One of the few and unexpected positives to derive from the coronavirus pandemic, other than clear waters in Venice, Italy, and seeing L.A.’s smog dissipate, is watching musicians perform out of their living rooms for everyone sheltering at home.
Renditions are as stripped-down as one would imagine, with no glossy studio embellishments for their vocals and no fancy props. Songs are usually broadcast in real time, by a smartphone accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, piano or laptop backing track. It’s a rare chance to see what these mass-marketed artists are really made of — and all for charities helping to fight COVID-19. And, as an added bonus, the public gets a peek inside the celebrity homes. It’s like “MTV Cribs,” “Unplugged” and “Live Aid” all knitted into one hopeful package.
Elton John recently hosted the iHeartRadio Living Room Concert for America, with a plethora of talent doing just that — playing in their living rooms or custom home recording studios. John used a tinny-sounding keyboard set on his kitchen table to play a few bars, a move that left some fans scratching their heads, though he later gave an explanation — it was the keyboard his young children use for piano lessons. Apparently the six-time Grammy winner doesn’t have a proper, full-fledged piano in that particular house — one of at least five personal residences he owns around the globe.
Alicia Keys needed no such explanation. She sang and played to perfection on a purple upright (homage to Prince, perhaps?), performing “Underdog” in an understated room with tasteful midcentury modern furniture. As she sang, a storm cloud painted a window that looked out onto a beautifully green, rolling landscape.
John Legend performed a wonderful version of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” adding in some chunky gospel chords. We also got a brief glimpse of his stylish, minimalist Manhattan home, where the soul singer’s 10 Grammys are perched neatly — along with his myriad other awards — beside his grand piano, on floating shelves set against a white wall.
Speaking of Grammys, über-producer David Foster has more of them than most people have toilet rolls right now. They proudly sit upon his grand piano in his plush L.A. home, where he and his new wife, actor/singer Katharine McPhee, have taken to hosting their own daily Instagram live shows. The May-December pair perform a variety of songs, from classic show tunes to a cover of Mariah Carey’s “Hero,” which they dedicated to healthcare workers.
Speaking of luxe homes, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s English country pile seems as grandiose as you’d imagine from the snippets we see as he runs through his hits — instrumentals only — on a cherry brown grand, flanked by an inquisitive dog and colorful, floor-to-ceiling curtains that frame windows that look out on an expansive garden.
JoJo has been letting us inside the house she shares with her family for living room shows via Billboard and MTV. It’s a comfortable setting — fireplace, observant dog on velvet midcentury sofa, wooden coffee table and mom popping in for moral support every so often. What’s also apparent is that JoJo can really sing — she has a smoky, soulful voice that doesn’t always translate on her heavily-produced, pop-slanted records.
Charli XCX has also been sharing her vocals with us, plus a whole manner of weekly activities to alleviate our stay-at-home blues. Holed up in her woodsy Beachwood Canyon Tudor, the singer-songwriter has launched a daily show called “Self-Isolation IG Livestream,” in which she invites a variety of online guests to “spark conversation, share insight, or simply entertain fans across the world who are practicing social distancing.” One can work out with super producer Diplo, have a “therapeutic art class” with Clairo, or a virtual girls-night-in with Rita Ora.
Judging from the Backstreet Boys’ iHeart performance, it’s easy to see that the venerable boyband have been careful with their cash. Their spacious compounds, scattered around the country, come replete with basement bars, music rooms, pools and more. Surely they must get tired of singing “I Want It That Way,” though?
For some reason, Tim McGraw sang while seated on the diving board over his huge swimming pool. But Margo Price with husband Jeremy Ivey, kept things more down-home as they sang in their attic adorned with floral wallpaper, mounted antlers and a stripy lampshade. And Dolly Parton — forsaking working a 9-5 — is reading a children’s book every night across social media. As you’d imagine, there’s a distinctly homespun look to the Queen of Country’s boudoir, where the readings take place.
Finally, a word for Michael Stipe, whose “No Time For Love Like Now,” a new song which he demoed from a strikingly green (as in the color — painted walls, fixtures and ceiling) conservatory. What a great song it is, full of the aching melancholy that signified some of REM’s best works. No word, though, of a charity tie-in — just good music in a tough time.