Episode 1 // Adam Blackstone

Musical Director Extraordinaire

Adam Blackstone is a force. We throw around phrases like “self starter” and “grace under pressure” a lot, but his proficiency in both arenas is unrivaled. Back in February, before every event was cancelled, when 62,417 humans could cram shoulder to shoulder, beers sloshing and strangers high-fiving, Adam and his team lit up the Super Bowl LIV halftime show for a performance that has since earned him his second Emmy nomination.

We’re living in a different world now - fraught and fragile, confusing and exhausting. How does someone whose livelihood was so intertwined with large scale live events cope with quarantine? Adam’s work pauses only for his family - the events have simply migrated online, offering a host of logistical hurdles similar to those he’s encountered working in television.

As a father of two, how does he stay sane at home? And how the hell does he get any work done? He answered these questions and more, his demeanor always warm, candid and open. Maybe, like me, you’ve watched this 2007 video on repeat, marveling at the stank in the sauce. Maybe you dropped a comment on this one like, “Whatever the bassist did was enough to put me in the grave.” Perhaps you’ve only heard Adam Blackstone’s musical alchemy unconsciously, in a packed stadium or on your own couch, bringing light to a disquieting world.

Enjoy this interview, edited for clarity, and its companion video.

In April you tweeted:

How do you feel about that today? What have you learned from this lockdown experience?

One thing I’ve learned is that every day is cherished - with your loved ones, with friends. I’ve had some close friends impacted by loss because of corona - I just think that this thing is real. Hundreds of thousands of people have been impacted by loss. As a creative, sometimes we can get selfish in our craft and say, “I’m not gonna make any money; people aren’t gonna see me do my thing on stage”– but I’ll say that I’ve realized that mental health to get through times like this is more important so that you can rise up on the other side. If you’re still down and depressed, once we get out of this thing, no matter when it is, you won’t be able to rise. So taking time to give self care is very important.

Are there any ways specifically that you practice that? Any tips?

I don’t have any tips! I’m one of the ones trying to figure it out, to be honest. My family means a lot to me. I have two children and a wife and I look at their impact on my life —socially, creatively, economically— and I live for them. One thing I do do is wake up and thank God for being alive, but I also repeat, verbally, that I’m going to choose happiness. I think happiness is a choice, no matter how you apply it. There’s definitely levels to it; everybody’s definition of happiness is different. Eventually, that all ties into self care because you’re gonna choose to be happy for yourself and everything else will fall into place, but it’s a process for sure, especially as a man and a family man and a father, especially as an African American man in today’s society as well.

How do you manage your time with kids, especially in this pandemic?

My family comes first. And this is no slight to any artist or television company, any Zoom or any interview. I had to get off a call the other day because my daughter was crying - I am choosing family first, over everything, and when you do that, I think that they respect your time. It’s not like anybody’s fighting for time, because I’m always choosing them. So if I say, “Hey daddy’s going in the studio for an hour,” or, “I’m on an interview at 10am…” I’ll wake up an hour early and play with my son, make him breakfast. It’s just about time management when it comes to the children, but I’m putting them first in all that I do. It’s not easy, because sometimes that means I don’t work during the day, and then when I put them down at 8pm I gotta get the four hours in that I missed during the day.

Do you compose and arrange passively/in your head, then have more focused time in your studio to accomplish creative goals and work out those ideas?

Absolutely! Shower, car, my son’s soccer game - I’m always singing ideas into my phone then fleshing them out in studio later.

You feel like that’s sharpened your drive or changed your work ethic? Solidified it?

I’ve always been a very driven person, always been able to multitask, so now the shift has just been multiple children at one time. I’m choosing family first and letting the creative juices sort of fall where they fall. When I needed to go away for Super Bowl, they realize that’s an important task at hand and they support me a thousand percent.

What’s your childcare plan these days?

My son is 5; we’ve been homeschooling him for about a year - it’s been great. Different social groups - nature school, karate, soccer, basketball. The Zoom thing for us was not a big transition, except for the outside activities. As far as the learning, it’s been pretty cool. I’m also blessed to have both mothers at hand —my mother-in-law and my mom— not only wanting to take care of their children but their grandchildren as well.

Maybe it’s because we can’t get together in big groups, but you crushed that Super Bowl. It’s a super energetic performance with so many twists and turns, working with different overarching styles of music - tell me about the difference between working with Justin [Timberlake, on Super Bowl LII] and that tour flow going into a co-headlining arrangement.

It was very different. Early November I got the call from the producers: the girls unanimously chose me as the musical director to bridge the gap for the show and make it one cohesive thing, so I was very excited about that. I had never met Shakira - for people in the U.S. that don’t know her as well as they could or should, she is a global phenomenon. She is just an icon across the world. She had ideas, and I listened to that, because as a musical director it’s really just my job to bring the artist’s vision to fruition. I do have ideas sometimes, but my job is to make sure what they convey to me, I convey to the people. Unlike Justin, where we ended up working for years before Super Bowl, this was like - we need to start now, what are we doing? Then Jennifer laid out her vision of the show for me. At this point, they’re talking about themselves, which is the right thing. Then I had to sit in my own space and say, “OK, I have these two ideas, how do I mesh them together?” We’re fitting a concert in the middle of a sporting event. Normally, it’s a catalog show, meaning the artist will run through their hits, but with this being the first ever co-headline, they’re splitting the time but not splitting the hits. It was definitely a task to get both artists’ hit catalogs into that short amount of time, but we pulled it off and I thought it came out great.

I agree. In the conception of this show, which was so choreographed, what comes first, your arrangement, or..?

It all happens at the same time. Jennifer kind of had an order in mind - she had been doing Vegas and had a little bit of a flow, kind of like what Justin had. Once she gives us an order, they start choreographing. I might change a hit here and there or I’ll go to the dance rehearsal and see them doing an accent I might want to put into my part. Same with Shak’ - she said, “I like to play my songs pretty straight down but the intros and outros can be a little different.” Just listening to their vision and executing.

It was definitely more political. It was entertaining but it was a meaningful performance.

It had a message to it, for sure.

You also did some work on the BET Awards. Those performances were so powerful.

Everybody’s home so we have a different type of viewership. I’ve been doing BET Awards for the past 5-6 years, and it’s always been a live show, a cool Sunday night. With us doing this Viacom merger, it came on CBS, and with the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, network television saw the importance of showing our message and I was very, very excited that even the younger talent was able to get the message across that, you know, Black lives matter, and we can’t say “all lives matter” until Black lives matter. I think culture is being pushed forward –I hope– and it takes terrible tragedies, not only in the last 400 years, but specifically in the last 40 days, for people to recognize the injustice.

What was your involvement in that, and how does it work from a logistical angle doing it remotely?

What that means for me, when networks have said that, is track. Some artists were cool with using the mastered track from their album, but other artists want my sauce and my flavor and my excitement and my hip arrangements, so that meant me taking my band in the studio and doing it as if we were on stage. So half the show was track and the other half were us live prerecords. I did Wayne Brady, and me and him were doing that arrangement on FaceTime!

Is it frustrating to work like that, after coming off the largest of the large scale events in person?

I think it’s just different. I must admit that me transitioning into pop music over the last 5-7 years has been a lot of that anyway, and we play along with the prerecords, play along to ourselves. So I’m kinda in a covid music flow right now. My team is everything, especially working like this. My drummer is in LA, my keyboard player is in Houston, my guitar player is in Jersey, my engineer is in Atlanta and one in LA, so you can really see the team effort in something like this. 

It’s seamless. You would never know that everybody’s in a different spot.

Yeah, we have a sound. Last summer, I did [FOX’s] The Masked Singer, and MDing a show like that, which doesn’t have a band and is all track, really prepared me for a time like this, moving to track with other live shows. I was still doing my arrangements and hits and dynamic breaks and stuff, so we were in a flow to be knocking out songs fast. It’s been the new norm. [Blackstone is set to MD My Kind Of Country, AppleTV+’s first competition show.]

Where do you see it going? There’s a bill in Congress about saving indie venues - are the smaller experiences going away?

I really don’t know. Because I’m in tune with the sports side as well, it seems like, working from the top down - the bigger venues, it’s going to be hard to book tours because we don’t know when the sports teams are coming back, and they own the venues. If you were to try to plan a tour and NBA season is starting at the same time as your tour, you’re gonna have to get cancelled. For the indie venues, when you think indie you think intimate, so who knows the next time we’ll be able to literally stand next to somebody and sing, and breathe out without it being a possible lawsuit for the venue. I would be guessing like everybody else, but I will say that as artists continue to hone their craft online, I’ve seen and been a part of some really great prerecorded moments, and I think we can continue to push the bar there and people will be fulfilled in a different way. The impact of social media - us being able to tap in and see our favorite artists, and see that they are trying to make music or seeing that they’re affected just like we’re affected.

A little shared humanity is what we need right now.

Exactly.

You’re a Grammy district advocate - what’s your work with Musicares and the recording academy like?

My wife is on the board of the Delaware/Philadelphia chapter. They’ve been at the forefront of this covid thing trying to supply insurance, music lessons to keep the music going not only for the youth, but for people who have lost crew, musicians, techs; people who have lost tons of work and jobs over these last 4-5 months. A little bit of humanness, no matter what the gig is –whether it’s Super Bowl or your local bar or club– people have been out of work, and Musicares has been able to provide funds and literacy on how to continue to make a living.

You have any favorite lullabies?

When my son was born, we listened to jazz for babies. I would play and sing “Over The Rainbow” or “God Bless The Child” or “The Very Thought Of You” or “You Are My Sunshine.” My daughter, being a week old, it’s been my own made up songs and heavy on John Mayer’s “Daughters” - it’s a different feeling. With my son, it was just a blessing to have a child - “The Very Thought Of You” was a big song for me. And “It Is Well,” which is a gospel hymn. The hook says, “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, ‘it is well with my soul.’” With my girl, it’s just like, I’m going to protect you and kill somebody for you, not that I wouldn’t do that for my son ‘cause God knows I would, but it’s a different feeling. The vulnerability she has as a newborn, the vulnerability she has as a woman, the misogyny that I see in our industry, in our world… just look at what happened in the last week with Kamala. I’ve been calling her my dream girl.

I went the other way. I had a girl first, she’s 2 1/2, and we had our son in June. It’s definitely a different feeling.

That’s gonna be your dude, your homie.

I’ve been thinking a lot about vulnerability, and how as men we really suck at talking about that, and as people and Americans specifically. It’s really hitting me how ill-equipped we are at talking about it. Do you feel more vulnerable right now?

Totally. You can blame covid, not the virus, but the time that we’re in [quarantine]. Being at home is forcing you to deal with your own shit. As a touring guy, which I started as, it’s forcing me to be home as a husband. It’s forcing you to deal with a lot of things that, mentally, you may not have dealt with head on. That leaves you vulnerable because you really don’t know if anybody else is going through what you’re going through, and then you store it, and it compiles. This time makes you very vulnerable to be extra emotional, to be hypersensitive to opposition. I’m learning how to disagree with my friends. That’s a big thing - people don’t know how to disagree and they keep it moving and say, “I still love you.” We talked about self care - if I continue to not confront things, I’m not taking care of myself. It’s a deep thing that can be a bad cycle.

I feel like we’re in this age group where you see what your parents did, and I feel like I’m aging in a new way, compounded by staying home and having conversations with your friends about being masked up, who you see, who’s in your circle. As a master of logistics, your creative life has probably informed your ability to multitask and lean into vulnerability, whereas before you might have been able to hit the road or do the gig–

And not address things. Then you restart when you get home without ever having addressed the issue at hand before you left. But I will say, the older I get, the more open I am with my true guy friends. We’re able to have some talks and realize that a lot of people are going through or have gone through what you’ve been through. In covid time, you get excited when you actually see somebody that you care about, so you talk about everything, as opposed to, “How you doin’ man? I’ll see you tomorrow” type of vibe. Having people to count on has been cool, but you’re definitely vulnerable to your own emotion, your own thoughts, your own process of healing from the things your parents may or may not have taught you. The task of making your children’s lives better than what you had. This generational wealth is not just economic, it’s happiness, mental health - everything, man.