
Out Aug. 18, You're the One is more eye-to-eye than Giddens' other works; she sings in first person, and deals in themes of romance and devotion, as with the glowing and companionable title track.
There's also a razzing kiss-off ("If You Don't Know How Sweet It Is") — and a brooding, socially conscious moment in the form of "Another Wasted Life," about the suicide of Kalief Browder at Riker's Island.
But despite these more direct expressions, Giddens hasn't simply pivoted from sociological to confessional; that's a binary that can be put to bed.
I'm drawing a little bit more from my experience, but I had to draw from my experience to write other people's stories," she says. "There's emotions that I feel that I then translate into these other stories, so I don't think this record is completely different from that [mode of expression]."
In that way, You're the One isn't a left turn for Giddens; it's another branch on her evermore sprawling tree. Read on for an interview with the singer-now-songwriter about how it came to be, her recent team-ups with Paul Simon and much more.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
At the Brooklyn listening party, was it vulnerable to reveal your songwriting side?
Totally. I felt like I was awkward as hell. I'm very comfortable talking about other people's stories, and that's what I've been drawn to my whole career as an interpreter.
Even as a songwriter, I am inspired by historical stories and wanting to write them. It's one of the reasons why I'm doing this, because the job of the artist is to always grow.
Yeah, it does feel vulnerable. Because it's like, I don't really like talking about myself. It's not like these are all Taylor Swift-type "ripped from my soul and my experience" songs.
But obviously, to write any song you have to pull on experiences, and whatever you do with them — whether you exaggerate them or change them — you're still pulling on yourself more. So, it's been interesting.
What kicked you into gear to do this? To express how you feel, rather than tell other people's stories?
Well, it doesn't express how I feel, though. This is the thing: they're still songs, and it's still a performance.
I'd say I'm drawing a little bit more from my experience, but I had to draw from my experience to write other people's stories. There's emotions that I feel that I then translate into these other stories, so I don't think this record is completely different from that.
There's a couple that are responses to experiences in my life, and then there's a bunch where I'm playing with styles and I'm playing with strong women's voices, and I'm playing with being inspired by all of these artists that have come before me.
So, it's kind of a mixture of these things.
You're right. There doesn't have to a be a binary between diaristic and impersonal.
And I do feel like I'm a more old-fashioned songwriter in that way — in that I really love form and I really love words, and I really love wordplay, and I really love taking an idea and really kind of running with it rather than more of a personal response to something that happened in my life.
I guess "You're the One" is probably the closest to that. That, I wrote purely out of this feeling that I had when I had my son. And I'd had really bad postpartum depression with my daughter, which kind of puts a curtain in between you and your emotions. It's really tough to get through that.
So when I had another kid and I didn't have that and I felt all of that joy — for both of my children. Obviously, I love them the same.
But I recognized that feeling more after the birth of my son because I recognized, Oh, this is what happens when you don't have postpartum depression. That's amazing. And I felt all of that. But that's probably the only one that's a pure response.
I love how universally applicable it is.
You can do "You're the One" at a wedding. It doesn't necessarily say, You're a baby.
That's what I think is really interesting about songs; as long as the emotion is pure, that forms the core of it. It can then represent so many different things, depending on how it's written. I love those stories of a song: somebody writes it because of x, and then everybody thinks it's because of y.
What else is sourced from your personal experience?
"If You Don't Know How Sweet It Is" started as a poem when I was kind of teed off at somebody who kind of left my music or whatever. It was a professional relationship that went south, and I kind of went, "Man, you don't know how good it is," and I just kind of wrote this little piece.
Then, I turned it into a marriage song, turned it into more of a Dolly Parton kind of [song] — this is a moment where this woman is fed up with this husband who has taken her for granted.
So, there's a bunch of [those songs], where I kind of take these emotions that may or may not be really represented. [Any given song] may have come from situations that may or may not be represented in what the final song is.
Tell me how you wanted You're the One to impact people on an aural level.
I was sitting on all these songs that I've written over the last 14 years and haven't had a home. I knew this was my chance to explore other soundworlds. I knew these songs needed more than a banjo, a fiddle and a frame drum. They needed more contemporary sounds.
So, we reached out. My manager suggested Jack Splash, and I knew that he had done Valerie June — and of course, she's in the club; I've known her for a long time. I was like, Well, if he worked with her, he's probably going to have an idea of what to do with me.
I met with him, and I was very quickly like, "Look, I really want you to be creative and I want you to bring your whole box of sounds, but I also want to bring my sounds." I didn't want to say Hey, put all your production on these and whatever. I wanted it to be a mixture of my sounds and his sounds — his musicians and my musicians.
So we did a real old-fashioned recording session where we had everybody there the whole time. It was like six days. "You Louisiana Man" was the first one we did, and that one was like 11 people on the floor, I think, at the same time recording. It was amazing.
I brought my folks, he had his folks, and it was a real beautiful mixture of styles and vibes. I think it's unique. You can't really place it. It's got some retro feel, it's got some modern feel, it's got some old-timey feeling sounds, and that's what I wanted.
That's the platonic ideal, right? The music being made together, in real time.
That's what I think. That's what I like.
Now, I know that there's a type of music that you make that's basically the engineer, the producer's making it, you know what I mean? And the different musicians, like he's the conductor. And that's fine. And it's not to pooh-pooh that, but it's not the way I want to make music.
I was kind of like, "Take my advance. I don't care if I make any money from this. I need us to put the money towards having the bodies in the space."
Because when we're bringing together all these varied things — electric bass, and drums, and organ, and congas, and accordion, and fiddle, and Congolese acoustic guitar — overdubs are not going to work. It's just going to be Jack's sound with a little bit of me on top, or a little bit of accordion or synths or something.
I was like, "That's boring. Can we not do that?" I really wanted us to find a sound that we couldn't have found any other way than being in the room.
Most know you via your interrogations of the history of American music, and your explorations of these wonderful instruments. Where are you at currently with this subject?
The more that I investigate, the more I'm just like: it's so complicated. And the real story is always more interesting than the one that we're fed, but it's always more complicated.
It's multicultural. That's what I'm finding: when you bring people together who want to listen to each other, you find new forms of music. That's just the facts. So, it's the genre thing. I'm going to continue to fight against it.
People always ask me, What is it that I play? And I'm like, "You tell me because I don't care." You know what I mean? "Put whatever box you need to put me in to sell my s—, but I'm not going to self-identify outside of American acoustic music. That's what I do."
I think we look at the wrong categories. I'd rather know: is the music highly produced and electric or is it acoustic? Is the music slow or is it fast? Is the music for dancing or is it songs that don't have a particular dance beat? Is the music based on riffs or is it [not]?
What does R&B mean? What does rock mean? That changes every five minutes, and it doesn't tell anything about what the music actually is. And if it does, it puts it in a box and you may not listen to it because you think what it is.
So I get why they do it, but I just think it's really destructive to innovation and what American music really stands for, which is mixture.
Another person who's very interested in exploring the intricacies of American music is Jason Isbell. Can you talk about working with him on "Yet to Be"?
It was a lot of fun. I wish I could have been there when he did it. I Zoomed in.
He's just so great. And look, we have one of these 21st-century Twitter relationships. We comment on each other's Twitter sometimes. And I have watched him, from afar, be an amazing advocate, a very smart musician and social media person.
I love the way that he interacts with his fans. I love how he's supported Black women musicians, and putting his money where his mouth is. And I just love the way that he moves in the world.
So it just seemed like a really natural fit to get him to sing on this song, and he just knocked it out of the park. It was really, really great.
What do you want You're the One to be a bridge to in your musical life?
I'm just excited to do what I do. I feel very lucky. I get to make the music I want to make with the people that I want to make it with.
I'm not famous. I have a nice-sized, very committed following. I can put on tours and pay my musicians what I should pay them, and earn a living. I just want to keep doing that, and telling stories, and raising other people up, and using my platform for the things that matter to me.
So if this record can bring me to audiences that maybe wouldn't have given me a second listen, that'd be amazing. Maybe it doesn't. Maybe nobody cares. I just make the songs and see where they go and just keep going with that.
I'm looking to have a really good time on tour with my wonderful musician friends and just keep doing the do. It's a rough world out there right now. So I'm just trying to use my time in front of people for as good of things as I can. So, that's what I got.
I've got to ask about Paul Simon. I'm a devotee. You've sang with him in the recent past, including "Homeward Bound: A GRAMMY Salute to the Songs of Paul Simon."
I didn't really realize how much of a soundtrack his music has been of my life until I was waiting to go on and listening to all the songs going, Oh my god, I know all of these. He's such an amazing songwriter. And working with him for "American Tune" is just one of the highlights of my life.
Not just because it's Paul Simon. I mean, yeah, he's an amazing musician, but the experience that we had working together on that, him changing those words for me to sing it and me kind of taking this song in and going, Wow, this is exactly how I feel right now. It's exactly how people that I know feel, and he wrote it before I was born.
And I think for him to see another artist of a different generation making it her own right in front of his face, [it's impactful], you know what I mean? I cried during the dress rehearsal. I was just feeling it. So that was a really powerful experience and I will always treasure it.
It was unexpected. It came at the last minute. I respect him a lot for being willing to do it. And as I like to say to people, nobody has the monopoly on doing the right thing and on wanting to comment on what's going on right now.
And yeah, he's an old white guy, but dang, he didn't have to do nothing but sit back and collect his checks. He made a statement with that song, and I don't want to take that away from him. I didn't change those words; he changed those words.
I remember seeing you perform "American Tune" together at Newport Folk 2022. He said something to the effect of, "This will have more resonance if Rhiannon sings with me."
The thing is the words that he changed, particularly the line about the Mayflower. Originally, it was like, "We came here on the Mayflower." And then he changed it to, "We didn't come here on the Mayflower.
99 percent of the people who live in America don't have ancestors that came on the Mayflower. You know what I mean? It's not just about Black people, it's not just about me. It opens up that song for everybody. And I think that that's really important, because we need to come together in any way that we can. It's an incredible song.
I became the focal point for that, obviously, because I was singing the song. But it is never really about me. I don't really like focusing on What does it mean for me to do it? it really gives that song a whole new life for anybody else who wants to sing it.
I think that's really powerful, and I'm just glad that he was open to doing it. And that we got a chance to not just do it once — but twice.
'Innervisions' At 50: Revisiting Stevie Wonder's Trailblazing, GRAMMY-Winning Album
Released on Aug. 3, 1973, the genious of 'Innervisons' was immediately apparent, and remains a lightning rod decades later. Lionel Richie and the album's producer, Robert Margouleff, share their thoughts on Stevie Wonder's GRAMMY-winning masterpiece.
The producer Robert Margouleff can't quite believe that one of his finest accomplishments is about to mark a milestone. "What anniversary is it, 50?"he marvels. "Wow, I must be really old."
Released exactly a half century ago on Aug. 3, 1973, Stevie Wonder's trailblazing Innervisons has more than stood the test of time. The nine-track Tamla Records release pushed boundaries — lyrically, musically and technologically — subsequently becoming an influential lightning rod for both Wonder's career as well as R&B and pop at large.
Innervisons' genius was apparent from its release, staying high on the charts throughout the year. The album took home multiple golden gramophones at the 16th GRAMMY Awards annual ceremony, among them Album Of The Year and Best Engineered Non-Classical Recording. Wonder also won the GRAMMY Award for Best R&B Song for "Living for the City," a call to action that still resonates to this day.
At the 1974 GRAMMYs, Wonder became the first Black artist to take home the award for Album Of The Year. On the GRAMMY stage with his younger sister, Renee, and older brother, Milton, Wonder called his siblings "the future for tomorrow, for all people." He continued, "I hope that through my music, I have given the message of my people and of the world."
Innervisions was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame in 1999. At the 2023 GRAMMYs, Wonder offered a rousing performance of "Higher Ground" with Chris Stapelton.
"It's one of the greatest albums of our time," Motown contemporary Lionel Richie, Wonder's friend and one of the album's many admirers, tells GRAMMY.com. "Every song on the album is incredible, and it will hold the test of time with people saying the same thing 100 years from now about it."
Margouleff, who produced the album alongside the late jazz musician Malcolm Cecil, is still basking with pride about what they and Stevie accomplished. "It makes me feel like I fulfilled my destiny and have done something that's positive for our culture."
As a result, he can vividly recount the first day he and Cecil encountered Wonder. "Malcolm and I had just released our first record, and Stevie heard it and decided he wanted to meet us,"says Margouleff. "So on Memorial Day weekend in 1971, we heard him banging on our studio door."
At that time, a 21-year-old Wonder was attempting to navigate life as an adult artist after a successful Motown career during which the world fell in love with him as Little Stevie Wonder. When he began ideating Innervisions, Wonder was freshly released from his contract with Motown. The year prior, Wonder released his first self-produced song, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," and was looking to expand his sonic understanding.
Meanwhile, Margouleff and Cecil were experimenting with synthesizers and released experimental electronic music under the moniker Tonto's Expanding Head Band. According to Margouleff, "We are making all kinds of strange sounds with Tonto, and [Wonder] wanted to know about it."
It turned out to be a powerful combination: a genius artist who was looking to further define himself and two fearless electronic wizards exploring an exciting new technology. "It was just the three of us in a room, and the sounds we were creating gave him a whole new palate and put him in control of what he was doing," says Margouleff. "He'd start talking to us and we'd start cooking the soup. He'd show us a song he wrote with chords and a vocal demo; once we'd heard it, we'd say, 'What about this sound? Or that sound?'"
While Wonder played every instrument himself, Margouleff notes writing and recording with a synthesizer allowed limitless possibilities."Electronic music happens in space, so there is no architecture. Tonto had no real instruments, and Stevie was fascinated by that," he explains. "We could go to any place musically and never know where reality ended and the fantasy began. To him, that was a wonderful mystery."
In a rare interview, Wonder spoke about the importance of sonic experimentation. "The new things that are available now give me a greater ability to hear and voice sounds," he said in 1985. "And they make it a whole lot easier for a blind person to express his ideas."
The result is a collection of songs that proved monumentally influential to fellow artists. "All of the songs on Innervisions are classic Stevie," Richie says of the album. "The music and lyrics are works of art that nobody can do or come close to doing. 'Higher Ground,' 'Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing' and 'Living for the City' are my favorites from this album."
Richie points out three stand-out tracks in an album full of them: "Higher Ground" kicks off with those aforementioned synths, which are complemented by buoyant lyrics that tow a spiritual line. "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" is a Latin-influenced piano-driven ditty which harkens back to Wonders' earlier pop confections. But it was the bold, GRAMMY-winning "Living for the City" that garnered the most praise; it also marked a turning point in Wonder's career and in the depiction of American culture in pop music.
"It's just a major recording for civil rights," muses Margouleff of the chronicle of a young Black boy who hopefully ventures to New York and is eventually arrested. "At the time, only Marvin Gaye and Stevie were singing about this. Anybody can write about love, but when he writes about the political condition it's immeasurably powerful."
Wonder himself called "Living for the City" one of the three songs in his career he's most proud of. In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, he explained: "I wanted to speak out, and do it in a way where people will feel the rhythm of it, but also get the message across, in a peaceful way that's also strong."
The song also employed the use of sound effects to depict a bustling metropolis, with the team depicting the realism of having actual cops shout racial epithets at the song's protagonist. In an interview for the book Stevie Wonder, Signed, Sealed and Delivered, engineer Cecil recalled: "[Wonder] wanted genuineness, so we had to get real cops, which only happened because [Margouleff's] father was the mayor of Great Neck and he got some cops to meet us in a parking lot. We told them, 'Just say what you'd say if you were arresting a guy for drugs,' and they did the rest."
"We got where Stevie was coming from and what he was trying to say" explains Margouleff. "And we did everything in our power to encourage him."
Innervisions also features the track, "He's Misstra Know-It-All," and its pejorative view of then-President Nixon. The song showcased Wonder as a fearless critic of modern American politics as well as his relationship to the plight the country faced at the time, burdened with an unpopular President a few years before his resignation. "Take my word, please beware,"Wonder croons. "Of a man that just don't give a care, no."
While Innervisions is a lasting triumph, a shocking turn of events nearly ended Wonder's life and career only days after its release. "Stevie was listening to our mastered album in the car and got into a car accident," recalls Margouleff of the Aug. 6, 1973 incident when a log smashed through Wonder's windshield while driving in South Carolina. "He was in a coma for five days, and came out of it with a higher consciousness that comes with a near death experience. He came back a different guy in a lot of ways."
Wonder eventually fully recovered and, in the following years, would cement himself as an artist for all-time. His hot streak continued, with his follow-up album Fulfillingness' First Finale, turning more introspective and earning Wonder a second consecutive GRAMMY for Album Of The Year.
While Cecil passed away in 2021, Margouleff would go on to collaborate with the likes of future electronic stars Devo and Oingo Bongo, and is putting the finishing touches on a book dubbed Technology Drives the Art. But it was with Innervisions he experienced one of his greatest successes.
"The synth was a new paintbrush, just like AI is a new paintbrush for artists now," says Margouleff of its trailblazing technology, which has influenced an untold number of artists and helped extrapolate the modern American sound. "When it came on the scene, Stevie got it."
Most important for Margouleff was being a part of such a fruitful creative process. "It was a beautiful journey."