meta-scriptWilli Carlisle's 'Peculiar, Missouri' Is Traditional Folk Music For 21st Century Problems |
Willi Carlisle's 'Peculiar, Missouri' Is Traditional Folk Music For 21st Century Problems
Willi Carlisle

Photo: Tim Duggan


Willi Carlisle's 'Peculiar, Missouri' Is Traditional Folk Music For 21st Century Problems

Drawing inspiration from folk legends, literature and music gatherings in the Ozarks, 'Peculiar, Missouri' offers a series of outsider portraits with the promise that it's okay to be different.

GRAMMYs/Jul 14, 2022 - 05:46 pm

Listening to Willi Carlisle’s sophomore album, Peculiar, Missouri, is like speeding through a folk music history exhibit curated to critique contemporary culture. Peculiar honors not only traditions, but also characters who don’t quite fit in because of their economic status, sexual identity or profession, letting the listener know: It's okay if you're a little weird; Carlisle is too.

Out July 15, the album opens with a simple message of love over anger before shifting into a series of portraits and meditations: a poignant exposition on the pain of a closeted queer man; a rollicking satirical romp about life in a van; several a-typical cowboy stories; new and traditional folk tracks; and one spoken-word meditation on an existential crisis in Walmart. It features a veritable cacophony of instruments, including the banjo, fiddle, guitar, accordion and harmonica, which Carlisle himself contributes.

Growing up in Kansas and Illinois, Carlisle was raised on folk and bluegrass music and his father’s stories about his time as a musician. Around age 18, he discovered the Harry Smith Anthology, a seminal compilation of folk music, which launched him on a mission to learn about as many parts of the genre as possible. When he moved to Arkansas, he fell in love with the folk music traditions he found flourishing there, incorporating them into his writing. 

Peculiar, Missouri draws inspiration from Carlisle's own past and experience as a queer man, as well as works by Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, e.e. Cummings, Utah Phillips, and square dance and folk music gatherings in the Ozarks. Rejecting any one influence, Carlisle prefers to call himself a genre-chameleon. The artist spoke with about his radical message of love, the dangers of nostalgia and why "Honky Tonk Bedonkadonk" is actually a masterpiece.

First of all, I know you've been on the road for a while. Where are you right now?

I'm currently on the way to Bristol, Tennessee from Atlanta, Georgia, to record a direct-to-vinyl session of a couple of folk songs on a very small pressing, just for fun. 

I don't like to take days off; I really like to work, we've pretty much been on the road since last December. And the feeling of people knowing the songs when they come and bringing all their friends, the novelty hasn't worn off. I kind of hope it never goes. 

Can you give me the overview of where you grew up, and your first interest in music, and then how you got interested in people like Utah Phillips and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott? 

I grew up in a fairly musical family listening to old music — to folk music and bluegrass in particular. Most of the music I chose as a kid was classics, or it was pop country in private. I had Charlie Musselwhite, Shania Twain, Baha Men, and Sam Cooke, that was my earliest CD collection. More or less, we were a family of intellectual aspirants that still loved all this old stuff from the country. 

And as soon as I got to college and had a measure of freedom it was like, you're buying a guitar, we're gonna learn everything. I wanted to be some kind of folklorist; I went to the Smithsonian on my first hitchhiking trip, had my pocket knife and harmonica confiscated, that sort of thing. I was really roaming around looking for it.

There's this line in your bio that says you’re a product of the punk-to-folk pipeline, which is one of those fascinating, counterintuitive music phenomena. Can you tell me what it means for your career? 

It means a commitment to a do-it-yourself and f—all the haters way of thinking about it. It also means that we value some kind of community that's based around something other than sheer money or popularity, against the music industry's — or just general people's ideas — that music should be pretty and make us feel good. 

Punk and a lot of folk music can be very difficult to listen to. And is also sometimes just as much about the people getting together as it is about the music itself. 

Folk music and punk music both have a long history of protest. And you've said you see protest music as rooted in love rather than anger, which is a concept that, particularly in the moment we're at right now, might be hard for a lot of people to grasp.  

I was raised to be angry; I think a lot of young men are. And so I say this only from my own personal perspective: to me, finding a self-developing compassion, cultivating silence, and cultivating a rare and free affection felt more like a protest than [being angry]. 

And I would like for queer people, and people that love differently or that are capable of loving in a lot of contexts, to be thought leaders inside of moments of pure rage and alienation. I certainly want there to be space for bricks to be thrown through windows. But I also think that more of us are on the same side than we currently comprehend. And that a big tent is going to be a lot more useful. 

Which brings us to the album, which starts with "Your Heart’s a Big Tent," a track which poses a kind of thesis statement arguing for love above all else. What do you want listeners to take away from what is really an album of protest music, couched in this idea of love? 

It might be so simple that it's stupid. I don't trust myself to be simple a lot of the time. And so starting off with something that feels simple and true is what I wanted to do. It keeps seeming like the idea that we should love everybody is a liability. There's not a lot that I feel like I know with much certainty, I try to "leave six inches for the Lord," as they say, on a lot of stuff. 

But I can say, in traveling across the country, that there are so many people worthy of love that don't feel it and that want to be just invited, and haven't ever been invited, or have intentionally been excluded. And that's one of those rare things that goes both ways. That isn't ideological, but is emotional. Which is to say, I think everybody feels like they need something. 

The second verse of that song, "I saw the devil in a used bookstore / ripping up and spitting on Catcher in the Rye" is intended to be something about rejecting youthful anger. And that's what I personally want to do. There's a pervasive lie that folk and country music is standing for regular people in some meaningful way. And I don't think we always do; I don't necessarily think that I am in the best possible way. But I think that we could.

That's the roots of folk and country music, but that has largely been forgotten in the interim, at least in terms of the cultural perception of what that music is now.

Yes. I think nostalgia is dangerous. I think that it's political nostalgia, and we have to be really careful. There’s no new history, only new historians. Utah Phillips used to say that we could leap into the river of history and purify ourselves. I have a different way of thinking of that metaphor. Which is that you wash in the river of history, the dam breaks, you go downstream, you know where you're headed, and it's directly towards a cliff. And you find yourself in the meantime in all of these marvelous little quirky backwaters that nobody has bothered, that nobody has seen. And those are the places that I want to bring people to, these little parts of history that might be forgotten.

The album covers a wide spectrum of music and nods at these different points in music history, it's almost like a tiny folk anthology. I’m wondering if you can say a bit more about how it came together as a cohesive unit.

With huge amounts of pain and my guts unspooling alone in a small apartment in Saint Louis, during COVID. I want to be a genre chameleon and I also have a lot of songs. I decided that I wanted to make a record that talked about love in this way. And then also directly addressed being a queer person in a way that was anthemic as opposed to half-assed. So I’ve got maybe half a dozen that I like, they're not about queer joy, which I hear a lot about, but they're all about queer misery, peculiar misery, if you will. And also I needed to have other songs about people that don't quite fit in. 

So these folk songs, "The Goodnight Loving Trail" and "Este Mundo" [for example] are these two cowboys that don't fit into their own world and their own experiences. The "The Goodnight Loving Trail" is a cook on a wagon train who is pissed off. I love that opening bit, "Too old to wrangle or ride on the swing / You beat the triangle and you curse everything." It's like, just awful sounding. "Este Mundo" is a guy losing the rights to his own land. And so he doesn't even really have work. 

So the record is intended to be full of that kind of discomfort, the discomfort of wandering, the idea that everybody wants to find a home, no matter how much they're rambling, but it can be hard to find. 

And then some of the songs are to me delightfully subversive, in that if you're listening casually, they sound like traditional folk, country, or maybe trucker songs, but if you listen to the words, they touch on these concepts that are not usually parts of those songs, like being queer, like poking fun at Instagram influencers and having an existential crisis in the middle of a Walmart. Did you set out to make these subversive songs?

Yes. But I'm certainly not trying to trick anyone. You know, the album is pink. Of course I'm trying to be subversive, but I'm trying to do it with my tongue in my cheek. I think it's only life and death. So why not have a little fun with it. 

Also, Walmart is expanding their corporate headquarters in Arkansas, where I'm from, and they really piss me off a lot. And so I certainly have existential crises in Walmart. But I also think everybody does, I think that it's really f—ing miserable, the experience of going to a regular superstore. And I've been so lucky in my life, to go to as many farmer’s markets as I have. And to experience rural food justice, people taking care of 100 percent of their own food needs. But they're having to build it entirely on their own, when in the meantime, there's a supercomputer in your pocket that knows more about you than you know about yourself. 

We're talking about the album's title track, "Peculiar, Missouri." It strikes me as an interesting choice for a title track. It's this spoken-word contemplation of a very disorienting experience in a fluorescent-lit superstore, that to somebody who's been on the road a lot, is an immediately relatable experience. But as an album title, it's kind of an odd choice.

Well, I liked the idea of it being a weird misery that you were in, that facility. It came to me in a dream. And I know that a title track could probably just be a banger. But I fell in love with the few tracks in the American folk tradition that I think are just perfect: tracks like [Arlo Guthrie's] "Alice's Restaurant," also "913 Greens" by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. 

And was like, if I don't check this box, I'm not a folk singer. If I have a career in folk music, I want it to be because people are listening to the things that are harder to listen to, which is a big ask. It's a big f—n' ask for me to say, "Here's a 7-minute-long talking blues [song]." But if I've got you there, well, then maybe I've got you for next time. 

Can you rectify for me the idea of the album being about love with the idea that it also takes place in this misery? 

Yeah, I can. It's that there is relief from it in each other and in recognizing our impermanence, and insisting on burning brightly for the time that we're here. I think it's cheesy. I don't necessarily know that I believe that forever. But I love that I get to for a minute.  

I want to talk about the song "Tulsa's Last Musician." It reminds me of Townes Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen’s wildest character songs. Can you tell me the story behind it? 

In this line of work, you meet a lot of weird people. And it's the best part. And I came to realize that I really liked clowns, acrobats and puppeteers. But I didn't like the magic shows that I saw. And one night in Orlando, I got cornered by a bunch of magicians — can't make this up. And I was pretty deep in my cups. And they were showing me rope tricks. And I was so bored. 

But because they had a captive audience, they were all trying to one up each other. And there’s one of them who's a particular talent. He has autism and he can't always tell if you understand the trick. And he's brilliant, he's really, really good at sleight of hand and a wonderful liaison to his neurotype and his craft. But also you had to bring some of the magic to it. You have to go like, "Whoa," "Wow!" because he's not good at reading your facial expression. So it felt polite for me to exaggerate a little bit. Because both he and the other three magicians were like, "Are you with me? Do you get it?" And I didn’t get it, I was fully checked out. I got to thinking about the tragedy of how badly they need an audience. 

I was also hanging out with a mentalist and he just wouldn't stop kvetching about how nobody cared about his work and he could be making thousands of dollars somewhere else. And the ego that we have when what we do is so silly. I wanted to write something that was funny and sad, that did some honoring of those kinds of personalities in the world. 

But then at the end, you turn it outward on those same people that you want to feel included by saying, "If you've ever felt like you don't fit in, then maybe the song is for you."

It's a common folk trope; it's a rhetorical turn that felt really intuitive. I can't stop writing like, "hey, it's okay, if you feel weird." Because that's what I want to tell myself all the time. That's my private self soothing.

"Vanlife" reminds me of Red Sovine and C.W. McCall truck drivin’ anthems, but the lyrics are nothing like those songs, which celebrate the lifestyle. You're critiquing van life and van life influencers and the idea that anybody would aspire to that. So then who is the love for in that song?

Well don't get me wrong, it's a lot of fun. We made a music video that was essentially 10 vans romping around Wyoming having a blast. And the truth is, that living on the margins can be an incredible experience. There's also people that don't ever get to come back from it. And that is one of those things that’s unacceptable to me about the social contract in its current condition. And about the housing crisis. Late capitalism takes all forms and eats them up and spits them out as something that somebody could buy. And when it does that with van life in particular, it makes me sick. 

At times I was fashionably homeless, you know, "oh, I'm going through a breakup and I'm going on tour for the next six months, why would I rent an apartment," or "I'm a little short on cash, I'm gonna move my stuff into my buddy's basement and live in a van for a few weeks." I would not want to position myself as somebody who's familiar with being truly unhoused.

 Anyhow, the love is for the people that are out there, living that way and understanding the contradictions that are inherent: that on some level it's pretty fun to be a little wild, but on another level it makes everything a lot more difficult. And the number of times I've been pulled over just for existing, and I'm a tall white guy and I can code switch right away into American hillbilly vernacular and be just fine. It's for the people that can't do that. 

There's also some bravado that I want people to be able to feel in their s—ty situations. There's a wonderful sensibility in country music that can do things like glorify a long day's work with a s—ty boss and a few light beers that I think is really evolved. [Garth Brooks'] "I've got friends in low places" might be an ultimate example. I think the "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" is a masterpiece. It's hard to write things like that. I want to be able to write stupid as well as smart and to glorify what's fundamentally good about our togetherness. 

Okay, just for fun can you lay out for me how you see "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" as a masterpiece? 

Well, so it's four writers in the room. And they've decided they're gonna go as low as they can and as high as they can at the same time. That double direction-ness feels essential. People talk about Song of Songs [book in the Old Testament], right? "My lovers hands are dripping with the purest myrrh. My love, put their hand through the keyhole and my bowels shook at her touch." [Carlisle quotes from memory, then references Trace Adkins’ song]"Whoee slap your grandma, how's she gonna get those britches on?" 

I'm serious, it's just dirty poetry in praise of butts. I think that we should admit that we like sexy things and dumb things. 

You are a huge Utah Phillips fan. And in fact, his core tenant of "long memory" is in your Instagram bio. So, where does an album like this fit into Phillips’ idea that without knowing your history, it's hard to go forward?

 I don't trust folk music that isn't intentionally materialist — something that's looking at history, the real lives of people who bled, sang, lived, died. And is dealing with those ghosts in a very serious way. I think that having meaningful encounters with those histories can heal, or at least balm epigenetic wounds. 

There is some deeply unsettled thing inside of a lot of us. And I think that a lot of it has to do with a total loss of mental freedom that's been taken away from us by advertising schemes and ticky tacky houses. I think that taking our own history, and our own songs into our hands is a somewhat radical act of freedom. It's saying, in the era of TikTok, I choose three chords of the truth. I believe that everybody can do it for themselves. 

It's sort of an individual mandate for self examination. What does that look like in practical application for a random fan coming to your show? 

Well to be honest, I don't know. But I think that just to sing along is one of those experiences of self reflection, just to hear your own voice lifted with others. Also every time I'm talking about my own pain on stage I try to situate it in a way that is general but that also acknowledges how I feel about it now. In fact, I begin a lot of love songs with "now I've totally forgiven this person but…" and I go through the stories a little bit with people, I hope it's an invitation. 

The beautiful thing about music is that it opens the door wide for people to think deeply about what they want from life, what they need.

 I want to remember this phrase, the individual mandate for self reflection. I feel like I'm gonna get a tattoo this evening. 

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GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016
Kendrick Lamar

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic


GRAMMY Rewind: Kendrick Lamar Honors Hip-Hop's Greats While Accepting Best Rap Album GRAMMY For 'To Pimp a Butterfly' In 2016

Upon winning the GRAMMY for Best Rap Album for 'To Pimp a Butterfly,' Kendrick Lamar thanked those that helped him get to the stage, and the artists that blazed the trail for him.

GRAMMYs/Oct 13, 2023 - 06:01 pm

Updated Friday Oct. 13, 2023 to include info about Kendrick Lamar's most recent GRAMMY wins, as of the 2023 GRAMMYs.

A GRAMMY veteran these days, Kendrick Lamar has won 17 GRAMMYs and has received 47 GRAMMY nominations overall. A sizable chunk of his trophies came from the 58th annual GRAMMY Awards in 2016, when he walked away with five — including his first-ever win in the Best Rap Album category.

This installment of GRAMMY Rewind turns back the clock to 2016, revisiting Lamar's acceptance speech upon winning Best Rap Album for To Pimp A Butterfly. Though Lamar was alone on stage, he made it clear that he wouldn't be at the top of his game without the help of a broad support system. 

"First off, all glory to God, that's for sure," he said, kicking off a speech that went on to thank his parents, who he described as his "those who gave me the responsibility of knowing, of accepting the good with the bad."

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He also extended his love and gratitude to his fiancée, Whitney Alford, and shouted out his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmates. Lamar specifically praised Top Dawg's CEO, Anthony Tiffith, for finding and developing raw talent that might not otherwise get the chance to pursue their musical dreams.

"We'd never forget that: Taking these kids out of the projects, out of Compton, and putting them right here on this stage, to be the best that they can be," Lamar — a Compton native himself — continued, leading into an impassioned conclusion spotlighting some of the cornerstone rap albums that came before To Pimp a Butterfly.

"Hip-hop. Ice Cube. This is for hip-hop," he said. "This is for Snoop Dogg, Doggystyle. This is for Illmatic, this is for Nas. We will live forever. Believe that."

To Pimp a Butterfly singles "Alright" and "These Walls" earned Lamar three more GRAMMYs that night, the former winning Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song and the latter taking Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (the song features Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat). He also won Best Music Video for the remix of Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood." 

Lamar has since won Best Rap Album two more times, taking home the golden gramophone in 2018 for his blockbuster LP DAMN., and in 2023 for his bold fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Watch Lamar's full acceptance speech above, and check back at every Friday for more GRAMMY Rewind episodes. 

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A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
Franc Moody

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.

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:23 pm

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'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

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

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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Living Legends: Billy Idol On Survival, Revival & Breaking Out Of The Cage
Billy Idol

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."

GRAMMYs/Nov 25, 2022 - 04:19 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, 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 Bamback 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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Hear All Of The Best Country Solo Performance Nominees For The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
2023 GRAMMYs

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.

GRAMMYs/Nov 23, 2022 - 03:01 pm

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.

2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List