Q&A: GRAMMYs Exec Producer Ken Ehrlich On Big Surprises & Beatles
By Courtney E. Smith
It’s almost that time — the 56th annual GRAMMY Awards will air on CBS this Sunday (Jan. 26) at 8 p.m. ET. In advance of the event, we talked to the show’s longtime executive producer Ken Ehrlich, who told us about saving Macklemore’s “Same Love” for a GRAMMY moment, how Kendrick Lamar suggested a collaboration with Imagine Dragons he would never have imagined, and what goes into getting two Beatles together.
When you first saw the list of nominees for this year, who popped out and made you excited to think of working with?
I actually like the Best New Artist category. I think it’s a really interesting category. Some of them I’ve followed and watched the last year and I think they’re really terrific. I really have enjoyed getting to know Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. They’re interesting people. That whole category stood out to me. It’s not every year that each artist is so different and so interesting, and this year it is. I think Ed Sheeran is in that list. It popped out and said this is going to be fun, using that as a barometer.
For new artists like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis who have already played the GRAMMY nominations concert, what goes into making their performance on the telecast different?
We had a plan with them, frankly. By the time they hit the Nominations Live show they already had three hits. We decided that “Thrift Shop” would be the number we should do on the nominations show because it moved, it was fun and it showed one side of them. But the reality of it, if I want to be honest about it, is I was really saving “Same Love” for the GRAMMYs show because I think that is a song that has meaning and it’s special. I think it’s really an important song. Not that we wouldn’t have thought about “Thrift Shop,” but because they have “Same Love,” we thought that’s the song for the GRAMMYs. And when you see the treatment that we’re going to do with it and what’s going to happen, I think you’ll understand why we saved it for the show.
In the process of planning this years performances with the artists, who came to the table with the idea that most surprised you?
A lot of them. This is a very collaborative process. Sometimes we’ll go to the artists with ideas and sometimes they’ll come to us. This year, I was thrilled because we had a meeting with Kendrick Lamar and right out of the box came the idea for working with Imagine Dragons which I don’t think I would have thought of on my own necessarily — but love the idea that [Kendrick] did. They’ve come up with what I think is really collaborative. It’s probably the truest mash-up of the batch this year, although I probably shouldn’t say that.
You know, all the sudden you’re on the phone with the manager of Metallica and he says, “We’d like to do the show with [classical Chinese pianist] Lang Lang,” you go — “well, uh, um okay!” That’s exciting.
Then there’s when two Beatles decided they want to do the show, that’s interesting too.
Tell us about getting Paul & Ringo together.
We’re not saying much and it’s purposeful. The way it came together was, as you know, the night after the GRAMMYs we’re taping a two hour special that will air on the actual fiftieth anniversary of when The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan. So, when Paul and Ringo agreed to be a part of that show, and obviously both Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison are coming in for that as well, we said, “Well, let’s talk about the GRAMMYs.” And Paul is nominated for some GRAMMYs this year — and the Beatles are getting a lifetime achievement this year. It all fit together. It was about figuring out performanes. We’re going to leave the rest of it open to the public’s imagination.
In the time that you’ve been doing it, since 1980, what has been the biggest shift in producing the GRAMMYs?
We’ve just raised the bar. Honestly, and I hope this doesn’t sound wrong, we want to top ourselves every year. It starts with people coming up to you [after each show] and saying, “This was amazing, how can you top it next year?” Then you kind of go into a corner, shake a little bit and say, “Okay, we better figure this out.”
Which performance are you most looking forward to seeing this year?
I take a page from my songwriter friends who, when they get asked this question say, “Well all my songs are my children and I can’t pick just one.” All of my performances are my children. Don’t make me pick.