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Ariana Grande recently partnered with Vevo to produce a series of "Positions" live performances.
Insider spoke with Vevo exec Ed Walker about Grande's creative vision and the collaborative process.
"Ariana is all about live," Walker said. "There is no world in which anything was pre-recorded."
Naturally, fans were growing ravenous. Grande, the most formidable vocalist of her generation, had relied on music videos and Instagram posts to promote her new music. She abstained from the traditional late-night TV circuit and only attended awards shows to sing a few verses for her friends. Unlike many of her peers, she has yet to announce post-pandemic tour dates.
But Grande didn't develop a sudden allergy to the stage - she just hadn't found the right one yet.
On June 20, the elusive chanteuse revealed she had partnered with Vevo to bring fans a series of official live performances.
All six videos were filmed in a single day in May, just four weeks after the creative plan had been finalized. Every piece of the set was custom-built from scratch. For the grand finale on Thursday, Grande delivers a stunning rendition of the album's title track, complete with an on-the-spot looping arrangement that she alone conceived.
According to Ed Walker, Vevo's vice president of original content and production, his team's "amazing" relationship with Grande made the collaboration a no-brainer.
Walker first worked with Grande back in 2016 for Vevo Presents, which involved shooting a mini "Dangerous Woman" concert at a synagogue in New York City.
"I had never really worked with an artist like Ariana before, who was just so crazy talented and collaborative," he said during a recent Zoom call. "She both knew exactly what she wanted and wanted to work on it together."
Walker spoke with Insider about bringing "Positions" to life, the creative changes Grande made, and why her penchant for heels posed a challenge on set.
To start, explain the concept behind an "official live performance."
This is a format that we came up with around two and a half, three years ago. And the objective was, "What can we, as a company, offer artists and audiences that doesn't already exist?" Pretty difficult, because a lot of things have been done before. But personally, when I'm looking at one of my favorite artists or an artist that I'm curious about, I look for a live performance.
I found that there was nowhere to go to see the official live performance of a song. The default would be a late-night performance, maybe an awards show. However, I know - and everyone in the industry knows - those opportunities are very multi-faceted. There's a short time given. Money's a bit of an issue. There are multiple endpoints that you're trying to service.
So we thought about, in the ideal state, what would an official live performance be? What would that process look like? And how could we partner with amazing artists to do that?
Can you walk me through how this collaboration came about?
This process with Ariana was slightly different to some of the other ones, because we got a call from her manager Scooter [Braun] saying, "Ariana really wants to do this format with you." Because she'd been looking at what we've done with The Weeknd and Justin [Bieber], who obviously has the same manager.
What were those beginning conversations like?
Typically we'll have a kickoff meeting with the label manager or the artist's creative team to get a blanket approach - an idea of what they think might work in terms of the world they've created [for an album] or the environment they want us to stay in.
This was an amazing opportunity because we've worked with Ariana a lot before. She knows our work. So she basically said, "For the opening gambit, you guys come to me with a world or a concept that you think I'm going to love, and then we'll build from there."
Micah [Bickham], who's my [executive producer] and also directed this series, had this concept in his head that we've been kicking around for a while - this abstraction of a natural world, but in a confined space with an ethereal vibe to it.
Listening to the album, working with Ariana and knowing what she likes and her vibe, it felt like that was the right approach.
How did she react?
Micah brought together the treatment. I worked with him on refining it. Then we got on a call with Scooter, Ariana, and her day-to-day manager, and presented it.
She said, "I effing love it. I love it. It's amazing. That's the world I want to do." And from that point, we started collaborating on, "What does it actually look like? What does it actually feel like?"
In the initial treatment that we sent over, the top light structure was actually a rectangle. It was really interesting as a juxtaposition between the round ground and the square at the top. But Ariana naturally prefers and steers towards more curved structures.
Did Ariana make any other tweaks or specifications as you were building the set?
Ariana was 100% involved in this, which is incredible for an artist at that level to be. When we're sending an email or a rendering or a sketch, we know we're waiting a little bit longer [to receive feedback] because she's very busy and she's reading everything. We'd get her feedback verbatim.
The impression I got, and from working with her a little bit before, is that Ariana is all about live. There is no world in which anything was pre-recorded, pre-taped, pre-tracked. It was live.
So a lot of the feedback we got was ensuring that the environment was conducive to actually performing live. The band, the configuration of how it all came together - as a totality and each performance itself - was the linchpin that we were steering towards for her.
I know for this series of performances, Ariana was in rehearsals for - I mean, I don't know the exact amount of time, but it was a lengthy period where she practically rewrote a lot of the elements in the songs, so they could be performed live.
Were there any particular moments or live elements that stuck out to you?
The looping at the beginning of ["Positions"] that she did herself with a looping machine. It's legit. It was impressive to see and I'm not sure how she did it, but it happened in real-time.
That was one of the first instruments she had as a child, and she would loop her vocals to make songs up. She told us this story on set, about how it was crazy because she hadn't used one of those loopers in like, 10 years. She got one in the studio and she just used it and then she was like, "Right, we're starting the song with this." It took her back to being in her bedroom.
Her creativity just always came through with how she wanted to arrange the songs - the players, bringing in Dave Matthews Band's trumpeter [Rashawn Ross], all these incredible things that she steered and wanted to do.
Were all six performances shot the same day?
All in one day. From start to finish, Ariana was a complete trooper.
Not to mention, because of the heatwave that was in LA, as we were getting into "Positions," she was sat on the stool - it was quite comical because she was working through it like, "We're good." Assistant director's like, "OK, stand by." We call it. And then the entire room shut down.
The block that we were in LA just lost power because of the heatwave. The city just cut power to the block. So then we had to scramble. We had a generator on-site as a backup. We had to reroute everything.
That took probably an hour and a half of the day. It's just all of these things, but we got through it and Ariana was incredible. She was singing, taking requests from the crew for what songs they wanted to hear during the blackout.
What did they request?
"Santa Tell Me," obviously. What else? And then Ariana's like, "It's funny you say that, that's my mom's song. It's the only song she wants me to sing."
Speaking of on-site hiccups, was there any concern about Ariana walking on that natural grassy ground with high heels on?
Funny you ask. There was concern. Well, not concern - there was awareness of it.
We flagged it to her team and said, "Obviously, we're never going to tell Ariana Grande what to wear, but this is actual soil." And the soil itself was two inches deep with the grass on top.
Ariana was like, "Cool, not a problem. I'll bring shoes for days, and then we can choose the ones that feel comfortable, or work best."
Actually, you can probably gauge the order we shot the songs in by the height of the heels. We started with quite thick, short ones. As the day went on, as she came down from the dressing room, it was like bigger, bigger. She obviously got more comfortable.
Is it standard to do six videos for a series like this, or is that more than normal?
It's not normal. It's a lot. I mean, for Ariana especially, she is singing. And when I say that, it's not in a flippant way. She's the best singer I've ever seen or worked with. And she is properly going for it. And obviously, we put up one of the takes, but she could have sung that song seven times.
When you're talking about "My Hair" with those whistle tones that she's singing in real-time, I don't know how she would do that, but she did. So yes, six songs is such a big ask. But it comes down to the artist wanting to collaborate and power through, which Ariana definitely did.
Can you tell me about the different colors coming from the circular lighting structure? Are those coded for each song according to Ariana's vision, or is the process less specific?
That's a great question. From the very beginning, we collaborate [with the artist] on what the intent is for the color palette, the vibe, and the emotion that it imparts.
We had a very clear idea of the tones and the temperatures we were working with. When we're building with our lighting guys, I sit on set and we work through programming the songs with that in mind.
Once we've done that, and it's all baked and locked in, time-coded to the playback with the band, Ariana comes in. She and her team are obviously there to say, "Hey, that color is going to be very much a no," or, "That color's amazing." It's very collaborative.
We didn't change too much for this one from where we started. There was one song where the color just wasn't something that Ariana loved, so we tweaked and changed it.
Do you remember what the color was?
Honestly, I can't. But I think it was changed more to hit the pastels and impart a strong femininity in the performance. It was more about that than a specific color. She knows what she likes.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
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