By Paul Melroy, Conspirare Managing Director
I had the good fortune to be able to go to L.A. for the Grammys and had one of the most amazing weekends of my life. Being able to share the experience with my wife, with Craig and with some of my amazing colleagues made it even more incredible. As I was recounting things to one of my brothers he remarked on what a once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully not!) experience that I’d had and how much he enjoyed hearing about it. “This is one to cross off the bucket list,” he said. “It’s like getting to go to the Superbowl or the World Series.” I think it’s even better than that, because in this case I was part of the winning team and not just an observer. In any case, I thought that I would share some thoughts and observations about the weekend.
We all stayed in the very funky Hotel Figueroa which was a block away from all the action. There weren’t any A-listers staying there, but there were lots of production people and musicians floating around. We met lots of interesting people and had some fascinating conversations. At least one other Grammy winner was there. Jason Vieaux, a guitarist who won Best Classical Instrumental Solo, was also a guest and was our companion backstage after the announcement. The Hotel Figueroa would not be for everyone. It lacked a few things that you might find in an upscale hotel, but every room was decorated differently, the décor throughout the hotel was an amazing Moroccan theme and it just oozed a cool vibe. The hotel is 90 years old and is sort of like a giant art installation.
Downtown L.A. has changed a lot over the past decade and the area around the Nokia Theatre and the Staples Center is frenetic and lit-up with all sorts of wild electronic signage. It almost has a Times Square vibe. There are tourists all over the place along with plenty of locals. There are tons of bars and restaurants and an insane amount of eye candy blinking and projecting all over the place. I had at least a couple of Blade Runner moments, albeit without the torrential rain.
The celebrations really get cooking on the day before the Grammys. Clive Davis throws a bash at the Beverly Hilton that is the party that everyone wants to go to. As none of our group operate anywhere near that social strata we had to be content to hear about it from other people the next day. However, the Texas Chapter of the Recording Academy had a nice get-together at the Millennium Biltmore that night as well, and we all hung out there along with the folks who run our label, Harmonia Mundi, and with some of our singers who live in the Los Angeles area. I chatted with a gentleman who owned a recording studio in Seattle who had come to L.A. specifically for this party. He didn’t have tickets to any of the Grammy events, which were sold out. He was excited for us but a little bummed at not being able to go. It was at that point that it started to sink in how special it was to be on the inside of things.
The big day itself is a marathon. We left the hotel about 11:30 to walk over to the Nokia Theater. We were towards the front of the line when the doors opened at noon. There is general seating for afternoon ceremony. As we wandered in trying to figure out where we should sit we realized that a cut from Sacred Spirit was playing on the p.a. I couldn’t help but think that this was a positive omen, only then to replace that thought with the idea that it would be the ultimate cruelty to have this happen and then not win. I have to say, though, that it was really cool to be greeted with that music.
The Grammys have a really odd paradigm in play. More than 70 awards are given away during the afternoon ceremony, the vast bulk of all of the Grammys. There are a bunch of categories that one used to see as part of the telecast, but the telecast is more about pop music performances now than anything else. In the afternoon there was just a handful of performances, all delivered straight-up and without the fancy production elements of the evening show. The afternoon is a mind-numbing onslaught of nominees being rattled off and envelopes being torn open. If you win and you’re there, you get serenaded by the band as you come up to the stage, where you get about 60 seconds to say your thank-yous before they start playing you off. If you’re not there, they immediately move on to the next category.
The acceptance speeches are fascinating. Many people are going up for the first time and they are clearly overwhelmed. Others are very business-like and are determined to say as many words and recognize as many people as possible before the band starts playing over them. Some of the stories that are relayed are incredibly heart-warming and others are impossibly tragic. The late Johnny Winter’s side man, who went up to accept on his behalf, couldn’t get too many coherent words out. A recently deceased gentleman who had won a technical award was represented by his two kids. His ten-year-old son gave one of the bravest, most level-headed speeches that I’ve ever heard. This kid was amazing and he received a standing ovation. Roseanne Cash was called up three times in a row, looking more stupefied each time to the point where she really couldn’t say anything the last time up.
The speed and haste of the program really do not do justice to the accomplishments that are being recognized. Each and every time a Grammy was handed out I found myself wanting to hear a little bit of the work that was being honored. I wanted to hear stories about how and why it was created. For the nominees that don’t win, perhaps those 120 seconds with the spotlight shining on that particular category is plenty and mercifully short. For the winners, it doesn’t seem like nearly enough time to acknowledge the art that had been created. And in reality, the winner is almost never differentiably better than the other nominees. It is often an exercise in hair-splitting.
When we got to our category, after what seemed to be an eternity, I could feel the blood rushing in my veins. The adrenaline was spiking. I was determined to not be too geeked up because I knew what a long shot that this would be. We were up against several of the finest choirs in the world. The music we had recorded was somewhat obscure and sung in church Slavic. The title had the word “Russia” in it, not the friendliest thing in the current political environment. I thought that they would announce the conductor’s name, as that is who is really winning the award. The presenter said “Sacred Spirit of Russia” and for a split second my brain was not processing. We actually won! We all jumped up and my wife, Robin, started yelling like her hair was on fire. Craig wasted no time and bolted up to the stage with Glenn Miller and Robert Harlan in tow, the two singers that we had brought along. I was amazed at how collected Craig was. He gave a nice, quick acceptance speech and said all the right things.
Once you have said your acceptance speech you are then given an opportunity to meet with the media — a lot of media, albeit for a very short time. After disappearing backstage, Craig came back out into the house and said “come with me!” Our complete entourage of seven was able to go on what I can only describe as an amazing journey behind the scenes. We were provided with an escort to take us where we needed to go. We went down into the bowels of the theater and then through a tunnel which took us under the street and over to the Staples Center. I realized as we walked out of the tunnel that we were backstage. We could hear people rehearsing. There were dozens and dozens of technical staff running around. There were other winners being escorted around. It was a beautiful and wondrous chaos.
The first stop was for a photo shoot of Craig. One of the underground spaces had been turned into a studio. I was surprised how relaxed Craig was and he made it look like he’d been there a thousand times before. They then shuttled us to yet another studio where they took pictures of Craig along with Robert and Glenn. After that we visited two different media rooms, one for television/internet media and one for print media. In the print media room Craig thought that the reporters were looking a little bored so he had our basso profundo, Glenn, start singing some remarkably low notes. That cracked everybody up and got everyone’s attention. Glenn can rattle the timbers with his speaking voice. I’ve never met anyone quite like him.
The backstage events were the highlight of the day for me. The winning artists are all walking on air and the good feelings are infectious. Everyone has big smiles and is on a remarkable high. It rubs off on everyone else. I don’t think that I’ve ever been around such a concentration of happy people ever before. For many of them, it’s the moment of a lifetime and it’s being shared with whoever is around. It was quite remarkable.
As we were being shepherded back to the Nokia for the rest of the ceremony, we did pass within 20 feet of Beyoncé. That was about the only brush with a celebrity that we had. One of our group got yelled at for trying to take a quick photo. Sometimes the rules need to be bent!
Back at the theater we watched the remainder of the awards. Two artists who are very close to Conspirare were also nominees, Ruthie Foster (Best Blues Album) and Eliza Gilkyson (Best Folk Album.) Both of them have been collaborators with us. Like Conspirare, they were up against some extremely tough competition but in their case they did not prevail. I was secretly hoping for the trifecta, but it wasn’t meant to be.
After the ceremony wraps up there is a short amount of time to head over to the Staples Center. We had tickets that would have allowed us to walk the red carpet, but much to our dismay we couldn’t get to it. We were funneled directly from one set of doors to another with no way to divert. If there was any disappointment in the weekend it was in not getting to do that, but it retrospect it’s a pretty trivial thing.
We were all sitting in different places. Robin and I had some pretty decent seats, but again we were nowhere near the A-listers. The telecast is 3 ½ hours of aural bombardment. The performances are loud. The production values are amazing and there is a completely different set design for each part. During the commercial breaks they show performances from past years, which was very cool. However, because there is never really a break it gets a little intense after a few hours. You start to forget what you’ve seen live and what you’ve seen on tape. If you’re on the floor you have to deal with seat fillers and not being to move unless it’s a commercial break. We didn’t have any of that stuff to deal with where we were sitting.
The people-watching is amazing. Technically these are black-tie events. Apparently that is merely a suggestion for some people. I’d say about slightly more than half the crowd is wearing tuxes and evening gowns. The rest are somewhere in between that and street clothes. However, the people who dress up REALLY dress up, which was wonderful. There were a million different fashion sensibilities being displayed.
After the telecast ends, the people on the floor head off to jam at top-secret after-parties. About half the crowd goes to the official after-party, held next door at the convention center. That after-party was like nothing I’ve ever witnessed before.
For starters, picture a party for 10,000 people in one giant room. The theme was “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” There were mini-stages all over the place with gymnasts and aerialists performing. There were bars and buffet tables everywhere. There were tables to sit at, but those were filled up almost immediately after the doors opened by people who had been there before and knew what they were doing. Against one wall was a stage where music was being played. They had a DJ and some live music alternating during the course of the night. As loud as the Staples Center was, the after-party was louder. It was easily the loudest party that I’ve ever been to. They had the amps turned to 11.
The people that came to the after-party seemed to be the ones who bothered dressing up, so the people-watching was awesome. There were more than a few women who were quite daring in their choice of dresses. (Who’d have thought of using orange construction site safety netting?) There were tuxedos unlike anything I’d seen before. People were very consciously strutting their stuff. The word bacchanalia readily comes to mind. Everything had an element of deliberate excess. It was truly unlike anything that I’ve ever attended. And I’d relish the chance to go back and do it again.
The Grammy win is particularly gratifying for Conspirare because there have been so many people over the past two decades who have invested in Craig’s vision, in the organization and in the art that we produce. This was in many ways a collective effort that gave Craig the resources that he needed to pull together such amazing performances and create a memorable recording. There was so much energy directed at Conspirare for so many years and to realize a payoff such as this is almost hard to comprehend. We don’t make music to win awards, but the recognition by our peers in the music industry is really special. It is humbling and exhilarating at the same time. It’s so hard to win a Grammy. You really don’t want to allow yourself to think that it’s a possibility. And when it happens, it’s like a dam bursting open. There are so many emotions, albeit they are happy ones.
We will continue to make the best music that we know how to make and will keep plugging away. We have two really fine recordings in the bank and I’d like to think that we stand a chance of seeing a nomination or two from them. It will be hard not to be thinking about that when they each get released later this year. Mostly, though, we will do what we do best and make music that really touches people in a special way. It’s an honor to be around all the people that make it happen.