Photo: Brad Trent
Judy Collins has been musically active since pre-Beatlemania, but she's still surprising us: her GRAMMY-nominated album 'Spellbound' is her first-ever album solely composed of self-penned songs.
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. GRAMMY.com caught up with Judy Collins, the venerated, GRAMMY-winning singer, songwriter and interpreter whose career spans seven decades — and whose album Spellbound is nominated for Best Folk Album at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Judy Collins never went away, but in 2019, she landed back in the public consciousness — largely for cat-related reasons.
That came by way of an illuminating New York Times profile conducted at her ritzy Upper West Side apartment where she's resided for more than 50 years. Therein, the legendary musician — among other things — hopped on a trampoline, displayed her wig collection and gleefully dug out a pink sequined jacket that Joan Baez bought her.
Then, yes, there were the three Persian cats: Rachmaninoff, Coco Chanel and Tom Wolfe, two of which were captured in an unforgettable photo.
But anyone serious about music would be remiss to sum up Collins as per her quirks and idiosyncrasies. After she planted a flag with her 1961 debut album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, she rose the ranks to become one of the great singers, songwriters and interpreters of the 20th century. She recorded "Both Sides, Now" before Joni Mitchell did; ditto Randy Newman’s "I Think It's Going to Rain Today." The astonishing bona fides roll on and on.
These days, Collins is on the road promoting 2022's Spellbound, her first album of all original material, which is nominated for Best Folk Album at the 2023 GRAMMYs. Previously, Collins had sprinkled originals into her albums: "sometimes quite a few, sometimes half a dozen, sometimes three or four."
Why did she never release anything like this in seven decades? If one is tempted to think the industry pigeonholed her as an interpreter, they'd be wrong. "It wasn't ever a matter of marketing in any way," Collins tells GRAMMY.com while on tour in Salem, Oregon. "I've done what I want to do, and that's been my own desire of working in a way I want to work: not having anything imposed on me."
This self-determination has been the throughline of Collins' career, and dictates the parameters of Spellbound's concepts and expressions. There's a song about nearly crashing a car ("Hell on Wheels"), a Trappist monk who died under suspicious circumstances ("Thomas Merton"), and, in general terms, Collins' misspent youth ("Arizona").
But that's hardly the extent of the 83-year-old's ambitions. Never one to rest on her laurels, Collins cites a variety of other projects set for the rest of the year and beyond: a Broadway show; a documentary film; more albums; an orchestrated version of her 1967 album Wildflowers.
This living legend spoke to GRAMMY.com about her old associates Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Jacques Brel; her still-developing artistry, and the road ahead in 2023. (And, yes, the kitties.)
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I'm going to lead with the most pertinent question: how are Rachmaninoff, Coco Chanel and Tom Wolfe doing?
[Laughs] Well, they're fine. They're 12 years old now and thriving. Coco is a lounger, and Rachmaninoff is an eager beaver for everything. And Tom Wolfe is just interested in writing a book.
I've never heard a cat described that way. Anyway, I'm sure you've been asked many, many questions about why you chose to produce an album of original material at this point. I'm more interested in what you chose to write about — how you landed on certain components of your 83-year life that you want to translate into song.
Well, I have the luxury of writing about my life a lot. Writing poetry and songs has been something I've done since 1966 when Leonard Cohen said to me, "I don't know why you're not writing your own songs."
I started by writing "Since You've Asked" [from Wildflowers] and have continued to write probably 60 to 70 songs that have been produced on various albums of mine.So, it was time for me to face up to writing a whole album. Actually, I wrote many more songs than a dozen. I am still in the process of refining a number of those songs and writing more, because the songwriting thing sort of hooked in, in 2016 when I started writing songs with Ari Hest.
He and I wrote a few songs on an album called Silver Skies Blue, which got us a GRAMMY nomination [for Best Folk Album at the 2017 GRAMMYs]. It was his first, and it was my first in 40 years. Not many people can say that. In fact, I hold the record in time between GRAMMY nominations. It's a funny, odd distinction to have, but I'm the only one who has it.
They should give out a GRAMMY for the biggest gap between GRAMMYs.
Exactly. Either that or a Guinness record.
Back to the particular themes on Spellbound.
Well, a lot of things came up. I mean, it's all very personal.
I was reading Thomas Merton a lot during the pandemic, and there's a song about [him]. Primarily based on the fact that he did not die of accidental causes. They think there's pretty good proof that he was murdered, probably by the CIA. So, that song is particularly important to me.
"Hell on Wheels," which is going into a whole new rock and roll dimension in my concerts, is about an incident that happened to me in Colorado. I've been working on that song for a long time. It's a story of getting my learner's license, driving on a dirt road in the mountains, and having a near-catastrophe.
"Spellbound" is something I wrote about my experiences in Hawaii. I started going there in 1966. I went on my first tour in Japan with Mimi Fariña, Bruce Langhorne and Arlo Guthrie, and we came back through Honolulu and stopped for a few days. I've been to Hawaii a lot since then, but it was very much a memory of what it was like then and what it's like now.
"Arizona" is a song about my misspent youth. I think it's a very strong song. We recorded it in 2019. So, my subject matter ranges over lots of things.
You've been a strong songwriter this whole time. Was there a measure of pigeonholing in the '60s and '70s? Like, You're mostly an interpreter; let's market you that way?
No, no, no. It wasn't ever a matter of marketing in any way. I've done what I want to do, and that's been my own desire of working in a way I want to work: not having anything imposed on me.
Regarding the not-so-distant future, what's creatively churning for you?
I'm working, of course, on the new songs. But at the same time, I have a wonderful band set up for the moment. We're not only working on the songs for Spellbound, but we're learning a recent song by Ari Hest, which I think is a great hit. He's a great writer, and he has miles to go before he's done.
We're working on a Broadway show; we're working on a documentary film; we're working on other albums. We're going to do the orchestrated version of all the songs on my 1967 album Wildflowers, because a whole bunch of orchestras, including the Boston Pops, want to do it with me.
So, one of the things I have to do is keep listening to those songs and learning the French and Italian again. It'll be very exciting. It'll happen starting [this month].
What do you remember early on in your life regarding finding your voice — whether that be your physical voice or artistic voice?
It was so easy because my dad was an entertainer: a singer, a wonderful pianist, a wonderful performer. So, I was around the whole process from the time I was born. He had already started his radio show in Seattle in 1937, and I was born in '39.
So, I was raised with all the Phi Gamma and the Fiji Brothers gathering in the house to sing quartets and old English and Irish and Scottish folk songs, and my dad singing all of the Great American Songbook. I just took to it naturally. It was a natural part of everything in my life. Music was the essential part of it.
What do you remember about making Wildflowers?
Well, first of all, "Both Sides, Now" is on that album, and my first three songs: "Albatross," "Since You've Asked" and a song called "Sky Fell." I had sort of buried it with no ceremony, but it's a good song. I like it.
Judy Collins performing at Newport Folk Festival in 1967. Photo: Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
This album can act as a portal to some of the great artists you interpreted and associated with back then. What was your first impression of Mr. Cohen?
Oh, dazzling. But thank goodness I never got involved with him romantically. That was a great gift.
The night before last, we were at Freight & Salvage, a club in Berkeley just on the other side of the bridge in San Francisco. The producers and directors of the [Leonard Cohen documentary] Hallelujah were there. They're become friends of mine because I'm in that movie talking a lot about Leonard, and he was an amazing man.
Did you stay close to him through the rest of his life?
Oh, yes. All through.
He seemed to die as he lived: hilarious, dark, philosophical.
Very dark, very funny. Very serious. Lighthearted, but with a dark edge.
You covered "Michael From Mountains" and "Both Sides, Now" on Wildflowers. What do you remember about your early association with Joni?
Oh my goodness. Such a wealth of beautiful songs. She is just amazing to me. An astonishing artist, an astonishing person. Very courageous and very blessed.
And then we have Jacques Brel.
He was an amazing writer. My first introduction to Brel came because [music businessman] Jack Holzman came to see me in the hospital in Denver — recovering from tuberculosis, actually. It was 1962, and he brought me an album of Jacques Brel. I was there in the hospital, but I had a record player, and I put that on the turntable and was just blown away.
Boy, oh boy, I met him. I heard both of the concerts that he did at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1966 and 1968. And then, of course, I got to know him because my manager, Harold Leventhal, presented him at Carnegie Hall. Also, I got to hang out with him in Paris and get to know his wife in Brussels.
So now, on Wildflowers, of course, I recorded "The Song of Old Lovers." I had to relearn that, which is fine.
For those who haven't seen you live, what can they expect from the tour you're currently on?
Well, I do some of the hits — "Both Sides, Now"; "Someday Soon"; "Send in the Clowns" — but I do a whole handful of the new songs: "Spellbound," "Girl in Colorado," "Thomas Merton." So, I sort of give them a review, plus some brand-new things to worry about.
You're looking back on your career, but you're still constantly developing as an artist. What accomplishments are you most proud of?
Getting up this morning, having breakfast, getting ready to work. Gee whiz.
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The Recording Academy is hosting a ticket giveaway contest where five lucky winners will receive two (2) tickets to attend the 2023 GRAMMYs on Sunday, Feb. 5, at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles.
Have you always dreamed of attending Music’s Biggest Night? Here's your chance to finally make it happen!
Music fans can now enter our official 65th Annual GRAMMY Awards Ticket Giveaway Contest for a chance to attend the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Five lucky winners, randomly selected, will receive two tickets to the 2023 GRAMMYs, which take place Sunday, Feb. 5, at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, CA.
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2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List
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Celebrate ahead of Music's Biggest Night on Feb. 5, 2023, with this playlist of every Alternative nominee at the 2023 GRAMMYs including Arctic Monkeys, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Björk & more.
Alternative music triumphed in 2022, glistening with ambition, sincerity and yearning.
The Recording Academy introduced several new categories for the 2023 GRAMMY Awards, including an addition to the alternative genre's honors: Best Alternative Music Performance. Together with Best Alternative Music Album, these two categories celebrate the alternative genre's greatest music makers.
In the recently added Best Alternative Music Performance category, Arctic Monkeys are nominated for their down-to-earth track about a doomed relationship "There'd Better Be A Mirrorball," alongside Big Thief's folksy "Certainty" and Florence + The Machine's acute "King," which both examine a precarious future with sharpness and heart.
Best New Artist nominee Wet Leg's tongue-in-cheek wit shines through on "Chaise Longue." In the same category, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Perfume Genius unite with a beautifully ominous quality on "Spitting Off The Edge Of The World."
Embracing visionary eclecticism, the following albums are nominated for Best Alternative Music Album: Arcade Fire's WE, Big Thief's Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, Björk's Fossora, Wet Leg's Wet Leg, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Cool It Down.
Listen to all of the above songs and albums in this comprehensive playlist of the Alternative Music GRAMMY nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Check it out on Amazon Music. Find out who wins on Music's Biggest Night on Sunday, Feb. 5!
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2023 GRAMMY Nominations: See The Complete Nominees List
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On her new album 'Strays' and memoir 'Maybe We Can Make It,' singer/songwriter Margo Price dug deep, but offered herself a bit of grace. The releases meditate on forgiveness, self-image and substance abuse —all with a heaping helping of rock and humor.
Margo Price is beaming with excitement. In the early weeks of 2023, the outspoken songwriter finally has the chance to tour the world again with her band, and is embracing the opportunity to continue to better herself.
"I have never felt this happy, this energetic, this full of life," Price tells GRAMMY.com about the joy she’s felt since she quit drinking two years ago. "It's almost just like waking up all over again and getting to try everything for the first time. I thought it was going to be really scary, but it's just been exciting."
The past few years have played a major role in Price's newfound understanding and growth. In her memoir Maybe We Can Make It, which was released last fall, Price chronicles the highs and lows of her musical journey, focusing on themes of loyalty, loss, grief, and forgiveness. "I really was peering inside," Price recalls. "I was able to give myself compassion, grace, and not be so full of shame really with a lot of the mistakes I've made."
A psychedelic, six-day writing session in the summer of 2020 provided Price with the opportunity for further reflection, and informed her decision to stop drinking. The result is Strays, a Jonathan Wilson-produced album out Jan. 13. The rock-leaning record features many of the same themes as her memoir, and explores topics such as substance abuse, self-image, abortion rights, and orgasms. In her examination of loss, lies and failure, Price learned how to let go of trauma — and Strays captures that newfound freedom.
She’s grown other projects, including the podcast "Runaway Horses," which features interviews with Price's music heroes such as Emmylou Harris and Bob Weir. "I truly enjoyed it just as a music fan myself, to be able to talk about some of the different choices that can be made in music and to be able to talk with people who think outside of the box," she says.
GRAMMY.com caught up with the singer/songwriter to discuss how her new album, memoir and other projects have allowed her to grow and deepen her understanding of self.
With each project, it seems like you've gotten much more confident in expressing yourself and talking about personal issues more openly. Why did you feel it was the time to write a memoir?
I have always dreamed of being an author. I'm an avid reader. I think that I owe a lot to literature and its influence on my music and my work in general, so it just felt like a really natural progression for me. I've always enjoyed writing autobiographical songs. As they say, "you write what you know."
When I found myself pregnant with my daughter Ramona and I had come off the road after everything kind of exploded after signing with Third Man and doing the late-night TV circuit and being nominated for a GRAMMY and all those things, I needed somewhere to put all that energy. It felt really natural, and I really got into the flow of writing. I would wake up and take my son to school, and then I would go to a coffee shop, and I would write for about five to six hours a day. After I had my daughter, I got back to touring and being on the road for a while, and so it kind of sat there. And then when the pandemic hit, well, that seemed like as good a time as any to finish the memoir.
It must have been interesting not having a limit of a song’s length.
Oh, for sure. I feel like it always takes me a lot of words to get around to the point. So yeah, it felt like just a big release. As cliche as it sounds, I have figured out so much about myself, about my personality through going back and reading the first draft of the book. Once I started the editing process, I was going pretty deep into my psyche and really evaluating my life choices, reframing a lot of things in my mind.
I keep joking that writing the book was kind of some sick form of therapy. We're all just humans, and we're all just trying to figure this experience out. I think that vulnerability is really a strength that not a lot of people know how to cultivate. For years, I was scared to go into a lot of those vulnerable places. I was afraid of being judged. It was really eye-opening.
How did the experience writing the memoir most impact the writing of the new album?
It brought up so many things from my past. I was definitely in a very reflective mind state. I think there was a lot of what I was writing in the memoir that did end up coming through in some of the songs. I think a lot of people will be connecting the dots between the two, because I was working on both of them [at the same time]. I was working on the book for about four and a half years, and I've been working on this album for about two and a half, three years. They definitely did influence each other.
Thematically, the album's songs are largely about fighting for something, whether that's survival, being heard, fighting your demons, or being loved. What about that truthful yet hopeful theme appealed to you?
This life is about survival and about trying to find your way. While writing the album, I had several psychedelic experiences that were really spiritual. I think that definitely also influenced my writing over this time period, and I wanted to just continue to unapologetically be myself. I think that we are in just such troubled times in the world.
Always with my art, but especially on this last album, it is about finding your peace and finding your place in the world. One of the ways that I've kind of moved through my trauma and through difficult times in my life is being able to reflect upon it in my art and hopefully also connect with people. That's one of the biggest things that keeps me doing it, is being able to connect with others and share the pain and misery and beauty of life.
You've said that you felt an urgency to be creative and that you had a moral obligation to pursue it, even if it wasn't the easy popular path. Why was that an important realization?
I think when you break through and you are in a genre and labeled as one thing, many times fans come to expect that from you. There's been people that I have greatly admired who have the ability to reinvent themselves and to evolve and to grow. I didn't want to fall into the trap of making the same albums and just staying in one small lane to be popular.
I wanted to be able to explore. Before I made Midwest Farmer's Daughter, I had tried on many different genres. I had been in many different bands and projects. I had studied folk music and even classical mezzo Italian soprano style singing. There were a lot of things that I've been influenced by, so I just wanted to be able to touch on any of those things and not feel like I had to get stuck.
On album opener "Been to the Mountain," you examine this idea of reaching a free and stray-like state. What about strays and that free state do you find appealing?
Many times, our lives feel like they're written out and we're just on autopilot. During the pandemic and just during the whole time of lockdown, I was just reevaluating a lot of the things that I had been doing day to day, and things that I thought were rebellion or things that I thought were making me happy. And I realized that a lot of them weren't.
A lot of it was due to my experiences that I've had with psychedelics and psilocybin mushrooms. I wanted the whole album to feel like a psychedelic trip, or it could just be an entire life that happens before your eyes. There's going to be happiness, and there's going to be joy, and there's going to be pain and difficult things.
You’ve mentioned wanting the album to feel more like an epic listening experience rather than a typical album listening experience.
Yeah. Jonathan Wilson, the producer, really helped steer the ship and guide us into this new sonic territory. My band and I have been together for a really, really long time. Some of us for over a decade. I think when people come to our live show, they're always really blown away by the experience. That's difficult to capture in the studio. I think in the past I've been rushed on projects either because I did not have the budget, or I didn't have the time. I just had a burning in me to get the next thing out. With this project, it seemed like I had nothing but time, and I just wanted to get it right.
We went out to South Carolina. We took a writing retreat, and then we did pre-production demos, just the band and I in the studio. I sent those along to a bunch of different producers, and then ended up talking to so many different producers, but I knew Jonathan was the one. So, we went out, and the band and I got an Airbnb together. We took a lot of psychedelics and hung out there and worked on the record for a long time. And then we did more sessions in Nashville at a place called Creative Workshop Studios and another place in Berry Hill. I just kept writing and writing and writing more songs.
Honestly, I had enough for a double album. I have about three unreleased albums that I'm working on right now. I have a psychedelic gospel record that I recorded right after All American Made. I have Strays Part Two, and then I have this other project that I was working on during the pandemic at the Cash Cabin with John Carter Cash. We have so much material right now, so many things that we've been working on.
The new songs tackle subjects that people often have a hard time talking about. For example, you reflect on giving up alcohol a couple years ago and how that's freed you to discover yourself, your self-worth, and better yourself.
There is such a misconception about drinking, at least this is how I used to feel. It was framed in my mind that drinking alcohol and living hard, that was rebellion. But honestly, once you strip all of that away, all of that numbing, I've been feeling my feelings. I know that sounds a little woo-woo. I have truly been able to look at my life, to look at my experiences, my flaws in a clearer light. When I was numbing all the time with booze, there's just a kind of facade that you're living in. I'm not saying that everybody is using alcohol that way, but I definitely was.
At times, my alcohol use was fine. It was healthy, and it was under control, and it was normal. But there is that gray area in drinking that I think so many people deal with. So many people don't want to talk about it because of the way that this country and this society has framed it where it's like, "Okay, there's people who are alcoholics and they are flawed, and then there's other people that are just normal drinkers." That is not true. If you actually go and do the studies and do the research, alcoholism, there's no genetic thing there that says that you have a gene that makes you an alcoholic.
There's just so much stigma around quitting. Truthfully, I had a psychedelic journey that led me to the decision that I could quit drinking, and it didn't have to be the way that it's been in our society. This January will be two years for me. I have never felt this happy, this energetic, this full of life. It's almost just like waking up all over again and getting to try everything for the first time. I thought it was going to be really scary, but it's just been exciting. I can't wait to see where the next few years take me.
The album features several collaborations, including "Light Me Up" with Mike Campbell. Why did you feel he would fit this song?
He’s one of the best guitar players that are out there and still playing today. We had an incredible time doing some writing sessions with Mike. I grew up on the Heartbreakers. I think it's some of the best American songwriting that there is with the writing that Tom Petty and Mike Campbell achieved.
He did pretty much one take on that solo for "Light Me Up," and it was exactly what it needed to be. Mike has just really taught us so much about writing and recording and performing and just what it means to be in a band and to play music for a living.
The song "Lydia" has powerful, stream of conscious lyrics. Why did that format seem important to capture the sentiment in the song?
That was one of those songs that really felt like it came to me from somewhere else. It was just one of those spiritual moments that keeps me coming back to songwriting.
The lyrics for "Lydia" came to me when I was in a little bit of a dark place that day. I was really kind of just feeling for people who live below the poverty line and who find themselves in bad situations. It was a reflection of a lot of places I'd seen touring, a lot of the faces that I'd seen outside of this Methadone Clinic in Vancouver.
I wrote that song, and I kind of sat on it for a really long time because I didn't feel that it was fitting to record for, say, Rumors. I just didn't feel like it fit on the album. I'm glad that I finally got it down. I just really loved the strings that Jonathan and Drew [Erickson] added. It just made the whole thing come together.
Last year you became the first female artist on the board of the Farm Aid organization. What does it mean to add your voice to that organization?
Becoming the first female musician to be on the board of Farm Aid is my most precious achievement so far. It means a lot to my family. It's really something to be named next to Willie Nelson and Neil Young. I've admired their songwriting my whole life, and it just gets me choked up just thinking about it. My entire life, I had this vendetta that I wanted to help make things right for not only my family and the farm that they lost, but just for farmers all over America.
I'm still trying to figure out how I can do more, because I think that the climate crisis and the climate change that we are facing, Farm Aid has been thinking about all of these things for a long time. They are really set up to help make food justice for everyone. It affects us all. If we can figure out how to create more farms and how to preserve the family farms that we have and all this regenerative farming, there's so many things out there. It’s definitely my crowning achievement.
Your husband Jeremy has been an important part of your recent songwriting, and your psychedelic trip to South Carolina really helped you. What did it mean to be able to share that experience with him?
Well, Jeremy, he's been in my life for 19 years. We truly have a way of writing together that is just on a deeper level than co-writes that I could have with other people, because he knows everything that I've been through. He's able to really write from my perspective. I also think that he's just one of the best writers of our time. He's going to be one of those people who is discovered later. He put out a great record [last] year, and it just really flew under the radar. I see him as an Elliot Smith, Bob Dylan-like writer. He's my secret weapon. I really am grateful that I get to work with him.
As I mentioned in my memoir, we've definitely had our share of troubles after losing a child and just being in the music business for a couple decades. I'm happy that we get to be together and raise kids and make music. It's a bit of a fairytale.
You capture that sentiment in "Anytime You Call" quite well.
We were having a really challenging time. We were in Santa Fe when he wrote that song. We were a hold up there writing some songs, and I was working on my memoir. When I came into the room, he played that song for me. I just started bawling.. I had to add it to the album, because it had such a Kinks’ "Strangers" kind of feel to it. I've always loved Lucius and their harmonies, and especially their rendition of that song. I asked them to put their magic touch on it, and it just made the whole thing come alive.
What are you most looking forward to this year?
I am looking forward to so much this year. I’m going on my first headlining tour since 2018. I didn't know when I did my last headlining tour that I was going to get pregnant and then that the pandemic was going to hit, so I feel like I have been waiting for this for five years. The band and I are sounding better than ever and getting out and doing these headlining shows has just been such a release.
I've also been working on a film with a friend of mine. His name is Joshua Weinstein. I've got a lot of songs that I've been writing. I'm ready to get back into the studio again here and start recording the next album.
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Photo: Grant Spanier
In celebration of his 2023 GRAMMY nominations and many contributions to electronic music, producer, DJ and musician Bonobo reflects on his favorite productions.
Los Angeles-based producer, DJ and musician Bonobo is a beat master and sampling champ known for his chilled electronic soundscapes and globally inspired, jazzy rhythms. Listening to a Bonobo album is like going on a guided tour of a lively market; it’s an expansive, vibrant sampling of sounds and flavors that remains entirely tasty and cohesive.
"I'm always trying to find something to be excited about," Bonobo tells GRAMMY.com. "If that's a new way of doing stuff; like working on samplers to working on Ableton, to now working with modular synths. There's always got to be an element of exploration, that intrigue is what keeps it exciting."
The Brighton-born artist dropped his seventh studio album, Fragments, at the beginning of 2022, its ocean of emotions born during the early days of the pandemic. Fragments is currently nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Music Album and its lead single "Rosewood" is up for Best Dance/Electronic Recording at the upcoming 2023 GRAMMYs.
Now with a total of seven GRAMMY nominations, Bonobo has reached another career pinnacle. Yet his roots remain ever-relevant and ripe for a revisit, with each release unfurling new movement and exploration.
After a few singles and EPs, Bonobo dropped his trip-hop-leaning debut full-length, 2000's Animal Magic, and signed to legendary U.K. dance label Ninja Tune the following year. He began to introduce collaborators on his third release, linking with German poet and vocalist Bajka on 2006's Days To Come. 2010's Black Sands further expanded Bonobo's sonic world through the introduction of live instrumentation in studio and onstage.
Bonobo's global travels inspired 2013's The North Borders — which opens with the enchantingly moody "First Fires" and features the standout "Heaven for the Sinner" with Erykah Badu — and and he brought a nomadic energy to the aptly named 2017 project Migration.
He has since settled in Los Angeles and, as with many touring artists, spent his longest period at home in 2020. The result was Fragments, which was recorded during lockdown with virtual collaborators Jordan Rakei, Jamila Woods, Joji and Kadhja Bonet. We’ll have to wait to discover what’s next in Bonobo’s sonic world, but the energetic non-Fragments singles he released in late 2022 may be a taste.
In celebration of his 2023 GRAMMY nominations and his many contributions to electronic music, Bonobo reflected on some of his favorite productions. Calling in from Lithuania at the tail end of his massive Fragmentstour, Bonobo broke down some of his most beloved tracks from his discography — including his all-time favorite production.
"Rosewood" was the last one, it was kind of the missing piece of the record [Fragments]. It was from this iPhone recording that I had of me just messing around on the piano in my house, from ages ago….which is the main loop. And then I started adding kick drums and other elements on it. The basis of it had this almost Nina Simone "Sinnerman" kind of feel.
For "Rosewood," I was going for classic Detroit-y house. I was listening to Theo Parrish and Kerri Chandler and that percussive, loop-based kind of house music. That was the mood, at least.
I was working with a sample that I'd found from archives of a Bulgarian choir that was recorded in the '20s. That was the main part of the song. I was messing around with that and harmonizing it and trying some chords. This was at the time when you couldn't get in the room with people and I was stuck on how to structure the song.
I like the way O’Flynn switches between very melodic stuff and big percussive stuff, so I was thinking that maybe he was the person to get this one to the finish line, which he did.
"Otomo" is named after Katsuhiro Otomo, who is the creator of [the manga and 1988 animated film] Akira. I liked the mix of the choral and percussion sounds from Akira and that was an influence for “Otomo.”
The Class Action sample [1983's "Weekend"] was a Paradise Garage classic. "Heartbreak" is a homage to a few different eras of dance music, having that throwback to '80s disco, that '90s breakbeat and something more contemporary as well. It's a real patchwork of different dance floor eras.
I collabed with Orlando [Higginbottom a.k.a.], Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs. He had the palette of the tune already and I came in and arranged it and added the vocal, which fit quite nicely.
There are a lot of classic drum breaks in there, little nods to the era of '90s rave and breakbeat and drum and bass. For the synths and other sounds, it's actually a lot of chopped up — micro-chopped — samples. A lot of it is sample-based.
That one I started as a kind of loop. I was messing around on a Rhodes piano. The drums were a big part too. I added a sample of a Moroccan Gnawa recording from the '70s, I think, but I realized it would be more interesting to record [something new instead]. I knew of these Gnawa players that are based in Brooklyn [Innov Gnawa], so we went to a studio in Greenpoint [Brooklyn] and recorded.
That group is great and ended up coming out on tour with us for a bit. It was this big, impactful dance floor moment, and then having that extra element — Moroccan Gnawa music is ceremonial music, so it was a version of traditional songs but they changed the lyrical narrative to something a bit more secular.
I discovered Gnawa music from spending time in Morocco. I really like that style of North African music. Besides being in Morocco, it's something I listen to a lot anyway. I recorded a lot of music with Innov Gnawa, there are a few other tracks we did. There were also different, longer versions of the single. A good amount of that session was expanded and extended and is out there.
I had that tune for a while, it was just an instrumental. I met Erykah through a project she was doing with Mark Ronson. "Heaven For The Sinner" was the last piece on North Borders. She was in Dallas and I was in New York, and she recorded little bits; she'd do about one line a day over a long course of time, so it was taking the idea she had for the tune and piecing it together. It was an assembly of various recordings.
[I didn't change the instrumental] too much because I'd already left a lot of space for her voice. Mostly when I'm working with vocalists, the track is fairly complete.
She joined us for a few tour dates. At the San Francisco show, we did a version of that song and of "Bag Lady" — it was a beautiful, magical moment.
I was living in London at the time [and] I was very immersed in what was happening in London around 2008, 2009, which was sort of the post-dubstep scene with [the club] Plastic People and [one of its club nights] FWD>>.
That tune was just a beat, really. My friend came over and listened to some stuff I was working on. I played him the instrumental for "Eyesdown" and he was like, "Wait, what was that one?" I was surprised that was the one that he liked, it was something I could've thrown in the trash at any point. But he was like, "Yes, that’s the one!" I was all, "Oh s—, okay. I'll work on it."
The cherry on top is Andreya's vocal, which is actually just one line repeated a few times throughout the track. I produced her first album; we were spending a lot of time working on her record in my studio. Once we were working on her record, it was a case of me asking "Do you have any ideas for this song?" So we were doing vocal takes for Black Sands at the same time we were making her record. We had a year long of working together a lot.
I think that actually started out as a remix for someone else, and I was like, "Nah, you're not having that" and ended up keeping the beat. I was really happy with that one. I'd been working with Tom Chant who's a woodwind player. He did the intro, that really strange sound, which is made with a technique he has of playing the alto saxophone with the end on his leg; it has insane harmonics. We were recording together a lot at the time. He also recorded the saxophone parts on Black Sands.
It was that very simple, heavy beat and some of those weird saxophone harmonics and Bajka's vocal.
Oh yeah! That was a sample from one of those big band records from the '60s, these sort of party records. The production on them is insane. It's the build, the tunka tunk tunka tunk, and it just looped up really well. I was like "This is fun" and that was kind of it, it was quite simple. It came together quite quickly, as I remember. It was a fun process making that one. I was in [his hometown] Brighton at the time. But honestly, I don't remember that much because it was such a long time ago.
Ooh, [my favorite production from another artist has] probably got to be Madlib's beats for Erykah Badu's "The Healer" from [2008's] New Ameryka. I think that's my favorite beat that's been made.
Sonically, it's crazy, like nothing I've ever heard. There's a sample from a Japanese prog rock band, and it's all these very quiet sounds against delicate sounds that are very prominent and there's all this incredible stuff going on. Madlib on that beat is one of the most incredible productions I've heard.
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