Debbie Harry: soundtrack of my life

The Blondie singer on the outrageous example of Screamin' Jay Hawkins, the folk happenings of the hippy era and unwinding with a bit of Bizet

Born at the end of the second world war and adopted by two gift-shop owners, Debbie Harry grew up in suburban New Jersey. After apprenticeships in folk band the Wind in the Willows and girl trio the Stilettos, she was 31 when Blondie released their 1976 debut LP. Their first UK hit was 1977's Denis and by 1978's Parallel Lines they were global stars. Reuniting in 1997 after a 15-year sabbatical in which Harry made solo records and films, Blondie play Glastonbury in June and V festival in August.


Blueberry Hill by Fats Domino (1956)

I'm so terrible on songs and dates, I warn you – you may as well be talking to me about fish oil! But I do remember one of the first things that had an effect on me as a child: hearing Fats Domino do Blueberry Hill. It was music my parents weren't into, so this was stuff just for me. I love it when musicians and their instruments sort of become an entity in themselves – you see it with Nina Simone and Ray Charles as well as Fats Domino. All their music is so emotional for me. If I'd grown up differently, maybe I'd have had the diligence to learn an instrument. Oh well – I don't think I'm going to get there at this point!


I Put a Spell on You by Screamin' Jay Hawkins (1956)

Screamin' Jay Hawkins was just terrific. Outrageous, bizarre, eccentric – all of the things you need in a great artist and performer. Elvis and Jerry Lee happened around the same time, but Screamin' Jay was more on the outside, not as commercial and viable. And yeah, I'd have loved to have seen him on TV, but I don't think he was really available at that point, if you know what I mean! You could hear what a personality he had on the radio anyway. Radio played a very important part in me having access to music as a kid. There were so many diverse radio stations in the New York area that I got a great listening education.


Mellow Yellow by Donovan (1966)

The period where folk was crossing over into rock was really great. There were a lot of free concerts then, happenings and be-ins, with these hippy bands with masses of people in them, banging on something, droning away. A lot of those bands didn't exist properly, of course – they just got together and strummed and banged and hooted – it was off the wall! But at moments, it did coalesce and become very interesting. Marc Bolan was very important to me at that time, but Donovan's Mellow Yellow really reminds me of back then. I felt like I was swirling around in it all and everything was happening around me.


That's the Joint by Funky Four Plus One (1981)

In the late 70s, when everything started happening with Blondie, hip-hop was a real eye-opener. My biggest epiphany came when me and Chris [Stein, of Blondie, her then-boyfriend] went to an event in the South Bronx, and there were DJs scratching and people rapping live. Believe it or not, this was put on by the police department in a gymnasium! It was a very local, neighbourhoody kind of thing, and just fantastic. I also remember meeting Nile Rodgers around then, before we made KooKoo [Harry's 1981 solo album], and how his music with Chic was sampled so much through hip-hop. I always thought there was something very jazz-like in Nile's playing – those chord changes and the jittery rhythms. I like that idea that hip-hop partly came from jazz blues.


Chanson d'avril by Bizet (1866)

These days, I still surf through music on the radio, everything from Indian pop to Spanish music to classical. I love Mahler's symphonies – anyone who doesn't is mad – and the other day I caught Bizet's Chanson d'avril again, which was really, really beautiful. I don't really put albums on, as such, but when I do, I listen to them to study them. I don't listen to music to create a mood, but I probably should because it'd make me less grumpy!


Fight the Power by Public Enemy (1989)

As I'm working all the time, festivals are the best way for me to see bands – and you get such a spectrum of artists, and so many new things. I went to a great Amnesty festival in Brooklyn, with Imagine Dragons, the Flaming Lips and Tegan and Sara – all great, and all such different styles. Last year, I saw Public Enemy at a festival we did in Chicago [Riot fest 2013]. I was standing side-stage and just loving every minute. When I run into people who complain that there's no good music today, or go, uggggh, the old music was so much better, I have to laugh. There's so much good stuff now, it's almost impossible to keep track of it.

Blondie's album Ghosts of Download is out later this year


Interview by Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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