In March, Jacob Collier was days away from embarking on a world tour supporting his new album, Djessie Vol. 3. The 26-year-old London songwriter and multi-instrumentalist knew he needed to prepare for his late night TV debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! performing his ebullient single "All I Need" (feat. Mahalia and Ty Dolla $ign) with his band in front of a studio audience.
"I had the whole thing planned," said Collier. "I put some quite careful thought into what that performance would look like because I knew that it would be right in the middle of a tour and I wouldn't be able to sit down and plan it out." As he was tinkering the arrangement and imagining how rehearsals would go, the coronavirus stalled the entire live music industry and stay-at-home orders forced him to postpone his tour.
Collier still played "All I Need" on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, just from the comfort of his own home thanks to the fact that late night television has largely been remotely produced during the pandemic. The result is one of the most elaborate and charming late night sets, pandemic or no pandemic. Without his band and thanks to his years making similar one-man-band videos on YouTube, he filmed himself playing every instrument from his bathroom, sampling the sounds of toilet paper, hairspray, and a soap dispenser. Mahalia and Ty Dolla $ign recorded their harmonies over Zoom and Collier painstakingly edited the footage, superimposing everything to make it seem like they were all performing together.
"I had to play all of these instruments from start to finish, then take them back and make sure that they all sounded good together," said Collier. According to Collier, the biggest challenge making the clip came from making it seem like a natural performance instead of a bunch of edited clips. "The whole process takes a few days really, but the reward of doing something like that is to make it feel like you're watching one expression of experience rather than multiple expressions of the same experience."
Collier's clever and astounding Kimmel video is a testament to his technical know-how when it comes to editing and recording videos—in addition to his musical chops. But it's just one example of how creative artists are getting as they perform on late night television under lockdowns. Without the possibility of performing live in front of an audience, getting featured on shows like Kimmel, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and Late Show with Stephen Colbert means that artists have to figure out how to best record and film their songs themselves whether it's hiring a team or doing it yourself.
The new digital late-night landscape means musical guests have to make some important decisions: Do they try to capture the feeling of performing live? How and where are they going to film it? How do you stand apart from other acts who are also broadcasting their music from home?
For Julie Gurovitsch, the music booker for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, seeing what artists have been able to come up with has been a bright spot in an otherwise turbulent year. "There's still an extreme desire to have music in the studio and we miss it greatly, but I think artists have the opportunity now to be even more creative," she said. "Now the performance is totally in the artist's hands. So when they deliver the finished product, that's when I get to see it for the first time." She points to performances by Dua Lipa, who played "Break My Heart" in front of an elaborate green screen showcasing cityscapes as well as her bandmates and dancers performing behind her. "Dua Lipa set the bar when she came on and they did a bunch of editing and effects," said Gurovitsch. "You're getting to see your favorite artists in a different way."
In some ways, the pandemic has allowed Gurovitsch some extra freedom in booking artists. Normally, a music booker for a late-night show has to worry about logistics and getting the artist to the studio on time; but now that we are all stuck at home, it's easier to let her imagination run free as a curator. "We've had access to artists that maybe we wouldn't normally have had if this were a year ago because artists around the world can do a performance for us from their home country," said Gurovitsch, citing Chronixx's performance from Jamaica and Nigerian artist Burna Boy's upcoming appearance.
Having a longer list of potential performers makes for better TV. "I'll never complain about being overwhelmed with options," said Gurovitsch. It's also been a prime opportunity to Gurovitsch debut new artists. “One of the performances that sticks out so much is when we debuted BENEE. I'm such a huge fan of hers and she was so creative and it's just been really fascinating watching her develop," she said.
Not every video will have the clever editing and arduous attention to detail as Collier's or Dua Lipa's. "This new way suits some musicians better than others, and the musicians that it suits well aren't necessarily the better musicians either," said Collier. "Some musicians are really tech-savvy, have equipment at home, and can make a video in no time. Other musicians are best at playing with other people and reading an audience, which is hard to capture in a self-recorded video."
In addition to Kimmel, Collier’s distinctive videos have landed performance slots on Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where he played "Running Outta Love" remotely with Tori Kelly, and on NPR's Tiny Desk at Home, where he superimposed footage of himself playing each instrument during a 16-minute set. The performance sounds eerily natural, and Collier even has a conversation with himself—with perfect timing.
But sometimes the simplest approach can be the most potent. Just take Perfume Genius' exhilarating Fallon set from July, where he performed in an empty Los Angeles venue with his band. Collier sites Lianne La Havas' recent performance on Tiny Desk from Home, where she just accompanied herself on guitar, as a personal favorite. "It felt like you were sitting by her side, which is a very special feeling," said Collier. "If you're going to have bells and whistles, it takes a combination of skill with good execution and conception. There are some ingenious solutions to the problem. The best ones embrace it as a fresh art form."