Light Up the Stars: The Secret Behind Grammy Performances

From by Mila Pantovich
Light Up the Stars: The Secret Behind Grammy Performances

Leroy "Roy" Bennett is proof that you don't have to get up on stage in order to make a mark on the music industry. Along with fellow designers Cory Fitzgerald and Tobias Rylander, Bennett conceives visually striking performance environments for music's top artists through his company Seven Design Works.

With a client list that includes Beyoncé, Jay Z, Bruno Mars, Queen and Paul McCartney, Bennett has been dominating the set design and lighting scene for over 30 years. We caught up with the busy designer to chat about his road to success, the secret behind lighting different artists and that one time Prince made him cry. He also spilled on his three clients (Lady Gaga, The Weeknd and Jack Ü) who were nominated and performed at Monday night's Grammy Awards. 

the weeknd, seven design worksPhoto Credit: Todd Kaplan

Bennett was always obsessed with music, but knew that being on stage just wasn't for him. Instead, he decided to work behind-the-scenes by helping his friend's band set their equipment up on tour. Naturally, that led him to handling their lighting. "I wondered at that point if I could perform musically through lights … and it all started to click," he said. Afterwards, he worked as a lighting technician for a few years before finding himself in Los Angeles, working for a company that recommended him to one of their new clients. "This is late 1979, so the next client that came through was Prince," says Bennett. "It was at the beginning of Prince's career, it was his third album … and he was still relatively unknown."

leroy bennett, paul mccartneyPhoto Credit: MJ Kim

He worked with Prince for 14 years and gives the iconic musician credit for not only involving him in everything he did—from music videos to concert tours—but for challenging him. "He would push me … out of my comfort zone, but I knew I could do it. Working with him for those years, because he's a musician's musician, it got me exposed to all these artists who came to see our shows." From there, Bennett's career snowballed, with countless artists offering him jobs. In the '80s and '90s, he designed sets for The Cure, Nine Inch Nails, Janet Jackson, David Bowie, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Van Halen, Sinead O'Conner, Paul McCartney, The Who and Queen. 

The wide array of artists he has worked with represent very different genres, making it impressive that Bennett is able to create distinct lighting personas for each individual performance. "Every artist portrays their music emotionally different than others," he explains, adding that he always focuses on the musician and never himself. "It's an understanding of who the artist is, where they've been, their past, present and possibly where they're heading." A very big part of his job is to first understand who the client is as a creative individual. Then he "[twists] things up enough that it starts to push them in a new direction … [while] not losing who they are. Every song has its own story and you have to portray that emotion in a very abstract way."

joy williams Photo Credit: Andy Barron

Since the stage and lights work together, Bennett first starts with the "shape and feel" of the show. While some stages offer an immediate impression, others come to life only after video and lighting have been incorporated. While some sets are a collaborative process between the designer and artist, others are entirely Bennett's doing. For instance, the Jack Ü/Bieber Grammys performance was a group venture, as was Lady Gaga's Bowie tribute, but The Weeknd gave him free reign to go in whatever direction he wanted. 

"The Jack Ü/Bieber performance was a concept that was developed as far as overall looks. The color spectrum was based off of the Jack Ü logo ... keeping it clean and simple and being able to dynamically grow with the song. With The Weeknd, we created a room for Abel to perform in. Originally, both songs were going to be performed inside of the 'room,' then In the Night changed to being outside. We wanted to create layers of light and video. Gaga was based on integrating Intel technology into her tribute to Bowie."

NIN, nine inch nails, Tension Tour Photo Credit: Steve Jennings

Creating such an experience is bound to take some time, which is why Bennett generally requires four months—especially if he has to design an entire tour. Though that doesn't mean he hasn't done it quicker. "I've had to put things together in six weeks. You don't want to do that and I've warned heavily against it, but there are some people who don't realize what it takes to put stuff together." Four months may seem like a long time, but when you consider the technological complexities present in some of Bennett's stage designs, it makes sense. "Working with Trent Reznor [of Nine Inch Nails]," he says, "we've always pushed the edge of technology more than anybody else." These shows often feature layers of pre-rendered and real-time content reflected on LED screens, organized in a way that looks like the lights are organically responding and moving with the music itself.

It may be challenging, but nothing seems impossible to Bennett, not after that first day at Prince's rehearsals. "Everything else is much easier! The first five days were hell. I had to go back to my hotel room and cry."

Lady Gaga The Monster Ball Tour 2010Photo Credit: LeRoy Bennett

Considering many of his clients are award winners, it has probably been a long while since Bennett has had to hide in a hotel room to cry. During the Grammys, The Weeknd won for Best Urban Contemporary Album and Best R&B Performance, while Jack Ü took home awards for Best Dance/Electronic Album and Best Dance Recording. “There’s nobody like [The Weeknd]. He’s found this niche of … dark pop and R&B. His songs are very cinematic … [and] his stories are very visual in the lyrics. It’s the mix of Michael Jackson and Trent Reznor together—he doesn’t have that pop star persona.”

“And Jack Ü is brilliant. Between [Diplo] and [Skrillex], what they’ve done for [Justin] Bieber is genius—he was within inches of splatting onto the ground. They’ve taken a song [Where Are Ü Now] that Justin wrote with a piano and vocals, and they’ve turned it into what the song is. It’s a beautiful, very personal song. They’re at the top of what they do.”

the curePhoto Credit: LeRoy Bennett

So, when looking back at his long resume, what moments stand out the most? "Playing for 500,000 people in front of the Coliseum in Rome with Paul McCartney was awesome. Playing Red Square with Paul, the first time a Beatle was in Russia … that was amazing. The opening night of Purple Rain in Detroit with Prince was phenomenal. The years I worked with The Cure, that was fun. I don't want to leave anybody out, because I've worked with so many people. Working with Beyoncé is great—she's a strong, very talented woman."

"I've worked with some incredible artists and I feel incredibly lucky. I don't think about it very often, but if I just take a moment and look … I go, 'Holy sh*t.'"