Get Ready for Her Sexy Battle: An Interview with Deborah Harry
The doyenne of New York's downtown scene gets "dirty and deep" with her fifth solo album. Harry talks to PopMatters and we offer a guide to her solo years.
|Beyond the Bleach: A Guide to the Solo Years|
KooKoo (Chrysalis, 1981)
Within months of Blondie landing two chart-topping, genre-hopping hits ("Rapture" and "The Tide Is High"), Deborah Harry released her first solo album, a compelling collaboration with Chic's Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers that fused together funk, new wave, jazz, and pop. In the years since its initial release, the album's striking cover art by H.R. Giger is remembered more than the actual music but a re-evaluation of the Chic collective's innovative work with Harry is long overdue. (Used copies of the CDs short-run re-issue on Razor & Tie fetch for upwards of $100 online.)
Key tracks: "Chrome", "Under Arrest", "The Jam Was Moving".
Rockbird (Geffen, 1986)
A few years after contributing the Giorgio Moroder-produced "Rush Rush" to Scarface (1983), Harry teamed with producer Seth Justman for a well-considered set of pop tunes bolstered by studio stalwarts like Jocelyn Brown, the Uptown Horns, and Jimmy Rip. Despite its massive reception in the UK, promotion for Rockbird in the US didn't rock so much. By 1986, Madonna had become the key priority for Warner Music Group, which distributed both her label (Sire) and Harry's (Geffen). Ironically, the forthcoming UK-based musical of Desperately Seeking Susan is comprised solely of Blondie songs and a new Harry tune.
Key tracks: "French Kissin'", "Free to Fall", "In Love With Love".
Def, Dumb and Blonde (Sire/Reprise, 1989)
Harry's third solo effort reunited her with Blondie producer Mike Chapman, whose disciplined approach in the studio gave the artist some of her most enduring solo sides. Longtime co-conspirator Chris Stein wrote most of the songs with Harry and the duo's synergy birthed typically artful and tuneful tracks. The album's breadth of musical offerings is impressive and, minus some late-'80s production quirks, Def, Dumb and Blonde has held up extremely well.
Key tracks: "Bike Boy", "Lovelight", "Maybe For Sure".
Debravation (Sire/Reprise, 1993)
Crate-diggers would do well to seek out Harry's criminally overlooked '93 outing, Debravation (recently re-released on the Wounded Bird label). An eclectic cadre of producers -- eight -- gave Harry a few sonic sandboxes in which to frolic about. (Future Blondie guitarist Leigh Foxx contributed a couple of songs.) Harry raps, punks-out, and recites a few lines of Edgar Allan Poe; in other words, a perfectly normal Deborah Harry album.
Key tracks: "Lip Service", "Strike Me Pink", "Standing in My Way".
Individually Twisted (with the Jazz Passengers) (1996, 32 Records)
It was inevitable that Harry expanded her elastic voice to jazz, having previously flirted with swinging combos on Blondie's Autoamerican (1980). The Jazz Passengers, fronted by Roy Nathanson, was the perfect vessel to showcase Harry's gift for carrying a song over upright bass, vibes, trumpet, sax, and drums. Though not a solo album per se, the accessibly offbeat Individually Twisted further secured Harry's footing in a range of musical worlds.
Key tracks: "Pork Chop", "L'il Darlin'", "Maybe I'm Lost".
Necessary Evil (Eleven Seven, 2007)
Two Blondie reunion albums and one Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction later, Deborah Harry's latest solo album reflects how she's influenced two generations of artists. The production team of Super Buddha is the perfect complement to Harry's stylistic orientations; greasy glitter rock, gossamer ballads, and danceable pop frame the inspired musings of a poet's heart.
Key tracks: "Necessary Evil", "Two Times Blue", "Dirty and Deep".
I don't like flashbacks in movies / I like the story to proceed / I don't like talking about the old days / Except if it tells where the future will lead.
-- Deborah Harry, "The End of the Run" (1989)
In Greek mythology, the Pythia was a priestess who delivered prophetic oracles at Delphi. She sat in a chamber on the slopes of Mount Parnassus sharing her prognostications with priests and kings. Most recently, she was the muse for "Dirty and Deep", a song Deborah Harry wrote about the 2006 incarceration of Lil' Kim. The songwriter shares, "I was envisioning [Lil' Kim] being inside behind the wall, yet speaking to us through the wall, as the oracle of Delphi did through this little hole in the wall. I just wanted to call attention to what I thought her predicament was and to welcome her back." Leave it to Harry to meld an ancient myth with a modern misdemeanor.
In fact, I learn a lot from Harry on the morning that we discuss Necessary Evil, her fifth solo album, where a re-written version of "Dirty and Deep" appears. Harry is one of the most well read individuals you might ever engage with, a voracious bookworm among rock legends. She covers a lot of ground for 10:00 AM, whether it's astrology ("It's a good sort of social mechanism") or 9/11 ("It changed the value system of New York City"). The songs on Necessary Evil are very much like my conversation with Harry -- a collection of disparate, three-to-four minute soundbites that coalesce into one stimulating experience.
To arrive at the present, we must briefly flashback 30 years ago, specifically to the recording that brought Harry's face to a worldwide audience with her Blondie bandmates: "In the Flesh". Produced by Richard Gottehrer, the song was a dreamy, girl-group-styled pop tune from Blondie's 1977 self-titled debut that cast a spell over Australian audiences upon its release. At the suggestion of the Toilet Boys' Guy Furrow, Harry re-recorded "In the Flesh" for the two-disc Blondie compilation, Sound and Vision (2005). Furrow introduced her to Super Buddha (a.ka. Barb Morrison and Charles Neiland), a production team who helped Harry shape the song's structure into an entirely different beast, something more akin to the darker moments on the original Blondie album, but with beats instead of a full band. "We ended up completely re-writing the song," she says, "changing the complexion of it completely. It went on from there. I just started calling them with little ideas that I had." Before long, what was intended as a one-off collaboration developed into an entire body of work that finds Harry as naughty or nice as she wants to be.
Her inspired union with Supper Buddha comes 14 years after Harry last ventured solo on Debravation (1993), an underrated effort that featured no less than eight different producers and ended Harry's relationship with a major label. Prior to that, she released three solo albums, KooKoo (1981), Rockbird (1986), and Def, Dumb & Blonde (1989). Each was greeted with various degrees of attention in the US, but UK audiences, who'd embraced Blondie long before "Heart of Glass" topped the charts in America, seemed more receptive to Harry as a solo act. "I don't think that I really had a big priority push from the labels that I was on," she confides, alluding to Chrysalis, Geffen, and Sire. "We did have some attention from the club area. We got some airplay. I love the music on them. I thought some of the songs were really great".
Now on the indie Eleven Seven label, overseen by 10th Street Management, Harry is free of any corporate pressure to keep up with the latest trends in pop music or record with certain producers. The fact is, when you follow the roots of many current trends in pop music, particularly the crossover to R&B by pop artists, Deborah Harry has pretty much done it all. Take KooKoo, her solo debut that was produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic and fused together new wave, funk, and pop two decades before acts like Gwen Stefani and Nelly Furtado followed a more self-conscious musical reinvention. "We had sort of become interested in the whole hip-hop scene and they were constantly using the Chic tracks," she remembers. "We met them socially and started talking about doing [an album] together. The record company was really not that much in favor of me doing a solo project and they didn't ... really ... quite ... get it," she says emphasizing Chrysalis's bewilderment. "I think they missed a few beats on that one because it really was a very cool collaboration. It did have a very jazzy quality to it, I think, especially in Nile's playing".
Similarly, Necessary Evil is an album that doesn't adhere to any pre-determined template. It's like a sound exhibit of Harry's musical soul. "It was just such an easy collaboration," Harry explains about her working relationship with Super Buddha, who'd previously done tracks for Rufus Wainwright and Scissor Sisters. "We really collaborated from top to bottom. We wrote the songs together and produced and recorded them together. They're really talented people and it was really a pleasure to work with them." In the end, Nieland and Morrison helped construct Harry's most musically mischievous solo album, from the power pop of "Two Times Blue" (the first single) and "If I Had You" to the gritty glitter of "Charm Alarm" and "School for Scandal". Few sexagenarians could pull off lines like "You ain't ready for my sexy battle", "The devil's dick is hard to handle", and "Comin' at my curlies with your wrap-around thighs", but Harry does ... and quite convincingly!
Stirred into the mix is her longtime creative partner and Blondie co-founder Chris Stein, who lends his particular vision to a pair of very different tracks that he penned and produced: the Harry-less "Jen Jen", which is based around a chant of an African tribe, and the hypnotic "Naked Eye". After working together so many years, Harry can easily explain the key to Stein's creativity: "He really thinks outside the box and he's determined and fearless in that respect. He really likes to break the rules. I love that about him. I also love his sophisticated sense of music. It's uniquely him. I think that's one of the most valuable things that any of us can have: to find, truly, what is your unique voice. He definitely has done that."
The Jazz Passengers' Roy Nathanson is another kindred artistic spirit to Harry. The two worked together when she appeared as a guest vocalist and co-wrote a few tracks on The Jazz Passengers' Individually Twisted (1996) album. "He's an extraordinarily talented composer/arranger," she enthuses. "He does beautiful, beautiful things and for some reason it makes sense to me. I don't know how to explain it any other way than that. I think sometimes his work doesn't make sense to other people. Like Chris, he really tries to make things beautiful, but his idea of what beauty is." Nathanson and fellow Passenger Bill Ware contributed "Paradise", the last track on Necessary Evil. "I've just set myself on fire /' What a thing to do,' you say / Dressed in silk and mother and pearl", Harry sings, her tone and phrasing exquisitely evoking the sound of Nathanson's saxophone. Though it's a piece about a suicide bomber, Harry croons the song as if she's gliding through slowly ebbing surf, finding the beauty in a fairly gruesome setting.
Indeed, the thrust behind the album's 17 tracks is the way Deborah Harry guides listeners through a range of stylistic and emotional centers with her chameleonic musical personality. There's her pouting snarl on "Whiteout" and the joyous abandon in her vocal on the doo-wop inspired intro to "You're Too Hot", which quickly becomes a strutting frenzy of fuzz-rock. Harry boasts a rich timbre, particularly in her phrasing on the bridge to the title track ("A germ free bubble / No bugs allowed / Listening for the hum and / Crying out loud") while her nuanced sensitivity shines brightest on the ballads "What Is Love" and "Needless to Say". Harry's approach to all these different performances, however, is determinably not based in any character study or self-detachment. "I think it's pretty centered actually, pretty focused," she says. "It's just about finding an emotional link. I think at one time I might have said that I would do each song as a different character, but I don't think that I would say that now. I would do it as a different kind of experience, really drawing on a lot of personal experience, especially emotional, intellectual experiences".
Her extensive work in 40-something films (and counting) is another kind of focused expression she's keen to explore. Deborah Harry's already worked with a number of auteurs, including David Cronenberg (Videodrome, 1983), John Waters (Hairspray, 1988), and James Mangold (Heavy, 1995). Isabelle Coixet, who directed Harry in My Life Without Me (2003), recently enlisted her for the forthcoming Elegy, which also stars Ben Kingsely and Penelope Cruz. She explains the different types of investment between stage and screen work:
"Music has its own emotional embodiment. It carries an emotion with it. When you associate a lyric with the music, it's much easier; but when you're standing there completely dry in front of the camera with no musical background, just a fine-tuned, get-this-emotional-story across, it's a very, very intense kind of focus. Music does not carry you along. You have to carry it along strictly by your ability to really just focus on that little small kernel of emotion or story."
Perhaps the juiciest role of Harry's career has been fronting Blondie, though the success of the band has somewhat hindered her acceptance as a solo artist: audiences only want to hear the Blondie hits. In planning live appearances to support Necessary Evil, there's one thing she wants to make perfectly clear: "If I do these solo shows, they'll really be solo. I won't be doing any Blondie material." This fact caught the ire of many who sat in the audience during her set on the recent True Colors benefit tour. While Harry's solo albums have flown under the radar of many listeners in the US, there's still a wealth of material to make enough of a distinction between the two entities [see sidebar]. If anything, Necessary Evil should encourage a re-discovery of these albums to better equip audiences with the melodies they might have missed along the way.
In the 1970s
Remarkably, Deborah Harry is one of the few artists who emerged from the CBGB's scene of the early '70s and a) remains relevant, and b) is still alive. The city that nurtured Harry and her courageous compatriots, however, is quickly erasing many of the landmarks through which the trajectory of Harry and her peers was created. This topic reveals an artist who's passionate about preserving the qualities that have long attracted outcasts and dreamers to both the grit and glamour of New York:
"New York has always been its own unique place in the United States. It's not like a lot of the other cities. Now it's become more and more like other cities in the United States in that it doesn't look like New York anymore. Visibly, it could look like Anywhere, USA. It's kind of disgusting. Artists have been complaining about this for at least five years. The price has risen so high here to live. New York has always been a city of change and a city about change and it is a back-leading development. Nobody's going to want to come to New York if it looks like another strip mall. Everybody is fucking sick to death of looking at strip malls. That is the bitter truth. Here we have the opportunity to really make New York a special place. It always has been. Things like these developers -- I don't know where the fuck they're from. They're certainly not New Yorkers. They don't have any appreciation of what New York is about or what it should look like."
Consider Necessary Evil the soundtrack for the anti-strip malls of the world and Deborah Harry our very own oracle for these culturally malnourished times. Will you join her sexy battle?