How Tate McRae Turned A "Full Identity Crisis" Into Her Debut Album, 'I Used To Think I Could Fly'
Teenage singer/songwriter Tate McRae details how her new album, 'i used to think i could fly,' served as a cathartic coming-of-age journey, and why it's important to be vulnerable in her music.
At 18, it may seem like Tate McRae is just getting started. But a career in music is something she's been working toward practically her whole life, posting her first original song on her YouTube page at just 7 years old. So how did she feel upon releasing her debut album, i used to think i could fly?
"The fact that it's actually here," she said on the eve of its May 27 release, "makes me want to, honestly, puke a little bit."
McRae has never shied away from being brutally honest in her music, which likely contributes to her nerves — but also, her appeal. The Canadian singer/songwriter's breakout single, 2020's "you broke me first," proved that her unabashed vulnerability is connecting. Peaking at No. 1 on Mediabase's Pop Radio chart in 2021, the song now has 1.4 billion combined streams worldwide.
i used to think i could fly continues McRae's candid lyricism while taking her sound from lo-fi to arena-ready, exemplified by tracks like the anthemic "she's all i wanna be" and the punk-leaning "what would you do?" Whether it's a hard-hitting ballad such as "chaotic" or an uptempo jam like the Nelly-sampling "don't come back," each track shows that McRae is ready to be one of her generation's most raw-and-real superstars.
GRAMMY.com chatted with McRae about why it's important for her to be so open, the "identity crisis" that influenced her album, and which lyrics hit her just as hard as they hit fans.
You've said that you treat your song like your diary entries. Do you ever have moments when you realize that this stuff that's really private and personal to you is about to be in the hands of everyone?
I'm a pretty private person otherwise — you know, aside from literally writing my feelings and putting them on the internet. But it is really scary when you think about real people listening to it, [especially] people that I know. It's terrifying because no one wants to ever look that sensitive or vulnerable. But I genuinely think that my true fans are gonna really appreciate the lyrics, and the honesty and rawness of the record.
Did any of the reactions to any of the songs that you've released — especially "you broke me first," since it became so big — inspire the way that you approached this album?
Actually getting to perform my songs for the first time influenced my writing a lot. Getting to see actual fans sing back my lyrics felt like I can't stand up on stage and preach something that I don't believe. I definitely need to be talking about real shit and real stuff that I really believe in, and I want others to hear too.
Are there any songs on this album that are so personal that you've thought, "Oh s<em></em>*, is this really being released?"
There's this one song called "hate myself." This song definitely put me through a wringer as I was recording and writing it. I feel like a lot of people write from the perspective of blaming the other person because it's the easiest thing to do. But in this song, I point out all of my biggest flop flaws as a person, which is so scary. I mean, I'm just full-on exposing myself to the whole world.
It talks about how when you care about people, and sometimes when you love people so much, you push them away. And I think that's just a coping mechanism that I do. So that whole song is basically admitting that I push people away that I truly care about, and care about it — and that's really scary that I'm releasing it.
There are several lyrics that cut like a knife on this album. Obviously you've felt all of these lyrics at one point, but are there any that still kind of sting because of how raw and real you were?
The one lyric that really hurts in "i still say goodnight" is "I couldn't say much/ I was distracted/ You seem so anxious/ Like you had something to hide/ Tell me it's nothing/ I don't believe you/ I know that look you get when you're about to lie." That feeling of staring at someone dead in the eye and knowing that they're blatantly lying to you is so crazy because you can never know if someone's telling you the truth or not. It's all based on your intuition and if you trust them. It's terrifying!
Then there's also this lyric in "boy x" at the end of the chorus, "And when you get bored like you always do/ Tell me that you'll let her go before you look for someone new." It's [about] a wandering eye, when someone's in a relationship and they start looking for other people while they're still seeing someone. I think that's one of the grossest things ever. It perfectly targeted exactly how I felt about the situation.
On the opposite end, is there a lyric that you hear back and you're like, "Damn, I wrote that?"
My favorite bridge on the album is in "hate myself." "So off I go to hurt you again/ I'll shut you out to try and forget/ That I'm the one who's f<em></em><em>ed in the end/ 'Cause, baby, you'll be happier with someone else/ So if I go to hurt you again/ I'll shut you out to try and forget/ That I'm the one who's f</em><em></em>ed in the end/ 'Cause you couldn't hate me more than I hate myself."
I remember writing this with this producer named Blake Slatkin. It was just me and him in the room, and I had just finished writing all the lyrics, and we were like, "Okay, we need a big bridge." We were standing on opposite sides of the room like screaming this bridge. We were like, "F<em></em>* yeah! This is perfect!"
It perfectly summarizes the feeling of blaming yourself for everything, but at the end of the day, the reason why this is all so painful is because I pushed you away, and now I'm the one who's getting hurt because you're going to be much happier with someone else and I'm going to watch you live your life and be incredibly happy. And that's going to be the hardest part.
I have to say, for being 18, you're incredibly intuitive about this kind of stuff. I'm impressed. I also feel like that's kind of the nature of teenagers these days. They are really in their feels, and the music that's popular today — yours included — is really vulnerable. Does it feel like that way on the artist's side, that the most vulnerable music is the most popular?
There's generic lyrics and, like, party songs, and everyone can listen to that. But at the end of the day, what people are going to end up going back to is the stuff that they feel in their gut.
Especially my generation, with social media, and the pandemic happening, and everything that's going on, I feel like a lot of people are bad at talking about their emotions. So a lot of people my age go to music in order to get that outlet — they're like feeding for something that's gonna feel really honest to them. So as an artist, I'm like, "This is the kind of music that I want to listen to, so this is obviously what I want to write."
You've explained that you had a "big identity crisis" in the middle of writing this album, which in part inspired the title i used to think i could fly. Can you elaborate on what you were going through, and how this album helped you through it?
When I first moved to LA, I got put into a bunch of writing sessions with a lot of different people. And I was so confused because I was being fed so many different opinions on who I should be, how I should talk, what I should say and what kind of music I should put out. And I've never been one to listen to people — I mean, that sounds horrible. [Laughs.]
I've just always gone with my own gut, and I've always been like, "No, I'm gonna do it my way." And it was really confusing for a while, because I was like, "Who the hell am I?" And I'm not at home anymore. I'm by myself. I'm meeting a whole bunch of friends who I don't even know if they're my friends. I was going through my first heartbreak. There were so many factors that I was so confused, and I was having a full identity crisis. And then when I started writing music that was like, "Oh, this is how I'm feeling," that's when it started to settle down a bit.
This album takes your sound to another level, with fuller production and more fast-paced, anthemic songs. What were the main catalysts for that?
The aspect of live shows, doing that for the first time, I was like, I want to not have a boring show. I want to put on a show where people are able to scream at me.
It wasn't sprouted from, like, "I want to sound rock-y" or "I want to have this musical instrument in my music." It was very much like, if I was so pissed off one day, I ended up writing a really pissed off song that ended up turning into some sort of punky song. Then I was at Finneas' house and I was so sensitive that day, so we started writing this like really classic piano. The difference in all of my songs is so wide, but I feel like that's what perfectly captures an identity crisis — in a beautiful way.
I feel like there are so many options for what this album could have been called, like Identity Crisis or even just Mood. But I love the sentiment of i used to think i could fly, like the fact that when you're young and naive, you think anything is possible. But there is a point in time, and maybe it's when you're 18, that the reality hits and you're like, you can't fly.
Right. I didn't want this album to have a nothing title. I really do want there to be some depth and darkness in the title because I want people to take me seriously. I want people to know that I am analyzing all of everything over and over again in my head, and I'm not just picking a random title that came out of nowhere.
"Tate McRae Is Deep" is the headline here.
[Laughs] Tate McRae is actually super deep and super intellectual.
As far as getting your sound to this next level on this album, you worked with a lot of major pop players like Greg Kurstin, Finneas, Louis Bell and Charlie Puth. Did any of them in particular feel like they were crucial in getting you to this next sound level?
Yeah, Greg Kurstin. I had been doing a lot of writing sessions where I felt like I was being pushed in a lot of different directions, and he was one of the only guys that I was able to sit in a room and finally talk about — I remember, I wrote "chaotic," and that was one of the first songs that like was a switch in my album. That was one of the first songs that I was like, "Oh yes, this needs to be on my album."
His energy, and obviously, he's so insanely talented. and everything he was producing was so inspiring to me. I just feel like we gelled really well as writers and I love working with him. He's so incredible.
I've heard that for being such a prolific, superstar kind of producer, he's like the most low-key guy.
It's so funny, because everyone always asks me, "Oh, what was the process like working with him? How was the energy in the room? It must have been electric!" And I'm like, "Well…" [Laughs.]
Like, "she's all i wanna be" started as a ballad with piano chords. And I was like, quietly in the corner typing on my computer and wrote this song. I went into the studio and recorded it in full takes, and then I gave him a high five, he said "Good job," and I left. And that was the writing session. There was no discussion of the song, no nothing. The energy in the song was so personal that we were like, "Okay, good job. See you next time."
That's so funny, because that's the song that goes the most hard at your show.
I know, and I was like, whispering it in the corner of the [writing] room.
Did you have any particular moments during the tour where it really hit you that this is your job?
Well, I have really bad impostor syndrome. I have this vision that I'm not supposed to be there. So I'll show up to a venue or something, and I'm like, "No one will show up." It's very hard for me to grasp.
I went to Detroit and it was my biggest show that I played, and I just remember I released a song the night before or that night, and I was like, "Should I sing this song? It hasn't even been out for a few hours." I started singing it, and the entire place was singing the song. It was like thousands of kids, like a full choir screaming it. I remember getting full body chills and just crying. I was like, "This is wild. How is music doing this?"
And then also, at Lollapalooza [last year], it was my first big show. I did like maybe three shows that had like 100 people, but that was the extent of my singing performances.
They were really throwing you to the wolves on that one.
I was like, "What is Lollapalooza?" I had no idea. And I walked out on stage, it was like, 20,000 people, I'm like mind-blown. And I didn't realize what had happened with "you broke me first" at the time, because I [had been] like, in my basement at home in Canada. I just remember hearing people scream that song and I was like, "How do people know this? How is that like, random 42-year-old man in the back singing it?"
I mean, okay, Justin Bieber, I didn't really do anything with him. It was like a one-time performance that a whole bunch of kids did.
I mean, you still made it onstage with Justin. Even if he didn't notice you, you still made it there.
If Justin Bieber knew who I was, I would freak out. That would be literally crazy.
Just tell yourself that he knows who you are.
Yeah, he definitely knows who I am, obviously.
Photo: Andrew Chin/Getty Images
New Music Friday: Listen To New Songs From SZA With Drake & Justin Bieber, Offset, Tate McRae & More
From highly anticipated collabs to long-awaited album teasers, take a listen to six new tracks that arrived on Sept. 15.
It’s yet another big day for music enthusiasts, as listeners were gifted with unexpected collaborations and fresh new melodies from artists of every genre on Sept. 15.
With an Instagram caption-worthy single from Drake and SZA , a playful, self-confident anthem from Tate McRae, and a chill, euphoric vibe from Noah Kahan & Lizzy McAlphine, there’s plenty of different sounds to dive into.
As you’re putting together your autumn 2023 playlist, add these six new tracks to the mix.
Drake feat. SZA - "Slime You Out"
Just hours after GRAMMY winners Drake and SZA announced they’d be teaming up for a new track, the pair unleashed "Slime You Out" promptly at noon ET on Sept. 15.
As the song’s title insinuates, the duo seem to express their thoughts on someone "sliming" them out — which, in this case, refers to someone playing with their feelings. "Tryna build trust, showin’ me your DMS, how they tryna bag you / Ironic how the news I got about you ended up bein’ bad news."
Drake’s clever wordplay paired with SZA’s mellow, hypnotic voice make the single a memorable one. But perhaps it’s even more memorable because it’s been a team-up long in the making: according to Drake’s eyebrow-raising line in his 21 Savage collab "Mr. Right Now," the two used to date "back in '08."
SZA feat. Justin Bieber - "Snooze (Acoustic Remix)"
As SZA fans awaited her song with Drake, she gave them another high-profile collab in the form of a "Snooze" remix with Justin Bieber. An alluring, stripped-down version of the original SOS track, the "Snooze" remix sees SZA and Bieber passionately harmonize; added guitar chords add a dreamy touch to the song.
The remix also marks a full-circle moment for the pair, as Bieber starred in the original "Snooze" music video, which was released on Aug. 25.
Offset - "Fan"
Kicking off what seems to be his Michael Jackson era, Offset has released this newest single, "Fan." This song features an infectious, hype beat with lyrics presenting a nonchalant ‘IDGAF’ attitude: "You supposed to hold me down, but it didn't happen (You supposed to hold me down)/ Now I'm over it."
"Fan" is a taste of Offset’s forthcoming second album, Set It Off, which he will release on October 13. The LP follows his debut solo album, 2019’s Father of 4, which landed him a Best Rap Performance GRAMMY nomination for the single "Clout" featuring his wife, Cardi B.
In the "Fan" music video, Michael Jackson is heavily referenced, with moments including Offset transforming into werewolf and zombie, and dance moves like the reverse moonwalk.
Tate McRae - "Greedy"
self-confidence single "greedy." This song is a testament to McRae’s inner thoughts, as the lyrics let listeners know she’s not tolerating insecurities — and definitely not enabling any "greedy" men.
"I would want myself/ Baby, please believe me/ I'll put you through hell/ Just to know me, yeah, yeah," she sings on the chorus.
Noah Kahan feat. Lizzy McAlpine - "Call Your Mom"
Folk-pop favorite Noah Kahan teamed up with rising pop singer Lizzy McAlpine to create a new version of "Call Your Mom," an emotional track from his hit 2022 album Stick Season.
Kahan recently brought McAlpine out as a surprise guest during his sold-out show at L.A.'s Greek Theatre on Aug.11, where the two singer/songwriters performed the song for the first time together.
Written about giving unconditional support to a loved one struggling with mental health issues and depression, the moving song reaches new heights with two voices on it. Kahan’s and McAlpine’s voices perfectly blend together and capture the lyrics’ powerful emotions.
Maren Morris - The Bridge
Maren Morris dropped not one, but two new songs, "The Tree" and "Get The Hell Out of Here," which both seem to focus on a new chapter in Morris’s life. "The Tree" feels like a farewell, as she proudly sings,"I'm done fillin' a cup with a hole in the bottom/ I'm takin' an axe to the tree/ The rot at the roots is the root of the problem/ But you wanna blame it on me."
"Get The Hell Out of Here" has a more mellow country melody that also talks about growth and navigating different areas of her life. Both songs share a different story, yet share the same theme of a transitional period in her life — and tease what’s to come on her next album, which will follow 2022’s Humble Quest.
As Morris said in a statement, "These two songs are incredibly key to my next step because they express a very righteously angry and liberating phase of my life these last couple of years, but also how my navigation is finally pointing toward the future."
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.