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.’
When an artist wants the spotlight, they come to Alexander Jacques. As a playback engineer, it’s been his job to make sure the visuals and sound are all in sync with the performer. The founder/owner of live production company Poppa Jacques Productions has been the better part of 10 years, and has worked with Janelle Monáe, Jidenna, and H.E.R.
“The hologram show was crazy. We had a show where there were three versions of H.E.R. on stage. It was cool because one was playing the bass, one was playing guitar, and there were holograms of three H.E.R.’s onstage,” Jacques told REVOLT.
In this installment of “Tour Tales,” Jacques talks about the work put into Janelle Monáe’s Oscars performance, H.E.R.’s “I Used To Know Her Tour,” and more. Read below!
How did your involvement in Janelle Monáe’s Oscars performance come about?
I probably got brought into the process a month prior to the actual performance. The creative department, as well as Ms. Monáe and her team, they were on it for a minute. They were making sure they chose the right songs, and understood where they wanted to go aesthetically and musically. When it comes to putting together an awards show performance, a TV performance, or just a regular tour, selection of the song and set is literally half the battle. Once you have that foundation then you can start the more creative process. It has to start with picking the songs and the set first…
They chose her song ‘Come Alive’ and I loved that because that song is one of Ms. Monáe’s liveliest records. We’re able to go crazy onstage during that record. When we do that song on tour and for shows, we usually end the set with that song, and it’s usually one of the craziest parts of the show. It’s one big ass party. I knew everyone was going to have to get involved because it was just one of those performances. She got a standing ovation and everyone was super elated because of the energy that song brings.
So, once they picked the song, her creative team was able to be like, ‘Cool, we’ll do Mr. Rogers in the beginning. During the bridge, we’ll bring in Billy Porter to sing this part.’ The performance is an homage to so many different parts of music. One of them was from the movie Us. The whole performance she was shouting out black movies. On verse three, you would think it was the ‘I Got 5 On It’ sample, but it was actually from the movie Us. We were able to incorporate that in the ‘Come Alive’ arrangement. It went over perfectly.
As the playback engineer, what was your contribution to that performance?
As a playback engineer, I’m actually making sure the arrangement of the show is flawless and fluid. So, for that third verse that went into the hip hop feel, it was my job to make that more present in the track and the broadcast. As you could hear and see during that moment right after Billy Porter’s section — we got into that hip hop drop — used that sample from Us and you can really hear where my programming came in. You can hear the beat change, the swoops, the swishes, the booms, and the baps. I came in to help make that more live.
You also have worked extensively with H.E.R. How did you two link up?
I linked up with H.E.R. around fall of 2018 thanks to a good friend of mine Keithen Foster who is H.E.R.’s bass player. We’ve known each other since we were kids back in Boston. He called me up and saw the work I was doing with Ms. Monáe, and he told me he needed help bringing H.E.R.’s performance to a certain level. So, when he called me up, it was a no-brainer because my wife and I were huge fans of H.E.R. Along with H.E.R., her musical director Zo Harris, and drummer Carrington Brown, we put together the ‘I Used To Know Her Tour.’ I love the flawless collaborations that we do together. Sometimes you’ll get playback engineers that are too technical and not musical… I’ve played keyboard for Ms. Monáe for years, so it makes my job as a programmer and playback engineer easier because I’m able to communicate with the band as music director, and I’m able to communicate with creatives about making sure whatever extra elements we’re using for the show are in the forefront.
Break down a H.E.R. performance. How does it differ from Janelle Monáe’s performances?
It’s primarily her two BGVs (background vocals), herself, and her band, which was a three-piece for a long time until they added a fourth player, who’s a guitar player. There’s dancing and jamming out at a H.E.R. show. But, it’s not as much choreographed dancing as there is with Janelle.
What did you do on that tour?
It’s definitely a collaborative effort. Since she’s a phenomenal musician and creator, as is her band and her musical director, it’s a seamless process of everybody collectively brainstorming and making it the best show possible. If she was in rehearsal and said, ‘Hey, I want the lights to do this when the band hits. I want the video to switch and go into this section of the video when we hit this chord.’ Our job is to make sure we’re able to facilitate that. The video director has to make edits on the video. The lighting director has to make edits on the lighting. Me, as a playback engineer, has to make my edits to the time codes. When we put those elements together, we deliver exactly what H.E.R wants.
How was it decided what songs got what sort of lighting?
H.E.R. will have a conversation with creative, as well as with the lighting director to let that person know, ‘This is the mood for this song.’ She’s absolutely phenomenal at trusting people to do their job. She’ll be like, ‘Hey, on the song ‘2,’ I want to make sure the lights turn red. When I start the drum pattern on the drum pad, the lights have to hit every time I hit the drum pattern.’ So, the lighting director’s job is to make sure they program that to a tee. I come in on backend and send timecode information to make sure it starts on time. It’s a super cool collaborative process.
I actually saw a show on that ‘I Used To Know Her Tour.’
Did you see the show with the hologram?
What? No. There was a hologram H.E.R.?
You missed the hologram?! The hologram show was crazy. We had a show where there were two (hologram) versions of H.E.R. onstage. It was cool because one was playing the bass and one was playing guitar, so there were three H.E.R.’s onstage. But, even that process is a timecode issue where me, as the playback engineer, I’m pressing timecodes to make sure that hologram pops up on time when it’s supposed to. The job of a playback engineer is integral when it comes to timing. When it comes to the lights turning red at a certain time, it’s all dependent on time-coding from the playback engineer. I don’t know whose idea it was. It was probably H.E.R and her creative team to be honest.
Beyond the technical aspect, what’s H.E.R’s demeanor on tour?
She’s like the coolest little sister you could ever have. I can’t say anything else more about her. She learns so fast. I’m pretty she could learn how to do my job in a matter of weeks. She’s a really fast learner who is super, super cool. She’s a pleasure to work with. I hope that I’m able to work with H.E.R for her entire career. That’s important to me. As Poppa Jacques Productions grows, it’s important to me that we stick with our clientele and artists for years because integrity matters.
What was the most memorable show on the ‘I Used To Know Her Tour’?
We were direct support for Childish Gambino in Europe. We had a show in London at the 02 Arena (on March 25, 2018). To see H.E.R. in front of that stage with about 20,000 lights from people’s cameras and cell phones was probably our most memorable show because we hit an arena. The moment was super, super surreal.
On tours, you become family because of the time you spend together with everyone. What are some things you did on tour as a family?
This goes for any artist, but there are off days, and I’ve done bowling, group dinners, and group movies. I’ve definitely done shopping. That’s therapeutic for some of our tour pros (laughs). We might hit up Sneaker Politics in Dallas. We did some shopping on the H.E.R. tour. We went crazy in Indonesia one time. We had an off day in Indonesia and we all were like, ‘We have to find the mall out here.’ We all got in cars and went shopping. It was a dope experience having everyone there.
What is the most underrated part of your job?
Basically, running the show. As a playback engineer, you literally run the show, especially when it comes to everything digital and electronic onstage. Everything runs through the playback system.