Performing Songwriter - September-October 2007
Volume 15 - Issue 104
Pages 20 & 21
FIVE MINUTES WITH
BY CHRIS NEAL
Deborah Harry hadn't felt the urge to record a solo album since her legendary band, Blondie, reunited a decade ago.
But that all changed when she met Super Buddha, the production duo of Barb Morrison and Charles Nieland.
Following Blondie's 2006 tour, Harry began periodically writing and recording with the twosome. "Every time I had an idea I called them up and booked studio time," she recalls. "It was fun, it was simple, and the results were good. They worked very quickly, so I just went with it. We ended up with a small body of work."
That body of work has now become Necessary Evil, Harry's fifth solo effort and her first in 14 years. Stark, edgy and stylistically broad, it's a logical next step for an artist who has spent her career boldly exploring the intersections of pop, rock, rap, reggae, jazz and whatever other styles she sees fit to try on. She draws the line at opera, which she grew up hearing around the house as a child in Hawthone, N.J. "That's a whole other world," she says with a chuckle.
Along with guitarist and then-paramour Chris Stein, Harry formed Blondie in 1974. With its charismatic lead singer out front, the group took the New York underground music scene aboveground with genre-blending crossover hits like "Heart of Glass," "The Tide Is High," "Call Me" and "Rapture" before breaking up in 1982. Harry's friendship and artistic relationship with Stein outlasted their romance, and still continues - he produced two tracks on Necessary Evil.
Harry established herself both as a solo singer and as an actress (she'll next be seen in November's Elegy) before Blondie reunited in 1998. Since then the group has released two studio albums, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and seen the exit of keyboardist Jimmy Destri. Harry, Stein and drummer Clem Burke are now the only original members remaining, leaving the group's recording future legally uncertain.
For now, Harry, a gorgeous 62, is focused on Necessary Evil and her involvement in a new stage musical version of the 1985 movie Desperately Seeking Susan that will incorporate Blondie music. She called from Blackpool, England, where Blondie was finishing up a string of tour dates, to discuss her songs, her style and her singular vision.
What can you do with a solo record that you can't do with Blondie?
It's simpler not having so many people involved. With Blondie it's usually at least four people that have a vote on how things go. That gets a little cumbersome.
Was that something you had to weigh when the band reunited?
We all had to be reassured about everyone's real enthusiasm for the project. As it worked out, three of us really did have the inspiration and the drive to do it, and the fourth person dropped out.
How do you adapt to working with new people?
You have to throw yourself into it. You have to go into these situations willing to meet somebody more than halfway and see how it goes. I've had enough experience to know when somebody is bullshitting. The red flags go up and I say, "OK, let's see where this is." If it doesn't gel, then I get out of it. I had one not-so-good experience working on this record and pulled the plug on it. Just walked away. It has to be fun, it had to feel good. I have to respect the people I'm working with.
How does a song usually start for you?
I put myself in songwriting mode. I jot down ideas, and eventually I can either really focus on it and develop it, or sometimes have a flash of inspiration. If I get an idea, it doesn't really matter where I am. I'll scribble it down somewhere.
How did Chris Stein get involved with the album?
I wanted to work with Chris again, because I've worked with him for so many years and I wanted him to be represented. I asked him to come up with a couple of tracks. I adore his work.
What changes have you noticed in your voice over the years?
I've learned more technique and control.
Your voice has a lot of presence on the new album.
It's more of a vocalist's CD. Blondie was always this very glitzy, glossy, dense pop production. This is a much different sound.
It's been 30 years since the first Blondie album was recorded. How does it sound to you now?
I don't listen to it that often (laughs). But it warms my heart a bit. It was a great period, and there was a lot of stuff going on. It was kind of mad. It's nice to be able to feel the enthusiasm and excitement of a different time.
What is it like to have your past always follow you?
Sometimes it's difficult with audiences. They love you for a certain thing that is very personal for them, and they treasure that, and they want to hear that from you. Often, that's all they want to hear. They don't want to move ahead with you. Maybe their lives have moved in a different direction than yours, and it just doesn't mesh the way it once did. So that can make an artist very stagnant. That's the biggest danger. Record companies are guilty of this, too - they want you to reproduce the same old thing. That's not what art is about. Art is about growth, experience, transition and becoming bigger. It's an enabling experience. It shouldn't just go in a very straight and narrow line. The wavelengths should get bigger.
Earlier this year you toured with Cyndi Lauper and Erasure, and you only played solo material. Did the audiences go along with that?
They did. When I would finish some of the songs, they would be silent for a few seconds, and then suddenly they would erupt in applause. So they were listening. I was surprised.
That has to be very different for you. An audience is going to clap automatically when they hear "Heart of Glass," for example.
It was a little scary sometimes. It's like being an opening band again (laughs). But it was good to force myself to do that, to break out of the comfort zone. That's one of the seductions of being in a group that has a great track record. You're comfortable. To break out was stimulating for me.
Blondie made videos for every song on 1979's Eat to the Beat album, at a time when the art form was still untested [a new reissue of the album includes a DVD with all those clips]. How did you approach video at the time?
We started making them from the get-go. I liked doing them very much. They never cost more than a couple thousand dollars (laughs). It was a very simple representation of a band's performance, really.
Were you comfortable with the idea that you would have to be appealing visually as well as musically?
We always knew that. This was not some surprise. We knew that was happening. The fact that we were a very visual band was one of the roots of our success. That was one of the key factors of Blondie. It's one of the things that brought all of us together - we all had a tremendous affinity for comic-book art, and that was also a very visual area.
What are Blondie's plans at this point?
We don't have a big map right now. We're looking ahead. Chris is writing, and I'm always jotting down ideas, as I said. I couldn't really say beyond that. We have some things to work out on the business end before we move ahead - if we do.
What are your hopes for the solo record?
I'd like to have a big smashing hit all around the world. I haven't done that for a long time, and I'd like to go out with a bang, as it were. I don't know how much longer I can continue doing this, although I certainly intend to keep performing. I would like to have a big radio hit, though. That would be great.