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Coda - The View from the Wheelhouse

 
  Jim McGorman and Avril Lavigne
  Ken McKay

On a recent tour in Singapore, I look at the clock and it's 4:30 A.M., but I'm wide awake in my plush room at the Ritz Carlton. I can't sleep; it's only midday back home in Los Angeles. So I pull out my iPad 2 and Facetime with my wife to check on her and our two dogs.

The life of a touring musician has many facets, some of which I wasn't aware of when I graduated from Berklee and moved to Los Angles to enter the music business. In this ever-changing industry, learning to adjust to change - and to jet lag - has been my saving grace. That flexibility has helped me to develop as a musical director for artists like Avril Lavigne and Weezer.

Currently, I am out on tour with Avril supporting her newly released album Goodbye Lullaby. Onstage I play guitar, piano, cocktail drums, and sing. Sometimes I even sing the lead vocal. I love this gig.

In 2010, I was fortunate enough to play the Vancouver Olympics closing ceremony with Avril. I also played with Shakira at the World Cup Kickoff Concert in Johannesburg, South Africa. Among all the gigs I've done, these two events stand out as special moments. Over the years, I've gotten to work with Miley Cyrus, Cher, the Goo Goo Dolls, Poison, Michelle Branch, Paul Stanley, Kate Voegele, the Corrs, Marc Broussard, and New Radicals. Additionally, I was a member of the house band for Rock Star: INXS and Rock Star: Supernova. And I've played on The Tonight Show (13 times); on shows hosted by David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, and Regis Philbin; and on Saturday Night Live and The View.

But in addition to performing and playing with top-notch musicians, in my role as music director I have tapped and developed a whole new set of skills. By helping to steer the ship for these artists, I have survived and thrived in the industry.

Bringing the Tunes to Life

People often ask, "Why does a high-profile star like Avril Lavigne need a musical director?" Or "What does a musical director do?" I see the role as being a producer for live settings. Over the past five years, my job has progressed to a very hands-on position directing the band, creating set lists, arranging material, and helping shape the overall presentation of the show.

After the completion of Goodbye Lullaby, for example, we created a new 90-minute set list. This task might sound simple. But when an artist has more than 40 recorded songs to choose from, it's a challenge. Avril has had some huge hits, so we start there. Next we incorporate new songs.

These choices can involve difficult tradeoffs. All artists think their newest material is the most exciting, but you have to strike a balance between the old and the new. You must play the projected hits and choose other album tracks to keep die-hard fans happy. You have to be honest about which songs translate well to a live setting. If we play an intimate club, it might be appropriate to play certain ballads or do a full acoustic segment. That may not work, however, in an arena with 10,000 screaming fans.

Though some of these decisions are made on the fly, we like to have a solid set made up before we head out on a run. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. At a recent show in Taipei, we had only one song scheduled for an encore. But by the end of the set, we sensed that the crowd was ready for more. So we chose a new song from the record. We hadn't played it in almost three weeks, but it went over well. We had rehearsed a slow song to perform, but I sensed that it would bring down the crowd's energy, so we didn't play it. You really never feel a set until you get out there and play in front of a crowd.

Music directors play a critical role in making decisions that will help the artist's touring band reproduce the recorded version of the music in a live setting. That can be a real challenge. These days, few bands go into the studio and play together as a unit. Recordings have so many layered parts, sounds, and harmonies that when it comes to preparing to play the songs live, questions inevitably arise. Who plays what part? Who sings what harmony? Which songs should we play? Do we need to alter any arrangements? And while most bands can answer these questions on their own without someone steering the ship, a live rehearsal can quickly devolve into an unproductive battle of egos and a waste of everyone's time.

To prevent these problems, a music director is brought in as the captain. First, he or she should have all the answers to straightforward musical questions such as, "What is the third chord of the bridge?" But beyond that, a director can be a buffer between an artist and the band or between band members. A director may be asked to handle tasks the artist might find uncomfortable to say directly to a band member. For example, the artist may say to the director, "Please don't have so-and-so sing backgrounds on that song; he's always flat." (Every band has people who think they're better singers than they really are.) It's a director's job to make sure the music sounds great without damaging egos.

Some Keys to Success

In this business, you have to be ready for anything. Sometimes you may have to step into someone's shoes - literally. On the set of Jimmy Kimmel Live!, for example, I was playing guitar with Weezer. The band's management told me that everyone should wear matching white track suits. But when I got to the dressing room, I noticed only five suits hanging on the rack - just enough for the band members. When I asked where my suit was, an assistant replied that Rivers, the lead singer/songwriter, had decided to wear a suit and tie instead and that I could wear his track suit. Here's the problem: I am 5'10" and Rivers is 5'6". Though snug, the top didn't look too bad, but the bottoms were another story. To avoid looking like I was wearing floods, I had the bottoms so low that they practically fell off my butt! From the front, my guitar masked the issue fairly well. But from the rear, I looked like 50 Cent.

Though many people think a musician's life is glamorous - and at times it is - there are vicissitudes. For all the amazing experiences I've had on tour and in the studio, I've had periods of unemployment and self-doubt. I certainly don't have it all figured out, but I believe musicians need versatility, diversity, and commitment. Confidence also plays a major role. I have survived by piecing together jobs from every corner of the business.

Some days I'm a music director; other days, a producer; and others, a session singer. To float in and out of circles with artists of varying styles, genres, and ages requires flexibility. These days a professional musician needs to be open to anything and everything. You have to bring creativity, honesty, and enthusiasm to everything you do. So keep playing, work hard, be humble, and cultivate a sense of humor. Finally, when you feel like giving up: don't. You didn't choose music; it chose you.