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Tour Tales | How BLKBOK impressed Justin Timberlake and Rihanna with his elite musical skills

BLKBOK, Rihanna and Justin Timberlake’s musical director, talks impressing Justin Timberlake, Rihanna personally calling and asking him to join her on tour; his debut album, ‘Black Book,’ and more. Read up!

BLKBOK Courtesy of BLKBOK’s team

Musicians are barely getting a slice of music industry revenue, largely eating off of live performances instead. For ‘Tour Tales,’ we dig into the rider requests, delayed shows, diligent preparation, and future of touring by talking with the multitude of people that move behind the scenes. Record executives, photographers, tour managers, artists, and more all break down what goes into touring and why it’s still so vital to the livelihood of your favorite artists. What happens on tour stays on ‘Tour Tales.’

Pianist BLKBOK helped Justin Timberlake tour for the first time outside of N’Sync and knew exactly what to do to get the best out of Rihanna.

“I would do small things that would influence [Rihanna] and get her hype. When we fly on the piano, I would bang the piano to where she can feel it on the beats that were heavy. It would get her completely hype and out of her mind, and she’d just sing harder,” he told REVOLT.

In this installment of “Tour Tales,” BLKBOK discusses building creative chemistry with Rihanna, impressing Justin Timberlake, and bringing his lessons from to his upcoming live shows in support of his debut album, Black Book. Read below!

What was your first major tour?

The first major tour I was on was the “Justified Tour,” Justin Timberlake’s first solo tour. That was my first time out on the road. It was a natural transition. Early on in my childhood, I had come from classical music, then did jazz in high school and college, and then I played with a Blues band. I had all of these genres of music I had been through. So, when I got the call to do Justin, it was easy. It was just going to do the next thing.

Artists like to perform songs differently than how they’re recorded. What changes did you make with Justin’s Justified album for the tour?

I know musicians say we need to jazz it up, but there are also instances when you do not jazz it up. I don’t know if they have spoken to that yet. If you’re doing live TV, you play it how it is on the record. That’s one instance. But, on the regular shows, we kept it true to what it was because it was his first solo album. You didn’t want to take their ears too far from what they’re used to hearing.

How would a typical show go on that tour?

He’s such a dancer, keyboard player, and guitarist, it was one of those things where we were creating a show that gives him the attention that’s needed. One of the things I pride myself on as a past touring musician is to be the best compliment I can be. I never step on their feet, I just support whatever message the artist is trying to get across.

What was the most memorable part of The Justified Tour?

There was a moment when the musical director, Kevin Antunes, couldn’t make the show that night because I think one of his kids got sick and was in the hospital. I had to go in and learn the parts that he was playing and my parts. I had to transition from my space where I was playing to run over and play his parts. Then, I’d run back and play my parts. I went back and forth all night long. When I got done with the show, Justin came up to me and was like, “I don’t know what the hell that was, but you are a hero. I’ve never seen anything like that in my entire life.” I told him, “J, it’s my job to make sure this show goes on as normal. Whatever that takes is what I’ll do.”

What are the tour hits for Justified?

For that tour, there was a song called “Right For Me” that had choreography and was done in a certain way that was really cool.

You went with Justin on the “Future Sex/LoveShow Tour” after that. What was the biggest difference between those two tours?

The biggest difference was the production itself. In the production for FutureSex/LoveSounds, we were in The Round, which was different. We had a four-channel sound, which meant speakers playing in four different directions and had different things in them. So, it was a bit more complex. There were bars on stage where people would sit and order drinks. The stage moved in different directions. It was a completely different beast. One of the things I really admired is how Justin handled the production and how meticulous he was about every little aspect. That’s definitely something I take into what I do now.

Were there any songs you updated or remixed for those shows?

“Until The End of Time.” We did some things with that one. It’s a very simple song. It’s literally four chords, but we took it and expanded upon that idea. I was playing a lot of inflections, and runs that would transition and tie things together. We kinda went crazy with that song and people loved it.

Any bonding moments?

We went to an indoor snowboarding place in Leeds, U.K. I had never snowboarded before, it was my first time, and Justin was my coach. I and another dancer were super young and crazy, so we took the lesson and Justin was like, “Yeah, we’re going to the top.” We were like, “Yeah? We’re going too.” I literally tumbled down an entire hill. It was terrible.

What was the most memorable show on FutureSex/LoveShow Tour?

The HBO special. That was the first HBO concert special. Just being a part of that was a really epic moment. The way it was shot and done was incredible. The interviews done pre-show were done great and it’ll always live with me.

You also worked with Rihanna on her “Loud Tour” in 2011. What was it like for you to play the piano while she sat on top of it and you both were suspended in the air?

I would love to use that idea again for myself. When they first told me about that gag, they came out with a piano bench with a seatbelt on it. I looked at it and said, “Dude, we have to lose this seatbelt.” They asked, “What if you fall?” I said, “If I fall, it’ll be the most glorious fall ever. I’m not scared of it. I don’t want to be strapped down when I perform.” So, they lost the seatbelt, and she and I flew every other night. It was great. That was for “Love The Way You Lie.”

How did you two build that chemistry?

Rihanna and I met each other in the studio when I was working on the Good Girl Gone Bad album. We built a relationship from that, that was completely outside of music. When I got hired by her, it was one of the few situations where I can say I got a phone call from the artist. I didn’t get a call from the manager or the music director. She called me directly saying, “Hey, what are you doing in October? I’m going on tour. Do you want to go?” I was like, “What kind of question is that? Of course, I want to go.” It’s great to have that connection. I would do small things that would influence her and get her hype. When we [would] fly on the piano, I would bang the piano to where she can feel it on the beats that were heavy. It would get her completely hype and out of her mind, and she’d just sing harder. Those little small details like that matter. I definitely carry all of these experiences from Justin, Rihanna, John Mayer, and all of these people into what I’m doing today.

What changes did you have to make on the fly in order for her shows to run smoothly?

There was a case where there was a big misunderstanding and I had to sort that out. For that last piano bit, I would have to come from my regular piano to the riser. I would then get the cue that the song was starting. There was one musician who wasn’t playing during that time, so he would walk off stage. Somehow Rihanna thought that was me that was walking off stage. She addressed me, “Why are you walking off stage?” I was like, “That’s not me, that’s someone else.” She said, “Well, the cue is coming in very late.” I went and found out the cue is going through two extra people it shouldn’t have been going through. So, there have been instances where I have to call in a conference and figure out what’s going on in order to reset the play and call an audible.

What was your favorite show?

Probably the one that got canceled in Dallas because of a fire. I guess one of the spotlight operators lit a cigarette and it lit the chair on fire, and they had to extinguish a fire above our heads, and the show got canceled because it was too much smoke and it was bad. It happened right at the beginning of the show for the first or second song. The first word we got was from Front of House. They told us there was a fire on stage and everyone saw it when we looked up. At that point, the music director called in and said, “Everybody clear the stage.” We stopped the show completely. Rihanna, dancers, and musicians left. The fire department then came and put out the fire, but they said we couldn’t continue the show.

What were some off-stage moments you’ve had with Rihanna that really show your musical connection?

One thing I can say is, after shows, we would just chill and listen to 808s & Heartbreak like, “Yo, Kanye is on a different level.”

After all of these years helping other artists put on their show, you have a debut album, Black Book, out. What is your live show like?

My shows are a culmination of everything I’ve learned over these years. We’re just getting started. I recently did my first few shows in the past couple of days. It’s still a baby and being born, but these things I’ve learned will be brought into my own artistry and into this next phase of who BLKBOK is.

You performed at the Juneteenth Foundation’s Freedom Festival. How was that?

It was great. The audience was super receptive. A lot of what I heard after the show was, “Thank you for being the face that represents this Neo-classical music. We didn’t know we had a place here.” That’s something I want to keep pushing forward; Black people in classical music do exist. There is a statistic that says there is only 1.8 percent of us throughout all symphonies. But, we’re working on changing that number.

Were there any songs on your album created with the thought of how they would be received at a live show?

Yeah, there are some songs I got the vision for what it should feel and look like live after I finished writing them. After, for me, is feeling. It should make you feel immersed in the story I’m telling. The Black Book album is a combination of poems and stories without words, which is an amazing thing to say. I definitely see how the visual aspect ties into the music that has been created for the Black Book album.

What songs have been received well so far?

There’s a song called “King’s New Drip,” which is one of my favorites. A lot of people have hit me about that song like, “Yo, I love this.” For the first song on the album, “Amalia’s Ocean,” people have said, “This is a perfect way to start this album.” I’ve also heard that the last song on the album called “My Life,” featuring Renée Elise Goldsberry, is the perfect dessert. It’s like you’ve listened to a whole song of instrumentals and then, at the end, you get this beautiful voice.

What can we expect from you in 2021?

One thing is I want to bring [is] an immersive aspect to what I do. One of the things I love to see are shows where you get more than just a sonic experience, you also get a visual experience. A long time ago, a wise man once told me, “When you get on stage, half of your audience is blind and half of your audience is deaf.” It is important to discover ways to inspire the eyes. We are inspiring the ears by playing the music, but we must also inspire the eyes. I want to take the aspect of catering to the listeners and the lookers into my live show in 2021 and beyond.

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