Photo courtesy of HBO
Yvonne Orji On Her First-Ever HBO Comedy Special, Faith & Celebrating Black Joy
Quarantining from her home in Los Angeles, the Nigerian-American comedian spoke to GRAMMY.com about the overwhelmingly positive response around "Momma, I Made It!," her forthcoming memoir and much more
Like her first-ever HBO comedy special states, Yvonne Orji has made it. The Nigerian-American actress and comedian has been on the come-up for a few years now, securing her first major role—sans agent!—in 2015 playing Issa Rae's best friend Molly Carter on HBO's smash hit "Insecure," which recently wrapped its fourth season. But what many fans of the show might not realize is that Orji has been on the comedy circuit since the mid-'00s, starting with a stand-up stint while competing in the Miss Nigeria in America pageant in 2006. From there, Orji, who also has a master's in Public Health from George Washington University, did stand-up at clubs in New York and Los Angeles and, in 2018, nabbed an opening slot for comedy king and GRAMMY winner Chris Rock.
Now, Orji is enjoying a wave of praise for her very own televised special "Momma, I Made It!," which was released in June on HBO. Filmed at the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., and partially in Orji's native Lagos, Orji spends the majority of her hour dropping hilarious anecdotes about her Nigerian-American experience, telling her mother she wanted to be a comedian ("I said, 'Momma, I want to do comedy'... SHE heard, 'So, you want to prostitute youself all about the world!'") and sharing her shock and delight at being able to set her bills to autopay.
Even though her parents have long since gotten on board with her comedy career, Orji jokes a lot that they'd be even happier if she'd just get married already.
"It’s like, sure, they want me to be happy, but in the back of their mind they're also like, 'Can you be happy with a nice Nigerian man who's also possibly Ibo?' And I'm just like, 'I can't make any promises,'" Orji laughs over the phone.
Quarantining from her home in Los Angeles, Orji spoke to GRAMMY.com about the overwhelmingly positive response around "Momma, I Made It!," separating Yvonne the comedian from her very different "Insecure" character and why now—in the time of coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter movement—it's more important than ever to show and experience Black joy.
So, with the pandemic still going on, are you getting to spend lots of time in that house you talked about purchasing in "Momma, I Made It!"?
I am. And it's like the more time I spend in it, the more money I'm spending on it. It's so funny the things you notice when you're at home. You're like, "You know what? I should also... And I think I need to..."
So, I'm definitely sinking more money into it. I'm hoping that I get to enjoy it, but high-key I feel like whoever buys this house from me is going to enjoy it in a very interesting way.
It seems like kind of a natural fit that you’d do a comedy special on HBO, given how you more or less have one foot in the door with "Insecure." When did HBO originally approach you to do this?
So, HBO had come out to see me, I want to say early 2018. I was opening up at Caroline's as part of the New York City Comedy Festival in 2018. We'd kind of been having the conversations and they wanted to see my [comedy] hour, etc. And then I think we'd gotten busy with filming ["Insecure"], etc. And then at the end of 2018, I also had another run in New York and they came out again. And that's when we were just like, "All right, I feel like you've seen the beginning of it. You've seen it 12 months afterwards." And so, they were like, "Okay, let's make this happen."
Oh wow, that much lead up?
Well, we did the deal in December 2018. [Then] I took 2019 off to write my book. And then we started filming “Insecure.” And so, we already knew that in 2020 I would do a tour and then we would shoot the special for the special to be released in 2020.
I looked at my schedule and I was like, the only time I could actually do a tour is this sliver of time between January and February. And I was like, "It's a winter tour. Why do I do this to myself?" I had no clue Corona would be happening—I was more worried about snow. Who knew a global pandemic was on the rise? So, yeah. It actually all worked out because then I was able to do a 13-city tour, finish it up in D.C. when I shot the special. And then they gave the [air] date of June because they were like, "’Insecure’'s going to be going. You have a built-in audience. We think it'd be great to happen around the same time—a summertime special." So, I'm like, "Okay, great."
[I] did not know the world would be burning, Black lives still needed to be mattering in the way that they are, we still need to be having that messaging of like, "Hey, Black lives still matter," and also, "Wear your mask." So, it was like so many things happening when the special came out. And I was, "All right. Is this a good time? What?"
Yeah, you must be experiencing an odd combination of feelings—because on one hand, streaming services like HBO are doing all they can to showcase content to amplify Black voices. But on the other hand, getting to this place has been incredibly traumatic, societally speaking. Not to mention, you’ve lost the ability to promote the special in-person.
Yeah. I understood HBO's strategy when they picked the date. And I was like, "Oh, 6/6. Great, yes." And I was like, "You're absolutely right. We'll be towards the end of the season. And it's going to be a great season. Hahaha." And then it was like, "Okay, Corona."
Prentice Penny, our showrunner, had his movie premiere [for Uncorked]. And he couldn't do South by Southwest and it was a letdown. He'd been building up to his directorial debut as a feature filmmaker. And I remember that moment of just being like, "Hey man, listen, you're going to have a captive audience. Everyone will be at home. It's going to be fine."
Slowly but surely, it was like, "Well, we can't do the talk shows. We can't do the press." I was like, "Oh my gosh. Okay. All right. Well, I can't be encouraging in this crisis and then be mad that I also got caught up in the whirlwind of things that couldn't happen in Corona." And so, I was like, "Okay, well, same thing applies." Penny’s movie became number one on Netflix because literally, everybody had finished watching everything else on Netflix. So, it was just like, "Well, at least the ratings will be good. People will be at home to see it."
And then the week of [my premiere], all the protests happened. George Floyd was murdered. The country was in a upheaval. And I was just like, "Yeah, no, this is very much different than “We can't go outside.” I don't know how to say, 'Hey guys, I know things look bleak. You just want to support me and watch my special?'" I was like, "No, there's no way to say that and not seem tone deaf and not seem... " And I was prepared. I was like, "This might just be a casualty of what it is."
And I saw “Insecure” come out in episode eight, which is the episode where Issa and Jay kind of melt all of our hearts and fall in love all over again. And just the response of that, people were like, "Man, we needed this 30 minutes. We needed to see Black love. We needed to laugh. We needed to see Black joy." And I was just like, "You know what? Rather than looking at it as a negative, we need levity." Trust me, America does not want Black people angry all the time because it's not going to end well for somebody, and it's not going to be Black people. And so, it's like in the midst of the process, in the midst of the fighting for justice, we need to take off the cape for just a second and laugh.
Black joy has been something that was always celebrated, was always necessary. And I think that's just the way that I chose to look at it. And leading up to it, I went through my phone and it was just very nostalgic for me really just to look at trips I had taken, things that made me laugh. I found this Instagram page that was just slides of Black people laughing. And I was like, "What are they doing?" and I just started laughing. So, I posted. I took three hours just posting a moment for Black joy. And I just was like, "From my moments of Black joy, from other people's moments of Black joy."
And then I talked to HBO and I was like, "Yo, we need to tell the world that Black joy is a form of activism as well." And so, we created that video of just all the things that Black joy is.
Speaking of “Insecure,” was it tricky to get the general public to separate you—Yvonne the comedian—from self-serious Molly?
It was so funny because this was definitely a very difficult season for Molly in terms of the fans' acceptance of her. They were not accepting. They were not here for me or my character. And so, it's funny because the trailer dropped about a month before and people were like, "Are we going to watch this?" or, "We going to support Yvonne because I can't not see her as Molly?" And I'm like, "Guys." And then you had this Twitter battle of people being like, "We have to learn to separate the actors from the roles they play." I was like, "Thank you." I was kind of letting the interwebs do their thing. And I think overall, I think the excitement of like, "Well, let's see what she gon' talk about." And there was that, "We didn't know the girl from ‘Insecure’ did comedy." And once people had the screeners, their response was like, "Wait. No, guys, you for real have to watch this." Questlove from The Roots was like, "I love this." And all the different outlets that we went out to saying, "No, this is a worthy watch," I think that also really helped.
And then when people did watch it, it was just kind of like, "Wait, we feel like we were transported to Nigeria. Yvonne's mom is the true star of the show. Can we get that whole entire outfit?" I think people were just discovering me in a way that they didn't even know they missed. They were just like, "I didn't even know that I needed this, but I'm glad I got it." [When people said] "I've watched this three to five times already," I'm like, "You have?" I was like, "Are you editing it? Because that's how many times I watched it while I was in the editing process."
Yeah, how did you feel watching yourself back that many times?
I was trying to make it the best it could be. I'm very Nigerian. I was like, "I got to get an A-plus on this." I told HBO, "I'm giving you a comedy special/documentary/music video." And they were like, "What?" I was like, "Just don't believe me. Just watch." So, I had my own theme song created. I had Chris Robinson, who does all of the music videos, direct it. It came out exactly how I wanted it.
Then when I was watching it the day of with people on Twitter, it was like, "Oh my god! They laughed! They got it! Yes! They're retweeting." But it was definitely different to watch it with an audience than by myself in a dark hole in my room.
I love how your comedy explores what parents expect of their children and how those expectations can be such a moving target. For instance, you’ve experienced a ton of career success over the last few years, and yet your family is constantly questioning you about when you’ll meet a man and get married.
It's like, "I'm trying my best. It's not on me, guys. It's not on me." It’s like, sure, they want me to be happy, but in the back of their mind they're also like, "Can you be happy with a nice Nigerian man who's also possibly Ebo?" And I'm just like, "I can't make any promises."
The special hops back and forth between you performing onstage and then spending quality time in Nigeria with your family. With the pandemic still going on, do you have any idea when you'd be able to see your parent in-person again?
No, for sure. So many things happened. They were supposed to come in May and then their flight in Nigeria got canceled. And then it was like, "Oh, well, I guess they won't be here for the special." So, then it was like, "Let's go in July." And then it just got worse. Their flight also got canceled. So, I'm like, "Father in heaven, when am I going to see them?" Because they don't like being in America when it's cold. And there's a very short window because they spend time in Maryland. Obviously, if they came to L.A. it'd be a little bit warmer. But still, their home base is Maryland. I don't even know what it's looking like in terms of them coming to America this year. Obviously, I miss them, but I also want them to be healthy. And they need to get their checkups. And it's all the real things that you're dealing with in real time.
How do you keep in touch when they're overseas?
We WhatsApp. We have a family group chat to make sure that everyone is okay and protected, etc. But the special airs in Nigeria on July 1. So, that's going to be very exciting for all of their friends to be able to get to see. They've seen it, but now it's like everyone else is going to see it. So, they send me messages of like, "Mrs. So-and-so saw it and this is what she said." I'm like, "Okay. All right. Okay." So, I'm not in a lot of trouble, but my mom did see it and say, "You are talking about me a lot." I'm like, "Yeah! It's called 'Momma, I Made It.' I'm going to talk about you." And she's just like, "Well, you know, I'm just saying."
The special hones in on Nigerian parent-child dynamics, but I bet lots of other children of immigrants could relate to everything you described. Did you find that to be the case?
It's so funny. A lot of the messages have been like, "I am Latin American and I know that story," or, "I am Asian American and I know that story," or, "My parents are from X, Y and Z." And it's just like, "Wow, we really are all similar in our own specific kind of ways."
I’m so excited to see what you do next. What can you tell us about the memoir you’ve written, coming out next year?
It's called Bamboozled by Jesus: How God Tricked Me into the Life of My Dreams. I feel like, especially with the special, I've come to a beautiful bookend for the end of a chapter in my life. And I'm not so far removed from the beginning stages of having a dream to seeing it through that I can't look back and help the next generation who have an improbable dream. I’m like, "Hey, if there's anything at all you see in my life, I'm not only showing you how I did it, but obviously my faith is an anchor to my success and so many things in my life."
I'm actually paralleling my journey with journeys of other people from the Bible who also had a battle of integrity. I'll tell a story about when I had to lean into integrity and why that's so much more important than just getting success. Success without integrity: [that’s] not going to be sustainable. It's like, "Here's my journey on an integrity moment that was in question. And then here's somebody else in the Bible who also was challenged. And look at how it turned out for both of us."
A lot of times people find things when they're 85 and on their death bed or after they get a family and it's like, "Well, I guess, God can come into my life now." But for me, I got saved when I was 17 and I developed a really cool friendship with him. And I'm 36 now. I'm like, "Yo, I don't want to wait until 50 to be like, 'Hey God.'" I want to enjoy what that looks like now. And I'm kind of battling against [people saying] "The Bible is outdated," or, ""God or religion is not pertinent or relevant to our lives today.” And I'm like, "I beg to differ."
Yeah, I was aware that you value your faith very deeply. I’ve always wondered—comedian culture as we know it can often be a cynical, non-believing sort of place. It makes me think about what the dynamic is like when you travel in comedian circles. Does it matter?
I think when you meet me, you know three things about me. I say it all the time. I love to laugh and smile. I love God. And I love a good body roll. And I lead with like, "Yo, God is my homeboy." But it's not in a way that's off-putting. It's not in a way that's like, "I can't hang out with you.”
Actually, people have messed up the purity of Christianity. Jesus walked with people that [didn’t believe in him]. I'm very confident in who I am. So, obviously you have to kind of protect your space, like who gets in the inner court, but it's not to be like, "Hey, I'm Christian so thus, you go over there and I can't hang out with you or learn anything new from you or enjoy your company." I think, for me, that's what I like to show. It’s just like, "Yo, faith is actually really inclusive. It's people who mess it up. It's people who shun other people in the name of faith." And I'm like, "That's called the division."
Looking into the future, are you more interested in leaning into comedy or acting, or balancing a combination of both?
Well, it's funny because after the special, everyone was like, "When's the next one?" I'm like, "Everybody calm down." I was like, "This was not built in five seconds. This took time to curate." It's funny because it's like the thing you enjoy about something, you enjoy it because there was attention to detail that was paid.
I think we're also in a place where I don't know what comedy looks like or acting, for that matter, looks like right now because, when are we going to be allowed to act again? Are we going to be able to gather again in groups of 300 to 3,000?
I don't know what either one of these mediums look like, but comedy is definitely one of those things that you don't dispose of because it allows people to get to know the you that you are. A character is a character. And some characters are amazing. And I'm grateful to play one that I enjoy and also learn from. But I'm so grateful, after the special, that people really got to know a little bit more about the person I am, the person behind the character. So, I think it's a two-hander. You work both of them.
Press Play On GRAMMY U Mixtape: New Year, It’s Poppin'! Monthly Member Playlist
The GRAMMY U Mixtape is a monthly, genre-spanning playlist to quench your thirst for new tunes, all from student members. GRAMMY U celebrates new beginnings with fresh pop tunes that will kickstart 2023.
Did you know that among all of the students in GRAMMY U, songwriting and performance is one of the most sought after fields of study? We want to create a space to hear what these students are creating today!
The GRAMMY U Mixtape, now available for your listening pleasure, highlights the creations and fresh ideas that students are bringing to this industry directly on the Recording Academy's Spotify and Apple Music pages. Our goal is to celebrate GRAMMY U members, as well as the time and effort they put into making original music — from the songwriting process to the final production of the track.
Each month, we accept submissions and feature 20 to 25 songs that match that month’s theme. This month we're ringing in 2023 with our New Year, It's Poppin'! playlist, which features fresh pop songs that bring new year, new you vibes. Showcasing talented members from our various chapters, we felt these songs represented the positivity and hopefulness that GRAMMY U members embody as they tackle this upcoming year of exciting possibilities.
So, what’s stopping you? Press play on GRAMMY U’s Mixtape and listen now on Spotify below and Apple Music.
Want to be featured on the next playlist? Submit your songs today! We are currently accepting submissions for songs of all genres for consideration for our February playlist. Whether you write pop, rock, hip hop, jazz, or classical, we want to hear from you. Music must be written and/or produced by the student member (an original song) and you must be able to submit a Spotify and/or Apple Music link to the song. Students must be a GRAMMY U member to submit.
About GRAMMY U:
GRAMMY U is a program that connects college students with the industry's brightest and most talented minds and provides those aspiring professionals with the tools and opportunities necessary to start a career in music.
Throughout each semester, events and special programs touch on all facets of the industry, including the business, technology, and the creative process.
As part of the Recording Academy's mission to ensure the recorded arts remain a thriving part of our shared cultural heritage, GRAMMY U establishes the necessary foundation for music’s next generation to flourish.
Not a member, but want to submit to our playlist? Apply for GRAMMY U Membership here.
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.
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].
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.