Debbie Harry has a reputation for being a prickly interviewee — terse and aloof when she’s not in the mood. At 65, and after nearly 40 years in the music business, this is probably her prerogative. When Sunday Times journalist Lynn Barber interviewed her a few months ago, she got so many one-word answers she was reduced to describing Harry as “a plump granny” — probably the first time one of American pop’s great icons has been likened to a grandmother.
Technically, she is old enough, but the Harry who enters the restaurant of a London riverside hotel, carrying a bowl of fruit salad she started eating upstairs in her room, isn’t grannyish by any stretch. She’s wearing a clash of orange blouse, blue satin necktie, lace-up boxer’s boots, candyfloss platinum hair, with — the only visible concession to age — a pince-nez on a chain around her neck. Given her sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll lifestyle in the 1970s, the years have left a light imprint.
“I don’t know if I ever thought I’d live to be 65,” she says wryly, then changes her mind. “I thought I’d live to a ripe old age, because I always felt there was a lot to do. I had a driven feeling. I always thought in the present.” Her speaking voice is like her singing voice, surprisingly youthful and airy, and despite the early start, Harry is in a talkative mood. The first new Blondie album since 2003 is out this month, and after eight years spent doing this and that — a solo album, jazz gigs, an AIDS campaign — the singer seems more than ready to reacquaint herself with the fuss Blondie still generate.
And the fuss is considerable. When Harry appeared on Desert Island Discs at the weekend, Kirsty Young told her: “It’s a strange feeling to be sitting opposite an icon. When I was younger, I wasted 10 years wanting to be Debbie Harry.” As did many other women who first encountered her in Blondie’s late-1970s heyday: a raving beauty, terrifically stylish, artfully appropriating both punk and vintage. Put this together with Blondie’s mix of 1960s girl-pop and new wave up-yours attitude, and Harry was irresistible; the album generally deemed the band’s best, 1978’s Parallel Lines, produced five hit singles, including the worldwide No. 1 Heart of Glass. “We were pounding along, muddling along, trying to build a reputation and repertoire,” is how Harry remembers those early days now. “Our first real paying gig was in Central Park on New Year’s Eve, 1976. We got the princely sum of US$500.”
Still, how does it feel to be an icon? American rock photographer Bob Gruen recently described Harry as “the Marilyn Monroe of her generation.” “Iconic?” she echoes. “I guess so. But the word ‘iconic’ is used too frequently — an icon is a statue carved in wood. It was shocking at first, when I got that reference. It was a responsibility, and it’s impossible to live up to — you’re supposed to be dead, for one thing.” By her own estimation, Harry isn’t famous enough to be an icon: “I’m still sort of a cult figure. I’m not J-Lo, I’m not in the gossip mags and USA Today. Sometimes I’m in the New York Post.”
Yet if Harry hadn’t existed, neither, arguably, would Madonna, or Lady Gaga, whose chart-pop is similarly loaded with ideas about image, art and sexuality. So she is right about the responsibility that goes with her status — people have expectations. She does her best to meet them: Later that day, at an album launch party, she gives a lesson in what it means to give good “presence.” At one end of the room there is a surrealist painting by Dutch artist Chris Berens, blown up to 2.5m high, also the cover of Blondie’s new album, Panic of Girls. After keeping an industry crowd waiting for an hour, Harry is shepherded in by her publicist, then steps in front of the splashy picture and simply stands alone, motionless, as the room goes silent. It could look ridiculous — small blonde lady hanging around in front of big painting — but it’s not. She emanates charisma.
Taking a small, catlike bite of tropical fruit, Harry says: “We wanted to do a new album all along. I don’t want our 1970s stuff to be ‘it.’” Which is entirely understandable: Making a new record that matched Blondie’s epochal 1970s ones would be a tall order for anyone, let alone a band now comprising only three original members — Harry, her ex-boyfriend and guitarist Chris Stein and drummer Clem Burke. Instead, they’ve done the next best thing: Panic of Girls is a catchy, modern set that’s recognizably Blondie, only with 21st-century electronic textures.
Currently without a record label (as are many veteran acts, casualties of corporate budget cutting), the band struck a deal whereby the album will initially be available with a special Blondie-themed edition of Classic Rock magazine, before a full release in July. In so doing, the band is pitching itself directly to longtime fans rather than those who have yet to discover it — ironic, given that during recording Harry was adamant the new album should sound “current.” The result, produced by Killers/My Chemical Romance producers Kato Khandwala and Jeff Saltzman, meets that criterion: The guitars have been mixed down, the keyboards have been brought to the forefront, and the whole thing gussied up with a modish electro-shimmer.
“I don’t want to be like the Temptations, kicking my legs out,” Harry says, swinging one leg up to simulate a synchronized dance routine. She seems to mean she doesn’t want Blondie to become some kind of supper-club revival act, although she adds: “We tried to make a classic Blondie album.” How would she define that? “We’ve always been concerned about producing good songs, and Chris and Matt [Katz-Bohen, the band’s current keyboardist] are prolific songwriters. [Harry is co-credited on six out of 11 tracks.] Our lyrics have sociological things in them, mixed up with romantic ideas and New York City hipness. We’re inspired by film, TV ... early on, we were inspired by comics, fantasy, science fiction.” She has said this, or something like it, many times before; even 40 years on, she seems captivated by New York’s hipster lifestyle. Does she get involved in production? “Not too tremendously. I don’t like sitting in the studio and hearing a song 10,000 times.”
Harry says she still thinks of herself as “ultimately just a Jersey girl,” despite having left New Jersey for Manhattan in the mid-1960s. But there’s not much Jersey in Panic of Girls — it’s a city record, with its slick dance sound and tongue-in-cheek covers of Sophia George’s 1985 reggae hit Girlie Girlie and Beirut’s indie-folk A Sunday Smile. “What’s-his-name [Beirut’s Zach Condon] came in and played trumpet on it,” she says. While Condon may not take “what’s-his-name” as a compliment, she mentions it because she says she enjoys working with new artists; she also recorded a track, Live Alone, with Franz Ferdinand for its recently released Covers EP.
Nothing on the album says New York more than Harry’s favorite song, Mother. While it has been interpreted as a kind of letter to her birth mother, who put her up for adoption when she was only a few months old, she maintains it was inspired by an underground Manhattan club that was one of her regular haunts in the 1990s. “I think it’s one of my best lyrics ever. It was about a club called Mother that I used to go to. It sums up my feelings about the place. It has underlying feelings about searching for motherhood, but I don’t necessarily apply it to me.” Though it certainly sounds like more than just a tribute to NYC nightlife (“Mother in the night, where are you? I’m calling you/Mother’s left the building, we’re the abandoned children”), she insists: “It’s not about my own mom. I’m certainly not searching for my mother at this stage. If there is that [meaning], it’s subliminal for me.”
Harry was brought up by shop owners Richard and Catherine Harry, but did track down her birth mother in the late 1980s. She did not want a relationship with her daughter. “But by then, I didn’t need that information anyway. I was already successful with Blondie,” she told Kirsty Young, though you wonder if she’s really as indifferent as all that.
Does she regret not having had children of her own? “Sometimes. I’ve thought of adoption, which I think I’d be really good at. Now that this terrible [earthquake] has happened in Japan, there will be a lot of children needing homes. I spread myself around a lot of causes,” she goes on. “I’m concerned about the environment and clean water, and being carbon-free. I also support diabetes [research].” Maybe she should set up a charitable Debbie Harry foundation, I say. The suggestion intrigues her: “If I were to do a foundation, it would be to promote solar energy. And I’m worried about drilling for oil. I think it is harming the Earth, ’cos it drains the layer of oil under the surface, and that could be causing earthquakes. It’s like we’re giving the Earth arthritis.” She smiles sheepishly. “I don’t know if that sounds crazy.”
A bit daffy, perhaps, but who knows, she could be right. One day she’ll write a song about it.