Almost 30 years into her career, Deborah Harry had a choice to make when recording her latest album, Necessary Evil (Eleven Seven Music): Go the safe route and record songs that sounded like the hits from her heyday with her band Blondie, or do something less familiar.
Instead of reliving past glories, Harry decided to listen to her instincts.
“I like nostalgia to a degree, but I don’t enjoy walking down memory lane constantly,” Harry told Xpress. “I really think I keep learning by moving ahead, so I guess that affects how I look at music as well. I just feel like [music] is sort of an ongoing thing.”
Harry says she finds inspiration not only in the bands she drew on in Blondie’s prime, but also in a more recent crop of artists (some of whom were likely inspired by Blondie).
“I listen to a lot of newer groups, and I feel like it’s an ongoing process of learning and assimilating things,” Harry reflects. “There’s a lot of great old stuff, too, that you have to learn from.”
Necessary Evil‘s combination of new and old is nothing new for Harry. While she may have left Blondie’s icy-cool New Wave sound behind in favor of pulsing dance-club beats, don’t think for a second that Harry has gone all Believe-era Cher on us. Instead, the album adds another layer to her repertoire—one that already includes tips of the hat to disco (“Heart of Glass”), rap (“Rapture”) and reggae (“The Tide is High”).
“One of the things we wrote about on the back of Blondie’s first liner notes was that we were a blend,” she says. “I think that’s the beauty of music and art, that these blends keep layering up. It’s always very exciting when something new emerges from that blend that catches your ear.”
For Harry’s current solo tour, expect to hear many crowd-pleasing Blondie hits, as well as work from her solo career. There may also be a few surprises in the set, Harry says, such as songs from her solo albums that she rarely performs live.
“I’m trying to do something that is exciting and interesting to people who haven’t heard this material live,” she offers.
While her solo work may not be as familiar to many listeners as her Blondie-era catalog, all of Harry’s music retains the twin elements that helped her become a pop star—her iconic voice and her keen understanding of big pop hooks.
And do her new songs on Necessary Evil live up to the standard Harry set with her Blondie work? Perhaps the most striking thing about the album is how far away from her established vocal safety zone Harry strays, veering into a much more modern sound. Working with a diverse production team that includes New York City-based duo Super Buddha and members of Jazz Passengers and the Toilet Boys, Necessary Evil offers a twist on the sound Harry has become known for. True, the album still showcases her voice, but she’s backed with a startling, rock-tinged electronic sound.
The album is a fascinating mix of sonic hits and misses, but it never fails to be compelling, something that seems rare in an era of artists forsaking their creative present for their more lucrative pasts. Harry attributes this fresh burst of musical experimentalism not to some great creative epiphany but to something a bit less dramatic: a pleasant working environment.
“The luxury that I experienced doing this album was that I did it over a year and a half,” she explains. “I wasn’t under any pressure, and it was a really inspired way of writing and recording.”
Now touring in support of Necessary Evil, Harry finds herself back in the spotlight. As such an influential performer, one wonders how Harry deals with the adoration of her fans.
“I feel very flattered,” she admits. “It’s a wonderful feeling to have people gushing over me. I suppose I’m guilty of meeting someone that I love and admire and I’m still going ‘Oh my God!’ It’s human nature. I’ve got people that do it to me, and I’m totally aware of it.”
To her credit, however, Harry doesn’t seem to let the praise go to her head. Laughing, she adds, “But I’m just an a**hole like everyone else.”
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: Deborah Harry with Kristoffer Ragnstam
what: Classic pop/New Wave with a touch of dance-club diva
where: The Orange Peel
when: Wednesday, Nov. 14 (9 p.m. $35. www.theorangepeel.net or 225-5851)