Music Makers

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  • Heavy Metal Maniacs in Africa

    Heavy Metal’s Leather and Chains Find a Home in the Kalahari

    The genre’s raucous vibe and apocalyptic fashion serve as a counterpart to Botswana’s conservative culture

    GHANZI, Botswana—By the light of a smartphone, Thato Mohamadi inspected his head-to-toe leather ensemble, which featured lizard-like scales and silver studs. Red flames flared a full foot from either side of his black leather chaps.


    “Now that’s a superpowered outfit,” said Mr. Mohamadi, who is known as “Demon” in Botswana’s booming heavy-metal scene. “I will be the baddest this year.” The outfit clinked and clattered as the 29-year-old mechanic turned and strode, limbs akimbo, into a community hall hosting Metal Mania Fest 2016. 

    Once a year, in May, the dusty streets of this sleepy town in the Kalahari Desert fill with hundreds of Mad Max-channeling metalheads who rock to the screams of homegrown bands. At this year’s seventh annual installation, the rockers—known to their countrymen as “Ma Rock”—paraded in leather cowboy hats and skeleton-print jumpsuits before partying until dawn.

    The gathering has made tiny Ghanzi a Mecca for bikers and rockers from across this landlocked country and beyond. “It’s a dress-to-kill event,” said Tshomarelo Mosaka, or “Vulture Thrust,” his nom de guerre as bassist and lead singer for the death-metal band Overthrust.

    During the festival, fans parade through town sporting their heavy-metal best.
    During the festival, fans parade through town sporting their heavy-metal best. 

    Heavy metal, a North American and European mainstay, has been surging in popularity in seemingly unlikely places in recent years, including Indonesia and Chile. As scruffy as it seems, metal requires expensive equipment and a relatively high degree of musicianship, and is often seen as a companion to increasing education, affluence and internet use. 

    In Botswana, known for its diamonds, stable governance, wide open spaces and shortage of distractions, fans say metal is a way to blow off steam while expressing a little cultural dissent. 

    “We’re a very conservative culture,” said Kefentse Masimolole, a bureaucrat who made the 400-mile trip from Gaborone for this year’s festival. “This is the flip side.”

    Many Botswanans trace their rock roots to the success of a more straight-ahead rock band called Nosey Road that two Italian brothers founded in Botswana’s capital of Gaborone in 1972. Today their children make up two-thirds of one of the country’s most popular metal acts, Skinflint.

    Watch the Video: Metal Mania Fest brings out the country's hardcore headbangers, who dress up in leather and rock out to local bands.

    “Our idea was to create a new style of music combining elements of African culture with heavy metal music,” said Giuseppe Sbrana, the band’s singer and guitarist. Some time during the past decade, as the band recorded four albums and toured the country, they noticed more fans turning up in increasingly intricate attire that fused metalhead menace with African cowboy culture. Overthrust and other local metal acts are as popular here as hometown rappers have become in Johannesburg or Lagos.

    “We’re passionate musicians, but our fans have taken it to an extra level,” said Alessandra Sbrana, Skinflint’s drummer and Giuseppe’s cousin. 

    Mr. Mosaka—Vulture to his friends—was an early evangelist in this mineral-rich country’s musical conversion. “People locked into the heavy-metal scene because they could make it a passion, an identity,” he said. “They want to feel like they belong.” Six years ago, he founded the annual festival in this tiny town 500 miles northwest of Johannesburg.

    The 30-year-old recalls his uncles introducing him to the iconic metal band Iron Maiden in the 1990s. Lesego Modibati, or “Calvera,” the 37-year-old lead singer of a three-piece act called Barren Barrel, said he inherited cassette tapes of the band AC/DC from South African and British safari guides working around his hometown in the late 1980s.

    “That’s when I started opening up my eyes,” said Mr. Modibati, whose screaming-eagle vocals, light mustache and lithe frame evoke a mashup of AC/DC frontman Bon Scott and Little Richard.

    Eager for a piece of the action, bands from South Africa and Europe have made tour stops here for the first time recently. One from Finland, called Kirrotuaani, roared into town last year; a Pretoria-based outfit called Adorned in Ash headlined this year’s event. 

    “They’ve taken a subculture and made it all their own,” said Robyn Ferguson, the band’s lead singer and guitarist, as she watched a parade of roaring motorcycles and chanting metal fans march toward the modest festival venue.

    The fashion is as much a draw as the music itself. In the hall’s parking lot, dozens of Ma Rock die-hards strutted in enough chain, leather and metal to stock a Harley-Davidson dealership. Most had dreamed up hard-edge nicknames to match their outfits, including “Gunsmoke,” “Hardcore,” “Fire Darkness” and “Mad Dog.”

    “I’m expressing myself as a warrior,” said Justice Keleghaile, who is known as “Series.” The 27-year-old graphic designer had turned the bottom of a plastic bucket and a pile of spent rifle casings into a menacing sundial of a belt buckle. 

    He carved a workman’s helmet into a gladiator mask crowned by high spikes. Along with his leather pants and frilled leather jacket, the outfit cost him about $450, or about 5,000 Botswanan pula, he said.

    During the festival, biker culture comes front and center in the Kalahari Desert.
    During the festival, biker culture comes front and center in the Kalahari Desert. 

    Inside, Raven ‘N Flesh took the stage. “Let me see your hands if you want to hear some black metal!” roared frontman Bobby Lefi. 

    As the bands thrashed on toward midnight, Mr. Mohamadi prepared to make his grand entrance. He belongs to a group called the Superpowers who spend months planning outfits that aim to make other get-ups look tame.

    “Rock is in my DNA,” said the group’s leader, Mompati Seithamo, or “Desert Dust,” a 27-year-old electrician. He learned how to punch holes in leather from his father, a cowboy—an honored profession in a cattle-mad nation.

    This year, Mr. Seithamo sewed a tuft of fur onto a stud-spiked leather cap and layered his limbs in leather flaps that made him look like a samurai warrior.

    He acknowledged that one of his pupils, Mr. Mohamadi, may have outdone him this time. The understudy’s 6-foot spread of spikes and studs, which he spent nearly an hour riveting together, was the envy of the crowd. 

    In the end, though, it’s the music that matters. Gomolemo Sebidio, aka “Vaselyn,” a 24-year-old waitress with long, orange curls, said the vibe is something that only grows. “I was born a six,” she said, rating her own fanaticism. “And I became a 10.”

    A group of men head bang in a circle to the strains of homegrown bands.
    A group of men head bang in a circle to the strains of homegrown bands.
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  • One Persistent Kitty

    Kitten's self-titled debut album points to a promising future

    This 19-year-old Kitten has an affection for New Wave pop. Getty Images

    South Pasadena, Calif.

    Band members may have come and gone, but as long as Chloe Chaidez remains, Kitten is intact. "Kitten has always been a moniker for me and my projects," Ms. Chaidez said last week at a coffee shop here. As if to prove her independence, later that afternoon she performed solo with an acoustic guitar at Amoeba Music. On the Hollywood record shop's little stage, she demonstrated her ability to hold an audience, as well as the appeal and integrity of the songs she wrote with producer Chad Anderson.

    With the recent release of "Kitten" (Elektra), Ms. Chaidez reveals her affection for the New Wave pop of the late 1970s and early '80s—a bit of a curiosity, since she was born in 1994. Vintage synths and drum pads provide the foundation while Ms. Chaidez sings with a blend of drama, passion and sincerity befitting an angst-filled youth. "Kitten" points to a promising future for the 19-year-old, even as the album celebrates rock's past.

    "I love those New Wave bands—Eurythmics, Tears for Fears," she said, adding that her three favorite songs are "Purple Rain" by Prince, "Slave to Love" by Bryan Ferry and "Every Breath You Take" by the Police. All were released between 1983 and 1985.

    In an Oakland Raiders jersey and platform shoes, Ms. Chaidez said she's always been driven. As a child, she was determined to become a world-class gymnast, and she believes she was on the path: "Olympics, not quite. A scholarship, definitely." But music's allure proved too powerful. "I had always pictured myself as a rock star—never a doubt." When she was in the third grade, she wrote a letter to her future self. Recently, her teacher forwarded it to her. "'I want to be a rock star' was the first line," Ms. Chaidez said.

    Her father, Mike, who played drums in Los Angeles's punk scene, warned her that sustaining a career in rock could be difficult. "He said it was a hard life, but he was secretly joyful that I wanted to do it." She released an EP in October 2010; seven months later, another EP followed: "Cut It Out" was distributed by Atlantic Records and Ms. Chaidez was on her way.

    "During 'Cut It Out,'" she said, "I started dabbling with using synthesizers and getting into characters. I discovered reverb and started playing with my voice." The dreamy sound of the Cocteau Twins, My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive infiltrated her approach to song, she added. "I began to think of myself as a vocal stylist. I grew into what my music is."

    Ms. Chaidez said she has been touring since she was 15. "There's something grinding about playing in front of 10 people, but there's something romantic about it too," she said. Kitten performed before much larger audiences when it later opened on separate tours for Charli XCX, Garbage, the Joy Formidable, Paramore and No Doubt.

    In late May, two members of Kitten resigned. Having weathered other such roster changes since the band's early days in 2009, she pressed on. To celebrate the release of the new album, Ms. Chaidez, backed by an ad-hoc group of musicians, headlined a June 21 concert at Los Angeles's El Rey Theatre. She prowled the stage in a black-and-gold dress and torn black stockings.

    "It was an amazing show," she said, her enthusiasm suddenly overpowering her practiced self-control. The band's first headlining tour of the U.S. and Canada is now underway, and Ms. Chaidez said a European tour is planned for the fall.

    Ms. Chaidez said Kitten's audience comprises "guys in their 40s who get the references and younger girls who identify with me." At Amoeba, where teen and college-age girls outnumbered the Gen X men, she kicked off with "Apples and Cigarettes," which she performs solo on "Kitten." Other tunes, including "Cut It Out," didn't need the full-band treatment they receive on the album: Turns out the New Wave approach is only dressing and these songs work just as well when stripped to their essence. But Ms. Chaidez didn't abandon the '80s completely: She played a stirring version of Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over," a track originally released eight years before she was born.

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  • Can Lyricists create the next big star?

    The Secret Behind Pop Hits: Swedish Songwriters

    Group of Lyricists, After Writing Hits for Others, Seek to Create Their Own Star

    Songwriter Arnthor Birgisson, who has written lyrics for Janet Jackson and Jennifer Lopez, is trying to break out with his own pop star. Ajda Dzambic

    Over the past two decades, Swedish songwriters have had an outsize role in creating hits for American pop singers, from 'N Sync's 1998 hit "Tearin' Up My Heart," co-written by Kristian Lundin, to Kelly Clarkson's 2002 smash "A Moment Like This," penned by Jörgen Elofsson.

    Now some of those same songwriters are trying what they hope will be an even more lucrative approach: cultivating homegrown stars to perform their songs.

    This year Sony Corp.'s 6758.TO +2.13% Columbia Records will release the debut album of Swedish singer Kim Cesarion, a 23-year-old music-school graduate. He was plucked from obscurity by a group of Stockholm hitmakers and their manager four years ago while Mr. Cesarion was working at a shoe store.

    Over the last several years, the Stockholm songwriters have composed dozens of songs to showcase the delicate falsetto of Mr. Cesarion. They are helping him develop "a new, competitive international sound," and a "cool, fashion-minded style," while giving him lots of onstage practice, said Linus Andreen, the songwriters' manager.

    His single, "Undressed," has been streamed more than 20 million times on Spotify and has topped sales charts in Australia, Scandinavia and Poland. It isn't yet available in the U.S.

    "It went from zero to 1,000 very quick," said Mr. Cesarion on a recent evening in a studio in Los Angeles. He had come with his songwriting team for a week to craft tracks they hoped would resonate with U.S. listeners.

    The strategy spotlights the shifting economics for songwriters in the digital age. In the album era, songwriters had a safety net: every writer on an album earned a percentage of the overall album sales, regardless of which tracks were radio hits driving the sales. Pop stars and their producers, meantime, were willing to let lesser-known writers try their hands on songs less likely to get radio airplay

    But in an industry fueled by digital song sales and online streaming, artists now release many of their songs individually before putting them out as albums.

    Pop singers are increasingly reluctant to roll the dice on new songwriters for these singles, lest a dud slow their momentum. Katy Perry, for instance, collaborated with American producer Dr. Luke on most of the singles from her latest album, "Prism." Pink enlisted Sweden's Max Martin, the co-writer on "Tearin Up My Heart," to write and produce many of her singles in recent years.

    Royalties from album sales—which slipped 8% to 289 million CDs and digital albums in the U.S. last year—are no longer enough to sustain the songwriters who don't pen hits.

    At the same time, income is being squeezed even for the songwriters who do land singles, as pop stars and producers demand growing chunks of the songwriting credit, hoping to make up in publishing royalties from airplay and licensing what they've lost in record sales, down more than 40% in the U.S. since their peak in 2000.

    Sweden's Kim Cesarion, a pop star developed by Swedish songwriters at Aristotracks, will release his debut album this year. Ajda Dzambic

    Singer-rapper Frank Ocean, who started his career as a songwriter for artists such as Brandy and Justin Bieber, expressed his frustration on Twitter TWTR -1.26%several years ago, writing: "it's a bad trend that artists try to muscle for credit on songs they had no part in writing." Mr. Ocean's publicist declined to comment.

    All of those factors have made it more attractive for songwriters to turn the tables and develop acts over which they have more creative and financial control. A hit song can generate millions of dollars in royalties for a songwriter, depending on the writer's share of the publishing rights. Songwriters are also more likely to get a bigger share if they manage the artist and control production.

    Sweden claims to export more music per capita than any other country. The nation's songwriters became particularly sought after in the late 1990s, when Stockholm songwriting house Cheiron Studios began churning out hits for acts such as the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync.

    Arnthor Birgisson, an Iceland-born songwriter who moved to Sweden as a toddler, was working with Cheiron veterans at another songwriting shop when he decided to start his own songwriting company, Aristotracks. Tired of politicking to get pop stars to record his work, he embarked on a hunt for his own charismatic male solo performer.

    He found Mr. Cesarion, and was captivated by his confidence and love of the spotlight, in addition to his falsetto, similar to that of Michael Jackson's .

    Aristotracks writers will have the bulk of the songwriting credit on Mr. Cesarion's debut album, and will share in his concert-ticket sales, sponsorships and other revenue streams. The company is also developing and composing songs for a female solo artist, Tiaan, whose smooth, soft sound is reminiscent of British vocalist Sade's .

    Other songwriters have tried developing their own artists in recent years with varying success—and risk. Dr. Luke, whose real name is Lukasz Gottwald, signed singer-songwriter Kesha to his record label and publishing company in 2005. She has sold 30 million singles and 2.8 million albums in the U.S., but their relationship has been rocky: last year the party-rap star's fans circulated a petition to emancipate her from Mr. Gottwald, whom the petition alleged was "controlling her like a puppet" and stifling her creativity.

    RedOne, a Moroccan-Swedish producer whose real name is Nadir Khayat, started a label in partnership with Vivendi SA VIV.FR -0.52% 's Universal Music Group several years ago, signing Jennifer Lopez along with a number of lesser-known artists for whom he'd written many songs, though his label has yet to release an album.

    On a recent trip to Los Angeles, Aristotracks' Mr. Andreen accompanied Mr. Cesarion to grueling workouts each morning as the singer prepared for a shirtless performance. In the studio one night, Mr. Cesarion riffed vocal lines over a loop of a song that Mr. Birgisson said they might call "Submissive," about a woman who "casts a spell" on a man and makes him do whatever she wants.

    Mr. Cesarion, who started played piano and violin at a young age and developed his singing voice in high school, said he gets to say "yes or no" to all creative decisions, and has input on song concepts and melodies. But he leaves the lyrics to the rest of the team since English isn't his first language.

    "I'm working on it," he said.

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  • The Rise of the Web Musical

    The Rise of the YouTube Musical

    With the popularity of musicals on TV and Broadway, the genre is exploding on YouTube

    VIRAL: The first season of YouTube musical 'Side Effects' drew 2 million views in a week. AwesomenessTV

    Like so many other YouTube hits, "Side Effects" has singers covering tunes that were first made famous by pop stars. What makes this project different: The Taylor Swift and One Direction covers have been stitched into an original story line featuring a dozen actors, extensive visual effects and a total running time of 80 minutes—an epic production compared with typical viral videos.

    "Side Effects," about the family mystery surrounding a teen who hallucinates song-and-dance numbers, highlights the rise of musicals on YouTube, where Broadway (or at least TV's "Glee") is exerting a growing influence.

    So far this year, people have uploaded 13,200 hours of video with "musical" in the title, compared with 9,700 hours during the same time last year, YouTube says. The spread of theatricality online has happened in step with the popularity of big-screen musicals such as "Frozen" and "Pitch Perfect," a teen favorite from 2012 that is set for a sequel.

    Web musicals also show how the homegrown culture of YouTube is evolving. Creators are looking for new ways to get noticed within the never-ending glut of cover songs and lip-sync videos, long favored by people pursuing Web stardom. Now, some musicians are winning big audiences with their original compositions.

    In "Side Effects," five siblings grappling with the death of their mother and a home foreclosure follow a trail of clues in search of their vanished father. As a reaction to the medication she's taking, middle child Whitney (Meg DeLacy) sees her and her family's emotions come to life as music videos, giving the characters an excuse for breaking into songs from Kesha and "Pitch Perfect" and others. Overseen by director Matt Stawski, the musical interludes feature animation and different styles of effects for each character.

    The musical has some star power. Chester See, a singer with 1.5 million YouTube subscribers, plays the role of the eldest sibling and stand-in father figure, Keith. He executive-produced "Side Effects" and co-wrote one of the musical's several original songs. The producers didn't need permission for the songs they cover: YouTube has a system that allows the songs' rights holders to either take the video down or share in any ad revenue it generates.

    Mr. See, who says he's putting his UCLA theater degree to use, notes that "Side Effects" has a lot more in common with "Glee" than "Guys and Dolls," but notes the influence of Top 40 on the genre as a whole. "Look at the stuff popping up on Broadway—more of it is pop music," he said. For example, current offerings on Broadway include "Motown the Musical" and "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical."

    The first "season" of "Side Effects" went online last fall as a single 42-minute video, which attracted 2 million views in one week, the producers say. A second season has rolled out in more typical fashion, in weekly episodes about seven minutes long, with the last installment appearing this week. A third and final batch of episodes will come out later this summer.

    With a budget upward of $200,000 for the first season, "Side Effects" has some muscle behind it. It was produced by AwesomenessTV, a YouTube network that runs dozens of teen-focused shows. Last year DreamWorks bought the company, which also produces an AwesomenessTV series for Nickelodeon.

    Like other hit YouTube videos, popular musicals generate revenue from ads that run automatically before the clips play. The goal for the "Side Effects" team, however, is to sell the show for TV. "We set out to make something that was more than just a YouTube video, something that could live on network television or cable," says Awesomeness founder and chief executive Brian Robbins. Mr. Robbins says he is in talks with a cable network about adapting "Side Effects" for television. Online, ambitious musicals aren't yet sustainable, he says: "Unless we had some other way of paying for it, it would be hard to make this show every week on YouTube as an hour or half-hour."

    DISNEY VILLAINS: Brothers Antonius, left, and Vijay Nazareth with cast of their new musical AVbyte

    Musicals, like most online productions, rely on Web searches to lure an audience. Two brothers in New York piggybacked on people's interests in big releases, especially from DisneyDIS +0.76% to introduce their own original music.

    Knowing that the Angelina Jolie movie "Maleficent" was coming to theaters, Antonius and Vijay Nazareth recently created "Disney Villains—The Musical featuring Maleficent." Four women dressed as the antagonists of such movies as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "The Little Mermaid," sing about their misunderstood good intentions. Chorus: "A happy ever after is a dream that won't come true."

    Though their "musicals" consist of a single song—"Disney Villains" is three minutes long—Antonius says the brothers are "crazy passionate about bringing back the golden age of theater and musical films." Both siblings are classically trained musicians, but Vijay oversees the video production while Antonius handles the music.

    In about a week, the video has gotten 1.4 million views, but it has a way to go before matching the 28.2 million views of their biggest hit: a musical riff on "Frozen." That video featured a girl-power anthem by a group of Disney heroines: "Who says every princess needs to have a prince. It's the same old story but I'm just not convinced," they sing.

    Under the name AVbyte, the Nazareths have uploaded almost 200 songs (and behind-the-scenes videos of their musicals) in the last two years, spoofing everything from the Grand Theft Auto videogames to "Fifty Shades of Grey." The brothers declined to specify how much money their videos generate, saying only they earn enough to live in Manhattan without needing separate jobs.

    Like the creators of "Side Effects," the Nazareth brothers want to take their musicals to a stage beyond YouTube. They recently got a manager and an agent, who have them working on movie ideas. "We're trying to build a musical brand," Vijay says. "That's why we made it a point to always stick to original songs, so we have a clear voice."

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  • When Punk married Disco

    (To listen to the song "Heart of Glass" by Blondie click here)

    Until 1978, Blondie was a punk band with a cult following and not much visibility in the U.S. beyond New York’s Lower East Side. Eager for a hit album, Chrysalis, the band’s label, paired Blondie withMichael Chapman, an inventive producer who had success recording other downtown artists, including Suzi Quatro and Sweet.

    The result was “Parallel Lines,” Blondie’s third album, and the single“Heart of Glass.” After the song’s release in early 1979, it became Blondie’s first Billboard pop-chart hit, climbing to No. 1 in April 1979, helping to pave the way for synth-pop and electronic dance music (EDM).

    Mr. Chapman and the song’s co-writers— Debbie Harry (who opens at New York’s Cafe Carlyle March 24) and guitarist Chris Stein (author of the recent “Negative: Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk”)—talked about the hit’s evolution, Donna Summer’s influence and the struggle to adapt the high-impact Euro-techno sound. Edited from interviews:

    Chris Stein: When Debbie and I were living in our top-floor apartment at 48 W. 17th St., I often messed around on a borrowed multitrack tape recorder. It let me record a rhythm guitar track and then layer melody and harmony lines on top. I wrote and developed my songs this way. In the summer of 1974, I wrote a song and referenced the catchy feel of “Rock the Boat” by the Hues Corporation, which was a big hit then. Debbie and I began calling it “The Disco Song.


    Debbie Harry: I used to keep a notebook to jot down lyrics and ideas that came to me. On this one, Chris was constantly experimenting with the song, and the lyrics just floated into my head. The words I came up with expressed a very high school kind of thing, of falling in and out of love and getting your feelings hurt. But instead of dwelling on the pain, the words sort of shrugged off the breakup, like, “Oh, well, that’s the way it goes.”

    Chris and I both came from an art background, and we were familiar with existentialism, surrealism, abstractionism and so on. The feeling I wanted to get across was, “Live and let live,” like this is what happened and now it’s not happening, you know? I threw in the “Ooo-ooo, ohhh-oh” fill when we started performing the song at CBGB. It was a 1960s “girl group” thing. Chris and I both loved R&B.

    Blondie circa 1979. Clockwise from top left, guitarist Chris Stein, singer Debbie Harry, bass player Nigel Harrison, drummer Clem Burke, guitarist Frank Infante and keyboard player Jimmy Destri. ENLARGE
    Blondie circa 1979. Clockwise from top left, guitarist Chris Stein, singer Debbie Harry, bass player Nigel Harrison, drummer Clem Burke, guitarist Frank Infante and keyboard player Jimmy Destri. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

    Mr. Stein: The Shangri-Las were a huge influence on us. When I was a kid, I didn’t get it. I thought they were commercial and weird. All those soap opera scenarios they sang about were strange. But after Debbie and I started Blondie, I realized how fantastic and raw their music was and that their gang-related sensibilities were appealing.

    Ms. Harry: The whole Blondie thing was about a distinctive approach. In the mid-‘70s, there weren’t a lot of girls singing in a feminine way. The music was gritty. So we combined punk rock with an R&B feel. That’s what gave us an identifiable sound and kept us going. Soon, the kids who came to our shows began asking for “The Disco Song.”

    Mr. Stein: The hook was in the verse, when I had the song’s key pivot from major to minor on the same chord. It was catchy. But we were always playing the song differently. We tried a calypso beat, a funk approach and others. Nothing ever seemed to work comfortably. In 1975, we made a demo of the song that was pretty stripped down, calling it “Once I Had a Love.” Then we forgot about it.

    Ms. Harry: In 1978, Terry Ellis, co-founder of Chrysalis, wanted Mike Chapman to produce our third album. Terry was very excited about us making a really commercial, pop record. We had no problem with that, since we thought we were doing that already, you know? This was just taking it to another level. But we were neophytes and didn’t have any experience making an intense, tight-sounding radio record.

    Mike Chapman: I first met Chris and Debbie in New York at the Gramercy Park Hotel. They played me tapes of new songs for the album. The music was great, but I wanted a song that would really pop. I asked if they had anything else. They said, “Well, we have this song we call “The Disco Song.” When they played it, I thought it was quite good, but the song wasn’t 100% there yet.

    At our first rehearsal for the album, all six members of the band were there. To break the ice, I wanted to start with a song that was most comfortable for them—“Once I Had a Love.” It needed a new title.

    Mr. Stein: Originally, Debbie’s second line of the song was, “Soon turned out, he was a pain in the ass.” Mike thought that might not play well on the radio, so I threw out a phrase, “heart of glass,” which everyone liked. Debbie worked it in as “Soon turned out, had a heart of glass.” That’s the title we used on the song.

    Mr. Chapman: I asked Debbie which singer she liked most in the music business. She said, “Donna Summer,” particularly on “I Feel Love.” I never expected that. I said to her and Chris, “Why don’t we give this song a Giorgio Moroder feel?” Giorgio had produced Donna’s great albums.


    Mr. Stein: We loved the idea. As a band, we had already been referencing the electronic-dance feel of Kraftwerk, which released “Trans-Europe Express” a year earlier. We felt that would be a move forward. But getting that sound back then was a mystery to all of us. It had to be invented.

    Mr. Chapman: We went into New York’s Record Plant in June 1978, but the sound I wanted turned out to be a Pandora’s box of nightmares. The first step was to get the tempo right. I had this Roland drum machine that I wanted to use in sync with Clem Burke’s drums. You hear the machine on the opening. To provide Clem with a track guide, I recorded the vocal in falsetto. After we had the kick drum pounding, I changed the arrangement so it would skip a beat along the way, to give it a dance feel. I had to get the Roland to skip the beat at the same time.

    Then we recorded the rest of the drum parts individually—the high-hat, the snare and the tom-tom. The eight tracks of drums took a week, and synchronizing them with the drum machine was the toughest part. We only had a 24-track recorder, and we couldn’t cut and paste like you can today. What I was asking Clem to do was close to enslavement, and he was ready to kill me. I also brought in two EMT 250s, the first digital reverb machine. I discovered the EMT in Montreux, Switzerland, a year earlier. They gave the snare drum—and later, the vocal—more dimension and an electronic vibe.

    Once we had the drum tracks, I turned to the bass. With my vocal track standing in for Debbie, bassist Nigel Harrison and I spent an entire day on it. In the end, we had the most amazing bass line. Next came Jimmy Destri on the keyboard. We didn’t have sequencers then, so we ended up recording three different parts using a Roland SH-5 and a Minimoog, which we spent hours trying to figure out how to use. When we had the rhythm-section track, I turned to recording Debbie’s vocal on top.

    Ms. Harry: I don’t think there’s one particular emotion that I connected to when recording the vocal. I don’t really work like that. It’s usually sort of in the moment. In those days, just being able to pull it off technically for me was a pretty major achievement. I think the emotional content and thinking came later, with experience.

    Mr. Chapman: I cleared the studio so it was just Debbie in the middle of the room alone with her headset on and me in the control booth. She sang three or four takes. Her pitch was beautiful and expressive, so you hear every aspect of her personality. But after listening back, I thought we should overdub Debbie singing a background vocal in places. To illustrate what I wanted, I came in early the next day and had my engineer, Peter Coleman, record me singing the background track. When Debbie arrived, I played it for her with her lead vocal. She thought it sounded great and wanted me to leave it. So I’m singing background on the record.

    Ms. Harry: Singing those takes was excruciating, especially the high notes. I wasn’t singing in falsetto—that was the soprano part of my voice. Mike knew what he wanted, and I couldn’t get away with a stinking thing.

    Mr. Chapman: The guitars were the last element. Chris provided the ambient sounds, and Frankie [Infante] came in next to do the aggressive guitar parts. Recording the song took a little over a week, leaving us four weeks to finish the album. Then came the editing process. We must have made 30-to-40 edits for the final master.


    Mr. Stein: For years I thought some of the ambient swishing sounds on the recording were synthesizers. Then a couple of years ago we took the tracks apart for a TV documentary and I realized that a lot of the weird noises were actually coming from my guitar, which I had fed through a Roland tape-loop echo machine.

    Mr. Chapman: I always thought that if “Heart of Glass” could capture the mass market discreetly and tastefully, it would open the entire world to Blondie, and it did. The trick was to accessorize the band’s coarse sound, not replace it or have them sell out. There was real danger in changing them too dramatically. Debbie’s voice was the key to the sound. I knew if I let Debbie be Debbie, listeners would feel what she was singing.

    Ms. Harry: I think many people connect with the sense of loss or sadness that’s underneath the song. They also connect with the melody’s descending scale, sort of an “Ahhh, yeah, oh well,” like a musical sigh. A lot of people have things like that feeling in their lives.

    When we were recording, we all went to Studio 54 at night. But the “Heart of Glass” video wasn’t shot there. It was shot in some club on the West Side with palm trees. I still have the gray one-strap Stephen Sprouse dress I wore in the video and the gray scarf. The clear plastic shoes? They melted somewhere along the way.

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Music for a Song

Music is a personal experience. To include music into your art, be it a film, ebook, graphic novel or whatever, will lend your project a more intimate piece of yourself. Arguably, including music with your project is the ultimate mash-up. For most of us, the music (the work of someone else) will be married to our own project, bringing a new dimension of experience to both renderings -- yours and theirs. Take a film scene for example, the music you lay over it can drastically change what you see and how you feel about it. And of course, the scene you just viewed may be invoked mentally every time you hear the corresponding song. When ever I hear "The Doors" or Hendrix, I often envision scenes from various Vietnam movies. Thank you Mr. Coppola and Mr. Stone.

Aside from enhancing a project, music can be a great way to promote and market a project. Using music as a promotional device is most effective when the music is fresh. Be it an original piece or a new take on an old standard, fresh music affords a fresh perspective. No past emotions, experiences or images are available to collide with what you are currently invoking with your project.

Commissioning new music for your project is also a smart way to avoid the cost of securing music rights of something insanely popular such as last year's "Blurred Lines". I'm not offering legal advice. I'm simply suggesting that for a fraction of the cost of a hit song, you can commission an entire soundtrack. And you still might end up with a hit. 

Below, you'll find links to some of my favorite sites to secure, share, promote and sell music.

soundcloud.com - Features: social networking, music sharing and online store. After you upload you music, you are provided with an embedable to use where ever.

bandcamp.com - Features: music sharing and online store. Provides a customizable page for your music. Your fans can buy your music directly from the site.

last.fm Features: music sharing. Set up a profile, upload your music, which fans will hear based on their preferences. Basically, the site promotes your work.

ourstage.com Features: Music sharing, social networking, online store and classifieds. I love classifieds. Create a profile, set up a blog and sell music to your fans.

purevolume.com Features: Music sharing and social networking. Create a profile, post photos and videos, post text to promote your upcoming event.

youtube.com Features: Biggest party in town. Video sharing and social networking. Listen, Facebook and tumblr are like cool bars, but youtube is like a cool club. If you don't know the difference, I can't help you. So put on your best outfit, make your way to the middle of the dance-floor and do you.