SXSW Interview: Debbie Harry
Blondie debuts at fest with a sit-down and a showcase
By Abby Johnston, 11:11AM, Mon. Mar. 10
The only thing standing between me and punk priestess Debbie Harry was a telephone connection. As her publicist linked me long-distance to Berlin, I had a romantic notion that the phone would ring in the clipped bursts that open 1978’s Parallel Lines. Happily, the most famous blonde didn’t leave me “Hanging on the Telephone.”
Austin Chronicle: Where am I reaching you?
Deborah Harry: Berlin.
AC: So this will be your first time performing with Blondie at South by Southwest?
DH: Yes. I performed there with a jazz band, and I may have performed there with my solo band.
AC: Why this year finally with Blondie?
DH: That’s a good question. We were sort of wondering why we weren’t ever playing there, but I think since we’re having our big anniversary that’s why they decided to let us appear.
AC: Do you remember the first gig Blondie played in Austin?
DH: Yes, it was that place, indoor-outdoor place. Was it the Aardvark?
AC: Armadillo World Headquarters!
DH: Armadillo! That’s it. Armadillo, yes.
AC: Blondie’s new Ghost of Downloads was released in a 2-CD package with a greatest hits album. How come?
DH: Well, it just seemed appropriate for the anniversary, a good package – timely and appropriate for the occasion.
AC: Ghost of Downloads relies on electronics more heavily than a lot of your catalog. Do you feel like advancing technology has changed the way Blondie does production?
DH: Chris [Stein] has been writing songs on computer for quite a while. That’s probably the basis of it. We did do the album in a very electronic communications way. We didn’t all go into the studio at one time. We sort of did it by sending stuff to people, then sending it back. It really was done through computers, but not necessarily on the computer. A lot of the playing is live, so it’s a combination of both things.
AC: You emerged as one of the most recognized women in Seventies and Eighties rock. Can you tell me what it was like being in such a male-dominated genre, particularly early in your career?
DH: It was a little bit difficult. I think that if I had been a solo artist or a single girl it might have been a little more difficult, but I was with Chris and we were doing it together, so it didn’t seem quite as antagonistic. I think initially it was sort of a shock to a lot of guys. Looking back on it, it wasn’t that bad. A lot of the press was male-dominated, so I think that’s where a lot of the nastiness came out more than from other musicians, believe it or not.
AC: Do you feel like that’s changed at all?
DH: I do think it’s more commercially viable. It’s obvious there are many females on the charts selling enormous numbers of records, or CDs, or whatever it is. I think it’s a very competitive business, so regardless of what sex you are it’s pretty much the same thing. It takes a lot of ambition and skill to get anywhere.
AC: Do you think there are any women emerging in music now that we’ll be talking about in 40 years?
DH: Oh, Jesus. I don't know. You really don’t know, do you? How could one predict that? I guess somebody like Beyoncé or Nicki Minaj or Lady Gaga. One of those girls might stand the test of time, but who knows? Who knows what’s coming next?
AC: When you and Chris Stein started Blondie 40 years ago, did you ever anticipate that you would still have as much influence as you have today?
DH: I don’t know if we really thought about that kind of longevity. Although we admired a lot of the old-timers in blues and jazz and stuff like that. Those guys were all, you know, much much older at the time. Rock & roll was a relatively new form of music. There hadn’t been enough years to make old-timers, except like Chuck Berry or something. There wasn’t that much precedent. I think that we just worked from day-to-day more than aiming at some kind of long goal.
AC: I known Blondie came through Austin in 2013, but previous to that, 2012, the band co-headlined a show at Stubb’s with Devo. Could you comment on Bob Casale’s death earlier this week?
DH: Oh, it’s horrible. Very sad. I’m so glad we got to do that little tour with them. I really am sad to see him go. I’m sure his brother is, too. It’s really a big loss for Devo and for his brother. It makes me think we won’t see Devo playing. They were pretty firm about sticking to the original line-up, except they did play with a different drummer, so I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen, but it’s really, really too bad. As I said, I feel very lucky that we had a chance to tour with them. It was a great tour, fantastic.
AC: Any memories in particular that stand out from that tour?
DH: I think the thing that really impressed me was the way their music is, that methodic, rhythmic thing, a sort of mechanical thing. And also the way they prepared themselves. They were very disciplined and had everything completely lined up. It was quite impressive.
Wednesday, March 12, Austin Convention Center, 3:30pm
Thursday, March 13, Brazos Hall, 12mid