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What Is Immersive Audio?: How Engineers, Artists & Industry Are Changing The State Of Sound
Immersive audio tech allows sound technicians to think and work in three dimensions, and for listeners to get "inside" the sound. GRAMMY.com takes a deep dive into the past, present and future of immersive audio for home, the studio and live audience.
The quest to provide listeners with the highest fidelity and most realistic audio experience has been ongoing for centuries — Venice's Basilica of San Marco underwent structural modifications in the 16th century to ensure that the seat designated for the city’s top elected official received the best possible sound. Hundreds of years later, we are still seeking new auditory experiences, and the pace of recent innovations suggests that more advances lie ahead.
Immersion has been a throughline throughout our history of audio improvements. Engineers at the Basilica of San Marco employed a split choir to create a "stereo" effect that immersed listeners in a three-dimensional swirl of sound; more recently, works by 20th century composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and Edgard Varèse sought to place listeners in the center of the sound. In the late 1960s, Pink Floyd developed the Azimuth Coordinator, a joystick device that afforded real-time control of sound output from speakers placed all over the concert hall. Today, many performing artists find ways to incorporate immersive audio into the concert experience.
Audio recording technology developed along similar lines. As early as 1939, Disney engineers developed the stereo precursor, Fantasound (which was used to great effect on the Fantasia soundtrack). Stereophonic records came into wide use in the late 1950s and, by 1970, four-channel quadraphonic audio technology sought to create an enhanced and even more realistic sound experience for home listeners.
The mid 1970s saw the advent of 5.1 surround audio, developed by Dolby Labs. Created for home theater and cinema, the format became the audio standard for digital broadcasting. Today, 7.1 surround — a system with eight speakers — is common in home theater applications and recording studios.
All of these breakthroughs have a common core goal: Giving the listener – at home, in a concert hall, and ideally anywhere – an audio experience that fully envelops them in sound for a three-dimensional experience. Recent advances have been nothing short of breathtaking, perhaps fundamentally changing the way professionals and average listeners experience sound. Yet more than 150 years after the dawn of recorded sound, most experts agree that immersive audio is still in its infancy.
What Is Immersive Sound?
Most sound engineers mix live concert audio in "distributed monaural," says Marc Lopez, Vice President of Marketing Americas for d&b audiotechnik — a German company that has been designing and manufacturing amplifiers, loudspeakers and sound systems since 1981. He explains that live sound technicians are mostly just "trying to get sound distributed," but the result can be removed from reality. "It’s almost like you're watching and hearing from somewhere else," he tells GRAMMY.com.
Immersive audio technologies aim to put listeners in a specific place, localizing "sound — not just in front of you or inside your head but all around you," notes Guillaume Le Nost, Executive Director of Creative Technologies for L-Acoustics. Based in Marcoussis, France, L-Acoustics manufactures loudspeakers, amplifiers and signal processing equipment primarily for live sound. Immersive audio is a growing segment of the company’s business.
Le Nost points out that stereophonic (two-channel) sound has serious shortcomings, especially in a live music context. "When your speakers are 30 meters away from each other, it starts to be very difficult to have a nice stereo experience except [for] people exactly at the center," he says, adding that immersive audio places "the listener inside of the sound."
How Does Immersive Sound Work?
While quadrophonics provided four discrete audio channels, today’s audio technology moves far beyond, into three dimensions. With immersive audio, says Le Nost, "we can place objects in space." And immersive technology "doesn't define a loudspeaker format delivery," says David Gould, Senior Director of Content Creation Solutions at San Francisco-based Dolby Laboratories. "It just loosely defines something that’s above and beyond."
Instead of merely providing four discrete channels of audio, immersive sound technology is object-based: "You can place a sound in a specific position independently from how many loudspeakers you have; they’re completely independent of each other; that’s really the magic of the object-based approach," Le Nost says.
"It's a lot of work to finagle all the instruments and frequencies to work in two channels and give a transparent mix," observes Steve Ellison, Director of Spatial Sound for Berkeley, Calif. based Meyer Sound Laboratories. Meyer designs and builds audio gear for the professional sound reinforcement and recording industries.
While quadrophonics attempted to improve upon stereo, a worthy goal, quad sound could be gimmicky in its 1970s applications. "The stereotype of quad is a kind of ping-ponging effect: ‘Where’s the sound?’" Ellison notes.
The immersive approach circumvents these issues by allowing sound technicians to think and work in three dimensions instead of two. To use an example from geometry, stereo and quad work with the X and Y axes, but the spatial/immersive approach adds the Z axis. "With traditional mixing, you’re mixing a bunch of single channels directly to the outputs," Lopez explains. The object-based approach employs what he half-jokingly calls "mystery processing. You just move the interface around, and it will figure out the best loudspeaker output for you."
The result is infinitely more versatile and lifelike than quad could ever be.
How Has Immersive Sound Evolved?
Lopez places the development of immersive audio into an evolutionary timeline. "Monophonic delivery provided sound, but not necessarily experience," he says. "Stereo was a happy medium, a practical [way] for living rooms to deliver more of that experience. Quadraphonic sound attempted to put the listener either into the audience or into the band, and 5.1 surround was a more defined execution of that."
For a long time, if you wanted an audio experience beyond stereo, "there was only one way of doing it: you had to get four speakers," says Gould. He notes that with current immersive audio technologies like Dolby Atmos, the user has far more latitude and flexibility. "Think about things like sound bars, upward-firing speakers and even binaural renderers on cell phones," he says. "Now we have far more ways to get that experience."
Immersive audio takes things to another level entirely, he adds. And by definition, it’s not limited to a specific setup of one, two, four or some other number of speakers.
The object-based approach brings another important innovation: scalability. Freed from the requirement of a specific audio setup, technologies like Dolby Atmos are engineered to adapt to the application and listening environment. Debuting in 2012, Atmos enabled overhead sound to cinema audio; two years later it became available for home theaters, and today it’s gaining widespread use in recording studios.
"Rather than [audio] being ‘burned’ into channels," Gould explains, "you now get these discrete audio objects that can [effectively ask] 'Okay, what is my playback environment, and how do I best render this audio within that playback environment?'" Metadata encoded into the digital audio files also provides critical three-dimensional audio positioning information. "So whatever speakers you have, each sound is coming from the right place," Gould continues.
Theoretically, there are no limitations on how complex an object-based audio mix can be. In practice, however, it’s more limited but still quite impressive. "In the cinema, Dolby Atmos supports up to 64 loudspeakers," Gould says. "In our home renderer, we support up to 30 speakers."
Even though immersive audio playback technology is widespread and well within the grasp of the consumer, music still has to be made into an immersive format. Doing so is the realm of the recording studio.
How Are Recording Studios Using Immersive Sound Technology?
Audio producer and engineer Webster Tileston first began to explore immersive audio in 2020 when he experienced binaural audio on headphones. Binaural audio is a kind of three-dimensional effect that can be realized with just two channels, making it ideally suited for listeners using headphones or earbuds. Immersive audio has since become a significant part of his work.
"My excitement came from the fact that I could mix in Dolby Atmos and deliver a single file format," says Tileston, an Atmos Mix Engineer at Nashville studio Axis Audio. "And I can use that one mixing process for pretty much any playback the client needs." That scalability makes spatial/immersive audio an attractive option.
Growing use is bringing down the cost of immersive audio technology. "There’s a misconception that you have to spend a ton of money," Tileston tells GRAMMY.com. "There are a lot of affordable ways to get into it." The technology is also remarkably user-friendly, allowing for more creative control. "I'm able to place things in a much more musical way than I would have been able to in stereo," Tileston says. "Instead of having to try to fake depth perception and 'dimensionality' with reverb, I'm now able to accomplish that right away with the space that's around me."
Gould admits that as recently as two years ago, there was still skepticism about Atmos. But at least three popular music streaming services — Amazon Music Unlimited, Apple Music and Tidal — have begun providing Atmos content; Apple's acceptance of immersive audio in May 2021 was a game-changer.
"Everyone went from, ‘How will anyone hear this?’ to 'Oh, this is real, and I need to be on board with it,'" says Dolby’s Gould. His company has seen rapid growth, with more than 550 studios now outfitted with Atmos. "A lot of that has come in the past 12 months. Everyone — producers, engineers and artists — has been very excited about the possibilities," he says.
How Did The GRAMMY Award For Immersive Audio Come About & What Is The Criteria?
Recognizing immersive audio’s importance as both a technological innovation and a tool for creative artistic expression, the Recording Academy created a new award in 2005. "A group of highly respected members from the Academy’s Producers and Engineers Wing initiated the idea," explains Michael Almanza, manager of the Academy’s Immersive Audio category.
Originally called Best Surround Sound Album and renamed in 2019 Best Immersive Audio Album, the category debuted at the 47th GRAMMY Awards. Winners that year were the production team behind Ray Charles’ Genius Loves Company. Subsequent winners have included producers of recordings by the Beatles, Beyoncé, Dire Straits, Roger Waters and Alicia Keys.
Eligible recordings must be commercially released for sale or streaming and provide "an original immersive mix — not electronically re-purposed — of four or more channels," Almanza says. Yet a sometimes confusing array of competing file formats and physical media have made entering the immersive audio space challenging. In the past two years, the recording industry has begun to coalesce around Dolby Atmos and immersive streaming, eliminating much of the confusion.
Headed by GRAMMY-winning mastering engineer Michael Romanowski and George Massenburg, a committee at the Producers and Engineers Wing is currently developing a set of technical guidelines for immersive audio.
How Is Immersive Audio Used In Live Music?
When Leonard Bernstein composed his MASS in 1971, the work featured a pit orchestra, choirs, "street musicians" and rock band. MASS would be performed widely, but capturing and conveying the scope of the piece remained challenging.
"The idea that Bernstein had was to make the audience feel immersed in the live concert experience," says Keith Lockhart, Conductor and Artistic Director of the Brevard Music Center’s Summer Festival. In 2018, BMC staged an ambitious reading of MASS using d&b audiotechnik's Soundscape system — which Bjork and Kraftwerk have also used on tour.
Soundscape allowed for an effortless combination of recorded and live elements, North Carolina-based Lockhart notes. D&b is one of a handful of audio companies working on the leading edge of immersive audio for live performance. L-Acoustics and Meyer Sound have developed their own proprietary technologies as well.
L-Acoustics’ immersive technology, L-ISA, has been used by a diverse range of artists including alt-J, Soundgarden, Bon Iver, Katy Perry and Blue Man Group. Meyer Sound’s immersive technology has been employed in performance spaces like Brooklyn’s National Sawdust, theatrical presentations and the popular Immersive Van Gogh exhibition. The increasing prevalence of immersive audio technology demonstrates that audiences expect to be dazzled.
"Anything you can do to differentiate your show from the other shows out there," says Best Immersive Album GRAMMY nominee Steven Wilson, who has used immersive sound mixes in his concerts since 2011. "Whether it's having surround audio or incredible visual production – increasingly these things make a difference to justify the price of tickets and get people out of their front rooms and into the concert hall."
How Can Artists Use Immersive Audio To Create?
"Painting in sounds," says Wilson. "That’s really what making music is." As a solo artist, leader of Porcupine Tree and in-demand collaborator, Wilson has been a go-to remix producer for over a decade, re-imagining classic stereo albums from Genesis, Chicago, Black Sabbath, Tears for Fears, Kiss and others in immersive formats.
Wilson concedes that it’s possible to overdo things when all of these new tools are at hand. "The 'glue' of the track [can be] pulled apart if, for example, things become too isolated," he says. "In an Atmos mix you’ll have a guitar solo or a backing vocal isolated in one of the rear speakers; I’m wary of that."
Wilson believes that some genres are especially well-suited for immersive audio. "It’s absolutely fantastic for electronic music," he says, noting that the nature of the music encourages expansive use of technology. Wilson’s approach to immersive mixes for rock music tends to be more conservative. "There's something about rock and roll," he says. "The drums and the bass and the guitars are all fighting each other coming out of a stereo or mono positioning; when you start to pull those elements apart, it starts to sound wrong."
Emphasizing that he’s completely self-trained on Dolby Atmos and immersive technologies, Wilson notes that there’s only one way to determine what works and doesn’t. "You only discover those things by experimenting, by trial and error. I always feel I'm still learning." He’s clearly a quick study: his 2021 album The Future Bites received a Best Immersive Audio Album nomination.
What Does The Future Of Immersive Audio Look & Sound Like?
"Audio has always been the experience of hearing sound," says Axis Audio’s Webster Tileston. "The immersive side of things gives us a more natural way to create and consume it." He notes that he has created immersive mixes from a few live recordings, just for fun. "I remember playing them back and thinking, 'I feel like I’m sitting in this club right now.' And that’s a cool feeling."
L-Acoustics’ Le Nost believes that immersive audio "is going to become very mainstream, much more in our daily lives. I think this technology has a bright future." Ellison of Meyer Sound acknowledges immersive audio’s role in recorded music, but sees live performance as a major growth market. "You go somewhere that's a shared experience, and you can hear content in a way that you couldn't hear at home," he says.
Lopez of d&b audiotechnic notes that Broadway theaters have been employing immersive technology for nearly 20 years. Likewise, many artists desire to bring audio up to a level that matches their visual spectaculars. Immersive audio in the live context is "a higher-resolution way to [present] what’s going on, to recreate that intimacy, that emotional connection," Lopez says.
"At its core, immersive audio is an experience, regardless of how it is listened to," says the Recording Academy’s Almanza. "Immersive audio is its own art form. And as long as there is a pursuit of excellence in this now-widening field, the Academy will continue to recognize and award those creators."
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Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
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Photo: Steven Sebring
Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
"One foot in the past and one foot into the future," Billy Idol says, describing his decade-spanning career in rock. "We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol."
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Billy Idol about his latest EP, Cage, and continuing to rock through decades of changing tastes.
Billy Idol is a true rock 'n' roll survivor who has persevered through cultural shifts and personal struggles. While some may think of Idol solely for "Rebel Yell" and "White Wedding," the singer's musical influences span genres and many of his tunes are less turbo-charged than his '80s hits would belie.
Idol first made a splash in the latter half of the '70s with the British punk band Generation X. In the '80s, he went on to a solo career combining rock, pop, and punk into a distinct sound that transformed him and his musical partner, guitarist Steve Stevens, into icons. They have racked up multiple GRAMMY nominations, in addition to one gold, one double platinum, and four platinum albums thanks to hits like "Cradle Of Love," "Flesh For Fantasy," and "Eyes Without A Face."
But, unlike many legacy artists, Idol is anything but a relic. Billy continues to produce vital Idol music by collaborating with producers and songwriters — including Miley Cyrus — who share his forward-thinking vision. He will play a five-show Vegas residency in November, and filmmaker Jonas Akerlund is working on a documentary about Idol’s life.
His latest release is Cage, the second in a trilogy of annual four-song EPs. The title track is a classic Billy Idol banger expressing the desire to free himself from personal constraints and live a better life. Other tracks on Cage incorporate metallic riffing and funky R&B grooves.
Idol continues to reckon with his demons — they both grappled with addiction during the '80s — and the singer is open about those struggles on the record and the page. (Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing With Myself, details a 1990 motorcycle accident that nearly claimed a leg, and how becoming a father steered him to reject hard drugs. "Bitter Taste," from his last EP, The Roadside, reflects on surviving the accident.)
Although Idol and Stevens split in the late '80s — the skilled guitarist fronted Steve Stevens & The Atomic Playboys, and collaborated with Michael Jackson, Rick Ocasek, Vince Neil, and Harold Faltermeyer (on the GRAMMY-winning "Top Gun Anthem") — their common history and shared musical bond has been undeniable. The duo reunited in 2001 for an episode of "VH1 Storytellers" and have been back in the saddle for two decades. Their union remains one of the strongest collaborations in rock 'n roll history.
While there is recognizable personnel and a distinguishable sound throughout a lot of his work, Billy Idol has always pushed himself to try different things. Idol discusses his musical journey, his desire to constantly move forward, and the strong connection that he shares with Stevens.
Steve has said that you like to mix up a variety of styles, yet everyone assumes you're the "Rebel Yell"/"White Wedding" guy. But if they really listen to your catalog, it's vastly different.
Yeah, that's right. With someone like Steve Stevens, and then back in the day Keith Forsey producing... [Before that] Generation X actually did move around inside punk rock. We didn't stay doing just the Ramones two-minute music. We actually did a seven-minute song. [Laughs]. We did always mix things up.
Then when I got into my solo career, that was the fun of it. With someone like Steve, I knew what he could do. I could see whatever we needed to do, we could nail it. The world was my oyster musically.
"Cage" is a classic-sounding Billy Idol rocker, then "Running From The Ghost" is almost metal, like what the Devil's Playground album was like back in the mid-2000s. "Miss Nobody" comes out of nowhere with this pop/R&B flavor. What inspired that?
We really hadn't done anything like that since something like "Flesh For Fantasy" [which] had a bit of an R&B thing about it. Back in the early days of Billy Idol, "Hot In The City" and "Mony Mony" had girls [singing] on the backgrounds.
We always had a bit of R&B really, so it was actually fun to revisit that. We just hadn't done anything really quite like that for a long time. That was one of the reasons to work with someone like Sam Hollander [for the song "Rita Hayworth"] on The Roadside. We knew we could go [with him] into an R&B world, and he's a great songwriter and producer. That's the fun of music really, trying out these things and seeing if you can make them stick.
I listen to new music by veteran artists and debate that with some people. I'm sure you have those fans that want their nostalgia, and then there are some people who will embrace the newer stuff. Do you find it’s a challenge to reach people with new songs?
Obviously, what we're looking for is, how do we somehow have one foot in the past and one foot into the future? We’ve got the best of all possible worlds because that has been the modus operandi of Billy Idol.
You want to do things that are true to you, and you don't just want to try and do things that you're seeing there in the charts today. I think that we're achieving it with things like "Running From The Ghost" and "Cage" on this new EP. I think we’re managing to do both in a way.
Obviously, "Running From The Ghost" is about addiction, all the stuff that you went through, and in "Cage" you’re talking about freeing yourself from a lot of personal shackles. Was there any one moment in your life that made you really thought I have to not let this weigh me down anymore?
I mean, things like the motorcycle accident I had, that was a bit of a wake up call way back. It was 32 years ago. But there were things like that, years ago, that gradually made me think about what I was doing with my life. I didn't want to ruin it, really. I didn't want to throw it away, and it made [me] be less cavalier.
I had to say to myself, about the drugs and stuff, that I've been there and I've done it. There’s no point in carrying on doing it. You couldn't get any higher. You didn't want to throw your life away casually, and I was close to doing that. It took me a bit of time, but then gradually I was able to get control of myself to a certain extent [with] drugs and everything. And I think Steve's done the same thing. We're on a similar path really, which has been great because we're in the same boat in terms of lyrics and stuff.
So a lot of things like that were wake up calls. Even having grandchildren and just watching my daughter enlarging her family and everything; it just makes you really positive about things and want to show a positive side to how you're feeling, about where you're going. We've lived with the demons so long, we've found a way to live with them. We found a way to be at peace with our demons, in a way. Maybe not completely, but certainly to where we’re enjoying what we do and excited about it.
[When writing] "Running From The Ghost" it was easy to go, what was the ghost for us? At one point, we were very drug addicted in the '80s. And Steve in particular is super sober [now]. I mean, I still vape pot and stuff. I don’t know how he’s doing it, but it’s incredible. All I want to be able to do is have a couple of glasses of wine at a restaurant or something. I can do that now.
I think working with people that are super talented, you just feel confident. That is a big reason why you open up and express yourself more because you feel comfortable with what's around you.
Did you watch Danny Boyle's recent Sex Pistols mini-series?
I did, yes.
You had a couple of cameos; well, an actor who portrayed you did. How did you react to it? How accurate do you think it was in portraying that particular time period?
I love Jonesy’s book, I thought his book was incredible. It's probably one of the best bio books really. It was incredible and so open. I was looking forward to that a lot.
It was as if [the show] kind of stayed with Steve [Jones’ memoir] about halfway through, and then departed from it. [John] Lydon, for instance, was never someone I ever saw acting out; he's more like that today. I never saw him do something like jump up in the room and run around going crazy. The only time I saw him ever do that was when they signed the recording deal with Virgin in front of Buckingham Palace. Whereas Sid Vicious was always acting out; he was always doing something in a horrible way or shouting at someone. I don't remember John being like that. I remember him being much more introverted.
But then I watched interviews with some of the actors about coming to grips with the parts they were playing. And they were saying, we knew punk rock happened but just didn't know any of the details. So I thought well, there you go. If ["Pistol" is] informing a lot of people who wouldn't know anything about punk rock, maybe that's what's good about it.
Maybe down the road John Lydon will get the chance to do John's version of the Pistols story. Maybe someone will go a lot deeper into it and it won't be so surface. But maybe you needed this just to get people back in the flow.
We had punk and metal over here in the States, but it feels like England it was legitimately more dangerous. British society was much more rigid.
It never went [as] mega in America. It went big in England. It exploded when the Pistols did that interview with [TV host Bill] Grundy, that lorry truck driver put his boot through his own TV, and all the national papers had "the filth and the fury" [headlines].
We went from being unknown to being known overnight. We waited a year, Generation X. We even told them [record labels] no for nine months to a year. Every record company wanted their own punk rock group. So it went really mega in England, and it affected the whole country – the style, the fashions, everything. I mean, the Ramones were massive in England. Devo had a No. 1 song [in England] with "Satisfaction" in '77. Actually, Devo was as big as or bigger than the Pistols.
You were ahead of the pop-punk thing that happened in the late '90s, and a lot of it became tongue-in-cheek by then. It didn't have the same sense of rebelliousness as the original movement. It was more pop.
It had become a style. There was a famous book in England called Revolt Into Style — and that's what had happened, a revolt that turned into style which then they were able to duplicate in their own way. Even recently, Billie Joe [Armstrong] did his own version of "Gimme Some Truth," the Lennon song we covered way back in 1977.
When we initially were making [punk] music, it hadn't become accepted yet. It was still dangerous and turned into a style that people were used to. We were still breaking barriers.
You have a band called Generation Sex with Steve Jones and Paul Cook. I assume you all have an easier time playing Pistols and Gen X songs together now and not worrying about getting spit on like back in the '70s?
Yeah, definitely. When I got to America I told the group I was putting it together, "No one spits at the audience."
We had five years of being spat on [in the UK], and it was revolting. And they spat at you if they liked you. If they didn't like it they smashed your gear up. One night, I remember I saw blood on my T-shirt, and I think Joe Strummer got meningitis when spit went in his mouth.
You had to go through a lot to become successful, it wasn't like you just kind of got up there and did a couple of gigs. I don't think some young rock bands really get that today.
With punk going so mega in England, we definitely got a leg up. We still had a lot of work to get where we got to, and rightly so because you find out that you need to do that. A lot of groups in the old days would be together three to five years before they ever made a record, and that time is really important. In a way, what was great about punk rock for me was it was very much a learning period. I really learned a lot [about] recording music and being in a group and even writing songs.
Then when I came to America, it was a flow, really. I also really started to know what I wanted Billy Idol to be. It took me a little bit, but I kind of knew what I wanted Billy Idol to be. And even that took a while to let it marinate.
You and Miley Cyrus have developed a good working relationship in the last several years. How do you think her fans have responded to you, and your fans have responded to her?
I think they're into it. It's more the record company that she had didn't really get "Night Crawling"— it was one of the best songs on Plastic Hearts, and I don't think they understood that. They wanted to go with Dua Lipa, they wanted to go with the modern, young acts, and I don't think they realized that that song was resonating with her fans. Which is a shame really because, with Andrew Watt producing, it's a hit song.
But at the same time, I enjoyed doing it. It came out really good and it's very Billy Idol. In fact, I think it’s more Billy Idol than Miley Cyrus. I think it shows you where Andrew Watt was. He was excited about doing a Billy Idol track. She's fun to work with. She’s a really great person and she works at her singing — I watched her rehearsing for the Super Bowl performance she gave. She rehearsed all Saturday morning, all Saturday afternoon, and Sunday morning and it was that afternoon. I have to admire her fortitude. She really cares.
I remember when you went on "Viva La Bam" back in 2005 and decided to give Bam Margera’s Lamborghini a new sunroof by taking a power saw to it. Did he own that car? Was that a rental?
I think it was his car.
Did he get over it later on?
He loved it. [Laughs] He’s got a wacky sense of humor. He’s fantastic, actually. I’m really sorry to see what he's been going through just lately. He's going through a lot, and I wish him the best. He's a fantastic person, and it's a shame that he's struggling so much with his addictions. I know what it's like. It's not easy.
Musically, what is the synergy like with you guys during the past 10 years, doing Kings and Queens of the Underground and this new stuff? What is your working relationship like now in this more sober, older, mature version of you two as opposed to what it was like back in the '80s?
In lots of ways it’s not so different because we always wrote the songs together, we always talked about what we're going to do together. It was just that we were getting high at the same time.We're just not getting [that way now] but we're doing all the same things.
We're still talking about things, still [planning] things:What are we going to do next? How are we going to find new people to work with? We want to find new producers. Let's be a little bit more timely about putting stuff out.That part of our relationship is the same, you know what I mean? That never got affected. We just happened to be overloading in the '80s.
The relationship’s… matured and it's carrying on being fruitful, and I think that's pretty amazing. Really, most people don't get to this place. Usually, they hate each other by now. [Laughs] We also give each other space. We're not stopping each other doing things outside of what we’re working on together. All of that enables us to carry on working together. I love and admire him. I respect him. He's been fantastic. I mean, just standing there on stage with him is always a treat. And he’s got an immensely great sense of humor. I think that's another reason why we can hang together after all this time because we've got the sense of humor to enable us to go forward.
There's a lot of fan reaction videos online, and I noticed a lot of younger women like "Rebel Yell" because, unlike a lot of other '80s alpha male rock tunes, you're talking about satisfying your lover.
It was about my girlfriend at the time, Perri Lister. It was about how great I thought she was, how much I was in love with her, and how great women are, how powerful they are.
It was a bit of a feminist anthem in a weird way. It was all about how relationships can free you and add a lot to your life. It was a cry of love, nothing to do with the Civil War or anything like that. Perri was a big part of my life, a big part of being Billy Idol. I wanted to write about it. I'm glad that's the effect.
Is there something you hope people get out of the songs you've been doing over the last 10 years? Do you find yourself putting out a message that keeps repeating?
Well, I suppose, if anything, is that you can come to terms with your life, you can keep a hold of it. You can work your dreams into reality in a way and, look, a million years later, still be enjoying it.
The only reason I'm singing about getting out of the cage is because I kicked out of the cage years ago. I joined Generation X when I said to my parents, "I'm leaving university, and I'm joining a punk rock group." And they didn't even know what a punk rock group was. Years ago, I’d write things for myself that put me on this path, so that maybe in 2022 I could sing something like "Cage" and be owning this territory and really having a good time. This is the life I wanted.
The original UK punk movement challenged societal norms. Despite all the craziness going on throughout the world, it seems like a lot of modern rock bands are afraid to do what you guys were doing. Do you think we'll see a shift in that?
Yeah. Art usually reacts to things, so I would think eventually there will be a massive reaction to the pop music that’s taken over — the middle of the road music, and then this kind of right wing politics. There will be a massive reaction if there's not already one. I don’t know where it will come from exactly. You never know who's gonna do [it].
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Graphic: The Recording Academy
Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
The 2023 GRAMMY Award nominees for Best Country Solo Performance highlight country music's newcomers and veterans, featuring hits from Kelsea Ballerini, Zach Bryan, Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris and Willie Nelson.
Country music's evolution is well represented in the 2023 GRAMMY nominees for Best Country Solo Performance. From crossover pop hooks to red-dirt outlaw roots, the genre's most celebrated elements are on full display — thanks to rising stars, leading ladies and country icons.
Longtime hitmaker Miranda Lambert delivered a soulful performance on the rootsy ballad "In His Arms," an arrangement as sparing as the windswept west Texas highlands where she co-wrote the song. Viral newcomer Zach Bryan dug into similar organic territory on the Oklahoma side of the Red River for "Something in the Orange," his voice accompanied with little more than an acoustic guitar.
Two of country's 2010s breakout stars are clearly still shining, too, as Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini both received Best Country Solo Performance GRAMMY nods. Morris channeled the determination that drove her leap-of-faith move from Texas to Nashville for the playful clap-along "Circles Around This Town," while Ballerini brought poppy hooks with a country edge on the infectiously upbeat "HEARTFIRST."
Rounding out the category is the one and only Willie Nelson, who paid tribute to his late friend Billy Joe Shaver with a cover of "Live Forever" — a fitting sentiment for the 89-year-old legend, who is approaching his eighth decade in the business.
As the excitement builds for the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5, 2023, let's take a closer look at this year's nominees for Best Country Solo Performance.
Kelsea Ballerini — "HEARTFIRST"
In the tradition of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood, Kelsea Ballerini represents Nashville's sunnier side — and her single "HEARTFIRST" is a slice of bright, uptempo, confectionary country-pop for the ages.
Ballerini sings about leaning into a carefree crush with her heart on her sleeve, pushing aside her reservations and taking a risk on love at first sight. The scene plays out in a bar room and a back seat, as she sweeps nimbly through the verses and into a shimmering chorus, when the narrator decides she's ready to "wake up in your T-shirt."
There are enough steel guitar licks to let you know you're listening to a country song, but the story and melody are universal. "HEARTFIRST" is Ballerini's third GRAMMY nod, but first in the Best Country Solo Performance category.
Zach Bryan — "Something In The Orange"
Zach Bryan blew into Music City seemingly from nowhere in 2017, when his original song "Heading South" — recorded on an iPhone — went viral. Then an active officer in the U.S. Navy, the Oklahoma native chased his muse through music during his downtime, striking a chord with country music fans on stark songs led by his acoustic guitar and affecting vocals.
After his honorable discharge in 2021, Bryan began his music career in earnest, and in 2022 released "Something in the Orange," a haunting ballad that stakes a convincing claim to the territory between Tyler Childers and Jason Isbell in both sonics and songwriting. Slashing slide guitar drives home the song's heartbreak, as Bryan pines for a lover whose tail lights have long since vanished over the horizon.
"Something In The Orange" marks Bryan's first-ever GRAMMY nomination.
Miranda Lambert — "In His Arms"
Miranda Lambert is the rare, chart-topping contemporary country artist who does more than pay lip service to the genre's rural American roots. "In His Arms" originally surfaced on 2021's The Marfa Tapes, a casual recording Lambert made with Jack Ingram and Jon Randall in Marfa, Texas — a tiny arts enclave in the middle of the west Texas high desert.
In this proper studio version — recorded for her 2022 album, Palomino — Lambert retains the structure and organic feel of the mostly acoustic song; light percussion and soothing atmospherics keep her emotive vocals front and center. A native Texan herself, Lambert sounds fully at home on "In His Arms."
Lambert is the only Best Country Solo Performance nominee who is nominated in all four Country Field categories in 2023. To date, Miranda Lambert has won 3 GRAMMYs and received 27 nominations overall.
Maren Morris — "Circles Around This Town"
When Maren Morris found herself uninspired and dealing with writer's block, she went back to what inspired her to move to Nashville nearly a decade ago — and out came "Circles Around This Town," the lead single from her 2022 album Humble Quest.
Written in one of her first in-person songwriting sessions since the pandemic, Morris has called "Circles Around This Town" her "most autobiographical song" to date; she even recreated her own teenage bedroom for the song's video. As she looks back to her Texas beginnings and the life she left for Nashville, Morris' voice soars over anthemic, yet easygoing production.
Morris last won a GRAMMY for Best Country Solo Performance in 2017, when her song "My Church" earned the singer her first GRAMMY. To date, Maren Morris has won one GRAMMY and received 17 nominations overall.
Willie Nelson — "Live Forever"
Country music icon Willie Nelson is no stranger to the GRAMMYs, and this year he aims to add to his collection of 10 gramophones. He earned another three nominations for 2023 — bringing his career total to 56 — including a Best Country Solo Performance nod for "Live Forever."
Nelson's performance of "Live Forever," the lead track of the 2022 tribute album Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver, is a faithful rendition of Shaver's signature song. Still, Nelson puts his own twist on the tune, recruiting Lucinda Williams for backing vocals and echoing the melody with the inimitable tone of his nylon-string Martin guitar.
Shaver, an outlaw country pioneer who passed in 2020 at 81 years old, never had any hits of his own during his lifetime. But plenty of his songs were still heard, thanks to stars like Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings. Nelson was a longtime friend and frequent collaborator of Shaver's — and now has a GRAMMY nom to show for it.
Graphic: The Recording Academy
Listen: All Of The Latin Music 2023 GRAMMY Nominees In One Playlist
Ahead of Music's Biggest Night on Feb. 5, 2023, celebrate with this immersive playlist of every Latin Field nominee at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
The Latin GRAMMYs may have just honored the genre's trailblazers in Las Vegas on Nov. 17, but the celebration will continue at the upcoming 65th GRAMMY Awards ceremony in February. There are five categories in the Latin Field of the 2023 GRAMMY nominations — and you can hear all of the nominees in one playlist.
In the Best Latin Pop Album category, are Christina Aguilera's Latin GRAMMY-winning AGUILERA will compete with Rubén Blades & Boca Livre's Pasieros, Camilo's De Adendro Pa Afuera, Fonseca's VIAJANTE, and Sebastián Yatra's Dharma+. Channeling their lively Latin roots while traversing pop landscapes, these albums all magnetically merge tradition and modernity.
Reggaeton, dancehall, hip hop, and funk coalesce in the nominated works for Best Música Urbana Album: Rauw Alejandro's Trap Cake, Vol. 2, Bad Bunny's Un Verano Sin Ti, Daddy Yankee's LEGENDADDY, Farruko's La 167, and Maluma's The Love & Sex Tape.
The genre-blending jubilation continues with the Best Latin Rock or Alternative Album category. This year's nominees are Cimafunk's El Alimento, Jorge Drexler's Tinta y Tiempo, Mon Laferte's 1940 Carmen, Gaby Moreno's Alegoría, Fito Paez's Los Años Salvajes, and Rosalía's MOTOMAMI.
For Best Regional Mexican Music Album (Including Tejano), 2021 winner Natalia Lafourcade's Un Canto por México - El Musical is up against Chiquis' Abeja Reina, Los Tigres Del Norte's La Reunión (Deluxe), Christian Nodal's EP #1 Forajido, and Marco Antonio Solís' Qué Ganas de Verte (Deluxe).
As for Best Tropical Latin Album, Marc Anthony — a two-time winner in the category — returns as a nominee with Pa'lla Voy, alongside pioneers Tito Nieves (nominated for Legendario), La Santa Cecilia (Quiero Verte Feliz), Víctor Manuelle (Lado A Lado B), Spanish Harlem Orchestra (Imágenes Latinas), and Carlos Vives (Cumbiana II).
Listen to all of the above albums in this comprehensive, 338-song playlist of the Latin music GRAMMY nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Check it out on Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music — and we'll see you at Music's Biggest Night on Sunday, Feb. 5!