• Interviews

Blondie – from Havana to Reykjavik

The film Blondie: Vivir en la Habana recently premiered at the Reykjavik International Film Festival (RIFF), where Debbie Harry was an honorary guest. The 18-minute documentary directed by Rob Roth was part of the RIFF music films program and was filmed during a 2019 tour by the band in Cuba. It shows the band’s 2019 concert, which was arranged in collaboration with the Cuban culture ministry and was the culmination of a 40-year-long dream. In the film, Debbie Harry speaks about the intense culture and energy she felt while there, as well as a familiarity, as if she had been to the country before. We spoke to the singer about her connection to Cuba – and now also to Iceland, which she visited for the first time in her life.


Blondie: Vivir en la Habana takes place in Cuba. You just showed it in Iceland, which is quite a different place but also a place with a strong musical tradition. What was the experience of showing it here? What was RIFF like?

I think people were very interested and it is a pretty little piece with music and performances in it. I was asked many times why I had never played in Iceland, and I think music is a big part of Icelandic culture and a lot of artists have performed there. I am not sure why we never made it but I hope that eventually, we do. One of the highlights of my trip was going to a party where Björk was dj-ing and I have to say that she is really completely charming and beautiful.

You were at the Icelandic president’s house for the opening ceremony, where you were celebrated as an honorary guest. Were you surprised by how low-key the event was?

I guess I was surprised by it. However, I was told in advance so it was not like I was dropped into this situation without any information. I was told in advance that it was very low-key because we wanted to know how formally we were supposed to be dressed. We had wonderful conversations with the president and he was very reachable and accessible to the public. It was a low-key and casual kind of affair and we knew what we were stepping into. He was terrific and very easy to talk to.

The film is a tribute to Blondie but also to Cuban music. How significant is Cuban music to you when you reflect on it today?

I think it is something that I have always considered an influence and coming from New York City and the metropolitan area, there is a substantial Cuban population and I have always said that it is one of the lucky things that I have been able to have a radio that broadcasts multinational kinds of music and it has always been a part of my life. In one sense, I have taken it very casually, but I know now since traveling that I have been very fortunate and lucky in that regard. And I think that I share that with my long-time partner, Chris Stein. We have always tried to incorporate some kind of Latin feel in our songs and I have to almost apologize for this – we did it the first time with a song from 1976 called “Man Overboard” which is very childish. But it is kind of a tribute.

You appeared in a few films like Marcus Reichert’s Union City (1980), David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and John Waters’ Hairspray (1988) and your music has been in a lot of films. Are you are movie fan? And do you like acting?

Yes, I am. I find acting as a good discipline for me as a way to be self-controlled. It is an image that I came up with myself. It is part of myself. But to give the power to a director, who wants a certain thing to tell a story, and the actor is supposed to be a blank canvas as a performer that is a very good thing for me to do: to surrender control and it makes me work harder and to stretch to embody another personality. It is easier for me now, because I have been doing what I do for Blondie for such a long time and as an actor, it is a very good thing. I admire actors (to) no end. I just think that it is a brilliant art form.

You are an icon and many people around the world look up to you. You were and you still are fearless and you seemed so tough and edgy. How would you describe yourself as a person? Who is the woman behind the mask – or act – of Blondie?

Oh! I guess I am all those things. I step into many shoes to do what I do because I am actively a leader. I have to be a follower. I have to be an accountant, a businesswoman, a publisher, a writer and that is kind of interesting. It has been challenging. When I started, I was uninformed and possibly even misinformed about what it was like to be in a band and what it was like to be in the recording industry so there was a lot to learn. 

You wrote a memoir in 2019 – “Face It” – you speak about David Bowie showing you his penis, you have a chapter on thumbs, you write about having your house taken by a tax collector and even about being raped. When you look back at your life now and a 50-year career, does it all seem real or almost too good or too surreal to be true?

I spoke about those things that happened and maybe they are extreme to some people’s lives but I find from talking to people that many share traumatic and serious experiences in our lives and we go through it. We learn from it or we get damaged by it. But it happens to everybody. I am not alone in having these things happen to me.

You don’t think that your life was special? That your life has not been ordinary?

Yes. I know the experiences and the potential for a wide variety of extreme situations is there. It is pretty obvious for people in my profession that all these things are possible and perhaps even considered normal. I think there were some very, very frightening times in my life and maybe it was good for me as an artist and maybe it was inevitable. I cannot make a total value judgment or the value of having these experiences, you know? I know that I have been very lucky. But I also know that I worked very hard. I have been very focused and I think that is part of it. There is a show on TV called Shark Tank and those people talk about their experiences and the challenges of those experiences and I think that every time you go off on your own and start some kind of enterprise you sort of put all of it out there on the line, don’t’ you?

Do you have any regrets in life?

I don’t think I think of it like that – like things I wish had not happened. I think that I wish I had handled things I did in a different way. But I think I would have to be numb from the neck up not to have regrets. I also think we have to have experiences to learn from and a lot of times, we have regrets about it.

What would you say is your motto in life?

I always say to myself: wait for the turn-around, because as bad or good something could be and mostly if it is something intolerably bad, I would say to myself: wait for the turn-around, because sometimes you just have to hold on.