Photo: Renata Raksha
Valerie June Dreams Of A Better World On New Album 'The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers'
Singer/songwriter Valerie June tells GRAMMY.com about how her latest album, 'The Moon And Stars,' urges listeners to dream big in seeking change in the world
Valerie June misses the electric atmosphere of playing live in front of her fans. The Memphis, TN, singer-songwriter, nonetheless, is thankful: Her time off the road over the past year, due to the pandemic, has given her a chance to fully explore her creative identity in music, art and poetry.
"It's the first time I ever actually took the time to be an artist," June tells GRAMMY.com of her time in quarantine at home. "Usually, I just do art while it happens, while I'm doing other things. But because we had a huge [amount] of time, I actually spent hours every day … I dedicated [to] it like it was school."
That confidence and ambition shine through on her latest album, The Moon & Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers, which she co-produced with GRAMMY-winning producer Jack Splash.
Astronomy and the pursuit of living out one's dreams are at the core of The Moon & Stars, which deals with the dreamers' journey seeking positivity and "choosing to create a new world, a world similar to this world Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] described when he said, 'I have a dream,'" June explains.
Many of the album's songs underline the difficult experiences of being a dreamer. However, June knows the finish line is worth it and exudes positivity throughout The Moon & Stars. It's a message that is emboldened by June's charismatic vocals that carry a childlike sense of wonder, further heightened by a dynamic soundscape of swirling, airy R&B and folk-pop-orchestrated melodies.
In addition to The Moon & Stars, June recently released Maps for the Modern World, a new book of poetry and illustrations. For June, it felt gratifying to carve out as much time as she needed to fully explore wherever her creativity led her. Still, she admits she isn't sure she'll be able to fully give up her newfound creative muse and go back to her pre-pandemic way of life.
"I'm still going to do some shows, but I think I'll have to keep carving new time for art because it's been really important for my spirit," she says. "With all of the heaviness and the challenges that we faced in the last year, I felt a great need … to be the positivity."
GRAMMY.com spoke with Valerie June about why the moon and stars are significant metaphors on her new album, what she learned working with legendary singer Carla Thomas, and why it's important to dream big and push past failures.
Why do you think the moon and stars are a relevant metaphor for dreams?
When you have an aspirational journey, like the dream of Dr. King, it is something that seems huge. It seems bigger than you. It seems almost unattainable. And I do believe that dreams are bigger than any individual...It directly affects everyone in your friend circle and your family circle, in your city, in your community, across the planet, across the universe...And stars and moons make people think in that terms of other planetary realms. And so, it's important, first of all, to have the moon and stars be the first part of the title, which puts people in the mindset of magic. Puts people in the mindset of imagination and adventure in other worlds.
And then once they're in that mindset, then you start to talk about the prescriptions for dreamers and dreams. And the fact is that dreamers need prescription because manifesting dreams, as we say with Dr. King's dream, it's not easy. It's huge and it takes years, and you're going to get weak. And you're going to need something like art to give you courage, to keep going, to keep believing, because dreams can wither...When you hear that song and you look at the protest, then you believe in the fact that we can change and [have] the human capacity to grow.
Producer Jack Splash has worked on a variety of projects, and it seems to have seeped it with a diverse collection of songs. How did his knowledge help you fine-tune the songs on The Moon & Stars?
Well, Jack Splash, his knowledge is the wizard of my record. He is the main force that was able to take all the dimensions and all the galaxies that I was imagining and exploring and brand them into one solid phase. He produced the record; he also played instruments and joined the band on many of the songs. And he introduced me to powerhouse musicians and arrangers like Mr. e or any of the Miami-based musicians who play on the songs and the L.A. musicians who play on the songs.
He told me that there was an email that came from the GRAMMYs and it was around the first time we worked together. He said, the email's said that we need to start addressing and lift up more female producers in the music industry. And Jack said, "What do you think about it?" And I was like, "Well, I think that's a good idea. We'll see if it happens."
He thought it was an amazing idea. He started to teach me how to produce, and I sat beside him all the way through this record. He was not only believing that we should have more recognition for female producers, but willing to be one of those people who's in the industry and is opening his door to training more people, to more female producers.
On "Call Me A Fool," you talk about not letting anything stop you from trying to live your dreams. Why is that important especially in these times?
Society isn't built to support dreamers. If you want to follow a path that's paved, then you will have an easier way of life. But if you want to go down a path that is very rugged and full of plants and thorns, then the world's like, "No, no, no." So, you might be called a fool for [not] following their path. But, if you have the dream and you have a vision of what it's going to look like is as you go on down the path and once the way is clear, then you have to do it. Because if you don't, then you'll be on your deathbed and you'll be wishing that you had—life is too short for that.
"Call Me a Fool" features the legendary Carla Thomas and follows her contribution on the album's preceding track, "African Proverb." What was it like working with her?
It was amazing. At some point, I hope we can get on the stage and perform together …
I think she deserves to be noticed and honored for her contributions to American music. When I was with her, it was truly amazing. She sang with Otis Redding, and she'll tell you all kinds of great stories about that … She's the fairy godmother of the record, because all records or every dreamer's journey has to have a fairy godmother.
What's the biggest way she's influenced how you've shaped your own career?
The biggest way would be that she's from the same part of the world that I'm from. And she knows what it's like to be a Black female artist in the South who loves all genres and music.
I watched the documentary on Tina Turner recently on HBO … Tina talks about what would it be like to put out a record and not have her picture on it and people not knowing that she was Black. [She talked about] … how would that affect her ability to be who she wants to be as an artist.
I thought about people like Carla and people like me, and now I'm still asking that question. What would it be like if my color or my skin wasn't something that came up when I was making music? I think it's starting to change. But people like Carla Thomas and Tina Turner, women here who are from the same part of the world as me, they help me put change here. That's what she's done for me and what she's done for so many other amazing female artists from the South.
You recently released a new book of poetry and illustrations, Maps for the Modern World. What was your inspiration for it?
It was a very sad inspiration because my father passed four years ago. When he passed, that's when I started to [write poetry.] One of my friends from Memphis, who is a New York Times bestselling author, said to me one day, "What happened to writing? You told me you're writing a lot when your father passed." And I said, "It was going OK. I have a lot of poems I've written." She was like, "Why aren't you doing anything with them?" And I was like, "I don't really know. They're really just for me." And she said, "Well, I want to introduce you to my literary agent."
She introduced me, and I took hundreds of poems … and I showed them to her, and she loved them. That started me down a path, and the path was that I should put all of these poems together … I love Shel Silverstein … and poets who illustrate their work. My mother is a painter, so I always have loved art. And so, I started to put the illustration to [the poems] because of it.
I think that anyone who has a talent or an art or is creative, they should do that with their energy right now because we have a portal open in the world. Because they're starting to come back and we have the ability to use this portal to reset the world and to put more mindfulness and kindness out across the globe.
If you have a talent in art, that can lift people up and give them courage and empower them right now, then you should do it. So, I'm trying to do every single one I can: art, poems, and music.
I'm so honored when Amanda reached out to me and asked me to sing on the song. I thought it was a very powerful song. I cried a lot when I was working on it because there's a poem, actually, in my book that addresses a woman's right to choose … I think about how much energy we put to work saying that a woman shouldn't have the right to choose.
It just seems so unfair when we could put that energy toward making it easier for the living, for people who are already here. Because once we start opening up the doors and making it easier for people … then we also make it easier for young mothers to be able to raise their children. We make the world, our world, and our nation more harmonious and more balanced and equal and fair. That song is super powerful, and the whole movement of Roe vs. Wade is very important for women and for freedom.
And I think that's important that we make life better every day. I imagine that the world could be a lot like what John Lennon [was] saying in his song ["Imagine"], that, "[The world will be as one]."
On "Fallin'," you say that it's OK to fail in pursuit of one's dreams. Why do you think so?
When you're dreaming, you go for it. One of the things about it is, you might be successful, but you also might fail, and the chances are that you're going to fail. You're going to fail if you're a dreamer. I've failed so many times, and I've fallen. One thing you got to know about falling is that it's OK.
Photo: Danny Clinch
On 'Weathervanes,' Jason Isbell Accepts His Internal Pressures And Fears
With a revealing HBO documentary in the rearview and his first major acting role onscreen in the fall, Jason Isbell is coming to terms with having a public face. His new album with the 400 Unit, 'Weathervanes,' is the product of that self-realization.
At this stage, a Jason Isbell album isn't just an album; it's a juncture in his ongoing press narrative, another breadcrumb trail as per his personal life.
His first three after he left Drive-By Truckers represent the man in the wilderness; 2013's Southeastern and 2015's Something More Than Free were reflective of his newfound sobriety and marriage to musician Amanda Shires.
The birth of his daughter figured heavily in 2017's GRAMMY-winning The Nashville Sound; that album's "If We Were Vampires," a duet with Shires, stands as Isbell's monument to mortality and won a GRAMMY.
With 2020's Reunions came a splashy New York Times feature about Isbell and Shires' marital struggles, with a lede about a brush with a relapse — suddenly, his ascendance seemed freighted, complicated.
All this begs the question: is having his private life codified and illuminated with each record ever irksome, or frustrating, for Isbell?
"Honestly, I think I appreciate that. I think that serves the ultimate purpose of making art — to document your life, because it is really a way of holding on to these things," he tells GRAMMY.com. "If you leave those things behind, they'll sneak up on you, and then you'll find yourself in a bad place, and you won't know why."
Isbell's new album, Weathervanes, is out June 9; it's his sixth with long-running backing band the 400 Unit. At its essence is a psychologically splintered cast of characters, found on highlights like "Death Wish," "King of Oklahoma" and "This Ain't It."
"They're fallible and they're human. And I think they're all trying to do their best in one way or another," Isbell says of the ties that bind them. "There's a lot of me that's in each of them — some moreso than others."
Rather than commenting on his marriage or sobriety, Weathervanes is the product of his changed relationship with pressure, and being in the public eye. The album arrives in the wake of Running With Our Eyes Closed, a raw-nerved HBO documentary about Isbell. He just acted in his first major film, in Martin Scorcese's Killers of the Flower Moon, headed to theaters in October.
"It's OK to say, 'This is a scary thing to do. I'm afraid that people aren't going to connect with it in the same way, and my work is not going to have the same impact on folks that it's had in the past,'" Isbell says. "And once I learned how to admit that to myself and the people that I care about, things got a lot easier."
Read on for an in-depth interview with Isbell about the road to Weathervanes, how being directed by Scorcese informed his process in the studio and surviving his hard-partying, hard-touring Drive-By Truckers days.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Can you draw a thread between where you were at during the Reunions period, and where you're at during the Weathervanes era? The HBO documentary certainly captured the former.
Yeah, yeah. And then, in the middle, we had the lockdown and all that kind of stuff.
For me, the pandemic era — although it's not finished yet, but what we call that pandemic era, that year or two where we were all stuck in the house — was ultimately a good time for me to revisit some psychological, emotional questions that I had for myself, and I sorted a lot of that stuff.
When the bulk of the documentary was made, I was having a hard time dealing with the pressures of my work, and the pressures of family. And the main reason why I was dealing with that was because I just wasn't recognizing it for what it was, and I wasn't aware of the effect that those things were having on me.
Getting stuck in the house with my family and myself for that long, I think, really helped me; it forced me to confront that stuff and admit what it really was that was causing me difficulties. And once I got through that, things opened up and got a lot easier for me.
I had a really, really good time making Weathervanes. I don't know if I had a good time writing it, because I don't know if that's ever exactly fun. It's fun when you finish a song; it feels like you just left the gym.
But when you're sitting down in front of the blank page, it feels like you're walking into the gym, and you might have just gotten four hours of sleep the night before.
What were you dealing with internally? Just childhood stuff, stuff bugging you from the past?
There was some of that. It was also just relationship difficulties; they were just constant.
Amanda and I have been married for 10 years, and it's the kind of thing where you get in this rhythm of life where you go through the same sort of rituals every day, and you ask the same questions and you get the same answers, and it's easy to get into that monotony and not really reach and look for ways to grow.
I think before the pandemic happened, I'd gotten to a point where I was in this rhythm: go out and play shows, make records, come home, spend time with the family. I was sort of ignoring the pressure of all that, and especially in the work.
I've been very fortunate with my last few albums that they were well-received and things have gone really well. And when I go into the studio to make a record… it was hard for me to admit to myself that that caused me anxiety and a lot of stress, because I didn't like how it made me look. I wanted to look tough and look like I had everything under control.
And after making Reunions, I realized that that's not necessarily the case. And once I learned how to admit that to myself and the people that I care about, things got a lot easier.
What psychological or spiritual wells were you drawing from for these songs?
I try to make these characters, and then I follow them around. And I don't know exactly what they're going to do next. I think that's the only way to keep it really natural.
There's a lot of me that's in each of them — some moreso than others. Some of the songs I write, I am writing about me.
But one of the things that I like about songwriting is that you don't really categorize music in that way. You categorize movies and books in that way; there's fiction and nonfiction, there's documentaries and other movies. But for songs, it's all of the above.
So, a lot of this is me, and a lot of it is synthesized characters that have characteristics of multiple people that I know. Then, I just let them act naturally and follow them around, and the themes find there way in there.
I don't have to insert the themes, because there's enough in my unconscious mind that the songs will wind up dealing with real things — as long as I'm honest with everybody.
There's a wide variety of perspectives and experiences in these songs. What do the Weathervanes characters have in common?
I think when it's done right, they have the same things in common that the listeners have. They're fallible and they're human. And I think they're all trying to do their best in one way or another.
That's maybe what I'm exploring more than anything else — not as a mission statement, but a connector, in hindsight, is this idea that people have different circumstances, influences and pressures exerted on them. But what does it mean to try to keep hope, and survive, and do your best in all these different stations of life?
I'm a Randy Newman fanatic; he can dispense a novel's worth of detail in just a few lines, by implying so much negative space. I've noticed you've written in character from the beginning, like him.
When I met Randy at Newport [Folk Festival], I told him the thing about how much I loved his work and everything, and he leaned in really close where nobody could hear and whispered in my ear, "I like your songs, too." That was a huge, huge moment for me. I said, "Well, you don't strike me as much of a bulls—er, so I'm going to take that."
One of your guiding lights for Reunions' sound was the '80s rock you enjoyed as a kid. What was the aural aesthetic for Weathervanes? And can you talk about the learning curve of self-production?
I started thinking, OK, here's how these records by Dire Straits and the Police sounded, and this is why they sounded that way, and this is what worked about that, and what translates to now and what doesn't, and what can be replicated and what can't.
So, I brought some of that with me into the Weathervanes recording. Most obviously, on a song like "Save the World," there was an intention I had before I went in the studio. This happens to me a lot. I'll get a big idea, and I'll think, Oh, this is great. We can do the whole record this way.
And by the time I'm in the studio, I'll think, OK, maybe we just use this as a tool. We don't do the entire record like this. Because then, that would take over the concept and distract from everything else.
At first, I wanted to make a dry record. I was listening to [1978's] Outlandos [d'Amour], the Police record, and there's hardly any room or reverb or anything. "Roxanne" — all those songs are right in your ear. And that's a flex, because to do that, you have to be able to sing and play with great tuning and great timing.
And the Police — first of all, there's just three of them, so it's easier to do than it is with five or six people. But they also were master musicians, and you have to be really on point to make a dry record like that, or it's going to be a mess when you go to sing the harmony.
That was something that I wound up using as a tool. I think a lot of this record has less reverb and less room on it than you would expect. I think it was done in a way where you don't necessarily notice it off the bat.
Also, watching the Get Back documentary, I thought, Man, these guys didn't have tuners. They just tuned it by ear for the whole record.
I didn't want to torture my guitar techs, so I wasn't going to make a whole record without any tuners. But there are some moments on this record where we tuned by ear rather than tuning to a machine, so it would sound more human. Really, a lot of my production style — if there is such a thing — is how do we get a little dose of humanity of something that is sort of slick and polished.
I interviewed [Drive-By Truckers co-leader] Patterson [Hood] on Zoom last year, and I was struck at how sweet and energetic he was. How did you guys walk away from those hard-touring years alive and intact?
We don't know the answer to that. We got very lucky. Also, we were white and we were male, and I think that plays a lot pinto it. I think if we had not been white, some cop would've shot us all a long time ago.
I don't know if there was some kind of divine intervention in some of those situations, but I still look back on it and think, I don't know how we survived all that. I really don't.
Were there any near-death experiences?
Oh, there were so many. We saw huge, disastrous accidents happen right in front of us. There were times when we'd be on snowy mountain passes and lose control of the van for 20 seconds, and then finally it would snap back into place. I don't know how it happened.
On a different note, you touched on gun violence in "Save the World." I was struck by how un-preachy it was. I felt like I was in your head, or privy to a family meeting.
That's the trick, you know? You have to be really personal with it, I think.
If you're writing a song about a big, heavy topic like that, don't try to ascend somebody else's perspective. Love, romance, breakups, heartbreak, death; we all have experiences with those things.
So, if that's what you're writing about, you're free to take other perspectives other than your own, because we all have that commonality. We know what those things feel like, or what the fear of those things feels like.
But when you're writing about something like school shootings: I have not been involved in one of those. I've not seen one of those go down firsthand. I've been close a couple of times, but it's not something that I could write from the perspective of somebody who was actually in the building.
So to be honest with the work, what I have to do is think: How does this affect me? How do I feel about this? And then write from that perspective. I don't think anybody's ever noticed this, but the songs where I'm tackling the biggest, most complicated issues are the ones where I'm writing from the most personal point.
Give me your personal MVP moments from the members of the 400 Unit on Weathervanes.
[Guitarist] Sadler [Vaden] has this old Vox guitar that has built-in fuzz effects, and he played on that on "Miles," the last song on the album, and really added something special to that.
It's a vintage guitar, but not a highly collectible, very expensive guitar. It's got this weird kind of freak-out fuzz tone that is included in the instrument, and he used that on that song to great success.
Jimbo [Hart]'s bass on "Middle of the Morning" is just a beautiful groove. It's a simple part, but the timing of it it is just exactly right. He's just right in the pocket.
Chad [Gamble], on the outro to Miles, where there's multiple drum kits happening — I think he handled that beautifully, and built up to that big cymbal crash at the end.
We wanted a gong, but Blackbird [Studio in Nashville] didn't have a gong. They had this crash cymbal that was 72 inches or something; it was huge. It took up the whole reverb chamber. When Chad made the big crash at the end, we were all jumping up and screaming in the control room when it happened because it was so f—ing hilarious.
Derry [deBorja] — I feel like his synthesizer part on "Save the World" was a big moment for him. He spent a lot of time on that. We tried to send the clock from the Pro Tools session to the analog synthesizer and get it to line up.
It proved to be a very complicated exercise, because we were trying to marry new technology and old technology, but he found a way to make it work.
Let's end this with a lightning round. I polled my Facebook friends on what they'd want to ask you; it's a mix of New York music industry people and hometown friends from California.
This one's from Ryan Walsh, who leads a rock band called Hallelujah the Hills. He asks if when "white nationalist monsters" figure out your politics and tell you on Twitter they won't listen to you again, "do they really abandon ship, or is even that promise nothing but some sad barkin'?"
I don't think most of those were ever fans to begin with. I refuse to believe that those people have been actually listening to my songs all along. I think they see something that somebody's retweeted, and then they Google me and they see that I'm a musician, and they say, "I was your fan until just now." I think it's all just a b—shit tactic.
The jazz-adjacent singer/songwriter Dara Tucker says, "I'd like to hear his thoughts on Gordon Lightfoot."
Oh, Gordon was amazing. I played a song that I wrote, "Live Oak," last week, after Gordon's passing. I mentioned from the stage that I don't think I could have written that song without Gordon's work. The way he dealt with place, and the way he made folk music very specific to his own life.
I think "Carefree Highway" was the first song where I had that kind of lightbulb moment, where I thought, Oh, he's feeling really bad about something. This is not a celebration. This is not hippy-dippy s—. This is somebody saying, "I'm sorry." And that was a big moment for me.
Journalist Tom Courtenay asks, "Does he think Nashville/radio's gatekeeping is fixable, or does it only make sense for anyone remotely subversive to work outside of it at this point?"
I think what, if anything, will fix it, is when this particular brand of straight white male country music is no longer as popular as it is.
I don't think that's a good thing. I would love to see it fixed from the inside. But the way I picture the state of popular country music right now is they're staring at a machine with a whole bunch of buttons, and there's one button that they know will spit out money when they hit it, so they just keep hitting it.
They won't take their hand off of it long enough to try any of the other buttons, even though some of the other buttons might spit out more money.
Singer/songwriter Ephraim Sommers asks, "What is his greatest difficulty, obstacle or weakness as a songwriter, and how has he worked to overcome it?"
Humor is hard. It's hard because I laugh a lot in my everyday life, and it's hard to find a way to work humor into a song. The way that I work to overcome it is just by trying to notice different situational details that would create a funny image in a song.
It's something I'm not very good at. John Prine was great at it; Todd Snider's great at it. But to be funny without being bitter in the kind of songs that i write is a real challenge.
I don't want it to be funny in a self-referential way. I would like for it to be funny no matter who was saying it or writing it. That's a tough one for me, but I just keep trying over and over and over, until finally the joke is present enough for somebody to get it.
I'll close with my own question: What's grist for the mill creatively for you right now? What are you listening to, reading or watching?
Jennifer Egan, The Candy House; I'm reading that right now. Last night, we watched Guy Ritchie's The Covenant, the war movie. That was good. Of course, I like "Succession."
Right now, I'm just super excited about the Scorcese movie that I was in. I heard rumors that the trailer's coming out tomorrow.
Tell me about that.
That process of working on that movie really found its way into the studio when I went back to record — just the way Scorcese was able to hear other people's opinions and collaborate while still keeping his vision.
Actors are people — they're not instruments — so you can't completely manipulate them, no matter how good you are at directing. So, it's not like the director is the guitar player and the actor is the guitar. There are a bunch of real humans in the room, so they're all going to have opinions and ways of delivering things.
To see him navigate that and hear everything — and still make the movie that he saw in his mind — was a pretty incredible thing for me.
Photo: Joseph Rosen
Here's What Went Down At The 2023 Blues Music Awards In Memphis
A crowd of more than 1,100 filled the ballroom of the Renasant Convention Center in Memphis for a music-filled show. Here are four takeaways from the soulful evening.
For more than four decades — even during the pandemic — the Memphis-based Blues Foundation has annually recognized the genre's best, including such GRAMMY-winning luminaries as B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
On May 11, the foundation presented the 44th Annual Blues Music Awards, featuring a host of blues mainstays — as well as younger artists who combine the various strains of the blues with diverse strands of Americana.
A crowd of more than 1,100 filled the ballroom of the Renasant Convention Center in Memphis for a music-filled show that packed 25 awards and more than a dozen musical performances into a deceptively tight five-hour show.
Here are four takeaways from this year's Blues Music Awards:
Big Winners Were Touched By Tribulations
This was the second in-person BMA ceremony following two years of virtual presentations due to COVID. But while the pandemic has abated, illness still loomed over some of the night's wins.
Tommy Castro, who won B.B. King Entertainer of the Year for the second year in a row — and whose band is, ironically, called the Painkillers — missed the ceremony because he was recuperating from back surgery. His award was accepted by his frequent collaborator, Deanna Bogart, also a winner for Best Instrumentalist - Horns.
BMA regular John Németh, who recently survived a bout with a jaw tumor, was thankful just to be alive to accept his two awards on the night, one for best instrumentalist-harmonica and another for Best Traditional Blues Album for the aptly-titled May be the Last Time, a collaboration with Elvin Bishop and others that was recorded two weeks before his cancer surgery.
"I had no idea if I was going to be able to make it here tonight, but I did," said Nemeth to a round of applause. "I want to thank the Blues Foundation, I want to thank their HART Fund, and I want to thank everybody who donate to my GoFundMe to help me get a brand-new jawbone so I can play some more harmonica."
Repeat Winners Ruled The Night
A lot of familiar names were called out from the stage. In addition to Nemeth, Buddy Guy (Album of the Year and Contemporary Blues Album) and blues rock up-and-comer Albert Castiglia (Blues Rock Album and Blues Rock Artist) each won two awards on the night.
Meanwhile, Castro led the way among artists winning categories for consecutive years, including Albert Castiglia (Blues Rock Artist), Danielle Nicole (Instrumentalist Bass), Curtis Salgado (Soul Blues Male Artist) and Sue Foley (Traditional Blues Female Artist).
Perhaps most impressive though was GRAMMY-winning blues guitarist Christone "Kingfish" Ingram, who won Contemporary Blues Male Artist for an impressive fourth year in a row.
While ccepting the award, a humble Ingram said he hadn't prepared anything to say because he didn't expect to win. Right then, he thanked his fellow nominees, and returned to the stage for an acoustic set that showcased his strong, assured vocals as much as his adroit fretwork.
Hill Country Blues Are Alive And Well
The night before the BMAs, the Blues Foundation held a ceremony at the Halloran Centre in downtown Memphis to induct a new class into the Blues Hall of Fame.
This included departed greats Esther Phillips, Carey Bell, Snooky Pryor, Fenton Robinson, Josh White, and Junior Kimbrough, the late Holly Springs bluesman who helped pioneer what has become the North Mississippi Hill Country style.
At the BMAs, the sound made famous by Kimbrough and his close contemporary, the late R.L. Burnside, proved to be alive and well.
R.L.'s grandson, GRAMMY winner Cedric Burnside, who holds an impressive 10 BMAs, was, scheduled to perform but, for whatever reason, missed his slot.
His uncle Duwayne Burnside, who has written and played with his father, Kimbrough, and the North Mississippi Allstars, among others, carried the torch. He played an acoustic set of hill country classics backed by R.L.'s longtime guitarist Kenny Brown.
Young Artists Made Their Mark
Veteran blues artists dominated this year's BMAs, but a handful of young performers broke through at the show as well, wowing the audience with their performances.
McComb, Mississippi's Mr. Sipp (aka, Casto Coleman) returned to close out the night with a gospel-infused closing set that brought the crowd to their feet.
Two more former emerging artist winners also provided show highlights: GRAMMY-nominated band Southern Avenue rocked the house with an inspired acoustic stage mini set, featuring a trio of female voices.
Meanwhile, Detroit's Annika Chambers and her musical partner Paul DesLauriers delivered a high-energy segment that fused rock and soul into their blues.
Joining these up-and-comers was this year's Emerging Artist winner, 22-year-old St. Louis native Dylan Triplett.
A prodigy blessed with a four-and-a-half octave vocal range, Triplett took the stage early with his band to play R&B-inflected selections from his debut album, Who Is He? When his name was called for his award, he acknowledged his faith and thanked his parents — including his father, saxophone player Art Pollard.
Clearly, the blues are alive and well — and the 2023 Blues Music Awards remain a critical part of this magnificent musical sphere.
Photo: Brill/ullstein bild via Getty Images
5 Artists Influenced By Tracy Chapman: Brandi Carlile, Khalid, Tori Amos & More
Thirty-five years after Tracy Chapman’s eponymous first LP hit the shelves, take a look at the artists who owe a debt of gratitude to the 13-time GRAMMY-nominee.
Renowned for her stripped-back folky sound, social conscience and storytelling abilities, Tracy Chapman has never really fitted into the pop landscape. The singer/songwriter emerged in the late 1980s, a period when big-voiced power balladeers and exuberant teen princesses were all the rage. And throughout the following two decades, the Cleveland native continued to assemble an impressive body of work that remained utterly impervious to fleeting chart trends.
Chapman's determination to carve out her own distinct path has undeniably reaped its rewards. Her self-titled debut album topped the Billboard 200 in 1988, sold 20 million copies and received six GRAMMY nominations; she won three (Best Contemporary Folk Album, Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and the coveted Best New Artist). A mid-'90s career resurgence, meanwhile, helped to boost her awards tally, with biggest hit "Give Me A Reason" picking up Best Rock Song.
And whether standing in for Stevie Wonder at Nelson Mandela's 70th Birthday Tribute Concert or performing "Talkin’ Bout a Revolution" on the eve of the 2020 presidential election, Chapman has used her earthy voice to soundtrack several key historical moments. And the very traditional kind of artist even unwittingly became a viral sensation thanks to a powerful rendition of Ben E. King classic "Stand By Me" in aid of David Letterman's late-night retirement.
Although Chapman hasn't released a studio album since 2008's Our Bright Future, her music has remained an ever-present. From Sam Smith and Justin Bieber, to Passenger and Luke Combs, it's probably quicker to list which contemporary acts haven't covered her defining single "Fast Car" in recent years; dance producer Jonas Blue even took it back into the Hot 100 In 2015.Kelly Clarkson, Black Pumas and Jamila Woods have all paid tribute by tackling different songs from Chapman's remarkably consistent oeuvre, too.
Of course, Chapman's modern-day cachet extends beyond the odd song. Here's a look at five artists who have credited the star as a formative influence on their entire careers.
Just like Chapman, Khalid racked up a glut of GRAMMY nominations with his debut album, American Teen. And while promoting the record on BBC Radio One's Live Lounge in 2018, the chart-topper doffed his cap to one of its major influences with an acoustic reworking of "Fast Car." An obvious choice, perhaps, but speaking to Forbes later that same year, Khalid insisted that he was far from just a fair-weather fan.
"For me, Tracy Chapman was just someone who inspires me in terms of songwriting," the "Talk" hitmaker revealed. "When I think about songwriting just how she can make you feel like you're in that moment." Chapman was also the first name that came to mind when Khalid was asked about his biggest musical inspiration in our One Take series.
Lisa Marie Presley
The late Lisa Marie Presley took her time following in her father's footsteps, releasing her debut album, To Whom It May Concern, at the relatively late age of 35. But it was the music of singer/songwriters such as Linda Ronstadt, Shelby Lynne and, in particular, Tracy Chapman (rather than the rock and roll of Elvis) that informed her sound.
In a 2012 chat to promote third LP Storm and Grace, Presley told Rolling Stone India, "I've never met Tracy, but she's always been a huge influence on me; I don't even know if she knows that. From her first album until everything, she's been such an influence on me as a singer-songwriter."
Presley also referenced Chapman in an interview with the Huffington Post about her musical inspirations, adding, "I love women who sing, and they mean what they're saying, and they reach in and grab you. It moves you. You can feel the singer, and it's for real." And while appearing on BBC Radio 2’s Tracks of My Years in 2013, the star selected "Smoke and Ashes" from Chapman's 1995 LP New Beginning as one of her all-time favorites.
"The missing link between Memphis Minnie and Tracy Chapman" is how singer/songwriter Valerie June was once described. No doubt that Chapman, whose sound combines folk-pop with everything from soul and bluegrass to traditional Appalachian music, would have been on board with such comparisons.
June became a die-hard Chapman fan while growing up in Jackson, Tennessee, as she explained to the Washington Post in 2014: "I wanted to perform from probably the age of four or five, but I never believed I could. I saw Tracy Chapman and Whitney Houston and wanted to be like them. But I thought, 'Yeah, no way. They didn't come from a little old place like this.'"
Of course, June did manage to carve a niche for herself in the wider world. She even picked up a Best American Roots Song nod at the 2022 GRAMMYs for "Call Me A Fool," a collaboration with Stax legend Carla Thomas. And one of her proudest career moments was following in Chapman's footsteps by appearing on "Austin City Limits."
Brandi Carlile has achieved several GRAMMY milestones throughout her glittering career. The Americana favorite was the most-nominated artist at the 2019 ceremony in which she took home three gongs. Then in 2022, she became the first-ever female songwriter to pick up two Song Of The Year nods simultaneously. And the music of Tracy Chapman helped set Carlile on her 24-time nominated path.
Carlile has frequently acknowledged the influence that the "Fast Car" hitmaker has had on her career. While hosting "Somewhere Over the Radio," a SiriusXM show designed to celebrate "queer excellence," the star played one of her most cherished Chapman songs. And during her 2023 A Special Solo Performance tour, she brought out wife Catherine to perform a duet of New Beginning cut "The Promise."
Carlile is such a fan that while responding to a fan on Twitter in the pandemic-hit 2020, she argued that one of the few ways the year could redeem itself was if Chapman dropped a new album.
Eight-time GRAMMY nominee Tori Amos and Tracy Chapman began their careers in tandem: David Kershenbaum executive produced the eponymous first albums from both the former's short-lived synth-pop outfit Y Kant Tori Read and the latter singer-songwriter around the same time. And the flame-haired pianist was one of the first to recognize that her counterpart was something special.
In a Pitchfork interview about her musical tastes, Amos revealed that Tracy Chapman essentially changed her entire outlook. "It woke me up and took me back to my 5-year-old self, who was creating from a pure place of intention of music being magic, as a place where we could walk into and feel many different things."
Amos subsequently ditched the crop top, leather pants and copious amounts of hairspray and, like Chapman, followed her artistic instincts. When asked by Glamour magazine in 2012 which female artists its younger readers should explore, the "Cornflake Girl" hitmaker didn't hesitate in mentioning her fellow 1988 debutant.
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.