From Wynonna Judd to 2016 Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year Award winner Jason Aldean, LD Keith Hoagland has worked for generations of country music superstars. At times, he’s turned the lights down low to reflect soft reflective style of a client, at other times he’s all out there with a full blown eye-searing lightshow that matches the intensity of any rock concert.
Hoagland has also spread his creative wings beyond country working in various capacities for artists like Usher. Throughout it all though, this Nashville based LD has kept his design focused on the core country music principle of storytelling. We talked to Hoagland about his design philosophy. Like a good country song, his insights resonate far beyond Nashville.
One of the things many of us like most about country music is that it is really a story telling art form. Every song is kind of like an unfolding narrative. When you light for country are you aware of this? Do you support the stories in the song with your lighting design?
“Most of my designs come with one main core theme, which is either based off of one of the songs in the show, or main gag effect. I try to build around that one idea to add on as many other effects or gags to fit within the budget. These gags or effects are all based off of what that one song or theme point we are trying to highlight from our artist. So there is a specific theme to the design.”
We may be wrong, but it seems to us that country artist do more touring than average and that they tour in a wider variety of venues from large arenas to smaller halls. Do any of these things affect what you do as a designer?
“Yes – touring is a huge hurdle for us. Its impact on design is something that you should always consider as an LD. You have to be mindful of where your client is going to perform. Designing a huge system that looks amazing on paper and in a stadium is not going to work as well at an 8,000 person venue. So thinking about where my client is performing throughout the design cycle is huge with me.
“The last thing you want is to have two thirds of your system sitting in the semi-trucks while your client is putting on a show. This would be seen as you not being a very good steward of your budget, which could lose you your job next time around. I wish we did not have to think about size limitations or budgets or safety, but all three play into any and all design systems. Leaving one part out is asking for hardship and/or failure of some sort. I rather have a great working design that can expand to fit the venue (if playing a one off larger venue) by adding more to it, or squeeze the elements closer and safely together and still have the main impact of our show given to all our fan base.”
When you start a project for a client (country or not) what’s the first thing you look at when building your designs?
“I go grab their current music, then start searching YouTube of all their past performances to see what and where they have been with their shows. Then I try to figure out what I can do differently but at the same time be efficient. Meaning, if there is a way to do a gag or effect, more ways than one, then you have given a value to being useful and creative. Sometimes, less is more.”
In the Jason Aldean in the Burn It Down tour you created a lot of big looks, covering the stage with hard edge beams. Is this the kind of look that you won’t find in country 10 years ago?
“Ten years ago, all things were different as far as the looks and thought process. Just as manufacturers have advanced with building and creating new fixtures for us to use in our industry, creative thoughts and processing has had to change as well. But I can say, it is always fun to go back and use past products and get different looks by combining old technology with new technology.”
Speaking of evolving technology, are there certain types of effects like fog machines or blinders that are less likely to be found on a country rig?
“I don’ think there is a cut off or limit of a type of fixture or gear you could find on a country show or any show for that matter. I think if enough thought and the right execution of that said gear is done, then it fits and works. I think most of the limits you have now are money budgets. Following that limitation are time constraints. You always have to be aware of how much time you have to prepare the execution of your design using the effect or gear you have available. When folks just throw gear out on tour and no time or thought is put into it, it shows in the end result. Just because you can use an effect, does not always mean you should.”
Today’s country music is very diversified. There are a lot of different styles of country, do they differ in terms of lighting?
“I do not think it would necessarily be different terms of lighting, but for sure different views of thought. For example, compare a troubadour type artist to an upbeat active type artist. With the troubadour you would build basic great looks and let the artist deliver the song. On the other hand with the upbeat artist type, we would like to have movement and energy from the lighting design to go along with their movement.”
How about when you compare country to other genres? You’ve worked in various capacities on tours for stars like Usher who are not country. Is there a different set of expectations for lighting design among the different genres?
“Every client that I have worked with has their own ideas or focus points for their show. They want us to be as creative as possible to reflect these points. What I love about having the opportunity to work for clients from different musical backgrounds is that it allows me to see sometimes a different approach to a musical segment. Plus, it also allows me to bring in some things that have worked for another client and try something new for that selection of music where it may have not been tried before.”
So do you use the same creative approach to designing for country as you would for other genres?
“There are no limits to what you’ll use. But, I do think there has to be thought given to whether or not your idea translates into what your artist wants his or her image or song says to their crowd or fan base. The whole reason we LDs have jobs is because artists want to give a show to their fans. As long as we continue to provide artists with ways of doing that, and the fans keep coming out to see our clients, then we have done our jobs. We are only as good as our last show. Each day is a new day and new challenge.”
What advice would you give to a designer who’s never worked with a country artist before, but is now doing so for the first time?
“Talk with your artist and ask what they dream of when thinking about going forward with this new project. Then try to help figure out their dreams with your creative talents to give that dream to them.”
Do your country clients get involving in the lighting design of their shows? Do they give you input?
“All of our clients at some point give input. Some more than others, but even the little things are important to work out. The little things are what make a good show great, details!”