Kristopher Pooley isn’t offended when people ask him what it means to be a music director. His own family still asks questions.
“It can mean a number of things,” he insists over the phone to American Songwriter. “The job description is vague. Often, it’s something as informal as just providing an opinion, like a consultant.”
For example, The Chicks brought him on for their 2016-2017 reunion tour as “someone to bounce ideas off of.” The enduring country trio has plenty of road-worn experience, but getting back on stage after their extended time away, they turned to the live music expert for help with their vision.
Other times, for a special event or one-off occasions, artists need a music director’s expertise in transforming a recorded album version of a song into a full-bodied live performance with stage value. In this case, he helps artists decide “What makes sense within the context of their live show. Sometimes I reimagine the entire song in style and tempo, and create a fully produced demo in my home studio.”
He adds, “It’s really an organic process, in that it’s never the same thing twice.”
These occasions are often more time-consuming, like Katy Perry’s 2015 Super Bowl performance which became Pooley’s full-time gig for nearly six months. Perry is a steady figure in his career thus far. Most recently, he directed her 2021 Inauguration performance of “Firework.” In this case, he transformed the radio-ready pop track into a stately orchestral set. “I did that all in my home studio in what we call, ‘in the box.’ I built-in synths, strings, pretty much by myself from home,” he adds.
For other projects like large scale pop tours, he is just one of several moving parts. His role requires collaboration with a band, creative director, lighting director, and choreographer to orchestrate a dramatic stage performance.
His profession, he describes, “is half music, half administration or management. It’s a pretty even right-left brain split—being organized and managing a team, while also creating music.”
Beyond the intricacies of his dynamic role in the live music world, is a producer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist with in-demand expertise. Across several platforms and genres, the solution is often, “call Kris.”
Pooley put in his hours on the front end of his career to arrive in the sought-after role he fills in the live music industry. His mastery began after several years playing with bands when the Detroit-native moved to Los Angeles over 20 years ago. His first “music director” job came when he was playing the keyboard for Gwen Stefani’s first solo tour in 2005.
“They needed someone to put the show together, and I happened to know the software at the time, Digital Performer, that they were using to make tracks,” he explains. “So I ended up putting the arrangements together just because I was there, and they needed someone to do that.” Humbly, he continues, “From there, it progressed.”
By 2011, he stopped physically touring. He now puts shows together on the ground, and when the tour goes out, he stays home—marking a professional arrival for Pooley. His work since the Stefani tour brought Pooley all over the world, directing not only global tours but performances for nearly every major television and award show. Credits include Fox’s Glee and GLEE: The 3D Concert Movie, American Horror Story, The New Normal, Kesha, Rita Ora, Demi Lovato, Lionel Richie, Adam Lambert and The World Cup to name a few.
Currently, Pooley resides as the music director for ABC’s American Idol—which just wrapped up its 19th season on Sunday, May 23. Here, he is responsible for all the show’s music elements including arrangements, music producers, and even directing on-stage. He has to learn and play over 200 songs on any given episode and manages a team of over 50 musicians and contestants, ensuring impeccable delivery each week.
“American Idol is such an institution,” says Pooley.
When the show moved over to ABC from the FOX network four years ago, they sought a general reboot. This included a new panel of judges—Luke Bryan, Katy Perry, and Lionel Richie—and a new set of eyes and ears, which included Pooley as music director. He jumped at the incredible opportunity to put together a band of people he knows and trusts.
“I didn’t come in with any expectation of what needed to change, just came in to do what I do,” he shares. “That’s essentially how the show sounds.”
At any given point within the season, they are working two or three weeks ahead of time. Because the fate of each contestant lies in the votes from viewers, often that hard work is voided after their elimination. He grieves for the great songs they prepare that are never heard, but he understands it’s part of the competition.
He clarifies, “I want to say, I prefer to call the contestants, artists. I guess because there are guest artists on almost every week, the label is just to keep things straight. But they are all artists, so we treat them as such.”
Due to the nature of the show, no one has the advantage of knowing anything ahead of time. Pooley explains, “So we have to treat each of them like they are going to win the show.”
Early in the season, during more rapid elimination rounds, the performance sets are simple. As they continue on, and the stakes rise, performances become more involved, like strings and chorus features. This is where Pooley really steps in, getting to know each contestant as he brings their artistic vision to life.
“The contestants themselves are learning along the way, so my job is to get behind their vision as artists. The song and everything that goes into it is ultimately their choice,” he emphasizes. “We don’t tell them what to do.”
Pooley’s main priority is to be honest with them as they make their selections.
“If we feel like something isn’t working, I’ll let them know,” he says. “But, oftentimes, they will respond that this is what they want, or it’s their dream to sing a certain song, so of course, I’ll put my full weight behind it. Ultimately, it’s them up there singing and who they want to represent themselves to be.”
There are three teams, that consist of a vocal coach paired with a piano player, who take the first step in preparation. Next, they share what they are thinking. Due to the speed of the show, there is little time for back-and-forth discussion.
“For example, Casey [Bishop] came to me wanting to make one of her performances more rock-oriented,” he shares about the promising 16-year-old Top 4 contestant. “I said ‘Okay when we see you on stage tomorrow for rehearsal, I’ll play you something. if you hate it, cool. If you love it, we’ll go with that.’ So really we’re kicking ideas back-and-forth very quickly.”
Though their collaboration is fast-paced, Pooley feels he gets to know each contestant very well, not only as artists but also personally. He explains, “They are going through everything people go through, but in public view. Being in LA is hard for a lot of them who haven’t spent much time away from home. So on a human level, it’s really hard to see people go.”
He takes pride in the expansion of the show to attract a broader breadth of artists. The authenticity of the artistic process holds weight here. Pooley affirms the Idol stage has always been a legitimate platform to demonstrate one’s artistry, but increased representation has allowed more potential contestants to understand that.
“We don’t tell them what to sing and how to sing it, and that attracts people,” he explains. “They don’t see it as a means of being America’s ‘Idol’. But go on and express who they are as an artist, but in a public format and feel out their role as an artist. It can be a street performer artist, like Murphy this season. He got to come out and express who he is and how he wants to. It doesn’t all have to fit into what you might think of as slick shiny stage talent show.”