Michael Bearden: Lady Gaga's Music Director on Touring, Technology and the Power of Music

Image placeholder title

Michael Bearden is currently logging long hours in production rehearsals for Lady Gaga’s upcoming Joanne World Tour. He's is one of the “go-to” music directors in Los Angeles, having served as a pianist, keyboardist, and music director for Michael Jackson, Jenifer Lopez, Whitney Houston, Madonna, Mary J. Blige, and for the past several years, Lady Gaga. He appears in the film This Is It (2009), served as MD on The George Lopez Show, and has routinely served as conductor at The Oscars, the Grammy Awards and the Emmy Awards. Most recently, Bearden was nominated for several Emmys for his contributions to the Super Bowl LI Half-Time Show with Lady Gaga. 

Following his performance at Ringo Starr’s Birthday Celebration at the Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood, California, I reconnected with my friend and mentor to talk about his storied career.

What gear are you using on Lady Gaga's Joanne World Tour and why?

I’m using Yamaha’s newest keyboard, the Montage 8. I’m a Yamaha endorser and I love using their gear. The Montage has some great new features. The sounds are modern and are in line with what’s going on in the music scene today. I’m also using Apple Logic and all of my plug-ins. Arturia, Native Instruments, Synthogy, Ilio, Spectrasonics, and Nexxus to name a few. I work in Logic to create the transitions and remixes I’ll need for the live show. I’ll create in Logic, present them to Lady Gagaand Richy Jackson (the show director and choreographer) to listen. Once they give me their input, I’ll make adjustments (or not), and then bounce out the tracks to send to my playback engineer Andre Bowman. He’ll put them in a session, balance, mix, do his magic, and then we’ll be ready for me to teach it to the live band.

My music director style is more towards the live element and not toward the recorded one. Most tours these days use some sort of recorded component. Even some non-pop tours use recorded tracks. However, I prefer to utilize musicianship as much as possible. Lady Gaga’s band is amazingly talented, and I like to show off their collective skills. Also, it just feels better when you come to a live show and hear real musicians moving air through speakers. You can listen to the record at home!

How has technology impacted your musical expression on keyboards since you began touring?

When I first started touring, I was very young. Keyboards back then were huge. The Fender Rhodes Suitcase, Hammond B3 organ, Hohner D6 Clavinet, Wurlitzer, etc. Also, when I started, I did not have a roadie. I moved, set-up and took down my own gear for every gig! We’d slip the sky caps a bunch of money to put the gear on the planes for us so we didn’t have to deal with the gate agents. [Laughs.] I'm sure you can't do that these days. Or, we’d rent vans and drive the gear around the country ourselves. There have been many nights I slept on top of my keyboards while the band took turns driving to the next gig.

The first synthesizer I ever bought was a Sequential Circuits Prophet 600. I would create my own sounds on that thing and store them. That was right around the time that MIDI was introduced. That changed everything. Eventually, my setup grew with Yamaha's DX7IIFD, Korg’s M1, Yamaha TX816 rack modules, Korg Wavestation, E-mu Drumulator, Akai MPC60, Roland’s TR-808, Mu-Tron 3 envelope filter, various Boss pedals and a bunch of other stuff. I still have ALL of it too. [Laughs.]

It was hard to keep the stuff in tune on stage sometimes. And, all of the traveling would damage the gear a lot. So, I spent a lot of time in gear repair shops over the years. Keyboards started to become more out front as far as sound goes. Usually, it was always the guitar player. But now, keyboards were dominating the sound on stage. Especially in the 1980’s. As a keyboardist, your musical expression is a vast as your imagination. The early days of having just a couple of organic keyboards on stage had its limits. We were still able to get our voice across on those instruments. But synthesizers, samplers, and the like just opened up a whole new world to us.

The innovation that has been the most useful hands down is the personal computer. Before Apple revolutionized personal computing, touring and creating on the road was a chore to say the least. When I first started touring with Whitney Houston in 1991, the entire band had their personal studios on the road. We’d go from hotel room to hotel room - recording on each other’s projects. It was great, but, not so great for the roadies who had to move that stuff all around the world! Our studios were huge. We had 8-track recorders, drum machines, keyboards, power amps, speakers, compressors, mics, stands, etc. You name it, we had it. And then there was the luggage. [Laughs.] Today, all you need is a laptop, your program of choice, a one octave keyboard (or not), some headphones, a mic (if you're doing vocals or acoustic guitars or something) and you can actually record, mix, master, release and distribute a record from your hotel room. Now that's amazing. And, no roadies are injured in the process. [Laughs.]

Talk about your work with Lady Gaga. Does everything start on piano and keyboards?

Each artist I collaborate with involves a different process. In the case of Lady Gaga, what usually happens is I’ll sit and have lunch with Richy Jackson. We’ll try to figure out what the look, feel and energy of the show will be. Lady Gaga will usually give us some kind of direction or thought pattern she’s had, and we’ll start creating from there. Although we’ve both been working with Lady Gaga for so long now that she really trusts our ideas and will often let us bring something to her. She always has input and will always put her spin on something, but she feels comfortable with what Richy and I create initially because she knows our one and only agenda is to create an amazing show with her.

After Richy and I sit down together and figure-out the vibe, feel and energy, we’ll create a set list, from her vast catalog to give music to the vision. Once we get to this point, we’ll all sit with her and get her feedback. She is super “hands-on” with everything she does. I really love that about her. We’ll bounce around ideas and different angles on the proposed vision until we get something that is unique and feels like a Lady Gaga show. Then we'll talk about the look - fashion is a huge part of the flow of the show, and we’ll make adjustments to the music, choreography and all the other departments accordingly. After we get it all down on paper, we execute it. It's one thing to see it on paper, but it’s another to see and feel it performed. After we go through the performance aspect, we make more adjustments until we’re satisfied with the results. It’s like polishing a diamond. We don't stop until we get it flawless. It's a full collaborative effort with all the creatives and Lady Gaga.

Photo by Shaene

Image placeholder title

Do you use different gear depending on whether you are recording in a studio versus live?

Yes. I do use different gear on the road and in the studio. In the studio, it depends on the project. I recently did a huge project with many sessions that required me to use a plethora of vintage instruments. That music called for a celeste, Hammond B3, Clavinet, Wurlitzer, Rhodes, grand piano, Minimoog and even a tack piano, to name just a few. It was an amazing project and will be out next year sometime.

When I’m on the road, it also depends on the artist and what is needed. It’s always different. I usually like a small setup on the road. I like to have the fewest keyboards possible on stage. I love the ability to just grab some knobs and faders to create on the fly live. Of course, most of the pop shows I’ve done over the years are pretty much set once you go out.

Nevertheless, I don’t like having a lot of keyboards around me on stage. Two or three at the most. If I have to have more, I’ll run them off stage and they’ll usually be modules of some sort. I always have a Yamaha fully-weighted 88-key keyboard of some sort on stage with me. They just feel great. I haven’t totally surrendered to software synths on stage with me. I have amazing techs and they can make anything work. I do use software synths, however, but I just love the reliability of hardware synths. Computers are more solid these days, but I could never have ALL of my keys coming from a computer live on stage. It’s just not how I came up in the business.

How has working with Michael Jackson in the past impacted your musical choices as Music Director for Lady Gaga?

My experience with Michael Jackson in particular has not impacted my musical choices with any artists I’ve worked with since his passing. Although my collective experience from artist to artist, and project to project over my long career, has helped shaped my own trajectory as a music director, I've never used my experience with one artist to impact the next artist I’m collaborating with. Each artist is different. I like to start fresh every time I take on a new project. Michael Jackson was one of a kind. There will never be another artist like him. The conditions that created such an artist no longer exist. Lady Gaga is also one of a kind. She requires her own set of musical choices. I would never try to use an approach I had with Michael Jackson in a Lady Gaga show. I prefer to “tailor make” a personal musical experience for each artist. And indeed, the music always dictates what one should create. You’ll always get in trouble when you think your way is the only way. To be a great music director, you must have the ability to change and make adjustments in whatever situation arises. That agility comes from a variety of musical knowledge, experience, and most importantly, humility.

What do you envision for the future of touring and studio production?

The future of touring, as far as technology is concerned, is only going to get better and better. I was watching my front of house engineer for Lady Gaga, Paul Ramsay walking around the venue tuning the system on an iPad the other day. This wasn’t possible years ago. I’ve seen stages detaching and floating around the arenas. Lasers, LED’s, robots, time coded events of anything imaginable in the touring world just in the last few years. And, it’s only getting more insane! [Laughs.] That’s a good thing. The live show is one of the last places an artist can really make a living for themselves. Touring is a great way for an artist or band to meet their fans up close and really get personal feedback on what they want and like. A smart artist can turn that information into something that’s beneficial for themselves as well as their fans for many years to come.

In the studio, technology is also getting quite insane. My good friend and engineer Bill Malina - who worked on the Super Bowl and other Gaga projects with me, was showing me his new robotic mic moving mechanism. You no longer have to send a second engineer to move the mic around while you're trying to find the right sound. You just press a button and you’re in business! I remember the days of tape rewind and losing valuable creativity and studio time. Now, it’s just a hard drive and a nanosecond. I have software keyboards that actually sound better than some of the originals they are mimicking. My guitar players on Lady Gaga’s tour have pedals that make their guitars sound like keyboards. I’ve recorded full orchestras from around the world via the internet while I’m in Los Angeles. It’s truly remarkable what we can do these days. What an amazing time to be alive!

Who inspires you in music today and why?

There are many artists that inspire me today. I’m always looking to learn and grow and stay on top of the latest trends in music. My favorite popular artist today is probably Bruno Mars. I worked with Bruno on the Kennedy Center tribute to Sting a few years ago and I was blown away by his talent and work ethic. He reminds me of old school showmanship and really takes pride in his craft - singing, writing, playing and performing. What’s really the most impressive to me is that he shares all of the “limelight” with his band. You very rarely, if ever, see that in this business. That’s why he’s winning, and why his shows sound so great. That band and crew would do anything for him. That’s how it should be.

I’m also inspired by some young artists we’re developing, including a very young artist I mentor. He’s already played Carnegie Hall. He’s only 13-years-old now. So there are many artists that inspire me. Try not to buy into the cynical cries that there are no great new artists these days. Just because the radio seems to play a small selected group of artists and songs doesn’t mean that there aren’t some great artists out there. You just have to do a little more work and discovery than usual. And that’s a good thing I think.

You are a UN Global Goodwill Ambassador. How important do you think it is it for musicians to take a stand on socio-political issues?

It’s extremely important and imperative that artists take a stand on socio-political issues. The world is in a cloud of collective dysfunction at the moment. There’s so much hatred and fear - fear of others, fear of diversity, fear of change, fear of equality, fear of unity, and on and on. Separation breeds indifference. If we embraced the fundamental truth that we are all one, then we’d no longer treat someone who looks different or worships differently or loves differently, etc. as an outsider. We’d see ourselves in the other. We would embrace our shared and common humanity. Then, maybe we could diminish or even eliminate all of the world’s fear. If human minds can destroy in a collective cloud of dysfunction, human minds can also repair and uplift in a collective cloud of consciousness.

Paul Robeson said, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth.” Therefore, I think it’s extremely important that all artists, musicians especially, use their collective voices to influence and promote human uplift in any way possible. Music is arguably the most powerful language on earth. It doesn't care about geographical boundaries, or native tongue, or gender, or age, or social status, or disability, or orientation, or religious affiliation or any other manner of unconscious mind barrier. Music does one thing in a great way, it moves the soul of whoever hears it. It doesn’t even matter what type of music one resonates with - once you hear music, you’re immediately affected by it. That’s powerful. It’s a weapon of mass compassion! Music is the greatest uniter in human history. It has the power to move and unite people in a way that no elected politician or royalty ever could. Or will ever be able to. If we all used our talents to uplift souls -no matter the scale, or venue, or market place, we could move hearts and minds to accept our oneness and stop this collective and global fear in its tracks. Darkness is no match for light. Fear is no match for love. Music is both, light and love. This is the role of the artist. Of music. We are in the service business. The service of humanity.

Check out Michael Bearden on Lady Gaga’s Joanne World Tour. Find-out more at http://michaelbearden.com

Image placeholder title

Photo by Jeff Gunn

Jeff Gunn (jeffgunn.ca) is author of the series "Hidden Sounds: Discover Your Own Method" on Guitar (Mayfair Music), guitarist/musical director for Emmanuel Jal, and composer of "All the Roads We Take" (2017).