Photo: Courtesy of artists except Q Worship/Springwood Productions, iiwaa/Celine Boyd, Knapp/Fairlight Hubbard,EYE Management
Queer Christian Artists Keep The Faith: How LGBTQ+ Musicians Are Redefining Praise Music
Song has long been part of many Christian traditions, but the religion has historically not been as welcoming to Christian LGBTQ+ artists. Today, a new generation is forging a more accepting church by refusing to compromise either part of their identity.
In 2021, queer musician Grace Baldridge (who peforms as Semler) rocked Christian music on her debut release, Preacher’s Kid. The EP centered on Baldrige’s experiences growing up in the Episcopal Church, a religion that often didn’t accept her identity, and the ways in which she wrestled with religion. "And these days I believe in Bigfoot more than God, 'cause who's he hurting?" Semler questions on the track "Jesus From Texas."
The album topped the iTunes Christan music chart.
In a genre that has doubled down on commercial hits that praise an unwavering dedication to Christianity, Preacher’s Kid was revolutionary for expressing a more nuanced connection with God — and was made even more so by Baldridge's genderqueer identity. While the Christian music industry has embraced modern musical stylings like indie rock, metal and rap, lyrical content has been slower to encompass a broader diversity of voices.
"For a genre that’s meant to harness artistic expression, there are a lot of boundaries, and I think that's very strange, especially when, thematically, we're looking at all of creation and divinity," says Baldrige, adding, "Artists like myself and others, we're presenting a challenge, and a question, to Christian music, which is, what do you want to be known for?"
In the past, LGBTQ+ artists were forced out of the genre after coming out. But a new generation of queer Christian musicians is refusing to compromise either part of their identity. They’re using art to not only express their faith, but also to forge a more accepting Christian church.
The Origins Of The Christian Music Industry
Singing has long been part of many Christian traditions, but contemporary Christian music (CCM) has its roots in the Jesus movement of the 1960s and 1970s. With acoustic guitars and long hair, "Jesus freaks" brought their own sort of counterculture to Christian denominations.
Marsha Stevens-Pino found her own way to Christianity at a Southern California church with "barefoot hippies." She described the atmosphere as being so egalitarian that anyone in the congregation could share an original song.
In 1969, when she was a high schooler still learning the Gospel, Stevens-Pino wrote "For Those Tears I Died" to help lead her sister to the Lord. Her high school choir director encouraged her to copyright the song, which would prove to be wise advice. "For Those Tears I Died" became one of the earliest CCM hits, something Stevens-Pino and her bandmates in Children of the Day could’ve never predicted. They even questioned whether it was ethical to profit from religious music.
"There was no sense of who's gonna record this, who's gonna play it on the radio," says Stevens-Pino, adding, "It was just about what’s going on in your heart and sharing what’s going on."
By the late ‘70s, CCM had become a business, with radio stations, publications and the Gospel Music Association’s Dove Awards highlighting industry achievements. But Stevens-Pino’s success within CCM came to a halt when she came out as a lesbian in 1981. After a long period of grappling with her identity, she was shunned by the industry — her songs were torn out of hymn books and she received hate mail.
She joined the queer-affirming Metropolitan Community Church in 1984, and wrote and toured with them and other churches for the next 20 years. Looking back, Stevens-Pino most regrets not being more open in her self-searching, though she realized there was no one she could’ve turned to. She never stopped writing music, including songs like "Can't We Find a Way," which is aimed at helping her parents come to terms with her sexuality.
During the height of HIV/AIDS, almost every song Stevens-Pino wrote had a connection to the epidemic. She recorded her first post-coming out album with money a friend who died of AIDS had left her. For his memorial, she wrote the song "Falling Star." The chorus goes, "Our farewell for a moment knows the promise true/When Jesus comes in glory, He will come with you."
She also found herself helping other Chrsitian musicians coming to terms with their sexuality, including singer/songwriter Ray Boltz, who came out in 2008 after a decades-long career.
Some of the artists she spoke with either went back into the closet or never ended up coming out, fearing the same sort of industry retaliation as Stevens-Pino faced. After moving to Nashville, she learned that the night before the Dove Awards, there’s a secret event for queer nominees called the Pink Party; it’s invite-only and phones and cameras aren’t allowed: "[CCM] became such a big business that you can't even be yourself when you're winning an award. It just seemed like it turned such a far right corner."
But Stevens-Pino never compromised her identity. She formed Born Again Lesbian Music (BALM Ministries) for queer communities and married her wife in 2003. Together, they ran a music ministry training school for LGBTQ+ Christians.
A New Sound, But The Same "Christian Values"
In the late '90s, a more rocking image emerged with a new generation of artists. Jennifer Knapp, who also turned to Christianity as a teenager, made a splash on the CCM scene with her singles "Undo Me" and the GRAMMY-nominated "A Little More." But in 2004, she announced she was taking a hiatus.
Knapp released her first non-Christian album, Letting Go, in 2010 and came out as a lesbian in the media. Nowadays, she describes herself as in "career 2.0," a mainstream singer/songwriter touring, recording and advocating for LGBTQ+ issues. "They watched me navigate being a gay person… and code shift in the middle of a religion that doesn't really give a lot of people an opportunity to challenge it back and still respect it."
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While her new music isn’t religious, she says a keen listener could track her theology through her albums, with an exploration of love being a central theme on her last record, Love Comes Back Around. She says her fans are now about one third long-term listeners, a third who’ve discovered her through secular music and a third who are interested in her work as an advocate.
"I've had to learn to be comfortable with the legacy of having been valued as a CCM artist," she says. "And then if that audience is mixed, I've had to learn how to get people to look around them and share that space."
Creating A "State of Grace"
Now, more than ever, digital platforms are expanding opportunities for artists outside the Christian mainstream. Knapp, who found early success on MySpace, had her CCM heyday when it was gaining such cultural cache that it expanded beyond folk to a range of popular genres. Perhaps more influential than social media is the rise of so-called hipster megachurches like Hillsong Church, Mosaic and the now defunct Mars Hill Church. These churches made CCM music cool to a new generation, including with their own record labels and in-house artists.
But while their worship practice more resembles a rock or rap concert than a Sunday service, many megachurches promote the same traditional values around sexual identity, gender roles and reproductive healthcare as the larger Evangelical movement. These megachurches, along with all-important Christian radio stations like K-LOVE, continue to gatekeep CCM. This is despite myriad controversies, including Hillsong’s founder resigning after an internal investigation into accusations of inappropriate behavior toward women.
In some ways, it was this hypocrisy that drew Grace Baldridge to start writing her own Christian music. Baldrige hosted a Refinery29 series on faith called "State of Grace," including an episode on the dark reality of the CCM industry. The child of an Episcopal priest, she grew up listening to Christian punk and metal bands like Relient K, Underoath and Demon Hunter (as well as songs from Michael Jackson, Prince and Duran Duran that her brother illegally downloaded). Her entry into CCM started as a sort of joke, when she shared the first verse of a song called "Youth Group" on TikTok:
"Youth group lock-ins are a really strange concept that
Youth group leaders seem to really like
It's like ‘Let's take some repressed, hormonal teenagers
And put 'em in a church and hope they find Jesus overnight"
From the enthusiastic response, she realized there were many others who were questioning institutionalized religion. While many of her lyrics are tongue and cheek — "a loser in a button-up can't send you to hell" — they’re often connected to real trauma. Baldrige explains that singing about something takes the bite out of it.
Unlike much "holier-than-thou" Christian worship music, she’s interested in exploring the ways her faith isn’t perfect. Her latest project is Stages of a Breakdown, a mixtape to a born-again friend as their relationship was falling apart. She wrote most of the EP in just 48 hours and each track represents a different stage in the breakdown, with Baldrige exploring new genres like indie dance pop. She even wrote a song from the friend’s perspective, embodying a certain Christian who says they love everyone, but doesn’t accept queer identity. She says this lightly veiled homophobia is just as insidious as open hostility.
This also relates to CCM: She sees how the industry has changed compared to the era of Knapp or Trey Pearson (the founder of Christian rock band Everyday Sunday, who came out in 2016), with artists no longer being openly ostracized. Instead, she described it as more of a "don’t ask, don’t tell, where queer artists will just disappear."
Developing her career both in and outside of CCM is important to Baldrige, who also wants to promote a more inclusive and justice-oriented understanding of Christianity. She sees her work as part of larger progressive changes within Christian music.
Black Christian musicians, most notably the rapper Lacrae, have increasingly used their music to talk about racism and advocate for Black Lives Matter. But Lacrae has also faced pushback for politicizing his art. Baldrige struggles with understanding why "there's a genre of music that is informed by faith and how we dignify the humanity of others, that has been typically pretty vague on how specifically they want to engage with that."
Still, she sees a shift occurring where people are seeking more thoughtful Christian music.
"I think if someone is wanting to listen to music about faith, then probably they have an immense curiosity and intelligence for what’s out there and mystery and divine and creation," she says, adding, "This should be a genre that’s maybe the best at creating discomfort, both with their lyrics and sonically."
Using Music To Connect With Spirituality
Jay Mercado, who performs as iiwaa, also grew up while "faith and politics all started to merge in our country." Iiwaa is Piipaash and Quechan and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community. From a young age, he participated in his Pentecostal church’s choir and rose to become a national worship leader. He always dreamed about using music to help people connect to their spirituality.
But at the end of 2019, he began to understand his queerness and left the church he had been involved with for almost 20 years: “I was heartbroken at first because my view of God had been so small. My view of God had been one where I believed I would be outside of that kind of love and that acceptance that the faith affords you, as a believer, because of my queerness."
But after being confined at home during the pandemic, iiwaa emerged from that place of grief, and also the freedom of no longer being under the public eye. The name iiwaa is derived from the Piipaash word for heart and represents his desire to put his whole self into what he’s creating. He used his Covid-19 stimulus check to record his debut EP, Dysphoria, and realized he could still use music "to share my experience to connect with others and to help them connect with their spirituality."
He also draws on his Indigenous heritage: “Looking beyond just our pain, I know Indigenous people have experienced joy and experience flourishing on this land,” he says. “With my music, I'm hoping to draw strength from that ancestral wisdom of joy and flourishing."
He considers a track like "Boys Don’t Cry" to be a worship song. Over a stripped back melody, he sings, "They say boys don’t cry. Guess I’m not a boy, am I?" Similar to much contemporary Christian music, he wanted to build on a repeated refrain, allowing the listener to meditate on its meaning. He thought the song might be too niche, but was humbled by the response he received: "People close to me who aren't queer identifying or who’re part of the LGBTQ+ community came to me and said, ‘the song is really healing for my masculinity.’ Men say it helps them realize all the ways society says they don’t measure up."
Last year, iiwaa also participated in Serenade, a multi-genre collection of songs by queer musicians and allies of many faiths released during Pride month. Through living in Flagstaff, Arizona, Mercado was connected with the band Tow’rs, known for Christian-related music. With couple Kyle and Gretta Miller at the band’s core, Tow’rs wanted to be an ally in an industry often not accepting of LGBTQ+ rights. So when Kyle Miller was contacted by the organization Beloved Arise — which is dedicated to celebrating and empowering LGBTQ+ youth of faith — the musician and producer immediately said yes.
Miller and his wife pulled from within and outside their artistic community to garner a diverse roster of participating musicians; many took inspiration from letters written by queer youth of faith. Tow’rs wanted to contribute a song that encompassed the album’s many themes. Miller was inspired by a poem by Hafiz about God being in drag and an experience of stumbling upon a drag show: "There were people cheering for their friends, and people being exactly who they wanted to be... it felt like what I wished church was." The result was “Love Who You Love,” a rousing number that Miller sings in tandem with his wife.
Writing The New Worship Music Canon
These collective efforts, often between queer Christians and allies, are also expanding. The Many is a Chicago-based worship group whose music encompasses folk, pop, indie, gospel and other genres, with original lyrics by Lenora Rand and music by her husband Gary and daughter Hannah. They have performed at liturgies, conventions and other events.
Lenora Rand grew up singing about the blood of the lamb and wanted to develop an alternative, less depressive church tradition. One connecting thread are simple refrains that stick with you, like "You gave us these bodies and call them good" from the song "These Bodies."
During lockdown, they released lyric videos and performed at online events, where the chat was filled with comments about what people were going through. Lenora Rand says connecting so personally with audiences is the outcome of their collective creative process: getting together and discussing issues they care about: "We often say that we write the songs we need to hear."
On "All Belong Here," the Many distinguishes between welcoming (when someone brings you into their space) and belonging (owning the space because you’re supposed to be there), explains Darren Calhoun, who sings in the Many and also leads worship at Urban Village Church. Calhoun is a survivor of conversion therapy and says he’s proud to be at the forefront of transitions happening in the church.
"The music, lyrics, timing, context, lighting and all these things create experiences that churches sometimes shy away from," he says. "But it's something that we create, this very kind of theatrical, artful, intentional space. I think that helps people engage in a harder core kind of way than just 'Oh that was really pretty.'"
Kristina Sinks, a United Methodist clergy candidate and a seminary student, recently joined the Many. Sinks grew up in a church affirming queer identities and felt no conflict when she fell in love with a woman. "Through music, we continue to build this world that we say we believe in as Christian," she says. "I think the church can only ever be as good as the best theology that we have and the best vision we have for the world."
Q Worship Collective also brings more inclusive music into Christian spaces through the creation of community-based worship music that helps people heal from trauma.
"So many of us just wanted to jump right in to doing worship again, but then realized, 'Oh, that hurts. Why does that hurt so much?'" says Q Worship co-founder Jess Grace Garcia, a worship pastor and music director in Los Angeles. One of Q Worship Collective’s members, Stefie Dominguez, not only plays percussion, but is also a mental health clinician. While she doesn’t provide former care to the group, she helps deal with the emotions that come up in reclaiming faith traditions.
This work is personal for co-founder Gabriel Mudd, who went through conversion therapy as an adult so he could keep his position as a worship pastor. He left when he "got tired of hating myself" and found a new community (including meeting his Q Worship Collective co-founders) through the Q Christian Fellowship, which has provided a space for LGBTQ+ Christians and allies since 2001. Mudd, who serves as a vocal arranger, says that in contrast to the hierarchical nature of churches, Q Worship Collective embraces a more equitable model: "We wanted to provide that community for people who weren't just singers, and weren't just musicians, but everyone in the arts who have felt like they've been marginalized from the church community.
One example was Garcia and her co-pastor rewriting the lyrics of the well-known song "Mighty to Save." They changed it so much that they took out the title lyric and referred to Jesus as a "risen King" and "risen Queen." Garcia described it as a healing opportunity: "We sang it loud and proud. And it was this beautiful moment to break the ideas of gender around God and also relate it back to our queerness."
Anna Dawahare, Q Worship Collective social media manager, says there’s a clear market for this type of worship music, given the overwhelming response whenever the collective has a new release: "I feel like Q Worship Collective should be representative of the body of Christ, and the body of Christ isn't a white guy in a V-neck with a guitar. There are people like that, but the body of Christ is so much more diverse."
For the future of Q Worship Collective, Garcia imagines harnessing the power of local organizing to be a resource for churches around the world. She says that music is so powerful, particularly in a faith context, that it’s been used to manipulate people to feel shame for their identity; she instead wants to preserve it as a sacred tool.
"For me, this isn't about showing any sort of personal agenda of music, but it's about providing more opportunity for people to feel the feeling I did when I walked into Q Christian Fellowship for the first time," Garcia says. "I was surrounded by a ton of people who all looked and felt like me worshiping, and I realized that this was heaven."
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Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
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Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
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Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Listen: All Of The Latin Music 2023 GRAMMY Nominees In One Playlist
Ahead of Music's Biggest Night on Feb. 5, 2023, celebrate with this immersive playlist of every Latin Field nominee at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
The Latin GRAMMYs may have just honored the genre's trailblazers in Las Vegas on Nov. 17, but the celebration will continue at the upcoming 65th GRAMMY Awards ceremony in February. There are five categories in the Latin Field of the 2023 GRAMMY nominations — and you can hear all of the nominees in one playlist.
In the Best Latin Pop Album category, are Christina Aguilera's Latin GRAMMY-winning AGUILERA will compete with Rubén Blades & Boca Livre's Pasieros, Camilo's De Adendro Pa Afuera, Fonseca's VIAJANTE, and Sebastián Yatra's Dharma+. Channeling their lively Latin roots while traversing pop landscapes, these albums all magnetically merge tradition and modernity.
Reggaeton, dancehall, hip hop, and funk coalesce in the nominated works for Best Música Urbana Album: Rauw Alejandro's Trap Cake, Vol. 2, Bad Bunny's Un Verano Sin Ti, Daddy Yankee's LEGENDADDY, Farruko's La 167, and Maluma's The Love & Sex Tape.
The genre-blending jubilation continues with the Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album category. This year's nominees are Cimafunk's El Alimento, Jorge Drexler's Tinta y Tiempo, Mon Laferte's 1940 Carmen, Gaby Moreno's Alegoría, Fito Paez's Los Años Salvajes, and Rosalía's MOTOMAMI.
For Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano), 2021 winner Natalia Lafourcade's Un Canto por México - El Musical is up against Chiquis' Abeja Reina, Los Tigres Del Norte's La Reunión (Deluxe), Christian Nodal's EP #1 Forajido, and Marco Antonio Solís' Qué Ganas de Verte (Deluxe).
As for Best Tropical Latin Album, Marc Anthony — a two-time winner in the category — returns as a nominee with Pa'lla Voy, alongside pioneers Tito Nieves (nominated for Legendario), La Santa Cecilia (Quiero Verte Feliz), Víctor Manuelle (Lado A Lado B), Spanish Harlem Orchestra (Imágenes Latinas), and Carlos Vives (Cumbiana II).
Listen to all of the above albums in this comprehensive, 338-song playlist of the Latin music GRAMMY nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Check it out on Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music — and we'll see you at Music's Biggest Night on Sunday, Feb. 5!