“I will do it if you give me a six-pack of Guinness every day.”
In 2007, lighting director and designer Michelle Sarrat was on tour with OK Go. Along with Silversun Pickups, they were opening for Snow Patrol. She was sitting around catering with other crew when Silversun’s tour manager asked if someone could do lights for them. The band were on first and had almost no budget.
Sarrat's beer-for-lights proposal paid off. “The awesome thing was I used those Guinness to bribe Snow Patrol’s lighting people to let me use more and more of their rig for both acts I was working with,” she recalls. “By the end of the tour I was using almost everything.”
Although Sarrat already had myriad experiences with lights and video, it was beer (“may’ve actually been a 12-pack”) that led to her first full lighting design gig. She had run the lights with OK Go for two years, but their show was more about “Flaming Lips–esque style confetti and things like that.” When Silversun hired her to be the designer on their Swoon tour a couple years later, it was the first time she had complete responsibility and worked with a budget.
Sarrat came to the music industry in a roundabout way. Her original goal was to work in musical theater. She studied technical theater lighting at Emerson College in Boston and moved to London after graduating in 2000. The plan was to work with lights in that great theater town, but London was “still a little bit misogynistic and a little bit anti-American.” To top it off, once she got there she realized the visa she was under didn’t cover freelance. Faced with the even greater challenge of landing a payroll lighting job, she tried every theater or lighting shop she could find.
She was not greeted warmly. In particular, she recalls one lighting shop in Brixton. After calling ahead, she traveled there on a rainy winter day. Wet and cold when she arrived, the person she met with did not offer tea in the English tradition. Instead he was extremely rude, eventually telling her to “get lost.” (She’s had dreams since of calling them up and saying, “‘Hey, I’m here with this show and I am pointedly not hiring your company because this guy was an asshole to me years ago.’”)
Completely thwarted, she resorted to work in a pub. The challenges of her London foray made her even more determined to do the work she wanted regardless of the obstacles.
After London, she landed in San Francisco and began her career with theater and corporate lighting gigs. That led to work in music venues and began a journey that’s taken her around the world, working with musical artists of every stripe, from Rodrigo y Gabriela to Death Cab for Cutie to Gary Numan.
Among her many career highlights, she has taken over a St. Vincent tour from groundbreaking lighting designer Susanne Sasic, whose work goes back to Nirvana. Though it was Sasic’s core programming, Sarrat was given the freedom to add to it. She was nervous when St. Vincent performed at the Hollywood Bowl in August 2015, as she knew Sasic would be in the audience, and felt very rewarded when Sasic was pleased with her work.
In 2014, she was called in to design last-minute for the New Basement Tapes gig, a supergroup composed of Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford, Jim James, Taylor Goldsmith and Rhiannon Giddens, playing music set to previously unreleased Bob Dylan lyrics. And earlier this year, she lit a panda and a rabbit, among other characters, as the lighting director for Sia's latest surreal production, which premiered at Coachella.
When she works as a designer, Sarrat asks the artist to send a mood board of photos or art that he likes the ambiance of. She prefers that it not be pictures of lights from other shows. The music is always the starting point, which she finds fascinating because sometimes the band has a completely different vision of what their music is like. “It’s really fun to work collaboratively with people who have a different aesthetic than you and come up with something off-the-wall.”
Sarrat spent the past summer on tour with a very hot musical act, Grimes. Catching Sarrat in the sound and lighting booth at Lollapalooza in Chicago 10 minutes before Grimes’ 7:30 p.m. set, she’s easygoing and focused. Wearing jean shorts, gray tights and pink and blue striped socks that match some of the lighting in the show, she sips a can of yerba mate.
Luckily she caught a long nap earlier. A festival schedule is often a whirlwind. When her plane arrival was delayed the night before, she had to drop her bag and head immediately to the fest for 11:30 p.m.–to 3 a.m. programming. She returned to the hotel for a short respite before heading back at 7 a.m. to do load-in.
She plays the lighting board like an instrument
When Grimes and her dancers hit the stage, Sarrat goes into action. There’s a magical spin of lights — summer starlight disco. She plays the lighting board like an instrument, a skill she attributes to piano lessons and hours and hours of Nintendo — those crazy jump combos. People tell her she’s different from other designers in that she’s really hands-on with the board. When she's programming, she “finds little bits and trills, drum rolls, and makes a button that goes with that.” She also likes “to follow syncopated rhythm with lights, not [always] the obvious four-on-four.”
Grimes' Claire Boucher connects with her fans with genuine banter, noting the effect lighting can have. At Lolla, she enjoys the fact that many are dancing yet empathizes with her audience not to feel pressure to have to do so; “in daylight it can be quite uncomfortable for many.” Sarrat notes that it’s harder to unpack the theatricality when they’re outside in the direct sunlight. She adjusts by blinking lights at the audience to bring in more atmosphere.
While the Red Hot Chili Peppers close out the mainstage, Sarrat sips tequila from a tiny bowl in Grimes’ cabana, taking a few moments to relax and joke with the crew. She explains that the show isn’t simply following strictly time-coded programming — she makes choices organic to the stage and environment she’s working with for each performance.
She always aims to find something in a band’s music she loves; she doesn’t think she could work with an act she absolutely hated. With whomever she works, she keeps in mind, “There are people out there that the band means everything to.” Her approach depends on a band’s genre; Grimes is more high-energy, almost like an EDM set (Sarrat also has done lights for dance music star Bassnectar), while a band like Death Cab for Cutie calls for lights that support delicate, unwinding transitions. The idea is to create a mood and environment that heightens the emotional connection of the audience with the band.
One of Sarrat's favorite tricks is to move beaming lights from the stage and out into the audience. The music takes on a visual dimension, and the band reaches out and touches the people through sight as well as sound.