The 59th Annual Grammy Awards: 
The Backstage Report

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

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It was Adele’s night. Not only did she sweep three of the major awards (Best Song for “Hello,” Best Record for “Hello” and Best Album for 25), she also launched the show with a stunning version of “Hello,” as well as singing “Fastlove,” a poignant tribute to George Michael, and also delivering a surprising spoken tribute to Beyonce. Adele is the only artist in Grammy history to sweep all three top Grammys twice.

The only other artist to be receive such a multitude of awards this year was the late David Bowie, for his final album, Blackstar, awarded with five Grammys.

Song of the Year is the preeminent Songwriter’s Award, the Grammy that is often awarded to songs which have become modern standards, so beloved, lasting and impactful are they are on our culture. These include “Moon River,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “You’ve Got A Friend,” “Send In The Clowns,” “Every Breath You Take,” “The Way We Were,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and “We Are The World.” They are all songs which have lasted, and have been recorded countless times by artists other than the original one, the definition of a standard.

“Hello,” which Adele co-wrote with Greg Kurstin, remarkably seemed to become almost an instant standard, so beloved and embraced was it when released. It is the only nominated song this year to reach this timeless realm of the standard. After all the awards were given and the show complete, Adele came backstage to talk to the press, giving us the opportunity to ask her about the origins of this now iconic song.

“Yes, Greg [Kurstin] was playing moody chords,” she said, “to get me going, because it is me, after all. It all came out very quick. I remember the original line for the chorus was ‘Hello misery.’ Greg called me on that line immediately. I was trying to stay zen and balanced. He suggested maybe we don’t use that. So we changed it. The song was born, as Greg said, in the studio. He was playing keyboards and I sang. We wrote the first two verses quickly, which is usually our way.”

“We actually had three different choruses we tried,” she said. “One had a very country vibe. This one that you know I was concerned about, because it goes quite high, and I knew I had to go out on tour and sing it. And I was pregnant. So it worried me, because I really didn’t know if I could do that every night. But it felt so right, so we kept it in.”

About the “other side” lyric in the chorus which many have interpreted as referring to death, she said, “It is the other side of many things. The other side of childhood and being a grown up, the other side of my relationship with my grandfather, the other side of knowing.  It is the other side of this life that I am in now, separate from the life I knew. I am not on the other side of so many people I loved and have lost. I don’t know if I lost touch with my friends because I grew up or because of some other circumstance. But all of it fed into this song.”

Of Kurstin, she said, “I’d like to thank Greg because he kept coming to England working with me. I didn’t want to leave my son, so he kept coming to England and leaving his son. I am very grateful to him. [‘Hello’] is my favorite song that I have ever done, so thank you Greg.”

During her acceptance speech, rather than shine the spotlight on herself as is the tradition, she spoke directly to Beyonce, saying that her Lemonade album was a masterpiece. “You are our light,” she said. “I adore you and I want you to be my mommy, too.”

The other nominated songs and songwriters this year were  “Formation,” by Beyonce, Khalif Brown, Asheton Hogan & Michael L. Williams II, “I Took a Pill in Ibiza” by Mike Posner,  “Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber, Benjamin Levin & Ed Sheeran, and “7 Years” by Lukas Forchhammer, Stefan Forrest, Morten Pilegaard & Morten Ristorp.

The other songwriter Grammys awarded, which go to the authors of the song, included Best Rock Song to the late David Bowie for “Blackstar” from his final album of the same name. For Best Rap Song, Aubrey Graham and Paul Jefferies were awarded for “Hotline Bling,” recorded by Drake. Best R&B Song went to Hod David and Musze for “Lake By The Ocean,” performed by Maxwell. Lori McKenna won Best Country Song for “Humble and Kind,” which Tim McGraw recorded. Best American Roots song was awarded to Vince Gill for “Kid Sister.” And for the Best Song Written for a Visual Media, the Grammy went to “Can’t Stop The Feeling,” written by Max Martin, Shellback and Justin Timberlake. 

As mentioned, Bowie received multiple Grammys on this night. The first was the Grammy for Best Recording Package, which went to Jonathan Barnbrook for Bowie’s final album, Blackstar. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen and others,” he said, quoting Bowie. “[Bowie] had this very rare quality of getting people to do their best work but in a way that was wonderful and charming. And I want to thank him for that.  Some people can be snobs about popular songs. But they matter a lot. They are there when you are born, when you get married, when you die. Songs are important. “

Bowie’s first ever musical Grammy was also awarded on this night for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical for Blackstar. Blackstar also won three more Grammys, Best Rock Performance, Best Alternative Music Album and Best Rock Song.

Accepting the engineering award was Tom Elmhirst, Kevin Killen and Tony Visconti. Asked why they felt Bowie had never previously won a Grammy, Killen said, “I am surprised it has taken this long for him to be recognized. He is an artist of such amazing impact. But that is just the nature of how these things unfold.”

“To me it was unfortunate [Bowie] was never was nominated for Grammys while he was alive,” said Jeff Walker of Blackstar. “He should have been. Listening to the quality of what he did, the lyrical content, the musicality of the performances, it is very clear to me he should have been nominated. As someone who has devoted my life to being the best musician I can be, I recognize that in his work.”

Asked how they approached the production of these tracks, Killen said, “David had done demos of the songs at home, and brought them in as 8-tracks. They were roadmaps for these tracks. We used some of those parts he recorded at home and we incorporated them into the album.” 

About those demos, Walker said, “David made all his own demos himself. He played all the instruments on the demos: guitars, keyboard bass, synth horns, harmonica, and drum machine. He even played sax on a few tracks. On the song ‘Blackstar’ there were multiple voices of David.”   

Lori McKenna won the Best Country Song Grammy for “Humble and Kind,” recorded by Tim McGraw. Since she frequently co-writes, she spoke about doing this one alone. “I love co-writing,” she said. “It opens up so many doors for me. But I also think it is important to be able to write alone. And this was a song for my kids, and was very personal, so I felt I should do this one myself.”

About the writing of the song, she said, “It was a school day song. By which I mean, I dropped the kids off at school. I was in my yoga pants. And I decided to write a list of things I wanted to tell my kids. It was a simple song, and I knew I had to use the word ‘kind.’ So a lot came out. I wanted to write a line for each of my kids. The hardest part, really, was the editing, what I had to cut out. I finished it that day, and played it for Tim [McGraw] that same day. And he said, `Yeah, I’m gonna do that one.’”

Vince Gill, already the recipient of 24 Grammys throughout his career, won another one on this night for Best American Roots Song for “Kid Sister.” It was written for Dawn Sears, the beloved vocalist who had performed with him for 22 years and recently died at the age of 51.  Gill was headlining at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, he said, when he heard the news that she was gone.

“She was the engine of our train,” he said, “and traveled with me for many years. She was one of the most fun people to be around and one of the greatest voices you wanted to hear.  The song started the night I found out she passed, and I kept working at it until it was done.” 

When he was asked what made a song great, he said, “Different things to different people. To me, the story is the thing. To have a story that has some interest in it. This story is a sad one, but also beautiful, as her journey was a beautiful one.”

The Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media Grammy was awarded to Miles Ahead, a Miles Davis compilation for the 2015 film directed by Don Cheadle, which was  produced by Cheadle , Steve Berkowitz, and Robert Glasper. As Berkowitz won Grammys for both the Miles Davis and for the new Dylan Bootleg Series set he produced, he was asked to compare Dylan and Miles.

“There is an amazing similarity in both artists,” he said. “They made music, they did not make records. They were artists. They composed for real, they played for real, they made real music. These two great artists kept flourishing and there was no end to their creativity because they just wanted to go farther and father. Both were seekers. Never satisfied with where they were, always wanting to go forward with their art.”

The Dylan compilation, The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12, won the Grammy for Best Historical album, produced by Berkowitz with Jeff Rosen, who is also Dylan’s manager. “First of all, Jeff Rosen was the conductor of the train,” said Berkowitz. “I wish he was here. Our mission was to show the evolution of Dylan’s music from acoustic to electric music. And we wanted to show how the songs evolved in the studio, so that you could hear ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ for example, in ¾ time and 4/4 time both.”

“Everything was recorded live, no overdubs,” he said. “It was all done on four-track tape. We got all the tapes that were recorded, and we included everything we had. Everything went in. There is very little cut out except ambient space. First takes, second takes, sometimes out of tune takes.“

When asked if it felt strange to work with Jeff Rosen on this project, he said, “No, not strange at all. He is one of my best friends. Also Jeff is an extremely learned man of great taste and music. He is in the inner core with Dylan in the office, I am not.”

Asked about Dylan’s level of participation, he said, “I am not being coy, but I do not know exactly. I do know that Jeff consults with him on everything. Nothing comes out without Mr. Dylan’s approval.”

The man often cited as Nashville’s next big hope and the subject of our recent cover story, Sturgill Simpson, was awarded his first  Grammy for Best Country Album, for A Sailor’s Guide To The Earth. A man of few words when not singing, he elected not to talk to the press.

Jazz vocalist Gregory Porter won for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Before speaking about his own music, he spoke of the legendary Al Jarreau, whose death was announced on this day. “[Al Jarreau] was one of the great artists of our time,” he said. “His voice was all about freedom and grace. He gave me the okay to break out of the boundaries of jazz. He was an R&B star, a soul star, a jazz star.”

As a champion of the fabled Great American Songbook, we asked Porter what drew him to those classic songs. “I am drawn to songs where I find myself,” he said. “The great American Songbook does that for me. Any emotion you are going through is in there. Anything that Rihanna is talking about now is in the American Songbook. Every subject we know in songs is there: Love, desire, being led on. Being led astray. The human condition is contained in these fabulous songs. And for that reason I do believe these songs will be with us forever.”

Morris Day and The Time, who emerged in the Minneapolis club circuit with Prince and played themselves in his movie Purple Rain, performed the signature song Prince wrote for them, “Jungle Love,” as part of a tribute to him that also featured Bruno Mars. Afterwards, when asked how it felt to be there for their absent friend, Day said, “It was doubled-edged for me, because I hate the reason we are here. But it is fitting we are here.” Of Prince’s impact, he said, “He was one of the best ever. His legacy will go on forever. He was simply one of the best musicians who ever lived. When we saw each other, it was all love.”

About Mars’ performance in the tribute, Day said, “I thought Bruno ripped it. I do not think there is another artist who could have done that as well as Bruno. We still kicked his ass, though.” Asked if they would like to open for Mars on his next tour, Day said, “If he calls us and presents the right dollar amount, we will consider it.”

The Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album went to The Color Purple, with songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. Producer Scott Sanders spoke about the songwriting.

“Allee, Brenda and Stephen wrote the score in 2003,” he said, “It was remarkable, because I had Alice Walker’s great novel to adapt into a musical. It was not the easiest subject matter to turn into a musical. I was determined to have women, and women of color, write songs for this show. Certainly some of the most famous black musicals, like Porgy and Bess, were written by white males. I felt it was important to find authors who could bring an authenticity to this.”

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