If you go to a show, you’re not going to hear anything without the front-of-house engineer manning the boards, and Amanda Davis is one of the best in the business. Davis has helped with Ella Mai’s tours since her first one and worked on some of the biggest Janelle Monáe performances of her illustrious career. So, she knows just how much superstars sacrifice to bring fans a moment they’ll never forget.
“We were doing some festival and up until the last minute, we didn’t know if she could make it, and she eventually got onstage and killed it,” Davis tells REVOLT. “Janelle can sing, and it takes a lot to sing. She had just had food poisoning, and came up there and did a whole show. That was amazing.”
In this installment of “Tour Tales,” Ella Mai’s longtime front-of-house engineer explains what surprises her about the singer’s live show crowds, why working with Prince scared her, and how she balanced two Coachella sets on the same day. Read the exclusive below.
How did you first connect with Janelle Monáe for her “Electric Lady Tour”?
I went to high school with Jeff Cohran and Terrence Brown, her music director at the time. I was in the choir, and Terrence played the piano for the choir. Fast forward, they started working with Janelle, and when she came to them and said she wanted a female front-of-house engineer, Jeff was like, “I know one person. She never toured before, but she does audio. So, let me tell her to send her resume.” It was God’s timing because I was working on a cruise ship, and I did not want to go back on that cruise ship. During the last month of my contract, I was listening to Janelle. I was thinking about how I could approach Jeff and ask him how I could even get my foot in the door of touring, and he ended up calling me before I got myself together to call him.
Since that was your first tour, what were some mistakes you learned from?
There was a moment in a show I thought I would get fired for because Janelle called me back to her dressing room after the show (laughs). Before we hit the stage, we’ll do a “line check” to ensure everything onstage works, and I can see all the lines. So when I open the PA [system] up, it’ll be there, and we’ll have a show. We go through the line check, and it was fine, but I didn’t realize I had this insert on my master bus. Since it was a festival, you didn’t always get a soundcheck, which was the case this time. So, when I opened up the PA, I wasn’t getting anything out of it; it was just nothing. I’m calling back to the stage, “Yo, I don’t have PA; it’s not working.” But they had already called “go” for show. So, it got to a point where the crowd was booing (laughs). It was so bad. So, Janelle stopped the show until I got it together. I had her microphone on one console and the band on a whole other console. So, I was running between two consoles the entire show to mix the show. It was bad. It was really bad.
What was it like to work with two genius artists when you mixed for Janelle Monáe’s co-headlining show with Prince in December 2013?
For the first one, I was scared because Prince didn’t allow us to bring in the console that I usually mixed Janelle shows on. I had never mixed on that console he said we had to mix on. I had never mixed a Janelle show on that console. There were a lot of firsts. It was known that Prince takes up a lot of soundcheck time, so I did not even have that time to build a show. So, I was going to mix Prince, and he’s a stickler about how a show sounds, so it was all this pressure as well.
That wasn’t the only legendary live collaboration you were a part of. Didn’t Janelle, Lizzo, and Shania Twain have an impromptu set at Montreux Jazz Festival?
Yeah. We had just finished Janelle’s show on the festival’s main stage. I guess that night was the annual jam session because Quincy Jones was there. It was crazy. Jon Batiste was there.
Was there a tour she was on that was difficult?
The “EEPHUS Tour” was tough. If that were my first tour, I probably would not be doing front-of-house (laughs). It was a review show, so everybody on Wondaland Records was on it. Soundcheck felt like it never stopped. I never got a break. As soon as you wake up to load in, you will do something all day for 18 hours. I never felt like I ever got a full, real soundcheck. It was like a festival every day. It was just tough. It was really tough.
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Is there any room for your creativity during Janelle’s shows?
There is room for it. It just depends on the artist for the most part. Front-of-house engineer chooses the mics that we’re using onstage. If you’re not being grandfathered into the gig and you get to build it, you can select the mics used. With Janelle, they already have a sound; they just wanted the live version of the records basically. But, Janelle has such a vast catalog, she would do some rock stuff. When she would do a Prince cover, I would do crazy delay throws. It really depends on the artist.
Few artists have evolved as effortlessly as she has. What was the difference between “Electric Lady Tour” and “The Dirty Computer Tour”?
The band was different. She went to an all-female band for “The Dirty Computer Tour.” Actually, when we started the tour, Mike [Phillips] was drumming. So, what changed was our whole configuration. Terrence was no longer with us. The rest of the band were ladies. There was Teja [Veal] on bass. Crystal and Tracy were on keys and horns.
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Her 2019 Coachella performance was one for the ages.
Personally, that was a huge career moment for me because I didn’t get to prepare for that because I was on tour with Ella Mai as her production manager and front-of-house engineer. So, that landed in the middle of our tour. Ella was also doing Coachella (laughs). She had the same soundcheck time as Janelle. Ella’s show ended at the top of my changeover for Janelle. Since their soundchecks were literally at the same time, I told Jeff to let me know when Janelle was headed to the stage. At Coachella, you have to be carted to the stage. The next stage after Ella was a football field over, and I ran over because I wanted to get Ella started since I played a bigger role as production manager. I had to be there even to get the whole production onstage. So, I told Ella what the situation was, and Ella was super cool about it, and both performances were great.
What’s the most impressive thing you’ve seen Janelle do onstage?
We were doing some festival and up until the last minute, we didn’t know if she could make it, and she eventually got onstage and killed it. Janelle can sing, and it takes a lot to sing. She had just had food poisoning, and came up there and did a whole show. That was amazing.
You’ve been with Ella Mai since “The Debut Tour” in late 2018 until her latest “Heart On My Sleeve Tour.” How has her live show evolved?
On “The Debut Tour,” we had a three-piece band. They added a guitar player when we opened for Mary J. [Blige] on the “Good Morning Gorgeous Tour” and on Ella’s current headlining tour. Ella’s also grown vocally. It’s cool to see the growth, grow with everybody, and bring a show to life.
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For Ella Mai or Janelle Monáe, do you remember any interesting fan interactions?
On “The Dirty Computer Tour,” Janelle would bring people onstage. One time, some lady grabbed Janelle (laughs). Janelle yelled, “Consent! Consent!” That was hilarious. What surprises me for Ella is how diverse her fans are. There are old white couples at her shows singing her songs. It’s wild (laughs).
What do you have planned for the rest of 2023?
I’m with Ella until June 2, then I’m back home for a week. And then we go to Australia. After that, I’m pretty open.
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