The Paul Zollo Blog: Tales From the Grammys — A Backstage Report, Featuring Interviews with Song Of The Year Nominees Coldplay, Jason Mraz, Sara Bareilles, Adele, Estelle and More!

Backstage coverage, a view into rehearsals, and interviews with all the nominees for the Best Song of the Year.

Videos by American Songwriter

This writer happily was allowed to cover the Grammys this year, held at the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Journalists covering the Grammys do not sit in the audience during the show – there’s a labyrinth of press rooms upstairs at the Staples Center through which almost all of the winners and some of the presenters are brought – in one room are the photographers snapping away, in another is TV and radio, and in the print room are people like me. There are writers representing big magazines, small magazines, and newspapers from all around the globe. Before the televised part of the show even commences, there is a three-hour pre-televised ceremony during which many of the awards are given out. And during this period, many artists come back to meet the press.

Though I was there as a writer, I also could not pass on the opportunity to take some photographs, many of which we’re happy to share with you here (see below).

I only saw a portion of the rehearsals, but what I witnessed is recorded in the following, along with comments from winners backstage.

In the past, I have written about the Best Song nominees – the songwriter’s award. (Although much of the public gets confused about the distinctions between Best Song, Best Record and Best Album, most songwriters know well that the Best Song Grammy is awarded to the songwriter. Best Record is for the best single record, and Best Album is for the best album. These two go to the artists and their producers. Only Best Song goes to the songwriter.) Each year I strive to interview each of the songwriters about what inspired or led to their nominated song. It’s not always possible, and when I can’t get to them directly, I quote from other interviews they have given.

At rehearsals, B.B. King and John Mayer are playing along with Buddy Guy, and after Mayer takes a particularly incendiary solo, B.B. says, “You’re kicking my butt here!” Mayer laughs it off but B.B. insists, “Yeah, I’m getting my butt kicked.” “Sir,” Mayer says, “there’s no way my shoe could reach high enough to reach the butt of the great B.B. King.” The next day, when Mr. King came back to face the press after being awarded a Grammy for Best Traditional Blues album for One Kind Favor, I asked him about this butt-kicking exchange. He laughed heartily and said, “You weren’t supposed to hear that!” Then he went on to humbly praise Mayer’s talents: “He seems to know what he’s doing. Everyone I hear is playing something I wish I could.”  I also asked him if, after all these years since he started performing, he’s surprised that the blues still matters so much. “Yes,” he answered. “I’m surprised that more people are interested in blues than ever before. And people now understand that the blues is an international thing, not just something from Mississippi like me.” Asked about our new president, he said, “Obama is doing well. We got to give him time. Other presidents, we gave them time.” He then added, “With Obama, America is growing up – America is becoming America.” Asked if he would tour like he used to, he replied, “I have cut down on going out on the road. We musicians have fun, but it’s also a lot of work.”

There was no more excitement this year than when Paul McCartney came back to meet the press – though he didn’t win a Grammy, he lit the place on fire with a burning rendition of one of his first songs written with John Lennon, “I Saw Her Standing There,” with Dave Grohl on drums. I asked Sir Paul about the evolution of songwriting itself – saying that with the Beatles and onto his solo work, he changed the art of songwriting, expanding it in many directions. I asked if he felt songs would continue to change and evolve. “I do think so, yes,” he said. “Songs will always change. There will be new writers, new rhythms and melodies, new things to say. As for myself, my own songs, I can’t say. I like what I’m doing. I’m having fun.” Asked if there was much music he liked today, he said there was, and that he “even fancies hip-hop and some rap.” Because Neil Diamond was honored, McCartney was asked if he was a Neil Diamond fan. “Yes, of course I am. To be quite honest, back in the day I wasn’t a big fan. But you have to look at his work in its entirety. You have to look at everything he’s done, such as “I’m A Believer” for The Monkees. There are a lot of great songs.”

The big winners of the evening were the team of Robert Plant, Alison Krauss and producer T Bone Burnett, whose album Raising Sand won awards for Best Album, Best Record, Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album, Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals, and Best Collaboration—every Grammy for which they were nominated. Backstage Plant, who was beaming, said it didn’t bother him that Led Zeppelin were never awarded Grammys. “We threw some Grammys out a window once,” he said, “But they weren’t ours.” He said his album with Krauss worked so well because “we come from such different places on the musical map. I came from a British approach to the great songs from America – to spectacular Black Americana. And Alison has patiently shown me much of the America I was never exposed to before. There are so many thousands of beautiful songs in the air. And America needs to know what this music is about.” In his acceptance speech, he thanked Krauss for “teaching me to sing in straight lines.” T Bone said that the two artists succeeded so well because they came “to the studio with nothing on their minds by courage and love and freedom.”  In his acceptance speech for Record of the Year, he said only, “Good things happen out of nowhere.”

Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift rehearsed their duet on “Fifteen,” a song penned by Swift, on a little stage set up in mid-audience. During rehearsal the two casually sang while technicians got cameras in place and adjusted the sound mix for broadcast. Their voices both sounded very strong and well-matched. Afterwards they were brought promptly to the main stage to rehearse giving the award for best Pop Duet. Miley said to Taylor, “Just for fun, say my name,” and Taylor obliged: “And the winner is… Miley Cyrus!” Miley leapt in joy. Though Miley is 16 and Taylor only 19, both were very professional during rehearsals, adjusting the sound mix in their monitor headphones, and reading their cue-cards – some pre-written banter – easily and without a mistake. During the actual performance, in the midst of the action, I could sense Miley was a little more nervous, allowing Swift to light up the show. To their credit, during rehearsal and at show time, both demonstrated that their success is not solely because of beauty or image, but that they both are tremendously talented singers and performers.

Jason Reitman, the director of Juno was awarded a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack Album for a Motion Picture. He opened by saying, “I think we stole Abba and Jay-Z’s award” to much laughter, in reference to the Mamma Mia soundtrack of Abba tunes and the American Gangster soundtrack, which features Jay-Z and other rappers. He said the song “Anyone But You,” by the Moldy Peaches, was “one of those songs that made the music a character in Juno.” Although the process of choosing the music started with writer Diablo Cody and the initial screenplay, it was when actress Ellen Page played “Anyone by You” on the set that Reitman recognized it as the ideal song. “When I heard it,” he said, “I knew it was by the Moldy Peaches, and I knew it had to be the closing song.” Other music on the soundtrack included a beautiful guitar instrumental played by Michael Cera. But this wasn’t pre-meditated: “Michael was noodling on his guitar,” he said, “so I told my camera man to roll, and we filmed it. And it was just so lovely.”

Thomas Newman, who happens to be Randy Newman’s cousin, won the Best Song Written for a Motion Picture” for a song he wrote with Peter Gabriel, “Down To Earth” from Wall-E. Gabriel was not in attendance, unfortunately, but I asked Newman about working with him. “I was a huge fan of Peter’s,” he said, “and we had only a day and a half basically to do this. So the opportunity was Peter’s. He wrote most of the melody for the song, I made the track, and he wrote the lyrics and did the vocal. We ended up working on it from different cities – I’d send it to him in England and he’d send it back.

Jack White of the Raconteurs, along with Joe Chiccarelli and Vane Powell, won the Grammy for Best Engineered Album (non-classical) for the Raconteurs’ album Consolers of the Lonely, which was recorded at Blackbird studios in Nashville. Asked why Nashville was chosen as the town in which to make this album, Chiccarelli said, “Because Nashville rocks. Nashville is the center of the country. People can come from L.A. and from New York and it’s not so long of a flight. It’s less expensive there, we have a great studio, Blackbird, and great musicians. We worked at Blackbird. Also it’s good to be away from all the distractions of being here, with nightclubs open all night, 24 hours a day.” I asked how they captured such good performances – if the band recorded together live, the way the Stones did, or if they separately overdubbed the parts, as is done most of the time now. “All live,” he said. “They played live. And we recorded it all directly to analog tape.”

Bill Harley, a storyteller, was awarded the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album For Children, which was recorded at a show in Montana. “It’s all stories,” he said, “stories about me growing up.” In reference to the agenda of his work, he explained, “The two basic components of childhood are terror and power. I try to explore those.” When questioned on how he felt beating out Gwyneth Paltrow for the award (she was nominated for her reading of Brown Bear and Friends), Harley replied, “Well, thank goodness it’s not a beauty contest.”

They Might Be Giants, the brilliant musical brainchild of John Flansburgh and John Linnell, won the Best Musical Album for Children Grammy for their album Here Come the 123’s. Though Flansburg wasn’t present, Linnell did appear to answer questions. When asked if he got into creating children’s music just to make a lot of money, he immediately replied with brilliant deadpan, “Yes, it’s crazy money, those kids are loaded.” The press loved that. Following the comedic routine, he soon got more serious in tone and said, “What’s great about it is as revenues go down there are a lot of children needing some entertainment.” I asked if they wrote songs differently than they would for their adult record. “When we started we made a decision,” he said, “to not alter what we were doing as far as the spirit. We don’t work less hard. We’re well-suited for children’s music because we throw ourselves into it as much as we do into our adult music. And it’s great, because most adults are like walking music critics. Whatever they hear they instantly compare to something else they’ve heard. But kids have no reference – they’re hearing types of music for the first time ever from us. John and I are of the generation that heard the Beatles when we were young, and that’s the kind of music branded into our brains. Then we got into underground rock and that influenced us. We keep our ears open all the time. We like anything that’s interesting and good. And it all comes out in our music.”

Jennifer Nettles of Sugarland, who won a Grammy for writing the Best Country song, “Stay,” said “I felt I had a connection with the song personally. I remember writing it, – sitting on my couch on Church Street in Decatur, Georgia. To be awarded this, voted by your peers, it’s a huge honor. It’s humbling. We sat on the stairs when McCartney was playing his bass in rehearsal – it was mesmerizing. We fawned on McCartney in our acceptance speech. He probably thinks we’re crazy as loons.”

When Will i. am came back, he perused the busy press typing away at their laptops and observed, “I see more PCs than Macs. That’s not cool.” He spoke about being honored to be a part of the big inauguration concert that also featured Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger and Stevie Wonder. “There’s no bigger stage than the inauguration – to be handpicked to perform at that place and time and for all that it meant, is beyond music.” Asked what his musical mission is, he said, “I lend myself to the youth to pay attention to the issues. I performed on that stage and I don’t think there will ever be anything bigger than that for a long time.” And then he added an axiom which he said is the ruling wisdom in his life: “To whom much is given, much is required.”

Cassandra Wilson, winner of the Best Jazz Vocal Album Grammy for Loverly, was asked if there was anyone she would love to work with, and she said, “John Mayall. Terence Blanchard.” She spoke about returning to her roots: “It’s great to go home, especially when your home is Mississippi, the home of the blues. Every time I go back there’s a thickness in the air you can hear and feel, and the textures are very different from recording in New York or L.A.

Kelly Carlin, the daughter of the late great George Carlin, accepted the Grammy on her dad’s behalf for Best Comedy Album for It’s Bad For Ya. I asked her if her father was always funny, even off-stage, and she said no. “He wasn’t an on kind of guy,” she said. “He was a very serious man. Very driven. But he could be silly, too.”

Mickey Hart, the legendary drummer for the Grateful Dead, won a Grammy for Best Contemporary World Music Album for Global Drum Project, along with his collaborators Zakir Hussain, Sikiru Adepoju and Giovanni Hidalgo. “I’ve always been a lover of indigenous music,” he said. “And it’s ironic to win for “world music” – because there’s no such thing. If you were in Russia, bluegrass would be world music.” Asked about the Dead, he commented on their lack of awards. “The Grateful Dead never got anything. But that’s fine. It’s not about the Grammys, about the statue. It’s about feeling good about yourself. It’s not a horse-race. You lose sight of the Grammys after the first 1000 hours of playing music. This Grammy is great for percussion – it makes percussion legitimate. Rhythm is the basis of all life. The Talking Drum is one of my favorite instruments in the world – and it speaks to me.”

The winner of the Best Rock Instrumental Performance for Peaches En Regalia, Dweezil Zappa, spoke about this album, a tribute to his father Frank Zappa. I asked him how hard it was to master his father’s music. “It’s not something I can master,” he said. “It’s continually difficult. There’s so much to it, if you tried to master all of it, your head would explode. I spent over two years studying the music. I had to change my style.” He spoke about being raised in the shadow of his father. “I saw him perform a lot, since I was a little boy. And this piece “Peaches En Regalia,” was very popular with his fans, so he played it a lot, and I remember that being like a lullaby at concerts. Even though that was very loud, it was always soothing to hear that.” He mentioned that his father wrote over 100 orchestral works on the Synclavier, an early synthesizer and sampler. “He was writing music on the Synclavier because it was too difficult for humans to play. “

The great Herbie Hancock came backstage, where he spoke about his Grammy he received last year for his extraordinary Joni Mitchell tribute album. I asked if he felt there were other songwriters at Joni’s level whose work he would consider taking on. “First of all,” he said, “No, there are no other songwriters like Joni. There are others that are at that level, which is the top. I never think of trying to compare. When it gets to that level, those who are there are incomparable. I was on Joni’s album Mingus, and I knew of her interest in jazz and her ability; it’s natural for her. I didn’t really know as much about the core of her own music, the way her tried and true fans do. I didn’t know the lyrics that well, because I don’t really hear words, I focus on music. But there is so much –heart and beauty and truth in her lyrics. She is extremely passionate about what she does. It takes that kind of tenacity to become an artist that she is. I knew I had to make her lyrics the engine of the album. I made copies of the lyrics for all the musicians. Miles Davis taught me the importance of being nonjudgmental about music, the importance of not being afraid to try new things. Joni understands that.

Katy Perry, wearing a more subdued outfit than what she wore on stage, caused a riot of laughter when she walked into the room asking, “Are we all Myspacing or Facebooking?” Speaking about a recent tour she went on with a gang of rock bands, she said, “People said I would die on that tour, and I survived. And I’m at the Grammys, so fuck them. “


American Boy
William Adams, Keith Harris, Josh Lopez, Caleb Speir, John Stephens, Estelle Swaray & Kanye West, songwriters (Estelle Featuring Kanye West)
Track from: Shine
[Atlantic/Homeschool; Publishers: Will.I.Am Music/Cherry River Music/Chrysalis Publishing/John Legend Publishing/Cherry River Music/Please Gimme My Publishing/EMI Blackwood Music/Larry Leron Music/Speir Music/Broke, Spoke and Gone Publishing]

It all started, explained Estelle over the phone from NYC, with a beat concocted by Will I Am: “We’d been playing beats for each other, going back and forth. And he came up with that one, and I loved it.” Improvising music and words, what she came out with was the title “American Boy” and much of its melody. “We thought it was so funny,” she said. “And we wrote verses together just as a joke. We didn’t take it seriously at all. It’s so totally different from what I do. But everybody who heard it loved it. Even people who hated it at first started loving it.” Asked to explain its appeal, she said, “It’s a happy song. It brings you back to like a 1970s roller-skating vibe, to being a kid. And right now the weight of the world on us all is so heavy. This brings us back to a time with no war, no recession. It has a happy energy and spirit, because that’s what it was created from. We had no expectations for it at all, and it became the song of mine that changes the world.” After the core tracks were complete, Kanye West was called in to rap over it. That this song, written on a lark, became her career-defining song is “the best surprise ever,” she said. “It shows you – you make your plans, and God laughs.”

Chasing Pavements
Adele Adkins & Eg White, songwriters (Adele)
Track from: 19
[XL Recordings/Columbia; Publishers: Universal-Songs of Polygram Int.]

“I’ve been asked to explain what ‘chasing pavements’ means so many times,” she complained to Channel 4 in the UK, “that I’m not even sure I know anymore. Even my mum has asked me. It’s poetry, you know. And poetry’s not always easy to understand.” Having presented the listening public with one of the most enigmatic phrases since the famous image of melting cake in “MacArthur Park,” Adele seemed a tad weary at having to explain its meaning.

This extreme attention does not seem unwarranted. A notoriously erroneous Urban Dictionary definition combined with a music video portraying a car accident has further complicated the issue. But it’s precisely because the song, and Adele’s singing, contains such aching passion, that its curiosity quotient is so high. “Basically it has to do with a rubbish boyfriend I had,” she explained. “And I was quite rubbish to him. We had a fight one night. And I don’t run anywhere. I don’t even walk. I take cabs everywhere. So I started to run away and I felt like I was chasing someone, but there was no one in front of me but the pavement. So that’s what chasing pavements is – chasing nothing. Pursuing something with all your heart that maybe isn’t even there.” Written with the producer-arranger Eg White, it became a hit before it ever was released due to Adele’s performance on BBC. “The groove was mine,” White said to Channel 4. “But the melody – and those words – that’s all Adele.”

I’m Yours
Jason Mraz, songwriter (Jason Mraz)
Track from: We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.
[Atlantic; Publisher: Goo Eyed Music]

“The song came entirely out of the rhythm,” said Jason Mraz midway between his New York hotel room and a flight to Norway.  Written in about 15 minutes on an electric guitar (although he recorded it and performs it on acoustic), it came so fast and easy he never expected it would get much attention. “It came from a very happy place, which is reflected in the bounce of the rhythm. It’s a reggae groove, but I wasn’t thinking of reggae as much as I was the inspirational groove that reggae is about. And in that state of happiness, these staccato words just linked together to make a phrase. It wasn’t written for any one person, but really about generosity – about giving your joy and time to someone else. As soon as you do that, you open yourself up to brilliant opportunity and great adventure, because you open your heart.” The song was performed on Norway’s version of American Idol prior to the release of Jason’s record, creating a slew of YouTube videos and a great overall buzz before the official version was ever heard. “I like that, that’s it’s had such a life, because it is a song about generosity,” he said. “I saw it adopted by so many people before I ever recorded it, and it was like a song without an author.  And I always knew it would be a fun song to perform with lots of voices, and with audience participation. I think of it as my happy hippie song.”

Love Song
Sara Bareilles, songwriter (Sara Bareilles)
Track from: Little Voice
[Epic; Publisher: Tiny Bear Music]

It was in the midst of recording her Little Voice album that she was told by her producer to keep writing, that she hadn’t yet conceived of the song that could be a single. Driving to her L.A. rehearsal space with the radio on, she was seized with anger at herself for trying to contrive a hit, and went straight to her piano, letting a song spill out. Instead of trying to write a single, she went in the opposite direction, and wrote the most passionate, personal song she could. It was “Love Song.” “I wrote it in 45 minutes,” she said. “Which is unusual. I’m usually a very slow writer. But this was cathartic and passionate.” Unlike others who distrust songs that come easy, she values them. “When a song like that comes,” she said, “you feel like you’ve tapped into something that is natural. It’s not calculated. I was writing it really to the powers that be – my producer, the record company people. And I didn’t really expect any of them to like it. I expected rejection.” Given that prospect, she was unprepared for the song’s “roller-coaster” ride, which was sparked by her performance of it on a Rhapsody commercial. “I had mixed feelings about doing the commercial,” she said. “I didn’t want to be perceived as selling out. I felt it might undermine my credibility. But it transformed me. And now when I perform, it’s amazing to me how many people know that song. It’s a beautiful feeling.”

Viva La Vida
Guy Berryman, Jonny Buckland, Will Champion & Chris Martin, songwriters (Coldplay)
Track from: Viva La Vida Or Death And All His Friends
[Capitol Records; Publishers: Universal Music-MGB Songs]

Set against the starkly hypnotic elegy of Davide Rossi’s multiple violins and punctuated by tympani and church bell, “Viva la Vida,” the title song of Coldplay’s newest album, was written by all four members of the group. “We know it’s a risky, pretentious title, because, for one thing, it’s Spanish,” he said to London’s The Sun. “It comes from a painting by Frida Kahlo, who always mixed darkness and sadness with light and joy. And it just seemed like that painting was what we had to write about.” The specific meaning of the lyrics is a subject about which even its co-writers disagree. To Q magazine, bassist Guy Berryman explained, “It’s a story about a king who’s lost his kingdom.” Martin, however, feels it’s not about an earthly kingdom as much as a heavenly one. “I know   Saint Peter won’t call my name,” he said. “It’s about that you’re not on the list. That idea of finishing your life and then being analyzed on it. That is the most frightening thing you could possibly say to somebody. As to allegations that the melody to the song is not entirely original, Martin said he has no doubt about the authenticity of its creation. “I know exactly where the song came from,” he said. “It came from the middle of the night, on a piano.”

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