Frankie Knuckles once warned us that no one, no matter who, was bigger than the music. But we’re tempted to make an exception for Nona Hendryx.
In an industry where words like “legend” and “icon” have been deprived of all real meaning, she is both — bona fide, the real deal. She’s the rare artist whose career has had both a zeitgeist-defining #1 single (“Lady Marmalade” with Labelle) and a one so controversial it was reputedly banned from MTV (“I Need Love,” a powerhouse ballad that dared to show same-sex couples, drag performers and the like back in 1985). She’s recorded ballads, is a living legend of funk, and banged out synthpop anthems and recorded with everyone from Peter Gabriel to George Clinton to Keith Richards to Prince. It’s a catalog vast and varied, from the wild funk of the ’70s to the art rock of ’80s New York City.
And while the music may lead in her life story (and how could it not?), it’s her brave and pioneering social activism that has made Nona a beloved icon. It’s enough to demand criminal, social and racial justice today; Nona was doing so 40 years ago. She raised money for victims and awareness about HIV and AIDS from the outbreak of the epidemic; contributed to Sun City as part of Artists United Against Apartheid and participated in Vernon Reid’s Black Rock Coalition of the mid-1980s at a time that rock music was being covered as an almost entirely white enterprise.
When we heard of Nona’s appearance on the new Soul Clap album WTF, we jumped at the chance to interview her, which their people and her people were gracious enough to grant us. Their collaboration now includes an EP, the blazing single “Shine (This Is It)” that lent its name to their last album and her spoken word performance “What If There Was No America?” on the new one. We had 30 minutes with her, we tried to cover a little bit of everything that makes us love Nona Hendryx.
I’m a huge fan but for the sake of our readers I’ll try to be professional today. How was 2020 for you?
2020? You mean the year basically everyone wants to have erased from time? I would have also liked to have it erased from time.
A lot of performers have told me that it was the longest they ever went without performing since they were very young children. Do you remember the last time you performed for people?
I’ve been doing things online. It’s with an audience, and an audience that’s responding to you. It is different, but it can be engaging because people text or you can see their face on Zoom. But I don’t feel it’s the same as being on stage or that kind of performance.
But you can’t see their faces light up.
You can actually see that, their faces do light up but it’s just not the same. The atmosphere is different, the space is different. You don’t have the people there with their bodies and voices and presence. So it’s different but if you are willing to suspend that need and find ways of connecting with people electronically, then you can get a certain sense of satisfaction.
The things that I do are like what John Lewis called getting into “good trouble,” and I don’t think about there being a price to pay for getting into “good trouble.”
Can we jump into your social activism here? Social activism was one of the defining characteristics of 2020.
Yes, of course.
Well you were a pioneer in addressing social issues in the context of pop music, especially in the ’80s. Do you feel you paid a price for speaking out?
No, I don’t. As a human being in the world I don’t think about it in relation to those things. The things that I do are like what John Lewis called getting into “good trouble” — I don’t think about there being a price to pay for getting into “good trouble.”
Now a career — if you happen to have a long one — can have all kinds of twists and turns and ups and downs and all kinds of things can happen. The most important thing is how I value what I do, not how other people see or judge or value what I do.
Do you feel the music scene and artists today are more socially conscious today than they were… I guess at any point in your career — maybe the ’70s or ’80s in particular?
That was another time when artists, people, communities, individuals, nations were struggling with all of the inhumanities that humans practice against each other. You see it not only here but around the world, on the political level and social level which effects every other level. Just because of the internet and that information travels faster, people who would not have been considered activists or advocates are becoming that. Some of it for good, some of it for not so much good!
If I had to answer whether artists are more active today? I’d just say that more people altogether are more active, not that they’re doing more than the Black Panthers. Who could do more than Martin Luther King or the NAACP or SNCC or any of those organizations? As much as there’s the lack of freedom today, they were struggling at a time when there was even less freedom to organize. But they did it.
I can’t put a finger to the wind and judge it that way but I’m encouraged to see the multiracial movement of today.
Before we did this I was looking through my records and pulled my copy of “Female Trouble.” The liner notes on that record are staggering — you had Dan Hartman producing, a song from Prince, Peter Gabriel as a featured performance, George Clinton and Mavis Staples in the background singing. I know that record well but what a studio session that must have been. Do you go back and listen to your old records often, or are you a forward-thinking person always looking to the next thing?
I’m totally a forward-thinking person. I’ll listen if it’s needed for something — if somebody is asking for something and I need to find it and share it, like a version of a song. But no, I rarely listen to the work I’ve done. I thought about doing more of that in this quarantine time. I was inspired by Björk and her going through her flotsam and jetsam of creativity over the years and logging it and putting it in order so when I’m no longer here people can find it properly rather than things on cassettes and DATs and stuff like that. I thought about that but it became overwhelming so I put it aside again! I hope to approach that mountain again, though, because it’s not only my work but the work of Labelle as well that I have to sift through and have it cataloged. So yeah, maybe I can begin that process again.
Can I ask when you started working with Dan Hartman? Was it with Labelle or strictly in your solo career?
No, it was in my solo career. I met Dan through Roy Thomas Baker, the great engineer and producer. I think Roy produced Queen? [Nona is correct here: he produced five albums and singles including “Bohemian Rhapsody.” —Ed.] Anyway, Roy is a great engineer. I was going out with Roy to a club and Dan was at the club — I can’t remember which one it was. He introduced me because Roy was working with Dan on something. From that point forward we were in each other’s lives until Dan died.
I think he’s one of the most underrated producers of that or any era.
Oh Dan was just a brilliant musician and creator, singer, songwriter, engineer, instrumentalist. I loved Dan. He is one of the people in my life that I miss so dearly.
There are people who are born in the same town and die in the same town and live there from birth to death without ever going anywhere, not even to Disneyland! I don’t think for me that’s an existence that is at all possible. I’m interested in getting on the next Rover and going to Mars to make a record.
I found a photo of the two of your at the Grammys in I think 1986.
Yes, I remember. I’m actually looking at him right now, a photo that’s one of my favorite photos of Dan. He’s by the water, looking out. You don’t know where he’s looking but he’s looking out. It’s always been one of my favorite photos and it’s always been here. We saw each other almost every day for years.
There are a lot of legends around Dan. One I’ve heard a lot is that he was such a good mimic of voices that he could even do convincing demos that sounded exactly like everyone from James Brown to Tina Turner. Is that true?
Yes, it is true. Some of the vocals on “Living in America” that people think are James Brown are actually Dan.
Is that so? I’ve heard that but never knew if it was true.
Yeah. He was really, really talented. A friend of ours that Dan also worked with for years would say he was a “savant.” And in many ways he was. He played drums, he played bass, he played guitar, he played piano. He was just really talented.
It’s stunning to listen to how he could change his voice, from “Instant Replay” to “Relight My Fire” to “I Can Dream About You” to all the songs in films that you never knew and never would have guessed were performed by Dan Hartman.
Somebody asked him to write a song for Aretha. You would get a demo that sounded like, you know, Aretha! If you asked him to write a song for Barry White, you’d get a demo that sounded like Barry White. He was brilliant at that.
Was he able to do your voice?
Oh yes. Absolutely. With Dan it was his ability to hear. He had impeccable hearing.
You and Dan ran right into the era of sampling, which affected your generation of songwriters and performers differently than those that came after. Loleatta Holloway famously resented the way people were taking her voice and putting it on new recordings. Your voice has also been sampled a lot. At the time how did you feel about it, and do you feel differently today?
I’ve always been torn because I’m so into technology and how you can use it. In the beginning it was like, “Wow!” That somebody could just sample my voice and use it in something — that didn’t so much bother me. But when people began to be able to manipulate your voice to the point where it could sound like me — but a “chipmunk” me? That was really like, why don’t you just do your own chipmunk thing rather than take my voice because you wanted some particular melody or whatever. That to me was like — you’re being lazy! You can make your own. If you want to use my voice or whatever I do, then use it and use it so it’s representative of that. When it’s turned into something else where it’s made into some kind of caricature? That’s a kind of laziness. It’s the same as producing using plug-ins rather than creating your own kind of reverb that you like. The reverb that Phil Specter created for the music he did — specifically for “River Deep, Mountain High” — that is singular in the world. Just because you have access to it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also create something singular in the world.
That’s where I run into problems because I’m trying to create things that are not copies of other things.
Let’s talk about your collaboration with Soul Clap. How did you originally meet the two?
I met them through Sa’d, who was a part of the whole P-Funk traveling circus family. Sa’d was working with Soul Clap and got in touch with me and wanted to introduce me to the guys at this studio they were working in. One of the singers from the P-Funk family was going to be there as was Billy Bass. I know Billy and Sa’d I met a few times at P-Funk shows.
They were very cool. They asked about my writing some lyrics or singing on their next album. I listened to what they were doing, and it was more electronic than I was delving into, but I liked them and I liked their energy. And I heard that underneath what they were doing, under the electronics was this funk mission that they had. They were working in this little studio in Greenpoint [Brooklyn]. It was really chill, relaxed, instruments lying around and they had a grand piano in this space where you wouldn’t normally have a grand piano, and everyone was just contributing to the music, like let’s put this here, let’s change this, let’s do that. It was very similar to how music was made back in the ’70s and maybe the early ’80s. They work a lot with a lot of the old equipment, they’re very into the vintage things and that is a meeting of minds and souls for me. It was kindred spirits of creativity and thinking.
How do you stay inspired? I run into so many people who have quit, becoming burned out or become a businessman and music is just something they do because they can make more money at it than they can, say, swinging a hammer. What inspires you to stay creative?
I think that’s something that has to come from inside the individual. Either you have an innate curiosity for what it is that you have a passion for and for life in general, or you don’t. If that curiosity ever goes away or you’re not willing to look in and take risks and look in other directions for inspirations for that curiosity, then I think you lose interest and it goes away. If you’re not willing to stay open to the possibilities of X, Y and Z, you don’t just follow the thread.
You mail it in.
No, not mail it in, you don’t follow the thread. You don’t pull on the thread. You just leave it there. My view on it is that you’re either born with this curiosity or you’re not. There are people who are born in the same town and die in the same town and live there from birth to death without ever going anywhere, not even to Disneyland! Right? And I don’t think for me that’s an existence that is at all possible. I’m interested in getting on the next Rover and going to Mars to make a record.
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