Michael Bearden is an accomplished artist, whose wide range of musical talents and tastes has enabled him to continuously collaborate with some of popular music’s giants. He has held roles as musical director, keyboardist, arranger, or composer for a diverse list of superstars like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Rod Stewart, Sting, Carlos Santana, Whitney Houston, Lionel Richie, Roberta Flack, Christina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child, Queen, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and many more.
Mr. Bearden has accumulated a list of feature film score credits, as well. He was the Musical Director, Supervisor, Composer and Associate Producer for Michael Jackson’s This Is It, about the icon’s final days. Additionally, he is frequently contracted by bandleader Paul Shaffer (The Late Show with David Letterman) as the lead substitute for the CBS broadcast. He was the musical director for Lopez Tonight during its TBS run.
Michael is the principal keyboardist for the Kennedy Center Honors and Christmas in Washington telecasts, and he has performed at the star-studded Lincoln Memorial Concert for President Obama’s inauguration. Michael is also currently serving on the Board of Trustees of the Recording Academy LA Chapter, and he is a Global Goodwill Ambassador for The United Nations.
Recently, Korg USA was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to talk with Michael, to find out what he’s been up to lately:
KORG: How did you begin your journey in music?
Michael Bearden: I'm glad you called it a journey, because that's what it's about. I get asked this a lot. The answer is pretty basic- I began my lifelong journey in music the moment I first heard music. My earliest memory of music is Aretha Franklin. Our babysitter used to play her records continuously and for whatever reason, I remember hearing Aretha's voice and just becoming still and quiet so I could listen. Music was in our home every day. My parents played it during their house parties, as we cleaned the house on the weekends, during cookouts in the summer, etc. I started playing piano when I was just five years old. My Godmother was my first teacher. I learned the basics from her and the not-so-basics from the radio on top of the piano. I haven't stopped since. I'm still on the journey.
KORG: You’ve been musical director/keyboardist/arranger/composer for a long list of iconic artists. Is there any advice you can pass on to developing musicians, based on your diverse experiences?
MB: It's funny you ask this question. I recently performed at a big event at the brand new Smith Center complex in Las Vegas. It was the very first event at this spectacular new facility and the concert will air later this year. The lineup was quite diverse with artists from all genres. Some of the artists included country icons Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Emmy Lou Harris. It was a great thrill to work with them. They were all so extremely talented and very nice people, too. I was laughing to myself in rehearsal as I was remembering all the long trips driving down south to visit my grandmother all the way from Chicago. In those days, as you drove away from big cities, the only radio stations that had clear signals were AM stations. More often than not, those stations only played country and western music. I listened with no judgment at all, even as a kid. It's all music to me. If it moves you, it's good. Little did I know, I would be performing with some of the most celebrated artists of that genre. The advice I would pass on to developing musicians is, listen to EVERYTHING! I make it a rule to listen to something brand new I've never heard before, every day. Listen, listen, and listen some more. Get inside the true characteristics of whatever it is you're listening to. Be authentic in the execution of that music. The more you know about various genres, the more you will work. But also, the more you can appreciate your own style and maybe even incorporate elements of various genres into your art. Being a chameleon is what's kept me working in this industry for a very long time.
KORG: Words of wisdom! You were Musical Director, Supervisor, Composer, and Associate Producer for Michael Jackson’s This Is It. Can you describe your process of recreating the King of Pop’s hits spanning from several decades of history? Did you put a new spin on any?
MB: When working with any artist, my general rule of thumb is always to learn the original song. Let me say that again so you really hear me. Learn the original song first, before you even think about putting some kind of spin on it! MJ knew his music inside and out. There was no fooling him, even on tempos. He wanted to hear what he knew so well. After I was satisfied that the band knew the original, I'd ask MJ to come give it the thumbs up or down. As he listened, he'd always tell me what he liked or did not like. Once everything was to my own as well as MJ's liking, then I'd think of ways to put a current arrangement or twist on the song. The only thing MJ would ask me to be mindful of was to keep it simple. In my opinion, that is the key and the unspoken genius of Michael Jackson. He had an ability to make complex songs with sophisticated chords structures, rhythms and even melodies seem simple. He wanted the audience to be able to hum it. He would say to me "If they can't hum it, it's too complicated." So I kept it simple. My input always has to do with feel. I like for the music to feel good. So MJ let me, as we used to call it, "creatively joust" with him on tempos and arrangement. As we got more familiar with each other’s style and work ethic, he pretty much just let me do what I wanted with his music…only because he knew I respected the original first. To receive that kind of validation and respect from an artist like Michael Jackson is something I'll carry with me the rest of my days.
KORG: Amazing. Are there any specific experiences from that production that stick out in your mind?
MB: You know it's funny; I've not really revisited that production since the premiere at the Nokia [Theater, in LA] all those years ago. I guess it is how I deal with the loss. Moreover, I know every frame of that film as we watched it ad nauseam during its creation. The things I remember have nothing to do with the music or film, per se.
For example, I remember as we were gathering for that part in the film where you see us all in a circle and MJ is saying, "We're a family." I was originally standing next to MJ holding his hand. We were about to do the pep talk and he said, "Where is the crew? We can't start until we have everybody from every department in the circle." I was about to go help round up some more people and he said, "No, stay here! We'll just make the circle wider as they get here." The thing that I'll always remember is he wouldn't let go of my hand. So we're just standing there holding hands talking until everyone arrived. I moved over when Kenny got there, but those are the kinds of things that stand out for me from that production.
KORG: What’s new with you these days? Do you have any projects in the works that we can keep an eye/ear out for?
MB: Wow! So many things are happening with me all the time. I'm very fortunate. Some, I can't talk about just yet…sorry. However, one of the projects that I'm most proud of is the recording that my band The Ese Vatos completed. You should definitely be on the lookout for that. I also have a few new artists that I'm producing, as well as some established artists. I'm musical director/producer for a new television show that will air sometime this year. You'll be able to see Michael Bearden & The Ese Vatos all together once again on television. There’s something completely different from the music stuff; I’m now a Global Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations. I'm all over the place!
KORG: Let’s get into some gear. You’ve used Korg synths and workstations throughout the years and you’re using the Kronos now. Do you have any favorite features?
MB: I love Korg gear; I’ve been using it forever. The Kronos has too many good things to single out just one feature. I often find myself in the combinations mode for some reason. I especially love that “Lake of Souls” one…I think it’s #16. I always get stuck there creating. That's a good thing. I love the electric piano sounds, especially “Herbie's Butterfly EP” and Richard Tee's phaser vibe. They were both mentors of mine when I was younger. I've used the Kronos in a few productions lately and the folks in the room always ask me “what the heck is that synth?!” It's pretty fat in the tracks and has lots of real-time manipulation capabilities if I need to do that. I love the touch screen vibe and the modular cable connection stuff. Even the Wavestation throw back stuff is cool! It’s a great all-around synth. I haven't even gotten through everything yet. So many possibilities…it's awesome!
KORG: Thanks, Michael! What do you feel separates it from other workstations that are out there?
MB: Today, workstations are all very similar. The Kronos is different for me just on the sounds alone. It helps that it looks and feels great to play. The effects are really quite good and the knobs and faders are natural and intuitive. It’s a good mix of the old synthesis technology with the modern approach. It’s easy to play. This keyboard is a great choice for serious keyboard players, in my opinion.
KORG: Do you have any Kronos programming or recording tips or secrets you can share?
MB: Nope! I don't share secrets. [chuckles] But, I don't really have any either. I approach keyboards like any other acoustic instrument. I use them as layers and colors, as an artist would have on their palette. The machines don't control us, we control them. So if a stock sound will work for the track, I'll use it. If I need to play a string sound as if it were a lead with glide in unison, I'll do that. If I need to take the attack off a drum sound and use it as a bass line, I'll do that, too. Use your imagination. That used to be in style back in the day! [laughs]
KORG: Are there any other Korg products still getting work from you in the studio or on stage?
MB: I had the M3 out with MJ so I've grown very close to it. MJ loved the sound of that board, too. I still use my microKORG XL and I might even break out the Triton stuff every now and then. It's all good.
KORG: Anything else you’d like to mention?
MB: Besides all the regular stuff I do like producing young new artists, some established artists, scoring films, etc....My band, Michael Bearden & The Ese Vatos (from Lopez Tonight) has recorded a very nice album, and we'll hopefully be getting that out to the world sometime this year. I'm part of a really great foundation called The Believe Foundation, and we're creating a school that we want to have up by fall of 2013. It's called LASAE and will be an arts education-based school located in South Central Los Angeles. It will be the first school of its kind in that area. I was recently appointed a Global Goodwill Ambassador to The United Nations and I'm pretty excited about that, actually. It's a big deal. My focus since MJ has been to uplift humanity in the best way I know how and that's through music. Now with the UN, I get to do it on a global scale. It just feels natural to me.
I've been playing Korg keyboards for over two decades now. Why? Because they make great keyboards! It's really that simple for me. The Kronos is a serious workstation for musicians who want their music to be taken seriously.
KORG: Thanks, Michael! We wish you the best with all of your endeavors.
For more information about Michael Bearden, please check out michaelbearden.com, follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelBearden, Facebook at Michael Bearden's Fan Page, and Michael Bearden & the Ese Vatos on YouTube at www.youtube.com/user/MBeardenAndEseVatos?feature=mhee