When you tell an outsider that you're “covering the Grammys,” it sounds pretty swank. Before I did it for the first time, I imagined glamor, some rubbing shoulders, and, above all, a lot of music. But the reality is different. Those of us not covering the red carpet are planted in a hotel-conference-looking room next door to the Staples Center, and can't see the proceedings firsthand. Our windows to the Grammy action are four monitors placed throughout the space. For all intents, we could be in a Hampton Inn in Chino. Six rows of tables are arranged in a semi-circle facing a stage, on which Grammy winners are corralled after winning the award. They've got big smiles on their faces, but their audience, a bunch of print journalists in a digital world, consists of one of the most joyless groups of lifers you'll ever see. Peppered throughout, of course, are enthusiastic exceptions, but the overall vibe of this room is … dead. No wonder print is on the ropes. We people are bores. A dying industry covering another dying industry, like a bunch of telegraph operators sending missives about a carburetor convention. Where's the fun in that?
But it was into this sad-sack crowd in the Wachovia Room of the Staples Center that an electric jolt went through when word starting spreading that Rihanna had canceled her performance, and was — the rumor at the time went — perhaps in the hospital. A few tables over, someone made a phone call, then said, “Chris Brown apparently beat her up,” and everyone started surfing for news. (At least those with Internet connections; the Grammys charge something ridiculous like $400 per person for a DSL line, which I refused to pay.)
Such news about two of America's biggest pop stars doesn't exactly engender joviality, for sure.
In such a dead-eyed world, musicians and producers are this beacon of light. Throughout the day — which began with the non-televised awards portion at 1 p.m. — they walk onto the print room stage fifteen or so minutes after accepting their speech, giddy to be winning an award that is considered the pinnacle of the profession, only to sit before a roomful of people bruised by layoffs, worried on their paycheck, and smarting from the backseat position they take to the television journalists who got first dibbs on interviews ten minutes earlier in the TV room. It ends up being a long day. Or, as director Jason Reitman, co-winner for Best Soundtrack Compilation recording for Juno, keenly observed after answering some of the first questions of the night: “Have fun interviewing the next 120 winners.”
And then it becomes clear why we're here: Musicians and the people who work with them are, for the most part, interesting people. Over the next five hours a line of incredible minds both known and unknown, with captivating stories, are paraded before us to talk about their year. Vance Powell, winner with Joe Chiccarelli and Jack White for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical, talked about Nashville's studio scene, and the reason why the city's producing not only great country but great rock in 2009. Steven Lance Ledbetter, owner of the amazing reissue label Dust to Digital, a little concern out of Atlanta that won the award for Best Historical Album. Ledbetter talked about the creation of Art of the Field Recording Vol 1: Fifty Years of Traditional American Music Documented by Art Rosenbaum, about finding a man who had been recording music throughout the Midwest for the past half century. Then Rosenbaum stepped up and explained how he'd first started when he was young, learning the banjo while listening to Pete Seeger, then deciding to travel and record musicians.
“I went out and met migrant farmers in the blueberry fields of Michigan,” explained Rosenbaum, “and blues singers in my hometown of Indianapolis and banjo pickers in Kentucky, first out of passion and interest for myself, not for any particular reason or project or release — though over the years some of them did get released.” That kind of stuff is what makes the backstage Grammys worthwhile.
It was revealing to learn that the winners of Best Recording Package, Bruce Duckworth, Sarah Moffett and David Turner, for work on Metallica's Death Magnetic, are new to the field of CD design; this was their first ever CD package project. They talked about the size and shape of a CD, and the challenge of designing for an iTunes-sized square. Their British company, in fact, works mainly in logos, and has made them for Coca-Cola and Amazon, among others. They discussed the thought behind the design, which looks both like a coffin with dirt surrounding it, and, rather disturbingly if you think about it, either female genitalia or its neighbor to the south (exactly what they're trying to say about coffins and vaginas/anuses, they did not answer.) They beat LA's decidedly un-coffin-esque No Age, who were nominated for their design of Nouns.
Paul McCartney was super cool and chatty. I asked him about his plans for Coachella — how the gig came about, and what kind of set he may do. He said they asked him to do it, and that he heard it was a cool thing to do. As to what kind of set he might do, Sir Paul said that he usually decides that stuff a few days before the gig.
Natalie Cole sat down and talked about heroin addiction, her search for a kidney after contracting hepatitis C, and her discussing the offers she's had from fans to actually donate an organ to her. That's the power of music right there, to be so moved and connected to a performer that you'd actually donate an organ to her. Would anyone in this room do that?
I'd donate a kidney to Katy Perry after her little performance in the press room. Say what you will about her music and what she represents; anyone with the nerve, confidence and ambition to plant her body inside a giant banana and descend onto the national stage to sing a semi-prurient song about hot lesbo action is inherently more interesting than the grunts who write about her. After the show, she was incredibly charming, forthright and thoughtful. Huge smile on her face and that insanely bodacious body combined with wit and natural grace equaled a room that was a million times brighter than it had been moments before.
She ended her conversation with a talk about going on the Warped Tour this summer, and how people had dismissed her as being under-prepared to rock on that particular stage. She brushed them aside with a clean little exclamation point to end her interview: “I'm at the Grammys, so fuck them.”