Photo: Annabel Mehren
Jeff Tweedy's Blurred Emotions: Wilco’s Leader On 'Cruel Country' & Songwriting As Discovery
"I'm trying to open myself up enough to see what's inside me," Jeff Tweedy says about Wilco’s 'Cruel Country.' "I'm just full of country songs and folk songs."
With their 1994 debut album, A.M., Wilco accrued the "country" genre tag; for their latest album, they teased a full-chested embrace of it. "Wilco goes Country!" they announced; after famously swerving around the genre for almost 30 years with drone sculptures, Dadaist poeticism and motorik meltdowns, it was time to drink straight from the bottle, as it were.
But if you think about this multifarious band for a few moments, it was obvious that Cruel Country wouldn't — couldn't — have been as one-note as Wilco implied it would be.
The tongue-in-cheek lead single, "Falling Apart (Right Now)," offered zero foreshadowing of the aerodynamic suite "Bird Without a Tail / Base of my Skull." Or the heart-in-throat ballad "The Universe," which unfurls into the celestial "Many Worlds." Or the poppy "Hearts Hard to Find" — which is practically destined to remain in setlists as a swoony sing-along, on par with classics like "California Stars."
No, Cruel Country, which was released May 27, isn't strictly a country album — it adheres to the form more as a North Star than as a hard-and-fast requisite. What binds these songs more profoundly than their stylistic conceit is Jeff Tweedy's songwriting — which frequently explores how seemingly opposed human emotions commingle and inform each other.
"My experience of my own emotions is that they all interact," Tweedy tells GRAMMY.com over the phone. "They aren't individual, isolated things that you experience one at a time, and I think that's a really beautiful thing about being alive."
Hence, a song like "Tonight's the Day.""Between good and bad/ And what is true/ Between happy and sad/ I choose you," Tweedy sings: "Between hard and easy/ Surrender and escape/I heard you say/ There is no way/ It's the only way." Meanwhile, drummer Glenn Kotche plays pensively — like he's chewing on a heavy thought, weighing two equal and opposing truths.
Because of how Tweedy's brain works, he can tread a seemingly limitless breadth of philosophical territory — like the vast American horizons evoked in Cruel Country.
As a lifelong student of folk and country music dating back to pre-Wilco band Uncle Tupelo (and before), Tweedy's songs seem to fill the air, ground and water; every leaf he turns over might reveal a new tune, however strange and oblong.
"I do look at the act of writing songs as discovery as much as composition," Tweedy reflects. "It's like finding stones on the beach or something. They all have a certain value, if you're into looking at them… I get into a certain state of mind, and think to myself: I wonder what song I'm going to sing today."
Whatever might follow Cruel Country is bound to be interesting, at the very least. Comparing Wilco’s upcoming material to the new album, he says it's like "somebody dropped a weird shape into the desert." (The monolith from 2001 comes to mind — an unexpected, futuristic structure in what was thought to be a vast, unbroken plain.)
Until then, this double album, which is loosely conceptualized around the subject of America, is worth repeated communion — every spin of its commentary on messy democracy, westward expansion and philosophical contradiction will reveal something new. Especially when Cruel Country deals with human emotions — which, like the United States, can't be easily compartmentalized.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Tweedy about the process behind writing and recording Cruel Country and why he saw a rare form of communal love in lockdown-era society.
He also discussed Wilco's recent triage of surprise sets at Carol's Pub in Chicago, the band's hometown, where they played cuts from the album as well as Americana classics.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How was the Carol's Pub show? Did it engender a different sort of satisfaction than a typical Wilco show?
[Chuckles] It was really awesome. A fun, fun night.
We love playing, and we love getting to play in these beautiful theaters and festival stages and all the different places we get to play. But we very, very rarely get to play the way I think music was intended to be heard, you know?
The shows that mean the most to me in my life have been the shows I've seen in small clubs — just having that visceral connection, and being able to hear the instruments coming off the stage, and not just through the PA. There's just nothing like that kind of connection.
You can make a communal experience in any room, and you can make a big spectacle — arena shows, everything has their place, and music is an incredible force for good. But, in my opinion, nothing ever sounds quite as good as the way it sounds in a small room.
The sheer capacity of a giant venue might lend itself to a sort of passivity between the artist and crowd. I'm sure you get to touch more of an active force in a smaller room.
Yeah. I mean, the stage is low. You're almost eye-to-eye with the audience. I feel like you can hear people listening in a different way. The movement in the audience becomes more a part of how the band's playing. It's just a much more immediate give-and-take, I think.
Can you touch on some of the covers you performed, starting with Bob Dylan's "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You"? What does that tune mean to you guys?
I've done that song a couple of times; I opened up a couple of acoustic shows with it one time. The Tweedy band — when I do shows with [sons] Spencer and Sammy, and our friends — we've done it maybe once or twice.
I just love the way it opens up a set. This message of "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" is, obviously, not what the song's about, but it's a nice thing to say to an audience. I think it's a nice introduction to a set.
How about the Tom T. Hall song "That's How I Got to Memphis"?
[Chuckles] That's just a great song. Something we just started playing in our dressing-room jam room, so we just threw it in the set.
One more: the Grateful Dead's "U.S. Blues," which I'm actually not that familiar with.
Deadheads are sure familiar with it. Boy, it really highlights and underlines the people in the audience who have that vocabulary [laughs]. When we play that song, it's amazing. There's a fair amount of crossover with our fans, it seems like.
When we kicked into that song the first time we did it, in an encore, I don't know if I've ever seen a reaction like that from such a sizable portion from the audience.
[Wilco guitarist] Nels [Cline] and I played a show with Phil Lesh and Friends; we were invited to do this festival set with them in Chicago. They wanted me to sing some Dead songs, and I picked a few that I felt like I could do well. That was one of them.
And then, when we got back to the Wilco tour, Nels and I were playing it in the dressing room again. It just sounded like something that fit in with the lyrics of Cruel Country; it has a similar commentary on the brokenness of the community.
And musically, it felt right in our wheelhouse, so we just kept playing it. It's fun.
To get into Cruel Country, I love that you waited months to play this show and open up to the press a little bit. Was this in an effort to let fans sit with the album for a while, to give it some space?
I think it's more just the reality of how Wilco operates. We're not super-concerned with album cycles. We [didn't] have the physical record to sell, or anything like that. We wanted to put the record out at our festival [Solid Sound], so we did it digitally.
It's probably not the best business decision, but it's the best artistic decision to just have these new songs and new material to play, and have people know what it is, because we like playing it.
We have another release this year; that's an archival release. We've done some stuff with that, but mostly, we're just out playing the songs that fit in with what we feel like playing right now.
When I watched you do an interview on camera at the Loft a few years ago, you were talking about how human emotions can't be neatly compartmentalized — you can be sad-hopeful, or pensive-hopeful, or happy-concerned.
It seems like Cruel Country's songs mutually gnaw at these nuanced psychological concepts. Was that something you were thinking about during the writing process? Is that partly why they swim in the same tank?
Well, I certainly think it's part of a broader philosophy of making music that feels honest to me. It generally involves blurring the lines a little bit in that regard; a song that's entirely joyous generally feels even more joyous to me if there's a little bit of darkness allowed into it — just as a reminder, or something.
I think that's the way life works. My experience of my own emotions is that they all interact. They aren't individual, isolated things that you experience one at a time, and I think that's a really beautiful thing about being alive. You can have a thought of mortality at the same time you're having a hot dog at a baseball game. [Laughs]
Can you talk about the song "Ambulance" a little bit? It's presented as this harrowing, autobiographical story, but I'm reluctant to take that at face value. I'd rather ask you about it.
Well, it's nothing autobiographical. Certainly, not literally. I was just trying to intuit a different scenario where there's some redemption for all of us. As a person that's an addict and in recovery, I think a lot about all the different paths that people take to getting healthier, and in some cases, I'm really relieved and grateful that I didn't experience more suffering.
At the same time, I'm pretty sure I suffered enough, [laughs] you know?
I'm not sure if this is intentional, but to me, "All Across the World" so succinctly captures the post-pandemic, post-Trump presidency milieu. So many people I deal with are trying to be functional and happy and return to normalcy, but there's a shell-shocked look in their eyes. Is that in the ballpark of what you were going for?
I mean, the way I feel is that one of the things everyone is really struggling with is being immediately presented with the world's suffering upon requesting it. At any given moment during any day, we have more access to the lives and struggles of the globe, and the fears and concerns of everybody, everywhere.
Modern social media has provided us with what conceivably could be a really good thing — that we're more tuned in to each other in a way that you hope would present an opportunity to unite in some common understanding that we're all doing our best, and we're all pointing toward the future with the hope that it's better — or good.
So far, we haven't really evolved to that. The thing I think we have evolved to is that it's emotionally overwhelming, and most people have a difficult time processing all of that. Instead of talking about solutions and ways to problem-solve all of this suffering and awareness of global concerns, it's much easier to find people to blame.
That seems to be where we're stuck. So, in my mind, that song is kind of about, at the same time, being aware of all the things that I'm glad that I'm not experiencing. For example: just say a hurricane — whatever it is. Being aware of it, and finding some negativity to add to it doesn't help anyone.
It's like "putting your oxygen mask on, first thing" — that's a pretty succinct analogy to the way I think you kind of have to live right now.
I think it's important to converge your ability to be inspired, your ability to be joyous, and your ability to give a beautiful thing to the world, and hope for the best — and do everything you can to alleviate the suffering that you can have an immediate impact on.
I'm really moved by "The Universe." The impression I get is that it would seem it would take your whole life to write that song. What led you to write that one?
Not to give you a super-long answer, again, for a song that's, like, three minutes long. I don't know if all of what I just said is contained in "All Across the World," but that's what the thought process is that leads to a song like that. Same thing for "The Universe" and "Many Worlds."
At the beginning of the pandemic, one of the things that made me a little hopeful was the idea that, in a really fractured society that doesn't tend to share a lot of experiences across the board, we were all going through something similar. At least there was a similar fear being expressed around the world.
I think the opportunity was mostly squandered by leaders around the world not acknowledging it. Some places did better than others. But I felt moved by the idea that movie stars and presidents and dishwashers and trash collectors — everyone across the board — was basically navigating this one topic.
Whereas, for most of my life, I don't remember there being a single topic that you could guarantee everyone was at least somewhat aware of. It just underlined and highlighted a belief that we've maybe all expressed at some point — that we're all kind of in this together.
That was just made completely visible in that moment — in these moments that are still continuing, I guess, but it's definitely not the way it was at the beginning.
Probably, the thing that probably most inspired it was: early in the pandemic, when things were really shut down, I took a drive with my kids, and the highways were completely empty around Chicago. It seemed like a really powerful moment of love. There was enough concern for each other that people were actually adhering to these public health guidelines.
It wasn't like, "Oh my god; everyone's being controlled by the government." It was more like, "OK, everybody gets it — at least enough to know this is what needs to be done right now." I found that really beautiful.
"Story to Tell" seems to exist hand-in-hand with "Darkness is Cheap," in the sense that it deals with notions of sticky narratives, of gripping tales, of plundering or killing yourself to be legendary. Which is obviously so pervasive in rock 'n' roll lore. What were you trying to impart with that first one?
I think we hear about it a lot in the art and music worlds, because of the pervasiveness around tortured artists and creators and the connection between that type of suffering and creativity.
But I don't think that there's any market being cornered by [laughs] a musician on that particular topic, because I know a lot of people who don't make songs or art in my life that have caused themselves needless suffering — almost as a way to create what they feel like is a real life. To not feel numb or alienated.
I think at one point, when I was younger, it did feel like I wouldn't have anything to write about of value to anybody if I wasn't in pain. And that's nonsense, and everybody should know it's nonsense.
The last one I want to touch on is "Country Song Upside-down." The melody just seems to fall out of your guitar and voice, and it comports with what I imagine the Cruel Country sessions were like — just grabbing country songs out of the air.
We have a place in Michigan that's a little bit more secluded in the woods. We call it "the cabin." That's what that song makes me think of.
I do look at the act of writing songs as discovery as much as composition. In fact, I'm much more comfortable with the idea — not that I'm opening myself up as a conduit to the universe or something like that; I don't necessarily believe in that.
I just think that I'm trying to open myself up enough to see what's inside me, clearly. To discover something I didn't know I wanted to say. And that's just what I'm full of. [Laughs] I'm just full of country songs and folk songs.
It's what I've listened to the most in my life, or something. I'm not tired of them, either. It's like finding stones on the beach or something. They all have a certain value, if you're into looking at them, you know? That's how I feel.
It's a much less judging state of mind — just pretty thrilled at the idea that, to keep with the analogy, that maybe I'm going to find a really good, flat stone to toss out on the lake.
Wilco. Photo: Anton Coene
Stepping away from your songwriting a little bit, can you talk about your bandmates' MVP moments on Cruel Country? I think of Glenn on "Tonight's the Day"; I can't imagine any other drum part on the song than the one he played.
Oh, yeah. That, and I think Pat really has a lot of breakout moments on this record, where he gets to play more guitar than I think he's ever played on a Wilco record. It just colors the whole record in a really beautiful way.
It's like a tapestry, or something — the way he and Nels started figuring out how to interact with each other. It's like an audible commune, you know? [Chuckles]
The band as a whole is really visible on this record, or really audible — partially, or mostly, because of the nature of recording it all in the same room, at the same time. We've made a lot of records in a lot of different ways, but it's been a while since we've done that.
We've played a lot of music together since the last time we did it, and that's what I hear when I hear this record.
People think of musicians and bands as being these static things — they got to a certain point where they were good enough to be heard and put out records. The way I look at it, almost all the bands and musicians I'm interested in and care about feel like they never quite got there — and they continue to grow, and continue to aspire to find out more of what it is they're capable of.
It's along the same lines as the songwriting concepts I was discussing. It's really, really gratifying to feel like you got a little bit better at something. And as a band, it's really gratifying to feel like we made something that we very, very profoundly, deeply know we couldn't have made five years ago, without all the miles that we've traveled together in between.
What can you reveal about the eventual follow-up to Cruel Country?
I don't know if the style of recording is going to change that much, but the types of songs — it's a collection of songs that really wouldn't fit into the Cruel Country landscape.
Maybe they would! They'll definitely fit in live. But it's going to be more like somebody dropped a weird shape into the desert, or something.
It's the furthest-out, striving kind of material for the band — striving for a new shape, striving for something that's exciting to us, that we don't feel like we've heard before. Definitely, something we don't think we heard ourselves play before.
28 Essential Songs By Wilco Ahead Of Their New Album Cruel Country
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.
The Rise Of Underground House: How Artists Like Fisher & Acraze Have Taken Tech House, Other Electronic Genres From Indie To EDC
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!