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Clive Davis and Brandi Carlile Talk Pre-Grammy Gala, Variety’s Patti Smith-Inspired Cover

Clive Davis and Brandi Carlile Talk
Jem Aswad

Now in its 43rd year, the Clive Davis Pre-Grammy Gala is famously the music industry’s hottest ticket, an invite-only affair held the night before the Grammy Awards and loaded with the kind of A-list guest list that only Davis could assemble. Organized by Davis with his son, attorney Doug Davis, it’s legendary as a platform for exclusive superstar performances — over the past few years we’ve seen everyone from Mary J. Blige to Barry Manilow sing — and also a rite of passage for younger artists ranging from Chance the Rapper to Alicia Keys. At last year’s event, Jay-Z was the honoree (and was feted with a solo medley of his hits delivered by Keys) and Davis announced that Jennifer Hudson had signed on to star in a forthcoming biopic on Aretha Franklin. Hudson then delivered a medley of Franklin’s hits before the singer herself, who was in attendance in one of her last public appearances before her death in August.

While the list of performers is secret, Davis usually lets a few details out beforehand, and Thursday he sat for an interview with one confirmed performer — Variety cover star and multiple Grammy nominee Brandi Carlile — and also confirmed that an Aretha Franklin tribute will take place. The gala will take place Feb. 9 at its usual site, the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, and confirmed guests include Shawn MendesMaren MorrisBebe Rexha, Ryan Tedder, Florida Georgia Line and legendary jazz keyboardist Chick Corea, and it’s not a stretch to think that some of those artists will perform as well.

Brandi, is this your first time attending the party?
Carlile
: Absolutely! Of course, they’re legendary, but this is the first time I’m going — I’ve been hearing about it for 18 years.

How are you holding up with all the attention since the Grammy nominations were announced?
Carlile: I think I’m doing pretty well, (she and Clive laugh), I’ve got some perspective: at the end of the day I still have to go home and change diapers and I’m still a mom, so I can do all these things and still be myself because I’m at a place in my life where this kind of attention feels balanced.

Clive, can you tell us anything more about what to expect at this year’s gala?
Davis
: Anything more? I haven’t said a thing yet! (laughter) It’s very gratifying that the party has become known for a [unique] experience musically, and we do certainly make an effort not only to show the best contemporary music, but over a wide spectrum. It’s exciting that someone like [House] Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is at the frontier of a very troubled era, and yet she called me to say “I’m coming back, this is one night of the year I would never miss.”

I’ll bet she gets the biggest applause of the night!
Carlile: I hope they’re all gonna do it like [Pelosi’s now-infamous clap toward President Trump during the State of the Union]. I know I’m gonna be doing it!

Davis: And this year we are going to honor Aretha, obviously an artist who loved the evening. I had lunch with Alicia Keys last week and we were reminiscing about her first year at the party, 2001. I said to her, “I have good news and bad news, the good news is I’ve invited you to perform.” She said, “Great, well, what’s the bad news?” Well, Angie Stone had a hit with a song that sampled the great Gladys Knight’s classic “Neither One of Us.” “Gladys is going to come up and sing ‘Neither One of Us’ with Angie, and of course I can’t let her leave the stage without doing [Knight’s 1973 hit] ‘Midnight Train to Georgia.’ And you’ll be following that.”

Carlile: That is bad news!

Davis: But with unusual maturity, she said, “I’ll just do the best I can.” So there are many special things — we just learned Joni Mitchell is coming, Brandi was just telling me the influence she had on her.

Carlile: She changed my life. She’s such an inspiration.

Speaking of inspiration, Clive, we thought you make pick up a reference in the photo on the cover of this week’s Variety [which was inspired by Patti Smith’s legendary 1975 debut album “Horses,” which Davis released].
Carlile: Can you pick out what we’re trying to do with that?

Davis: This is fabulous! Wow.

Clive, what were your first impressions of that album and its cover?
Davis: In signing Patti, I knew that I was dealing with a young, spirited renaissance woman. I had no idea whether she would have hit singles, you’re looking at someone fusing poetry with rock in a unique way. She would lead the way, I was just observing – this was her work, her creative effort. She was and still is one of the greatest artists I’ve ever worked with.

Clive, Arista’s early releases were Barry Manilow and the Bay City Rollers — “Horses” was so different.
Davis: Let me tell you, before I started Arista, when I was [president of] Columbia every, I worked with Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Aerosmith and Billy Joel. But at Arista I began with pop: Barry Manilow, Eric Carmen, Melissa Manchester, the Bay City Rollers. But I really wanted cutting-edge artists too, so I signed Patti and Lou Reed and Graham Parker and the Grateful Dead and the Kinks, so I was just thrilled to have her. I wasn’t trying to have just one kind of artist.

Carlile: Well, I’m just listening to you talking about this music that’s impacted my life so completely as a person, not just as an artist. It’s interesting you’d mention Annie [Lennox] and Patti and Joni and Buffy Saint Marie, the way these women have impacted me as an artist and my sort of left-of-center gender representation through the course of my life, feeling very masculine as a young kid to being slightly more androgynous in my early 20s to embracing my femininity in my late 20s to landing wherever I’ve landed now — all those transitions and fluidity have always just felt like style to me because of those women, and it’s never felt so profound that I’ve had to worry about it because of the path that they’ve paved. That’s my homage to Patti Smith, the way that she’s pioneered the abstract gender sensibility both vocally and physically in the way she manifests herself.