The Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles will be the scene of legendary executive Clive Davis’ Pre-Grammy Party on Saturday night. It’s a star-studded soiree that’s set to feature performers ranging from Brandi Carlile to Shawn Mendes and esteemed guests ranging from Tim Cook to Nancy Pelosi.
Ahead of his iconic bash, as famous for its star-making as it is for its exclusivity, Davis along with Carlile sat down with Billboard to talk Grammy weekend, Brandi’s record-breaking number of nominations, a changing industry and which music superstar Davis regrets not working with more.
Clive, it’s another Grammy weekend. What makes this year special?
Clive Davis: We try to make every year special. You’re trying to find the best of contemporary music, but not only just from the past year. We were talking earlier about the year I brought Johnny Mathis on, or the year Alicia Keys had a dream of appearing on the same stage as Aretha Franklin. Or how do you reinvigorate someone like Carlos Santana who hadn’t had a hit in 25 years, was in his mid-50s and didn’t do vocals (before his comeback with “Smooth”). You use the party, because you know you have this tastemaker crowd. This year we have representatives from all the streaming services, from Tim Cook and Eddy Cue of Apple, Bob Pittman and all of iHeartRadio. It’s a night that can change an artist’s life, and has. I look at music and try to think what was unique and special during the year, and someone like Brandi Carlile was unique and special so we invited her to perform. We’re also going to do a tribute to Aretha Franklin although Aretha has her own special coming out in March on CBS, I couldn’t let the evening go by without a tribute to Aretha.
There was some press that Nancy Pelosi is coming. How do you choose out-of-the-box guests like her?
Davis: Well, last year we were in New York so we wanted people like Jerry Seinfeld and Tina Fey. Also last year, Alicia Keys did a unique melody of Jay Z’s greatest hits and she told me last week at lunch it changed her life and what it meant to her. She showed she could master the verve and uniqueness and creativity; everybody’s jaws dropped, including Jay Z and Beyonce who were there. She really did herself both good and proud at the same time.
What makes someone like Brandi special?
Davis: First, I love the fact it’s her seventh album and that this album has exploded to the point where she’s the most nominated female at the Grammys with six nominations. You’re talking about the strength of the music and the creativity and message behind it. It’s all going to take her to Madison Square Garden in September
Brandi, this seems like it will be a game-changing weekend in your career. Does it feel like that?
Brandi Carlile: Yeah, and it feels like that right now sitting here with Clive Davis and talking to you. It feels like a game-changer in every way possible, I’m so excited to perform at the party Saturday night, probably even more nervous than the actual Grammys just because of who’s in the room. It’s the absolute best of music royalty, the best speakers, politicians, people in sports, painters…
Who’s the painter?
Davis: David Hockney is coming
Carlile: Clive just explained that David has risen to a level of Picasso while he’s with us, and is really brilliant.
Brandi, I know you’ve said in the past that it feels like a “strange relief” that all of the work you put in for all these years is being noticed on a scale like this. Can you elaborate on that thought? Why is this weekend a “strange relief?”
Carlile: Not to be confused with resting on my laurels, but I feel very relaxed about it. The time and the work that I put into my music, my activism, and the effort that comes along with the changes I made in my life. Thinking about if getting married or having kids would make me less cool and less relevant to people and wondering how my music was being received got exhausting at a certain point, probably in my early ‘30s. When I got the news about the nominations and Clive’s party, instead of an adrenal response, it was this… sigh. Like, okay. I did it. I’m really happy about this and I’m ready for it and after it’s all over, I’m going to go home and change diapers like I do every night. There’s a certain groundedness about this experience for me, maybe because it’s happening on my seventh album. It feels more like a vacation from the stress of wondering if everyone was going to hear my album, to knowing now that they are.
Why in your estimation did By the Way, I Forgive You is having this much of an impact, as opposed to your past six albums?
Carlile: This album was really focused. I was in a position on my last few albums where I was producing them myself with my band and we were doing most of our work in the summertime playing outdoor venues. We’d watch the crowd react to uptempo songs and were feeding this beast of summertime and good vibes. I was really slipping into almost being a full-time entertainer and less of a songwriter that I wanted to be. It got to a certain point right around to the election when I raised a glass and asked that we go inside. And I just didn’t mean inside from the outdoors and out of the summer venues. I meant inside, to question some things about ourselves and what we’ve been carrying around; resentments for people we haven’t forgiven yet, internalized and institutionalized homophobia, sexim and racim, and all not in an observational sense but in a personal sense. When we wrote focused on that, it wasn’t as much as what we were saying, but the culture’s ability to receive it. It all converged during a tumultuous time in the US and that made the album resonate. I’m not a harbinger for that, but I’m a recipient, and really grateful for it.
I want to get both of your thoughts on the rapid change happening in the industry. People who previously didn’t have voice now suddenly do. When you look into the future are you both optimistic? Is there a lot more work to be done?
Davis: I think there’s a lot of work to be done. I’m encouraged that someone like Brandi Carlile can rise above in the midst of a very strong domination by hip hop. Also, we have to think about how is streaming going to affect the music industry in the long term. Right now, it’s very healthy economically, there’s been a boom, we’re expanding and not contracting so I’m hopeful. But I’m also very concerned. It’s important that the next Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen has a chance to get their voices heard. I’m concerned for the big voices in R&B. I want to make sure everyone is vigilant that it not go too far so that individual voices and talent can survive. I’m still working with Jennifer Hudson. How do you break someone who’s so incredibly talented with that voice, yet it’s not easy. If we were to come out with an “I Will Always Love You,” that would not get played today on the radio. How would a song like “The Greatest Love of All” break today? That remains to be seen.
On Saturday night, Clarence Avant will be honored with the Icon Award. What has been his impact in music?
Davis: For many years, no African American executive or artist was signed without them being advised by Clarence. Whether they paid him or not, I have no idea. But for example, if I was making a deal with LaFace record, LA Reid and Babyface, I would deal with Clarence. He was a protector of African Americans whether in the executive ranks or the musicals ranks. With his fairness, dignity and creativity, there will be a segment within the evening of the party where one or two artists will pay tribute to him as he gets the Icon award.
Clive, has there been an artist you would have loved to work with that you never did?
Davis: I wouldn’t rank them, but any original artist who I didn’t work with. One regret was Prince. We got together for one album, but I was really only the dibsurtibor. He had finished and it was quite a unique experience. We went around the country trying to expose his music that wouldn’t get radiplay and wanted to show how unique he was as an artist. I haven’t had too much time to feel deprived of working with many artists; but I’m certainly a great admirer of artists like Mary J Blige, Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, and McCartney now. I signed Springsteen when was young, and my strongest regret is probably that I didn’t spend his entire career with him. We’re still friends and I saw him on Broadway. He’s such a rare, unique person and normally doesn’t do backstage, but if I’m there he’ll never forget me.
Brandi, this weekend ends, and what are you doing Monday, next week, next month? How do you go about maintaining this incredible momentum?
Carlile: I’m going to take my wife and my kids, go on vacation, and thank them for tolerating this year of my life. Without them I couldn’t have done it. Every step of the way they’ve been with me in every hotel room and every tour bus. They’re here now and they’ll be with me on Monday too.