Photo: Danny Clinch
Valerie June & Other Black Artists Call For Voter Mobilization With Upcoming Livestream Benefit Concert
The star-studded virtual show will take place on Sun., Oct. 18 in partnership with City Winery, with proceeds supporting Fair Fight and Movement Voter Project's Black-Led Organizing Fund
Americana songstress Valerie June is curating a stacked livestream concert to encourage voting in the upcoming election and benefit two organizations fighting voter suppression. Voice Your Vote will take place on Sun., Oct. 18 in partnership with City Winery and is inspired by June's "Young, Gifted and Black" Spotify playlist and the spirit of Nina Simone (the playlist's name is a nod to her groundbreaking 1969 song).
Watch: Exclusive: Valerie June On Newport Folk & "Astral Plane"
June will perform during the virtual event, along with the Black Pumas, Brittany Howard, Chastity Brown, Deva Mahal, Jon Batiste, Kandace Springs, Amythyst Kiah, Leyla McCalla, Lizz Wright, Rhiannon Giddens with the Resistance Revival Chorus, and others. More artists will be announced soon.
According to the press release, "Voice Your Vote will feature an array of Black artists, musicians, and poets, who will share their art and use their voice to uplift efforts to mobilize voting and stop voter suppression, a tactic commonly used to primarily target Black and brown communities. Proceeds from the event will be distributed to Fair Fight and Movement Voter Project's Black-Led Organizing Fund, two organizations working to support fair elections and grassroots voter mobilization around the country."
"This year, 2020, has unveiled so many wounds that we have the power to change by voting," June wrote in the release. "From systemic racism to climate change, it can feel overwhelming to look at the countless issues we're facing in the world today and to decide which ones to focus on changing, but collectively showing up in record numbers to cast our ballots is one of the simplest ways we can raise our voices. I believe that by voting in this year's election we have the power to end the year on a high note, so voice your vote."
The event will be aired on music streaming platform Mandolin on Oct. 18 at 3:00 p.m. PT / 5:00 p.m. ET / 6:00 p.m. ET. Tickets are available on City Winery's website for $15.
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.
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Photo: Ben Heath
Nick Waterhouse's 'The Fooler' Is An Evocative Tale Of A City And Relationship Lost
"This record is like the skeleton key to decode earlier works," the singer/songwriter and guitarist says of 'The Fooler.' Using the sounds of his youth in San Francisco, Waterhouse's latest ruminates on connection, memory, and the disappearance of place.
Nick Waterhouse holds an affection for a certain version of San Francisco — one that is reminiscent of Beat culture, but decidedly contemporary. His is a North Beach life filled with drunken, late-night trips to the famed City Lights bookstore, DJ gigs at clubs that no longer exist, hours spent behind the counter at one of the city’s most revered record stores, and long, stoney car rides with its most lauded music critics.
And yet, in a refrain familiar to many denizens of the cool grey city of love, Waterhouse’s San Francisco has slipped away with time, gentrification and disease. On his sixth album, The Fooler, the singer/songwriter, guitarist and producer earnestly attempts to recapture the essence of his city lost. Waterhouse doesn’t indulge in nostalgia, instead using it to frame a universal story about what happens when your "heart and your memories can betray you in really nice ways."
"It's a record about human connection and memory, and places and the disappearance of places," Waterhouse tells GRAMMY.com. "The life that we've all led the last few years — everything is radically changing. [But] I don't posit mourning in remembering these things or these lost places."
An evocative, cerebral portrait of time, place and space, The Fooler’s 12 tracks meld R&B, garage and soul — the primordial aural ooze seeping from jukeboxes in San Francisco institutions like Tosca, Specs and Café Trieste during Waterhouse's salad days. He channels the sonic boom of Phil Spector and the voice of Lee Hazelwood on lead single "Hide And Seek," evokes Dylan and the surf-rock of the Allah-Las (whom he produced) on "Late In The Garden," while literary greats like Virginia Woolf inform the narrative.
While Waterhouse has achieved what he calls a "new creative impetus" and newfound narrative songwriting skills, he has kept busy outside the confines of memory. In recent years he left his native Los Angeles for Europe, co-produced and played guitar on Lana Del Rey’s latest album, and collaborated with Jon Batiste on 2021’s GRAMMY-winning We Are. He’s revived efforts on his label, Pres, and will embark on a small tour of the U.S. and European this spring.
But for all the physical and sonic terrain traversed, Waterhouse is pulled back to the place where he first found creative success — beginning with his 2012 revival soul-leaning debut, Time’s All Gone — and found his voice. "This is the total distillation of all the spirit of what my time in San Francisco was. And what I was, in my heart, thinking and feeling too — but with some good distance and perspective," he says of The Fooler.
You needn’t haunt the bars along Columbus and Vallejo streets in San Francisco, have found love on Muni, or know the difference between the Lower and Upper Haight to enjoy The Fooler, but you’ll certainly find yourself enraptured by the dreamy figures in Waterhouse’s nuanced, yet capacious city of memory.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The press release for this album is one of the headiest I’ve read recently, with a lot of literary references and existential questions. Was this always more of a conceptual album for you?
Completely. Then this record is like the skeleton key to decode earlier works. But with this record, I also had a breakthrough in writing. And I had a sudden knowledge of how I could use perspective as a songwriter; there were traces of it in earlier works, but this is finally what I think was a holistic expression.
That feeling of discovery was a big part of what drove this, and the themes in it. It's a record about human connection and memory, and places and the disappearance of places. I was listening to an interview with John Vanderslice this morning and he talked about how radically changed in such a short period of time [San Francisco] was, but even now, it's a major metropolitan area with the most vacancies of any first world nation.
With your previous work, were you mostly writing from your own perspective, asserting yourself as the character?
In a way, yes. I always was very careful not to write selfishly — the editor in my head was like, there has to be a reason that the song makes it to being done.
This record exists in the same city that Time’s All Gone was happening in, but that record was from the street level. It was like from the bus, from only where I was sitting. I was working two jobs and anxious; it was paycheck to paycheck, going through a relationship that was fragmenting; going through an apocalyptic breakup with somebody that ended up being very meaningful in my life, but I'm not with them anymore.
Now it's like 10 to 12 years later, I can see all of that floating above it. It's like this big dialogue between the characters and the world around it. And it's looking in the windows of all these places in the city, looking into other people's lives, and almost looking into people's spirits.
I thought a lot about Virginia Woolf and consciousness. The thesis is like, what does it mean to be in a space and have human connection? How do people change your life, and who changes?
The genesis of The Fooler occurred during a trip to San Francisco earlier in the pandemic. In addition to that cataclysmic change, I read that you had a number of really big changes happen in your life — you moved out of the country, you ended a relationship. How has that impacted the sound and spirit of this record?
Some of the things you're describing happened after this record, some of them were happening during, some of them were happening, maybe unconsciously before. A lot of the topics in the record are also me touching those things. And taking from them the meaningful collagen, the bone marrow, and using it to tell a story that isn't a literalized, confessional story. That was a huge breakthrough for me writing.
Is there one tune that you feel is a high watermark of this newfound ability to write in this narrative style?
"The Fooler" to me is that song, because lyrically it's so tight and it tells this story. It’s about space and memory and it's obscure enough for people to hang their own meanings on, but to me it still has meaning. "Was It You" is more of a literal storytelling, but it's also a city song. "The Fooler" and "Late In The Garden" are epiphany songs.
I wanted to write a musical novel. I wanted to write something that made me feel like James Salter’s Light Years, one of my favorite books, Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, or Mrs. Dalloway. They're going inside and outside, and perspectives change, but it's hitting at the same core human element.
I'd love to hear more of your history about you in San Francisco. Do you see this record as a sort of tribute to that time in your life?
When I was 19, I moved on to Vallejo Street with my then closest friend from Southern California. It was hanging out at [bars like] Specs and Tosca and going to City Lights drunk at 11 o'clock to buy a book, and hang out and write, and talk to people that have ideas, and talk about all the stuff that needs doing and will be done. I also studied literature at San Francisco State and the University of East Anglia.
On my last day of university, I lived in the Upper Haight at the time — I was in exile from North Beach — and I had gone through a massive tragedy that completely disrupted and ruptured my world. I was in a really bizarre state of mind, and I was comforting myself. I was just surviving.
I was listening to a lot of Them and Van Morrison, and I was working at the record shop that brought me joy, which was Rookys in the Lower Haight. And a lot of the sound that went into the sonics of this record are these specific types of New York City records made by people like Bert Berns, and Bob Crewe, and Ellie Greenwich. Dick Vivian, who ran Rookys, was playing those records a lot.
There was this girl who I thought was the most mysterious and beautiful person I'd ever seen. We took the train twice a week to San Francisco State and we never spoke. The very last day of this course we were in, I realized she was sitting in the back of that class. She came up and sat in front of me, and she turned around and she's like, "So where are we gonna go get a drink right now?"
And I fell in love with this person. We ended up living together. Her father was the piano player for Van Morrison. All these confluences of strange things started happening. I'm not a mystical person, but it was this feeling. The way that she lived, and her humor, and her mind — she was so literary and intelligent and wry and funny, and stylish. Our life was this life that I had dreamed of.
We [once] went to a book signing at Tosca in North Beach, and the journalist Joel Selvin turned to us and he goes, "I'm writing a book on Bert Berns right now." Then Selvin started inviting me over on weekends, where he'd smoked dope and take me for a drive in his Shelby Cobra and play me all this Bert Burns stuff, and tell me all the stories that I've been dying to hear.
That sound became North Beach for me. That sound became like my salad days, because it was always on in the background and everywhere I went. I was DJing a lot — we would be at Edinburgh Castle, or at the Knockout or at Casanova, or the Elbo Room, or Koko in the Tenderloin and all the music in that period of time was like girl groups and ‘60s soul and the R&B I liked.
I orbited in similar circles, and went to many of those bars and soul DJ nights. I remember seeing you perform your first album at Bimbo’s in North Beach.
When I had my career from my first record, I went out on tour and I basically left the city and never came back fully, and the city never came back to me too.
I struggled for a long time. I had a really hard couple years trying to enter another part of my life like, Do I make records now? I tour? I don't like this. I want to go back to North Beach. I want to listen to Bert Berns records in Tosca and have my girlfriend and have my life back and have my network of friends.
Then I realized everybody else's life was getting totally disrupted, and everybody was leaving or moving. That ex, when we split up, she went to New York and I went to L.A. All our friends went off to New York or to L.A. or to Austin or to Chicago or to Berlin. And those were the people who could tell the wind was changing then.
So much of what you're saying resonates really deeply with me as a Bay Arean who no longer lives there — you want to revisit that life, but realize that it's not there anymore.
Goodbye to all that, really. The cheap thing is for it to be nostalgia, right? But it gets to a deeper thing about what is memory, what is desire, what is unrequited love? What is society doing to people?
It's about release, surrender. But also why everything's worth doing even if it's gone, or you're tricked. "Unreal" and "No Commitment" are songs about the outside world to show what these characters are rebelling against or living among. And then like other songs like "Looking For A Place" or "Was It You" or "Was The Style" those are like, what is worth living for?
"Hide and Seek" is about adult relationships; they're not about visceral stuff that could be mistaken as youthful. All these songs, too, are love songs with no love in the choruses. "Hide And Seek" is not a toxic relationship, but it's about the uncertainty of what love feels like, and when people are glancing off each other instead of connecting all the way.
Cover art for The Fooler — a couple in front of City Lights Books in North Beach
I and others have previously cast you among the wave of retro soul artists. How has that characterization shaped your music, if at all?
What I'm doing is not aping. I'm expressing myself with the tools and the vocabulary that I have on hand, and a listener has to trust me, that I'm doing what I'm doing in good faith.
I always had much more in common with — and actually lived among and worked among and incubated with — the San Francisco garage scene. Ty Segall is playing drums on my first record. But you know, when you make your first record with horns and gospel-style vocals, and the people who work on your record — including your publicist and your distributor — put out Daptone-related stuff or Mayer Hawthorne or Aloe Blacc related stuff, you're put into the bloodstream as another one of those cells. It also switches how people hear stuff. I struggled with that from the beginning.
Back to The Fooler, is there anybody playing on it that you want to highlight or any interesting production facts that you think are worthwhile to note?
Making it with Mark Neill, at his place, was really revelatory for me. I surrendered to Mark to be the artist. And I also brought in my childhood best friend, Anthony Polizzi, who's playing second guitar or piano, who's a part of my DNA. Almost every record I've put out has a song co-written by us; we haven't lived in the same city together since we were 17.
[Mark] understood the sound was the place and we talked a lot about these records specifically that were influencing us whether they were little Anthony and the Imperials records, or they were loving spoonful records, or they were Bert Berns records. And he was looking into me to find who I was, and for me, it helped push me.
What else is on your plate that is contributing to your new creative impetus?
I'm writing a lot. I have been working on a lot of other projects; I'm working on another record with Jon Batiste to follow up the work that we won a GRAMMY for.
I'm finding that in a lot of my writing, [my breakthrough] helped me comprehend how I want to write and what I'm actually trying to strike at. Every day, I try to get closer or touch it if I can. So it's been good. It's turbulent, but it's productive.
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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
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Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
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