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SPEAKING OF BESPOKE: THE BEN WINSTON INTERVIEW

Interview by Simon Glickman

When the star-studded 63rd Annual Grammy Awards aired on Sunday, it marked the beginning of a new era, with Ben Winston taking over as show producer for the CBS telecast of Music’s Biggest Night (which aired this year from the outdoor portion of the L.A. Convention Center).

The amiable Brit has won a following among artists and industryites alike as helmer of the Eye’s The Late Late Show With James Corden, cultivating such memorably musical segments as Carpool Karaoke and generally leaning into the host’s Broadway-trained pipes and a resourceful band’s capacity for improvisation. He’s also overseen all manner of music specials, as noted below, and was thus deemed ideally qualified to take the Grammy reins.

He wasn’t even deterred by the restrictions of the pandemic lockdown, which instead further fired his imagination and vision. If anything gave him pause, it was the dorky queries of HITS’ resident Anglophile, who thoughtlessly badgered Winston as he was putting the final touches on the production.

What will the show look like given how awards ceremonies are having to deal with the present circumstances?
First off, I'm really glad we delayed from 1/31. We couldn’t have done it then—hospitals in Los Angeles were literally running out of oxygen. The way we’ve structured the show itself is incredibly safe in terms of COVID protocols, but I was as worried about things happening on a working set, like a rigger falling off a ladder and having to go to the hospital when the hospitals were packed. Talking to the Recording Academy and CBS, I thought it was going to be a tough conversation, but they said, “No, postponing is the right thing to do; let’s see where we are in March.” The scientists had said mid-March would be a better time, that the surge in L.A. would have subsided, and they were absolutely right.


But you’re still contending with serious restrictions.
It’s true, but I’ve had the opportunity to sit here for 12 months watching other shows—and I think they’ve done incredibly well considering how hard it is to put on a show in this unprecedented time. It’s easy for people to make jokes about the Golden Globes and call it a “glitchfest,” but I felt like saying to some of the journalists who were tweeting about technical difficulties, “I'd love to see you try it.” To make something engaging and interesting and exciting that also keeps everybody safe is very difficult. But as I said, I’ve had the good fortune to be able to see what's worked really well on other shows and what hasn't worked as well. And the Grammys will benefit from that. I feel really great about the show, like the things we wanted to pull off are going to happen. We're going to create a bespoke, memorable, never-to-be repeated Grammys, and it will feel utterly different from previous Grammys in part because of the Covid situation.

And of course because this will be the first time your imprint will be on the show.
Right. And a lot of the people who’ve been producing these awards shows over this last year have done them before. It would be understandable for them to say, “Well, we’ve done it this way, so we're going to do it this way again but there just won't be any audience.” But because I’ve never produced this show before, I don’t have anything pre-Covid to compare the experience to—what we’re not allowed to do because of Covid is irrelevant to me because I've never done any of it anyway. Which has almost breathed new life into me.

When I realized that there wouldn’t be an audience, I sort of went, “OK, this might actually allow me to do more things with the show than I could have if I were just putting on performance after performance in front of a live audience.” I’ve really looked at the glass half full when it comes to producing the show; I do feel there’s a way of making this really original and one of a kind. So I’m excited about that element of it.

Let’s get into how that has played out practically. You’ve said there's not going to be an audience…
The show will be in the round, with stages facing each other. The artists will be on those stages, and when one performs, the others and the crew will watch and support. When they’re finished, we go to the next one and then the next one—every 45 minutes, the artists change. The viewer will feel like they’re in the most exciting room in music.

Every artist will be in the room, just not at the same time. And they won't be in front of 13,000 people at Staples. Instead, they will be there for the camera—for the person at home. That creates an intimacy you don't necessarily have when you’re doing, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen!”; it's more like, “Hey, how ya doin’?” Cultivating that relationship of the artist with the camera—the viewer—is so important in the work I do, so that will come through in the Grammys this year.

That said, I've wanted to make this show about the music community coming together and supporting each other and looking out for each other. And I want to make the Grammys a show the music industry loves and is proud of. But part of that is bringing these artists together in a really safe way, so we’ve designed a set where people will be coming together yet are never within a certain number of feet of anyone else. We’ve worked out how people can come in from the various spaces we've created without risking anyone’s health.

There is a new dawn in America with a new president, a vaccine on the way, a new Academy head and a new producer—this coming-together of so many elements is making this show quite hopeful. I expect a really special night of television and music.

If you’re strictly talking about format, though, it will be part Grammys, part Abbey Road Studios and part Later... With Jools Holland, which I think will really excite people. I think the way the show looks and feels will really shock and surprise people.

What about the actual presentation of awards?
One of the things I'm doing differently concerns presenters… Independent performance venues this year, from the Apollo in Harlem to the Troubadour in L.A., these incredible places, have all lain dormant. I saw something that said the last time these venues were able to have audiences in them was Saturday, March 14—exactly a year before Grammy day. The last performance at the Hotel Café in L.A., the last at the Station Inn in Nashville… was March 14. Which got me thinking about all the bartenders and box-office managers and club owners who’ve had such a tough year.

So before some of the awards are presented, we're going to visit a few of these amazing venues; we’ve done little features on them and some of the people who make them so special. And then those people will be the ones who present the awards onsite; they will be on our stage presenting awards to these music icons and megastars. As we transition into a world with a vaccine, we’ll remind viewers that these independent venues are the lifeblood of the music industry. So I hope the actual presentation of the awards takes on an extra measure of meaning because of who is presenting them.

Wow—that is different, and wonderful. Tell me about some of the other folks you’re working with, your team.
I was very aware coming into this role that everybody in the music industry—artists, managers, label execs—has an opinion on the Grammys and how the show should be done. Some love the show and think it’s amazing, while some complain about everything about it. I'm not from the music industry; I'm from the television industry. So I spent January through April of 2020 meeting people, at first in person and then on Zoom, asking basically, “What is it that you want to see in the future of the Grammys?” I listened extensively to what each community was saying. I knew I wouldn’t always agree, but I wanted to be out there saying, “Look, I don't necessarily know best; I'm learning about this job. And I really want to make a show the industry is proud of.”

Ken Ehrlich is an amazing executive producer; he was sensational. And he's worked in music, and he’d done the show for 40 years. But I'm coming to it new, and I'm always much more aware of what I don't know than what I do know. So I was very sure that I needed a really strong, capable team around me.

It was important for Jesse Collins, who’s been on the Grammys production team before, to be my co-EP and run it with me. Jesse's an unbelievable producer and a phenomenal guy. He was just executive producer of the Super Bowl halftime show. He’s co-producing the Oscars… He’s huge.

Raj Kapoor is a superb producer. I’m so pleased he’s also on board as executive producer. He’s worked on the ACMs and CMAs, The Voice, American Idol … he’s done huge tours for Carrie Underwood, the Jonas Brothers, Demi Lovato

[Producer and choreographer] Fatima Robinson has come on board. She’s so creative, and she's been on the other side of the Grammys, producing for artists on the show, like Kendrick Lamar’s incredible 2016 performance. Her input is invaluable. Josie Cliff is my right hand on The Late Late Show [With James Corden] so I am so happy and lucky she’s joined the show too. And, to me, Hamish Hamilton is the single-best live director. We've been close friends for many years but had never had the opportunity to work together. So this was the moment.

And then bringing in Misty Buckley, who is an amazing set designer, though not necessarily as well known in America as in the U.K.—she’s the creative director for the Glastonbury Festival. She’s worked with Coldplay and done the Brit Awards, and we did The Kacey Musgraves Christmas Show together.

So I'm really excited about this vibrant, diverse team we brought together to make the show. They are as much about what happens on the show, who's booked, the way it looks, as I am.

And you’re looking at the macro view.
Well, this morning I spent from 4:30 am until 7am going through the music I want to play on the nominations packages—not the nominated songs; that's obvious. But that bit where it says, you know, “Best New Artist,” that thing you hit, right? It's gotta be spot on. Every intricacy of the show is important to me, things no one will even notice. But they are crucial to creating an experience the viewer will really enjoy, even on a subconscious level.

You're clearly going at it like a curator. And I do believe the joy you take in the process will come through. Is this always what you wanted to do in life?
I've always been drawn to music television, the excitement of filming somebody with a guitar strapped on singing down the mic. There is something electric about that when you have the camera in your hand. Whether that’s making the Bruno Mars special I did a couple of years ago [2017’s Bruno Mars: 24K Magic Live at the Apollo] or doing Kacey Musgraves’ Christmas show [in 2019]. They couldn’t have been more different, but they both brought me the joy of listening to a track and seeing how I can bring it to life visually.

Some of my first-ever jobs in the industry were making music videos. I remember the first one, listening to the track and wondering “How can I visualize this?”

Who was the band?
An indie rock band from London called Crafty. I was probably 16. I shot it, I edited it in my house, I delivered the video, and they were over the moon. And then when I sent them the invoice… I could never track them down again. They never paid me!

But I still love doing that fundamental thing; I still listen to who we're going to have on [Corden] and go, “OK, how can we bring this to life visually in a really brilliant way?” It’s actually more what I was saying before about this year’s Grammys: hearing something and being incredibly excited to create an experience for the person sitting at home. We've got a big job to do: Somebody is singing into a microphone, which is all well and good, but how do you engage the viewer at the other end of that television? That challenge is what I love most.

What you’ve accomplished with Corden is pretty extraordinary; the show has its own very personal, heartfelt musical emphasis—you’ve managed to make music super-dynamic but also really intimate.
Music is at the heart of our show. Firstly, with Reggie Watts as our bandleader… Every single thing the band plays—and I've got a feeling they’re the only late-night band that does this—is improv. Even with Reggie, he's never singing anything that makes sense; he's making it up as he goes along. So I think our show is so musical, from Reggie and the band to the comedy bits—your Carpool Karaoke, your Drop the Mic, the spoof songs we do… For me, the most joyful thing about doing the show is, I sit in my control room and the band have got me in their ears. If we need musical accompaniment to something James is doing, I'll just say, “Guys, give me some sort of jazz beat” and suddenly this music from out of nowhere creates a spark.

How has Covid quarantine been for you?
Well, I'm quite lucky because I do a late-night show every day. I've been back in my office, Covid-safely, since July 28. That's when Corden left his garage and came back to the studio. So I've been in my office every day for much of the pandemic. I get here around 8:30 and I stay quite late; it’s probably 8:30 at night before I manage to get home and see the kids. And then I'll go into the home office and work.

With the Grammys and then the Friends reunion coming up, it takes a lot out of you. But I feel very, very fortunate that this year, which has been so difficult for so many people, I've had some really exciting projects to sink my teeth into. On the one hand, that busy-ness and having that focus can be stressful, but on the other hand, it’s prevented me from thinking too much and worrying about everything.

Most importantly, I have a four-year-old and a one-year-old, two little girls, who are everything in the world to me. Whenever I'm nervous about, say, persuading someone to do something or figuring out how the set plan will work, I go play with my daughters and I'm like, “Ah, this is all that matters.”

 

Photo credit: TERENCE PATRICK. Captions, as if you need them: Winston and James Corden with Paul McCartney; Winston with Michelle Obama, Cardi B, Harry Styles (and manager Jeffrey Azoff), Kacey Musgraves, Alicia Keys and Corden.

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