The tour's music producer has a few confessions.
A few days after Madonna’s The Celebration Tour kicked off at London’s O2 Arena to a sold-out crowd and rave reviews, the tour’s music producer Stuart Price – previously a part of the pop icon’s orbit as the co-producer on her high-BPM classic Confessions on a Dance Floor – welcomed Billboard into his London studio.
The English producer/DJ’s flat is in the thick of the fashionable Notting Hill district — close enough to the action that during the annual Notting Hill Carnival, Price says “the alarms in the studio always go off because there’s all these bass systems pummeling through the walls.”
The second-floor recording studio is a clean, neatly arranged space dotted with guitars, comfortable chairs and a cornucopia of electronics, much of it vintage (at least by the ever-shifting standards of technology). As we speak, Price is seated next to the wood-paneled board he used to mix Confessions; not far from it casually rests the $250 microphone that Madonna used to record a number of songs for that 2005 LP.
With no live band backing Madonna’s 78-date trek – her original recordings take center stage on this tour — Price’s role as music producer has afforded him more opportunities for input and innovation than someone in the same role might have on another pop star’s tour. To that end, The Celebration Tour includes sonic Easter eggs and clever references for the faithful to parse as they’re engulfed in an aural and sensory journey through the life and art of Madonna.
For as much time and thought as Price has put into the Celebration Tour, he’s certain it pales in comparison to what the Queen of Pop has invested in it. “As much as Madonna demands of anyone working with her, she demands that much of herself as well,” Price tells Billboard. “It’s always in the pursuit of, ‘How can we improve this? How can we aid the arc of the show?’ It’s nice to have a show you can unpack whether through memories or during a second visit. It’s a show that can keep giving.”
Of a tour that covers four decades of classics – and is notably her first tour not in support of a new album – Price opines that, “It’s impossible to look back without looking forward.” Referring to the airborne platform that permits Madonna to float above the crowd during Live to Tell and Ray of Light, he explains, “That’s why there’s a window frame in the show. That window frame is about reflecting backwards and reflecting forward as well.”
From providing glimpses into his creative process with Madonna to revealing certain audio Easter eggs that pop up during the show to potential setlist changes, here’s what Stuart Price told Billboard about working on Madonna’s The Celebration Tour.
I’m going to start with a granular question. In the Celebration Tour, Like a Prayer is melded with bits of Sam Smith & Kim Petras’ Unholy and her own Act of Contrition, which features electric guitar from Prince.
The medley is inspired. Was everything from “Contrition” that appears in the tour from the album? There were some parts of the Prince solo where I was listening and thinking, “I don’t quite remember this bit.”
Part of the joy of working on this tour specifically was how we were going to approach featuring original recordings. It’s a tour which is essentially biopic in style, documentary in style. When you see a great documentary you get archival footage, a real taste of stuff that happened at the time. Madonna’s archive of multi-track recordings covers a vast era: multi-track two-inch tapes all the way through DAWs today. When you work in a DAW today, you delete what you don’t use, and the file is gone. But the old tape multi-tracks, everything was recorded and what was muted was done at the time of the mix. So if you now listen to those recordings 25 years later and have the channels open, you hear all this stuff that was not present in the final recording but is available. I used everything I could of the guitar because it’s incredible. For a tour that is connecting memories of relationships, partnerships and musical experiences, using original stuff is so important. If you’re able to find stuff in that original recording that no one has ever heard, you’re actually getting to peek behind the curtain.
Was there anything else like that?
There’s another moment like that at the beginning of Erotica. We were searching for atmosphere for the intro — Erotica begins with this big, booming bass line and we needed to fill some time. In the original multi-track to Justify My Love, there’s this great moment about 30 seconds before the song begins. Madonna gets into the vocal booth and she’s waiting to record and she’s getting into the mood of the song and Lenny Kravitz appears. He says something very innocent like, “We’re gonna put some reverb on your voice, we’re gonna f–k with you a bit.” And she says, “That’s okay, you can f–ck with me.” It’s such a great soundbite. That’s a great example of this thing that’s from the time but has never appeared.
The tour features music from Prince and a bit of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. I’m guessing the estates gave their blessing.
I approached everything on a musical level for the tour, I don’t know relationships or how they do that.
Billie Jean appears in “vs” form alongside Like a Virgin. The “Virgin” vocal struck me as slightly different from the original.
Like a Virgin, the vocal from that is the original recording. There’s a few things happening in the show. There are segues or mashups of songs where you just need to make it work. So that might involve transposition or time correction or stretching or shortening or whatever it is. When you’re trying to pursue storytelling ideas through music, you should never let a technical consideration get in the way. If you do that, you’re diminishing the strength of the idea. We may change the key of the song because it’s better for Madonna to sing — the A note is to serve the arc of the show. There’s probably elements of time crunching that happens.
Opening the show with Nothing Really Matters was totally unexpected, and the setlist includes a few songs she hasn’t done in decades. Was the setlist locked by the time you got involved?
I first talked to Madonna about this tour in February of this year. When we first spoke at the time, she was already prepared with her full pages of setlists and ideas of exactly what she wanted to do and how she wanted to do it. The phone call was actually Madonna directing what the show was going to be. Her preparation is always so considered. Much is always made of Madonna’s collaborators, but there’s no two ways about it: She’s considered everything before she even gets into the room with a collaborator. And it’s fantastic to work with someone with such strong direction. So to answer your question, the setlist was almost fully realized.
On opening night, she was very candid about the bacterial infection that sent her to the hospital and postponed the tour. When she was in the hospital, did you ever wonder if the tour might not happen?
For a tour you’ve been working on for such a long period of time and that’s had so much time invested in it — especially by Madonna — when you take a break for it, the only thing you focus on is “what’s the end result of what happened here?” To me that is someone who looks so strong, so healthy, sings so great and moves so great. Your experience when you see the show is one of wonder. Not just creatively but artistically as well.
Her voice sounded amazing. And she does Ray of Light, which is a tough one to sing, and nails it.
In terms of building the show, top of the list is got to be, “Can we make something that is enjoyable to perform? Can we make something you feel confident doing?” The number one reason for doing that is it’s all about the vocals. To give a singer the platform to sing and be themselves is the number one goal. All this stuff is aimed toward, “Does Madonna feel like she can hold the microphone and really go for it and deliver on it?” I love a comment I’ve received from fans after the show. A couple fans go, “Is that all tape vocal?” To me, that is the biggest compliment because it’s all live vocal. There’s a couple of spoken word sections in the show where we just use track. But it’s all live vocals; there’s backing singers — there always has been — but it’s all live vocals. I hope that you hear the humanness of the vocal coming across as well.
Well, you certainly knew it was live on opening night when there were sound issues on Burning Up — she even joked about it.
One thing I marvel at – I go to a lot of DJ shows, and what’s the biggest cheer of the night? Is it the beginning of the show, the end of the show, or when the DJ accidentally knocks a fader or button and the whole thing stops, the DJ pretends it wasn’t them, points somewhere else and gets this huge reaction from the audience? Because it says, “This is real. It’s fragile.” After eight months of rehearsal, the factor that changes is the audience. There’s a heat, a bunch of extra noise, and on that night, there was a technical hitch with the computer system on Burning Up. Whilst anyone responsible for the show is concerned, there’s this other connection going on between Madonna and the audience, which is completely improvised, off the cuff and more importantly a real human connection. It’s a unique human thing that happened for the night.
And it gave the audience a few minutes with her, totally unscripted, which was great. When you’re watching the show now, are you still making tweaks and fixes?
Yeah. The day you lose desire to keep improving is the day you should step aside. If you’re invested in something and care about it, it’s impossible to be an artist and not constantly be considering how you can improve or evolve over the course of a tour.
There are a lot of clever audio moments in the show. I love when the camera is rotating around Bob the Drag Queen and we hear the Lucky Star synth roll as it moves. Are there any deep cuts most people won’t notice?
Sure. Actually, prior to that movement, the startup noise of the show when Bob the Drag Queen comes on and says, “it’s show time,” there’s this sort of slow-building motorized arpeggio sound. And it’s building momentum like a clock or disco ball spinning faster. (It’s) from the song Lucky Star — there’s that iconic arpeggiated sound. I took that and we just stretched it out as long as we could. And then we stretched it a little bit further until we could break it down into individual component noises. So that speed-up is coming from the original Lucky Star arpeggio deconstructed and gradually sped up until it gets to original speed.
There’s a little moment right before Live to Tell which is a very emotional part of the show, where there’s a reference to In This Life” When you look at her volume of work, there’s gotta be more than 70 hit songs. So how do you approach 70 hit songs in a two-hour show? The answer is by creating a continuum of references, of lyrics, of melodies of as many songs as possible, whether it’s a bridge or an overlay. (You hear) In This Life between the end of Holiday, which is about the death of people in that era, and using it as a transition into Live to Tell. And using a spot of Angel as a transition from Billie Jean into Bitch I’m Madonna. That’s how you collect all these songs.
When she called you up, was the decision to forgo a band already made?
Madonna, right from the start, decided she wanted to present the show in a different way. And she wanted to do it in ways that were noteworthy. With this tour, I thought it was fascinating that she’d decided, “I want to come out, be me, sing the songs and perform them front and center.” Whilst I love having a band on stage, I thought it was an interesting idea she wanted to do for this. Within that discussion came conceptually how do we create a set of performers from original recordings. The answer was, we’ll feature the recordings: we’ll deconstruct them, manipulate them, reinvent, juggle and use parts that haven’t been heard before.
When you get to a gallery or a museum and see a sculpture, you don’t just experience it in fixed, static two dimensions; you get to walk around a sculpture and study it from different angles. Wouldn’t it be exciting if we could do that with music — study it from different dimensions? Those are different ways to peer inside.
And it’s pretty amazing watching her kids perform during the show. Mercy James’ piano playing was so impressive.
All Madonna’s children are gifted individuals and they’re musically gifted. It’s impressive getting to witness contributions that large in a stage show. Mercy’s piano playing is just stunning. David as an individual – as a singer, as a guitar player – you get a sense of his wonderful personality, it’s so infectious. Estere and Stella – same thing.
Is it possible you and Madonna could be working on new music?
You measure a working relationship not by the gaps between but by how easily you pick up again from when you left off. As soon as we started to work together on this tour, the shorthand was there. We were able to create productively. The key component of working together is “do you understand each other?” And musically, are you able to challenge as well? That’s how you get the 1 + 1 = 3 outcome. So, I’ve really enjoyed working together again. [laughs]
Can we expect setlist changes or surprises as the tour rolls on?
I think… Madonna’s reputation is for always having a highly rehearsed, highly choreographed show and she provides the element of dynamicism with her interactions. But at the same time, her mind keeps evolving and reaching further. And it’s common on her tours to start to perform to audiences, feel what works and where there’s an opening to do something new. It would be foolish to not take opportunities to act on inspiration. It’s a long tour. Right now, what audiences are seeing is the pure form rehearsal version of the show, and as it goes on, there will be an evolution.
London’s O2 Arena has an 11 p.m. curfew, and on opening night she went a bit over. What makes it difficult to start on time and hit that curfew mark? What’s happening in those 15 minutes before it starts?
Yeah. Well, what goes on is preparation, preparation, preparation. Madonna is committed to always showing up on stage in a zone of confidence and inspiration. Every day before the show there’s soundcheck, there is rehearsal in the soundcheck. I think being so uncompromising about making sure the show doesn’t have anything that could be overlooked takes a certain amount of time. It’s interesting, in my experience – I worked with Madonna [on tours] in 2001, 2004 and 2006 – the ticket always said 8:30 and she was always on by 9. And on this tour, the ticket said 8:30, and she’s been on by 9. No one is delaying for delaying’s sake.
What’s your favorite moment in the tour?
Emotionally, the strongest moment in the show is Live to Tell. It’s powerful. It’s a reminder that Madonna has soundtracked a lot of our cultural history. It’s so striking because she’s addressing people that have been lost, people that were friends, people that were muses and collaborators. You see them on the screen, and they’re gone, and Madonna is still here, having been with those people, and now singing to them. It’s hard not to feel something on a human level.
Also, when the opening happens, it’s so powerful. Nothing compares to the moment when someone comes out in such strong voice, looking so powerful. It really hits you. That’s what the audience will connect to – and in turn what Madonna will connect to from the crowd. That relationship is what it’s all about.
I also love Nothing Really Matters as the show opener because of the line, “Everything I give you / all comes back to me.” That seems sort of like a theme of the overall show.
The Easter egg there is the end of the song. What she did is repeat the lines “in your arms, in your arms.” She says it once on the album but four times live, because that’s the message.