Photo: Mia K.
Rising R&B Phenom Blakk Soul Means Business
The former aspiring lawyer talks to the Recording Academy about his soulful debut LP, what he learned from the likes of Dr. Dre and Prince and how learning the infrastructure of the music business benefits artists
In many ways, Blakk Soul (born Eric Mercer Jr.) accomplished more before releasing his debut album than many music makers do in their entire career. For starters, the Tacoma, Wa., R&B artist's first job in L.A. was working as an engineer for Mike & Keys, who executive produced Nipsey Hussle. Then, he landed management with the highly influential Rapper Big Pooh of Little Brother, and he's already written, sang or co-produced on records from the likes of Playboi Carti, Jake One, Macklemore, Anderson .Paak and Dr. Dre, who gave him a "master class in the whole song creation process" for a solid year and a half.
With all of his credentials, it should come as no surprise that Blakk Soul's debut LP, Take Your Time, arrives as such a complete package by such a well-rounded artist. He sequenced all the songs and mixed and mastered the album himself with stunning results, landing at No. 24 on the iTunes R&B charts. The album also features guest vocals from Joell Ortiz of Slaughterhouse, Amaal, Cocoa Sarai, and Nana plus multi-platinum producers Wyldfyer, J. LBS, DrewsThatDude, and Symbolyc One.
While the cascading vocal production and varied themes of personal freedom, strong mental health and a heavy dose of sensuality on Take Your Time reveal an artist with a swagger all his own, the work he put in under Dre's tutelage is abundantly clear in his command for the craft, especially the attention to detail.
"I always like to believe I'm a pretty detailed person, but being around [Dre] and hearing in his ear and the way he doesn't miss anything," he says. "I was like, 'Oh. It gets deep. It can get deeper than this.'"
The Recording Academy went deeper into conversation with Blakk Soul over the phone to hear more about his hot seat experience with Dr. Dre, the making of Take Your Time, his thoughts on the country's current climate of racial injustice, the importance of artists understanding the business side of music, what playing sports has to do with making better records and more…
Coming into your career, was there a moment when you said to yourself, "Music is not only what I want to do with my life, but I think I can make this my livelihood"?
I started off as an athlete. That was my main focus. Along the journey I had some musician friends that really saw a career in music for me before I did, but the ball was live so I was like, "Nah, I want to stay focused on this route." But some things just don't work out like we plan for them to, so it was about my sophomore year in college, I really had to sit and think, "What am I naturally gifted at, that if I were to hone those skills I could probably turn it into something?" And it was always music.
Sure. Was there any crossover there, between sports and music? Did you use any of those skills when you started writing songs?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Even in sports I was always a gym rat. I think the same type of discipline crosses over to my music career. I'm always constantly recording, constantly researching techniques, constantly trying to improve. When I made it into some of the rooms that I've made it in with some of the amazing people that I've been blessed to share space with, that's one of the common denominators I've noticed for everybody that's achieving at a high level, is their ability to eliminate distractions and to lock in and get the task done. I definitely feel like some of those same disciplines crossover.
I love that, from gym rat to studio rat.
Can you talk about how the relationship with Big Pooh and Little Brother kick-started and ultimately really shaped your career path?
Well, Pooh is really like a big brother. I got to actually work with him first before I met him in 2011. I was, at the time, working with another brother of mine, Kuddie Fresh. He used to be a part of the production group, Tha Bizness. I had just met him at the time and was doing a bunch of demo references. He had went out to a conference in New York and the old manager of Little Brother, Big Dho at the time, was also present at this conference. He got a chance to hear some of the work I had been doing, word got back to Pooh through him. Pooh was working on his Dirty Pretty Things album at the time. Dho basically told them, "This is this kid at Tacoma I heard. Man, I really think we should reach out. He might be what you're looking for sound wise for some of the records for the album." The crazy part about all of that is that first of all, he reached out to me via Twitter.
Now, me being a fan of Little Brother already, I didn't even think it was real at first. He had DM'd me, sent me his number. We had a conversation and gave me an opportunity to do a hook. I ended up doing a hook to the song called, "Free." Then I had to wait a few months to know if it was going to make the album or not and it did. Then the backstory for it was crazy. He was on tour for that album and I got to perform with him in Portland. As we were prepping for that performance we got to talking about the record and he told me he had never actually heard me sing a note before reaching out to me. He was totally going off of the trust and relationship he reportedly had with Dho. That blew my mind. I was just like, "I could have been terrible for all you knew." He said, "Yeah, pretty much."
When I found that out I was like, "That's pretty crazy." And we've just been working since.
And it was through you were connected with Dr. Dre, right? How did you get in the room with him?
I was actually back in Tacoma at the time working on my Never See EP. I ended up running into a producer that told me that he was working with Anderson .Paak on his album, but he wasn't aware that I knew people that we could verify to know if that was a real thing or if it wasn't. That's what sparked the conversation initially. The A&R at the time of Aftermath was also a previous road manager of Little Brother. Pooh reached out to him to get confirmation on whether the situation was legit. It wasn't. But in that conversation the A&R started asking about me. I was fresh off of landing the Macklemore placement, or, the two Macklemore placements on the GEMINI album, and then he had told them I was working on my EP. So he asked him to send him three of what he felt were my strongest records so he can play them for Dre and see what Dre's thoughts were.
Two hours later he calls back and said Dre loved them and wanted me to come down, so I was on the next thing smoking back to L.A. to session up. Excited, all kinds of emotions running high, trying to map out my next move. By the time I got to L.A., he went on vacation for a week so I was on standby. Then one random night while I was at a friend's house, we got the call to come in the studio. I ended up coming to the studio and as I'm walking in the front, he was walking through the back. They introduced me as a songwriter and he was like, "Oh, you write?" And I was like, "Yeah, I do." He was like, "Okay, we going to see you tonight." And he just walks off. I was like, "Oh. Well, okay. Okay. All right. This is interesting."
I had done my research about the Kendricks and 50 Cent and The Game. I've heard their stories about the infamous hot seat. That's essentially where you try to put your skills to the test. He sees if you can create a song from scratch, figure out the concept, and then build it up. I didn't know that that was going to be my night for the hot seat but it turned into that fast. It went well though.
You always got to be ready, right?
Yeah, you got to stay ready. I successfully passed my hot seat experience. Everybody left the room and it was just Dre and I talking and he told me that he really felt that I had a special gift. Man, after that, I worked with him for about a year-and-a-half and just learned. It was like a master class in the whole song creation process. From getting the instruments for the musicians in there to build up the track, the writers, everything all the way down to the mixing. I learned so much. He taught me how to mix on the SSL board.
Where did you see the biggest improvement in yourself and in your skills coming out of that year-and-a-half with Dre?
I think I saw the biggest improvement in my attention to detail. I always like to believe I'm a pretty detailed person, but being around him and hearing in his ear and the way he doesn't miss anything, I was like, "Oh. It gets deep. It can get deeper than this."
And also patience. One of the things I learned from working with Dre is if there's a bar that hasn't been delivered right, maybe the vocal inflections aren't right or they're missing the timing, the average person over enough takes is just going to move on like, "We'll just, we'll come back to this." He'll ... if it takes eight hours to get that one bar right, we're going to sit there for eight hours until that bar is right before we move on.
I think that's a testament to the quality of his mixing, the quality of his work, is because his attention to detail and his commitment to making sure that it's right is next level. I definitely took that with me and started applying that to my own processes, and definitely this project for the Take Your Time album. I feel like that was a definite growth in terms of sound, in terms of content, in terms of delivery from my Never See EP to the Take Your Time album.
When did this group of songs for Take Your Time really start to come together? Was it during that time with Dre?
Some of them were during the time, towards the end of that, of my time there. They were just all over. Some I created back home. Some I created in L.A. Really just went off a vibe and whenever I got the music in and try to really take my time and make sure that the conversations were authentic to me. Because I'm a songwriter also, sometimes you can get caught up in just doing generalized content or song structures because you want them to be shoppable. But the beauty of being able to work on your own thing is these stories are true to you, these experiences are true to you, and you can deliver them how you see fit.
I saw on Twitter you wrote, "Mixing my own record is therapeutic," and you mastered the album, too. Can you talk more about the choice to handle the entire process like that as an artist, and tell us what specifically you find therapeutic about mixing?
I started learning how to mix out of necessity. At first, I didn't want to do any of that heavy lifting, but early on when you don't have a budget, it's spending. Before I really had a method or a rhythm to my recording process, I was spending a lot of money making it in the studio and not being really satisfied with the product.
And so I took a vested interest in trying to make sure that I understand what I'm doing, understand the sound that I'm trying to achieve. Then I just told myself from there that I'm probably just going to stick with it until I don't have to. But now, the reason why I posted that is I don't know if there's going to be a time where I feel like I don't want to be that hands on on the project. I feel like now it's just become a part of my creative process because I've been doing it so long this way. And then, not to mention, the gems that I was able to take away from working at Dre's studio is like, it only makes me more excited to really try to achieve the best sound possible. And who better than to practice with than yourself?
That reminds me of how Prince made his records. I saw the tribute you posted on what would have been his birthday and I love what you wrote: "He really advocated for understanding the music business and owning your own material." But that can be daunting for artists, so how were you able to do that in your career, to gain an understanding of the industry that surrounds the music you're making?
I know that the business side is definitely a turnoff for a lot of creatives. I think for me, personally, the business side has always been my thing because even prior to doing music whole-heartedly or full-fledged, I was on road to becoming a lawyer. I was a pre-law student. I majored in philosophy and minored in international business, but that was all in process of pursuing a law degree.
And so business has always been my interest and ethics have always been in my interest. I don't necessarily detach the two. I'm just as interested to learn about the infrastructure of the music business as I am on learning how to put a great song together.
I know it's not like that for everyone, but I'm definitely an advocate for it because that was one of the things that I drew to from Prince. I remember, Prince spent 23 years of his life fighting for his masters and advocating the importance of understanding publishing and owning your material. Even more recently, Nipsey Hussle, I was privileged with the opportunity to work with Mike & Keys who executive produced Nipsey's whole album and did a lot of his previous Mixtapes. That was my first job when I moved to L.A., was engineering for them.
"I'm just as interested to learn about the infrastructure of the music business as I am on learning how to put a great song together."
Just being around these great people that all advocate for ownership, they advocate for understanding of the infrastructure of the business and being vertically integrated in your brand, these are all things that I took away and that I felt privileged to be able to be in the spaces to learn this information and apply it. I just have a high respect for people that could create that because I see so many people get taken advantage of just because they don't choose to take a vested interest in the business of their own career. It's like, "I get it. I know we're all creators," but that's the thing. If you're going to take it from being a hobbyist to making it a career, you've got to understand both. You have to have a healthy working knowledge of both.
Right now, the fight against police brutality and racial injustice is at the top of the music community's minds and hearts. From your perspective how you describe the current situation and what does change look like for you?
In terms of describing feelings about it, it's a wide range of emotions trying to process all of the things going on because it's happening in real time. I think it's definitely a marathon and not a sprint. I think it's amazing though that it's transitioned from just being a fight that you would only see Black people fighting for to, everybody is tired of this archaic system that's been oppressing people for so long. I think that speaks to just how bad it was.
For a long time it was only people of color and Black people that were fighting for this equality and then that there were so many people that just didn't understand it or, because based on how they grew up or who they grew up with, there was a disconnect. Now I feel like with technology being the way it is, being able to see what was hidden for so long because of media agendas and whatnot, now it's become a world issue and everybody's taking a vested interest in breaking this system down.
I know it's going to be a long fight but I think so much amazing is going to come from this, like amazing art. I know people, as creatives, we feel obligated to try to put something out right now in the middle of the time, but at the end of the day we're all human. We're still processing everything that's going on, we still have our loved ones. We're still in the middle of a pandemic while all of this is going on and dealing with ramifications of that.
2020 has been a wild time. It's been nonstop chaos, but some of the most beautiful things grow after the storm. I think some of the art is going to be amazing that comes from this. I think people are becoming more engaged in the political process, whereas [before] a lot of things were swept under the rug or bypassed because a lot of people never took a interest in understanding how politics work or understanding infrastructure and how they fit in the pie. But now, everybody's looking at everything with a microscope. I think overall, it's going to be to the betterment of the culture and climate. Not just creatives, but I mean everybody.
Where do you turn to make sure that you're emotionally rested and healthy during such chaotic times?
Man, I think music is that for me. Music is definitely my therapy, is definitely my release. When I'm creating music, when I'm sitting focused on mixing music, it's like my escape for that little portion, a couple hours of work from everything that's going on.
I think it's important because I think some people feel the fight for justice has to be a 24/7, 365 thing, but it's important to take breaks because you're not going to sprint a marathon. It's important to find your stride. It's important to take those breaks and make sure that your energy stays centered because it gets overwhelming. Life in general gets overwhelming. With a lot of the things that we've been seeing it's been a lot of sensory overload. When I start feeling like that, man, I just put Pro Tools on and try to figure out something to create. That usually gives me peace of mind for the day.
You have so many different experiences and talents, and as the cliché goes, "You got your whole life to make your debut album, and just two years or whatever to make your sophomore album." But you could really take your career in any direction you want. What you're thinking about doing next and long term.
Definitely more music on the way. I've been working on another project that's almost done already, actually. I'm working around the clock.
I think my short-term goals is I want to be a successful artist to create a platform that will allow the funneling of information in regards to the music business to make sense for people. A lot of people, it depends on how they see you to be willing to receive the information. You can hear the right information from somebody that you're unfamiliar with, and it may strike you differently if it's somebody you are familiar with. I just understand how that goes and with all the things that I advocate for, I understand that my platform has to be a little bigger for it to really resonate and to stick with the massive. That's my goal.
My goal has never really just been to be rich and famous. I just want to be comfortable. I want to make sure my family's taken care of. And then the biggest part of this pursuit is leaving a legacy that impacts people after me, that's always been my thing. I want to create opportunities. I want to create pipelines for independent artists who want to pursue a major situation or who want to eventually stay indie, but understanding what each of those roles come with and understanding what things they need to have in place to make sure that they're handling their business well-roundedly and successfully.
And then being an engineer. Mixing engineer, master engineer is my long-term thing. I can do that until I'm old. When being an artist is no longer a pursuit of mine, I just want to be the guy behind the scenes getting all the cables out, going through the process and mixing all the records.
Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.
Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.
A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.
This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system.
"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."
He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.
"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.
To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood."
Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at GRAMMY.com every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes.
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.