Photo: Bret Curry
Will Sheff Swears Off Primary Colors, Reductive Narratives & Pernicious Self-Mythology On New Album 'Nothing Special'
The Okkervil River bandleader's story has been occasionally oversimplified and distorted in the name of commerce — and he's unwilling to let that happen again. Will Sheff discusses the life changes that informed his new album, 'Nothing Special.'
Just before logging on to Zoom to interview Will Sheff, who's out under his own name 20 years after his proper debut, this journalist spent some time tearing down vines climbing up a tree — sapping its nutrients, stymying its growth, and, if left unchecked, killing it.
Given Sheff's ups and downs in the business, the scene led to the question: Is the tree the thousands-year-old wellspring of human musical expression, which is fully able to survive and thrive regardless of capitalistic hijacking? And are the vines the music industry?
"The music business doesn't have to be this way," Sheff, a GRAMMY nominee, tells GRAMMY.com. Coming from him, this is a weighty statement.
The Okkervil River bandleader had just been describing how press narratives distort and reduce reality into cartoonish, unrecognizable forms. Six years ago, a candid, self-written bio for his album Away that touched on his grandfather's death — but was about a multitude of subjects — led to the narrative that it was all about that. Damaging in a more immediate, practical sense is the financial hit he projects he'll take from his upcoming US and Europe tours — thousands in the red.
That financial horror is partly because Sheff finally decided to put Okkervil River to bed. Despite him being the final original member still in the band, that name carried a cachet which led to steeper guarantees.
In return, Sheff has gained an artistic freedom like he's arguably never experienced before — free reign to make whatever music he wants, unfettered from the expectations of those who really, really, really want him to make another Don't Fall in Love With Everyone You See, or Black Sheep Boy. And Sheff's new album, Nothing Special, released Oct. 7, shimmers with the hues of everything he is now, and all he can be from now on.
Musically, Nothing Special isn't so different from records like Away: if you trisect his career, Sheff has spent roughly the last third writing from a zone of serenity, devotion and encouragement — pretty much the polar opposite of old Okkervil River songs about murder and revenge and psychospiritual downfalls.
But his current collaborators — including Will Graefe, Christian Lee Hutson, and Death Cab for Cutie's Zac Rae —, give his approach a new depth, a fresh lilt. To say nothing of vocal contributions from Cassandra Jenkins and Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats and Bonny Light Horseman — who are both at the vanguard of forward-thinking singer-songwriter music.
Lyrically, we're dealing with a similar matrix as Away in terms of life stuff. But where said familial loss, including the partial dissolution of the previous Okkervil River band, informed Away, Nothing Special expands its scope. The album partly deals with moving to California, winding down his old band, swearing off alcohol, and caring for his ailing rescue dog, Larry.
And there's a profound loss at the center of it — that of Travis Nelsen, Okkervil River's awe-inspiring drummer and a larger-than-life personality, who had a fraternal bond with Sheff played in the band during their commercial zenith in the mid-2000s. Their friendship ended on a messy and sad note: as Nothing Special's title track goes, Nelsen "failed and fought/ In a pattern he was caught/And his family, they could not break through." Soon after the pandemic hit, Nelsen passed away.
Back to the tree, choked by the vines: Sheff would be "really unhappy" if Nelsen's life and legacy were sleuced into the oversimplification machine. He could have not mentioned him at all in this press cycle, for good reason — look what happened regarding the story of Away — but he chose to speak about him.
"Travis was a true connoisseur of rock lore, and I know that he wants to be remembered," Sheff says. "I didn't want to feel like I was profiting off of his sad story, and I want people to remember him. I want to do what I can to keep his name out there. Those were the factors that led me to be like, 'Alright: I'm going to be honest about this album.'"
And no matter whether Nothing Special is your thing or not — Sheff's intentionally not reading his own press — there's no question about it: honesty permeates every word, every groove, every expression.
GRAMMY.com sat down with Sheff to discuss the new album, his place in the industry apparatus, and the breathtaking vista of potential before him, now that he's been unshackled from the band that defined him — and somewhat confined him.
Will Sheff. Photo: Bret Curry
This interview has been edited for clarity.
It's common for artists to get burned out on their offerings long before they're actually released. Are you tired of talking about Nothing Special yet?
No, no, no. I barely talk to anybody about it, and I'm enjoying talking about it. I'll never stop feeling enthusiastic about the record. The only thing that's the mind — is anything to do with the business, which encompasses publicity and branding, which is what I'm engaging in right now as I'm talking to you.
I was saying this yesterday — I feel like I will very soon start repeating the same things. And I'll probably, always very tediously, say, "I've said this before, but…" because otherwise, I feel like a phony.
But the thing that's really a head trip is that you make an album, a song, or a collection of songs. And not everybody's like this — I think a lot of people are — but you're not necessarily thinking about the audience. What people are going to say it is, or what genre it is, or whatever.
You have to turn off that voice, or else you can't create.
Yeah, and you're kind of chewing on something in a song. It could be some really big thing that obsesses you that you need to solve, or it could be just some way to express beauty that you want to feel.
And then somebody comes around, if you're lucky enough that people care about what you did, and interviews you about it, and they ask you what went into the songs. And you tell them, because they asked you.
It inevitably ends up seeming very oversimplified, because that's what stories do. A good storyteller throws out some of the details and pumps up some of the other details to get people hooked.
It becomes crystallized, canonized. Reduced to primary colors.
Maybe other animals tell stories, but it feels like the most human thing in the universe — to tell stories and construct narratives. Story is one of the most beautiful things that we do, and one of the most damaging things that we do.
Thousands of people can die in a single day because of a story. Genocide, prejudice — these things come with all of these stories, you know what I mean? Or, like, "I'm in the right; I'm doing the right thing. The end justifies the means because of this story."
The point is, like you say, it's this complicated thing, and it gets simplified. And then somebody reads that interview — the simplified interview — and they're already imposing this simplified story on you.
Essentially, you end up with this thing that was really subtle, complex, reaching out in the darkness, a dialogue between you and whatever it is that makes you write, and it just kind of gets turned into a cartoon really, really quickly. And then you have to play along, or push against it, [when] pushing against it just seems sort of churlish or something like that.
The supreme irony of all of this is that this is something I've been trying to unpack for myself for decades, and oftentimes contributes to a lot of unhappiness for me, personally.
How would you apply this thinking to Nothing Special?
One of the things I was grappling with on this album was trying to not tell myself fake stories, and trying to not think too much about extrinsic rewards for what I'm doing.
Also, not trying to particularly peddle a really clichéd story that it feels like everybody has to peddle now, just to get somebody to turn their heads. Which is to say, "I'm the greatest!" — the most obvious thing. Rappers do it all the time; indie people do it sort of fake-ironically. It's just the currency we're asked to exchange ourselves in.
So, I do all this stuff, and then try to make this record, which really is a personal reflection of all this. But then, I have to promote it. I, like, literally pay a guy to promote it! I pay a company to get people to try to talk about me on this album, that's sort of like, "Hey, don't worry. Don't think about me too much." There's this really bizarre irony-slash-hypocrisy that may be in there that is really interesting, that I'm trying to negotiate.
In the four or five interviews I've done [at the time of this conversation], I don't feel like I've done anything really gross yet, in terms of selling myself in that cartoonish way. But it also feels like it's such a slippery slope — you know what I mean?
Just have fun with that tension! Conceptual dissonance is where so much beauty comes from. There's also that real danger of Travis and his legacy becoming distorted.
When I was working on Away, my grandfather had died, and he was a really big influence on my personality and all that stuff. It was very much on my mind. And I decided that for that press cycle, to not pay somebody to write a bio and just write the most transparent thing I could myself. And it didn't work the way I hoped it would.
What ended up happening was, there emerged this narrative of some guy who was devastated by his grandfather's death and wrote an album about it — which is, like, criminally distorted.
I had a lot going on, and I had him on my mind because his death was very sad. It was also very expected, and it was kind of a culmination of his story and life. I just feel like it turned into a distortion that made me unhappy.
When I wrote a lot of these songs [on Nothing Special] — and some of the songs that aren't on the record, because I wrote a lot of them — Travis would flit in and out of many of them. All the different ways that I was trying to celebrate him and grapple with what had happened. I could not say that. I could tell them to not put that in the biography. But I'm trying to be honest; that was a big part of it.
There are a lot of things that were a big part of it — moving, coming out to California, looking back on Okkervil River, then sort of dissolving Okkervil River. Caring for another being, starting over again, aging, looking at the rock 'n' roll business and the myth of rock 'n' roll.
And these things were not separated from each other; they were all in dialogue. I also wanted to pay tribute to Travis, because we loved each other like brothers.
Will Sheff. Photo: Bret Curry
Can you talk a little more about your relationship with Travis?
That's the most important friendship I've had in my life; maybe my friendship with Jonathan [Meiburg, author and leader of Shearwater], who is equally important. But Travis was a true connoisseur of rock lore, and I know that he wants to be remembered.
We had had a falling out over a really complicated bunch of factors. But I know from knowing him as well as I did, and from talking to a lot of his friends, that we still always loved each other and always wanted to reconcile.
I didn't want to feel like I was profiting off of his sad story, and I want people to remember him. I want to do what I can to keep his name out there. Those were the factors that led me to be like, "Alright: I'm going to be honest about this album."
But at the same time, I will be really unhappy if, when I look back on this whole promotion cycle, it got boiled down to "This was the concept album about how he was sad about Travis dying." Because it's not true. This album is about so many things, and it's all interwoven and intermingled.
Right before this interview, I tore down a bunch of vines off a tree in my yard because they were sucking out the nutrients. Does the tree symbolize art as a whole, and the vines are the music business?
Music has always been around, and the idea that it should have anything to do with business is crazy, when you think about it a little bit. It's just this bizarre shotgun wedding, trying to reconcile capitalism with an activity that people do that other people really appreciate.
Furthermore, I think the idea of musical celebrities, and musical stars, is also slightly gross. I like the idea that up until very recently, music was just something that a lot of people did. And they did it for fun! They did it for community, and for entertainment.
It was like, "My daughter's getting married! Have Joe come over; he plays the fiddle!" It wasn't like everybody was sitting around, interviewing Joe and asking him for the influences on the jig he just played, and Joe was wearing Wayfarers, giving cryptic answers to their questions before hopping on his private jet. It's kind of disgusting.
And those stories we talked about fold into that.
We love stories; I love those stories. I love stories about Bob Dylan and David Bowie and Iggy Pop and Alex Chilton. But as fun to think about as it is, it's a sick and f—ed up system — especially when it comes to getting to live a life that's extravagant, while other people are living these miserable, hand-to-mouth existences.
Because we love stories, it's really entertaining to have a Bowie. Maybe you can see yourself in the exaggerated, larger-than-life aspects of things that happened with Bowie. [But] I like that David Bowie never changed his name, and he was David Robert Jones.
I guess the best way to try to be a rock star is to just understand that you're really like a vessel for other people's projections and entertainment, and just go, "Hey, man, I'm just here to entertain. Please don't worship me. If I make you laugh, make you smile, give you a good Saturday night's entertainment, then it's worth me wearing this stupid outfit and acting like such an ass."
But if it's all about me getting some disproportionate reward, then it kind of becomes gross.
For a while, you've been making music that deals with something close to serenity, which is not a sexy nor clickable concept. Most fans probably got into Okkervil River almost 20 years ago, when you were screaming about murder. Can you talk about that tension between who you are and what people want you to be — or pay you to be?
Like any artist, you follow your nose — and when I was younger, I wrote in a younger way. I wrote in a way that was really informed by where I was at in my life, and where I had been — specifically, what I had experienced.
And I don't mean to make it sound like it's worse than anybody else, but I'd experienced a lot of pain and hurt. And — this is not uncommon with men — it sort of transformed into anger, and I had a lot to prove.
I think this is true of me now, and has always been true: I have a tendency to go there. When I'm writing, I have a tendency to want to go to the place that makes people — or me — uncomfortable.
Those songs, where I dealt with things like murder and suicide and very violent feelings — I don't regret any of those songs. I don't think that they came from a hurtful place, and I think, probably, at the end of the day, they were a net positive for people who really liked them. I hope and think they were more cathartic than stirring up shittiness, or anything like that.
But the engine for a lot of that was anger and hurt and pain, and as a human, I very much felt like I needed to figure out how to not hurt people, and how to help people, and be present for the people I loved and notice them and see them and pay attention to their feelings and not be unhappy.
Like, nobody wants me — and I certainly don't want any of my friends who are in their 40s — to be drug-addled, chasing tail, only wanting to play three chords on an electric guitar. You get older, and you start to see all the different tones and all the diversity of musical expression, and it's my job to always try to make it new and reflect what I want out of music. That was a real big shift.
Which isn't always appreciated by the drunken frat boys screaming for "Westfall."
Yeah, there are some people who really imprinted on the anger and the rage. And it wasn't just young men; I think it was women, too, who kind of identified with it.
Maybe they put me in that drawer. I don't think it was malicious, but it's like, they just want that again. But I don't want to be miserable. These days, I feel like I go there with religion and spirituality and big existential questions.
I think that maybe that actually makes people uncomfortable. And I think the discomfort that people feel about murder and violence is actually very familiar. We all like gross, grimy, dark anger, and I think some of the more spiritual stuff actually makes people very uncomfortable.
I really enjoyed watching critics squirm at lines like "Brother, I believe in love" from the last record [2018's In the Rainbow Rain].
Yeah, yeah. What's fun about that is just going full[-on] risking being called a stupid hippie. I like the idea of exposing yourself to criticism and failure.
I was talking to somebody about some record in the past, and they were encouraging me to write quote-unquote bulletproof pop songs. I was thinking about that metaphor, and nothing could be further from describing the kind of music I like.
I don't want my muse to be an impregnable fortress, a bulletproof vest, a tank rolling through town. I want it to be porous and vaporous. Easy to ignore, easy to make fun of. Going out on a limb, inviting the listener in.
It shouldn't be like an irrefutable argument; it should be just a strange artifact that you are called to interact with, or something.
Even on that extreme end, your work never lands in a sense of gross grandiosity, or a Messianic complex. I love the ending of "Evidence" from Nothing Special, because a lesser songwriter or arranger would have built that chorus to absurd heights. Instead, you chose to let it waft in and out, and gently settle.
It's funny how you talk about it being a decision, because I never thought about that. It speaks to the difference between the two ways of looking at a song — the making of it, and then the talking about it after, which are equally important, I think.
I always want to say "This is the song I'm most proud of," because I love all these songs in different ways. But "Evidence" really articulates a lot of fundamental feelings I have about life, at this point in my life. And I think the music does just as much to articulate them as the words. I really did want that song to be comforting. Soothing, and not necessarily papering over pain, but something that would make people feel fundamentally good.
When you're talking about turning it into a big chorus, that was something I thought a lot about in its absence on this record — never pushing anything.
"Like the Last Time" pushes, I guess, because that's just what naturally happened in the studio. That song wasn't supposed to rock out that hard. It just sort of happened. I'd say my biggest goal on this record was to never oversell anything.
I love how Nothing Special is predicated on these diatonic, very simple melodies. I know you've talked about Bill Fay in those terms.
When you say that, it's funny, because I don't think about things in terms of theory too much. But I definitely had this thing where I was like, "I want these songs to be melodically very singable, and lyrically very gettable," even if there's a lot in them.
You've made the difficult decision to go under your own name, despite the financial hit. But now, you've torn off the Band-Aid. You could theoretically just keep making solo records of any kind, and the fans will continue to follow you wherever you go. How do you see the next decade of your career?
I don't know what the future holds. And sometimes, when I look back on my favorite artists, it does feel like decades really have the power to destroy people's careers. A really obvious example is when alternative rock and grunge came along, and suddenly, all these '80s bands seemed like they were 100 years old. Some of them never recovered.
The closest thing we ever had to being connected to the zeitgeist was that brief 2006-to-2010 stretch. I don't think we were ever the front-runners. We would just be mentioned in the same conversation as a bunch of other bands.
I feel like I've managed to keep going and fly under the radar. When I think about my favorite artists with the longest careers — Dylan is an exception that proves the rule; he's not a good artist to compare your career to — I think about somebody like Michael Hurley.
I love that he's just been doing the same thing his whole life, and there's really never been a drop-off in quality. His records all sound the same; they're all really good! You're never like, "He's over the hill; he's passed around the bend now."
The most exciting thing about getting to be Will Sheff instead of Okkervil River is that I feel like there aren't any rules about what I can and can't do. When I made this record, I wasn't really thinking about whether it was Okkervil River or Will Sheff or anything other than just making music.
But as a result, I think [with] the next record, I'll feel a lot more emboldened to do whatever I want stylistically, and not feel like it has to square with someone's conception of what the brand Okkervil River sounds like.
You could go full Lovestreams, or you could play a single lute.
[Laughs.] Yeah, exactly! I could go like Sting and just start playing John Dowland on lute, and more power to me!
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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!