Debbie Harry

Musicians still keep making music and still keep playing. I feel that my perspective now is better. I feel like I’m more in control of my vocals. Debbie Harry

Few are the performers of the ’70s who accurately inhabit the word superstar in the sense that Warhol used it, a person of style and influence and panache, of inexhaustible charisma, on whom your attention falls and rarely flags. But Debbie Harry is one of those superstars. From the monster success of Parallel Lines, Blondie’s breakthrough album of 1978, through the comeback period of the ’90s and aughts, Harry’s cultural dominance even includes her solo career as an actress of note (in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome [1983] and James Mangold’s Heavy [1996], among others), and role model for up-and-comers like Lady Gaga and Sky Ferreira. Harry, at age 68, has done it all, made an indisputable mark on American pop culture going on two generations, not in a way that is imperious and diva-like, but rather, in a way that is wry, self-aware, funny, and self-effacing. She performs the role of Debbie Harry in public as though Debbie Harry is a tool in her arsenal or an instrument to be tinkered with, and she seems genuinely bemused by all that has come her way, for good or ill. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Blondie, which is somehow inconceivable to all of us who thought of the band as the new thing in the ’70s, the replacement for all that was worn out and careworn about rock ‘n’ roll. In honor of the anniversary, the band is releasing a double album later this spring called Blondie 4(0) Ever; it is both retrospective (including some of their best-known tracks) and forward-looking (a brace of new songs). I’m here to say that the new Blondie songs are that rare thing for a group that’s been recording together for multiple decades; it’s both up-to-the-minute and consistent with their greatest compositions. Whereas Blondie, in the past, has dabbled with nearly every contemporary idiom of the popular song (garage, pop, hip-hop, dance, reggae), the new Blondie songs indicate that Harry and co-founder Chris Stein—along with their many collaborators—have never stopped looking for new sounds and new ways of thinking about songwriting. The latest songs include scraps of house, mariachi, reggaeton, dubstep, and, as Harry notes below, Turkish music, without ever leaving behind the funny, reflexive, and highly melodic songs that have come to signify their sound. Harry’s voice-seductive, cool, mordant, playful—has never been better, but it has acquired a bit of a low end to go with its smoky upper reaches. This interview took place on the phone in late January, and Debbie, at her home in New Jersey, had, I think, one or more dogs in her lap for much of it. She was funny, engaging, unpretentious, wise, and smart. I was sitting in my car, on Prospect Park West, Brooklyn, in subzero temperatures. The cell coverage was good there. When you’re interviewing a legend, you do not want a dropped call.

RICK MOODY: So, 40 years of Blondie—what do you think about it? Is it conceivable that you started this band 40 years ago?

DEBBIE HARRY: Yes and no. It does seem like it went by very quickly. I guess that’s a good thing, right?

MOODY: How do you date the 40 years? Where do you start it from exactly?

HARRY: From when we first started using the name. But Chris and I first started working together in 1973. So we tried to make it sort of an average date. I think 1974 is when we first started working with Clem [Burke, drummer for the band].

MOODY: So Clem is, in a way, the marker for when Blondie is suddenly Blondie.

HARRY: We ran an ad in The Village Voice, and I think we put our name in there as Blondie. Clem had actually heard of us, so I think that’s a pretty clear date.

MOODY: What’s memorable about the early days of Blondie? Are there great stories from that period?

HARRY: I guess there are. What do you want to know?

MOODY: What would be a cataclysmically exciting club date from the early curve of Blondie?

HARRY: We got invited to tour with Iggy in 1977. We opened for him. And Bowie was playing the keyboard on that tour.

MOODY: Oh, right. The Idiot.

HARRY: There was also Bowie’s Low album. We had a date at CB’s before we left, as our kick-off before we went on this amazing tour. The fire department came and then the bomb squad came. [Moody laughs] It was real chaotic. It was wonderful. I mean, the place was overcrowded, so they shut us down twice but we managed to keep on playing, and then we all jumped into this RV—we didn’t have a van or a bus. For some reason we had an RV that had one big bed in the back, so all five of us were trying to squeeze into that bed to try to get some sleep before we got to Montreal, I think, or Toronto. So we had a nice, long drive after the show and everyone was wired. We got up there and, the next night, we were doing a sound check and Iggy and Bowie came in and everyone was gasping. [both laugh]

MOODY: Had you not met Iggy before then? Or was that the first time you got to see the legend up close?

HARRY: No, we didn’t know him.

MOODY: Do you feel like people overly romanticize the CB’s period? Or, when you think back on it, does it seem as worthy of the thrall of romanticism that all of us writers fall into when speaking on the subject?

HARRY: You’re right about a certain aspect of it—it is overly romanticized. But the results of that period can’t be overly romanticized. It was a very fertile, creative period. Music scenes, they come and they go, whether they’re in New York or Seattle or Liverpool or wherever else. But the results can be fertile.

MOODY: It seems like Blondie had a different sound from the other bands. Other people have noted that too. It was less aggressive than the Ramones or the Patti Smith Group. So what was good for you and Chris about contact with the scene?

HARRY: I don’t know if you have that exactly right. We were very minimal when we started, very rough-edged. So, in that respect, we fit in. But I think every band was totally different and that was kind of curious for the scene. I don’t think that the punk sound really became the punk sound until much later. The punk era wasn’t really just one musical sound. There are a lot of differences among Television, the Ramones, and the Talking Heads. And Blondie maybe wasn’t as fully developed as those bands were. But we all had the same kind of philosophy, and that’s more what the punk period was about—wanting change, having a more urban kind of sensibility and some weird kind of wit. We got out of that overly serious, pompous, big, guitar-band sound. Lyrically, we got into some crazy stuff. It was more about some kind of antisocial mood.

MOODY: I was thinking this morning that David Byrne, in the notes for the Talking Heads box set, said something like, “Who wrote these songs?” As though, at this distance, he can’t identify with the writer for the Talking Heads’ songs. Do you have that detachment from songs and lyrics of the early Blondie, or do you still feel a bemused love for the writer of that time?

that’s what the punk period was about—wanting change, having a more urban kind of sensibility and some weird kind of wit.Debbie Harry

HARRY: Because we had a lot of personnel changes in the beginning, we were more of an experimental or exploratory kind of group. We really changed personnel quite a few times. And at each time it was a collaborative ensemble situation. It wasn’t like Chris and I were telling everyone exactly what to play. We were trying to incorporate whatever a musician or a person brought to us to create a sound. And, finally, that jelled. Then we had a specific sound. Although, I know Chris has always been very interested in worldbeat—at that time it wasn’t really called that—and of creating crossover, which at that time was really new. So that’s why we did some of the things that we did—to try things: “Let’s do this experiment. Let’s mix up a little bit of disco and techno sounds with a rock beat. Let’s do it with reggae. Let’s try some rap.” It was just things that we liked and things that were around us. We were truly a New York City band in that respect. We had ears open to all the influences that were around us.

MOODY: That seems to be true with the new album as well—there’s reggaeton and some Tejano and little bits of Central American this-and-that, which is a totally new flavor in the Blondie songbook.

HARRY: Yeah. I love it. I’m really inspired by that. I know it’s not pure—it’s not strictly, exactly right. But you can definitely tell where it’s coming from. One of the beats in one of the songs is a Turkish beat.

MOODY: How did you think about amassing new material for this album? Did you write with the anniversary in mind?

HARRY: I don’t think we were writing specifically for the anniversary, but we wanted to put out some new music—we hadn’t done it in far too long. We tour a lot, and if it weren’t for that, we would have more music out more often. Chris is a pretty prolific writer, and Matt Katz-Bohen [current Blondie keyboardist] has made substantial contributions. We had a lot more contributors to this album—lyrically and musically. I even wrote some music, so I’m very proud of that. [laughs]

MOODY: That’s so cool! How did you do it?

HARRY: I hummed it. I la la la‘ed some lines. [laughs] Pathetic, right? But, anyway, I did it and I sent it to the producer. I phoned up his number and I la la la‘ed these two melody ideas. And he put some chords to it and that was “Mile High.” I had wanted to do this song for a long time.

MOODY: And did it have lyrics, too? Do you think of lyrics first or the melody?

HARRY: It’s sort of a combination. Chris and I felt over the years that the music should come first. You can have a lyrical idea—you can have, like, a hook without directing the phrasing. But I think the music should come first, really, so that it has a feeling and a flow to it. A lot of times for Broadway shows the book is written first and then the music is applied and sometimes those songs are very stiff and choppy—sort of like marching music. And we can’t have that. [both laugh]

MOODY: Is there still growth and change in your songwriting partnership with Chris?

HARRY: Chris could write with anybody. On some of the songs he worked with the producer, Jeff Saltzman. And Jeff was working in San Francisco with a young artist named Natalie [Hawkins], who came up with some of the lyrics. She came up with some really good ones. In some cases, I added to them or changed them to make them work better for me. So this has really been a collaborative album—much more than ever before.

MOODY: Given that there are so many contemporary sounds on these songs that are not necessarily classic Blondie sounds, I’m trying to put a finger on what still makes it sound absolutely like a Blondie album—besides your voice. And it seems to me there’s an absolute mastery of melody—that’s a real Blondie thing.

HARRY: Thank you. I think that’s what pop songs are about—having that memorability and simplicity, this compatibility with a lyric that’s just right for that little phrase. Did you watch the Grammys last night?

MOODY: I can’t watch because—

HARRY: It’s horrible. [laughs]

MOODY: It’s horrible. I feel like there’s something missing for me there.

HARRY: It seems kind of monotonous.

MOODY: So they’re using the amazing 1980 Warhol portrait of you for the jacket of the new album, which is such a powerful picture. Can you remind us how that picture came about?

HARRY: Well, it’s a double album. So that image is for the classic Blondie songs—it implies the past—and the other artwork is for the new stuff. We had sort of known Andy from around, on the street, and saying hi. And I’m thinking we were just getting to know him, and the idea of doing a portrait came up, and so one of my managers set it up. But, after that, we became better acquainted, and I saw Andy quite a bit for a while. It was really awful when he died. It was such a loss. God. And he was always so supportive of young artists.

MOODY: Did he have any impact on you guys from a philosophical, careerist perspective? To me it feels like Blondie—with all its modalities of style and its thinking about self-presentation—was the band from the ’70s that really got Warhol, in some ways. Am I just extrapolating?

HARRY: You probably are extrapolating a bit. But, I mean, Chris and I were art students. Jimmy [Destri, Blondie keyboardist] was interested in illustration. Gary [Valentine, Blondie bassist and guitarist] was very interested in comic-book art, although he didn’t create art. I don’t know. The scene that happened before CBGB was Max’s, when the Factory was in full swing. That kind of entourage of people was really what anybody who dreamt of coming to New York or being in the art world or being in the music scene was thinking about. And I think a lot of us were thinking about beatniks—

MOODY: [laughs] Beatniks? Really?

HARRY: Yeah, beatniks. The beatnik scene was a great time in New York with all of those coffee houses and poetry readings and stuff like that. And those guys were still around at that point-Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso …

MOODY: So there’s that sense of continuity with New York underground culture.

HARRY: Yeah. And I think that’s a tradition—I can’t really speak for every major city in the world—but that is something that you have to give to New York.

MOODY: I wanted to ask two more things about the Blondie 4(0) Ever album. One is the “Relax” cover. It just seems miraculous to me because that was a song that I just reviled when it was first released. The sound of it was, like, everything that’s wrong with ’80s music: the gated-reverb on the drums and all that stuff. It would have seemed to me absolutely impossible to cover in some ways, and I assume that that was part of its appeal to you guys. But it’s such a dramatically inventive treatment of the material.

HARRY: We were doing the song in the show on tour. We always try to use material that is possibly inappropriate, that the audience would never expect us to be doing that. For Blondie to cover “Relax” was very entertaining. Audiences loved it. We always try to put together some interesting cover song in the encore—in a show-biz-y kind of thing. So then we got in the studio and we’re talking with Jeff, and he said, “We should record that because I don’t know if a lot of people have actually recorded that song. And if we’re going to do it, we really have to do something different. Why don’t we do it as a ballad?” So it was actually Jeff Saltzman who came up with doing this darker, seductive version.

MOODY: I love the wall of backing vocals on the ballad sections—it’s so beautiful. You really kicked the shit out of the Frankie Goes to Hollywood version.

HARRY: [laughs] Well, thanks. We met Frankie [Holly Johnson of Frankie Goes to Hollywood]. He came to our gig at the Botanic Gardens in London. It was interesting to meet him.

MOODY: Are you thinking about hanging around for another 10 years so Blondie can hit the half-century mark?

HARRY: That’s preposterous. Very funny. I don’t know. Well, Willie Nelson was on the Grammys, and Kris Kristofferson and Metallica. It’s kind of great that some of the older players are still going strong, even though they might look kind of fucked-up. [both laugh] They do what they do and they sound like their sound. A year or two ago, I went to a big birthday party for Yoko Ono at Le Poisson Rouge. It was her 79th birthday. She got up with Sean and the band and sang this incredible stuff. I was just knocked out.

MOODY: I loved the record she did with Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore not long ago. The wailing experimental stuff—she can still do that. She’s amazing.

HARRY: That’s what she was doing. And she’s incredible at it.

MOODY: So what you’re saying to me is that you’re not ruling out the 50th anniversary Blondie tour.

HARRY: I don’t know about Blondie, but it would certainly be an unbelievably great feeling to still be doing music at that age. And when you come right down to it, when we started, we were all in awe of some of these older R&B and jazz musicians and blues musicians that kept on playing until they dropped. It sort of makes sense in rock ‘n’ roll that the musicians themselves should still be playing. Although, I think that the industry part of it would just as soon have everybody be disposable after five years and move on to the next new thing. But musicians still keep making music and still keep playing. I feel that my perspective now is better. I feel like I’m more in control of my vocals.