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Artist Direct - 16th November 2007
Interview: Debbie Harry
Punk's peroxide princess on love, politics and passing on the torch
Even though the punk bands of the 1970s carved out the path less traveled for all of our du-jour indie bands of today, in the light of modern day, some bands seem to be caricatures of their once-great, iconic selves. The Sex Pistols are on their third reunion tour and Johnny Rotten has even succumbed to being the Simon Cowell-type judge on punk's version of American Idol. Oh, how the mighty have... sold-out. Yet, some of the greats from the past don't need to keep on looking backwards to move forward. Perhaps the most influential woman of that time, Blondie's pint-sized pin-up, Debbie Harry, has only used her past as a jumping off point.
This fall Harry, now a still-spunky 62, released her latest solo record, Necessary Evil. We caught up with Debbie before heading out on her U.S. tour to ask her what it feels like to be an icon, how she's progressed as a musician and whether rock'n'roll will ever be dangerous again.
From what I've heard, you really took control on this album, and basically took charge of every single aspect of it, from the album art, to mastering. Was it important to have your stamp on every aspect of it?
I think that's a bit of an overstatement. We all agreed on the best mastering studio. As far as the artwork goes, the video was completely directed by Rob Roth, and I shot the photo that's on the cover, but he did all the layout art and stuff. So I mean, it was a team effort in many ways. I don't know who made that up, but it's a little over the top.
How has this album progressed beyond your previous solo albums?
The content is probably better. I think I'm a better writer now, and I actually wrote the tunes on this album. I was really contributing heavily to the music.
I think that the lyrics are definitely a great component of the album. My favorite line is "the devil's dick is hard to handle."
[laughs] Everyone likes that.
Chris Stein [Blondie's co-founder/guitarist] worked with you on this album. Is it important to always have him as a collaborating partner?
Absolutely. I love working with Chris. We've had such a long track record. So, it was a kind of continuity for me to have him. And, you know, I love Chris. So, I would definitely feel that there's something missing.
The tracks seem to be really varied, which makes the album a lot more interesting. Did you consciously try to take different angles with songs, or did it just fall together like that?
Since they were spread out over a period of time, I just sort of took it as it came, you know? When I got an idea for a song, I would hear what I wanted it to be, and working with my producers we whittled it down a little bit. Sometimes we would experiment with different things, but we all sort of agreed pretty much. It was nice to have an agreeable working relationship.
You've said that this is a really personal album. Is that mainly since you're writing as Debbie and not part of Blondie?
I think I feel like its more personal because it's not a Blondie album. A lot of times with Blondie records, I share the writing with other people, lyrically. So, this time it's pretty much all my songs, except for "Paradise" and "If I Had You."
Is there a certain type of "Debbie" you feel like you have to play as a part of Blondie?
I suppose, but I think I'm pretty driven myself. I want to feel like I really want to like what I'm doing. I wouldn't want to put something out that I wouldn't like.
Well, is there a song on the album that you're most proud of?
Well, no—not yet! [laugh] They're all kind of different, and that's what I like about them. I'm not in a rut with it. Each song is its own entity. They're all kind of distinctive. I kind of like that. The one that I think is the most fun is "You're Too Hot."
You were part of the True Colors tour last year; did you play these songs then?
That was the only time I played them live.
Even though the records hadn't been released, did the fans give you a good response to them?
Yeah! I was amazed. I thought, "Oh, my God, nobody's gonna get this." You know, they'll go right by. Playing songs, especially for a large audience, is hard—clubs are a little easier.
This album touches a lot on love—in fact, it seems to be the touchstone of the album—but there's a lot of different types of love in here, not just that idyllic romance.
I just think it's a topic that a lot of time we treat sort of casually. But it's very topical. It's in every single song, practically. Every single song is about love and relationships: finding love, or hot hot love or something. It seems to be the primary topic of most popular music, and yet, most marriages end up in divorce after a couple of years, you know. The generosity of love and the importance of maintaining a love relationship—even though its very difficult—seems to have been overlook or forgotten, or past away you know?
One unique track about love is "Paradise," which is about a female suicide bomber. Is this a political statement or is it about love?
Yeah, I mean, it's a twisted idea really about what love can make you do. It also is very topical. I thought in addition to it being very poignant and topical that it was also very beautiful music and poetry as well. I sort of had mixed feelings about doing it at first, because I don't want people to misunderstand. I thought it was kind of important. I certainly don't condone suicide bombing, and I do think that religious fanaticism has just gotta go. I think that that's why I was very interested in making a statement about love, because all of these religions that people are so fanatical about are based on love, really. And people seem to forget that, you know?
Having as successful a career as you've had, were there ever any moments in the recording process where you felt a lot of pressure to make a great Debbie Harry record—maybe even try to overshadow Blondie?
Yeah, I think there probably were moments like that [laughs].I sort of wondered, "What are you doing? Why are you biting off more than you can chew??" I don't know, I guess the opportunity presented itself, and it seemed so right and so painless. I really did have a lot of fun making this record. I had zero pressure on me to do it, except that I wanted to make it good. It didn't have a deadline, I didn't have a label; it was just me and these two people I worked with.
You can't deny that you are a total rock'n'roll icon—especially for women. Do you think you're responsible for some of these great women rockers now, are you worthy of that title?
[laughs] I don't know. It seems like a lot of people are doing quite well on their own.
Lily Allen recently covered "Heart of Glass," and you performed with her on the Today Show. How did that come about?
I think Lily was doing "Heart of Glass" in a show or she was interested in recording. So, I guess our managers set it all up. She had already been booked on the Today show, so it just sort of came together. I think she has a really incredible, interesting voice and, yeah, I like what she's done with it.
Beth Ditto [frontwoman of The Gossip] is another woman you've most definitely inspired and then got to play with. How did you meet?
Well, we had one show with them at Seattle at the Bumbershoot festival and then again the True Colors tour. So, that solidified our friendship. I really love them. I've been to see them a few times. That presentation, I love it.
I saw the photo shoot you did recently with Karen O [of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs] taken by Mick Rock. It was so great to see you together, because in some ways she's kind of our generation's Debbie Harry?
I can't take a lot of responsibility for other people. I'm just glad to be a part of some sort of continuing… spirit. I mean, in a way rock was sort of the forbidden thing. It was anti-social behavior. And now it's kind of become, to a great degree, totally accepted and absorbed by modern culture. And I think anyone who is personally motivated, like Karen is, to do what she does and to be such a strong individual, it's really important. It's part of a really strong American, musical tradition—whether it's American or British, or any of the primary outputs of rock n roll.
Will rock'n'roll, or any branch of it, ever reclaim that subversive, rebellious nature and become subculture again?
No. I absolutely do not ever think it will be subculture again. People will have that automatic reverberation within themselves that sort of carries on that tradition, without it actually being subculture, which is really important.
What do you want people to get from this album?
Anything, I mean—other than to enjoy the music. If it means something to them, if it strikes a chord lyrically with them, if they have a sympathetic experience with them, if the words can put something that's in their lives into it. You know sometimes you hear things and go, "Oh yeah. That's it!" I don't know, just clarification and enjoyment really. I'm not trying to blow anybody's head off.
Artist Direct - 16th November 2007