She stands stock-still in the middle of a chock-full changing room. It’s teeming, practically heaving. As rotating faces scuttle in circles with strange offerings—a mile-high blonde beehive, disco ball dresses, the occasional Diet Coke—Debbie Harry is quiet. I had sidled in moments before with a bellyful of crackling nerves.
Snap back a few hours: I’d been sliding change across the counter, grabbing a morning coffee. My phone buzzed, flashed “Private.” I picked up and jumped when I heard the bark: “This is Debbie Harry, and I’m lost.” Already anxious to interview a woman so personally definitive, I nearly dropped the phone. It was a bit of a shock, not least because it’s always a frantic publicist—never the talent. After stammering out incoherent directions to an essentially unmarked midtown studio, I hung up and nearly heaved.
Snap back to set. She’s demure, and she’s assured. In the midst of the madhouse, she manages to get what she wants with real grace. No, she’d rather not wear those particular glittering heels, but thank you. They’re lovely. We begin the interview as she swaps out looks. The moment she sets her eyes on mine and shakes off as many fluttering fashion hands as she can, my anxiety melts. She’s curious and attentive, and she’s ready to talk.
This September, the iconic Blondie—original members Chris Stein and Clem Burke included—dropped a new record, Panic of Girls, their first in eight years; their ninth in thirty-five. Add in the five that carry Harry’s solo work, and toss out a rough estimate that’ll account for the dozens and dozens of other artists’ records she’s played part in (from the Ramones to the Jazz Passengers to the Heads to Fall Out Boy to—!). It’s staggering.
“I think David Byrne did the song ‘Stay Hungry,’” she says. “It’s hard to stay hungry. Being financially secure, it takes away a certain amount of drive for some people, so the concept of stay hungry is really good. But if you’re dedicated to what you do and enjoy what you do, that’s the heart of it all.” In typical Harry fashion, Blondie fashion, Panic of Girls is a product of brazen curiosity. It cast a wide net over culture (in the biggest, most vast sense of the word), and in the two-year slow drag back, it picked up bits of Spain. France. Brooklyn. There’s the old school new wave—it leans on that familiar reggae backbone at times. Others, it’s dressed up in slick new synth-punch duds. It’s stacked with homage—the album’s first single, “Mother,” is an upbeat electro-celebration of the defunct nineties New York club of the same name. A breezy cover of Sophia George’s 1985 hit “Girlie Girlie” brings Jamaica to the table, and a swelling, gentle rendition of Beirut’s “Sunday Smile” is a nod to modern indie darling Zach Condon (“Beirut’s so cool,” she says).
Decades after Blondie brought rap to the Billboard charts (“Well now you see what you wanna be / Just have your party on TV”), Harry continues to act as an antenna, channeling everything rousing in current pop culture. After so many years of keen scrutiny, she must boast a trove of knowledge that’d trump Trivial Pursuit. She shrugs lightly, as if it’s simply the norm. “It’s fun to fish around, search, pick things out,” she says. And after a thoughtful pause: “You know who I miss? I miss Missy Elliott.”
It’s not the norm, though, this constant questing for cultural currency—this thirst to evolve and produce and never stop. Too many artists fizzle and flop, or get bored. They get crammed into some winsome pigeonhole, or lose touch. Not Harry. “I’m proud of a lot of things, but I think the best thing I can say is that I keep improving,” she says, her speech easy but earnest. “Whether people think I am or not, I feel that I am. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
An impressive feat indeed, as most folks would struggle to pop up and out of the scene Blondie emerged from—a scene so often romanticized by the rest of the world. “I was just trying to survive,” she says. Those who showed face at CBGBs, who prowled Bowery and punched out panicked power chords and begged for simple, for tough and fast and loud, who pegged punk for the L.E.S and the country and the world— those folks landed, ultimately, branded: be tough be brash live fast die young. This legacy is interminable.
“It’s been idealized in a lot of ways,” she says. “It was a tough time in New York. The streets were much more dangerous in those days, so it was exciting in that way—you had to watch your back all the time. I don’t think that it’s like that anymore.”
These days, still—stroll around. Check the stick-thin, stone-tough blondes tipped against the crumbling mortar corners of downtown New York. They’re flipping their fringe, acting hard, but still dangling and dripping and languid. (“I’ve seen my influence in editorial, in fashion, more than I have distinctly in artists,” she says.)
This is power: creating a scene that 30, 40 years later continues to draw legions of prickly, heart-bursting junkie-wannabe dreamers to an idea, a city, a street. The droves keep flocking. They’re hunting the specter of a scene that physically trickled down the city sewers long ago (“It’s the end, the end of the ’70s/ It’s the end, the end of the century”). That original was ephemeral. It was fresh and it was special. And then it was Oi!. And it was new wave, it was postpunk, it was “Love Will Tear us Apart.” Streetpunk, skate punk, hardcore. Then, it disseminated, it diluted, it fell six feet under. Physically speaking.
In this quest for immortality—this perpetual tender quest for crisis—it’s a rare occasion that an experience-hungry kid will step back and assess what truly lasts.
Present for it all was Debbie Harry, is Debbie Harry. She took her scene, took this punk, and shook it till it suited her. She took these frenzied fifths, this desire for fast and easy, and injected more. More intricacies, more observation—all of it fearless, all of it her own. Blondie fused funk into the pop currency, dropped reggae into dance radio, and that was only the beginning. Still, after all of this, after decades, Harry seems to center herself as an artist, rather than an icon. She balks a bit when I ask where she’s seen her own influence manifest, and she’s not even so sure she’s ever been successful at communicating her message (don’t be afraid, be an individual).
Still, after all of this, she’s level, without even a tinge of the jaded, been-there-done-that noseup. Still, after all of this: “I don’t know if I feel like I’ve taken any risks,” she says.
This Spring, BULLETT sat down with Donald Glover, a veritable renaissance man of the digital age.
Can you tell me a little bit about growing up in Georgia?
It was very boring. I was really bored. I mean, that might have something to do with just being a kid—when you’re a kid, you can’t afford alcohol, cigarettes, or porn yet, and it’s illegal for you to have those things, and those are the things I like the most now. So I was bored.
Is that why you decided to get out and go to NYU?
Yeah. I decided I wanted to go to New York way before I even knew what I wanted to do or what NYU had to offer. I just wanted to be in New York. My parents were from New York, and hearing stories about what they did in New York—it sounded to me like that place where Pinocchio goes with the boys when they skip school, where they all get turned into donkeys and stuff. It just sounded like a weird fantasy land, so I really wanted to go there.
Did it live up to your expectations?
Oh, absolutely. New York is one of my favorite places on Earth. I was like, “You can go anywhere in the city for two dollars!” I was so amazed at everything. There’s pizza on every corner.
Was there a particular definable moment when you were growing up that you decided you wanted to pursue comedy?
I saw Delirious with my dad, and my dad was just cracking up, and I was like, “Aw man, I gotta do that. My dad loves this.” I always just wanted to make my dad proud. He had a bad back, so the only time I really got to see him really enjoy himself was when he was watching something funny. So I was like, “Oh, I should do this—this is obviously a good thing, because people like it.”
How did Derrick Comedy form?
We were all in a sketch group at NYU called Hammerkatz. We worked together a lot, because we were all co-directing the sketch troupe in college. After some of us graduated and we had all of these sketches, we were just like, “Let’s start filming these.” We did, and we called ourselves Derrick because pretty much all of our names except for Meggie, our producer, start with D. DC’s name is actually Donald. So we decided another D name would be super.
How would you say the Internet has helped shape your career?
I wouldn’t be doing this without the Internet. Because I was able to get out there at an early age and do whatever I wanted—I think you sort of see the same thing with Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. They’re kids, but because it’s so cheap to make videos, and it’s so cheap to make music, and you can just put it out there for free—there’s nothing really stopping you. I think that’s the reason I got on 30 Rock and Community—people saw my stuff online, and there’s a fresh energy to it. There’s something nice about not having to see something go through a studio.
Do you think there’s a negative side to this sort of all-access generation?
Kids don’t feel like they have to wait for anything. I don’t feel like I have to wait for anything. It’s like, “Oh, I want that—why can’t I have it now?” Everything is so easy to get. A friend of mine has a joke about this, and it’s really true. It’s like, no one learns anything anymore, really—you just know things. It’s like, “I don’t know what Japan is,” and you can just look it up as opposed to learning about it and really getting into it. His joke is really a lot funnier than my interpretation, but… I guess the downside would be that everybody’s so in the moment, there’s really no time to reflect on anything. Everything is already being regurgitated back by the time you’re doing it. By the time you’re old enough or smart enough to remember something and learn from it, it’s already been copied and done and put on a t-shirt, like, “Remember this?” It’s already done.
How did you get started on 30 Rock?
My name was kind of tossed around at the UCB Theater, and it finally got to Tina Fey. I was just very lucky—they were just looking for people, and they needed people who lived in New York, because it was cheaper. Right place, right time, really.
What was the writing process like at 30 Rock?
It was a lot of sitting around a table and crying [laughs]. There was a lot of sadness because you wanted to go home. There were a lot of long hours, and you work really hard to make a joke perfect. Tina is a perfectionist—she wants things to be good, and she wants to put out the best product. There was a lot of thinking about the funniest way to do it. And eating shitty food. It’d be like, crying while eating a KitKat Bar and sending emails to your girlfriend that you can’t make it to dinner and having her be mad.
At least you had that KitKat Bar.
I know, that was like the one happiness we had. It was really sad—the wonderment of when you’re poor and in college, and then you come to a job where there’s just nothing but food everywhere. But after two years of that, you just become this grey lump of nothing. And then the worst part is that people bring their kids in, [who are] like, “WOW, you got KitKats!?” And we’re like, “Shut up, my soul is dead.”
30 Rock is pretty notable for using humor to play with racial stereotypes, and I’ve noticed that in some of your other work, as well. How instrumental do you feel comedy is in breaking down barriers?
I never really sit down and think, “How do I break barriers?” But I definitely write about what’s important to me, or what affects me. I don’t consider myself to be a person [who is] like, “We need to talk about this because it’s important.” But, if I think about it constantly, it’s obviously something that’s a part of my life that needs to get out. And—in my music, too—race and sex and those things are important to me. Things that affect my life positively and negatively. So I think it’s really instrumental in the sense that if you have to talk about it, it’s worth talking about. I never write about like, “Hey, my dad’s got a weeeird voice,” because that doesn’t matter. It’s stupid. I’d rather write about something that feels personal to me, because that probably means that it’s personal for other people, too.
When did you start making music? Has that always been important to you?
Yeah. I think a lot of people are surprised by it, but I mean, I took guitar lessons when I was in fourth grade, and I used to make beats at home and record things and make music all the time. Then in college I did a lot of remixing and deejayed parties. I remixed a Sufjan Stevens album… I’ve been making albums since my sophomore year of college. I’ve been at it for a while.
Do you find it’s a nice alternative route to express yourself?
Yeah, I try to do everything. Any way that I can express myself that feels right, I’m going to do it. It’s kind of a travesty if you don’t, at this point—it’s too cheap and too easy to do stuff now. If you want to make a movie, you can make a movie for real cheap now, and it can look really good. It’s really easy. So yeah, I feel like there are so many ways to express yourself—why choose just one?
You have an EP coming out in March. What’s the experience been like?
It’s been really fun. I’m so happy with it. I think it’s really fun, and it’s really personal, but at the same time, I feel like the music is something that you wouldn’t hear everywhere. We used a lot of real instruments—violins and stuff like that, and you don’t get to hear that a lot with rap. It’s not because, I don’t think, people don’t like that sound—it’s just because it’s expensive [laughs]. But I’m lucky enough to be doing other jobs that can pay for music.
When you transitioned from writing for 30 Rock to acting on Community, how did you feel that your roles as writer and actor merged? Are they very different, or, to an extent, the same?
People don’t care about you when you’re a writer [laughs]. Writing is really fun—you get to hang out with your friends and make jokes and stuff. But at the end of the day, as an actor, I get to make out with Gillian Jacobs, I get free clothes… There are perks! And I get to improvise. And I can write on the side—that’s the thing. Writing is hard, man. I miss it a lot, but at the same time, acting is pretty great. I got free Puma shoes the other day—I’m not gonna knock that.
What’s your best perk been so far?
That’s a good question… Oh! Yesterday, I did this thing for another magazine, where they gave me $848 and I had to spend it all in one day.
Why 848? That’s a strange number.
848 just sounds cooler, I guess, than a thousand. A thousand’s kind of like, The Price is Right. 848 is like, “Ahh, taxes,” or something, I don’t know.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve taken away from working on Community thus far?
I’m really lucky. I’m like, super lucky. There are a bunch of shows I could have been on, but I probably wouldn’t be that happy. Coming to work every day is by far the most enjoyable thing. Everybody on set is cool—it’s a bunch of cool, fun, young people who want to do good stuff. We’re putting out a product I’m really proud of. I should be buying lottery tickets because I’m so lucky.
That, and Chevy Chase loves fart jokes. Can’t get enough of ‘em.
Is there anything big in the future for you, or are you going to keep doing what you’re doing?
I’m writing some movies. The IAMDONALD tour starts April 16 and goes until May 19, and I think I’m going to be doing a comedy special soon. I’m just going to keep chugging away.