photographer / Kathy Lo
styling / Alison Marie Isbell
makeup / Guy Vanvoores
hair / Michael Moreno @ LVA Artists
shot @ BABY’S ALL RIGHT, BROOKLYN, NY
With her signature platinum blonde hair, enviable cheekbones, heavily Kohled eyes and saucy attitude, Debbie Harry – front woman of the revolutionary punk band Blondie – is the original gangster. Embodying the pre-punk, post-disco spirit of downtown NYC, Harry was the not only first woman to sing hip hop, but also a fixture at Studio 54 with an undeniably (sometimes reluctantly) sexy persona. She quickly became a rock ‘n’ roll icon, and for four decades has accurately inhabited the word superstar: a person of substantial style, inexhaustible influence and plentiful panache. Blondie hit their stride in 1978 with their breakthrough album PARALLEL LINES, planting their mark in the space between glam, punk, new wave and disco, while introducing American culture to hip hop. The band sprung from the twilight world of New York’s underground clubs like CBGB, proving that punks didn’t have to be nasty, spit at everything, self-mutilate or OD in hotel rooms. Blondie went on to become the most successful band on the planet at the time. Through their comeback period of the ‘90s and forward, Harry’s cultural dominance and cross-generational mark on pop culture has cemented her indisputable position as the most iconic female in rock ‘n’ roll history.
We all know Debbie Harry is the ultimate bad-ass, and though she’s rock-n-roll royalty, she’s still incredibly down-to-earth and beautifully self-effacing. To celebrate 40 years of making music, the band just released a double album, GHOSTS OF DOWNLOAD, that includes not only re-recorded versions of their greatest hits, but also a new assortment of songs to add to their legendary catalog. The new Blondie tracks indicate that Harry and co-founder Chris Stein are still bending those musical genres, all while being consistent to their signature instinctive sound. We sat down with the pop punktress, whose years defy her, to find out about her new sound and so much more.
LG: Let’s talk about Blondie’s fortieth anniversary – what does it represent for you?
DH: Somehow or another we’re still doing music! When we reunited in the ‘90s, the underlying principle of getting back together was that we’d be creating new music and not just cashing in on ours hits—or being an oldies band. That was the guarantee that I demanded: new material. I wasn’t interested in just resting on our laurels.
The double-disc is obviously both retrospective and forward looking. Has the last forty years flown by for you or lasted forever?
Well I can’t really say it flew by, but it has been full of a lot of different things. It’s been a great variety. Varying levels of working or not working, and performing in different areas. It’s been interesting in that way. It hasn’t been straight ahead in the music business for me, it’s been quite a mixture of things, which I find compelling.
Why the decision to re-record the classics?
The copyrights reverted to us, so we decided to make fresh versions in today’s world.
Your voice on the new recordings is consistent with your greatest compositions. Do you have any vocal exercises that keep your chords sharp and intact over the decades?
I did, at a certain point, take vocal lessons from a wonderful coach named Barbara Maier. She really clarified things for me and helped me with placement. I did it at a really good time because I had worked for years with no real instruction. For some reason I did some things naturally that were right and never really had any problems, like losing my voice or getting nodes or any of those terrible things that happen. With really good advice and engineering, I’ve maintained it somehow.
How has the songwriting process with Chris [Stein] evolved over 40 years? He likes writing on the computer, how do you fare with that?
I think the title [GHOSTS OF DOWNLOAD] sort of fits in and explains the way we did it. We really worked with computers and sent stuff around the world for people to add in their parts. Chris would send me everything he wrote, or he’d send to our producer [Jeff Goldsman], then we would add our bits and pieces in it. Chris works with finding sounds he likes, creating rhythm tracks, then from there he very often suggests some kind of musical content. I would just sing into the phone and he would come back with a chord structure or some way to knit the pieces together. Towards the end we recorded live instruments, but we didn’t do a major [recording] session, where everybody was hanging out in the studio and recording tracks simultaneously.
There are all kinds of new flavors going on in the new songs, but it still fits into the Blondie catalog. What keeps you guys current? Do you find any inspiration trickling in from what’s popular right now?
We’ve always been inspired by contemporaries and what they’re doing. It’s a bit of everything really. Chris really listens to the stuff that’s coming out today–as do I. I see people my age complaining that there’s no good music nowadays, that it was so much better back then, and I completely disagree. I think there’s so much great music these days and so much talent, there’s a lot of fullness to it all.
Blondie paved the way for many female rockers, and obviously people think of you as an icon. Now that there’s a whole new generation of new hopeful rock stars, how do you want to impact that new generation?
When you have a track record, it’s hard to beat your own track record or even try to. We just want to write music that we’re proud of and that we like. I think, for one, I’ve always approached it as an entertainer and feel like the music should in some ways sort of take you away from your daily life and be moments of distraction and fun. But I also think the content should be meaningful to what our lives are and sort of the ironies and weirdnesses that we face.
Back in the day, you were notorious for thumbing your nose at those critics who weren’t always supportive. I imagine it’s an interesting battle as an artist, to be open about your art and personal details, while protecting yourself. Do you find it’s easier to navigate the “press game” now that you’ve been doing it so long?
I suppose it is easier. I think that criticism, in the truest form, is instructive and you can build on it. There was a time I was too sensitive to it and I would just not read it, therefore I was freed up and not inhibited by what I was doing in terms of someone else’s opinion. Quite frankly, there’s no accounting for taste and it’s very subjective. It’s also the critic’s job to make something that’s somewhat entertaining for the readership to read, so they have to come up with witticisms and insights that are sometimes maybe not so favorable.
Let’s talk about your Warhol album artwork and about your relationship with Andy Warhol.
Andy was an inspiration. He was a patron of the arts in his own way. He really paid attention to what other younger artists were doing, made friends with them and was always participating. He really reached out, he was very sociable. I know a lot of times criticism is intended here, but he had that kind of personality and many artists do not. They’re more isolated and sort of loners, but he was a very social being and was very much a part of New York. He was a terrific influence all around and he created a social life for many people.
Blondie was instrumental in the CBGB movement, which has been much publicized. Do you think people have over-romanticized that whole scene?
I think a little. In retrospect, you sort of understand how valuable it was, because there was no money. It was more about creating music rather than about making money at it, or getting signed. I think anybody who envisions themselves as a rock star or starts a band always thinks of themselves going to the top. There’s always that, but it was such a great scene. Everybody was interested in each other and what was going on. I think that’s still prevalent today. If you talk to younger bands, they really know who’s around and who’s doing what and they hit the music clubs and bars. That’s what’s great about New York, it has a great tradition of being a music city.
I’m sure it’s a challenge to not get sick of a song you’ve been performing for decades. You’re performing the older songs in concert, do you still reconnect to the experiences/moods they came from, or do you connect to the energy from the audience?
It’s a combination of all those things. The audience wants to hear the song. You’re proud that they like it and you sort of get thrown back into the meaning of the time when you wrote it. It’s all of those things. It’s very positive that you can play a song that people want to hear.
After all these years of making music and playing music, what’s your favorite part?
I don’t know if I have one particular favorite. I know if I come up with good lyrics and it makes you feel good, it can feel really good. Also doing a great show. There’s a lot of personal satisfaction like, “oh wow, did I really write that? That feels really good.”