Debbie Harry looks back on her life and some of Blondie's greatest hits
Originally published on October 2, 2019
Debbie Harry was one of the most important voices in the music of the late '70s. Her band Blondie gave her a place to be a singer, a style icon and a trailblazer for women, not just in punk music, but in the music industry in general.
Harry's new memoir, Face It, opens with some of her earliest influences and brings readers through some of the art that shaped her, for better and for worse. It's a tour through her life, from growing up in New Jersey to the height of her fame as the lead singer of Blondie.
She joined q's Tom Power from New York to reflect on her early years and how she learned to get loud.
Here's part of their conversation.
In your memoir, you write about wanting to be a star and an artist from a young age. Why is that?
I think when I was a little kid, I was fascinated with the silver screen and television, and would sort of dance along with the dancers on The Ed Sullivan Show, or something like that. I mean, I think all little girls do that — or not all, but many — you know, dress up and want to become a character, or a movie star, or they envision themselves on Broadway. So I was one of those.
You've said that Blondie was a persona for you. Who was Blondie and who was Deborah Harry?
I think they're basically one in the same, but when you become a frontperson for a band, you have to sort of stand with one foot in one world and the other foot in another world. So I think that's what I was trying to say.
Anybody who sings in front of a band has looked at other bands and watched other singers. So there is a certain stylization to rock performance.
I think that in early stages, we all adopt some of that. Also, with the name of the band, Blondie, and my affection for cinematic blondes, I sort of wanted to bring that — that was something that I could clearly do that wasn't being done.
Blondie was making music for about five years before the band broke through to the mainstream. Was there a moment you realized things were starting to change?
I guess it was a progression. There were incremental little steps, little stages. I don't know if there was one big swooping hand that came down from the sky and swept us off.
One of the funny things that happens is when you're starting out in a club and you gain a following of sorts — you know, it can't be more than like 25 or 30 people — they support you and they come to your shows. When you start to become a bigger name and more people start showing up, they become a little bit possessive. They feel like, oh, we're losing you. So, you know, it's like having lovers.
Throughout your memoir is artwork made by your fans over the years. What do you get from seeing these photos of you reinterpreted by your fans?
Well, you know, it's very sweet. I don't know, for me, if I were to sit down and put on some music of an artist that I really like and then started drawing a picture of them — I think it's heartwarming.
Heart of Glass was your first number one song. It wasn't the single, it didn't get a big promotional push from the record company. What's your relationship with that song now?
Oh, it's one of my favourites. We had it for about five years. Finally, when we were recording with Mike Chapman for the first time, we were running ideas in rehearsal and he said, "Well, do you have anything else that you used to play? Have you got any hidden tracks?" And so we said, "Well, we have this one," and we started to play. He got very excited and he wanted to record it.
One of the problems with this song was getting the right feel for it, putting it in its true perspective. We tried it as a reggae song, we tried it as an R&B song, we tried it as a rock song, we tried it with a lot of different feels and it didn't move right. So the guys went to the music store and they came back with this little rhythm machine. It was sort of one of the newer pieces of technology, which, nowadays looks like a wind-up toy.
So they were fooling around with it and started getting all these different sounds, different feels going, and then they got serious about it and put it together.
We've talked a lot about the high points in your career, but there were some hard times too: disagreements with the label, disagreements within the band and at points you were broke. But you never gave up on Blondie. Why?
I don't know, it's part of my heart and soul. What else would I do? I mean, I like real estate, but would anybody take me seriously? Would anybody buy a house that I was selling?
I've said this a lot of times, and I'm going to knock on wood right now, but we've had luck and perseverance. I think they sort of go hand in hand. You make your own luck, but you have to work for it. And that's basically what we did.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Debbie Harry, click 'Listen' near the top of this page.
— Produced by Vanessa Nigro