By Tierney Smith
Looking back over the course of Deborah Harry’s career, both as a frontwoman for Blondie and as a solo artist (beginning with 1981’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards-produced KooKoo), it can be said that diversity has always played a key role in Harry’s stylistic approach.
Necessary Evil, her sixth solo album, is no exception, though this time around, the sound is reminiscent of her early Blondie period with its more rock-oriented feel and offbeat lyrical tone.
As Harry says, “I really wanted to do something that was a bit more simplistic with more of an edge to it.”
According to Harry, it was a project she undertook for the sheer love of it.
“I had ideas, and I had time, and I had found these wonderful people to work with,” relates Harry, “and every time that I would come off the road with Blondie, I would call them up, say ‘Look, I have an idea for something,’ and we would get together. Over about a year and a half, I just sort of built up this pile of songs so I wasn’t driven by a concept or had a deadline or even a record deal. I just was doing it because I really was enjoying it.”
Harry, who describes songwriting as an ever-shifting process (“Sometimes I’ll really have an exact idea that just sort of comes to me, and other times I’ll have to work it out like a puzzle, just a variety of experiences. It’s not only just one thing”), embraces lyrical themes on Necessary Evil that encompass tabloid journalism (“School For Scandal”) and the reflections of a female suicide bomber (“Paradise”). Still, Harry sees a unifying element in her new songs.
“Most of pop music is about relationships, about love or sex or finding some kind of romantic connections,” she states, “so I guess most of (my new) songs are about finding love or understanding love or the importance of love. So that’s the primary factor.”
Musically, the songs run the gamut from Blondie-style pop rock (“Two Times Blue”), dance floor rhythms with a definite rock edge (“You’re Too Hot” which recalls the cartoonish lunacy of Blondie’s early material) and hypnotic balladry (“What Is Love,” and “Needless To Say”).
Given that Harry has actively resisted being locked into any particular musical formula, it would seem logical that she’s less bound by the weight of her fans’ expectations than other artists who don’t take many risks.
“I think that’s true,” Harry affirms, “just doing something that’s not under the Blondie banner gave me a little bit more freedom of choice. I don’t really feel inhibited about being experimental. I don’t even necessarily feel that this album is totally experimental. I could definitely see myself going further,” even if doing so distances her even more from mainstream tastes. But, she acknowledges that she would love it if she had another hit.
“After all these years, it would be great. I mean, it would be the icing on the cake,” Harry adds, “Ultimately I’ve always sort of done something that I felt was commercial but yet a little bit groundbreaking and a little bit edgy. So, sometimes it’s been accepted as being commercial, and sometimes it hasn’t.”
Harry, who takes a pragmatic view of the whole issue — “I mean if you’re going to be in the business world you have to sort of have an eye to being commercial” — notes, “People are much more sophisticated now about what they listen to, I think. There’s so much to offer. There’s so much available to listeners. It’s just a great time for music, really.”
The same could be said of the punk/new wave scene from which Blondie sprang. Back in the 1970s, the band held court at New York’s famed club CBGB, stomping grounds for the U.S. punk movement where the likes of Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Television and The Ramones were regulars.
As a commercial force, Blondie would outshine them all. After recording their tuneful, campy and exuberant self-titled 1977 debut (issued on the tiny Private Stock label), later that same year the band moved to the larger Chrysalis label, releasing Plastic Letters, a U.K. Top 10 hit (the Brits, it seems, were more receptive to Blondie’s early ramshackle appeal).
But, it was their third album, ‘78’s Parallel Lines, that proved to be the charm for U.S. audiences. Featuring the disco-meets-new wave smash “Heart Of Glass,” the song’s success heralded a big commercial breakthrough not only for Blondie but for the new wave movement in general.
Never shy about mixing it up stylewise, Blondie took an adventurous approach to the creative process, fusing pop with Caribbean rhythms (“The Tide Is High,” and”Island Of Lost Souls”) and introducing rap to mainstream audiences (1980’s “Rapture”). Reuniting for their first studio album in 17 years, Blondie scored a #1 U.K. hit (“Maria” from 1999’s No Exit), proving if nothing else that they still had the magic touch.
Harry’s luminescent visage was a big part of Blondie’s appeal, an iconic look that influenced such visually oriented artists as Madonna and Gwen Stefani, both of whom have acknowledged her influence. Harry views her emulators with mixed feelings.
“It’s a bit of everything. Sometimes it’s annoying, sometimes it’s frightening, sometimes it’s absolutely wonderful. You know, it depends on how frustrated or happy I am at the moment.”
2006 saw Blondie’s induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. Of the ceremony, Harry states, “I think one of the nicest things that happened was meeting Metallica. They’re just great guys.”
Looking back to Blondie’s early years, Harry recalls that period as “initially just us trying to get our act together, trying music, everybody sort of grooving on everybody else. When people got interested in the scene, it got competitive. It got really much more exciting, you know. Going though all of those changes and seeing your friends just go off on the world tours and all of a sudden hearing them on the radio and reading about them in the paper and magazines … it just seemed so otherworldly in a lot of ways.”
Though fans can be notoriously fickle, career artists such as Harry can always count on support from longstanding loyal followers.
“A passionate fan really will stay with their artist and watch the evolution and still do their part of it and really give something of themselves to that evolution,” asserts Harry. “It is interactive, actually.”
For a woman who has spent so many years in the music industry, her choice of earning a living through creative expression was a dream she knew early on she had to pursue.
“I will say that I was terrified to jump out of the mold and try to find another place for myself, but I knew that if I didn’t do it that I would be a very, very unhappy person,” recalls Harry. “I really had to do it. I was completely compelled to do what I did.”